I [Heart] the Hub

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I “graduated” recently from Harvard University, along with honorary doctorates Meryl Streep and David Souter and about two dozen new BFFs, aka Nieman Fellows. I put the verb in quotes because technically we don’t earn degrees or graduate; we audit Harvard classes and attend thrice-weekly programs and seminars at Lippman House, the program’s home base.

Monica, Audra, me and Janet at our faux graduation.

We earn “certificates,” which were handed out to us the week prior by Harvard President Drew Faust, who encouraged us to become the leaders of the new-media world. Faust spoke openly and engagingly, including about what it was like for her to travel abroad as a representative of Harvard and be “treated like a head of state.”

I can’t say we’ve been received as heads of state, but the Nieman Fellows have been feted and fed and saturated with enough intellectual fodder to last a lifetime, as I’ve tried to describe on this blog. We’ve been plucked from disparate newsrooms (and home offices) across the world and thrown into a challenging, welcoming environment that’s designed to send us back to our communities with renewed vigor and curiosity.

Among the things I’ve learned:

The Beeb (center) took me and Janet on an equally grueling hike in Quincy recently.

• How to serve a drop-ball in squash, a game I’ve become so enamored of that I’ll play even if it means re-aggravating the sciatica I pulled during my first time out last fall. (Props to my squash mentor, Martha Bebinger, who set a terrible example early on by diving for every single shot.)

• That Harvard professors were accessible not just through their lectures but also over drinks and dinner. Special thanks to Africa historian Caroline Elkins and public health professor Kathy Swartz, who were especially adept at dispelling the myth of the aloof, pinky-raised Hahvahd scahla.• That only Americans would add M&M’s into trail mix. This tidbit is courtesy of skinny South African pal Janet Heard, who also taught us our new favorite exclamation: SHAAAAAAAaaaa! It translates loosely to: Wow! Or, holy shit! Or, somebody get me a stiff gin-and-tonic! (In the realm of our dozen-plus goodbye gatherings, sending off the South Africans will be the hardest. They are the Scarecrow to my Dorothy; I’ll miss them the most.)

• That it’s possible for a municipality to spend twice as much per capita per school child than the norm, but only if it has pothole-riddled roads that would rival any Third World country. (Note to incoming Niemans: If you’re thinking of buying a new car, wait until the year is over. Our suspension is totally shot.) No wonder the Massholes are so crazed behind the wheel.

• That children continually surprise you. Max, the sullen 16-year-old, was so angry and depressed when we got here that he “quit” school on the second day. (We talked him into going after lunch.) Now, of course, he doesn’t want to leave — although we did have to bribe him with $10 bucks to participate in the year-end Nieman Kids photo. Eleven-year-old Will, on the other hand, told me at the end of the first day of school that no one talked to him at recess. “But that’s OK because that’s always how it is on the first day of school when you’re the new kid,” he added. (I covet his level of maturity, I really do.) Three days later, he was elected class rep by a bunch of kids who still like to tease him about his “country accent.” But now, he’s the one in our family who most wants to return home to Roanoke.

• That my husband happily carved out his own role as a so-called affiliate. Not only did Tom work full-time while sitting in on regular classes. He also had a mini-premiere of the film he co-produced, “A Gift for the Village,” with velvety-smooth narration by Nieman Lisa Mullins, anchor of BBC’s “The World” program. He gave his own sounding (life/work story) in May — and had everyone in the room laughing. He also initiated our buddy Steve Pike into the world of

Tom and Steve in Colorado -- or was it Vermont?

Landon Brothers: taking Steve to Vermont to snowboard with his crazy brother Mike and later to Colorado, to snowboard with his even crazier brother, Rich. He did untold favors for people here, just as he does back home — from video editing to technology training to printer-unjamming. And now he’s busy trying to figure out how we’re going to pack everything we brought up here into that 16-foot Penske truck, plus a couch we bought in the fall, plus a hutch and seven dining room chairs given to us by our Nieman pal Anita Snow. (They’re mementos from her AP days in Mexico City and Havana and, unfortunately for her/fortunately for us, they won’t fit into her tiny, ultra-expensive new apartment in New York, where she’ll be covering the United Nations for AP – but we will, when we come to visit!) Oh, and while we packed we helped the South Africans throw a braii (barbecue) to herald the opening of the South African World Cup. SHAAAAAaaa!

Gary Knight, our fearless default leader, on our winter outing in Stowe, Vt.

