musings from boston

screams, whispers and songs from planet earth

Category: Musings (Page 2 of 10)

What’s a Little Asbestos Between Friends?

a.k.a. The Vermiculite Abatement

The Home Improvement Series, Part 4 of 10


The problem: Nasty vermiculite in the attic, under and around fiberglass batting. Extremely difficult to accurately test, as samples can vary and asbestos fibers settle over time. It was tested by the manufacturer for barium, which indicated that it was indeed theirs, and most probably contained asbestos. The presence of this godawful substance seriously complicates the sale of a home and renders the entire space virtually unusable (unless one wishes to take chances with one’s health). Not to mention the fact that it’s as messy as all get-out, and ends up everywhere if you’re not careful. The presence of vermiculite nullifies eligibility for energy efficiency rebates.

A little history: Vermiculite as an insulation material may have seemed like a good idea at the time (1920s, when the mine began operation, until 1990), but as it happened, like so many things, it was a really bad idea. The infamous Libby, Montana mine, owned by the W.R. Grace Company, became embroiled in controversy in the ’90s, when people in and around the mine began dying of asbestos-related illnesses. It was discovered that the mine was contaminated with asbestos. As part of a court settlement, money was eventually awarded to former miners, Libby residents and homeowners who used their Zonolite product (more than 35 million homes).

The metaphor: For a while now, I have been locked inside a mental prison, not seeing or believing that things in my life can change. Removal of mental toxins like old guilt, fear, uncertainty and lack of confidence is critical to my future well-being. I have been existing within narrow confines, not wanting to take changes, but the time has come to stretch out and explore other areas of experience, so I can reach my full potential.

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New Roof, Higher Aspirations

The Home Improvement Series, Part 3 of 10


The problem: The roof of my porch had started to leak, and I was fearful that the winter winds would bring further damage.

The metaphor: These past few years, I have been feeling shaky and vulnerable — physically, emotionally and spiritually. This year, I have been fortifying myself for whatever lies ahead, while trying to leave myself open to new ideas and opportunities.

It made sense to construct a protective barrier, like the roof’s new protective barrier against ice and harsh conditions. A ridge vent lets fresh air in, and I try to not close myself off completely from other people and new experiences. After threatening for years to move to the West Coast, I decide to stay on the East Coast for the time being, and focus on bettering my situation and my perception of the situation. Much of everything is perception.

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Cleaning Gutters of Mud and Small Maple Saplings that had Begun to Grow

The Home Improvement Series, Part 2 of 10


The problem: Old mud from autumn leaves and maple saplings from prior years had settled nicely and made a home for themselves in the roof gutters. Baby trees were now taking root, preventing water from freely flowing to the ground.

The metaphor: The difficulties of the past months, after losing my parents in 2017, and the subsequent paperwork, purging and self-examination, had left me emotionally “gummed up.” Old debris from my life, sadness and regrets, was getting in the way of creative flow. I couldn’t write. Suddenly, I had nothing to say. It was the worst — and longest — case of writer’s block I had ever experienced. I had the time, but no longer had the will. Not knowing what else to do, I began to unclog things on the physical plane, hoping that the spiritual plane would soon follow.

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But for the grace of god

Dear Diary,

I had a ‘but for the grace of god goes I’ moment today.

For many months, I’ve been absorbed in my life, my self-doubts, my madness. And then I was forced off my little island, away from the comfort of my lair and into the big, bad world.

Julie, the spoiled; Julie, the privileged; Julie, she with her head up her ass
with her first world problems and neuroses.

I was in the Lynn Economic Opportunity office. I had no business being there, among the truly needy — single moms struggling with multiple jobs to keep their kids fed, clothed and relatively healthy; older folks trying to get by with meager, monthly social security payments.

Why was I there? I was trying to get income verified for a Barrier Mitigation Grant, a program administered by Mass Save and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources for middle-income homeowners so they could grab a chunk of money from the state to get rid of asbestos containing materials during a home improvement project.

As I sat down to wait my turn, it occured to me that many of those who came into this office were likely homeless or living in section 8 housing. There were WIC brochures and information about Head Start and fuel assistance programs in kiosks on the wall.

