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Something on MIT zephyr just randomly triggered a memory of a story my mom used to tell.

Ten years or so before I was born, when my sisters weren't in school yet, my dad (or perhaps my mom's uncle Jesse) shot a bear in the woods the other side of the pasture. We had about 12 foot ceilings in our basement, so naturally enough my dad skinned and dressed the bear and hung it in the basement, in preparation for butchering it and smoking, canning and/or freezing the meat.

Now my mom grew up on a ranch in Oregon, and her dad made part of his living as a government trapper. So a bear hanging in the basement didn't strike her as an especially odd thing. So the next morning at breakfast time, without giving it much thought, she sent my sister Jo to get something out of what we called the fruit room — a rodent-proof room in the basement where we kept canned goods and various foods that were amenable to storage in a cool dry place.¹

My sister emerges a few minutes later at the top of the basement stairs, with a jar of whatever it was and eyes the size of, in my mom's telling, milk-bottle caps.²

Mommy? Is that a people down there?

¹ We moved off the farm when I was eight, so at this juncture the only foods I'm sure I remember us keeping in the fruit room without preserving them are root crops: beets and potatoes, in particular. Perhaps because they were the ones in bins low enough for me to get at.

² Unless you're familiar with old-school glass milk bottles, that's probably bigger than you think. Call it 6 cm or so.
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I had a lovely day today, which just closed on an especially lovely note.

This morning and part of the afternoon, Alyse and I volunteered at the National Braille Press, where we collated a book for their Children's Braille Book Club: Every month, they get a current children's book title from a print publisher. They remove the spine, interleave transparent pages of braille, containing both the book's text and descriptions of the illustrations, rebind it — producing a book that can be read together by both sighted and blind readers — and then sell for at most the cover price of the original print book.

(Let me just pause here to say what a fantastic idea this is. Not only for sighted parents of a blind child, but imagine: with this, a blind parent can read a picture book to his or her sighted child. Or a sighted and a blind child can sit together side-by-side and read the same book.)

It turns out that braille is difficult or impossible to machine-collate, because the machinery tends to crush the braille. Yes, the geek in my feels like this is a solvable problem, and the wheels are turning in my head even as I write this. But in the mean time, that's why Alyse and I and a dozen other volunteers spent about four hours collating today.

In the process, I discovered two absolutely delightful children's books: The one we were collating, Weslandia, a delightful fantasy about a nerdy kid who ends up creating an entire new world in his back yard. And another, which I found while browsing previous titles they'd done at lunch time, Is Your Mama a Llama?
"Is your mama a llama?" I asked my friend Dave.
"No she is not," is the anser Dave gave.
"She hangs by her fet and she lives in a cave.
I do not believe that's how llamas behave."

To top the day off, I just got off the phone with my sister, Marliene. Mars was a teenager when I was born — which means that when she was in school, no-one knew what learning disabilities were, and the smart, inventive young woman, with her imagination teeming with amazing stories — the big sister that I adored — was going off every morning to Hell in the form of high-school, to be mocked and made to feel stupid and to nearly fail to graduate. (Not that learning disabilities were her only problem Mars also has neurofibromatosis, which you may know as The Elephant-Man disease. As a small child, this produced a growth on her tongue, the removal of which left her with a life-long speech impediment. As a teenager, it produced a fist-sized growth on her shoulder. Yet she was then, and has been for my entire life, the warmest and most joyful person I have ever known.)

Fast-forward about thirty-five years, to the summer of 2004. Mars was working as a teaching assistant in a pre-school in the small Canadian town where she's now spent most of her life. Wishing she could do higher-level work; feeling well-qualified to do such work, but constrained by her lack of credentials. We're talking on the phone, and I tell her — honestly; because it's the truth — that she's the bravest person I've ever known. After explaining how my experience with cancer gave me a clearer understanging of what courage is (in a nutshell, that courage is not at all what most people — people who've never had to be brave — think it is: Rather, it is simply doing what you have to do, given the hand you've been dealt), I explained why she's the bravest person I know. And she accepted it.

Next thing I know, Marliene, who has avoided school like the plague for all those years and has barely ever in her life even touched a computer, has signed up for a certification program in early childhood development, which is administered remotely, and mostly via the Internet. She was terrified of failure. And she did it anyway.

She just called me to tell me she'd received her final grade in her final class — and it was an A+.

She has gotten all As or A-pluses in all of her classes. I could not be more proud.
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Sometimes — I'd be willing to bet it's when he's had a long day — the guy in the upstairs apartment's gait walking up stairs sounds just like my father's used to. He got home a few minutes ago, and today was one of those days. A fact which would probably have escaped my conscious notice had he not paused for a couple of seconds on the second floor landing: right outside the door that's at my back when I'm at my computer. I thought I heard keys jangle — I suppose he stopped to find his front-door key. He was really only there for a couple of seconds at most. But by the time he started up the stairs again, my breath had caught and the hair on the back of my neck was standing up.

My father has been dead for more than half my life now. But the thought of him outside my door can still strike terror into me.

I've long since forgiven him. Learned to admire and love the things that were good about him. I've tried to understand the forces that made him what he was; the demons he fought and often lost to. I accept that he was the best man he could figure out how to be with the tools he had. But give me the momentary illusion that he is somehow for the first time in 25 years standing outside my door and all that goes out the window. And only the fear remains.

I thought I was over this. I distinctly remember the last time it happened: One day in the early '90s I was walking between Harvard and Central, when suddenly there was an old white pickup like he used to drive coming down Mass Ave toward me. I was looking for a shadow to hide in before I knew why.

It wasn't that I was over it: it was that there aren't any late '60s white Dodge pickups on the road anymore. And I hadn't happened to live in the same building as someone with the same gait as his.


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