• And lastly, that I really, really hate goodbyes. It’s why I’ve been putting off writing my last Nieman blog entry. I’m one of those who likes to leave the party fairly early — while it’s still going strong — with a thank-you hug to the host and a quick exit out the back door. About half our buddies have already taken off for various points across the globe, from Kandahar to London to Toronto to NYC. We also miss our favorite Zimbabwean princess, MIT journalism fellow Firle Davies—known across the commonwealth for shouting “F—ing savages!” at passing cars who inadvertently splashed her and her tail-slapping Lab, Jessie, as they trudged through the cold Cambridge rain.

Will, the Zim Princess and Tom in Elkins' Africa course. "I didn't understand any of it," Will said. "But now I've been to Harvard."

We gave Firle an “I [Heart] Boston” T-shirt as a going-away gift because she so did not [Heart] Boston, especially the weather. But even she’s reported, via e-mail from her thatched-roof home in Harare, a growing fondness for the place. I think it’s us she misses the most. . . although it may also be our steady electricity. And her daily Bikram.

No ironic Boston T-shirt necessary for me; I do love the Hub (you gotta love a place that officially nicknames itself the Hub of the universe) — but not for its pomp and grandeur.

I love it because of all the great people I’ve gotten to know so well, so quickly here — a rarity in middle age. Or as our default leader Gary Knight put it the other day at maybe the seventh going-away gathering of the month: “This kind of friendship will probably never happen again in our lives.” (He’s the default leader because he and his fantastic journalist/wife, Fiona, have ended up hosting the most parties. And though I’m older than Gary by a couple of months, I’ll always see him as a kind of big brother/journalism adviser/shrink.)

Friendship like this is something to be grateful for, and to hang onto, as we leave the Hub and head back to our far-flung locales and beloved old friends, and set about realizing what a gift this year has been.

Crossing one off the Cambridge bucket list

Near the top of my long list of things to do and see in Cambridge before we return home was to spend an afternoon touring the neighborhood of  longtime Cantabrigian Jan Gardner, who helps edit Nieman Reports. A former Boston Glober who still writes the paper’s Sunday Shelf Life books column (and did a fabulous interview last week with recent Pulitzer winner Paul Harding, whose “Tinkers” I’m dying to read), Jan took me on a two-hour walking tour of a community that turned out to be much more interesting that its name: Area 4.

Somewhere betwixt Central and Inman squares, Jan’s house is located around the corner from The Lost Sock Laundromat. It also sits smack-dab between a former VFW Hall that’s been refashioned into a mosque and a Jewish synagogue, and — get this — the two disparate congregations collaborate to feed the needy.

Arriving on foot at Central Square, we began by checking out some of the city’s colorful murals, including this one, painted on the side of Harvest Co-op Markets. A few blocks away Jan told me the story of Keezer’s (alas, it was closed), a longstanding used-clothing store specializing in suits. Presidents JFK and FDR were said to have consigned some of their formal wear at the end of the Harvard school year to score some summer-break cash. Had they been in the Nieman program, they’d have been trading them in for suits of a bigger size.

I’ve written before about Cantabrigians’ tendency to load their sidewalks on Sundays with freebie giveaways (in anticipation of Monday trash day), and here Area 4 did not disappoint. We soon ran into an old writer buddy of Jan’s named Bruce, who was found looking through an assortment of old suits and menswear. (Don’t know why the original owners didn’t take them to Keezer’s instead.) I’m not into suits, but I did manage to nab the very cool houseplant that Jan’s holding for me in the above photo.

We spent the rest of our walk nudging into cozy garden spaces, including this gloriously small Franklin Street Park with its Zenlike granite entranceway shaped in the sign of pi, with a wonderful glider for a bench.

Down the street we admired a hand-forged wrought-iron gate adorning a front-garden fence, with peek holes for the nosy gardener in me. We wandered into a nearby Open House for the heck of it (gorgeous, but a 2,000 square feet condo — for sale at $800,000!) and, yes, the realtor informed us, an offer had already been accepted.

After an arm-length spinach-mozzarella dosa at The Dosa Factory in Central Square, we capped things off with a short drive to MIT so Jan could show me the $283 million Stata Center, a Frank Gehry-designed Seuss-ism that makes Roanoke’s new $66 million Taubman Museum look like my four-square house in comparison. Architecturally, modern MIT feels a world away from the rest of Cambridge, with its buckled brick sidewalks and cozy crannies and signs proclaiming that In 1649 Something Very Special Happened Here.

There are so many irresistible places to explore here, I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface. But I know this: I’ll miss it like crazy. And I haven’t even made my way yet to the new Lord Hobo, the mecca of craft beer, with 40 different kinds on tap.