August 21, 2016

Forget the pillow-pack the Purell


My eldest child is about to go off to college this week, and I’m inching towards the date like I’m about to walk off a cliff – alternately excited for him, joking that I’ll appreciate a neater house, and secretly crying into the dishtowels.

So many memories are flooding my brain – like his first day of kindergarten, when I enthusiastically put him on the bus, dashed to my car, raced to school, and hid in the bushes, crying, as I watched him get off the bus and safely into the building.  Really.  I think of my mother, who cheerfully put me on a plane at Logan Airport, and now is gone, and can’t be asked what it was really like.  Will I say a peppy goodbye? Will I embarrass him and myself by sobbing into his shoulder (seven inches above mine)?

 I recently read a blog post called “All the Wrong Things To Say at College Drop Off” (from Flown and Grown) that captured my fears – I could see myself using those last precious minutes to “sputter advice at him like someone who has five minutes to blow up 50 balloons.”  Don’t forget to Purell!  Change your toothbrush when it’s splayed! Change your sheets every week!  I laughed through my tears as I read the post, and it has stuck with me this summer.  I’m sure he’ll be fine.  I’m reminded of the woman standing next to my parents all those years ago at Logan, fretting that the school might not provide pillows, and she hadn’t packed one.  My mother turned to her and said, “if your daughter can’t figure out how to buy a pillow at college, that’s the least of your problems.”  Still, I’m packing the Purell.

July 6, 2016

Remembering Bill Cunningham


My husband died on November 3, 1989. I was invited to the opening of Jenny Holzer’s landmark show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that December, and it was my first outing. I struggled to get there from the Berkshires. I ran out of gas driving to the Albany train station. On the train, I spilled my Coke and dissolved into tears (a kind train conductor saw what happened, and replaced the Coke, but that’s another story). It was the first time I put on lipstick in six weeks.

I wore a rust-colored Issey Miyake dress as big as a pumpkin, as flat as a pancake. There were slits for my arms and head. (It was the perfect dress a decade later when I was nine months pregnant.) I could hide in the trademark pleated swath fabric, which rolled up like a diploma when it sat on my shelf. I had no idea how to clean it, so vowed not to sit down.

I walked into the rotunda and saw someone I knew: Count Giuseppe Panza. I didn’t know a lot of fancy people, but he had been kind to those of us working on MASS MoCA in the early days, and he greeted me warmly. I chatted with him and his wife Giovanna, and suddenly Bill Cunningham was swarming around us like a bee, snapping away. Assuming that he wanted to photograph the Italian Count and Countess, I left them and headed up the ramp of the rotunda. To my surprise, Bill Cunningham followed me. He photographed me as I walked (pretty self-consciously) up the ramp. It was the dress, of course. People stared. I was embarrassed and flattered. And for a moment, just a moment, I was transported from my misery, my psychic confusion, my pain.

I don’t recall exactly what happened next. I do remember that Tom Krens, totally out of character, appeared and took my hand, engulfing my fingers in his large palm as he escorted me to dinner, his tuxedoed figure towering over mine as he seated me at the head table. It was a kind gesture I appreciate to this day. It was an evening that Bill Cunningham captured, and created. I remember it 27 years later.

March 14, 2016

Old Salts

herreschoffMen who love the sea inevitably work their way up to a serious boat, and my father’s first was a Herreshoff.

Though I was only four, I still remember it, a 21-foot Islander with a narrow beam and beautiful lines. He bought it with his friend Chuck Russell and they kept it in the Weymouth Back River at the South Shore Yacht Club.  Built in the UK in 1953, it was designed by Sidney Herreshoff, son of Captain Nathanael Herreshoff, from Bristol, Rhode Island, who started building boats in 1878 with his brother.  They went on to design and build racing sloops that won five America’s Cups, and Nat Herreshoff (“the wizard of Bristol”) is considered on of the greatest boat designers of all time.

Our boat was named Queequeg, after the cannibal harpooner full of derring-do in MOBY DICK, and my father won a slew of races in her just 20 miles from New Bedford, where Queequeg became fast friends with a wandering sailor who wanted to be called Ishmael.

Once my mother had a fight on the boat with my father’s friend Chuck (a sort of know-it-all physicist who did have some credibility given that he’d worked on the Manhattan Project), and she got so steamed up that she drew an imaginary line down the center of the boat, told him the port side was hers, the starboard was his, and not to cross the line.  My father ended up hooting with laughing so hard that she cracked up laughing, too, and they all made up. They were like that.

