Friday, March 18, 2005

More old friends

So, did you miss me? I missed blogging, but my laptop was in need of a little loving care. Sadly, I’m not sure it has recovered from its display (heh, heh..) of temperament, manifested by flickering screen and a weird bluish overlay of random pixels. But at least I know where to take it now, and I have discovered that I actually can survive a weekend offline.

In one way, my survival technique displayed just another maladjustment in my wiring—I went in to work last Saturday and again on Sunday, something I have not done for a few years. The lingering effect of my hard drive crash in December is just now subsiding, and I am beginning to dig out of the giant hole into which I fell. I am making progress.

It is also a sign of progress that I don’t like working on weekends. I view this realization as an indicator of health. There were years and years during which I simply did not allow myself to question whether I liked to work weekends—it was a given. Had to be done. And I paid a price in deteriorating health, which is now slowly being restored by exposure to the glorious Vermont countryside, attention to the rhythm of seasons, and the company of beloved old dogs. Even work—in an appropriate measure—is part of the cure.

Having worked so much on the weekend, and having spent far too much time with the legislature in recent weeks (not that they aren’t lovely people and committed and all), I felt justified in hunting down an old friend for lunch on Wednesday. Hooray! Not only could he make it, he introduced me to Royal Orchid in Montpelier, a blessedly warm, wonderful, little place with delicious and inexpensive Thai food. I can imagine working my way down the menu with repeat visits, and I am likely to do just that when they open up a new location half a block from my office. I am very, very happy with this news.

I am even happier to have rediscovered a friend from over twenty years ago. As a young bride of twenty-three, I had left Georgia (the state, not Georgia, Vermont…as I have learned to say) to follow my husband to Boston. Barely I can remember how intimidated I was by this cold and busy northeastern city. I made my husband go with me on the “T” the first time, and when the train came in, I was sure I would be sucked in front of the train, dying in a sad, unrecognized and unintended imitation of Anna Karenina. I still sometimes feel very Anna Karenina in subways, but I am no longer intimidated by the biggest cities, not after twenty years in New York.

In Boston, with the best part of a masters in comparative literature completed, I was almost unemployable, but found work as a archivist. It is an obscure profession, so I will explain that this work is something like being a librarian, but with lots and lots of loose paper, with most items being unique. My boss was the first full-time archivist hired by the illustrious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her charge was to develop programs to document the development of contemporary science and technology, with particular attention to MIT’s role.

Oh, what a great time we had! There were only a few of us, and as the baby of the group, I spent most of my time in the basement unwrapping brown paper packages—the relicts of a previous part-time archivist who had collected rooms (rooms!) of material that was uncataloged and unidentified. It was like Christmas every day.

We had a tiny collection of letters from three generations of geologists, including one who wrote back from Sherman’s march through Georgia (the state) about interesting rock formations along the way. We had the obligatory papers of the founder, William Barton Rogers about whom I no longer remember anything other than bits of doggerel. One day I found an Isaac Newton holograph. We had papers of cancer researcher David Baltimore and physicist Victor Weiskopf and strobe photographer Harold Edgerton and of an all-women’s architecture firm from the turn of the last century. And to put it all in some kind of historical perspective, we had the imposing historian, Gregory Sanford.

Yes, that Gregory Sanford. The one who is now the Vermont State Archivist. He was already imposing, as anyone who has met Gregory can imagine. He is very tall, even when he tries to compensate with self-effacing demeanor. And when he braided his mustache into that enormous coal black beard, then to me as a young woman of twenty-three, fresh from Georgia…it was terrifying. Or would have been if Gregory had not been so obviously and completely a sweetheart.

Gregory was working on grant funding to do an oral history project with some of the outstanding scientists and thinkers at MIT. His own passion was for his work with George Aiken, and nobody was surprised when the grant ran out and he returned to Vermont. “Have to,” he said, never using too many words. “God’s country, doncha know.” Years later when I thought of moving to Vermont, Gregory’s comment—one of those gruff, off-hand comments that mask deep feeling—went into the mix.

We heard later that he had become State Archivist and everyone agreed what a wonderful thing, that Gregory who loves Vermont so dearly should be the person officially charged with preserving state activities and functions in paper and in bits and bytes. It’s the perfect job for Gregory, and he is the perfect man for the job. I’ll tell you that my stock went up mightily when I mentioned to friends that I was having lunch with the State Archivist (capital letters required). One friend’s eyes got big, as she gasped, “He’s wicked interesting!” and another requested a real Vermont story, just for her.

But for me, the joy of Wednesday’s lunch was neither Thai food nor consorting with a Vermont icon. It was the deep pleasure of seeing an old friend again, a friend who is very much the same as he was over twenty years ago. Gregory is still tall (6’6” although he always seems taller to a short person like me), but the beard is white now, and not quite so intimidating. The habit of running his hands through his beard while he talks is the same, and the eyes are the same. The energy of a man who loves his life and his work are exactly the same.

In many ways we don’t know each other at all. Gregory is now a family man, with long established relationship and teenage daughters, about whom he is clearly besotted. I no longer have the husband I had twenty years ago. Gregory has spent most of his years in Vermont and in love with Vermont. I have lived and worked a lot of places, and my twenty years in love with New York City are clearly a complete mystery to Gregory. But I still see the shy, oversize man who noticed when he intimidated the 23-year old me, and was kind. Maybe we each conquered our shyness—to the extent we have—in radically different ways, Gregory by embracing the home that he loved, and me by embracing change. Whatever the rational backdrop, I still see a friend. And what a gift that is!


Robert said...

You know Gregory Sanford? Oh wow! He sounds like an interesting guy.

(Anna dies! Arg! I'm only halfway through the book!)

Jean said...

Karen, I missed you, and enjoyed this story very much.