Seaweed Lover

Never meet your heroes, they warn. Their real world persona will never match up to your imagined excellence, and the effect will be a staggering disappointment. The only thing that can murder a hero is ordinariness. And because most of us are afflicted with that, even the best of us cannot keep our capes pinned to our shoulders in real life. Maybe a few can. Maybe Beyoncé. But better to never meet your heroes, they say.

I saw mine last night. Professor Craig Schneider, “Doc” to everyone who has ever taken his class was in town as an invited lecturer. When his son told me Doc would not only be in Boston, but would be holding court with slides and everything, I was all in. So was my friend, Lisa, who also partially credits Doc for putting her on a path to a PhD. Rooting through old photos to share with them at the event, I found my favorite shot from graduation. In this picture, Doc is younger than I am now.

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Me and Doc, May 1993

 

Texting with Lisa, we wondered if he would look any different. Probably not, we mused. We figured everyone at the lecture would fall half in love with him and decide to study seaweed tomorrow. Just like old times. I mean… it’s Doc.

Twenty-five years later, I’m sitting in an audience of prep school faculty watching Doc school us on conservation snafus in Bermuda and how DNA sequencing of algae is changing the field of Biogeography. As soon as he loads up the first slide, I’m 19 again. My first feeling was muscle memory panic that I wasn’t taking notes. Then middle aged me took a sip of Pinot Grigio, and I just enjoyed marinating in nostalgia.

Everyone has a favorite teacher: the one you wanted to impress the most, who could hold your attention for the entire 48 minutes, whose class you wouldn’t miss for even the worst hangover or the cutest boy. Doc was that teacher for me, likely for many of us. And listening to his lecture, I was transported back to those days when I could name every alga washing up on the shore of the beach in late spring. Ulva, Vaucheria, Fucus… I remembered a boy in the dining hall scribbling “Seaweed Lover” on my notebook, which made me giggle, but also filled me with a bit of pride. Apparently, I talked about algae more than the average co-ed. More normal undergrads acquired titillating memories of after-hours frat parties and naked quad antics. I kid you not, a true highlight of my college days was visiting a bog. Naturally, by senior year, I was one of Doc’s kids, an honor student doing her senior thesis under his direction.

Though he taught me how to succeed in the lab, and also to learn from failing, Doc didn’t care that I would never be more than an armchair phycologist. (Aside: Autocorrect knows how to spell Beyoncé, but does not recognize PHYCOLOGY.) I was gunning for medical school, but another year of murdering large rats in the Physiology lab left me with enough dread to switch majors entirely. This fear landed me in Doc’s office, terrified that Prof. Simmons would shun me for abandoning his projects in favor of pond scum. Plus, everyone knew if you wanted to get into med school, you had to kill those rats.

But Doc led me to a different path–one that led to a pond in a cemetery, the Long Island Sound intertidal, a publication, acceptance at a handful of medical schools, and ultimately a funded MD/PhD position. I’m not sure he knew that I credit him for all of that. But last night I got to see him, to tell him.

All these years later, Doc memories are still recounted any time I’m asked about my academic background. High school and college students—and quite often, their parents–wonder if there is some foolproof path to the kind of academic success that leads to the white coat. There isn’t. It’s usually a slog of hard-earned A’s, missed parties, and a million pots of coffee.

But if you’re lucky, there are heroes along the way. And if you’re really lucky, one day you get to meet them, tell them, and call them “friend.”

 

Who are your heroes?

 

 

 

 

Roadkill

Somewhere in my mid-twenties, a handful of years into graduate schooling, with a series of rotating apartments and a persistently ring-less finger, my dad and his best friend, Lynn, began referring to my boyfriends as “Roadkill.” I wasn’t particularly promiscuous, but inching up on 30, the sheer numbers of boys who would never be my husband got, well… numerous. More often than not, I was the one who was bored, disillusioned, or unfaithful (sorry, boys) and the one to call it quits. Thus, Roadkill.

Ty was my neighbor and probably one of my closest buddies during senior year of high school. He will always be one of the funniest people I have ever known. Carpooling to school through rural neighborhoods we once saw a horse do a yawn-whinny thing that we imitated often and at impromptu times. It was only hilarious to the two of us. “Are you cereal?” he’d ask. “Not nece-celery,” was the answer. He loved The Grateful Dead, so my Julie Andrews covers were deliciously irritating (to him) and entertaining (to me): Roooolll A-Wheyyyy the Doooo! Do you have that one friend who makes you laugh at nothing—a Jerry Seinfeld with a Pez dispenser? That was Ty for me.