Thirty two boats later, my parents decided once they hit their 70s to give up sailing.  My mother in particular was worried that my father might fall overboard and she wouldn’t be able to save him.  After she passed away at age 73, my father decided oh what the heck and at age 76 decided to get another boat.  He chose a Herreshoff 12 1/2, a honey of a boat that had been designed by Nat Herreshoff in 1914 for the afternoon chop of Buzzards Bay.  Late on a summer afternoon my father could be seen bringing Felicity up single-handedly to the mooring (for it had no motor) in Mattapoisett Harbor on Buzzards Bay, just as he’d done years ago as a young man.

May 13, 2015

Little Dancer


He was already a well-known painter when he started having eye problems at age 36.  He first thought it was due to the cold weather and later the bright sunlight to which he was exposed while serving in the National Guard.  Eventually he found that working indoors was more soothing; he loved the dark environment of the theater, and his paintings of the ballet and opera became famous.

“I still have a spot of weakness and trouble in my eyes,” he wrote to a friend in Paris.  “It made me lose nearly three-weeks being unable to read or work or go out much, trembling all the time lest I should remain that.”

Within three years, he believed he was going blind.  The tell-tale grey spots of macular degeneration were appearing in the central part of his vision.  Small and cloudy at first, they gradually increased in size. Painting became difficult.  He couldn’t see the colors on his palette, and asked his models to identify them.

By the time he was 57, he could no longer read.  “Whereas you in your solitude have the joy of having your eyes…” he wrote to a friend, “Ah! Sight!  Sight! Sight!…the difficulty of seeing makes me feel numb.” He abandoned painting with oils and turned to pastels, which he found easier to work with and requiring less precision.   As his artistic options diminished, he increasingly turned to sculpture.  Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.  Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot.   Little Dancer.

Today Edgar Degas is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 19th century, and one of the founders of Impressionism.

Degas’ courage and resourcefulness as he coped with a debilitating disease is inspiring.  But today we know so much more about how to prevent and slow the progression of eye diseases such as macular degeneration, and while there is no cure, we do know that eating certain nutrients can stave off or slow the progression of this disease that is the #1 cause of legal blindness in the United States in people over the age of 55.

Baby boomers, here’s something to ponder: in just ten years, there will be six times the number of baby boomers in the U.S. as there were in 1990.   You’ll hear a lot more about age-related macular degeneration – which has been in the media of late with news that Roseanne Barr and Judi Dench are afflicted – as it reaches what some fear might become epidemic proportions.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” wrote 18th-century French lawyer turned epicure Brillat-Savarin.  Nutritionist Adelle Davis picked up the torch in the 1960s and ‘70s  in the U.S. with her slogan “you are what you eat,” advocating for unprocessed foods and vitamins on the road to good health.  Johanna Seddon – a coal-miner’s daughter from Pittsburgh– was encouraged at an early age by her father to take a holistic approach to nutrition and health.  He showed her an early news article concerning a Canadian doctor who was testing vitamin E as a treatment for a specific eye problem. She went on to become the first ophthalmologist with a graduate degree in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

At the Harvard School of Public Health, colleagues gently ribbed Dr. Seddon as she researched nutritional studies of macular degeneration and cataracts.  They didn’t laugh when in 1994 she reported that specific antioxidant nutrients, along with omega-3 fatty acids, could reduce the risk of macular degeneration.   You are indeed what you eat.   And what’s good for your eyes is also good for the rest of your body – your eyes, lungs, heart, and circulatory system.  While I don’t have macular degeneration (and there’s no history of it in my family), I teamed up with Dr. Seddon to write EAT RIGHT FOR YOUR SIGHT, I was so impressed by the findings.

So, in a nutshell, what should we eat?   If nothing else, try these simple steps:

  1. Eat three colors of vegetables and fruit every day. The nutrients for your eye health come from the pigment in vegetables and fruit – the deep reds of beets, the gorgeous yellow of bell peppers, the eye-popping blue of fresh berries.  Mix it up.  In the ‘60s we served a meal of meat, starch, and vegetable; the new holy trinity is three colors of fruit and veggies – daily.
  2. As a rule of thumb, when it comes to eye health, the darker the better. Go for an orange pepper over a yellow one, kale (now there’s a superfood!) over lettuce, blueberries over cantaloupe.
  3. Get the yolk? The dark yellow marigold of an egg yolk is packed with nutrients you need.  Fresh eggs from well-fed hens produce darker yolks than the insipid yolks you’ll find in ‘factory’ eggs from grocery stores.  Go for the best, and eat them often.  Eggs are loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals; the yolk also boasts carotenoids, including lutein and zeaxanthin – which are just fancy words for nutrients.
  4. Sometimes the sum is more than the parts, especially in food, where certain foods help you absorb nutrients more readily. Good food combos include iron and vitamin C (make a spinach salad and add orange segments), vitamin D and calcium (found in fortified milk and canned salmon), and vitamins A, D, E, and K (found when you pair an avocado with grapefruit, salad dressing with greens, or broccoli rabe with pine nuts).
  5. Look for foods with vitamin C, which fight those free radicals and are powerful antioxidants: red and green peppers, fruit, cauliflower, green cabbage.
  6. Incorporate vitamin D3 into your diet: fortified milk, mackerel, sardines, egg yolks, beef liver
  7. Omega 3 fatty acids are important to healthy development of your brain, nerves and eyes: they are found in salmon, sardines, mackerel, flaxseeds, walnuts, squash, tofu
  8. Deep-colored antioxidants charge directly to your retina: eat blueberries, grapes, pomegranates, cranberries and other dark foods

