Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

485. Our Old Kitchen Knife

In 1970s, Britain, Family, Stories, Words & phrases on September 27, 2020 at 5:22 am

Just about every day for the past 49 years Andrew and I have been using a sharp, sturdy German steel kitchen knife that Andrew bought in London in 1971 on my first return trip after our family had immigrated to the U.S., and our first trip to England together. It’s also possible that he acquired it on our second trip, in 1973, when I spent my junior year of college in London and Andrew joined me there for the first term; even so, that would make it 47 years old. It’s no oil painting—the handle is getting worn and the blade has seen better days—but it still performs yeoman service. The oldest of all our knives, it’s my favorite by far.

                                    Foyles in the early 70s (Debbie Reid)

Back in the 1970s Tottenham Court Road between the Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road tube stations was full of shops that sold radio, hi-fi, camera and other electronic equipment and components, army surplus, furniture, and commercial supplies of every imaginable kind. This video, shot in the late seventies, gives you a good idea of what it was like. Further on, going down toward Leicester Square, it turns into Charing Cross Road, which was lined with bookshops of every kind, small specialist and second-hand ones as well as Foyles, a veritable department store for books. The one end was heaven to Andrew, the other heaven to me. (So many small independent bookshops have closed since then, it’s heartbreaking. Foyles is still there, in name at least, although it moved from its original flagship building to premises next-door in 2014 and was bought by Waterstones in 2018.)

Berkeley cinema building, Tottenham Court Road. Note the radio and camera shops. The UFO club where Pink Floyd played was in the basement in the 1960s for a while. (Fitzrovian News)

It was in one of those shops on Tottenham Court Road that Andrew bought two large steel knives. One of them was a regular household kitchen knife, while the other was an outsize implement, something that a master chef or even a butcher might wield and certainly too large for me to handle comfortably. We had the bigger one for years, but it remained pristine because we hardly ever had occasion to use it. Then at some point quite recently we lost track of it altogether, but we didn’t fret about it. It was the smaller one that was our mainstay.

You must understand that this purchase was a rare one for Andrew. He doesn’t like to spend money unnecessarily, but he does know a good thing when he sees it. Something about the quality of these knives must have impressed him, because he made the investment and carried them home with great satisfaction. I wouldn’t have dreamt of asking how much he paid for them.

Another thing you need to understand, especially if you have done all your flying since September 11th, 2001, is what air travel was like back in the 1970s, before the days of hijackings and suicide attacks. Heading back to the U.S. with our suitcases packed to the gills, me with my books, vintage clothing from Petticoat Lane, English sweets, Marmite, and Sainsbury’s best  sausages (for Mum from Auntie Bette), Andrew with Colman’s mustard and his precious kitchen knives, the train to Heathrow Airport was late and by the time we arrived we had missed the last boarding call. I remember literally running through check-in and the security station, holding out our boarding passes and passports as we raced by and explaining, between gasps for air. that we were in danger of missing our flight. No one stopped us, they just waved us through. And at least one of those seriously sharp German steel kitchen knives was in our carry-on luggage.

I’m not a knife expert or aficionado, but I believe our old knife is made of carbon steel, because its sharp blade holds its edge and rusts if it’s not cleaned and dried immediately after use. I checked once when the logo stamped into the metal was already worn but not as worn as it is now, and think that it was made by J.A. Henckels, a company founded in 1731 and still in business, based in Solingen, Germany.

One can just see a faint impression of the brand.

Some 35 years ago when we were living on the farm in Winchendon, Maureen’s dear mother Eleanor was visiting and, as was her hard-working nature, giving our kitchen a vigorous and much-needed cleaning and then moving out into the yard. While using the knife to pry up dandelions from our lawn, she accidentally snapped off the end of it. However, Andrew filed it smooth and I’ve forgotten what it looked like before, because now it looks like a small cleaver and has gained an even better balance.

Cleave is one of those words that can mean itself and its opposite (also known as an autoantonym— see TMA #183). It means to split or to cut apart (as with a cleaver, a large hatchet-like knife) and it also means to stick together, as when two people cleave to each other in marriage. Cleaving something with the grain, as one does to a log, can split it just right so that it falls cleanly in two. Cleaving to a dear one means sticking to that person through thick and thin. Somehow our old kitchen knife welds both meanings into one.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

483. The Singing Cowboy: Heart Core Meltdown

In 1970s, Media, Music, Politics, singing, United States on August 18, 2020 at 1:30 pm

From the late summer of 1978 through the early summer of 1979, Andrew and I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico and volunteered with Citizens Against Nuclear Threats (with the unfortunate acronym CANT). Sometime during that 10-month sojourn, a young man drove up to the house where we were living with Michael and Jill and stepped out of the car with a guitar. To my outsider’s eyes he looked like a stereotypical Texas cowboy, blond-haired, straight-talking, square-jawed; also sincere, humble, and a little diffident. He said that he had written some songs for the anti-nuclear cause and he wanted to give them to us, if we could use them.

