Koko For President

the writer at work The Writer at Work

Koko is the gorilla who came as a baby to this special lab in California and now gets by pretty well by signing to make herself understood. I wrote about her in my syndicated newspaper column which anyone at all can see by going here or Googling my name with, say, the phrase “Brad Pitt recently spotted driving around Toontown in Roger Rabbit’s car.” (Never doubt that I am a serious person!)

Stanford-based Dr. Francine “Penny” Paterson is the one who’s done all the heavy lifting to make this happen. She wanted to see if she could be made to understand simple signing and all these years later it looks like the answer is yes.

All I know is I could look at pictures of this gorilla all day long, as of course you can also do by visiting her home page. But I think my favorite place to go is the link where you can read the talk she once had online where an audience writes in questions which Penny then puts then to Koko. Koko signed back and somebody types Penny’s description of what she is saying.

In this interview somebody asks her if she’d like to have a baby. “Pink!” she replies. “They’d been talking about colors earlier;” Penny starts to say but then Koko signs “Listen Koko loves eat.” In other words never mind some baby that isn’t even around yet. Somebody then asks what her favorite food is and she says “I like Drinks” (Smart girl!) Somebody asks what the name of her cat is and she says “Foot.” Penny says “Foot isn’t the name of your kitty” and we already know that because we know that “Foot” is what she calls all male humans. She calls female human “Lips,” which I find really cute. “Hey lips honey! Get that foot-slave over there to bring us some drinks!”

Somebody asks her if she likes people and she says “Fine Nipple,” which Penny tried to gloss over by saying that the word “people” sounds a lot like “nipple” but the truth is she was brought up on sexual harassment charges some time ago. Seems she was always trying to touch the female lab worker’s breasts and get them to show her their nipples. (Doubt me do you? Go to her page on Wikipedia and see for yourself.

“She wants a little refreshment. She just gave a little vocalization,” Penny then says and Koko says “Lips hurry good give me.” She’s got a toy alligator. “She’s playing with her alligator and her lady doll” Penny says, again narrating the action, but then “Oh My!” she exclaims, “She may be doing a little acting out here!“ Then Koko picks up a scrunchie and puts it on her head. “Fake hat that,” she signs.

Someone asks her how she feels about a worker named Michael and she says “Foot foot good.” The she says “Nipple!” again, then she somebody asks her about her ape pal Ndume and she says “Toilet!” “That’s her word for bad,” Penny explains. She is evidently mad at her pal today. “He did something that was obnoxious but I didn’t see what happened,” Penny explains.

There’s a little talk about the 70-acre preserve in Maui that the Foundation hopes to establish for Koko and Ndume and then Koko says “Fake!” again, which Penny says means it’s not happening now; it’s hypothetical; pie in the sky in other words. Then Koko has her alligator bite the lady doll and the whole thing fades to black.

I love her. And I note she’s pushing 40 now and I’m going to try to get invited to the party. Because I believe ALL us older gals ought to hang out more, just for the fun of the drinks, and the trashing of the men, and the Fake-Hat-That wigs alone.


It’s All About the O-Rings

“You should come to the gasket convention in Orlando the first week in April,” said my husband David a few months back. 

“Gaskets! What are gaskets anyway?” 

“O-rings. You know, GASKETS, things used to make a joint water- or air- or particle-tight.” 

“Come on there are no gaskets anymore, only microchips,” I said back, just to get him going. He’s in manufacturing, an industry which here America is diminishing like a cookie-tin-full of Shrinky-Dinks in a hot oven.  

“Hey don’t kid yourself, you couldn’t live without O-rings,” and if that wasn’t the language of courtship I don’t know what was, and so Yes, I said yes, I said yes, I will go with you. 

And thus do I write this in sunny central Florida, where over the heads of a cool 1,000 conventioneers, families and staff, clouds of infinitesimal bugs hover like wee guardian angels. 

This morning I spent a few hours at the kiddy pool, which I chose for the democracy of the place, the lack of all display except for the simplest display.  