Other factors contribute to eye health as well.  Summer’s almost here – don’t forget your  UV sunshades (for yourself and your kids.)  Exercise regularly.  Don’t smoke.  Maintain a normal weight.  All these factors can help slow the progression of eye diseases such as macular degeneration.

This Memorial Day weekend, try out this tasty smoothie.  After all, we only get one pair of eyes.

Banana-Blueberry-Pomegranate Smoothie

This drink sneaks in a lot of bang for the buck—carotenoids from the kale, lutein from the blueberries, vitamin C from the pomegranate juice, and potassium from the bananas, plus fiber.

1 ripe banana

2 kale leaves, stems removed

1 cup blueberries

2 cups pomegranate juice

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth, about 45 to 60 seconds.
Chill briefly if desired. Serve immediately.

Serves 2

Recipe from Eat Right For Your Sight: Simple Tasty Recipes That Help Reduce the Risk of Vision Loss from Macular Degeneration by Jennifer Trainer Thompson and Dr. Johanna Seddon. Available wherever books are sold.

I'm Blogging for Eye Health, #EatRightforYourSight

May 5, 2015

Our Guardian Angel


I always thought my mother’s mother was the closest thing I’d know to a saint.  Of course, kids have a limited perspective of adults, and there are many types of grandmothers — loving, adventurous, remote –and even the shrewdest of women can melt into a maternal dumpling when presented with a first grandchild.  But I was not alone in this opinion: everyone who knew Betty Burnett thought she was preternaturally patient, non-judgmental, and kind.

When my grandfather died from a stroke at age 73, we moved in with my grandmother.  It made sense all around: we’d just moved back East from Indianapolis, my father was starting a business, my mother was in graduate school, I was an only child in 8th grade, and my grandmother didn’t like living alone. Plus, none of us had much money.  A year later, when my aunt Natalie came down with cancer and decided to fight it the Christian Science way, my grandmother invited her to move in, too.  When one of my mother’s other sisters died, my cousin Sue moved in as well.  The household consisted of 5 women, a female dog, and my father.  He jokingly threatened to get an old male tomcat.

We cherished our grandmother.  She smelled like talcum powder, baked the best brownies, sewed our rising hemlines, and truly cared about all our victories and tribulations.  When we came home from school, she’d sit in the living room, overturned library book on her lap, legs crossed at the ankle, listening to Sue and me recount our days.  My cousin Sue, who wasn’t a touchy-feely kind of gal, would roll up her sleeve and have Grandma  run her fingers gently up and down the inside of her arm, stroking it in a way that Sue – who’d lost her mother at age 15 — found incredibly soothing.  We’d three sit in the late afternoon sun, talking, content as cats.  Grandma wore wool hounds tooth suits in the winter and cotton dresses cinched at the waist in the summer, pearls from Filene’s around her neck.   She hailed from stock that arrived from England in 1634 (her ancestor Nicholas Easton governed the Rhode Island Colony in 1672 after being banished as a rogue minister from Massachusetts Bay) but,  like many swamp Yankees, she was long on heritage and short on cash.  When she died, she left a few antiques, first edition books that you’d expect from someone who had graduated from college in 1913, and a moral compass that guided the ship of her six children, ten grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren who remain close to this day.

I still marvel that my father, grandmother, and I played Scrabble at least 3 nights a week.  My father loved her, and would joke that if he and my mother ever got divorced, they’d have to fight over custody of her.  In many ways my grandmother was the opposite of my mother, who while loving, smart, and attentive, never baked a dessert, couldn’t sew a stitch (she stapled the badges onto my Girl Scout sash), and liked to tell the story how, during World War II, after knitting socks for soldiers as part of the war effort, she was asked whose side she was on when she turned them in.

Unlike many in our family, Grandma didn’t have a nautical bone in her body.  She mistakenly referred to my father’s Herreshoff  Beverly Dinghy as his Beverly Dinghus, and he hooted with laughter when – after she overheard us discussing an upcoming sailing trip and making the tricky passage through Quick’s Hole to the Vineyard –later asked how our trip to Martha’s Hole turned out.