We invited this blue-jeaned stranger into the house and asked him to show us what he had. If I may have been a tad skeptical at first, I was a total fan before he had finished his first song. This guy was good! It was a winning combination of country music and anti-nuclear lyrics. But not just any lyrics: an inspired use of the traditional three-verse formula for a love song to tell the story of our society’s disastrous love affair with nuclear power. In all my years of anti-nuclear activism I don’t think I made a speech that was as successful in compressing our message into just 224 words.

Imagine this young cowboy standing in our living room and singing his heart out. Here are the lyrics to Heart Core Meltdown:

1. You melted down the core of my heart
You nearly made me fall out of my seat;
I took a bit too long to learn
You gave me radiation burns
And I thought that I was dying from the heat.

Ch: You’re just like a nuclear disaster
You spread destruction everywhere you go,
You’re gonna kill me if I stay
But I just can’t turn away
I’ve got too much in you to pull out now you know.

 2. You melted down the core of my heart
This time I guess my safety system failed,
I was supremely confident
But here you came and there it went
I guess it never had been tested on this scale.

 Ch: You’re just like a nuclear reactor
You give me all the energy I need,
But I think I might go back to burning firewood
‘Cos darlin’ you’re unsafe at any speed.

3. I thought I could get rid of you my love
By burying the past with all its pain,
No matter how deep down I dug
All those leaks I could not plug
You keep seeping through the fissures of my brain.

Ch: You’re just like the nuclear industry
You wanted to control me from the start,
I trusted you too much
But now I’ve felt your fatal touch
And you’ve melted down the core of my heart

from (AP photo)

If it was the Spring of 1979 when the singing cowboy entered our living room and my heart, then his gift couldn’t have been more timely. The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas was playing to packed houses as the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was melting down in real time. We leafletted audiences as they came out of the movie theaters in a daze, and dozens of people were calling the CANT office, thanking us for what we were doing and asking how they could help. Dean Rainey sat down and wrote this gem of a song, which, as I recall, he performed live with a companion piece for at least one of our anti-nuclear rallies.

I waited until now to say his name because I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t remember it. When we asked our friend Michael, who still lives in Albuquerque, if he remembered that day he did, and said that he thought the talented singer-songwriter was Tommy O’Connor, who had been based in Santa Fe, but who had passed away a few years ago. But just this evening I found a flyer with the lyrics of this song on it, and the composer listed as Dean Rainey.

It has taken me more 50 years to share a recording of Heart Core Meltdown, for which at the time I was full of promises to help him find an agent and get made into a hit. This recording is at a third remove from the original audiocassette, re-copied by Andrew onto another cassette tape about ten years ago and then re-recorded and digitized last weekend by our dear friend, storyteller Norah Dooley. Technologically challenged as I am, I will attempt to make a better-quality recording: I owe it to Dean.

Maybe the singing cowboy wasn’t a Texas cowboy at all; if so, it was my ignorance that prevented me from seeing him fully. The enigmatic stranger performed another of his compositions for us that day, as timely and as brilliant as the first, this one with a reggae rhythm. A post on “The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)” will be forthcoming as soon as I have a digital recording of it.

Thank you, Dean, for your generous gift, and please forgive me for my half-century delay.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

387. Not So Posh

In 1970s, Food, Stories, United States, Work on August 6, 2016 at 10:46 am


In the late 1970s, when Andrew and I lived in New Mexico, I worked as a waitress at an establishment by the name of The Posh Bagel. In those days bagels were still a specialty of New York, not yet a national food (no national chains like Bruegger’s, no breakfast “bagels” at Dunkin Donuts) and so they were a novelty in the Southwest. Not satisfied with plain old cream cheese or even with the magisterial cream cheese and lox, The Posh Bagel dressed up its bagels with all sorts of other non-traditional fillings, like roast beef. It further embellished its menu with ultra-cheesy attempts at humor. Nearly 40 years on, I still remember that the roast- beef bagel was called “Rubber Buggy Baby Bumper” and a dessert fruit bowl was called “Can’t Elope (O Honey, Do).” The bagels were okay, nothing to write home about but they were fresh and, in any case, the Posh held a virtual monopoly on them in Albuquerque. My co-workers were friendly, as were most of the customers (except for the West Texans, who were notorious for not tipping) so the job would have been fine, if it hadn’t been for the manager-proprietor, my boss.

