Weary Pilgrim - What to Watch at the Movies, Part 2 - January 2015

Weary Pilgrim – at the Movies, Pt. 2

So while we’re all in a movie-going mood, here are my takes on some more films playing at your local theater – and don’t forget your local video store – films go to DVD much quicker than they did a few years ago, and your popcorn tastes better.

Inherent Vice – set in the 70’s, this is the first film lifted from a book by Thomas Pynchon, and you can see why nobody ever tried that before. It stars a whole lot of people, with a plot that has more twists than a double-jointed pretzel ( which is how these people talk in this excuse for a real movie ). Everybody is stoned all the time, they mumble a lot, and they all act like people we don’t really want to care about – mostly it makes you really glad we left that whole decade behind.

Selma – you know what? This is the best film I’ve seen this year. I didn’t think I needed another history lesson in the race war, and with another cameo from Oprah, to boot. But this movie rings true on so many levels, it rises above the preachiness that comes with any movie that portrays another story of mean white people beating up on black people. So why does this one work? My take on it is that it’s long on fact and short on melodrama.  M.L.King forces L.B.J.’s hand by simply out-politicking him. And by being right. Don’t miss it.

Unbroken – It’s always better when a director acts - think Sidney Pollack  in Tootsie - than when an actor directs – think Angelina Jolie in this.  I loved the book, but this is basically a good TV movie released for the big screen.  Like anyone who read the book, I couldn’t put it down, but in watching the film version I found myself checking my watch about halfway through.  I wish it were better, I really do.

Still Alice – Julianne Moore as a successful college professor who realizes she is undergoing the onset of early Alzheimers, and decides to deal with it.  Serviceable efforts by all concerned, including Alec Baldwin as her well-meaning husband,. It will scare the heck out of you if you’re over 45. But this film isn’t as moving as another film with this same message a few years ago, called ‘Away From Her’ with Julie Christie. Go to your local video store and rent that instead.

Most Violent Year – Directed by a young guy named J.C. Chandor who has done a couple of other decent films, this is a mesmerizing glimpse into the life of a New Jersey businessman in the oil home-heating business in the early 1980’s. It only sounds boring – someone is trying to ruin this guy’s life by hijacking his trucks, he owes somebody a lot of money, and he is just trying to keep his head above water without resorting to wholesale violence in what was termed the most violent year in the history of greater NYC.  The title isn’t the only catchy thing about this movie – Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain do good work as a couple just trying to get ahead with hard work, blind ambition, and sheer persistence.

Interstellar – Chris Nolan broke out of the starting gate years ago with Momento ( go back to the video store for this ), followed up with a couple of Batman movies, and then did Inception, a movie with no real plot but great eye candy. Interstellar is a Hershey factory of eye candy, and even makes a kind of sense, at least if, like me,  you only got a C in physics. The plot is simple: earth is dying ( spoiler alert! Too late?) , and Matthew McConaughey is going to help us find a new place to ruin. You won’t be checking your watch during it, I promise you.

Nightcrawler – This is a year when a surprising number of decent films are about people who give you the creeps, and this one is no exception. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a loser who become an instant winner by photographing crime scenes for local news shows. ‘When you stick to what you’re good at, good things come to you’, as the saying goes, and Gyllenhaal’s character is really, really good at taking creepy pictures. What this movie  says about our fascination with TV real-life tragedy would be pretty funny if it weren’t so damned sad.

Gone Girl – I am apparently the only person in the free world who hasn’t read the book, so I looked forward to the plot of this blockbuster. And it didn’t disappoint me – but if you already know the story, I’m not sure this one is worth the ride. There was a point when I was sure it was over, and then it kept going. And going. Makes you miss the days when a movie was too long if it timed out at one hour and thirty one minutes.

The Hobbit, Part Eleventeen – Kind of like Gone Girl, but with more dwarfs.  As in, too long, I already read the book, what’s the real point of a movie like this, and one more time, too long. This had more false endings than my first date. Good eye candy, but my sweet tooth for Computer Graphics is turning into an allergy to dragon fire, mass battle scenes, and deafening sound effects. It’s all a bit too much, really.

In closing, this year’s crop seems to feature a lot of characters who are extremely dysfunctional. I wonder if the movie-makers identify with them more closely, or if they just think that we do?  

updated 1 month ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim - What to Watch at the Movies, Part 1 - December 2014

Weary Pilgrim – What To Watch, part 1

As I am fond of observing, Hollywood likes to hold most of their quality films till what is known as academy season, on the theory that the 6000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have zero chance of remembering anything before, say, last week. Basically, any film can qualify by playing for a week in both New York and LA – therefore some films get this so-called ‘academy release’ and then get yanked form the theaters, only to reappear early in the year.

So here’s a snapshot of films I’ve seen and survived this season. My feeling is, reviews can often serve little purpose – they either tell you too much or too little – and any critic who spoils a movie should be condemned to watching the Worst of Ballywood for a season or two. Roger Ebert used to give away the endings to films he reviewed, and the pain on Gene Siskel’s face was impossible to bear. Speaking of Roger Ebert, ‘Life Itself’, a movie about him, is a favorite to make the cut for best documentary, along with ‘Citizenfour’ a film about Edward Snowden – I’ll try and see both soon and let you know what I think.

So, in the hopes of saving you money, or making sure you see the ‘right’ films before somebody at the water cooler blurts out an ending to one of these, here’s a glimpse of what I think is worth watching in the next few weeks:

‘Imitation Game’ – Alan Turing basically invented the computer while he was busy cracking the Enigma code with the help of some cronies in WWII England. Benedict Cumberbatch is just plain fun to watch, and the story takes a few bends away from the truth, but it gets most of the important things right – especially the shameful way in which the Man Who Won the War was treated afterward.  Gonna get a best picture nomination, and be the one to beat for Best Actor. And it’s fun.

“Birdman” – Wow. Pretty much just plain Wow. The film to beat in the Golden Globes ( because a few hundred poncing journalists love this kind of stuff ), but not the front runner in the Oscars – just too out there for Hollywood. But if you don’t mind suspending reality while you watch some great actors take on The Theater, have at it. It’s like Chekov dumbing down for a high school skit, put on by people who know what they’re doing. It’s jaw-dropping, but not really profound.

“Whiplash” – one of my fave films this year. It’s about a young man learning how to be a jazz drummer while being tormented by a Marine Corp drill instructor who somehow escaped into this film.  It could have been about soccer or quilt-making, or debating – because it’s really about learning and frustration. And J. K. Simmons as the teacher is pretty much a lock for Best Supporting Actor. Bring a pillow for your jaw, because it’s going to hit the floor a lot.

“Boyhood’ – Richard Linklater directed this film with Ethan Hawke producing and acting, over a 12 year period. It takes 2 ½ hours, and honestly, there isn’t all that much story – it’s kinda like real life, with just enough drama to remind us of our own lives. This is a crowd favorite, for the simple reason 12 years of effort has to pay off – for one thing, right in front of your very eyes you get to watch someone grow up, with his sister, mom, and divorced dad by his side. This will be nominated for Best Picture and a bunch of other things – you should see this, because I’m not sure anyone will ever do this again.

‘Fury’ – WWII again, this time following a tank commander in the last few days of the war. I saw it twice, but you only need to see it once. It’s always easy to criticize a war film, if only because it has to take place in two hours, not two years, and boredom isn’t any fun to portray. Terror and Glory are, though, and that’s wby you want to see this. Action galore, and isn’t that why some of us go to the movies?

‘American Sniper’ – this time the war is in Iraq – Clint Eastwood directs a movie about the most decorated sniper in the history if the American Military, Chris Kyle. Anderson Cooper gained 40 pounds of beefcake, and shed about 40% of his acting repertoire to make a film about a man who showed very little of himself except through his actions. It’s not a great film, but it is about an extraordinary man.

‘Foxcatcher’ – Steve Carrell will get nominated for his amazing role as John DuPont, a wealthy wrestling fan who managed to buy himself a team training for the Olympics – this is apparently very true to the underlying tale of a man obsessed with his own ego, and those around him who choose to ignore his unraveling.  You can’t take your eyes off of Carrell’s fake nose- neither can you look away from the horror that what little you have heard about this true tale is actually accurate. It’s like watching a slow train wreck you have read about. Not a great film, but once again, a great story.

‘Chef’ – this is available on demand, and it’s in the Oscar hunt for the simple reason it’s terrific. No crime, no graphic sex, none of that stuff – instead you get a story about a guy who loves to cook and hang out with his son. What separates it from the kind of Disney fluff you and I like to avoid is that there is an honest element of love and caring running through it from stem to stern. I haven’t met anybody that didn’t love this film.

‘The Judge’ – in some ways an old-fashioned movie, with two great actors hamming it up every step of the way. Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall go head to head., in a story about a strong but fading country judge who has to depend on the city-slicker smooth-talking lawyer of a son he despises. The thing that makes this film work is that the ending is surprisingly realistic, on top of which this is one of those rare films that seems to get better as it goes along.

‘Cavalry’ – an oddball of an Irish film starring Brendan Gleason – who in my opinion is a free ride in any film he does. About a priest who hears a man in the confessional promise to kill him. He thinks he knows the man on the other side of the screen, but also isn’t sure if he can discuss it with anyone. We meet a curious cast of townspeople during the week leading up to the promised act, and nobody acts normal – except for the priest who basically decides to ignore the whole thing in pursuit of his chosen calling. Sound confusing? Yup, but somehow it still works, right up to the one ending I didn’t see coming.

“The Homesman’ – The other purpose of a reviewer is to spare everyone a bad experience, and some movies just aren’t going to work for pretty much everybody. Tommy Lee Jones directed this strange western about a woman  ( played by Hilary Swank ) who enlists the help of a geezer played by Tommy Lee to bring some insane women back to civilization.  Don’t bother – no, really. Don’t do this to yourself. Watching a bunch of talented actors try to make sense out of a stupid story while being ‘important’ can ruin an evening. Watch re-runs of the Wire or Friday Night Lights instead.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story in a few weeks – meanwhile, enjoy the movies for what they are, this country’s greatest export, a portal into other lives, and a reflection of our own – and a couple of hours of pure fun you richly deserve.


updated 1 month ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim -  Dear Santa - December 2014

Weary Pilgrim   -   Dear Santa:

Santa: I now realize that last year’s request for a place in the Celtic’s starting lineup may have been over-reaching a bit ( in fact, they never even called ), so I’ve scaled things back a bit this year.  Here goes:

-I would really like Congress and the President to get along. Okay, okay, I’m pulling your leg – made you look! Compared to that, everything I really want is a piece of cake.

-I want this Cuba thing to work out. I know the Castro’s are a couple of silly politicians masquerading as regular Joe’s, but the people of Cuba don’t deserve the brunt of a cruel policy that isn’t getting anybody anything good. For one thing, it sure hasn’t worked. For another, since the Soviets bugged out in 1991, how much of a threat have they posed to us? For the record, I don’t smoke cigars or drink rum, so basically my interest in this matter is limited to assuaging the guilt I get watching a bully (us) hold a grudge against the little guy ( them) for reasons I can’t actually remember.  If my Dad can forgive the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn, I say we can forgive the Cubans for whatever a bunch of ex-Cuban geezers in Miami think they did.  Also, Santa, can I please have the first MacDonald’s franchise in Havana?