And here I was, with my canvas bag full of mortgage papers, account statements from my brokerage, a passport, a list of estate debts and an inheritance.

Julie, the non-hispanic white caucasion; Julie, the fortunate;
Julie, the loathsome.

When it came time, I took a seat at the woman’s desk and prefaced my financial story with a lame apology, something to the effect of “I’m a bit embarrassed to be here, as I’m much better off than many,” followed quickly by, “I just want to say, you’re doing very important work here. Thank you.”

It sounded ridiculous, and I felt like the pathetic, self-righteous, holier than thou white girl that she was no doubt sizing me up as. But she handled my awkwardness graciously and seemed pleased with the compliment.

I wonder now how those in the Lynn Economic Opportunities office feel about acting as a clearinghouse for what’s certainly a stream of middle-class folks trying to get those elusive cash grants. She was polite enough not to let on.

What was more embarrassing was that, taking just my income into consideration, she said it looked like I was in their low-income range. Surely not! I have substantial stock and IRA portfolios, my own house, and last year, before mom and dad passed away, they supplemented my income whenever I had trouble paying the bills. But because I was a freelance worker, they immediately knocked 40% off my wages for their calculations. That’s the rules. It seemed wrong somehow.

Dad would say, jokingly, “We never should have raised you to be so honest. That will be your undoing.” Perhaps. But they also raised me to be compassionate towards others, and to recognize injustices, however slight.

They both worked in the medical field, helping people in large and small ways. Mom was a registered nurse. Dad was a medical equipment researcher, with patents for light and sound scanning devices that could detect breast and prostate cancers. They both served in the Navy during World War II. After retirement, Mom volunteered at the local blood bank and cared for an elderly neighbor whose own family had abandoned. She became my adopted grandmother. When I was young, Mom brought me along to collect old clothing for the Revitalization Corp, a charity group in Hartford. Me? I’m a wannabe writer with a few clients and a half-baked notion to write novels “someday.”

Julie — the underachiever, the anxious, the unwashed.

Helping people afford asbestos abatement, whether they’re low income or middle income isn’t really a big deal. It’s expensive work, and many people earning even $45,000 a year, especially in the Boston area, won’t have $10,000 available for a home improvement project, even for one that could have health ramifications. Truth be told, a $7,000 abatement grant is nothing compared to the special treatment in place for the wealthy, from tax loopholes to offshore bank accounts, so that they can hold onto more of their money.

Do the wealthy also ponder the unfairness of it all?

Maybe I’ll get some assistance. Maybe I won’t. But one thing I do realize now is that I must find a way to give back, somehow, to those not as fortunate as I. This is the real reason I was in that office this morning.

Julie, the awakened; Julie, the humbled; Julie, the grateful.

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The Home Improvement Series: Dead Trees and Frightful Shrubbery


This has been a very strange year for me. Circumstances forced me into the role of “homeowner” — a character I’ve never felt comfortable with, and a performance I’ve never been terribly good at. The year began with having to assess and clear out the contents of our family home (for nearly 50 years), with the intention of listing it for sale. There was never any question — debts had to be settled, and it was the only way I could manage it. The place was in rough condition, due to years of necessary neglect (life happens). I undertook a few necessary repairs, so that people wouldn’t get electrocuted and the walls wouldn’t crumble and left it at that. The house was sold “as is.”

I then turned to my own Massachusetts hovel. I say that lovingly, but the place was a mess. Not quite as bad as the Connecticut home, but close. I suddenly found myself with some funds to clear dead trees, clear baby trees from the gutters, replace a leaking roof, remove godawful vermiculite from an attic, fix broken windows, replace a rotting porch and steps — you get the idea. We’re not talking about a designer kitchen or a marble bathroom. It’s a 2-bedroom ranch built in 1955. It is what it is. But property values in the Boston area being what they are, it made sense to sink some money in.

My uncertain foray into the world of home improvements coincided with a major Saturn return reassessment of my life. What should I get rid of? What do I want to keep? How should I move forward? And the big, all-encompassing “Who Am I?”

Welcome to The Home Improvement Series.