Thankfully I have long forgotten his name, but I remember him as a weaselly man, always trying to sniff out employee graft. He didn’t seem to realize that disgruntled employees are much more likely to steal, especially if they work in a restaurant that doesn’t give them free food. Every time I worked the morning shifts, which ended at lunch-time, the cook would make me up a lightly-toasted sesame-seed bagel, loaded generously with cream cheese, thickly-sliced tomato, and red onions (I can’t recall whether or not it contained lox, and if I did, I’d probably plead the fifth) and slip it to me surreptitiously on my way out. I don’t think I’ve never enjoyed a bagel so much; my mouth waters just thinking of it. If the boss had allowed his employees a free bagel after every full shift, I might not have enjoyed it quite so much; and I certainly wouldn’t have taken such pleasure in conspiring with the cook.

My manager wasn’t just a miser; he was a lecher as well. At the time I was passionately involved with an anti-nuclear group called Citizens Against Nuclear Threats (with the rather unfortunate acronym CANT), which was working with a statewide coalition to oppose the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a high-level nuclear waste repository (dump) planned for Southern New Mexico, right near the Carlsbad Caverns. So one day my boss, finding me alone, actually offered to give me a donation for the cause. But of course there was a catch: I had to give him a kiss. If you’re saying “Ewww”, that’s the sort of person he was.

Another mark of his character was his anxiety to present a posh exterior coupled with a disregard for basic principles of health or hygiene. One day, needing to find busywork for me, he asked me to fill the half-empty tomato-ketchup bottles on all the tables. When I demurred—surely it wasn’t good practice to pour fresh ketchup on top of old—he ordered me to do what I had was told. So I did. Later that day—I must have been working the afternoon shift—I heard a loud report, as if a gun had been fired; and, in short order, another. Then a wail from a hapless customer: it was the ketchup bottles exploding! Hah!


I must confess that I took a malicious delight in my manager’s consternation. The jumped-up Posh Bagel, and its equally puffed-up proprietor, didn’t look so posh that day.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

386. When the Law Breaks the Law

In 1970s, 2010s, history, places, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on July 16, 2016 at 10:47 am


I remember vividly the first time I witnessed law enforcement breaking the law, and it was terrifying. It was one evening in the fall of 1970 on the way to an anti-Vietnam War rally on the Boston Common. Two of my Brookline-High classmates and I had taken the trolley in together, and our English teacher, Mrs. Metzger, had said that she would give us credit if we wrote an essay on the experience. (She was that kind of teacher—we adored her.) I was sixteen.

Boston Common (

The Boston Common (

The Boston Common, dating all the way back to 1634, is the oldest city park in the United States, a 50-acre haven of green smack-dab in the middle of downtown Boston, with the State House directly to the north of it, the shopping district to the east and south, and the Public Garden to the west. The Common and the Public Garden are criss-crossed by a well-kept network of internal walking paths, flanked by flower-beds, benches, and bronze sculptures depicting George Washington and Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.

Make Way for Ducklings sculpture in Boston Public Garden; photo by Lorianne DiSabato (

Make Way for Ducklings sculpture in Boston Public Garden; photo by Lorianne DiSabato (

Gail, Caren, and I were strolling down one of the paths without a care in the world, happy to be out together, and chatting away nineteen to the dozen (or at least, I was). We must have been heading toward the square within view of the golden dome of the State House, where many of the events, including public demonstrations, are centered. But suddenly, on a dime, things turned nasty. While we were talking, an army of police vehicles had encircled us, crashed onto the Common, and were not only driving down the walking paths, but across the lawns. They were shouting something through bullhorns, but we couldn’t make out any words. It was terrifying to see them coming at us from all directions, and to see the public order we had always observed obediently and taken for granted being overturned by the very forces of law and order.

Although I was the one whose idea it had been to come, I was also the one who panicked, while Gail, heretofore the apolitical one, now took charge, keeping perfectly calm. She steered us to the side of the path and we waited, keeping as much out of the way as was possible, while cop cars cut across the Common in all directions and people scattered chaotically, screaming and scrambling to get out of their way.

Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio, May 4, 1970. Four students were killed when Ohio National Guard troops fired at some 600 anti-war demonstrators. A cropped version of this image won the Pulitzer Prize. (Photo by John Filo/Getty Images)

Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio, May 4, 1970. Four students were killed when Ohio National Guard troops fired at some 600 anti-war demonstrators. A cropped version of this image won the Pulitzer Prize. (Photo by John Filo/Getty Images)

That was 1970, and looking back, it sometimes seems like an age of innocence. But in fact it had only been a few short months since May, when college students at Kent State and Jackson State had been shot and killed by police and the entire country had erupted in protest. The war was raging at home as well as in Southeast Asia, and we were well aware of it. Nevertheless, this first-hand evidence of police over-reaction came as a shock to us, sheltered teens from the suburbs and especially for me, as an immigrant who had been in the country for less than a year.