“Dis is my bellybutton,” a three-year-old said to his new friend and I felt I was in Heaven itself, just being alone and looking around. There was no preening by the young and unlined, nobody worriedly studying the backside of anyone else, just me reading a story in which the main character finds herself touring Ireland as a passenger in the car her mother has to rent because the mother could drive stick. Every day she sits on what should be the driver’s side but without the steering wheel until she begins to feel like a child again and thinks, “I’m back.” 

That’s how I felt: I was back, a little kid again with just these small splashing strangers and the solitude. 

I’d had solitude at breakfast too and there swooned so deep inside myself that when afterward I stopped at a little table to dig out the apple and the yogurt that I’d tossed into my tote bag I almost tripped over my very own husband sitting and sitting having coffee with his co-worker Moe. 

“Brian didn’t come in til 1:30,” Moe was saying of a third compatriot. 

“Wait, does he make you share a room?” I asked, mostly to tease Dave a little as the president of this company they all work for. 

“Nah,” said Moe. “I couldn’t share a room with anyone anyway. Even when I got married I said to my wife, ‘Maybe we should just live together like three nights a week.’” 

“I get that. David and I are second babies; both our moms said we loved just playing alone in our cribs. I just feel safe when I’m alone. I can’t even sit with my back to a door. It’s like I was in the Mob in a former life.” 

He was looking now at my food items. “A little something for later, eh? You should’ve seen my mother in a restaurant. When she got up from the table that table was BARE. Rolls, cole slaw even: right into her bag. I do it too, a little.” 

“Sure. I’m on the road a lot myself. Take today: here’s this giant breakfast buffet and all I had of it was an egg and some toast and coffee for my $15.95.“   

“And you never know when the next service plaza is.”  

“I’ve often thought with adult diapers in my life and I could keep on driving forever. I’m grateful for good muscle control though.” 

“I’ve said it before,” my husband piped up. “We’d all be sunk without the O-Rings.”  




Shine a Light

I heard about the new Scorsese documentary on the Rolling Stones from Bryan who was my student in the 70s when I taught high school English. We’ve stayed in touch through good times and bad and now both find ourselves washed up on the same far shore where hair grows grey and waistlines expand.

Anyway he wrote me an email last week about this sensational Stones movie, saying he was going to see it at an IMAX Saturday night and he’d bought all these tickets and why didn’t David and I come see “Shine a Light” too? I knew Dave and I couldn’t go that night but like a good girl I dropped everything, looked up the film and watched the trailer which you will see here in a sec; then in my answering email told him how it affected me. I found myself strangely moved I said and he wrote right back in an email that reached me on my Blackberry while I was standing by the Conventional Broccoli section at the food store. “You’re such an English Teacher! It said “’I felt strangely moved.’ You don’t feel strangely moved by the Rolling Stones! You feel adrenaline, you get goose bumps, you feel horny, you filled with anticipation, you’re not ‘strangely moved’!

Then to add insult to injury a few minutes later he texted to say he bet I didn’t even know that Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” was directed to Mick Jagger.

“I bet I do,” I texted right back, thinking that’s givin’ it to him right between the eyes, and then when I got home and read Outlook’s copy of that first mocking email, I hit ‘Reply’ and said a little more: “Hey, my reaction is my reaction and please note I am 60, or almost 60. The Stones’ ravaged faces, the passage of time, the energy they put out despite how tired they must be… That’s all very moving to me. I don’t speak to how they affected me at 23! And also let me just note that I don’t have testosterone.”

“So you never got high and danced to the Stones?” he wrote back.

“Of course not, I was a teacher! And even before I became a teacher I was a serious person.” Heck by the time I was old enough to drink I was married. Plus we were always broke. Or always reading our books or working on lesson plans or studying or in David’s case blowing bubbles so he didn’t have to clean the closets.


Ah but I did love the Stones. My brother- in-law Toby and his partner Rusty would have these parties in their Cambridge apartment and this one night they invited the whole family, David and me and the other Marotta brothers and even their mom and we ate some sort of chicken-backs in peanut butter sauce and danced to Sympathy for the Devil. I remember that like it was yesterday. I even went and dug out this blurry picture of us from that night and emailed it as an attachment it to Bryan.