The only time I ever saw her perturbed –it was a subtle but angry pursing of lips – was right before her husband’s funeral.  My grandfather (an interior decorator who during the Depression resorted to selling Fuller Brushes door to door) had a business partner in his interior decorating business: Flora Porter, a coiffed older woman with brocade suits, rouged cheeks and heavy perfume.  When my grandmother said in a hushed tone that she didn’t want “that woman” at the funeral, her five daughters crowded around her like bees and shut us grandchildren out.  When years later I asked my mother – a direct straight-shooter who always answered my questions honestly – about it, she said, “Jenny, it’s just too painful for me to talk about.”

That was that.  We moved (she came with us), and just as we took care of her, she took care of us. She asked my father to take her canoeing on the Nemasket River (which he did forevermore every spring, she in the bow in her wool suit and stockings, our dog midship, he in the stern).  She was always being visited by her children and grandchildren, and, like a silent winking star, was the center of the constellation around which we spun.  With her deeds and traditions – Christmas together, summer family parties, making grape jelly in the fall – she had subtly stitched the fabric of our big multi-generational family.

When she died, I think it’s fair to say that we all thought a saint had died.  It wasn’t veneer; she had such nurturing kindness and love in her heart.  I adored my other grandmother, but she was so different – irreverent, proper, scotch & soda in hand, bracelets jingling at her wrist, travelling and making room for you when she could.  When I became a mother and tried to model Grandma Burnett’s behavior (falling short of course), I didn’t regret that I’d never see my grandmother again; rather, I considered myself lucky to have been blessed by her presence and example.

Years later, when my mother died one June after a lengthy illness from cancer, within six weeks my father was dating one of my mother’s good friends.  My mother had suggested it –my father had a frail ticker and she wanted him to be happy – and, as he said to me, at his age he had a shortened timeline.  I really liked Peg – she was kind, sensitive, and loving — but she wasn’t my mother, and both Sue and I had difficulty with the relationship at first, and we felt guilty about that, too – we could see my father was so happy, and there was absolutely nothing to dislike about Peg.  When he told me in October that he wanted to marry Peg, and asked what I thought (I so appreciated his doing so), I told him I just didn’t want him to marry in the year of mom’s death.  So he waited until January 2.

Peg is a marvelous baker.  My father would rave about her desserts, and though my brain knew my father had loved my mother, silently I’d grouse that he never raved about my mother’s cooking like that. They clearly were in love.  They kept both their houses (3 miles apart) and Sue’s daughter Lee and her young son moved into his house, continuing a bond our family has of taking care of one’s own.  I became so close to Lee that it felt as if she too were a sister- cousin.  The three of us – Lee, Sue, and I – wrapped ourselves around my father’s failing heart and Peg’s love like strands of a braid, intertwined with caring and concern.  They were the sisters I never had.  We hovered over my father as he got frailer and frailer from congestive heart failure and came to deeply appreciate how Peg took care of him, loved him, was loved by him, and kept him happy until the end.  I hated calling her my “step-mother” because the Cinderella connotation didn’t do justice to this warm, intelligent woman.  The mother of three sons, Peg joked she married my father and acquired three daughters.

Last month Sue learned she had kidney cancer.  Silently our minds zeroed in on the fact that Sue’s mother had died at age 43 of pancreatic cancer.  Two nights before Sue’s surgery, Peg, Lee, and I had dinner with her and reassured her and ourselves that she had caught it early, and the prognosis was good.  And it was.  Back in the Berkshires this week, I waited for the call, knowing that Lee and Peg were at the hospital during the 2 hours of prep, the 6 hours of surgery, the minor complications that resulted in them not seeing Sue until 9 pm.  I got the call from Lee that all was well – Sue is now cancer-free – at 10:30 pm.

In conversation, Lee told me that when Sue came out of surgery, Peg – age 90 – sat by her bedside, stroking her forehead gently, pushing the hair away from her brow.  When the heart monitor clip fell off her middle finger, Peg gently held Sue’s hand, reached over, and put it back on her middle finger. Peg’s hand lingered on Sue’s arm.  I felt so comforted by that.  I knew she’d be OK.

This morning it dawned on me that Peg is Grandma Burnett reincarnated.  We’ve been blessed with two saints in our lives. Two guardian angels.  How did we get so lucky?

March 21, 2015

Seeing is Believing

eyeWhoa, baby boomers, you may want to listen up: by 2025, the population of those over 55 will be six times greater than it was in 1990. The news that Judi Dench is going blind from age-related macular degeneration underscores a little known fact: macular degeneration is the #1 cause of legal blindness with people over 55 in the Western World. In the next ten years, macular degeneration may reach epidemic proportions.

