Payback

I met Tony a quarter century ago in a small class of budding writers who were handpicked by our Trinity professors to become Writing Associates. Class convened around a conference table where we discussed writing, and writing about writing. We were an eclectic group of college kids: a scientist (me), the stunner (Julia), the talent (Lisa), the boy who knew all of the big words (Ran), the comic genius (Nancy), and Tony.

Tony, despite his bespeckled, Philosophy brainiac persona was essentially a jock. A Jock in the Writing Center. Tony regularly threw balls to and snapped towels at boys I would never know. As a rather serious Biology major who divided her time between the library and the lab, my tiny social circle would never overlap with Tony’s. And yet there he was, all fit and baseball-capped and talking and writing in ways that defied my prejudices. We became fast friends.

Today is his birthday, and I’m all wistful about those moments in our early twenties when Tony and I were sure we were the smartest and most interesting people in any room. One of those rooms was the 35th year reunion for the rather infamous Class of ’63. We were on campus for our own 5-year celebration, but Tony was invited to the swanky dinner with the silver foxes as a special guest: Tony was the first Class of ’63 scholar. They were expecting a witty and pithy update on their investment.

Tony and I quit our classmates and headed across campus. Memory fails, but I probably insisted that Tony let me tag along to dine with the titans of industry and lords of Trinity’s yesteryear. I’d always liked men who were older, men who knew things. They were infinitely more interesting than the boys in the tent on the quad who were lying about their jobs or groping drunkenly in the name of nostalgia. We grabbed drinks, Tony introduced me to our tablemates, and the speeches began.

It went something like this:

Tony (whispering): I have no idea what I’m going to say.

Me: You just graduated from an Ivy League law school. I think they’ll be, you know, proud of you.

Tony: Ok. Yeah. I got this.

And on cue, Tony was asked to stand and share a few words. With a knowing grin that can only mean mischief —which you know well if you know him— Tony stood, probably winked at me, and began:

“I’d like to introduce all of you to my friend Britt…”

The next five minutes he devoted to how we met, my academic accomplishments and accolades and research, his certainty about my bright future, and probably some nod to how pretty I looked. Their first Class of ’63 scholar gave a thorough report about… me. He might have thrown in at the end some little snippet about their support of his college years that led to a law degree and a coveted job at a Boston law firm, but no one would have been surprised if Tony dropped to his knee and pulled out a little box. His very public lauding even made it into their Class Notes, where they wondered, in a very gentlemanly, Class of ’63 way, if Tony’s speech had led to some other action ‘neath the elms.

Though I love Tony madly, we’ve always been buddies. And I’ll always recall that dinner with a giggle. Tony took a moment that should have been all about him, and made it all about someone else because 1. It would make a great story later, and 2. It would be hilarious in the moment, and mostly 3. No one was expecting that. That bizarrely fun evening 20 years ago is a fond memory of a boy who remains a treasured friend. When we’re together, we are still pretty sure we are smartest and most interesting people in any room… and we’re still writing, and talking about writing about writing. In so many fabulous ways, nothing has changed—which is how forever friendships work.

Happy Birthday, to my still sporty, ever-the-jock Tony. I may have embarrassed you the teeniest bit in the very public affirmation of my longstanding affection for all that you are. But payback’s a bitch, old friend, and you’ve enjoyed a 19 year reprieve.

(And if now you want to know more about Tony, go here. It’s fabulous stuff.)

Tony Picture

Tony: lawyer, jock, stud, philosopher, and friend

“F” is for Florida, by Steve Safran

In 1973, my whole family lived here. Twenty-six of us were in New England, and that was just on my mother’s side. From Nana and Papa right down to lucky cousin #13, most of us lived within 20 miles of Boston and braved entire Red Sox seasons and decades of snow-melt sprinkling and shoveling together. When power went out in one of our towns, we just packed up and piled into the closest cousin’s house that still had cable. Today from that group, it’s just Aunt & Uncle #1 and cousins #2 and #3 who still need puffy coats. The rest moved to Florida.

Florida.

My grandfather moved the family hardware business in the mid-‘70s (one I regret not going into, given its success), choosing America’s longest-lasting penis joke as a permanent residence. He eventually lured the majority of the family to follow him to the crotch of the nation. Well, one moved to Louisiana. But that’s just the Florida of the South. Ask northerners who move to Florida why they would do that on purpose, and they’ll tell you, “I got tired of the cold.” To which I add, “You’re always cold. Now you’re just cold when it dips below 70.” I was born in a snowstorm in January– about a mile from Fenway Park. Two things I know and love are snow and baseball. Why would anyone leave this? We hearty few refuse to fly south to escape weather that was designed for unflattering jackets and four months of whining because we’re New Englanders! But to add insult to frostbite, we have to hand over entire paychecks to JetBlue to visit these thinner-skinned relatives… in F-ing Florida.