Still, protests and all, 1970 was an age of innocence in comparison to the state of affairs today. Since then, police forces across the United States have become increasingly militarized (see this clip and another from The Colbert Report), and police killings of civilians are a daily occurrence. (See the U.K. Guardian’s site, The Counted, for a continuously updated record of all the people killed by the U.S. police: the year-to-date count is 587,  in mid-July 2016.) 

Paramilitary police forces face off against peaceful protesters, Baltimore , 1 May, 2015. (Bryan MacCormack/Left in Focus)

Paramilitary police forces face off against peaceful protesters, Baltimore , 1 May, 2015. (Bryan MacCormack/Left in Focus)

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that “no person shall. . .be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Since when has the practice of law enforcement forces, both at home and abroad, been Shoot to Kill? Are we living in the Wild West, with a practice of Shoot first, ask questions later? What happened to the hallowed democratic principles of the rule of law, due process of law, and habeas corpus (more like habeas corpse these days), let alone the presumption of innocence, the concept that a person charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty?

Black Lives Matter Protest, Chicago, 2015 (from Christian Science Monitor, photo: Paul Beaty/AP)

Black Lives Matter Protest, Chicago, 2015 (from Christian Science Monitor, photo: Paul Beaty/AP)

The ubiquity of guns, in the hands of people and the police alike, surely has something to do with the frightening escalation, as does the ideology of perpetual war that has militarized our culture and society, with warspeak pervading the news media and our vocabulary so as to cover up the naked truth and numb our natural responses with euphemisms for killing such as “neutralizing” and “taking out”.

With the general public belatedly becoming aware—thanks to the courageous Black Lives Matter movement—of the reality of police violence in the U.S. that people of color have been experiencing first-hand all along, people are finally saying, Enough!, and in numbers too large to ignore. The charge of the police is To Protect and to Serve: it’s time to remind them who it is they are supposed to be serving. Even conjuring up the specter of global terrorism is no longer enough to scare people into submission. The mask has come off, and the face underneath is ugly. We must demand that law enforcement upholds the law. 


Police Take Notice: Make way for ducklings!

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

370. Pre-dawn Raga

In 1970s, blogs and blogging, India, Music, Stories, writing on April 20, 2016 at 3:17 am


Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

PI have never been what they call “a morning person.” At least an hour and a half must elapse between when I wake up and when I start my working day, and it’s not until I’m on my second cup of tea in the morning that I can safely engage with another person without the risk of biting their head off. On one particular occasion, though, my behavior was quite out of character, thanks to the power of a pre-dawn raga.

For a time during our twenties, when we were living in the cabin on White Pond in Concord, Andrew had a job driving a truck for NEFCO, our regional food co-op federation. As I recall, he had to drive in to the wholesale market in Chelsea, pick up the week’s supply of cheese, and deliver it to the co-op warehouse in North Cambridge. He had to leave the house early in order to complete the circuit on time, but that was not a problem, since, unlike me, Andrew is a morning person.

On this morning, Andrew happened to over-sleep, and by the time he woke up, it was already past the time he normally left the house. I awoke, bleary-eyed, to find him in a state of high anxiety and near-despair, feeling that he had made an irreparable mistake and that it was too late for him to fix it. When he gets into that mood, he tends to get stuck in it for some time, shutting himself down and others out. But somehow, that morning, I mobilized in record time and managed to turn his self-defeating mood around.

I love Indian classical music, although I have never studied it formally. (Our local public radio station irritates me to no end when it uses the term “classical music” to refer to European classical music, as if that is all there is.) I love the way it starts quietly, just establishing the mood, and then builds gradually, taking a long time to warm up. A raga, or raag, is a basic melody form (here’s Anoushka Shankar explaining) and there are ragas for every time of day, even the time when I am not at my best.

Ali Akbar Khan (US., c. 1970) Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Ali Akbar Khan (US., c. 1970) Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

It just so happened that we had picked up an album by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the virtuoso sarod player, called Pre-dawn to Sunrise Ragas (1967). Although we had gone to see Ali Akbar Khan in concert at least twice by then, I had never properly listened to this album, and certainly not at the proper time of day, but as I threw on my clothes and scrambled to prepare breakfast, I had the bright idea of putting it on. As soon as the needle settled into the grooves of the disc and the first benign tones of raag bairagi began to pervade the atmosphere, something shifted into an open, expectant mode. By the time the raga was over, we were getting ready to jump into the truck and make for Chelsea; but in that short twenty minutes, Andrew’s mood had neutralized and the dark cloud had begun to lift. The sun rose, the pick-up and delivery went smoothly, and all was well with the world again.