What exactly is macular degeneration?  Basically, damage to the central part of your retina (the macula) caused by aging, genetics, and environmental factors.  The macula is what let’s us see details – it enables us to drive, read, and see people’s faces.  There are two types: dry, the result of deposits that form in the macula, which leads to a gradual decline of eyesight, and wet, which results in blood vessels forming under the retina that leak, the effects of which are rapid and severe.  Tell tale signs of the disease are dark smudges that appear in your central vision.

The artist Edgar Degas was diagnosed with macular degeneration at age 40, and by the age of 57 couldn’t read.  Rather than giving up painting, he adapted, turning to pastels (which required less precision than oils) and also sculpture.  Imagine, Little Dancer might well not have existed without his inspired response to the challenges of this debilitating disease.

There is no cure.  So what can you do to reduce your chances of getting this disease, or not going blind if one gets it?

Dr Johanna Seddon is an eye specialist at the Tufts University School of Medicine.  A coal miner’s daughter, her father instilled in her a holistic attitude that you are what you eat.   (This phrase was first expressed in 1826 by French epicure/politician Brillat-Savarin, who wrote “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.  It was later coined as “you are what you eat” by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr in the 1920s, and trumpeted by organic food guru Adelle Davis in the 1960s.)  Johanna’s father pushed her away from the Western Pennsylvania coal mines into medicine and this natural approach, and after getting a doctorate from the Harvard School of Public Health she went on to found a research division at Harvard to study nutrition for the prevention of eye disease.

Colleagues were skeptical.  At conferences her talks were scheduled at lunchtime, and moderators would joke about her research linking food and eye health.  Then she blew them away with a study that came out showing the effects of antioxidants on eye health and how they could reduce the risk of macular degeneration.  She’s now the founding director of the Ophthalmic Epidemiology and Genetics Service at the New England Eye Center, Tufts Medical Center.

Even without the fancy titles, folklorists have believed diet influences health for centuries – Spanish explorers in the 1500s took chile peppers (rich in vitamin C and betacarotene) on sea voyages to prevent scurvy and promote night vision.  But, before Seddon, no scientist had documented the link.

So is diet a cure-all for the disease?

No.  But eating a diet rich in nutrients essential to your eyes can help.

So what should we be eating?  In a nutshell (no pun intended, for almonds are key), here’s the list to put on your refrigerator:

  •  Vitamin A: liver, fish oils, egg yolks, dairy
  • Cartenoids (a precursor to vitamin A, such as betacarotene and lutein): orange peppers, mangoes, kale, or other colorful fruits and vegetables
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin (another type of carotenoid): egg yolks, kiwi, squash, leafy greens
  • Vitamin D3: salmon, mackerel, sardines, beef liver, fortified milk
  • Vitamin C: fruits, cauliflower, green cabbage
  • Vitamin E: broccoli, peanuts, almonds, avocadoes, sunflower seeds
  • Omega 3 fatty acids: fatty fish, flaxseed, walnuts, squash, tofu
  • Zinc: oysters, crab, nuts, whole grains
  • Lycopene: tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit
  • Antioxidants: cranberries, blueberries, pomegranates, and other dark foods

So, you might say, that’s all well and good to say “eat a lot of mackerel” but does anyone know five ways to prepare it?

Here’s where the punchline comes in: a few years ago I was approached by Chip Goehring, who felt a cookbook was needed.  Like Seddon, he drank the Kool-Aid before the medical establishment agreed to the link.  A 39-year-old lawyer when he was diagnosed (“I didn’t even know how to spell it – I thought it was molecular degeneration”), Goehring quit his law practice, and threw himself into fighting the disease.  What he found was a link between food and eye health.  He started the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, which is dedicated to funding research on the disease, and 20 years later can still drive, read, and function well.

I don’t have macular degeneration.  The book wasn’t an obvious choice for me.  My specialties range along the lines of nuclear power and hot sauce (going from explosion to explosion, my father always quipped).   But when I saw the link between diet and eye health – and the fact that what’s good for your eyes is also good for your heart , bones, and the rest of you, I might add – I realized he was on to something.

Seeing is believing.

February 9, 2015

Things Are Heating Up

hot sauce in snow

It’s cold outside, I need more hot sauce.  Someone asked me recently what to put it on.  It begs the question, what not to put it on?  Anything salt can do, hot sauce can do better.  Try this recipe to heat things up on Valentine’s Day.

Rock Shrimp Ceviche:

1 pound fresh rock shrimp, cleaned and deveined

1 1/2 cups lime juice, freshly squeezed

1/2 cup tequila

1 cup diced fresh papaya

1/3 cup cilantro, chopped

2 teaspoons sugar or agave

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup diced tomatoes

1/3 cup jicama

1/4 cup chopped scallions

2 tablespoons Jump Up and Kiss Me Original Hot Sauce with Passion*

Lime wedges for garnish

Combine shrimp and lime, mixing well.  Refrigerate for up to 4 hours, stirring frequently, to ‘cook’ the shrimp in the marinade.  Drain marinade from shrimp, and combine shrimp with remaining ingredients.  Garnish with lime.