Dead Trees and Frightful Shrubbery

The Home Improvement Series, Part 1 of 10

The problem: One day in early March, after a home inspection from my homeowners’ insurance company, I received a notification of substandard conditions. It was as it sounds. I was threatened with the cancellation of my policy if I didn’t immediately clear dangerously overhanging tree limbs and plants growing in the gutters. Though not specifically outlined in the letter, there were also overgrown bushes and vines that threatened to swallow the house whole.

I had begun to cut what things I could manage with a hand saw, leaving a graveyard of forlorn trunks. Plus, there was the crabapple tree, which had all three trunks felled by different years’ storms, one after another. Sadly, none fell into the street (which would have brought out the town DPI crew to clear it), but happily, none came through my bedroom window.

Yes, it bloomed like that, but mowing the lawn was a bitch.

Yes, it bloomed like that, but mowing the lawn was a bitch.

The metaphor: I had let my insecurities and fears grow unattended all around me, and they had taken over to the point where I couldn’t see clear of them. Without a complete clearing of past ideas of oneself and one’s situation, it is impossible to move boldly forward into a brighter future. Uncertainties, like tangled vines and gnarled branches, had blocked out the sun and prevented more delicate thoughts and newer growth from taking hold and flourishing.

After the dead trees and unsightly shrubbery pressed up against the vinyl siding were removed, each stump was pulverized to prepare the ground for something new to be planted, replacing the old with the new. It is critically important to fully remove the old ways and old ideas that keep one from moving forward in one’s life.

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Instant Karma

There’s this particular off-ramp in Cambridge, Massachusetts that takes one from the typically fast-paced Mass Pike immediately into the pages of Dante’s Inferno. Though instead of the nine circles of Hell, if one wishes to turn left on Memorial Drive, one must quickly traverse the six lanes of hellish traffic. If you have the mixed fortunate of living or working in Harvard Square and you own an automobile, perhaps you know of what I speak?

If it is late at night or very early in the morning (say, 3 a.m.), it’s a relatively simple journey across those half-dozen lanes. However, at most times of the day or night, it is a merge-happy nightmare, not at all helped by equally annoyed motorists who are loath to allow entry, even though they might have every intention of heading to the right, in the opposite direction.

So, it happened one fine day that I was driving to my friend Victor’s place. As I came off the exit ramp and approached the first perilous crossing, I saw the wall-to-wall vehicles, appearing to all the world like colorful rows of angry, snorting bulls. My heart sank. I put my left turn signal on and gently, pleadingly, tried to slip in front of a car that seemed to be slightly lagging. Immediately, a man sitting in the passenger seat put is hand up, palm out, as if to say, “STOP. NO.” He had a stiff, sour expression on his face, which instantly soured my own mood and made me very angry.

Suddenly, I hated Massachusetts drivers, despised Boston traffic, and wondered if my decision to stay in the area and not move to the West Coast was the wrong choice. I am often way too affected by others’ bad moods, and this was an extreme example. I yelled out profanities (which of course, neither he nor his driver heard), and my stomach tightened.

I let them pass, and the very next car let me in, but that act of kindness did nothing to wipe his ugly, contorted face from my mind. Then, I saw her. She was old, in tattered clothes, standing by the side of the road with a shopping basket of belongings. The homeless often panhandle for money in that spot, as there are so many trapped motorists, all day long, and who knows? Someone might be kind enough to spare a few coins or even a dollar. I usually don’t. But today, I saw her, and my heart broke. I thought about how horrible and selfish our world had become, epitomized by that severe man with his icy hand gesture.

The woman hobbled over on a cane, her clothes hanging off her. It was very cold out, and I wondered if she was warm enough. Probably not. I quickly handed her a dollar through a hastily opened window, as the lights had changed and the cars started to move again.

As soon as I had done this, I felt the weight of anger and hatred lift. I felt physically, emotionally and spiritually lighter. It was immediate.

I drove the rest of the way to Harvard Square. I usually have trouble finding parking, but that day, I turned the corner onto Victor’s street, and there was an empty space right there, waiting for me.

Was this a good deed returned?