And when he opened it this darn kid who has mocked me for over 30 years and indeed even in a subtle way when he sat in the fist seat of the row that was one row in from the windows wrote back once more: “Wow is that you? I had never seen you before you had a mature, sort of professional demeanor. I guess I forget that before you were Mrs. Marotta the English teacher, you were just Terry Sheehy, a regular young girl.”

I felt grateful to him for saying that; for seeing me or trying to see me as I was and I studied the picture more myself as I am studying it again now. I see that I had heavier eyebrows then. And God I remember that dress which I bought at Filenes’ Basement for $7. That’s Rusty peeking over the counter and David’s brother Skip with the mandatory 70s-era mustache and their youngest brother Jeff with the Twelve Apostles hair. Toby must have been taking the picture and I remember that their mum was surely there that night it must be that she and David must have been off in one corner talking.

I look at it now and I go back to the top to look again at this picture of Bryan, still a hopeful boy sitting with his old car in his old back yard. I look again at me with my daring dress and my Janis Joplin hair. I look at the photos of the Stones and think how little Bryan, or I, or the Stones themselves knew what was ahead for them in the way of joy or suffering. Then I go back to the trailer for Shine a Light and I watch it again and again and again and believe me when I say that I can’t WAIT to go see this movie which I will do with Old Dave and his insane-Stones-fan Len and Len’s wife Mary the very first day it comes out. And David and I are going there directly from the airport even though we’ve been away all week and the cats are so fed up they’re rigging the place up with booby traps. Because we might be old but we’re sure enough still dancing – just a little more slowly…


And now let’s watch that trailer!

Crooked Little House

I went back to my old friend the chiropractor this week because my main doctor practically screamed when she walked around to my back to have a listen to my lungs. I had a johnnie on of course so the little keyboard of my spinal column was exposed.

“Oh! Your scoliosis is SO much WORSE!” she gasped.

See I didn’t KNOW I had scoliosis until a year or two ago. I took an exercise class in a room full of mirrors where it became clear that though what we were doing looked like Yoga’s Child’s Pose on everyone ELSE, on me it looked like a mound of ice cream slowly melting down to the left.

The good thing is nobody seems to care very much if you have scoliosis when you’re old. They do screen for it when you’re young though because it can be serious then, compressing internal organs and so on. The screening process is a mere eyeball test: the school nurse has you bend at the waist and hang your arms down toward the floor. The rib cages of straight-backed people look symmetrical side to side. The rest of us well, it’s another thing.


A website I looked at just now says a person with scoliosis might also have OTHER UNDERLYING diseases, signaled by such things as “colored markings, a hairy patch on the skin or a deformity of the foot.”

Well I HAVE colored marking on the skin but it’s because I draw on myself by mistake. My underwear too is covered with multi-colored inks. I take no notice. And hmmm, looking down at my feet here I see nothing amiss; just the vestiges of my first and only pedicure obtained on an island off the coast of Charleston SC sometime last summer but since the girl used a pearly white polish I just let it stay there, growing out as my toenails grow. Because my feet are just so far away, you know? (Hello feet! How was your Christmas? Did you do your taxes yet? )

As for the hairy patch of skin well I have to surprise that PCP with SOMETHING the next time I see her or she’ll be all out of gasps . I’m thinkin’ now a little Rogaine applied to sole of one foot. Or maybe my chin. Or how about my beautiful girlish CHEST Doc?

I’m not worried generally. I know a good tailor for the twisty clothes. And my chiropractor himself was very sweet. I just have to see him once a week for the rest of my life.

Keep Comin’

I’m skipping my Weight Watcher meeting today even though I love going. Going to Weight Watcher is like going to AA: you can fall off the wagon and skip meetings for like six months and STILL when you go back they’re nice to you.


I stayed away for one long time over the holidays so I know. In the final days of that particular binge I got to where I was standing at the open fridge drinking heavy cream straight from the carton, POURING IT ON MY ICE CREAM even, which hey don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.


