What Big Eyes

img_3751In one of the little towns on our Waterways of the Czars tour of Russia, we visit an actual school, where one is struck by the disparities: 800 children, ages six to seventeen, gather five days a week in a building that looks to have been built by a team of inebriates wearing blindfolds. There aren’t a lot of right angles, in other words, and many of the lintels seem to slant and dip. And yet, the curriculum appears to run circles around our typical courses of study.

Here on the left and below, a typical classroom, not at all fancy, as you can see.


And yet our Russian tour guide has this to say about the curriculum, “The pupil’s courses are compulsory, yes?

“They study the Physics, the Chemistry, the Mathematics, the Literatures.

“All children are also studying the English beginning in Fifth grade and in high school are adding a second foreign language to that, either French to German, yes.’

My guess, based on information we have so far exchanged in the last week?  That of the 25 well-fed Yanks stuffed into these slender desks not a one speaks or understands Russian. We are spotless in our ignorance.

Next, we file into a small auditorium which I suspect also serves as lunchroom and gym as the auditorium did in my own 1960s elementary school. (We called it the Cafetorium, in my mind a wonderfully jaunty, sort of Jetson-ish Space Age name. ) Here, three young girls in peasant garb sing us a lengthy folk song, during which, at regular intervals the music calls for periodic vocal yips which the girls dutifully provide even as their faces remain bland. They also swing little wooden gadgets back and forth that look like miniature venetian blinds and make the kind of clattering sound you might get on tossing a handful of Scrabble tiles down a set of stairs. The girls sing, yip and clatter for a good five minutes before bowing, shyly and adorably, and hurrying off the stage, offer us the chance to buy fanciful cloth dolls which both the boy and girl students have themselves sewn.

The dolls are female dolls, all with voluminous skirts and THIS one, we are told, is Little Red Riding Hood. But one has only to upend her, toss back her skirts and – whoops! – here under the ruffles of her petticoats is the child’s own grand-mama,  of ‘What Big Eyes You Have’ fame! She has spectacles and grey hair covered by a babushka. Another flip of the wrist, yet more tumbling and here appears the head of the Big Bad Wolf in all his ferocity!

Many of our group buy one. I do not, I think because as a child in the long ago Ozzie and Harriet years I had the American version of this doll which always unsettled me.

On our way out of the schoolhouse, we pass a handmade poster honoring a young graduate of this school who, serving the Russian army, was killed in Chechnya. In this portrait, dressed in his new uniform, he gazes manfully at the camera and we study his gaze. His story, carefully inked in block writing around his image, remains a mystery to us however, as people who can neither speak nor read the language of this country.

As we depart the school building, small and antiquated looking as it is with the cords for its electronics stretching from here to there in a way that no stateside Fire Marshall would allow, I get the feeling that these 800 children have minds far more fully furnished than our own minds here in the ‘Like Me, Buy Me, Like Me’ west.

And it comes to me at the door that perhaps the reversible doll unsettles me still not for any Freudian beast-under-the-skirts reason but because it reminds me uncomfortably of the ostrich, who also hides his head so as not to acknowledge what he does not wish to acknowledge.

russan wolf doll


That’s MISTER Jackass to You

fullsizeoutput_446cHeard onboard ship as four individuals find themselves lingering for a moment in a stateroom corridor:

Passenger One, pleasantly, after introductions: So what is your husband’s name?

Passenger Two: Jackass.

Passenger One, not having heard quite right:  I’m sorry? You say your husband isn’t traveling with you?

Passenger Two:  Nah Jackass left me years ago for his secretary.

Merry laughter all around.

Chilly Naked Guys

have a shower! peterhofThese are some pictures from our day in Peterhof, where the Czar called Peter spent large chunks of his downtime.

NO DOWNTIME FOR US though in our forced march through his palace, where an hour into the tour I began to feel like a bite of salami getting ushered through an alimentary canal by the ceaseless process known as peristalsis.