Don’t take my word for it; try it yourself, the next time you’re up early and a bit out of sorts. Begin the day with joy.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

347. Free Speech: Goodbye to All That?

In 1970s, 2010s, blogs and blogging, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, writing on October 25, 2015 at 12:47 pm
Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, ©Manolis Daloukas (from

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, ©Manolis Daloukas (from



It must have been during our stay in London in the autumn of 1973 when Andrew and I were visiting Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, that 150 year-old emblem of Britain’s commitment to free speech and freedom of assembly. On our previous visit we had encountered a succession of people making impassioned speeches, heavily peppered with oddballs ranting about the apocalypse and the Second Coming. Along with the other passers-by we listened politely for a short time, perhaps asking a question or accepting a flyer before edging out of their line of vision.

This time it was an altogether different scene, so weird that it refuses to come to focus in my mind’s eye. I see not one, but a group of people, mostly young, who have set up some sort of table—dining table, operating table, it isn’t clear—on which is set what looks like a monstrous loaf of bread baked in the shape of a phallus. They are cutting it into slices and offering a piece to any and all takers brave enough to sample it. For they declare openly that, quite apart from its priapic form, there is more to the loaf than meets the eye: marijuana has been baked into it. Further, they insist that they are not advocating the recreational use of this substance—which would be illegal and actionable, even at Speakers’ Corner—but rather, that they are partaking in a religious sacrament.

9780374289331Here’s where my memory gets even more hazy. The group claimed direct descent from Robert Graves, long-resident outside of England in Majorca, Spain (then known to me only as the author of I, Claudius, which was on my parents’ bookshelves in my childhood and which I had read surreptitiously and with considerable bewilderment). They were even flourishing some kind of founding document with Graves’ signature on it, bestowing authority and legitimacy upon them. As I recall, they were a revival of some sort of ancient fertility cult, perhaps one of those described in Graves’ work, The White Goddess. Somewhere, in my old five-drawer file cabinet or buried deep in a box in our basement, I may still have the flier that we brought away with us. I didn’t ingest their offering, though, and cannot testify to the veracity of the group’s claims, with respect to either its ingredients or their origin myth.

Robert Graves regularly comes up in my teaching, either as the author of the autobiographical Goodbye to All That (1929), or as a mentor in to younger writers like Alan Sillitoe in the 1950s and 1960s, or as a character in Pat Barker’s novel, Regeneration. It was only once, in a contemporary British fiction class, that I ventured to tell my students the story of the phallus-worshipping fertility cult at Hyde Park Corner purportedly founded by the man himself. Their jaws dropped and the room fell silent.

The funeral procession for M. M. Kalburgi, a writer who was shot at point-blank range in his home in Karnataka, India, in August 2015. Photo Credit STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

The funeral procession for M. M. Kalburgi, a writer who was shot at point-blank range in his home in Karnataka, India, in August 2015. Photo Credit STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

This would just be a colorful tale from my chequered past if it were not for the serious threats to free speech around the world today, even in the nations that enshrine this sacred principle in their own origin myths. In country after country, United States, Britain, Australia, even Canada, free speech is being curtailed in the name of security, swept away as the spectre of terrorism is conjured up. In India as I write, the leadership of the ruling party is refusing to condemn the recent murders of writers who held views, such as rationalism or atheism, that run counter to the crusading beliefs of the Hindu Right. In so doing—or rather, in refusing to do so—the Center gives the extremists tacit license to kill. In such a climate, people who practice minority religions or hold dissenting views are afraid to speak out, indeed, afraid to be who they are.

Meanwhile, in the Land of the Free, even giving utterance to certain words online, let alone out loud, is sufficient to put one on a watchlist, or worse. Nowadays, simply being on a watchlist, whether or not the suspicion has any foundation, gives the government license to kill, and to get away with it.

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, © Manolis Daloukas (

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, © Manolis Daloukas (

It seems that the time-honoured tradition of free speech at Speakers’ Corner is under threat as well. It is incumbent upon us all to uphold free speech by exercising it, refusing to be silenced in a climate that has cast a chill over our fundamental human right. Thinking back to that performance in Hyde Park more than forty years ago with its flagrant, joyous disregard of convention, I may gently tease, but will never trivialize the open society that permitted it.