I’ve been on every kind of diet because when I was a child I was pudgy. My big sister loved it when our mother put me in this certain little homemade sweater. “The Pinch Sweater” she called it because she just couldn’t NOT take between her fingers the little kielbasas that were my baby arms and squ-e-e-e-eze. Later, she settled for telling me that if I REALLY wanted to be thin I should peel down a stick of butter every day and eat it like a banana.


Strange, right? But the actual weight-loss regimens I began following a short decade later weren’t much less strange. I did the Grapefruit Diet in high school which was punitive but what could I do? I was getting so I looked like the late Anna Nicole Smith at her chubbiest. Only not blonde of course. Only not, you know, pretty in any way.


Then in the college years they were serving us Yorkshire pudding and hot fudge sundaes every time you turned around so I really packed on the pounds and the next thing I knew it was real-world time and I began teaching high school and believe me you don’t want to be feeling vulnerable about your appearance with 200 teenagers a day studying you instead of their books which is what they do during class time. I remember the September day my fifth period class filed in for the first time. “She’s fa-a-a-t,” one girl mouthed to another, a look of glee on her face.


It was at that point that I joined Weight Watcher and went from 155 lbs to 130. Then seven years later I started having babies and soon my rear end looked like a big old sanitation truck lumbering down the street. This time I tried the Scarsdale Diet which on Day Three makes the inside of your head start buzzing. The pounds come off but they only stay off for like a week and a half after you stop. THEN, lucky for me, an au pair came to live with us, started going to Weight Watcher, dropped 60 big ones and looked so changed when she flew back to Austria at the end of her year with us that her very parents walked right past her at the airport. With her inspiration – and may we say her special Weight Watcher recipes – the fat fell off these little bones of mine and I went down to 118 and looked like Flat Stanley.


Life being what it is of course I inched up again during my 40s and so Zone-dieted. And so Suzanne Somered. And so I did everything but slap at my thighs with leather belts – oh but wait I DID that too back in the 70s at a salon-like weight-loss emporium called Gloria Stevens which was ALL ABOUT leather belts and jiggling machines.


But finally finally FINALLY a year ago I went back to Weight Watcher where they’re so sensible they TURN YOU AWAY if they think you don’t need them, which is why I stuffed little two- and three-pound weights into my pants the first time I went there, the idea being I could start high enough for ‘admission’ and then kinda progress no matter what heh heh, take a weight out here this week, take a weight out there next week and get praised at the weigh-in!


And sure it made me walk a little funny but I had to do it since you might look at me and SAY I’m not overweight. Maybe you Weight Watcher police really might NOT have let me join but hey, I’ll say hey, I’ll say hey again: you guys don’t see my in my underpants.


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All week what a sad grumpy girl I was. The day I stopped in at the frame shop the nice man there told me “Happy Easter” when we got done with our business. Oh I’m not much on Easter I said back nobody seems to care about Easter anymore except to give their kids two-foot-tall Easter baskets filled with crap, and anyway it’s too early, the ground looks like a dry old scab….. Not that I have anything against Jesus, I’m actually I’m a fan of Jesus! “I’ll be sure to tell him that next time I see him,” came his mild retort.

What a burden I often am to myself. It’s like having this embarrassing relative around all the time only I’m him. Her. She. I’m the relative.

I cheered up by degrees as the week went on. Sitting in the cemetery in the rain Wednesday night helped some since I do love a cemetery. Then I went to the  Holy Thursday Service that I hadn’t been to in like million years and I’d forgotten how it moves me to see the way the church gets darker and darker the deeper into the readings we go with Judas nervously fingering his prayer beads and the fellas telling Jesus how they’re with him all the way Man only then they’re all passed out and it’s the big moment when the soldier gets his ear cut off and Jesus sticks it back on and then the scene with Peter saying he didn’t know him when somebody asked him after the arrest. I tried that once when my doctor told me I had to find out what my father died of. “Nah,” I said. “I don’t have to really. I mean I didn’t even know the guy!” Which I thought was pretty funny though the doctor didn’t. he STILL made me go digging back 50 years through a world of painful old papers until I finally did find a copy of the death certificate which some saint sent to my mom when he died in ’73 not having laid eyed on her since the day I was born. I liked saying that I didn’t even know the guy. It felt good to deny him. “You did it to me,” I remember thinking at the time.

