Doing Massachusetts

I’m a native Californian, born and raised in paradise. The weather along our more than 3,000 miles of tidal coastline is spectacular practically every day. The Sierra Mountains are our border sentinels, over 14,000 feet at their peaks, stretching 400 miles long of pristine wilderness to world-class resorts. Ski after brunch and be tanning, running, biking on the beach by the afternoon—from mid-October through early June. Ask me my religion, and I’ll say I’m Californian. We are a culture all our own out here; active, progressive, wildly creative—fantastically separate from anywhere else, yet intricately connected to the world.

I was married a little over a year when my husband sold his software to a company in Concord, Massachusetts. A three year, onsite contract was part of the purchase deal. After the blood oath that we’d return to California when the three years were up, I agreed to leave my family, friends, and Bay that I loved, and move to one of the oldest towns in the U.S.

I’ve never been a fan of the east coast. The weather sucks most of the time. Even the young people look older than most old people in California. I’d visited Boston just once, ten years earlier. Mid-August, and it was hot and wet and sticky. The city was dirty, crowded, crumbling, aged, with an excessive number of churches. I don’t remember finding anything I actually liked about the place other than the dim sum in Chinatown.

A decade later and Boston hadn’t changed much, at least from the plane’s view as we flew through the thick air over the dilapidated city into Logan Airport. The sweltering July heat came through the crack where the gangway met the plane and felt like a sizzling brick wall. I hesitated as I stepped onto the walkway, fighting the urge to run back on the plane and beg them to fly me home.

My husband waited for me at the end of the walkway, all smiles. I wanted to slug him. He’d come to Mass. a week before me and found us a rental in Concord, and the entire drive there he chatted it up—how beautiful the historic area was; the one-bedroom with studio house he’d found with its great location just blocks from town center.

What I saw out the passenger window after passing through congested Boston and manicured Cambridge was swampland. Rivulets lined with oak, birch, and pines were all that broke up the tangled shrubs and thorny vines that covered the ground and wrapped the fallen trees. I half-expected to catch a glimpse of the Creature from the Black Lagoon moving through the dark, heavily forested rolling hills.

My mood went from bad to black as we came into Concord’s tiny town center. Culture shock wouldn’t touch what I felt. Graveyards were the front lawns of the churches that stood on every other corner. Old stone and brick buildings lined the main streets of the town. Old meaning 1600 and 1700’s. Art galleries, bakeries, bank branches and real estate offices occupied these crumbling two-story structures, which met at the town circle. Every person I saw was White.

The thick smell of mold and the cloying scent of decay hit me as I got out of the car in front of the ramshackle Colonial Inn, which was used as a hospital during the Revolutionary War, according to their bronze plaque. The air was stifling and still. I could barely breathe. People on the streets milled about as if in slow motion. Three years would be an eternity here.

The oppressive heat was suffocating. I had to find air. My husband suggested we go to the Concord River where he assured me there was always a breeze. We drove to Minuteman Park, walked to the end of a creaky wooden pier and looked out across the river to the old stone bridge where the first battle of our War for Independence was waged. I was immersed in the past and felt the weight of it upon me, but I didn’t feel any breeze. 

The screened porch of our rented one-bedroom house turned out to be a haven, shadowed from the heat and separate from the bugs, except for the hive of wasps in the dormer of the upstairs ‘studio’/attic we spent the afternoon eradicating.

Summer passed to Fall, and the brilliant colors of the foliage was only marred by the attack of the insect population as it moved indoors in search of food and shelter from the impending cold. Autumn lasted about three weeks until the first frost when everything died and became flat gray.

The only season in Massachusetts I looked forward to [back in California] was winter, anticipating the pristine beauty of snow. And its splendor can not be denied while it’s falling. But shoveling the drive, managing the icy roads, and freezing my ass off from early November until mid-April was harsh at best, and within hours of falling, the clean white blanket was speckled brown with road grim from the plows and street traffic.

Spring in Mass. brought allergies from hell. I felt like I had the flu for a straight month when everything was blooming. Then summer set in, and there was no air in the air again. There were excessively heavy rain storms though, that invariably flooded the basement numerous times from mid-July through late-August.

I’d left paradise for purgatory.

There were times of spectacular beauty in MA—those few weeks of fall, or a couple weeks in the spring when gray gave way to vibrant greens and crystal blue skies. But the days of sunlight and life were few and far between. At least through the summer months, every night at sunset was Attack of the Monster Mosquitoes! The other eight months everything was frozen or dead, and it was too snowy and/or cold to go anywhere.

For two and a half years I endured Concord. It got, if not easier, more routine serving my time there. I learned to dress for the weather, especially in layers because restaurants, theaters and clubs were usually blazing hot inside for some unfathomable reason. Other than a few affable store clerks and a couple of business associates, I never made any real friends there. Most of the people were as cold as the place, and prided themselves on their rudeness. By late fall of my third year, after totaling my car while nine months pregnant when a snowplow on the other side of the road dumped fresh snow on my side, I’d had more than enough of Massachusetts.

Two months after our son was born, and four months before his contract with the Concord based company expired, my husband accepted a job offer from a tech startup back in California.

We drove through several blizzards across the northern U.S. in mid-winter because it was the quickest route to get home. The February afternoon we drove onto Alameda Island in the San Francisco Bay it was 70 degrees and sunny. Across the sparkling blue water the sun was setting behind the city. The air was crisp, almost sweet with the fragrance of fog, the wind whipping around with the windows rolled down as we cruised along Shoreline Drive. People were walking, running and cycling along the strand. A few die-hard wind surfers were out on the bay doing their last sail for the day. And I said a silent prayer to hope that we were home to stay.