With our holidays wrapped, and family fleeing to Friggin’ Florida, it was time to reunite the best substitute for actual blood relations: old friends. Agent 99 and I had a little cocktail party last weekend. Britt, Tony, the splendid Gammonses-Browns and Jason gathered at my Mall-à-terre. I made rum punch and 99 shared her mulled wine recipe. (“Just put in these spices and a lot of alcohol.”) With some amusement, I noticed that when drinking, we all turn into ersatz cousins, brothers, sisters and those two uncles who know exactly how to fix the world. Uncle Left wants to have a 100% inheritance tax (“Fuck You, Trust Funders!”). Uncle Right is tired of the slackers (“Fuck You, Freeloaders!”). And at the end of the night everyone still loves each other, making plans to do it all over again next year.

I dropped off my snowbird parents at Logan Airport early Friday morning, feeling like they must have when they delivered me and sister Boo to summer camp: “Have an awesome time in the sun… see you in two months!” Actually, I suspect they felt a mixture of relief and excitement to be rid of us for a handful of weeks. But there was probably a bit of that aren’t-you-lucky-to-avoid-local-weather-and-responsibility sentiment. Now it’s their turn to enjoy rest and relaxation in perfect, puffy-coat-free weather. Escaping frozen pipes and ice dams and slippery sidewalks and AccuWeather warnings of a doozy of a storm on the way, my parents were only too happy to get settled in Fabulous Florida.

But after only twenty hours in penis-shaped paradise, a text from Mom:

“Snow?”

Enjoy the storm.  I certainly will be.

Refusing to leave the blue zone...

Why New Englanders have only f-bombs for Florida…

Writing to be liked

My college application essay probably sucked. I cringe at what teenage Britt included on one sheet of dot matrix. No doubt I dragged my gymnastic and typing accomplishments into an argument for personal betterment. (And what prestigious university isn’t recruiting self absorbed, inter-office-memo-drafting cart-wheelers?) No doubt the essay was very serious and heroically boring. But at the blue eye-shadowed age of 17, nothing had happened yet. Anything worth recounting in five sassy paragraphs was far off in my mammogrammed future amongst Asians, so I probably typed the usual drivel that drives admissions staff to an early and generous pour of single malt. Recently, a lovely and accomplished high school senior asked me to take a crack at her college essay. And because it wasn’t me who needed to impress some faraway grownup with a red pen, I transformed into a charming, competitive-swimming diabetic fluent in French. Je suis tres amusant avec une pompe de insulin sous ma lingerie! It was super fun.

Sometimes this is how the best writing happens: ignore any assumptions about the audience, and write for the sheer joy of it. Jenny Polk, an old friend with thousands of Twitter followers, wrote to me, “I would never have the guts to say f**k in my posts!” Presumably, that’s because her mother-in-law is a follower. I think potty mouth has all but lost its shock value, and the f-bomb sometimes provides the perfect staccato for an angry sentence. I wouldn’t recommend incorporating it into the Harvard essay, but for a silly blog, no one cares a fig. And as soon as I start worrying about how my own mother-in-law is going to react to scatological word choices, any written missives about moon cakes (vile) or Chinese food preparation (arduous) or energy work (hilarious but effective) will suffer for authenticity. And after two years posting sassy paragraphs peppered with baser adjectives and exclamations, I’ve received nary a complaint… but quite a few editing gigs.

I’ve been doing rewrites for family and friends, scientists and students for a quarter century. Even though I’m certain my own admissions essay was met with groaning, future literary endeavors (inspired by the inimitable Professor Kuyk) landed me a paid job in the college Writing Center. Training to become a Writing Associate involved one semester at a roundtable with other faculty-endorsed “writers” writing about writing. This was before anyone used the word “meta.” Professor Beverly Wall was an enthusiast for something called “desktop publishing” and encouraged us to “post” our papers on a school-sponsored “intranet.” In effect, we were all contributing to a classroom blog, although that word hadn’t been invented yet, either. In the early ‘90s, we found this tedious: we wanted to discuss our work, not type criticisms with a blinking cursor. Also, there was no “like” button.

It’s impossible to imagine a gaggle of college kids loath to type opinions onto a shared server, since this form of communication now eclipses all others. But those were ancient times when writers feared more than welcomed an audience with the ability to disparage your five paragraphs with one calamitous (or anonymous) comment. Modern writers are cursed and blessed with ubiquitous readers. Everyone loves to be “liked,” but your most and least favorite Facebook status updaters are testimony to the influence of audience on the tone and quality of a sentence. As I wondered if an adolescence of misspelled texting and like-clicking critique is ruining the written word, I read that Tufts University is now accepting video submissions in place of the compulsory essay… and that article used the word “interestingly,” so you be the judge.

A handful of my old Writing Center relationships have endured and their work still gives me goose bumps: Nancy’s guffaw-inducing comedic rhythm and word choice, Julia’s pretty handwriting reflecting her outer beauty and inner complexity, Tony’s brilliantly fashioned lefty opinions devoid of lawyer-speak, and Ran’s latest series of stories that will make you hmmm and ahhh and hate him a bit for being so fucking eloquent. I still swoon for a beautiful sentence; but now I blog, email, instant message, and craft silly statuses, because that is the stage for contemporary writing. I also edit college essays to stifle the sort of schlock I wrote before I had the chutzpah to make an admissions officer giggle… before I had a voice… before I stopped writing to please an audience instead of marinating in the sheer delight of having one.

CALVIN AND HOBBS