Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Ratel

I had an interesting animal dream the other night. It started with a familiar motif: A distant, incredibly tall treetop around which several magnificent hawks and eagles are wheeling and alighting. It occurs so often in my dreams it could be the logo at the start of a film, like the stars arcing over Paramount's mountain.

The focus shifts to a nearby bush, snow-covered and sprinkled with red bits of fruit that resemble strips of red pepper or pimentos. And a flock of small gray birds is making short work of them, plucking them clean. One small bird remains near the top: a pygmy owl, gray and soft-feathered. Thinking it needs rescuing, I lift the little owl off the bush and bring it inside my house. Then the dream pulls a fast one. As I'm stroking the owl's soft feathers, I realize that they're not feathers; they're fur. The bird I have saved is a mammal, and it is growing rapidly. I put it down on the ground, and now it's the size and has the black and white colors of a skunk. Except the tail is stubby. I hastily put it outside. It looks around a bit and then attempts to come back in through the sliding glass door, but I won't let it. In fact, I kick it as far as the neighbor's side yard. I feel guilty, and the maybe-skunk's non-reaction confuses me. You'd think it would have immediately sprayed me with a jet of skunk juice, but it didn't. Maybe it's not a skunk. At one point it blunders into something that detonates in a straw-colored starburst. Poor dumb moke. But it's still dangerous.

The following night's dream brings a rare continuation: the critter is back! I'm watching it from a third or fourth floor window, looking down upon a small park. There it is, roaming around, the size of a tapir now, and with a more even pattern of black and white. I think I know what it is. I think it's a ratel.  Also known as a honey badger, found in Africa. Those facts don't enter into the dream. Just that this must be a ratel, big as a small horse, a wild animal of unpredictable behavior. People should be warned.  Later in the dream I'm staying with friends in their rustic hilltop house in the woods. I know that my friend Henk is a hunter, and I suggest that he get his shotgun and shoot the ratel dead. The dream ends without this happening. But I wake up reflecting thatI have gone from petting a cute little owl to booting a phlegmatic skunk into the neighbor's yard, to recommending a kill shot on a ratel. Quite an evolution.

Not long after it occurs to me that ratel is an anagram for alert. And later. And alter.


It's about me and nature. About what's become of our relationship. Even in this blog, between 2009, trying to notice every seasonal nuance, and now, nothing to observe between January 19 and April 18. It snowed. We went to northern California one week in February and sawSpring (someone else's), saw daffodils and tulips, and now Spring has made its way to New England. So the ratel is nature,  or maybe it's me—Honey to my wife, Carol, but badgering myself. Okay, fine, it's both; roll the film, someone get the light...

It was an early connection, going back to the woods that bordered the house I grew up in (age 5 to 12) in suburban Stamford, Connecticut. There in my Cub Scout years I discovered sassafras mitten leaves, wood thrushes, flickers, skunk cabbage, the fantastic scarlet tanager, moseying black-shelled turtles in the grass, and the rumor of water moccasins lurking around giant boulders.

After my dad died we moved to El Paso, Texas (age 13 to 18), where family was, and nature turned foreign: chaparral, lizards, roadrunners, and walking stick insects or large pale moths clinging to the kitchen screen door. 

College in upstate NewYork: nature and I kind of drifting apart, save for shockingly cold winters, trumpeter swans one time on Lake Moraine, and scallop-shell fossils everywhere.

Dropped out of grad school, saw America, dropped back into UBC in Vancouver  (age 24 to 37) began to romance nature in writing: wrote a kids'  book about an old character from the 1880s named Lunch Counter Jones who shows up in the 1980s and befriends animals and shares folksy stories with them.

And finally, back east to Boston, where I took to roaming meadows and woods and wetlands and writing about it for fun, and became more of a birder, stalking brown thrashers, Blackburnian warblers, indigo buntings, and the fantastic scarlet tanager. 