Serves 4

*Available in gourmet stores, or by mail order at MASS MoCA Hardware Store, 413.662.2111

September 3, 2014

Peace, Love, and Sushi

sushiIt’s 5:30 am and I’m rumbling down Route 195 to New Bedford in a fish truck with Rich Pasquill, who started in the fish business in ’83 with his dad.  Six years later he opened a sushi restaurant and fish market in southeastern Massachusetts that arguably has some of the freshest, best seafood I’ve ever tasted.  I wanted to learn how he does it.

Both Rich’s grandfathers were fishermen lost at sea – one in a bad storm off George’s Banks, and the other when a tanker hit his boat in the wrong lane.  Their names are on the wall at the Seamen’s Bethel, along with other local fishermen lost at sea, including New Bedford whalers.  “In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman’s Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot,” wrote Melville about the chapel in Moby Dick.

“There’s no way my father was letting me go to sea,” Rich said as he backed up his truck to a large butler-like building on the waterfront.  We left our lattes in the cab and headed into the morning fish auction.  As we passed the loading dock Rich explained: for decades his father was in charge of unloading the fish down at the docks, and he learned the trade from him, starting out in high school working on the water boat – a tug that waters the fishing boats. 

“So many guys my age ended up on the waterfront because it was flourishing here in the 70s,” he explained.  “Guys down here were making more than a pro hockey player.  It was too tempting to not go to college.”

The fish auction doesn’t begin until 8, but he’s down here early 6-7 days a week, inspecting and sourcing 5,000 pounds of fish a week.  “Even on vacation in Puerto Rico in February,” he smiles, “I’m down in the hotel lobby at 6 am, talking to my guys about what looks good.”

We consider an enormous skate sprawled across shaved ice.  Looks good to me.  “It’s been out in the sun,” he says dismissively, flipping it over.  “Some of these day-boat guys don’t care about fish,” he says, pointing out the burn spots, and shrugs.  “Some do.”  He’s lifting up fish, shaking scallop bags, inspecting each box of seafood that was unloaded from 11 pm last night until 4 am this morning in this cavernous temperature-controlled warehouse that is spotless and doesn’t smell fishy, despite the fact that we’re up to our gills in it.  A guy is hosing down the floor, which looks cleaner than my kitchen on a good day.

“Deep water fish is healthier,” he explains, letting me in on a secret: the guys who steam out to Georges Bank or Nantucket Sound to trawl for scallops or catch fish are gone for a week, maybe more.  They catch fish every day they’re out.  Wouldn’t you want the fish that they caught yesterday afternoon, as they headed back to the harbor, as opposed to what’s been on ice for a week?  He knows these guys, went to high school with many of them.  He talks to the skippers about which load was caught at the end of the trip.  He buys that load.

 “Hey Fingers,” he nods to a guy sorting fish, then gives me a sheepish look.   The guy was missing most of the fingers on his left hand.  It’s dangerous work all around – from the sorting and processing, to fishing itself, where accidents happen – like the time a hatch was left open mistakenly on a boat in a 40 mph gale. 

We’re about to go upstairs to the fish auction, and he’s concerned; there’s no tuna that looks good.  “If I don’t have tuna, I don’t have a sushi bar,” he says matter-of-factly.   He introduced sushi at the restaurant in 2004 (“Ya think your dad woulda approved of a sooshee bar?” the old timers crowed at him), and he knows a thing or three about the freshest fish.

“Oh, good,” he interrupts himself, admiring a gorgeous fluke.  “That’ll be in the bar tonight.”

 He talks about the Portuguese fishermen he knew in the ‘70s, who worked hard seven days a week, often at more than one job, first cutting fish, then working their way up to owning a few boats.  They educated their children, did well, and now are retiring.  In recent years, there is a growing number of K’iche-speaking Guatemalan immigrants who have found work on the docks and in the commercial fishing industry– doing everything from cutting fish to sewing scallop bags. 

He tells me to feel some scallops.  The channel scallops, found among the rocks, are firm.  The mid Atlantic scallops are softer.  I ask him about New Bedford scallops – having grown up in a time when New Bedford harbor was polluted with PCBs, I was startled the first time I saw “New Bedford scallops” on a menu as though it was some prize.  He explains:  unlike Cuttyhunk oysters, say, which were probably caught or farmed just offshore this outermost Elizabeth island,  New Bedford scallops mean that a New Bedford fishing trawler brought them in  – they could have been dredged southeast of Nantucket, or off Georges Bank.