P.S. Thanks to fellow-blogger Don Scrooby, whose photographs of Hyde Park in Candid Impressions sparked this memory.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

344. Tropical Botanicals

In 1970s, Nature, places, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases on September 25, 2015 at 9:36 am
Rhizophora mangle, or Red Mangrove (

Rhizophora mangle, or red mangrove (

Forty years ago, in April 1975, a group of us in the co-op house at university decided to go down to Key West, Florida for our Spring Break. We drove non-stop, getting from Boston to the northern border of the state in just 24 hours, and headed first to Miami. Unusually for college students on Spring Break, our first destination was not the beach, but, because we had a budding botanist among us, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Once there, we made a beeline for the area where the Garden maintains a small simulated tropical rainforest; visiting that hot, moisture-drenched paradise alone made our entire trip worthwhile.

Erythoxylum coca

Erythoxylum coca (

Peter, our resident botanist, had inside knowledge about the Garden; he knew the exact location of plants that were not labeled for fear that they would be stripped and stolen. The plant he took us to visit was Erythroxylum coca (var. coca), or, in common parlance, coca, notorious because it is the basis for the production of HCl, or cocaine, a dangerous, illegal substance, highly lucrative for black-market drug traffickers. However, coca is not illegal in South America, where its leaves have been used medicinally for centuries, and workers chew them for energy and stamina during their long hours of hard manual labor. Being a conservationist, not a Yahoo, Peter carefully, reverently, pinched off a few sprigs, which we slipped into a bag as we slipped away unnoticed, leaving the little bush all the healthier for its expert pruning.

Next on our botanical tour of Florida was the Everglades National Park, where we headed straight for the mangrove swamps along the coastline. The term mangrove refers not to one particular plant, but to a number of species of trees that grow along the coast and are tolerant to salt. Mangroves thrive in the tidal waters of the Everglades, where saltwater and freshwater mix, and the national park protects the largest contiguous stand of protected mangrove forest in the hemisphere.

Rhizophora mangle, or the red mangrove, is a strong and adaptable plant, the most common mangrove on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in both tropical and subtropical zones. Its Latin name, Rhizophora, which means rootbearer, refers to its aerial prop roots, which also give it the common name (one among many) walking tree, because it looks as if it is walking on water. Its propagule (what a terrific word!), or unit of propagation, drops live off the parent plant, and is immediately capable of rooting and creating a new tree.

Propagules growing before dropping from the parent plant (wikipedia, uploaded by Hlucha)

Propagules growing before dropping from the parent plant (wikipedia, uploaded by Hlucha)

The red mangrove is in no danger of being over-picked—in fact, it has become an invasive menace in Hawai ‘i, where the climate in ideal for it. Still, Peter oversaw the careful removal of a small red mangrove plant to try propagating back home in New England (where it is in no danger of becoming an invasive species).

The rest of our trip, as we continued down through the Florida Keys to Key West and back, though memorable, was probably not very different from the typical Spring Break experience: beach by day, bars by night, camping, companionship, and in my case a chance to relax before the last big exam period of my senior year in college. On the trip home, when it came to my nighttime driving shift, I chewed some of the Erythroxylum coca leaf we had brought back with us. Like a Peruvian worker from the Andes, I was able to drive steadily through the night without a trace of fatigue, my only other symptom being a mild numbing sensation in my mouth and throat.

When we got home, we put our little mangrove in one of the bathtubs of the Co-op House, and tried to make it a home away from home, complete with salty water and simulated tides twice a day. It lived and even thrived until sometime later that summer, when one of us went away and others forgot to refresh its water, as students are wont to do. But that one short trip so many years ago helped to instill in me a lifelong respect for plants, miraculous living beings like ourselves, that share our planet and make our own lives possible.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

341. Unexpected Fruit

In 1970s, 2010s, Books, Family, Food, Nature, reflections, Stories on August 23, 2015 at 12:14 pm


It was late August, 1990, when we moved to this house, with the schools poised to reopen after Labor Day and the cicadas in full-throated chorus every night. Soon afterwards Andrew dug up the twin nectarine trees from his parents’ old cabin on White Pond in Concord and transplanted them in our kitchen garden. This year, twenty-five years later, I am tasting the sweetness of their fruit for the first time.

One day, years before Nikhil was born, we opened a nectarine and found its seed sprouting, sending up not one, but two shoots. Although I can’t recall the details, I think Andrew half-immersed the split seed in a jar of water as one does an avocado pit (here’s a video on how one man did it). In any case, he nurtured the conjoined twins until they were old enough to separate very gently and plant in the soil. When the White Pond house was sold and its contents emptied, Andrew couldn’t bear to leave them behind; the twin nectarines and the two saplings we had planted for his Grandma Olga and Grandpa Victor: they all came with us, followed shortly thereafter by some honeysuckle from my parents’ house in Newton when that too was sold.