June or no June, the day was cold: So cold that even our native-born tour guide shivered. “We pass our year in two ways here in Russia,” he’d told us on the coach that brought us here. “Nine months of anticipation followed by three months of disappointment!” Then the coach stopped and out we all got, while a three-man combo of Russian men in Brezhnev-style hats played highly whimsical renditions of God Save the Queen, the Battle Hymn of the Republic and When the Saints Go Marching in.

Thus we did that: We went marching in, filing like school children past kiosks full of winter clothes, which I was delighted to come upon, since 50 yarsd into out trek, the stems of my earrings were carrying the cold straight into my bloodstream via the tender mussel-like lobes of my ears.

I bought this red stretchy ‘ring of bunny-fur for a mere 341 rubles – or six bucks.

by the bay of Finland

After the palace tour, our own small party of four decided to walk all the way to the property’s edge where a stiff wind straight off the Gulf of Finland parted and re-parted our hair for us.

Still there was great beauty both inside and out: a world of gold if you like gold, and fountains shooting off at regular intervals. Here’s another chilly gold guy at a different part of the fountain:


We’d been turned loose on the grounds, see, literally driven out of the palace in point of fact for a chilly 90 minutes. Then, just near the end of that hour-and-a-half, the sky turned the color you see here and a fine stinging rain gave us all facials.

St. Petersburg weather

It was great though, of course it was great. It was the Day Three of our Russian tour, and our final day in the environs of St. Petersburg, the haunted city known called Leningrad during the Soviet years.

On Foreign Soil

I’ve always thought I’d like to go to Russia, to visit the famous Hermitage, and walk where czars walked, and contemplate the mysteries of an entirely unfamiliar alphabet….

And now here I am in St. Petersburg which seems a lot like Venice in that it consists of so many islands. I should say that WE, meaning my mate and I and two good friends are in St. Petersburg where, just at present, the thermometer stands at 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Where snow sifted down from the sky when the ballet got out last night.

That fact alone felt unfamiliar: that and the fact the sun could still be shining this brightly at half-past nine at night. See?


It almost feels mythical, this St. Petersburg, where first snow and then a stinging sideways hail could be seen collecting on the shoulders of my ill-chosen wardrobe.

A man I assumed to be a veteran stood, one leg of his trousers pinned up to reveal his missing limb, outside the amazing Catherine Palace. He was hoping to sell us a picture of the lady of the house herself, Catherine the First, who, in the official 1810 portraiture, bears a strong resemblance to Danny DeVito in the Taxi years.

I saw a lot on our first day here, not just the on-legged vet but also apartment buildings of a decided bleakness, like this fully tenanted one, half fixed up and half not.


Later that morning I saw stunning old statuary, like these two guys with their impressive six-packs outside the world-famous Hermitage Museum.


Art celebrates nature and that much is for sure – both Youthful Nature, like this woman supporting this guy lounging around with his hand on his hip…


…and also Nature in Decay, like the mummy I stood by for a long time, free at last of all his Ace bandages and naked as an unwrapped present. He looked like a slice of overcooked bacon grinning with his 3,000-year-old teeth.

I have much to learn on this trip and already I know one thing is truer than true: Art outlasts nature, as this stunning bit of clockwork shows.



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Mine is a long sad tale…

Mine is a long sad tale, as the dormouse said to Alice down there in Wonderland – because this is really is my ‘tail’ here, along with a number of the little Tootsie Roll segments above my tail.

Sad, I know. 

But maybe it’s not SO sad.

I went to the doctor today for my annual checkup and on the way into the building saw a man with a grey beard and long shaggy hair lurking by the parking garage; just kind of meandering along among the idling taxis and the little open-air ‘jailhouse’ they have these days to accommodate the smokers.

This man looked to be about 60 and wore khakis, an open-neck shirt, a suit coat, and, perched atop his head, a toy fireman’s helmet. He was smoking as he ambled along and every 20 feet or so he stopped, pulled out a pint and took a long swig.

“Drinking,”I thought. “Maybe that’s what I’ll be doing an hour from now when I come out from this appointment. Maybe I’ll be taking up smoking and trotting over to the packy for a tidy pint myself.” 

Because you never knew do know what they’re going to find out at an annual checkup where the ask so many questions, like when your last period was and whether or not you take Ecstasy.