We watch the Alaska unload scallops, which have helped make New Bedford famous again.  With the largest fishing fleet in New England, for the last decade New Bedford has been the most profitable fishing port in the United States due to scalloping.  Just a day’s steam to Nantucket Shoals, Georges Bank and the Great South Channel, trawlers bring in nearly 50 million pounds of sea scallops each year – a $411 million business.   Those who work here are cautious, though – they remember what it was like when the commercial fishing industry collapsed in the ‘80s.  They also recognize that two centuries ago, in 1857, New Bedford was the richest city per capita in the United States thanks also to the sea – from whale oil.  The jaw-dropping architecture – block after block of Victorian mansions with widow’s walks and gardens and iron fences – is a faded testament to whaling wealth, and later textile manufacturing.

Despite the booming scalloping business, there’s much talk of the collapsed ground fishing industry and the Magnuson-Stevens Act (originally the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976), which governs fisheries management in the U.S., a direct response to overfishing and the desire to protect ecosystems.  Congress “needs to hit the reset button,” the mayor of New Bedford boomed at the press recently, attempting to rebuild a fishing industry that has lost 50 shore side businesses since 2004 and 300 jobs since 2010.   Despite the fact that it’s been more than 20 years since 200 Chinese immigrants were smuggled into the Whaling City aboard  Lady Diane and loaded into a U-Haul in the middle of the night, New Bedford remains a gritty place, plagued with drugs, poverty, and unemployment – and a public education system that many believe is failing its youth.  Despite a thriving Whaling Museum, and a small lively arts scene, tourism may not be enough; New Bedford remains “a tale of two cities,” according to one Boston radio station.  ABC News reported 24 assaults on teachers by students in 2014 at New Bedford High School. It’s an ongoing battle. 

Rich brings me into the auction room, where an electronic wall display, not unlike what you might expect to see in a commodity broker’s office, is listing the prices of fish by species and size.  Copies of National Fisherman are on the counter along with a pot of coffee that’s not too inviting. A few guys look up from their newspapers warily, waiting for the day’s auction to begin.  “She’s with me,” Rich answers the silence.  On the wall is a sign: “National Marine Fisheries Service – Destroying Fishermen and their Communities since 1976.”

When the auction ends, I ask about “Carmine Fish” Romano, the mafia crime boss who ruled Fulton Fish Market in New York until convicted of racketeering in 1982.  With a 12-year federal prison sentence, Romano was banned for life from working at Fulton, which had been run by mobsters since the 1920s.  Before his conviction, Romano had also run a bar (called Carmine’s) off the South pier at Fulton, where he’d take care of the New Bedford guys who came down to deliver fish; upstairs he rented office space upstairs to Local 359 (United Seafood Commercial Workers Union).  A member of the Genovese crime family (a codfather!), Romano got early parole and married a gal from New Bedford, moved up to Massachusetts and got back into the fish business until his death in 2011.  For years the docks flowed with “shack,” a waterfront tradition of cash paid for fish and scallops, its name derived from the wooden shacks that fish buyers set up on the docks decades ago.  Shacks and nightriders –boats that came in at night and were met by a guy with a truck and cash– are a thing of the past, says Rich, although he allowed that’s how a lot of these guys got started.  The old time fish buyers with names like Breezy and Doggy are gone.   But, as Rich points out, urban renewal hasn’t been kind to the city – a busy highway bisects the historic district and most of the city from the waterfront, which pumps money into the local economy but is walled off from it.  Crystal Ice – an ice vending machine under the bridge – runs 24 hours a day because of the scalloping.  The National Club, a seedy old fisherman’s bar where I wrote my first newspaper story in 1978 (about a snake charmer named Tina who performed with a live boa for the guys on Friday nights), still exists, though you won’t find it on Facebook or even in the phone book.  He looked slightly appalled that I knew of the bar.

   “The waterfront today is a tangle of contradictions,” wrote the New Bedford Standard Times.  “It has been maligned and celebrated, it has brought the city both riches and addictions, huge triumphs and massive problems. It still offers out the great promise of fishing anyone brave enough and smart enough to go and catch fish can will himself to a brighter future. The rewards from life on the harbor can be great– and the risks enormous.”  Though the days are gone when the safety equipment on a New Bedford trawler consisted of life jackets, flares, and eight strings of rosary beads, commercial fishing remains the most dangerous occupation in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Rich doesn’t fish.  He doesn’t go out on boats.  To relax, he likes to sit in a beach chair on his lawn in Mattapoisett, a good distance from the bay.  “I have my waterline,” he says, smiling.

April 3, 2014

Ode to Hobie


Hobie Alter died Saturday.

Known as the Henry Ford of surfboarding, he designed the Hobie Cat, the ultra-light fiberglass catamaran that put sailing on another plane.