But not all transplants take, do they? Salman Rushdie showed us that in The Satanic Verses, when Gibreel Farishta careened into madness. Grandpa and Grandma’s saplings grew sickly and died, while the honeysuckle ran riot through the garden, choking everything in its path. Although the nectarines dug in tenaciously and managed to hold their ground, something wasn’t right. Perhaps their growth was stunted by the massive Norway spruce looming overhead, perhaps the soil wasn’t nourishing enough; in any case, they didn’t flourish. Eventually they started flowering in the spring and we celebrated the delicate pink blossoms, but come late summer the fruit was disappointing; either it fell off while it was still very small, or it was nibbled and knocked off by squirrels, or it was pockmarked and scabby. Andrew tried picking the fruits early, but the hard, tiny nectarines were too small to ripen. He tried making nectarine pickle as one would with green mangoes, but nobody much cared for it and it was more trouble than it was worth. The trees were weak—perhaps because their separation in infancy had left them inherently lopsided—and needed tethering and propping up. After a summer storm, one of them tipped over and started branching up from the ground again. We ought to have taken drastic action, but somehow we didn’t have the heart: besides memories, these were all we had left of White Pond.

But inexplicably, this year, a year of travel and transitions when the garden has received the least attention it has ever had, not only have both trees, even the broken one, flowered and set fruit, but the fruit has grown and stayed on the branches. The little nectarines are larger and healthier than I have ever seen them before, and there are so many of them that they are bowing the branches down with their weight. After all those failed attempts in past years I had given up on the fruit altogether, but just last week I took a closer look and found them filled out and beginning to blush. Sure, they weren’t going to win any prizes at the county fair: some of them were split open, others were oozing a strange gelatinous substance, and most of them were freckled and pimpled like teenagers; but they were healthy and definitely seemed to be maturing. I decided to pick a batch before the birds got to them and see if they would continue to ripen indoors.


An old man I met in the supermarket had once advised me to ripen peaches at home in a brown paper bag, so I followed his instructions and set them aside for a few days. Yesterday, to my delight, I found that several of them had ripened successfully. They weren’t flawless, but after some trimming they yielded a small mound: slivers and slices of delectable pinky-orange nectarine.

Only twenty-five years later. I wonder why the nectarines came to fruition this year? Was their profusion a desperate bid for survival due to our neglect, or did they simply need more time? I will never know. But it just goes to show: things may bear unexpected fruit, sometimes long after one has given up on them.


Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

337. Lessons from a Historian

In 1970s, Books, Education, Family, history, parenting, people, Stories, United States on July 4, 2015 at 9:49 am
Howard Zinn addressing an anti-war rally on the Boston Common, 1971 (Boston Globe)

Howard Zinn addressing an anti-war rally on the Boston Common, 1971 (Boston Globe)

Years ago, around 1978, I participated in an anti-nuclear rally on the Boston Common where Howard Zinn spoke. I can’t remember the exact occasion of the rally or the main thrust of his talk, but one piece of advice in it stuck. Zinn’s words of wisdom have since come back to me in numerous very different situations involving negotiations with those in power.

“Always ask for what you want,” he told us, “never what you think you can get.”

He went on to explain what we have all experienced in one setting or another, but I had never quite articulated to myself as a political principle.

If an employee asks for a pay increase, for instance, probability is that the employer will come back with a lower offer rather than meeting the demand—that is, if he entertains it at all. People who feel themselves to be powerless start negotiations timidly and self-defeatingly by asking for less than they really want; but this guarantees that they will never get it, since the rules of power dictate that the powerful will always drive it down.

Power is (almost) never relinquished voluntarily, only under pressure, and of course a group of people can collectively exert more pressure than most individuals could ever hope to do. Another reason to articulate what you want, then, is to inspire other people. An individual going up against Power alone may gain something for him/herself, but the gain will be individual and limited; it cannot spark a movement for lasting social change.


When I heard Howard Zinn speak all those years ago, he must have been in the process of writing A People’s History of the United States (first published in 1980, most recent edition, 2005), which sets out to present American history through the eyes of the common people rather than political and economic elites. Of course, historiography—and the book’s title—tells us that this is one of many approaches to telling a story, and not the dominant one; Zinn’s popular and influential book has been challenged by many who question his political perspective. It is axiomatic that history is written by the powerful, so his approach is an important corrective to the history that most of us have been taught in school.