Ty and I spent many bellyaching, laughing-too-hard-to-breathe nights together. Chastely. We were truly just friends. But you can imagine how well Ty went over with The Roadkill. One summer night I brought a new boy home. Ty was over for dinner, which was common. Wine was flowing, which was really common. And everyone was making fun of each other, which is in the Stockton Family Syllabus. Future Roadkill misread the room– or was too thin skinned– and got a little territorial about being the boyfriend (with its implied set of privileges) instead of the friend. Ty didn’t miss a beat.

“Whatever, dude. Next year Britt will be with some other guy, but I’ll still… be… right… here.”

Roadkill was the only one who didn’t find this funny. He didn’t last very long. The next one did, but even he ended up smeared all over the grille. Those were Lynn’s words as he and Judy poured me the tallest and tastiest vodka tonic I’ve ever had, and listened to my latest misadventures in love. After that break up, I drove 7 hours to see them, their daughter, and to languish ring-less-ly on the deck of their gorgeous beach house… and to laugh.

I met Bernie just a few months later.

Thinking about Valentine’s Day, these memories shifted to the top of my mind like the big popcorn pieces when you shake the bucket. Suddenly I’m aware of Great Loves in my life who never gave me flowers or chocolates or rings, but made me pee-a-little giggle and poured me gigantic cocktails as I plowed through the dating years that led me to the best one.

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Ty and me on my 21st birthday. Can’t imagine why all the Roadkill hated him.

Dreaming

In the dream, Joe picks me up like a little girl… high over his head… beaming at me with an imp grin like he might toss me up to the ceiling.

“Put me down,” I tell him. “You’re going to pop my implants.”

Joe laughter. Loud, unbridled joy guffaws from Joe. I’ll miss that the most.

Joe’s last will and testament directed The Stockpeople to join the extensive Burke clan and other good friends to celebrate his life. So we did just that, meeting in gorgeous Shoreham, his childhood home. We came from all four corners of the country to live like nuclear Stocktons before there were any husbands or babies or faraway jobs. The only thing missing was a golden retriever. It was exhilarating and exhausting, full of giggles and tears, ocean panoramas and pink skies. It was perfect.

My favorite eulogy was from Nancy. With classic Burke humor and love, she reminded us that Joe’s bigger-than-life persona included a larger-than-human ego. Joe was quite aware of his handsomeness, seductiveness, magnetism, and crowd-wowing abilities. He wasn’t perfect (who is?), but we adored everything about him. I read The Joy Vacuum out loud. I couldn’t get through that without ugly, gasping tears. But Joe appreciated things that were real… even if they were messy. So there was that.

I miss them already: Erin’s not-aware-how-stunning-they-are daughters, the overtall boys, the staggering beauty that accompanies the Burke genes. Why didn’t we do this sooner? We kept asking ourselves that. Joe probably had, too, as he traveled thousands of miles to visit everyone– one last time. Did he know we’d do it? Did he know we’d quit work early, board planes and ferries, rent houses, and buy cases and cases of wine? Maybe not. But if he knew we did (and we think he knew), it was just what he had imagined. We loved each other all over again and for the first time.

It was supposed to rain. Instead: this.

Joe's Sunset

One thing Joe did beautifully in his later years was to live soberly, with purpose, mindfulness, awareness, and kindness. In the past five years, Joe had introduced me to a handful of people I now call friends. If Joe thought you should probably know so-and-so, he’d broker the introduction, and then watch with great satisfaction as it all played out the way he knew it would. At his own memorial service, we could feel him mayonnaise-smearing his joyful love all over us, forcing us into a huge Dagwood sandwich of piled up people—messy and delicious.

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At least an hour late, the Burke family pulls up to the Stockton home, noisily spilling out of the family car. Joe’s body fills the frame of the doorway, and announcing in his made-for-radio voice he bellows, “THE LOUD FAMILY IS HERE.” I’m 11. He picks me up, beaming at me with an imp grin like he might toss me to the ceiling.

I don’t want him to put me down.

Making Memories

My iPod is kaput. It’s (supposed to be) waterproof. I need it while swimming laps, so instead of being BORED OUT OF MY MIND, I can just tell myself I am freestyling for seven songs. I could endure any number of unpleasant activities for seven songs. Probably. If three of them were Rhianna. Oh na na… what’s my name. Or if even one was Justin Timberlake. Mirror starin’ back at me… whoa. But today I pushed off from the wall in the lap lane without a single top 40 accompaniment to lessen the obvious torture of exercise. And 30 minutes of nothing but your own thoughts and breathing is an eternity, so I stop a bit short of that. And dammit if Barb and Arnie, my elderly swim noodle bobbing exercise pals don’t notice.

“Cut it a little short today!”

Yeah yeah yeah. I know, cancer-surviving Barb and Arnie, with your plastic visors, million grandchildren, lovely personalities, and sweet inquiries about my boys. BUT I CANNOT SWIM WITHOUT BEYONCE! So it’s only twenty minutes of back and forth and back and forth until I quit the pool to sit on the decking and swap Chinese restaurant recommendations with Barb and Arnie. Octagenarian Jews who snowbird in Florida know every dumpling dive like there is some Old Testament footnote that thou wilst be cashew chicken connoisseurs.