I first sailed one in 1969. I was just a kid, but my older cousin Lynn (who drove a powder blue Mustang and was in college) let me sail her Hobie 14. It took off like lightning on the WeWeantic River where we summered, skimming the surface like a firefly. We all cracked up on the shore when she later took it out with her dog (a black lab mutt named Bufferin) and the webbing came loose on the trampoline-style deck and she and her startled dog fell through the canvas while the boat kept sailing on.

“Leaping over a breaker in the Southern California surf,” Life magazine wrote in 1970, “this lightweight catamaran looks more like a kite on takeoff than a boat.” I didn’t realize until a few years ago that Hobie was the first name of the guy who said he wanted to make a living without wearing hard-soled shoes, and whose philosophy of designing a new boat was to take it out in screaming 30+ knot winds, see what breaks, then fix it. Unlike the more august Hinckleys, Herreshoffs, or Bertrams, the right foot of the H on his logo underscored his first name with zeal. This was a rock n’ roller at the regatta.

It turns out my father, who knew his way around boats, once met Hobie Alter. An engineer, my father moved to Southern California in the late ‘40s, where he built kayaks in his spare time. He’d take them down to Laguna Beach to launch in the surf. Those were heady days, with other guys on the beach too who loved water and woodworking and were launching surfboards they’d built in their garages. One was Hobie, who built balsa boards for his friends. But then my dad got lucky that way – he once rode the train home to Boston and sat next to a guy who told him all about the polarizing technology he was developing – it was Edwin Land, working on his first Land Camera, which became the Polaroid.

Growing up, we lived by the sea and had more boats than family members, and when I eventually moved to New York City and then western Massachusetts, I mourned my land-bound lack of boats. The gravitational pull of clanking halyards and swells of the sea are strong. Then a dozen years ago, my husband and I were walking through the Minneapolis airport – of all places – and saw this spectacle that looked like a nautical bird on display, its sail flapping at the confluence of Terminals A and B. It was a Hobie Mirage Adventure Island: part kayak, part trimaran sailboat, part paddle boat. It could be loaded on top of a car and transported anywhere.

We bought it.

My father was skeptical (it was ridiculous looking) but it sailed like the wind. We can take our Hobie wherever there is a breeze – Shaftsbury Lake in Vermont, Somes Sound in Maine, Buzzard’s Bay in Southeastern Massachusetts. Slung low in the molded cockpit, inches from the waves, you feel free and fast as you skim across the water, your leeward ama chiseling into the water while the windward one goes airborne. You surf, you sail, you sing (well, I sing), you soar – you just can’t believe your good fortune to be out on the water, so close to the water, so influenced by the wind, on such a beautiful day.

It’s a blast.

Keep sailing on, Hobie.

March 20, 2014

The kindness of strangers


I have a friend with three young kids (two of whom she homeschools) who is undergoing treatment for 4th stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  It takes my breath away.  She maintains a stiff upper lip, and keeps her friends updated with funny, noble, self-deprecating posts.  “I try to keep things in perspective,” she wrote recently.  “I try to help my friends by leaving out the mundane and the pathetic.  I have focused so hard on appreciating all the good.”

Her idea of good?

“I can eat and I walk myself to the bathroom (albeit slowly and without dignity).”

Recently, she told us, she lost her balance.  It was a tough day – too many hurdles for one person while waiting for her next round of chemo and the doctors who would tell her the next phase of her plan.  She was offered acupuncture while waiting, and during the treatment, the acupuncturist looked at her and told her to just cry and let it all out.  She bawled for 20 minutes.

Sometimes what seems modest to the person offering assistance makes all the difference.  It’s a good lesson to remember.  I’m reminded of the time shortly after my first husband’s death. I was taking the train to New York – a simple task, but for me then, often feeling on the verge of coming unhinged, it was a huge deal to go to the city.  I walked to the café car, and bought a Coke (victory).  I found a seat, sat down, took a sip and started to read (another victory…reading is impossible when you are consumed with demons whenever your head is quiet).  Then the train hit a bump and my Coke spilled.  I watched it froth and disappear into the carpet. I started to cry, then sob, the tears spilling down my cheeks as I bowed my head in isolation.

About ten minutes later a Coke appeared on my tray – the ticket taker had seen what had happened and brought another one to me quietly.  I mouthed thank you.  No words were exchanged.  I was so grateful for that gesture of kindness…I remember it vividly 25 years later, and am as grateful for it today as I am for the woman who did my friend’s acupuncture.

Recently on the first Sunday of Lent, the Reverend Peter Elvin of St. John’s in Williamstown told his congregation that when Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, he was ministered to by angels.  He went on to say that, when one is sick or suffering, there are angels.  We just don’t always see them.