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Learning How to Learn

My daughter is studying for her SAT—her college admissions test. I never took the SAT because I got a D in Algebra in high school, twice. I took the class again, to advance to geometry, but got the same grade, forced to take it from the same teacher that didn’t explain anything the first time. No, it isn’t “just the way it is,” Mr. Mulvaney. Even algebra has a reason for why it works the way it does.

I didn’t take the SAT because I was afraid I’d fail it with no math background. In fact, every time I even thought of math, I felt anxious. I was a failure, stupid if I didn’t get it, as most of my classmates seemed to. I couldn’t apply to a California university, or any four year college worth attending without taking the SAT. Instead, I attended Jr College for two years before transferring over to CSUN. I studiously avoided math classes, as they were not required after high school.

Fast forward 5 years, and I want to apply to graduate school to study Education. Not only will I have to take GRE, which will have math, but before that, to apply to the best colleges, I have to have teaching experience, in a real classroom, which will require I pass the CBEST, which has math. Panic. How was I supposed to pass any standardized test when I never passed algebra, and never advanced to higher levels of math that was sure to be on these tests?

Enter my friend, Bert. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll teach you algebra, and geometry, and any other basic math you need. You’ll pass the tests.”

He had to be kidding. “I failed algebra twice! I’ll never be able to learn all the math I need to pass these tests.”

“Don’t be absurd. You are one of the smartest people I know. Of course you can learn math.”

The familiar terror was choking. Did he not hear me. I FAILED IT TWICE, and never advanced. I’m just not a math person. “I suck at math!”

“Not likely,” he said with confidence. “More likely, you got turned off of it by some careless teacher, and the gates in your brain shut down. All you need to do is get out of your own way. Open your brain back up, so you can learn what you need to know.”

“I’m an artist, a qualitative person, not quantitative. I hate math.” I was trying not to kill his delusion that I was smart.

“But you need to know it to pass these tests, to do what you want with your life. You have some worthy goals. Make them happen. I’ll help you.”

I didn’t want his help. I didn’t want to learn math, or, more likely not learn math, prove to him, and myself, how stupid I really was. He was being so kind it was impossible to keep defending myself. But I still did not believe him. I knew I wasn’t smart enough for advanced math.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, when I didn’t jump at his offer. “Remember the show Get Smart?”

Ok…“Yeah.”

“Remember the opening? Max enters that hallway with the thick metal doors that slide open one by one as he approaches them. And each slams shut behind him as he walks down the hall?

“Yeah.”

“Well, that’s what your brain is doing when you think of math. The doors, or gates to learning are shutting down in your head. You are so freaked out because some lazy teacher made you feel stupid, and you bought it, hook, line and sinker. Stop it! You’ll make a great teacher, or professor, or whatever you want to do with education. Learn math, and move forward.”

“You make it sound simple.”

“But it is. You just have to open the gates in your brain that make it possible to learn, well, anything.” He smiled. I did too, couldn’t help it. With his words, he’d just introduced hope.

We were sitting at Jerry’s Deli, in L.A., at the time. Bert takes the pen the waiter left to sign for our bill, and an unused napkin, and writes out a quadratic equation. I frowned, felt anxious. Here we go. Now he’ll see how stupid I really am.

“I can see by your face, you’re already freaking out.” He laughed. I scoffed. “This is good!” He was clearly excited. I felt pissed off, embarrassed. “Let’s explore that feeling. Talk to me about it, what does it feel like?”

“I feel scared, and stupid.”

“That’s your first two gates. Big, thick, metal doors shutting you out of learning. So, let’s start with feeling stupid, because that’s likely why you’re feeling scared, that I’ll see you, or you’ll see yourself, as stupid.”

“OK…”

“Do you think you’re stupid?”

“With math!”

“Our brains don’t work that way. You can’t just be stupid in one area. Either you have a functioning brain, or you don’t. Most of us have functioning brains. Are you telling me you don’t believe you do?”

I thought about that. Of course I have a functioning brain. I graduated college. I got good grades, even in high school, except for math. “I have an OK brain, I guess.”

He laughed. “So, there goes your first gate. Poof! It’s gone. It was bullshit anyway. Good riddance. Every time you think of math, or we work on equations, notice how you feel. Pay attention to how your brain is operating. Examine the messaging it’s feeding you, and the bullshit it’s telling you. Qualitatively break it down to check if it’s right. Every time your brain says, “I can’t do this. I’m not smart enough,” call BULLSHIT. YES, I AM SMART ENOUGH! Then go back to the problem, and work at figuring it out.” He took a sip of his tea, and smiled at me. “Work at it long enough, and hard enough, and you will.”

The gates in my brain…I could literally feel them all of a sudden. Bert was right. Every time I even thought of math the gates in my brain shut down. And not only with math. Every single time I found it hard to learn something, anything, I now could see it was me, getting in my own way, allowing my brain to convince me of bullshit. All I had to do was examine my own feeling more carefully, embrace the ones that supported my success, and reject those that didn’t.

I learned algebra and geometry in a three week refresher course offered through the CBEST testing program. I passed the test, and subsequently my GRE, and though I never followed through with my graduate degree in education, as my career, and having kids became my priority, I now teach at some of the top universities on the planet.

I now know, with enough hard work, I can learn, well, anything.