And this is how mornings go here in the summer… and the occasional evening, too. I find myself chatting up the oldest person in the pool, bar, or grocery aisle. The cancer-ed part of me is charmed by longevity and experiences, because I occasionally and morbidly wonder if I might not get to see that later version in the mirror starin’ back at me… whoa. But mostly it’s because we can trade gardening tips and cluck disapprovingly at the maxi dress espadrille moms ignoring their bratty kids who encroach on the lap lane. Cluck cluck.

I do have some lovely summer mommy friends, though. I might have written that I like children about as much as exercise, so it’s rare for me to share a Chardonnay with someone whose spawn I can stomach. Also, I might be a terrible person. But my boys play tennis with a gaggle of tweens that off the courts are like a pile of ever-hungry puppies that remember to say please and thank you. Our house looks like this. Every day.

Ours is the house with the yummy snacks.

Ours is the house with the yummy snacks.

We are in the sweet spot of parenting here and know it. In a few years, these boys will never choose to spend an entire night playing board games and video games and those made up games with the complicated scoring and occasional broken window… certainly not with moms upstairs. They’ll want to troll for cuties at the movie theater. In five years time, they’ll all be driving and dating and sneaky and smelly. The very idea that these kiddos once let us Twist and Shout with them during an impromptu dance party will be a remotely fond memory. We’ll miss them begging for brownies, sleepovers, and just five more minutes after spending untold hours together. But if we have Barb and Arnie luck, we’ll share these memories over our swim noodle bobbing routines in the lap lane.

Happy summer, friends. May all the bikes stop at your door.

The House with the Full Size Bars

We’re the house with the full size bars. Handing out gigantic wrapped chocolates is a Stockton Family tradition that is rewarded with wide-eyed appreciation of small spidermen and princesses, and keeps teenagers from egging the house. Also, stocking the home with enormous candy bars is, at least for me, an obstacle from eating them. I could easily consume my own weight in two-bite, fun size 3 Musketeers increments. Much like drinking wine at the catered party, where the glass is perpetually filled and the count becomes fuzzy, I’ll conveniently forget how many breaks I took with tiny Kit Kats. It takes an extraordinary number of bite size Snickers to satisfy me. But unwrapping a full bar? That’s too obvious a sin to commit.

Brodie has asked to be the door greeter/candy bar distributor this year. My ten year old is approaching the holiday with I’m-too-old-for-that disdain. This saddens me. Our smallish neighborhood with far too many darkened doorsteps of elderlies who don’t want to be bothered hasn’t provided the spooky fun spoils every kid deserves. I loved Halloween as a kid: forcing down Mom’s healthy meal in advance of the anticipated pillow case of junk, waiting forever and ever for Dad to get home (when did he say he’d be here, Mom? Is he coming? Did he call? IT’S GETTING DARK!!!), unsuccessfully refusing the warm coat over the plastic-y costume, and finally rushing out into the shadowy streets with the promise of free candy.

I’m fairly certain my Dad initiated the Trick or Drinking tradition in our neighborhood. He and the other un-costumed fathers stood at the curb with their clinking glasses of vodka and scotch and approached for refills at houses where I guess they knew a “Trick or Drink!” appeal would be honored. After the pillow cases were heavy, we all landed in someone’s family room to sort and swap while the grown ups drained their lowballs and forgot it was a school night. The next day, the city kids bragging about their absurdly large spoils from many floors of closely spaced apartment doors sounded like cheating to us. Halloween happens in the dark; and it’s a little tiring, a little chilly, a little scary, a little magical.

I’m hoping for an eleventh hour change of heart from Brodie—that he’ll swap his indifference for a ninja costume and head out into the night with his little brother and Bernie. I’m hoping that the whole romantic notion of unlimited sweets and a flexible bedtime is too alluring to keep a ten year old boy at home to tend a bowl of big candy bars. Though I love Brodie’s maturity and “old soul” approach to the world, I don’t want him to miss the fleeting fun of Halloween– a precious time of goofy, sugar-fueled excitement coupled to the safe feeling of Dads at curbs and neighborly fellowship. I want at least one more year for him to collect his own Halloween memories, and sort his spoils while discussing the ethics of the just-take-one bowl and why anyone gives out pretzels.

I’d like to think our address is included on the trick-or-treating route, as well as in the catalog of Halloween stories, for any number of teeny Harry Potters. We’re the house with the full size bars! And if you show up with less than two fingers in your lowball, you can totally count on the Lee house for a Trick or Drink pour. Happy Halloween, friends. Go make some memories.

Look at all of that fluffy goodness...

Look at all of that fluffy goodness…