-I want to see The Interview. I had no intention of seeing the movie before last week, as I tend to avoid movies where the butt jokes outnumber the gunshots.  But I don’t like anybody telling me what I can and can’t watch, especially some flea-bitten-third-world-fascist–run-by-a-little-fat-boy Empire.  If it ever comes to the local movie house, I’m in.

-I want to get a grip on this Police-as-the-Enemy thing.  For one thing, they’re not.
Secondly, if everybody thinks we’re going to start putting police in jail for errors in judgment, we’re going to have a small problem getting the kind of people we admire to apply for police jobs. Yes, we need better training for police ( and for just about any job that consists of 90% boredom and 10% stress ), and yes, no one is above the law, including , and especially, the police. But if we believe that police arrest, hassle, and assault black people in a ratio outside what the population would suggest, why do we think that this racism is limited to police? In 1969 I spent four months as the only white student in a black college in South Carolina, and trust me, we are all racist in many ways. Job one is admitting that. While we deal with that and all that follows it, we need the police to protect us all, and putting them in fear of losing their freedom isn’t going to make them do their job any better.

-I want to see Brady play another Super Bowl. For openers, as the clock ticks down in every championship game, you gotta love the look on Belichek’s face – he always looks like he’s trying to remember where he left his car keys – meanwhile the other coach looks like he’s trying to defuse a nuclear warhead. For sheer cool, you can’t beat the Pats. Just one more, Santa, please.

In closing, I would like to say that I think this whole nice/naughty thing is unfair and exclusionary. Unless you think I’m nice, in which case, congratulations on your superior judgment of character.  Happy New Year too! The Weary Pilgrim

updated 1 month ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim -  After Long Absence - October 2014

Weary Pilgrim - After Long Absence

First of all, what say we all agree on one thing: it was a spectacular summer. Granted, it followed the absolute worst-without-exception winter we can remember, so there’s some kind of karmic backlash-frontlash thing going on there, but hey, the sun just kept on shining, it had plenty of Camelot rain ( after sundown ),  the stock market  had a rocket tied to its tail, and everybody seemed healthy, wealthy, and wise enough to be thankful about it all.

Exit summer, entrance autumn. Spectacular foliage this year – winter is indeed the price we pay for fall. And the word ‘fall’ says it all. The market still has a rocket on it, it’s just pointed in the other direction. Why? Well, never mind the mess in Europe and Asia, I think basically we lack confidence in the people we are paying to run things.  Given the fact that the easiest way to get into the White House appears to be scaling the fence, and the easiest way to outrun Ebola is by flying to Cleveland, you really have to ask yourselves, “Who’s minding the store?”  The Clown Patrol currently known as Congress are intent on blaming each other, the President, and the Muslims for every little thing gone wrong.  The concept of a clean broom policy is suddenly attractive.

Speaking of electing new folks to the Beltway, a word or two on the race for our Sixth District: Seth Moulton ( full disclosure here: he used to house-sit for me, and lets me use his boat ) is running against Richard Tisei, and it’s a close one.  I don’t know Richard Tisei, but he is very well thought of by some people I admire,  he is a Republican moderate ( read: unicorn ), and I hope he is the future of the Republican party.  

On the subject of Seth Moulton, I have a pet peeve I would like to air. Bear with me a moment: Seth is a tall, rugged-looking chap, the guy went to Andover ( fabulous grades ), Harvard ( again, fabulous grades – he even gave the commencement address for his class ), did four tours of duty Over There, came back and then got a double master at Harvard in Public Policy and Business, where his main advisor was none other than David Gergen, who is one of these smart guys who is actually smart. The Globe recently ran an article disclosing that Seth got a Bronze Star and basically forgot to mention it to people – I know him really well, and the first I heard of it is when I read it in the Globe.

Given all this, on behalf of the men of the world, I would like to point out that Seth owes it to the rest of us to be a real jerk. I mean, it’s the least he can do, right? And here’s the rub – he’s a great guy.  Really, the guy is okay. When I think about it, it really ticks me off. Where’s the justice in that? The least we can do is send him to the leper colony known as Washington D.C. If that isn’t punishment for his sins, I don’t know what is.

As I write this, only one person has died in the US of Ebola – since the end of summer, over five hundred people a week have died in traffic accidents, and a similar number of people in the US have died every week as a result of firearms. And yet this idea of the evil genie of Ebola escaping the bottle and rampaging among us is captivating our attention, not the least reason of which is that the CDCC is apparently run by people who could screw up a bake sale.  It’s like one of those creepy horror films where we are trapped in a dormitory with a serial killer, and we hope the cops get here in time. And you know who the cops are? The private sector drug companies, who are racing furiously to develop a vaccine. As a citizen who has recently signed up for Medicare, I’m glad I checked the prescription box – because something tells me when that vaccine arrives, it ain’t gonna be cheap. But I’ll breathe a sigh of relief when it shows up. Ditto for those who signed up for Obama Care,  ( or in our case,  Romney Care ). This is how the pubic sector/private sector duet is supposed to work. The private sector develops the drugs, and then the public sector makes sure the citizens can afford it.  

I think the Ebola nightmare is going to have a secondary and immediate effect in the upcoming elections. When people get into the voting booth, a lot of those who were on the fence are going to look at the candidates, and vote Republican, for the simple reason our current president is screwing up the Ebola mess in a very public way. It’s silly to think that the problem is one of his causing, but he’s an easy target, and as a result of our loss of confidence in him, the Republicans are going to take the Senate. If you think the last several years were Gridlock Hell, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. And Nothin’ is exactly what you are going to see for the next two years. Zip, Doo-doo and Squat will be the secret passwords in Washington.

So where does this leave us? Up that old familiar creek in a stone canoe without a paddle, reaching up, touching bottom, sinking like a stone? Nope – not as long as we can vote, I say. So go out there in a couple of weeks and cast your ballot – it’s one of the coolest things you can do standing up. We get the government we deserve. And we deserve better.

updated 1 month ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim - Indian Winter - May 2014

Weary Pilgrim - Indian Winter

I keep putting my turtlenecks into a storage closet for the summer, only to trudge back in there and haul one out every week or two. Why can’t climate change mean 70 degrees and sunny all the time? In the hopes of banishing this nasty, brutish and long streak of gray, windy, and dreary drizzle, let’s all hold a pity party for ourselves. We’ll get all our really bad feelings out and hold them up for all the world to see, and then we can put them away for what may turn out to be the best summer of our lives. See, I feel better already.

First, let’s talk about the Russki’s. A friend sent me the following joke:

Vladimir Putin is pacing around the Kremlin at 3am one night when the ghost of Stalin appears to him.  Stalin says to Putin "What's bothering you?'  Putin answers 'I want to be remembered as a giant in Russian history like you are, but I don't know what to do.'  Stalin laughs and says 'That's easy.  First, you have to paint the Kremlin blue.  Then you have to poison everybody close to you, including your wife and children.'  Putin ponders this for a long moment, then says 'Why blue?’

To understand Putin further, I think you need to rewind the clock a bit and recall the bizarre episode of sport’s skullduggery when Robert Kraft punked out the entire city of Hartford, Connecticut. In 1999 Kraft was looking for a new stadium deal. Massachusetts was playing hard-to-get, so Kraft signed an agreement with the city of Hartford and the state of Connecticut to move the Patriots there. The deal included a 100 million dollar stadium for Kraft. Free. Connecticut went nuts - finally a pro sports team of their own. The powers-that-used-to-be in Massachusetts went through a change of heart - they offered the Pats a 72 million dollar advance allied with the balance of financing necessary to build what became known as Gilette Stadium - the Krafts availed themselves of a last-minute ‘out’ clause with Hartford, received a new stadium in Foxboro that was essentially free, and established themselves as premier players in the world of ‘gotcha’ and ‘last man standing and not in prison wins’ acceptable business practices.

So fast forward to 2005. Robert Kraft is visiting Putin in Russia. Putin professes to admire Kraft’s Super Bowl ring, Kraft lets him put it on, and Putin turns around and walks out. With the ring. Which he kept. Kraft claims the White House later urged him to tell everyone the ring was actually a gift, this to avoid embarrassment. Embarrassment to whom is a subject much debated.

Not by me. Putin made Kraft his punk. I bet he takes that ring out every night, and does a Golum on it. ‘Precious’ indeed. If Kraft can make a fool of an entire state, Putin is using Kraft for a tackling dummy. Once the game starts, he intends to make fools of us all.

How? We are sick of sending our young men and women off to fight ill-considered battles in dreary corners of the world. For about thirty seconds of chuckles when Saddam Hussein fell, we have been visited with many, many years of misery trying to figure out how to deal with the governments and peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week’s news about the sufferings of our Veterans reminds us that the cost of these wars is never-ending. And I’m not even talking about the dollars cost. Which our grandchildren really don’t want to pay.

Putin knows this. He knows that we just don’t want to send our boys and girls there to defend a government we haven’t given three figs about for the last thirty years. And I’ll ask you again - who can remember what the hell NATO even stands for?

There is an even more uncomfortable reason we would like to sweep this whole Ukraine thing under the rug. The Baby-boomers have been waiting to retire for a while now - the crash of ’08 put a lot of things off.  If we think the market might tank because of a war in Ukraine, how brave are we going to be in standing up to a man who prides himself on being a thief who insists on posing with his shirt off? We might despise him, but does that mean we have to throw our next generation into harm’s way just to defend a country most of us know little about? At this point most of us are not too thrilled about letting this weasel have his way, but that’s what we are doing.

Simply put, we have too many jerks to get this bent out of shape about any one. So far.

In other news, Barbara Walters is retiring. Again. I find this remarkable because, by a curious twist of fate,  I performed on the Today Show for Barbara Walters’ last appearance on that show, which was in fact referred to as her retirement show. In 1976. That would be 38 years ago.

( It was the Bicentennial Year, they were shooting on the Boston Common, and Jeanie Stahl and I got the call to show up and add a little local flavor - we basically just stood there and sang a lot ). I mention this because I kept thinking she HAD retired, and this woman on the air all these years was, like, her daughter. Or Grand-daughter.

I think maybe at some point the producers of the networks called the spaceship and said, “Keep Barbara.  This clone is getting better ratings than she ever had - and her batteries are AMAZING. “  

I just hope Putin doesn’t get the name of her plastic surgeon. I’m looking for this guy to self-destruct in a few years, and if she starts sharing her secrets with him, he’ll be in re-runs forever.

I would also like to point out that, when I started writing this, it was windy, gray,  and about 40 outside. As of this paragraph, it’s 75 and sunny, and yes, it’s the same day I started.

I wish to take full credit for this. You can thank me later.




updated 1 month ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim - March - 2014

Weary Pilgrim -  March


I don’t know about you, but I find March frustrating. The third month of the year, March is to the year as 5AM is to the day - it’s dark, tiring, there’s not a whole lot really going on, and pretty much all you can think of is the coming daylight. The way I look at it, March is ‘black as the pit from pole to pole’, April is brown, and May…..May, thank God, is green.