And then in 2009, three things happened in fairly quick succession: 1. I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, 2. I got laid off from my 20-year job as a textbook editor, and 3. I started this blog called Old Hatch's Almanac, writing about time and nature: The Ary boys, Janu and Febru, and March forth! and the birds and bards of April and May Questel (Betty Boop) and June fireflies and rounding Cape August and Laurel and Hardy singing Shine On Harvest Moon in the French Foreign Legion and front-porch pumpkins and my namesake October and memorious November and the revels and  revelations of December. But you can only make those rounds so many times before you start repeating yourself or worse, taking it for granted, or even worse, stop noticing.

Which is why I'm now going to rise from the chair, reach for my hat, tuck my laptop into my backpack, and take some time to reflect on the ratel, and the nature inside—aging, Parkinson's—as well as outside. My goal is a new edition of this blog, perhaps with a book in mind, and probably under a new name. And with that I will saunter out the gate toward the depot like Laurel and Hardy, one more time...

Monday, January 19, 2015


I think it's time to write about something besides writing,  

Not birds. Or maybe not-birds. Ed Hazell and I drove out to Forest Hills Cemetery in a remote corner of Boston to see a reported black-backed woodpecker, which is usually a bird of the Canadian north. Sun just rising -- I drove straight into it, plus the windshield slow to de-fog; had to pull over once. There was also black ice when we arrived at the cemetery. 

Gates were locked. We managed to thread our way through a car-wide passage around a storage facility, and found our way to the spot, a small rise where the gravestones of Henry O. Aldrich and several Pilkins back onto a copse of trees, a small slice of a woods.This was where the woodpecker had turned up every morning between 8 and 9:30. Does this story end with a stunning view of Picoides arcticus flaking bark off a spruce? No. We stood around with a handful of other binoculared and long-lensed suitors, listening to other birds--nuthatches and chickadees. A red-tailed hawk came by. We glanced at our watches, not surprised, more like routinely disappointed. Which eventually becomes an only slightly less valuable outcome than if we had seen it. Because we had engaged with the world  and maybe were seen by the woodpecker, which doesn't count. But we do.   

One not-seen black-backed woodpecker

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Square Don't Care

I like writing in graph-paper notepads. I've probably got a dozen of them in assorted piles, in various sizes and bindings, more of them started than finished. If you need a straight west-to-east line to provide a shelf for your words, it's there, but it's also tolerant if you wander off a bit. 

The page doesn't say "Write this way" like standard ruled notebooks do. The vertical lines and the horizontals have equal status, collaborating on a light grid with a trustworthy but unofficious function. It makes a background murmur like the Grand Concourse of Grand Central Station Uniform but not blank.

The empty page extends an ironic bow: a combination of "we've been waiting for you" and "pardon our appearance." The squares may offer nothing—zilch—or fanciful doodles. They could be mosaics, crossroads, or cells containing anything, including your own beeswax. Words find good traction along these boulevards, especially in the smooth black ink of a gel pen.

The squares could also be units of time, a template for a universal calendar, currently empty of events but accepting donations. With what to fill this screen? Drops of paint or nectar? A challenging crossword puzzle, the movie reviews in the Friday Times? The latest news from Paris? 

Fill these cells with a harmless essay, doing your exercises, making excuses, doing the dishes, drawing cartoon people with big noses. They could be peeping-tom windows in an apartment building, portals to the past or to Neverwas.

Anyway at some point you're going to move from those cubbyholes to this white blogpost (Russian for "blizzard on the trackless steppe") where famous writers pad by silent as ghosts and watermarks; and imaginary monkeys bang away at typewriters, writing everything that has been written and will be written, including these words, which is both reassuring and frustrating. Yes, it validates you—this too is literature!—but how do you avoid plagiarizing from these rhesus pieces?

Fortunately, the square don't care.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


The garbage truck gulped down a few more Christmas trees on Allen Street today. A sure sign that the patina of New is giving way to the under-layer of  Nu? which is Yiddish for “So?” with a dose of irony: So: what did you expect? So, whaddyagonna do?  So, that’s life.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with New. I like preserving that New Year’s spun-sugar Faberg√©-egg pristineness all day, taking a new year’s walk in the cold sunshine, saying Happy New Year to a passing stranger like you’re hand-delivering a card, getting home for the Viennese waltz broadcast, and admiring the new calendar—Japanese woodblock prints taking over from Georgia O’Keeffe—even though half of January’s days are already inscribed with appointments. Keep it new.