I was told that this time I didn’t have to pee in a cup and that was a nice break. However they did weigh me, dammit, and the news was way worse than it had been last year at this time. Here’s last year’s rundown:


Today I was told that  my blood pressure is113/70 and that my heart is pumping along at the rate of 65 good hard squeezes per minute, and that seemed great to me,

Some of the rest of the news was less than great: My weight is up eight pounds.

I felt happy to be able to say I run on the treadmill for 40 minutes most days and shy about admitting  I drink a glass or two of wine at night and, on weekends, sometimes take a slug or two of whiskey,

I did complain to the doc about my weight gain though, and in response she said something I misheard. Because we’re good friends by now, she looked me dead in the eye and said. “So you’re deaf now?”

“Deaf as a haddock,”  I said  with a kind of confessional relief, ,and went on to tell her how this leads to of marital dust-ups sometimes, since I always think my mate is saying these critical things to me when really he’s just asking if we have more  paper towels.

“But would you wear a hearing aid?” my doctor asked.

I sure would, I told her. “It would hardly show in my wild tangle of curls and I need the help.  I spend a lot of time young male teens and you know how they are: they’ll say a witty thing once but they won’t repeat it, especially if what they’ve said ranks high on the hilarity scale.

“All right then!”  she said and we made arrangements to have my ears tested by an ear guy.Then we made arrangement for me to have an ultrasound on account of the crazy distention of my belly. We made arrangement appointment for me to have a bone density test since for a while now  I’ve been hurtling fast down the old osteopenia highway.

The last thing I did was to pull up a picture on my phone of my poor crooked back which I didn’t even know was crooked until I went to a yoga class at the age of 50 and the teacher sorrowfully said, “Ah! I see that you have soloists.” By now even the neighborhood DOGS can tell I have scoliosis. Anyway, when she saw this image her dropped. “My god, this is the worst  curve  I’ve ever seen in a patient! You would have been 5 foot nine if you didn’t have this!”  – which made me feel pretty good since I have  a sister and a daughter, each of whom is 5’9″ and I did always feel a little “less than” around them.

We said farewell and I went off  to get the blood work  that will show this and that, my lipids,  my thyroid level, and so on and hey, couldn’t it be a worsening of my hypothyroidism that’s making my tummy stick out so? (We cling to these hopes at my stage of life.

When I walked back to the parking lot, I looked for that ambling guy with whom I now felt a distinct kinship. I didn’t see him but he’s  with me still in spirit. Sure,I have a lot of things wrong with me but as my nice doctor just said it’s mostly just wear and tear on the old jalopy. Plus, wait, I just remembered!  She also said it’s better for a woman to go into the older decades heavier rather than less heavy since the latest research now shows that women with a little meat on their bones have less of a tendency toward Alzheimer’s. And  – more good news! – she said drinking coffee appears to be also good for you, along with  having  a drink or two a night.

So there it is, on the whole a satisfactory visit. I feel pretty good. In fact I feel SO good right now I may just find my  own toy plastic fireman’s hat and plop it on those curls that I just KNOW are going to hide any hearing aids. 😉

me at MGH


Gerald and Elton and Kiki Dee

Around here everybody knows that on the night of April 18th, 1775 Paul Revere and William Dawes rode out to warn the colonials that the British were armed and marching. For decades now there have been signs all over the place saying the two passed this spot and this spot and this one. I hope they at least went through the red lights I’d always think when I saw those signs as a kid.

People who live IN Concord and Lexington do this anniversary up big. We call it Patriots Day and each year on he third Monday in April we celebrate by calling off school, shuttering scads of businesses and playing host to a little thing called the Boston Marathon.

I live only a few hills and meadows away from Concord and Lexington so I too went there one April 18th, and in the middle of the night, together with my sister Nan, my cousin Sheila and our three young husbands. It was 1975 and to kick off this big 200-year mark of America’s birth, President Ford was coming to the Old North Bridge to give a speech. The six of us wanted to see him do it and we so donned tri-cornered hats, packed a cooler of food and beer and drove to a spot by the Concord Boat House. There we spent the night, playing cards in the car and laughing and at 5am rented three canoes and paddled down the Concord River to that famous bridge – where we waited and waited and waited from a spot 100 yards distant until he finally showed up, his head a distant balding egg.