And Boy, oh Boy, this year is no exception. The Winter Without End, the Russians, Flight 370, spring training for the Red Sox without Jacob Ellsbury, spring training for the Yankees WITH Jacob Ellsbury, …..it doesn’t take a lot of explaining to figure out why the greatest betting event in the history of the world is a bunch of unpaid college athletes throwing a round ball through a hoop. March Madness indeed.

First the weather. Depending on who you quote, this is the snowiest, coldest, or third most snowy, or second coldest winter ever…..well, you get the idea.  

So feel free to quote me: this was the suckiest winter ever. Period. Every time I check the paper, it’s going to be fifty degrees the day after tomorrow. But the day after that it’s going to go back down to 29, with the possibility of snow. When they do a pledge drive on WBUR, they like to offer the Eton Calamity radio, which has a solar powered cell charger, and a crank handle for those days after The End of the World when the sun doesn’t come out, so you can get a cramp in your arm cranking the damned thing, scanning the airwaves for some sign of life. I own, like, three of these things. And every March I get the urge to buy another one, because, face it, if the world is going to end, it’s going to end in March. I can just see me now, in the shadow of a mushroom cloud, cranking away, turning the dial furiously through the FM band - in comes a faint signal I can just make out: it’s a broadcast from Yankee Stadium, and Jacob Ellsbury has just hit a rocket in the bottom of the ninth for a walk-off homer against the Red Sox.  My arm gives out, I drop the radio into ocean, my pooch starts looking at me like the Last Supper…..boy, see what happens when you wake up at 3AM in March?

And then we have the Russians and Crimea. Before this, the only thing I remember about Crimea was that it was the place made famous by the Charge of the Light Brigade, which lead to a real cool poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which was about a really UNCOOL move by a bunch of British cavalry. Basically, some fool sent the order to charge the wrong cannons, and the British being British, they were okay with that. Like I said, it made for a good poem.

So now we have a country, Ukraine,  where the excesses of your basic really bad and corrupt president finally ticked off enough people so that they overran the presidential palace, and the Bad Guy went to Russia, where we are pretty much used to Bad Guys going. After all, it’s run by Vlad ( The Appaller ) Putin. The first thing I think of when I see a picture of Putin is, couldn’t Central Casting send down a Russian president who doesn’t remind me of all the other Russian presidents? I keep waiting for him to start banging things with his shoe. The guy must practice that whole Thousand Yard Stare thing in the mirror - you get the feeling if he had a band, they would rehearse in the Lubyanka.

And how about those pictures? Him on a horse with his shirt off, him beside a large ferocious cat he just shot. With his shirt off.  Bear in mind, this guy didn’t get his picture taken by some paparazzi - he actually posed for these pictures.  If Obama posed on a horse with his shirt on, he would be reviled. If he posed with his shirt off, he would be impeached. If he shot anything, and I do mean anything, shirt on or shirt off, he would be shot in turn. ( This applies to all sitting presidents, but not vice-presidents, who are allowed to shoot their friends in the face ).

Obama truly can’t catch a break. Mind you, he is his own worst enemy. After the Republicans spent a zillion hours and dollars trying to put down Obama care, they found out they could have been taking a long nap, as Obama was doing his level best to ruin it all by himself. My sense of the Republicans is that they are secretly pleased that Obama gets to be in office when Putin takes over Crimea, because the fact is, there’s not a whole lot we’re going to do about it. The day we announced sanctions, the Russian stock market went up. Putin can chat all day with Obama, but I get the distinct feeling that he’s going to do whatever he wants. He is more popular than ever in Russia, and the man knows how to play to his home crowd.

Bear in mind that Putin is the head of a country that gave us words like Pogrom and Gulag. If you have to be slightly nuts to run for president of the Free World, how crazy do you have to be to run for president of a country that had its first semi-legal president just after they shot their czar? The last olympics cost 50 billion dollars, more than all the other olympics put together, and nobody wasted time pretending that most of that didn’t go into the pockets of Putin and his friends. So what exactly goes through Obama’s mind when he is talking to Putin: I can’t believe I’m talking to a guy who throws his competitors in prison, brazenly steals millions of dollars without blinking, and once stole a Super Bowl ring in full view of the entire world - I wonder if he has his shirt on? And what goes through Putin’s mind: I could take this punk - just look at his jeans?

Obama, on the other hand, is starting to act like a petulant kid who really doesn’t play well with others. There’s no doubt that he’s a brilliant guy, and this whole ‘Mom-jeans’ thing is one more meaningless prank by Fox news to highlight his weaknesses. The fact of the matter is, he’s probably in better physical shape than any president we’ve ever had - watch him play basketball sometime. But he’s also in worse political shape than any president we’ve had for a long time, and while some of the blame rests with the Republican party, a lot of it can be laid at the feet of the president - he doesn’t like the political game, he really doesn’t play it all that well, and right now he’s alone in the schoolyard. Congressional Republicans are circling Washington DC like buzzards, waiting to pick off the weakest Dem’s this fall - if they take both wings of Congress, Obama might as well work on his short game for the rest of his term.

The tough thing to swallow about Putin is that, like a lot of bad guys, he’s not always in the wrong, at least in the eyes of his people. The plain fact of the matter is, the vast majority of Crimea wants to be part of Russia. Putin might want that for all the wrong reasons, but the one thing we’ve gained from our time in Iraq and Afghanistan is a new-found aversion to Being on the Wrong Side. And when we’re not sure which side of this we really want to be on, you can bet we’re not about to ship troops over there to be in harm’s way while we hold up a collective finger to the political winds.

Putin strikes me as the kind of schoolyard bully who will need to hear the girls call his name every five minutes - he won’t stop at Crimea, and when he ramps this up, the one thing you can bet is that the next presidential election will be all about saber-rattling. Hillary and two or three of the Republican front-runners will be all about Defense - what should the new army look like, and where should we be ready to send it?

Just when you couldn’t remember what the Hell N-A-T-O stood for.

And then there’s Flight 370. The fascination with Amelia Earhart combined with the horror of modern day flight-fear, mixed in with a little geo-politics. Who knew that Malaysia has had the same government for around 50 years? How do they do it? Well, for one thing,their corruption is so blatant, the various branches of government that need to work together when something like this happens, can’t find each other in the phone book. There are many other governmental organizations from other countries that want to help, but by the time they got invited to the table, the trail was cold.

One of the things that we get from these horrible interludes is a newfound appreciation for those who work in our own trenches. The FAA would have been all over this flight from the first moment anything was wrong. I hate paying taxes too, but it’s easy to forget that sometimes they go to pay for things that simply can’t be operated by the private sector.

So what to do when the Ides of March leave you with a sense of terminal frustration? I often think of those cargo cults - groups of natives in far-away places like New Guinea who occasionally go on jags of building crudely fashioned landing strips and docks, in hopes the Gods will show up in planes or ships and give them gifts. This never works, mind you, but while they’re out there building away, they at least have a sense of doing something. So I’m going to stroll out into my meager garden and get to work. If May isn’t actually around the corner, it’s down the street somewhere, and I intend to find it.




updated 1 month ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

The Weary Pilgrim - Hasta Luego - May 2013

The Weary Pilgrim – Hasta Luego

So it’s time to go home – four months away from my friends, family and pooch is time enough for them to forgive me most of my sins – besides which, I’d kill for a great burger.

Speaking of which, a list of things back home I miss most: decent burgers, decent hot dogs, raisin bran, decent donuts, strangers who pass you in the street and say ‘Hi’, decent cable TV, restaurants that serve dinner at 6PM, and just about anybody who’s reading this.

List of things in Valencia I’ll miss the most :

- Quiet traffic: it’s very rude to honk your horn – therefore, despite a robust morning commute, the traffic tends to glide around without audible drama. Add to this that most cabs are hybrids, and you get very quiet streets.

- The European double-whammy air-kiss – when you greet a woman, you really do lightly kiss them on both cheeks while holding hands. This makes all women look like they are in an Ingrid Bergman movie, not a bad thing. You keep thinking to yourself, ‘Boy, if the fellas back at the Big Moose Lodge could see me now, …”  But they can’t.

- The Central Market: long ago when I directed TV commercials, we would talk about Tabletop shoots. This is where you shoot food products close up – the trick is to paint, varnish, and wet down the brightly-lit food. When you walk into the Central Mercado of Valencia, all the booths of fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, and meats look as if they are prepared just like this – but they’re not – they’re just really, really, fresh. And the people who work and shop there are really, really happy.

-Slow meals: restaurants don’t turn the tables over – if you have a reservation, the table is yours for the night, and you’re welcome to take your sweet time ordering and eating. Don’t be in a hurry for the check, either – it will come by the next millennium. Maybe. And you are not expected to tip much – 10% is so extravagant, you may be considered vulgar.

-People who don’t speak English: I know, I know, this doesn’t make sense, seeing as I don’t speak Spanish. But both Madrid and Barcelona have turned into cities where everybody speaks English, and they have lost a bit of their identities in the process. Valencia is the third largest city in the country, and therefore the last big holdout as far as cultural isolation goes – and I’m all for it. Besides which, you don’t really need to speak Spanish – you just have to pretend to – when you need something, wave your arms a lot, grunt out a few English words with your eyes open wide. Whoever you are talking to will then ask you in Spanish if you want a certain thing – you say ‘Vale’ ( pronounced ‘volley’ ) which means ‘okay’, ‘you bet’, and so forth, and they go off and get you whatever they think it is you want. Nine out of ten times it’s perfect – offer them a 20 euro bill, and you don’t have to pretend to know how much the bill is – nothing is more than 26 dollars, anyhow.  I keep checking the receipts, and with the sole exception of petrol stations, I have never been short-changed. This may have something to do with the fact that we never invaded them. Except for those things in Cuba and the Philippines, which don’t count, because they weren’t really Spanish to begin with. Although I never actually brought this up in conversation.

-Scooters. Folks, the scooters are coming. Even if we can only use them six months out of the year, they just make too much sense not to embrace. The culture of traffic and driving in Spain makes room for motor scooters, so people don’t get cut off a lot, and I never actually saw a single accident in all my time here. I realize that in the States you need a special motorcycle license to operate a scooter, but now that they have automatic transmissions, anyone can operate the lower-powered ‘motos’ in Spain, and for that matter, all of Europe. They park them on the sidewalk, and therefore relieve congestion in the streets and parking spaces of the city, and save a ton of fuel in the process. I noticed that, for the first time, BMW is selling scooters in the US this year. They’re coming, folks.

Thing I gratefully leave behind in Spain:

-firecrackers: these people are seriously nuts.
-TV dishes – don’t know why they don’t have underground cable, but the ugly TV dish is the national flower – more beautiful buildings have sprouted these technical warts – they are a pox on the face of the city.
-Weird spoon sizes. This one I don’t get: they have two spoon sizes, teeny, tiny, Barbie-doll size spoons, good for absolutely nothing, and then these things that look like they come with a play shovel – I mean, we are talking maxi-load here. What ever happened to the good old table- and tea-sizes? I fear this will bother me for years to come.
-No driers. Yes, I know, I know, it’s better for the environment to hang stuff on the line, and it kind of looks cool airing your clean laundry in the back yard. But I’m an old fashioned, techy-type. I like my ‘hot’ settings, just like I like my cable remote, and my Keurig coffee machine.