But there’s no denying the long guttural drawl of the garbage truck pulling up like a foraging dinosaur. Nu? Whaddya got for me? White bags with red drawstring bows? Brown bags chockablock with recycled bottles, boxes, and other bric-a-brac? Toss it in. What, that’s it? No appliances, no mattress, no bales of Boston Globes going back to last summer? That’s okay. I’ll be back.  

Turns out New gets old in a hurry  But luckily there’ll be another behemoth coming next Tuesday to take it away with a belch and a familiar groan.

Nu? You were expecting something else?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

In the Vintertime

I suppose I've recollected this before, like a geezer apt to repeat himself, but it gives him such pleasure, just smile, nod, edge toward the door and make a dash for it —

It was this little ditty my mother used to sing. Probably a camp song; she loved remembering those. It went:

In the vintertime,
In the valley green,
Ven the vind blows on the vindowpane,
And the vimmen from the Vaudeville
Ride velocipedes on the vindowsill:

Ah, men!
Ahh, vimmen!

There's a temptation to look up these mementoes on Google, but when you do, as I just did, you risk knowing more than you wanted. Yes, you get your memory validated, but instead of being your personal "Rosebud," redolent of the time it came from, your time, you henceforth have to share it with a lot of other children who had a sled just like that.

Or you can ignore those other children shouting in the snow and close the door, you're letting in the vind.

The reason why I bring this up? Because today is a day worth marking, the beginning of winter, whose cold, dark, modus operandi have been with us for weeks, but now it's officially culpable.  Easier to lay it at winter's door than to assign it to autumn. This has all the signs of Wintah's woik, says the detective bitterly, rubbing his hands nd checking the falling dark against the time on his wristwatch. Damn it, curses his excitable partner. Wintah's back.

Except that there's good news in it, too. It's the longest night, sure. But tomorrow the light allotment starts to swing the other way. Something to do with the sun, the angle its rays strike the earth, and the position of where we are in our orbit. It's like some myth in which the Gloomy Gus on the black horse has to tolerate the company of a troubadour seated behind him, playing hopeful airs on his lute.

And on that note, I leave those tiny ladies to pedal their tiny penny-farthing bicycles on the vindowsill while the wind buffets and rebuffs the windowpane affectionately.

Amen. Ah, vimmen.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Tempus Fugit

That's how this last week of my month (the one I was born in, that ends with my last name) started, with a coded message from a crossword puzzle constructor who embedded it among all the numbered x's from the past week's six daily puzzles:


It was even more clever than that, with a different riff on the theme of time in each puzzle, but the final message was timely enough: time flies. And to hammer the point home, I could apply it immediately to my annual visit with my birthday on Monday, good old October 27.

Not just mine, of course. Most years, I spare a passing thought to some of my birthday-mates, like John Cleese and H.R. Haldeman. But this year I was proud to let one of them hog the limelight. Dylan Thomas was celebrating—or we were—his centennial. October 27, 1914 in Swansea, Wales.

Tempus, tempt us! On Sunday at 3:00 p.m., I connected to a live-streamed broadcast of DT's then just-written radio play Under Milkwood from the 92d St. YMHA, where it was first performed back in 1953. The following day I carried a copy of his collected stories, none of which I read, but it was good to have him around. I like to tell myself that we have certain things in common: love of language; self-absorption. ("Among other things, he knew himself very well," says Leslie Norris in the Foreword, citing all his brilliant letters of apology as evidence that he knew his own faults very well.  Uncanny—I'm always apologizing!)