And then Good Friday and I went to my favorite little pond and looked out at the water and the wind was so strong it was refreezing the wave as they splashed against the overhanging twigs and breaches, making this kind of beaded fringe like you used to see on lampshades in the 1920s and 1930s and the fringe clicked as the wind blew and I kept falling sleep trying to read my book about the Civil War dead and how nobody thought to mark the poor soldier’s uniforms with their names and there were no ambulances or hearses, no system for carrying away the wounded or burying the dead. (Cheerful reading I know.)

And then yesterday we had the wind again but a crazy bright sun too and I bought enough flowers for a mobster’s funeral and brought then home and mad ea giant mess in the kitchen with the vases and the stems and the scissors and the greens . A mess! But I began to get really happy and then I made a salad with cumin and artichoke hearts and these really fat oranges, and then we went out and saw a production of The Tempest and I cried when the mean old bastard of a brother who years before snatched the Dukedom away from the rightful ruler Prospero and then washes up on Prospero’s island ha HA after the big storm that Prospero made using his magic…. When he sees his boy and realizes he hadn’t drowned but was actually just fine and more than fine because here he is sitting cozily with this lovely girl Prospero’s daughter and he weeps with joy and is a mean old bastard no longer……

And then it was today. Then it was Easter Sunday and our little boy cat who was hours from death just 20 days back sashayed into our bedroom and hopped light and quick the tub edge while I was in the bath and I saw that his sutures were clean gone and the wound was healed and he looked at me with his bright green eyes and lifted his chin as of to say Hey momma and I just started to smile and my smile got wider and wider and wider and wider as the day went on and we got all dressed and went to church and had a meal together and the sun shone down all day.



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The Rain It Raineth Every Day

Today I gave a talk to 30 lovely church women at the venerable old First Baptist Church of Lexington MA and the weather was again terrible only this time it was raining little needles and the day had dawned snowy so the walking was awful.

But the second I walked into the basement of that old church I felt happy.

Church basements all have that same great smell and the Sunday school rooms looked so dear with their wee tables and chairs and some old hooked rugs and bright yellow walls.

When I found the main gathering place the ladies were just tucking into a hot lunch that one of them had put together all on her own: pans of ravioli with sausage and broccoli; Caesar salad; baskets of bread; and home-made carrot cake. I had said I wouldn’t eat the latter but it smelled so much like childhood and a school cafeteria I thought How can I not? and so sat down.

I was the only outsider of course and they did the nicest thing they could have done while smiling warmly at me from time to time: they went on with their regular conversations which let me see right into their lives. This one was having trouble with her dog. That one was going crazy because her husband is always saying she doesn’t talk loud enough. A third one leans forward to say that she was born in this town made famous by a Revolution and still lives on what remains of the family farm. Her mother, in her late 90s, lives there too.

She and the woman beside her described exactly how this town still seemed even just 60 or 70 years ago: pastoral. Quiet. Like the farm town it was before 1775.

The talk and the rain outside took me back I think and when it was time for me to rise and talk for 40 minutes I talked about that past too and these great women laughed and sighed and remembered back too.

I told them what was next for me; how three hours after I got done with them I would be unpacking a picnic in a cemetery as night fell. The picnic was my romantic notion and I’d invited to it a lady 60 and a lady 80.

I’m writing this at 3pm. I have made a beef stew and a salad of Boston lettuce with almonds and berries for this picnic. I have sourdough bread and some cookies, wee little oranges and two kinds of wine, a straw picnic basket and some elegant stemware, fresh-brewed coffee and two thermoses that between them cost 50 whole bucks because they’re guaranteed to keep hot things hot for 24 hours.

We’ll see I guess. But the cemetery we are going to is Mt. Auburn, such a beautiful place rain or shine that  I’ve been thinking lately it’s the place where my man and I will one day go for keeps,  where all day and all night we can look up at its wonderful trees and imagine that we too can still feel the rain on our faces, steely-needled or soft, and the snow when it snows and the strengthening vernal sun.