Something I will Never See Again:

-English Night at the Portland Ale House. I walked into this bar one Wednesday night for a short meeting with some fellow faculty members. As I got up to leave, a waitress approached me and handed me a voucher card, and then asked me if I would like to stay for a while as it was English Night. I listened to her explanation, and as the gist of what she was explaining sunk in, it was all I could do not to fall into a dead faint.  It turns out heaven does exist right here on earth – at least on Wednesdays and Thursdays at the Portland ale House.

Are you ready for this? If you speak English, they will pay you. In Beer. And a burger. To sit. And talk. You heard me right, folks. Free beer. Free burgers.Locals who want to learn English come in and sit around a table. Then an English speaking, beer-drinking, hamburger-eating person ( me ), sits down and speaks to them. In English. About anything. Until you run out of things to say ( never ). Or beer ( regretfully, about 11PM ).

So, it’s been pretty amazing – the Spanish people have been pretty nice to me – a little different culturally from us, but not really that different. They’re worried about the future, about their jobs, and their families. But all in all, Spain is a pretty great place, just different enough to be fascinating, and just familiar enough to be manageable.

The other day I walking back from the market, and it dawned on me that I would miss this place. Isn’t that what we really wish for when we go anywhere? That when we leave, we will miss it.  Just as I miss home.




updated 1 month ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim -  Fallas - March 29, 2013

The Weary Pilgrim – Fallas

Fallas is a festival celebrated in Valencia, Spain, originally intended to honor St. Joseph – technically it lasts five days, leading to the night of March 19th. I know this because I looked it up on Wickepedia. If you ask anybody here, they’ll tell you the simple truth – it’s a holiday which celebrates the eternal need to blow stuff up.

Here’s a hint: last year they passed a law making it illegal for anyone under the age of eight to light off firecrackers. It’s not enforced.

Think Mardi Gras in a free-fire zone. Think several weeks ( they like to get a jump on things ) of blowing enough stuff up to make the bombing of Dresden look like three kids with cherry bombs. The first night I heard the last fire-cracker go off at 5:30. And we still had several days to go.

There are large collections of flammable statues, call nintos, erected on 600 street corners. They’re flammable because at midnight on the 19th, they light them all off. There are prizes awarded for the best ones, and neighborhood committees spend all year designing and building them. Basically they are painted sculptures intended to make fun of just about anything they feel like. There is a 70 foot tall Trojan Horse at one end of the block, and a thirty foot mockup of the Academy Awards at the other end.

I have come to believe that deep in the heart of every grown-up man, and now that I think on it, a lot of women,  there is a small child that loves to blow stuff up. Give an older guy a lot of power, like, say, a standing army, and sooner or later, he’s going to tell them to go somewhere and blow stuff up. Just gotta do it. This would account for the large number of wars that this country has waged in my lifetime, most or all of which weren’t really all that necessary. Allow me to point out that, while Fallas has been celebrated in my lifetime, no Spanish army has engaged in a war. They might be on to something here.

During Fallas, every day at precisely 2:00PM, between ten and twenty thousand people march into the center of the city for the Mascleta, or The Celebration of Noise, which consists of a ton of high explosives detonated continuously for exactly six minutes.  You heard me right – six minutes.  Then everybody smiles at everybody else, turns around, and marches home, chattering and nodding. Is St. Joseph the Patron Saint of Din? Not sure, really, but next day everybody comes right back, and they do the whole thing again.

My street, along with the entire rest of this district, El Carmen, is closed to traffic for the duration. They don’t have a single parade – they have zillions of them. Crossing the streets in random patterns like schools of fish in a coral reef, never actually colliding, as colorful as the coral, but slightly louder. Each parade starts with a group of folks in traditional Spanish garb, followed by a marching band playing melodies that never seem to repeat, but are faintly familiar. Maybe it’s the sound of an eternally happy people. And the dresses and hairstyles put the runways of Paris to shame: hoop skirts and plaited hair, framed by miles of smiles.

The fireworks are never-ending. There is a ‘Petardos’ store on every block – I didn’t have the nerve to peer inside the one around the corner, imagining a bunch of clerks smoking cigarettes, carefully checking the ID’s of everybody under the age of 6, handing out leaflets extolling the dangers of Claymore mines, nuclear warheads, and such, while cheerfully ringing up sales of everything not clearly stamped ‘C-4’.

If you think I’m exaggerating, let me explain the situation:  my sainted mother, 88 years young, was visiting during this celebration. She barricaded herself in a back room, removed her two hearing aids, and wore earplugs for the last two days. No dice. No sleep. No way. Sorry, Mom.

On the last night they burned every last one of these sculptures to the ground. When we walked around the next morning, not only was the city still intact, there was absolutely no sign of their existence.  It was if Santa’s elves had swept through the city with magic brooms – indeed, the entire city awoke and went about its business as if nothing had happened. I was told this transformation would take place, but it made the entire Civil War Reconstruction look like a shoddy affair. If they could redo their economy in this Bristol fashion, the Eurozone would rebound like a superball on a marble floor.

Which begs the question: suppose they took all the energy and money they spend on this holiday and build, say, a bridge or two, which then they DON’T burn down? But I suppose someone else has asked this before me. And been burned at the stake for their heresy. By the same token, if we took all the money we spend on Thanksgiving and ate crackers and cheese instead, and built a bridge or two with the money we saved, where would we be? Nowhere you and I want to go.

So Fallas is a holiday running on two parallel tracks through time: the need to perpetually congregate and celebrate at a predetermined time, and the need to make things go “Boom!” It is also a holiday not marked by the exchanging of gifts. Once again this brings to mind Thanksgiving, which in its own right runs on the parallel tracks of annual celebration and the need to Suspend Dietary Sense for Twenty Four Hours. Throw in the fact that we really do have an awful lot to be thankful for, and one is reminded that Holidays aren’t really about making bridges any more than they are about making sense. They’re about Making Merry. Works for me.



updated 1 month ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim- Devil's Ballroom - March 2013

The Weary Pilgrim – The Devil’s Ballroom

Last week I went to Berlin to visit a couple of old friends, Marty and Kate. Many years ago I married them – no, really. Massachusetts has a lovely law which enables a private citizen to become a ‘Special Designee to Solemnize a Marriage’. You apply to the Secretary of State, and after a fair amount of paperwork ( remember, this is Massachusetts ), you get to be Vicar For a Day. It was one of my best days, I don’t mind telling you. This winter they are on sabbatical from Harvard and Wellesley, writing projects in Berlin, and invited me up for a few days.

Berlin: a city not afraid of its history.  The Devil came out to dance in Berlin in 1933 – that particular waltz lasted till 1945. Then Stalin tapped Hitler on the shoulder, and the next dance took the Eastern section of Berlin through another 35 years of violence, fear, and sordid oppression.

You would think the city would still show signs of weariness, but never have you seen a city with so many cranes, so many jack hammers, and so much energy. The remnants of those years are preserved as memorials throughout the city, sometimes accompanied by tours, but often with so little fanfare or signage, you have to stop and ask yourself what this or that particular memorial is intended to honor.

Throughout the city there are small circular metal plaques built into the sidewalk – each bears the name of a citizen pulled out of the house or apartment building in front of the plaque and sent to a concentration camp. The plaque references the name of the person, the date of their deportation, and the name of the camp into which they disappeared.  There are a lot of these plaques.

At the Tempelhof Airport, the scene of the Berlin Airlift, there is an abandoned WWII bomber, cordoned off behind a metal fence – no sign, no memorial.  It’s just a weary veteran of another kind of war – a war of supplies. When the Allies ( French, British, and American ) issued the Deutschmark currency throughout their sectors a few year after the war ended, the Russians stopped letting supply convoys through their barricades in East Germany – Berlin was basically inside enemy lines, and the Russians thought they could starve the allies into submission without an armed conflict.  The US responded by flying in supplies for the entire city of West Berlin, in numbers unimaginable before that day. We simply were not going to abandon out troops and citizens. The upshot was that Russia relented, and opened their borders. A few years ago the airport was closed – turns out that each sector had its own airport, and this one was eventually unnecessary. Today it is a vast park; bikers and blade skaters jet down the runways, with scarcely a glance at that old airplane melting into the sod. Its job is finished.

Checkpoint Charley, the contentious border crossing between the East ( Communist )and West ( Free )Berlin sectors, is still there.  It has a sort of museum, and a long wall bearing a pictorial essay explaining how the wall between East and West Berlin came to be, and detailing the incredible story of people determined to attain freedom by tunneling, climbing walls, dashing through gunfire, and just plain getting the Hell Out. My personal favorite story involves a guy who measured the height of the barricade, got hold of an old British sports car, a Tr-3, and then drove UNDER the barricade at warp speed without benefit of a windshield. Fortunately, his ran Tr-3 better than mine did, at least for 200 yards.


On the second day Marty and I went walkabout, past the Reichstag, then down Unter den Linden, a beautiful boulevard where Hitler chopped down all the linden trees to make room for his Swastika banners. They are trying to grow them back today. Turns out Berlin is HUGE. Eventually, we took the U2, one of many subway systems immortalized by the pop group, and that got us within striking distance of an Underground Bunker Tour. We were, of course, hoping we could find the bunker where Adolf drew the short straw, but as it turns out, they bulldozed that one into a parking lot in the 60’s. Smart move. I will admit part of me wanted to see some seedy basement tomb with a ratty sofa and dim lighting, and imagine the spot where Eva Braun sat trying to figure out why she ever picked THIS dingleberry. But imagine the perils of a tour destination for every winghead who might come to worship The Fuhrer, and where everybody still just a little bit angry about the holocaust might want to express their displeasure. So what we have today on that spot is a parking lot.

The Underground Tour is, instead, a tour of a civilian air raid shelter – basically a honeycomb of small cement rooms filled with momentos of the occasion. What is does serve to do is to remind you that hanging around, sardine fashion, with thousands of civilians hunkered down for hours at a time with no water, toilets, breathable air, or plan for any immediate future, is simply no way to live. The tour guides are openly contemptuous of both the Nazis and the Russians.  Turns out Hitler didn’t like Berlin – it served his purpose, but he was basically a Southern Germany kind of guy – to him, Berlin was all Northern Liberal, full of the Undesirables ( I leave you to draw your own parallel ). He actually had bunkers built in other parts of Germany for himself, but got caught leaning, as we say in baseball, and had to ask members of the General Staff for the loan of a room at the last minute. Man, some thing just don’t work out.

If you think the diet in Berlin is what made Sergeant Schultz smile a lot, you’re right. The switch from Spanish food to German food is like going from a yoga class to Helga’s House of Pain. These people get serious about their cholesterol intake. My personal favorite is sausage with curry. Yup, you heard right: Sawdust and chicken lips squeezed into a tube of spandex smothered with a liberal dose of Ghandi Sauce.  In one long weekend I managed to undo about a month of careful dieting. Personally, I think they’re still a ticked off about the whole WWII thing – they get you over there, stuff with you with the most delicious poison this side of Fenway Franks, and then hide whatever antidote they’re taking on the side. Unfair. And fun.