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My Parents’ Books


They’re on my bookshelf now, these books that my parents once read. The ones that belonged to my father are an imposing presence, with titles like “The Quest for Consciousness,” “The Quantum Universe,” “On Intelligence” and “Who’s Afraid of Schrödinger’s Cat?” There are books about Einstein and about the digital age by Walter Isaacson, and elegant tomes on cybernetics, the brain and nervous system, free will and the history of optical character recognition. Their pages — hell, even their covers — taunt and challenge me. It’s as though each one is pompously inquiring, “Are you clever enough to understand even the first page of me?” I don’t know. Am I?

Dad was a smart guy. That’s putting it mildly. At the Bronx High School of Science in 1946, he was a member of the physics squad, which sounds like boot camp for the mind (and it probably was). He graduated from City College as an electrical engineer and went to work for the Burroughs Corporation, and then G.C. Dewey Corp., researching the earliest computers. In the ’60s, he did contract work for the defense department. He migrated to working in medical technology, became a key researcher and then moved to Connecticut with Mom and I in tow to start his own company, developing ultrasound and light scanning devices to detect breast and prostate cancers. He then worked on improving medical equipment for other companies.

I realized the true significance and reach of his work when I was at the Lahey Outpatient clinic in Danvers, having a mammography done. I saw the machine and casually mentioned that my dad was involved in its development. I told the lead technician his name, and she said she knew of him. She asked me to thank him for his work on equipment that had become the diagnostic standard for the early detection of breast cancer. He helped save lives. I knew what he did, but somehow never realized how important it was, or how well-known he was to those in the field. My father had none of the airs that so many in the medical profession boldly parade around with.

So, the books. I initially went through them in their Connecticut home, deciding which to take and which to sell. Nothing sold, as it happened. That privileged suburban West Hartford crowd didn’t know what to make of them, I’m sure. A colleague of Dad’s ended up claiming many of them. I had a method. If I opened to a random page, and all I saw were equations, I would give it a hard pass. If instead my eyes set upon a paragraph of prose, even if it was cryptic, I would add it to my “take” carton. Though, as it happened, I did take one of the “equation books,” just as a souvenir.

I will read them all someday.


Mom’s books are far more approachable. She wasn’t a big reader, but there are memoirs of Vernon Jordan and Albert Schweitzer, two books about the Desiderata (Mom was a huge fan and gave out framed prints to everyone she met). On a related note, the poems of Max Ehrmann sit next to them on the shelf. There’s “The Power to Heal,” about healing modalities around the world, and “The Essential Norman Rockwell,” her favorite artist. “The Golden Children of Hawaii” was probably a gift from her brother Ray, who lived there for many years.

“The American National Red Cross First Aid Manual,” 1966 edition, brings to mind her nursing days. There’s our old Flushing, Queens address and telephone number on an inside page, along with the request, please contact if found.”

I was so caught up in various psychodramas throughout my life. I am far more contemplative now. In addition, I feel rather melancholy, missing them both terribly, so these books, which bring them so readily to mind, are a great comfort. They are like old, familiar friends, gathered around in a disparate yet tight-knit group, cradling cups of herbal tea and reminiscing.

Vintage, venerable, comfortably worn lives well-lived.

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Choose Wisely


In the dream, I was at some sort of gathering. At one point, the hostess brought me to a low, large table, on which many beautiful and interesting items displayed. I was told to pick out an item from each of three or four sections that I especially resonated with.

I went to work on doing this. There were large, elaborate sculptures and smaller precious pieces that appeared to be quite valuable. It was all quite overwhelming, and I felt like I was taking a very long time to choose.

Some time had passed, and it was later on, after this exercise, which felt like I was being given gifts of my own choosing — what I wanted or wished to be.

I looked at what I had chosen, and at first was very disappointed. Before me was a set of plain leather pocketbooks in various color shades of suede or leather. Practical, perhaps, but not terribly exciting. My initial thought was that I had chosen poorly — that out of all these exotic, beautiful things, I had selected a boring set of bags.

Did I only see myself as capable of just basic things in life, and nothing extraordinary? Had I lost my high ideals and visions?