Anyway, I visited my birthday on Monday. I only had a day to spend with it; that's the way these things work. When you're very young, it's a very long day, and I spent a long anticipatory month of days getting ready for it. But by the time you've called on that day 66 times, it doesn't feel much different from most days. Still, it is your day. You're entitled to one by tradition and personal history. If you let someone know, even a stranger, he or she is practically obligated to wish you a Happy Birthday, and pass along a mental image of balloons, cake, people in conical party hats around a table. Only a practiced cynic, after years of diligent study, can pull off the observation that bumping into the day you were born is hardly reason for a big whoop-de-doo.

People take it seriously. Tempus fugit or tempus fuggedaboudit. Which brings me to my sister's birthday card. That is, Dotch, who's four years older than me and whose birthday is 25 days after mine. We had this little ritual as kids. We'd ask each other on the day, like a couple of novice interviewers, "So how do you feel? Are you sad? Glad? Mad? Bad?" And  because it was a kid's thumbnail way of taking stock, the other person would sometimes take it seriously. And because we are so used to the tradition, we refer to it as adults, too.

She wrote: "I would really like to be in your mind to know how you're looking at life these days. Are you mad, sad, glad, scared, accepting, curious?" In large part, I know she's talking about this disease I'm carrying around with me. It's just humble old Parkinson's, diagnosed five years plus ago. And I think she's probably also talking about our mutual health issue—old age.

When I first wrote down my answer, on my birthday, I was sitting outside the Kickstand Cafe (formerly Jam 'n Java) with a hot cider and an open notebook (and a ship to steer her by) and the day was warmish for late October, so I wrote: Glad. The day has cooperated and a day can define a life, temporarily, but time doesn't know it's temporary.                              

Then I thought about the other days. I needed some new designations. Like Vlad. As in Vlad the (self) Impaler, when I'm mean to myself. And I can be Dad, which is mostly a form of Glad, seasoned with Bad and a little Vlad. On rare occasions I am Strad, the perfect instrument, apt to be left on the back seat of a taxi, but usually found and returned. Too often I am Chad, as in Hanging Chad, half-in and half-out, half hole, half paper, half negative and half positive. There I am trying to dismount my bike, unable to swing my leg, either leg, over the bar. Fortunately I'm in the backyard, so if I fall, it will be on grass and earth. Finally I recognize what I need to do: rest the bike on its side and step out. Easy. 

But I am also optimistic despite evidence to the contrary. For want of a better term, let's call that Plaid, a pattern to be on good terms with, adaptable, mood-suiting, Black Watch tartan flannel, which I am lately apt to misbutton, have to start over, and my fingers are not as effortlessly deft as they were for decades. And tucking the shirt in and cinching the belt is laborious, too, But if it's a shirt you like, then it's worth it.

To sum up, I am Glad, Vlad, Dad, Strad, Chad, and Plaid. And Bashful.

Wow, November already? Tempus fugit, dude! 


Friday, October 17, 2014

Bareback Writing

So jump on. No saddle, just straddle the withers and away we go like a trick rider, standing up, flipping over to one flank or the other while the mount canters around the ring and then, at full gallop, charges out of the rodeo palace like in The Electric Horseman when rhinestone cowboy Robert Redford decides enough is enough, this animal needs to be free, and he propels the horse up and down random streets in this dusty Western town, pursued by police cars until he finally breaks out of the grid into the open prairie outside of town and outdistances his pursuers.

Sometimes it works that way. And sometimes the horse takes charge and ambles up into the nearest clump of tall grass and weeds, like a horse named Tennessee I once tried to "steer," yanking ineffectually on the bridle, in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, in my teens, while it ignored this inconvenience on its back. Metaphors do not come with a guarantee of performance. But the idea is just jump on and see where the words take you or you take the words—out into the starry night, up into the weeds, or—c'mon horsey, giddyup, c'mon horsey (while a Mr. Ed laugh track underscores the indignity)—nowhere.

And at three o'clock, the hour up, the wrangler wipes down the horse, who hasn't broken a sweat, and asks, "How was it?"

Magical. Exhilarating. We were one animal. The wind in my hair, the wind in his mane. Next time we go full Pegasus. Pega-sus, Pega-sus...pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Pega-sus...