So, back to Valencia, just in time for Fallas, the Mardi Gras of Spain. If I live through it, I’ll tell you about it next time.







updated 1 month ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim - Jugglers at Red Lights - March 2013

The Weary Pilgrim – Jugglers at Red Lights

Barcelona is basically the Nerve Center of Spain – only Madrid is larger in size, but Madrid is the capitol, stuck in the mountains, cold, and, well, it’s just not Barcelona. Simply put, Barcelona rocks. I spent one night there a couple of weeks ago, and I felt like I needed to take a long rest break after I left. This is a city that runs on the energy of its citizens.

Barcelona ( pronounced with a lisp: ‘Bartheloma ‘) is on the right coast, a few hours above Valencia. The thing you notice most about Barcelona is that everybody is outside, all the time. The weather was sunny but chilly – in the east coast of Spain the wind comes down from the mountains, and when there’s snow on them there mountains, a chilly wind does blow.  

Which fazes the citizenry not one bit.  The sidewalks are filled with tables and chairs, some of which have awnings and wind curtains. From morning till late in the night, these open-air cafes and bars are jammed with patrons, seemingly uncaring about the wind chill. I honestly don’t know if they’re more cold-blooded than we are, or they just don’t want to be seen cowering inside in search of central heat. I suspect it’s cultural, but I know this: it’s contagious.  I spent zero time in my hotel room, preferring to just walk the streets and look at the people, stopping every hour or so for something to drink or eat, basically melding into the rhythm of the city.

The streets often have a center mall built into them – this strip of center sidewalk is choc-a-block with motor-cycles and scooters, and often has beautiful benches, inlaid with mosaic tiles, there for the resting pleasure of those people who need to kill a little time waiting for the crossing light.

A brief explanation is in order regarding the whole ‘crossing the street’ thing. First of all, the pedestrian lights have no yellow signal – the green flashes briefly – very briefly – and then the whole shebang goes red. If you’re silly enough to get caught mid-street when the light goes red, simply put, you’re fair game.

Have I mentioned that nobody in Barcelona just toddles along? Every intersection looks like the starting line at the Indianapolis Brickyard on Memorial Day, everybody revving their engines and exchanging confident, knowing glances that seem to say, “ The second this sucker goes green, I am Out Of Here. Muy pronto, hasta la vista, Baby, zero to infinity…” – you get the idea.

So what you have is a city of infinite intersections, crammed with speed demons on two and four wheels, eager to go like a Bat out of Hell all the way to next intersection, where a lot of slamming of brakes happens, and everybody sits there, getting ready for the next lap.

Meanwhile, nobody, and I mean, nobody, jumps a red light. Doesn’t happen. Rules are rules. Jay-walking is common, but honestly, there’s precious little difference between that and legal crossing. The second that green pedestrian light starts flashing, anybody silly enough to get caught in the road just plain Beats Feet. Back in High School we had something like this in track practice – it was called ‘wind sprints.’

So what you have, city wide, in thousands of intersections, is fanatical acceleration, heavy braking, and a cross-current of scrambling, dashing citizens, each trying to catch their breath before the next walk-light pops green.

And get this: I never saw or heard any accident, any swearing, any rude gestures. This whole Formula One crossed with Olympic Trials thing is just business as usual. Another day in the Windy City. No wonder everybody is thin.

Let me also mention this: in this and the next city in this saga, one of the reasons I love to walk around looking at people is that so few of them look unhappy. There are couples of all ages holding hands, often kissing, usually very well dressed, and simply put, outside and enjoying life. This kind of thing could catch on.

I only spent a night in Barcelona, but I spent four nights in Seville. Why? Because I could.

Seville basically stole my heart. It is the fourth largest city, about 700,000 folks, and some smart people began designing it into a tourist-friendly town many years ago. The main street in the city is serviced by a tram that looks like it’s out of the set of Blade Runner, but runs at a reasonable speed among the pedestrians – think of it as Seville’s version of San Francisco’s cable cars. During the day, this place is swamped with people, many of them vacationers from the rest of Spain, walking up and down the streets, and dining outside on sidewalks under the orange trees, heavy with fruit.

The town vies with Madrid as the true home of Flamenco – there are guitar-makers in every block, and the street are full of performers, playing at all levels of talent, on every instrument you can think of, accordians, fiddles, trumpets – I even heard a guy sawing away on an Erhu, a kind of Chinese cello – he was pretty good, if a little geographically confused.  I rented a motor-scooter and toddled out to a suburb for a round of golf, and on the way spotted jugglers performing for handouts at an intersection. Jugglers at Red lights – Spain in a nutshell. Please don’t ask me about the golf – some things in Spain are very similar to some things in the US, including my putting.

I needed a haircut, so I thought, why not? A little hubris never hurt anybody. I’ve been hearing about this barber guy in Seville for years – as it turned out, it was Figaro’s day off, so a guy named Chano lowered my ears – as famous barbers go, he was pretty good.  He was recommended by the staff at my hotel, and a brief word is in order about the Hotel AlfonsoXIII.

I generally rate hotels on the quality of their shower heads and towels. I figure I can sleep anywhere, and extra money for extra service is just biting into my slow horses/slower cars budget, so I’m basically a Motel 6 kind of guy. Or I was until I pitched up at Alfonso. It’s a registered landmark, owned by the city, run by a famous hotel chain, and it became one of the favorite characters in my trip. When was the last time you took a picture of your hotel lobby? It was a lovely combination of dark paneling, 30 foot high murals, 10 foot high flower arrangements, and a staff that couldn’t wait to book you a meal, rent you a scooter, find you a guitar maker ( or two ), and simply put, make you day a little better. Man, a guy could get used to this.

But everything ends, or in this case, is interrupted, because I’m not done with Seville by a long shot. Or Barcelona, for that matter. Onward.



updated 1 month ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

weary pilgrim - Self Deportee

The Weary Pilgrim – Self-Deportee

I’m not exactly sure what Mitt Romney meant when he recommended self-deportation for all the illegal immigrants – in the next breath he categorized about half of America as a group of indolent free-loaders waiting for their dole checks to arrive in the ( nearly free ) US post, so I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t mind if some or all of us ( I think he really meant whoever didn’t vote for him )  would get ourselves out of the country , pronto.

So, I did. But I voted first.

I write this from the amazing city of Valencia, Spain. I’m here for the staggering amount of four months, teaching at a new graduate program of Berklee College of Music. The school is located in the City of Arts and Sciences, a massive architectural wonder built a few years ago in the heart of Valencia. There is simply no way to describe my workplace – I will include a few pictures, but basically it looks like the Starship Enterprise needed to put down somewhere, and chose this as the Mothership.

I live in a two-floor garret located in the neighborhood known as Carmen – basically the Casbah of Valencia. The widest street is narrower than your basic alley – they build small concrete pillars along the edge of the sidewalk – the theory is that there ought to be something other than blind faith separating the pedestrians from front bumpers. So far, so good.

Some initial observations:

Most of the cabs are Toyota Priuses. Heat is carefully regulated in the homes. Lighting is dim. There is a new bicycle system similar to that in Boston, and it’s already a big hit. It adds up to an energy awareness we have absolutely no clue about. If we lived like this, and diverted the savings to the deficit, it would disappear in a year.

Everybody is thin. I think they lose weight running around in the showers trying to get wet. Meals are frequent and small. There is a scale in my apartment, but it’s in kilos, so I have no clue. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Forget the theory that everybody speaks English – outside of school, nobody does. But the Spanish are basically nice people, and like the rest of us, what would be the point of being rude? They want to help, and with the aid of a translation app on my I-phone, I seem to be able to get where I want to go, and pick up the lingo along the way. Speaking of which, a lot of the signs are in two languages – Spanish and Catalan. Which is another form of Spanish. Old ways die hard, and a number of the denizens here are clinging fiercely to the old ways, so in an effort to appease the traditionalists, there are two forms of Spanish, old and new, being spoken and written in the city.

A surprising number of the people I meet are ex-patriots from various European and English-speaking countries, i.e., Australia, France, Denmark, and points in between. They came here for a job, personal relationship, or they just drifted in on the tide, and realizing the weather is terrific, the cost of living is low, and there is no end to the nightlife, they just hung on, hunkered down, and figured out how to game the immigration laws. It reminds me of Santa Monica in the eighties, when people just sort of drifted west until they bumped into the Pacific Ocean, and decided to make a life out of it.

The economy here is in the tank – I know because I watch NBC news. Mind you, look around the corner, all you see are people trying to make their way. I suppose it’s possible they’re all talking about their version of the fiscal cliff, but if so, it must be a funny cliff, because they seem to smile a lot.

A few decades ago, the city fathers, having grown tired of centuries of flooding by a centrally located river, wisely diverted it to a series of floodgates north of the city. Left with an abandoned riverbed in the heart of the city, they providentially and painstakingly built an incredible central park out of the riverbed. Known locally as ‘El Rio’, it has become the true Central Park of the city – imagine the Esplinade of Boston, three times as wide, running down the middle of the city, for miles, with well-lit bike paths and  walking lanes, safe as the White House lawn, populated like Times Square at Christmas – full of joggers, walkers, dog-walkers, and soccer fields ( lots of them ).  It’s about three miles from my apartment to work, and so far, as commutes go, it sure beats Route 128.

Lest you think I’ve forgotten about the things that matter at home, I’ve been looking for a place to watch the upcoming playoff Pat’s game. The only local Irish bar I’ve found has advertised an upcoming ‘American football’ game – Atlanta versus San Francisco. I took the owner aside and patiently explained that this couldn’t really be an ‘American’ game, for the simple reasons, A) Atlanta seceded from the Union in 1861, and B) San Francisco seceded from the planet around 1969, the Summer of Love, which I understand is still actually going on there.  He patiently explained that neighborhood rules will not allow him to stay open after midnight, when the real ‘American’ game will start. I am currently making other plans. Stay tuned. Over and out.

updated 1 month ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

The Weary Pilgrim - Dads

Dads

Many years ago I was telling my father about an upsetting phone call I had received when he interrupted me.  “That’s nothing”, he said, “You want a bad phone call? Once we were dug in near the Ardennes, when the Division Commander called us on the field phone. “Listen to me” he said, “Drop back one hundred yards, dig in, and get a clear field of fire – in the opposite direction.”

“What do you mean, the opposite direction?” Dad asked.

“The Germans have broken through our lines,” his Commander said. “They’re behind you.”

“You want a bad phone call?” Dad asked. “THAT is a bad phone call.”

This was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. Fortunately for Dad and his 78th Recon Troop, Patton arrived in time to save the day, and Dad didn’t get captured or killed.

As I grew up, I made a number of assumptions about Dads. For one thing, I assumed they all had stories like this, stories they rarely told, but ones that had that ring of truth, stories that caused my Dad’s friends to pause for a moment of silence, because they all had similar stories that they rarely told as well.  I assumed all Dads had a couple of weapons they had taken from German prisoners of war and then smuggled home stuck in the back closet.  When I was young I was allowed to take them out and hold them, marveling at the journey they had taken to find their way here.