The hostess told me that it showed how I wanted to be seen by others, but she saw my disappointment. So she said she would bring back just a small selection of items and I could make another choice.

She explained how they selected many, many items as part of a class assignment, so they could do this exercise for various different people. Now it began to feel like a special gift, a sort of divination.

She set before me several sets of postcards or little pictures. I looked through them. One or two sets depicted Native Americans; perhaps some were engaged in tasks. I set aside these two sets of cards which somehow merged into one larger set.

It was after I did this that I realized what this exercise had been about. It had to do with my recent inquiry and struggle to find who I really was.

My spirit guides were helping me in my search for self and my quest for purpose.

During these excruciating months, while I have been reviewing every single possession, both at my house and my parents’, unbeknownst to me (I thought I was just being over-materialistic), I had been unsure of my true nature and unclear in my direction. What in my life held the most meaning for me? What was most important now, going forward?

It was less about reinventing who I was to be after the death of my parents, to whom I had been extremely devoted, and more a re-discovery of my true nature. I had felt lost, adrift, and now I was in the process of being found, with the help of some friends in the spiritual realm.

Waking up, I wasn’t disappointed in my lack of vision, but instead, was extremely grateful.

I had been led through a very long, dark corridor, back to myself.

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The Dollhouse


In the 1950s, it was a home of the future. There were shiny linoleum floors and wall-to-wall carpeting, with gleaming appliances and a neat lawn. The child’s dollhouse, much the same, designed to make a little girl’s dreams come true. She imagined it as her own private place — just the same as the home she grew up in.

In her land of make-believe, the rooms were handsomely appointed, neat and tidy. The master bedroom had as a regal, golden bed and elegant headboard, with a baby sleeping in a wooden cradle. A gleaming tile bathroom was right next door. There was a child’s festive bedroom, with a circus elephant, various plush toys and clowns waiting patiently for children to play with. The home, though it was modern and pristine, seemed sad and empty.



The living room, too, awaited inhabitants. A comfy red armchair, upholstered in a rich Asian fabric, kept company with a sparkly blue-black chair and round, low black marble coffee table. A white silk divan stretched out luxuriously, all under the watchful eye of a stately white marble grandfather clock, which presided over the glamorous décor with a sense of haughty importance.


This was a room imagined for gracious dinner parties, and a cocktail trolley stood waiting to entice guests with refreshments. Upon more careful inspection, there was one single child, who sat alone on a red leather sofa.
But where were the parents? In the kitchen, there was no one, and the table, sink and counter were oddly free of plates and dishes.


The little girl who was busy playing with her imaginary family wondered this also. Would the children be left unattended in such a well-appointed home? Surely not?

Her young, innocent gaze pulled back from the individual rooms to take in the entire structure. And it was then that she saw her. The woman of the house was harried and staring off into space. She sat slumped in a chair against the outside wall of the small patio on the second floor, with a look of distress on her movie starlet’s face. Her hair was untidy, and she wore a dirty dress that had a blue and white blouse and white skirt. Her bright red shoes were the only indication that she was once a great beauty who lit up dance floors and loved to spend the evening sashaying to big band music. This was when her life was more carefree and the world, a simpler place, was filled with limitless possibilities.

I can tell you that her husband was busy at work, researching and designing medical equipment that would one day save many lives. He loved his wife and their children, of course, but he was so involved in his work, it was so all-consuming, that it might have, at times, seemed like he suddenly awoke and found himself in a family unit not of his own choosing.

It is now that fantasy and reality merge, as the young girl, playing with the dollhouse, wonders about her own parents and her upbringing. Pictures of the dollhouse, being sold in an estate sale, stir something undefinable deep inside her. She allows herself to feel the grief of her recent loss, pushed out of the way to make room for endless probate papers, settling of bills, clearing of family possessions and all the other hard work that accompanies grief.