There too we saw Caroline Kennedy, sprung from Concord Academy for the day, and heard many speeches blowing across the water. (Here’s Caroline from back then, together with her mother Jackie, her grandmother Rose and her uncle Ted on the day she graduated from that fine private high school.)

It felt like the beginning of something big all right, this two-year celebration, with the reenactment of battles, the first visit of the Tall Ships  and, for many of us kids, an Elton John concert on the Fourth of July, at the stadium where the Pats still play, with Kiki Dee doing the opening act.

The longest game in professional baseball happened on this day too, played by two Triple A teams in Pawtucket RI. It lasted for 33 innings and took almost eight-and-a-half hours to finish, and that’s a nice American fact too.

But what I will always remember about this date is laughing my head off all night in a parking lot, then paddling through waters as silver as mercury in the pre-dawn light. About the year too I’ll always remember Kiki Dee doing “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” with Elton. I knew at that concert that under the hippie-style maxi-dress I wore was the little bump that would six months later become my first chid and likely end forever my days of drinking and laughing ’til sun-up. But that was fine; I was ready.

I guess I knew that life would go breakin’ my own heart, as life tends to do, but I hope I knew too that there would also be joys both loud and quiet, and bright mornings – and music to give it all a soundtrack.


Dress Up Or Dress Down?

easter finery“Innnn your Ea-ea-easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it…” Remember that song from a million years ago? Remember when we all dressed up smartly come spring, the little boys in  blazers and the little girls in sherbet-colored dresses with matching ankle socks and hats? Oh and we wore little Mary Janes too!  My sister and I would bring our new Mary Janes to our grandfather reading in the wingchair of his bedroom and he would take out his pocket knife and scratch up the soles a bit, making it harder for us to slip and go down in all our ruffled finery.

I’ll admit I miss those days, living as we do in an era air when people saunter onto airplanes wearing their pajama bottoms and clutching their bed pillows. I miss the days when we sat up straight while traveling on public conveyances. I miss the time when gloves covered the hands of many ladies, sometimes even the hands of the flight attendant. I know I wore white gloves to a job interview at age 19, just because it was spring and the dress I wore seemed to cry out for those them.

Now of course all has changed and women rarely even wear dresses – well, besides the poor young meteorologists who are made to stand in profile in skin-tight sheaths against the weather systems they’re gesturing at on the swirling screens behind them.

For the last 30 I’ve been walking around in workout wear much of the time. Get up, pull on the gym clothes and get at that workout: that was the idea. Nike built a whole logo around it.

But then, just today on Facebook, I saw a picture of a high school friend’s wife. She is slim. She is attractive. But when I clicked on the photo to make it bigger and saw the look of those under-carriage-clinging yoga pants I had my own Road to Damascus moment. I came to realize something and that something is this: The only person who go every got away with wearing such tight pants was Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie in the old Dick Van Dyke show.

Something for me to keep in mind as I sally forth in the months and years ahead.

So yesterday was Easter and for Easter I wore a crisp silk shirt, a long swingy skirt, a favorite pair of outback-looking boots and a kind of Indiana Jones fedora. I felt pretty good setting our for our relatives’ house. I felt I had risen to the occasion.

Of course it was hot yesterday.

Way hot. So hot the cheeses all puddled – AND we were out in the bright hot sun for most of the day.

Almost immediately, I tossed the hat under a table lost the boots 30 minutes later and 30 minutes after that slithered out of the pantyhose by ducking behind a tree and working fast. THEN I could really enjoy the day!

Let’s watch these two stars showing off their finery while singing that old chestnut of a song. ‘He’, Fred,  has always been an icon of male elegance and I think we can all agree that ‘her’ hat is fabulous. It’s true that when I first saw her arms I thought I’d wandered into a commercial for eczema cream, or maybe a relief-from-psoriasis one, but no. That’s no skin affliction but a pair of long pink gloves.  My expectations are that altered in the distinctly less formal world we inhabit these days. Over to you now, Judy and Fred!