I assumed all Dads worked for one company their whole life. Dad’s father had been a GE guy, and he started working for GE when he was in high school, then continued after the war, working his way through the co-op plan of the University of Cincinnati, and then staying on for a total of forty years, until he retired to Vermont. I remember he refused to use the so-called Watts line, which was a toll-free long distance line at work, to call me at college. He would drive home for lunch once a month so he could call me from his home phone.

I assumed all Dads played catch with their kids, I assumed all Dads were wise and funny, got angry when you screwed up, but would always, repeat, always, be there for you after you screwed up.  I assumed all Dads went to see you play ball, encouraged you to join the boy scouts, went to church every Sunday, came to band concerts and school plays, and, when possible, track meets.

I assumed all Dads voted Republican.  The Vietnam War came along, I grew my hair down to my toenails, and when I was home from school we started arguing bitterly about the war. I challenged him to read some books about it, most notably ‘The Making of a Quagmire’ by David Halbertsam. He did, and then a strange thing happened – he changed his mind. A year or so before it became fashionable, he began to quietly oppose the war. He still voted Republican, he was still an intense patriot, but he saw no valid reason for that war.

I assumed all Dads worked all the time. No sooner did Dad retire, than he went out and got a job. He became a Guardian Ad Litem in the court system of Vermont, a position where basically you stand in for a parent or close relative for children or mentally challenged people who find themselves in the court system and have no one capable of acting in that capacity.  Vermont has the distinction of being the only state in the Union where GAL’s, as they are known, don’t get paid, but this didn’t matter a fig to Dad. It was a job, and for fourteen years he showed up on time, without fail, every week, until he retired from that post a few years ago.

I assumed that all Dads had a certain dignity, that this dignity armored them against the advance of aging, that as their shoulders stooped, as their steps faltered, as their hearing grew dim, this dignity remained a constant star, a light that was always there, however faint, day or night.

Last week was my parent’s 59th anniversary. Dad wasn’t feeling well, hadn’t really been feeling well for a while, but woke up at one point that afternoon to say to Mom, “Happy Anniversary.” Those were pretty much the last words he spoke. The next day he lost his battle with heart disease, and slipped quietly from this world, as quietly as he had passed through it.

I assumed all Dads left places better than they found them. Mine did.

Bye, Dad.

updated 2 years ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim - I See A World

The Weary Pilgrim – I see a World...


Where people are free to be with those they love. It amazes me that, while I barely have the energy to get my laundry done, never mind earn a living, treat my aging parents with the love and care they so desperately need and deserve, and spare a little time to laugh with my friends, there are people who actually have the energy to devote large amounts of time to preventing people from living in a married situation with those they love.

Yes, I’m talking about the gay thing. The thing of it is, like a lot of straight guys,  I used to be somewhat homophobic. I grew up in a locker room world where homosexuals were jeered at, where nobody ever actually confessed to be ‘queer’, because if you did, you were in for a lifetime of being shunned, if not flat out assaulted. By and bye I slowly grew up ( well, pretty much ). But a good bit of this social horror remained. Then one day I called up Berklee College of Music and requested that they send me their best student to interview for an internship. A young heavy-set woman knocked on my door the next day. When I invited her in, I quickly realized three things: she was gay; she was really nice; and most importantly, she was the best person for the job. So I hired her. And we became the best of friends. A few years later she got married ( horrors!). Then she and her wife ( there – I said it – deal with it ) asked me to write adoption recommendations, as they each wanted to adopt the other’s biological sons. I did. They did. And as the years rolled by and their kids started to grow, I realized when I visited them that they were not only terrific parents, they were a lot better at it than I was.

Lest you think I veering into Pollyanna Land, there is a sad and realistic post-script. I recently found out they are getting divorced. And this divorce is fraught with all the sadness and loss that every other divorce I’ve ever heard of has. Fortunately, because they are married, and each is the legal parent of their children, there is no squabble over the parenting rights of the children, each of which has known them both as parents for their entire life. You don’t hear much about this end of the gay marriage controversy. But it is nevertheless a somewhat satisfactory resolution when compared to what could have happened had they simply been living with each other these many years.

I understand that with some folks, deeply held religious beliefs make this entire concept almost impossible to imagine, let alone accept. But most of the people I have met who hold homosexuality in contempt are those who simply have never actually known any gay people. I’m not suggesting that everyone run out into the streets seeking a gay person to take home for dinner. But it’s not a bad idea to remember that it’s really not a good idea to render a strong opinion on something you’ve only faintly heard about, and never really had any personal contact with. And with the damned recession taking jobs left and right, the crumbling infrastructure of our very bridges and tunnels, the rising cost of fuel, and new underwear bombs to worry about, isn’t it about time to devote our energies and time to something that truly threatens us? I’ve met the enemy, and I’m tired of it being us.

I remarked recently that, while I cold never vote for Rick Santorum, I admired his honesty. You have to give Barack Obama some credit on this one – he might have lost a few votes, but he clearly decided it was time to tell everybody how he felt. My guess is, Joe Biden shot his mouth off, the subject came up,  and Obama had a “Oh, what the Hell” moment.  As far as I’m concerned, he can have a few more – it’s refreshing.

******

In other news.....a couple of days ago I was reminded of an old joke. This guy, call him Stupid, gets a postcard from his friend, Stupider. Stupider invites Stupid to join him on a sea cruise. So Stupid buys a ticket, and off he goes to the coast. He finds his buddy climbing into this big wooden boat, so he sits down beside him. Next thing he knows,  some guy comes along and slaps ankle chains on him and hands him a big long oar. Some other guy starts pounding a drum and the next thing Stupid knows, he and Stupider and about a hundred other guys are rowing to England. A few weeks later they land. Off come the chains, and they both step onto the dock. “ You know, says Stupid, “I didn’t think it was really all that great.” “Oh, I don’t know,” says Stupider, “It was WAY better than last time.”

This past Sunday I did the JCC Triathalon again, and it was WAY better than last time. Imagine the start of this thing, with a couple of hundred people lined up around the pool – people are chatting about their experiences. The guy in front of me said, “ I hope I can cut a good 10 minutes off my bike time.” The woman behind me listened sympathetically and responded, “ With any luck I can cut a good 20 minutes off my overall.” They looked at me.  “I sure hope Downton Abbey gets a third season,” I said. I’m not absolutely sure I’m cut out for this.

But the people who participate have a lot in common with the volunteers who work the event – namely they smile a lot , and, truth be told, don’t look down on the wannabes ( me )  even a little. It’s amazing, given the breadth of talent and fitness, how welcoming the entire event is of all newcomers. I followed a man and his 10 year old daughter  in the last part, the 3 ½ mile run, and his support of her knocked me out. At least until they pulled so far ahead I started looking in vain for a cab. Three years ago the event sold out in five days, last year in two days, and this year in two hours. Word is clearly getting around about this event. If I can do it, trust me on this, you can too.   Training for next year’s event starts tomorrow. Or possibly next week. Actually, best to wait till the late fall – don’t want to get ahead of myself.


updated 2 years ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

The Waery Pilgrim in Kiwi-Land, Pt. 1 and 2

The Weary Pilgrim in Kiwi-Land


New Zealand is an island nation, actually made up of two large islands, situated just to the right of Australia. The two islands run north-south for about 950 miles, and the 4 !/2 million people are mostly in the north of the north island. I’m on the South Island, where there appear to be about three or four hundred people. All smiling.

Specifically, I’m in Christchurch, New Zealand. This town has been hit by a series of earthquakes, starting over a year ago, and continuing, with arbitrary lapses, up till a few weeks ago. I know you’re all looking forward to my next installment, which hopefully will not be submitted by my executor. About half of it looks like downtown Des Moines – tidy, chock-a-block with retail outlets, condos, restaurants, and the like. The rest of it is rubbles and dreams.

There is a fascinating city-centre known affectionately as the Container Mall. A year or two ago it was known as the Cashel Mall ( nobody knows who Cashel is – or was). Today it is a small walking district in the heart of the city made up of gaily painted cargo containers bearing small, bustling retail outlets. Throughout the rest of the city center are  portable wire fence compounds, inside of which are the remains of the city’s once proud retail and office buildings. And cranes. Lots and lots of cranes. It looks like the center of Berlin in late 1945, when the Marshal Plan was kicking in – there used to be a thriving city here, and before too long there will be again – the difference between Berlin and Christchurch being the indigenous population. They exhibit not a hint of suffering or malnourishment. Life here is good, it’s just been put on hold while the town fathers and leading industrialists figure out a plan of rebuilding that can withstand the next century of occasional seismic hiccups.

I wandered into a small office building to ask for directions, and an incredibly affable real estate agent explained the current dilemma in lovely Kiwi shorthand. The earthquakes here occurred only a few kilometers below the surface, achieving a velocity not normally found in other damaging quakes. Instead of causing the buildings to sway, the quakes basically ‘slapped’ the bottom of the buildings, with such speed as to cause them to lift into the air, sometimes slapping them again before they could settle. The devastation is such that most buildings are simply uninhabitable forever. And earthquake insurance is about as easy to get as front row seats to The Book of Mormon. So the city is making do with the gaily painted containers, and a quiet confidence that this is still the greatest place to live in the world.

I’m tempted to try and explain the complete and eternal friendliness of everybody I meet. The funny thing is, this seems to be a constant theme in my travels over the last few years. When I flew to Manila in 2009, I found it to be a horrible, oppressive, squalid, humid excuse for a habitable city. And yet I had to conclude that the people that lived there were wonderful, ever cheerful, ever helpful. I just couldn’t figure out how to get ten million of them on the plane with me when I left. My recent trip to Spain was a lot more joyful, due in no small part to the friendliness of those I met. Ditto the folks in Montreal. And Ireland. And so on. My point is, why don’t we start assuming that people everywhere will be friendly? Why is it always worth mentioning? Why, in short , is it a constant surprise?

I remember talking recently to a friend who had just returned from Vietnam – he simply loved the people there, and couldn’t get over how friendly they were to Americans. Mind you, I remember a decade or so during my formative years when every newscast featured footage of us trying to bomb them into the stone-age. I recently spent a week in the company of a dozen Germans, and they were welcoming and surprisingly good-natured when I tried to pretend I could ride a motorcycle as well as them ( I couldn’t). Bear in mind, my Dad, who is a pretty gentle soul, spent a year or so with an M-1 chasing their fathers through France.

So, okay, sometimes our surprise at the friendliness of other nations is understandable. But my point is, well, pretty much EVERYBODY is nice to us. ( Probably not true in sections of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and certain training camps in Yemen, but, hey, give it time. )

What’s going on here? Is it possible the Ugly American is turning into a swan? Or is human nature simply given to forgiveness and a secret yearning for the Rodney King Plea – Why can’t we just get along? I don’t know, but mean people seem to be in pretty short supply in most parts of the world we can easily reach.

Day 2 and 3 were spent in the Canterbury highlands, which are really the foothills of the Southern Alps. No kidding, they have real Alps here. In the company of fishing guide named Phil ( they all have names like Bob and Tom here – frankly, it’s a little unsettling this far from home ) walking up a couple of rivers. Not only are the rivers and the guiding closely regulated, the fish themselves have undergone a rigorous course in TTY – Tease The Yankee. You can see them, you can fish right to them, they’ll even chomp on your fly, but there must have been something really good on the Fish Network, because they were all in a hurry to get home. Like all good guides, Phil was a font of information about the country itself.

Here are a couple of curiosities about New Zealand:
-years ago they imported possums to farm for their fur. Except for a small trade in possum fur/merino wool gloves, the possum fur is no longer held in high regard. So rather than destroy the possums, they let them go.  Now the wilds are overrun with possums. New Zealand prides itself in its vast beech forests, but the possums consider beech shoots a delicacy, so they’re slowly deforesting these vast tracts. The current solution is to poison the possums. Wholesale. This in a country that is rigid about ecological management ( the nation is rabidly anti-nuclear, and there are not even coal-fired power plants )  Imagine the dilemma. Imagine dead possums all over the place. Weird.

   -     one of the reasons the possums proliferated so much is that there are no predators.        No snakes, no coyotes, no foxes, no bears, no furry woodlawn creatures with teeth. New Zealand was the last place in the world to be inhabited with people. When they got here there were only birds and bugs, no mammals and almost no reptiles. This is also why so many of their birds are flightless – they simply had nothing to fly away from.

-There are no handguns allowed anywhere in public. Period. If you want to, you can shoot one at a pistol range, but it has to live at the pistol range. Consequently, violent crime is just about non-existent.  

-A large amount of the population is given to extreme sports. All over the South Island there are signs for mountain biking and rock climbing. They even have a sport called friction climbing, which is basically a Spiderman competition up steep mountains. Without the Computer-graphic special effects. They actually carry mattresses up the mountains to cushion their inevitable falls in the first stage of the climb. I didn’t ask about the later stages. One of the main tourist attractions is Bungee jumping – it was invented here, and they pride themselves on the dearth of fatal accidents. Kind of like they way we feel about baked beans and Fenway Park. It is possible these people are crazy.

     -    all the fields are planted with windbreaks, large poplars and evergreens that are trimmed down into giant square hedges to allow the sun to hit the plants. Over time the prevailing winds bend the rows over about 10 degrees. The whole countryside looks like a drunken topiary.

On day four I played a round of golf off the road leading up to the Alps – it’s very odd playing golf in the pleasant noon-day sun looking up at a snow field several hundred yards ( okay, they call them meters ) overhead. It turned into a very weird game because friends of mine kept texting me the play-by-play of the Baltimore/Pats game – I would hit a shot, curse, look at my phone, curse, hit a shot, curse, look at my…well, you get the idea.  The Pats made out better than I did, by the way.

A few words on driving a car over here: For the first 40 or 50 times you get in the car, you realize some joker put the steering wheel on the wrong side. So you get out, walk around and get in the other side. This is supposed to help you drive on the left. It doesn’t. Fortunately, most of the people can take a joke. What’s really confusing, is, every time you try and signal a turn, the damned windshield wipers come on.  They measure distance in kilometers, too, which is really no big deal. A kilometer is just a mile that’s been on a really strict diet. Basically you just drive so the speedometer says 100 – it’s really cool, because you’re sure you’re getting away with something all the time. They have one-lane bridges all over the place – apparently they are very cost-conscious, or else someone had a sale on really narrow bridges, and they bought a ton of them.  The entire population is really very patient. Somehow by the end of the fourth day I managed to get the car back to Mr. Hertz without any fire, accident, or theft. The next morning I picked up my shiny red BMW bike and, assuming I can remember to look right at intersections, will report in on where that leads me.

Weary Pilgrim, i Kiwi-Land, Part 2 - Down Under and Over to the Right

Christchurch, Te Anau, Queenstown, Punakaiki, Wellington, Napier, Aukland: these were all waypoints on the GPS I forgot to bring. Flying through the countryside at what for Kiwis is warp-speed, I could barely glance at the map on my tank bag as the valleys, mountains, and towns flashed by. It didn’t matter that much, truth be told, as each place was as wonderful as the last – tourists are their main import, and no wonder.

New Zealand is to the Lord of the Rings as New Jersey was to Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets – each is a place fashioned for a film set.

The countryside itself is folded in little drama pieces – even the lowest hills are almost too steep to climb – the creeks in the center of the valleys actually flow down what look like creases in a sheet of paper.

And the people, sculpted by their very land, are happy to rise to the occasion. Or fall, as the case may be. Remember, this is a place where the natives tie rubber bands to their ankles and jump off bridges to RELAX.

Case in point for Kiwi’s craziness: the skid-biters.

During the first part of the last century, the deer imported for the pleasure of the New Zealand Sportsmen began to get out of hand. Due to the absence of any predators, before anyone could say ’Bambi’, there were way too many deer running throughout the island forests. So in the 1950’s the country authorized the wholesale slaughter of deer, and a new profession of hardy New Zealanders took to the highlands in large numbers and proceeded to shoot deer from any place, height, or object, like helicopters. Having a whole lot of venison on hand very suddenly, they looked around for a ready market and found, just to their north, the continent of Asia, which was suddenly very happy to buy venison by the gross ton.

Not surprisingly, the ‘deerkillers’ ( their word, not mine – I always defer to a friend of mine named John Sayles whose term for this is Bambi-cide ) became so efficient they started running out of deer to shoot.

What to do? The obvious answer, having created this huge market for venison, was to continue it by ‘farming’ deer, i.e., raise deer on large wild habitats, exactly the way we ranch cattle. But how to get the wild deer in the forest onto the farms? Simply put, they started jumping off helicopter skids onto the backs of running deer and hog-tying them on the spot, then lifting them up, up, and away with the very same helicopter, straight to the nearest deer-farm. In the following year 80 of these ‘skid-biters’ died doing this unbelievable stunt, so some wag invented a net-gun, whereby the skid-biter would shoot a net over the deer, and THEN jump down and a wrestle it to the ground. I am not making this up – I watched a movie about this, and could detect no flim-flamming in the footage. Bear in mind, by this time I had been in the country for a week, and had turned down the opportunity to bungee-jump several times ( my lumbago was acting up, or perhaps it was my common sense. No, I’m pretty sure it was my lumbago ), watched a few people fall off motorcycles, and generally gotten used to the whole New Zealand-jump-out-of-anything-high-up frame of mind. Anyway, the whole deer-farming thing is going splendidly, thank you very much.

A few notes on foreign travel:

The temperature is measured in centigrades. Also known by its nickname, Celsius. There are two ways to compute its equivalent in Fahrenheit. The first is, multiply the centigrade number by 9/5, then add 32. No calculator? Getting a headache? Then how about this:  0 is freezing, 10 is cold, 20 is just fine, and 30 is hot. Works for me. There won’t be a quiz, because I don’t like ‘em either.

They don’t have pennies. But they do have one and two dollar coins. You may not remember, but we have one dollar coins, too. But for some reason, we keep sticking them in our drawers, and they disappear from circulation. Their cash currency ( New Zealand dollars, worth about 95 cents on our dollar ) comes in slightly different sizes, so the bigger the currency, the bigger the bill. Once you get used to rounding up every cash transaction to the nearest dollar or dime, you really don’t miss the penny thing. Honestly, this kind of practicality is pretty attractive. Thank God they keep jumping out of things, or I might want to stick around.

They also have an emerging problem that strikes me as a little sad – despite their obvious addiction to exercise and the Great Outdoors, they are experiencing a sudden rise in obesity.  They’re not quite sure how to explain this, but one culprit that gets singled out is filling stations. There is no pay-at-the-pump option in the country. Once you fill up, you have to go into the office to pay, the reason being they believe the economy is helped by people making impulse purchases of fast snacks while they’re paying for their gas. A word to the wise: use that debit card at the pump.

Oh yes, their literacy rate is, get this, 99%. As is their courtesy rate. Actually it’s 100%. You will simply not meet a mean person in the land. I’m pretty sure they all went to New York City and became Giants fans.

Things that worry them: The weather ( worst, grayest, chilliest summer ever ); The economy ( some things are universal ); Whether or not they will repeat their rugby championship ( the All-Blacks, their national team, won the World Cup on their home soil this last year, and they may never stop talking about it ); Actually that’s pretty much it – these people aren’t given to complaining very much.

Two noteworthy things happened to me the last two days I was there: first, I lost my wallet. I discovered this aboard a ferry carrying me and the bike across the channel to Wellington – from the ship I immediately called a couple of cafes I had stopped in earlier for coffee. On the second one, the owner cheerfully announced they had found it, and would be happy to send it to my next hotel. It was waiting when I arrived, and no, there wasn’t a dime missing, even though they paid about 15 dollars to send it overnight. In case my mother reads, yes, I sent them a thank-you note and some bucks ( American ).

Secondly, on the last day of riding, I was stopped for speeding, doing 111 in a 100 zone ( remember, we’re talking kilometers here ) – this before I could get to my wallet, and when I was just about out of cash to pay the fine. I had been told at the outset of the trip that speeding can be selectively enforced, and that you sometimes have to pay the fine on the spot. I stood there by the side of the road, imagining the next several years crawling by in some county clink, while the rest of the world played “Whatever happened to Mason?” But the nice policeman and I talked it over for a while – turned out he owns a motorcycle too. On top of which, like most of the rest of the country, he could take a joke. Ten minutes later, I was on my way. No fine, no foul. No kidding. What a country.

So, I’m home, and yes, I missed Marblehead. We need to get some of those people over here so we can show them what I missed.




updated 2 years ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »

Weary Pilgrim - The Rain in Spain

The Weary Pilgrim - The Rain in Spain.

The problem, as I see it, is that it ain't staying mainly in the Plain.  It's following fourteen motorcycles around the southern region of Andalusia, like when you were ten and your dippy cousin Eddie used to follow you around after Thanksgiving Dinner. I mean, we CANNOT get rid of it.

The thing of it is, motorcycles and rain go together like ketchup and pancakes. Things get messy, and nobody has any fun. No less than five people went down the first two hours after I got on my bike yesterday morning. When I pointed this out to our leader, Ramon, he snidely suggested I take mine off the kickstand.

I'm on a tour organized by Edelweiss, an Austria company that's been doing this around the world for thirty years.  There are sixteen people on 14 bikes, including folks from Puerto Rico, Germany, Israel, Canada, Korea, and a few wanderers from the US of A. Think of it as the United Nations in crash helmets.

There are all kinds of bikes on the tour.  We were talking about how bikes are always associated with movie stars. Most people are riding BMW's, just like the one ridden by Ewan MacGregor on a documentary shot in Mongolia last year.  There are a couple of Harleys ( Peter Fonda - Easy Rider ), and one or two Triumphs ( Marlon Brando - the
Wild Ones ). I have the only Honda ( Debbie Reynolds - the Singing Nun).

There are a few things you notice about Spain right away.  For one thing, it's one of those countries where everybody is thin. I've figured out that part of this is due to the size of the dinner plates. At each of the hotels we're booked at, the plates are roughly the size
of the ones that Barbie had when they threw her the engagement party when she hooked up with Ken. ( I wasn't invited, but my sister was, and she reported back in great detail.) Also, all their cars are wicked small, so they have to be able to get in them.

They have some fairly widespread notions on energy conservation – the hotel hallways all have motion detectors, so when you charge out of your room after dark, there is a second or two of total blackness, and then on pop the lights. It's like a surprise birthday party every time you leave your room, except you keep looking around in vain for your
friends and relatives.

And there is a slot in the wall just inside your front door for your key card. Until you put it in, none of the lights will work.  This made for some really hilarious moments the first time I used my room - I blundered around in the dark for fifteen minutes, hitting switch
after switch to no avail, thinking, "Can't they even change ONE stupid light bulb?"  On my way out to the lobby to complain about their inability to pay the light bill, I spotted the gizmo by the door, and slipped the card in, and Voila!, there was light all over the place. When you think about it, there are two obvious reasons for this system: first of all, you can't leave any lights on when you leave the room. More importantly, you can actually find your room key card when it's time to leave.  The time savings alone in that regard are amazing.

So far, we've seen three significant sights:  The first is the greatest tour draw in Spain, the Alhambra.  This is like a cross between Sturbridge Village and Las Vegas.  It's a
castle/fort/temple/residence built by the Moors in Grenada over a 200 year period, and then surrendered by them to the Spanish Monarchy in1492, which must have been a pretty good year in Madrid. The next is the downtown section of Grenada itself, which looks like the Casbah meets New Orleans.  Tiny streets, people selling everything legal,
and, I suspect, one or two things that kind of cross the line. And restaurants. Lots and lots of restaurants.  Everything seems expensive, until you remember you're paying in Euros. Then it seems REALLY expensive.

The third amazing thing we've seen is a weather report that says this thing called The Sun will come out tomorrow. We'll see. Reporting from the Costa Del Soaked, keep the light on. Actually, turn it off, this energy thing they do is contagious.


Part 2:

Okay, I’m back in Marblehead. When I left there were boats in the harbor, the sun was out, and you could go out without a sweater.  I flew back in the middle of the worst snow-storm in October I can recall, somebody took all the boats, and the temperature read the same, except in Celsius. Yup, home again.

The rest of the trip was conducted in a mixed omelet of rain, sun, fog, and just plain cloudy overhang – the good news was, people stopped falling over like bowling pins. The bad news was….actually, there wasn’t any, as southern Spain is a knockout in any weather. We sampled the roads between Grenada, Antequera, Arc de la Frontera, and Ronda. Ronda, by the way, is the highlight of any tour through Spain. It has a bridge in the middle of town with a view that must have made the day of the Spanish Tourist Bureau guy the first time he hit town. You look down, and it’s a seriously long way, we’re talking mini Grand Canyon here, and not too mini at that.  Then you look out past the chasm onto a plain that stretches to never-never land, where you can see more mountains in the distance. Everybody tries to take a picture of it, but unless you have an omni-max theatre to view the picture on, there’s no way you can appreciate the scope of what you’re seeing.

Images of Spain:
-First off, coffee.  The worst coffee in the worst restaurant is better than just about anything you can find in the rest of Europe, unless you count Italy’s preoccupation with espresso.  The Spanish, however, drink it in real life-size cups, and they always have warm milk handy. This warm milk thing could catch on here, trust me.
-Shoes: these people are very proud of their shoes, which in fact are pretty well made, and stylish to boot. Speaking of which, there are maybe three or four women in Spain who don’t wear boots, and I’m pretty sure they were on their way to the Boot Store.
-Ham and cheese.  This is the home of the ham and cheese sub, except it only comes with bread, ham, and cheese. Period. Every store and coffee shop sells them, and if there’s a jar of mustard in the country, they’re saving it for a special occasion.
-Tight clothes. On women, that is. Actually, tight is not the word. We’re talking the latex school of fashion, as in latex paint. I swear, there’s not even room for a coat of primer.


Also, the striking thing about the Spanish people is that they are, in fact, very ordinary, which is to say, like you and me. This is not a country of peasants, it’s actually very middle class. To be a little brutal about our expectations, when we hear people speaking in Spanish, we tend to think South or Central American, which in turn brings up the specter of illegal immigrants, working class families, and a host of images we carry from watching the Latino population in America grow from 1% to 20% in my lifetime.  But Spain is a country where just about everybody has a car, a home , and a job, and there’s not a sense that very many of these people want to go anywhere else, like, say, America. They’re reasonably friendly to tourists, but you get the sense they expect all of us to eventually go home. Sound familiar? Like I said, a lot like you and me.

Spain is part of the European Economic Community, which is to say they use the Euro.  Which means the single dollar is a coin. As is the two dollar currency. This makes for a lot of clinking as you walk along. It will never catch on here, as we are fond of our dollar bills. Try playing liar’s poker with coins sometime – can’t be done.

They don’t have a lot of bad food, unless you count the pastries, which just don’t have the zing of American munchies.  I think it’s a sugar thing – we’re just used to a ton of sugar. Want to go broke? Start a Weight-watcher’s franchise in Spain.

There is a public toilet somewhere in Spain, by the way. Or so I hear. I never actually saw one, but I know a guy who knows a guy…. I mean, there just has to be one somewhere. On the other hand, find one in Back Bay when you need it.

So it was a grand adventure, if a little scary at times.  I went out for a quick ride on our rest day with a couple of guys who used to race motorcycles. Big mistake.  On the way back to the hotel it started to rain, and I found myself taking sharp curves on a steep mountain as the sun started to fade. The next thing I know, I’m passing a bus. On a mountain. In the rain. In the dark. On a hairpin.  Thinking, wait a minute, This Is Vacation? What happened to reading bad novels on a beach?

Sometimes getting out of your comfort zone is a good idea.  I was so far out of mine, I needed a GPS to find my GPS. It was a good idea to go, and it’s an even better idea to return.



updated 3 years ago

Featured Story:

The Weary Pilgrim – Carousel Dreams, Pt. 1

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

When I think of cancer, I tend to think of breast cancer. This is because I have learned over the years that it is not a woman’s disease, it’s our disease, it touches all of us, and it is the common enemy that we can love to hate, because, as far as I have been able to tell, it is always there, waiting in the wings to come out for its frequent moments of importance, its fame that is measured in decades, not minutes, assuming we can truly win our battle with it someday, and those decades don’t stretch into centuries.

When I was a child, we had one of those Kodak carousels, a slide projector that Dad would load up with images of our most recent vacation of holiday.  If we had a few unfortunate victims over for dinner, they would sometimes get hog-tied by courtesy and have to sit around the darned thing like it was a holographic campfire and stare blindly at the projected photos of our smiling family.  

But that was long ago, and now those images are in my head, and when I lay that head against the headboard of my bed late at night, I often visit the images of my wife, or those of my sister, during their long, separate battles with breast cancer.

My sister, Kris, was an unusual woman. She was brilliant, quiet, deeply unhappy in many ways, and very overweight. Rather than shape her body to fit her culture, she merged into a culture that accepted her body as it was.  While the rest of the family were simple, everyday Presbyterians, Kris became a Pentacostal, and soon after college, moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she fell in love with a Mexican carpenter named Jesus, a quiet, simple man who neither spoke English nor possessed the kind of college or high school degree my parents had always assumed their son-in-law would have. When she told my parents she wanted to marry him, all they could think of to do was to ask her to wait a year. Which she did. She and Jesus then married, and ran a small community church in the outskirts of Tijuana, pausing from time to time to have four children. Then when she became pregnant a fifth time, during a routine physical exam, she found out she had breast cancer. Which she then refused to treat, for reasons that were never made clear to us, although I suspect she was afraid any treatment would harm her fetus.  In November of 1982, she brought her family back to the suburbs of Utica , NY, where my parents lived at the time, to visit for Thanksgiving. She never made it back to Mexico.  Her condition worsened over the holidays, and while we all looked on like the helpless fools we felt ourselves to be, she gradually slipped away.  When my parents finally found a doctor she would allow to see her, it was far to late to do anything other than make her comfortable, and once again, she would have none of that – she worried about the child inside her.  At death’s door, she slipped into a coma, and the hospital induced pregnancy.  Her death certificate read that her death was due to childbirth, a statement so profoundly anachronistic, I have never seen its like in this or the last century.

Her family remained with my parents for four long tortuous months. Her daughter, Tabitha, was two months premature, and couldn’t travel back to Mexico until the spring, and Kris’ husband, Jesus, was loath to return until Kris had been properly buried in our family’s plot on the Vermont-New York border. The image I have of her goodbye is a chilly, sunswept day in the cemetery, listening to her twelve-year old son, Josh, translate the reverend’s words to his father in a low murmur, as we all stood by, thinking, What Next?

As it turned out, the next step in Kris’s story happened in Marblehead a couple of years later. I was in my studio one day when the phone rang. “You don’t know me” the fellow on the other end said, “But I’ve seen you in concert over the years, and I feel that I know you.”  Fair enough. “I’m the Assistant Dean of Admission at Phillips Andover. Your parents brought your nephew, Josh, into our office the other day, and we liked what we saw in him. We’ve been talking, and we have a proposition: if you and your wife will take him in your home for a year and enroll him in your local high school, and he survives that year, we will favorably review his application. He’ll have to repeat the year, regardless of how well he does, but we think this is a risk worth taking.”

Talk about a Kodak moment. I knew Josh had expressed an interest in coming to America to go to school, but had no idea my parents had brought him to Andover. I told the Dean I would have to check with Carol, my wife. Which was the shortest conversation we ever had. “Of course,” she said, “Call him back and say ‘Yes’”. That conversation changed a lot of lives. Josh lived with us that year, went on the Andover, which was unbelievable difficult for him ( bear in mind he was a product of the Tijuana public school system, supplemented by one year of American high school ), and went on to Amherst College. Today he lives in San Diego, where he has his own family, a pretty good job, and calls me on a regular basis to ask me when I’m coming to visit.  

I should add another postscript to my sister’s battle with breast cancer: several years later my wife and I were able to support her daughter Tabitha, born the day she died, when Tabitha expressed a similar interest in getting an education in America. We helped her attend a school in Vermont for four years, after which she went off to Redlands University in California on a full boat. Today she, too, lives and works in San Diego where she sees her sisters and father regularly. They continue in the Pentacostal ministry, running two small churches and a remarkable institution called El Refugio, the only free elderly hostel in Tijuana.  If cancer had not stepped into my sister’s house, she would be there too today. But it did, and she is not.

But breast cancer was not done with us, not by a long shot.  In the fall of 1994 my wife Carol discovered a lump in her breast. This was a surprise, as she had had regular mammograms, one of them very recently, and the lump seemed large.  In fact it was enormous, and after a lumpectomy and several visits to various doctors, we realized that our family’s future was about to change. In fact, the changes we were about to go through was far longer, far more painful, and far more difficult to imagine than any of us could comprehend.

Copyright 2011 Mason Daring

last updated Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 12:10AM

more »