She asks herself these questions:

  1. Why was mom so sad? (it was likely related to the physical abuse she suffered as a young child)
  2. What could she have done differently to make mom happier?
  3. What questions could she have asked to show dad that she was interested in his work?
  4. Was she really uninterested in his medical research, or did it just seem too far over her head for her to comprehend? (she probably felt intimidated by his superior intelligence)
  5. Why did dad feel at a loss in relating to his young daughter until much later in life?
  6. What was it exactly that made dad so mistrustful of people? (very likely the knowledge that he was a “mistake,” an unwanted child)
  7. Did she do enough to support them?
  8. What can she do, now that they’re gone, to properly honor their memory?
  9. What would they have wanted the most? (for her to be happy, as they often said, but how does one achieve that?)

She is left gazing at the dollhouse, surrounding by sadness and unanswered questions. But a small voice inside implores her to continue, to push on, to work through it — and to write it all down.

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The Anniversary Service


They brought me here a few times, when I came to visit. This beautiful presentation of pristinely manicured formal gardens with various themes are carefully tended by their caretakers to exhibit all the wonders of nature, only better. Trees, trails, shrubs, water and stone are guided lovingly to provide a welcome respite from the disorganized chaos of human habitation of neighboring suburbs. It is the sort of place that beckons all those who set foot in its sanctum to rest, whether temporarily or, in certain special cases that are more secretive and private, for a longer duration.

Mom and Dad’s favorite spot in this natural oasis was, and still is, the oriental garden, with its serene pond, charming pagoda and elegant footbridge. Two poi dogs keep a watchful eye while birds, ducks and chipmunks hold court and bask in the kindness of visitors’ outstretched hands filled with oatmeal pellets and peanuts.

Elsewhere on the large, winding property is a children’s playground, a humble but informative science center and an outdoor aviary, where we would honor the vast assortment of ducks, chickens, turkeys, pheasants, peacocks and other feathered brethren. There is an owl and a marvelously handsome turkey vulture in larger cages, and the wild birds in the neighborhood pick up the spare crumbles of feed that don’t make it through the metal fencing. For 25 cents, you can buy a handful of beige-colored oatmeal pellets, to make your offering to the menagerie.

We made a sad pilgrimage in the Spring, to scatter Mom’s ashes. It was a place of Dad’s choosing, as they would often drive there, a short distance from their house. Dad had no use of formal and forced social events like birthdays, anniversaries — and certainly not funerals and memorial services. He preferred something quieter, casual and personal. For so many years it was the three of us, and at a time like that, you want to keep it close.

The only family member Dad would allow was my friend Victor, who brought along his much appreciated humor and expansive world view. I, of course, wrote the eulogy, and gave my best effort to deliver it eloquently, as insects nipped at my back and bullfrogs boinked in the background of the pond. I was glad to have everyone there, for moral support.

Later in the year, Dad joined Mom for their next adventure, leaving decrepit, aged vessels behind and moving on lighter, freer. Once again, the ashes were kept in their bedroom closet, until the frozen ground came alive again and the park opened to visitors. I saw the walk-in closet as a kind of bardo — a way station, if you will, between worlds.

It was just Victor and me this time at the park, and I already deeply missed my dad’s sarcastic sense of humor. As it was earlier in the year, buds were just starting to form on the rose bushes, after a hard winter and cold spring. It was their 61st anniversary, which I felt was the perfect day to reunite them. In this world, in the next world, always together.

As much as I didn’t want to admit it, my company wasn’t enough for him, to keep him comforted and content in this world. He was lost without her. The constant caring and attending to Mom in her fragile state may have been exhausting and at times soul destroying, but it was what kept him alive and feeling relevant. What was the point now?

Once again, I wrote the eulogy, a story of their life together. This time, the insects were dormant, the frogs quiet and still hibernating deep in the pond, and the fellow park visitors scarce in the chill of early Spring. In a few short weeks, the woods would once again come alive with the sounds of birds, the graceful gliding of ducks and the scurrying of chipmunks. And the trees and rose bushes would lift their leaves and blossoms in reverence and celebration.

In the evening, we dined at their favorite Italian restaurant and drank a toast to their anniversary and to their memory. In the warmth of good food and wine, I began to feel like myself again. It seemed an understated affair, for two lives so well and fully lived. But that’s what Mom and Dad would have wanted. Happy Anniversary. I miss you.

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