(from Occupy Oakland)

(from Occupy Oakland)

Children become masters in dealing with power in the persons of their parents. So it is no wonder that our son had internalized Zinn’s lesson long before he even learned to read; in fact, he went one better. His strategy was to make an outrageous demand, asking for much more than he knew was possible and then bargaining us down to what he really wanted. He invariably ended up with much more than his parents, putty in his hands, ever intended. So at bedtime, for example, he might ask me to finish reading the book and then bargain me down to “just” three chapters. (Come to think of it,  that doesn’t make a good analogy, since what he really wanted was usually what I wanted too.)

I write this on July 4th, Independence Day in the United States. Yesterday, a public radio station was asking listeners to share what it was that made them feel patriotic. I started making a mental list, which included national parks and public libraries. Add to that list the late Howard Zinn. howardzinnreadin

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

300. Mistrusting My Inner Voice

In 1960s, 1970s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, reading, reflections, women & gender on February 19, 2015 at 12:12 pm
Tears of a Clown

Tears of a Clown

Readers of Children of Violence, Doris Lessing’s five-volume Bildungsroman, follow the protagonist Martha Quest from her stormy adolescence to her old age. This series of novels, published over a 17-year period between 1952 and 1969, with four set in Southern Africa and the fifth in Britain, has all of life crammed into it, but it is through the developing character of Martha that we understand the events, both as they unfold and retroactively.


One of the central truths that I take from Children of Violence is that we see the reality of who we are very early on, but are only able to act on that self-knowledge after we have made all the mistakes that most people inevitably make in life. Martha’s inner voice speaks to her throughout, but in her earlier years it is often drowned out by the passions of youth and by little-understood patterns of behavior that stem from her upbringing and even from the upbringing of her parents. For many years she acts as if programmed, even when she knows that she is making a mistake. Thankfully Martha does grow, and one of her insights is into “Matty,” the protective persona that she created as a young woman which continued to speak and act for her long after it no longer served her, if indeed it ever did.

“Matty” was a clown, the life of the party, always using self-deprecating humor to mask her intelligence and her sober, questioning Self. It is a pleasure to watch Martha recognize Matty as a construction and eventually outgrow her. And this reader, at least, squirms with self-recognition. For who among us has not created a persona as a protective mask against the world, and who among us has not seen that creation taking on a life of its own and outstaying its welcome, like an party guest who sets up on the living-room couch?

d076091226823762201983572cd1e7b7A succession of memories swims into view as I recall created personae that I have inhabited, consciously or otherwise. Sometimes they “worked,” in that they served their purpose, while at other times they completely backfired on me. One such instance was when, at age 13 or 14, we went on a school outing to see The Sound of Music (for the umpteenth time). Sitting next to a boy who had recently become my boyfriend (as this relationship was defined in boarding school in 1960’s India), I remember thinking, as a sentimental scene approached, that it would be “feminine” to cry and, amazing to me now, I turned on the waterworks on cue. Unfortunately it didn’t have the desired effect; curling his lip, he expressed his contempt for such soppy sentimentality: “just like a girl!”

It served me right! I had deliberately been untrue to myself in order to present an appealing model of femininity, but it hadn’t worked—the object of my deception had reacted just as I would have done if I had been him. Of course, reinforced by society, such “feminine wiles” must pay off in some way, otherwise women wouldn’t continue to deploy them. Although it is troubling that people feel the need to perform such stereotypical identities, it is tragic if they thereby lose access to other, deeper selves.


Another incident still embarrasses me all over again whenever I remember it. It was in 1972 or 1973 while I was at university, perhaps 18 or 19 years old. One of my favorite Bob Dylan songs was, and still is, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. Although there are many interpretations of Dylan songs that I love, by artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, and Johnny Cash, in the case of this song I have never heard a version that comes close to Dylan’s own. At the time my college suitemate was dating an older student who had a twin brother, and she had recently found herself getting involved with the twin as well. Anyway, another artist—I forget who—had just released a cover version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” which I had heard and immediately hated. The very next day, one of the twins—the brother of the first, I think—was visiting our dorm, and mentioned Dylan’s song, my favorite. I was in awe and not a little envious of these sophisticated friends of my suitemate, and found myself wanting to impress. Before I had a chance to think better of it, out of my mouth came the following travesty: “Oh, did you know that so-and-so has just come out with a terrific cover of it?”

His rejoinder served me right, as he said exactly what I had been thinking: “Oh, I love Dylan’s version, but that cover changes it out of all recognition. I hate it.” My attempt to impress had completely backfired on me, making me look like a tasteless idiot. Why, oh why, hadn’t I had the self-confidence to say what I actually thought?

I’d like to be able to say that I have learned to trust my inner voice, that these early experiences taught me to tell the truth about my responses to art and life. But of course they didn’t. These inauthentic performances continued into my adult life. Did they ever serve me well? I don’t think so.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

%d bloggers like this: