Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Blue Moon

Technically, it's full tomorrow, not today. But I went outside, around 5:00, with still a little twilight to the west, and there was the full moon as far as I was concerned, caught in the branches of a tree, big and soft and aglow. And who knows if it will be visible tomorrow night, anyway? Probably not. So this was it. The second full moon of the month, also known as a blue moon. (Possibly from the Old English word belewe, meaning "betrayer," for an extra full moon that came too early) Meant to be the last little window I open on this advent journey through December. Same as the full moon in the first window, also counted a day early.

This is one of those phenomena almanackers are especially keen on: a meeting of month and moons, rare but not too rare--it happens once every two to three years--and combed into the culture through idiom (once in a blue moon) and song (Rodgers and Hart: I saw you standing alone...; Nanci Griffith: just once [just once] in a very blue moon...).

It wasn't blue, but the sky around it was a soft navy peacoat and the moon a big brass button caught in the tree, but working its way out and up, slowly but surely.

So what does that give us for this December meander? Time to tally. Tomorrow has enough responsibility, glory, and auld lang syne, a year's worth, a decade's worth (also counted a tad early). From 1 to 30:

Full moon (blue)
"No man can live alone" (grafitti)
alien summer sun
New York City
American wigeon (winter duck)
kid on a sled
imagined Aboriginal petroglyph Down Under
"housepainter's blue" sky of evening
winter rain
a star to swing on, bearing the face of Bing Crosby
"Having troubles, bubbles?" (lost catch phrase)
4:12 p.m.
little drummer boy of time
bird box with or without a field mouse in it
Ring-necked duck (winter duck)
my reflection in a cowl
Hanukkah candle #6
streetlamp and its cone of light
amethyst/vermillion sunset on last night of autumn
Persephone in the underworld
Goats on a leash in Lexington center
Christmas tintype of boy with fake snow
King John's red rubber ball
A red-bellied woodpecker at the feeder
The wrong end of the binoculars
Rumpus of clouds
Butternut squash pie
Canada and the Alberta Clipper
Full moon (blue)

And what does it add up to? Lights + Birds + Winter + Gifts + Art + Tradition + Surprise...equals December. Cheers!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

O Pie! O Canada!

I've opened two more windows. Yesterday's revealed a wedge of butternut squash pie in a graham cracker crust. Today's revealed a map of Canada with a blue arrow swooping down on New England like a sword of vengeance.


I had never had a squash pie. Somehow I thought the contents would be like the fibrous, stringy squash of a Boston Market side dish. Then later in the afternoon, Alicia, who was creating the pie with Judy, her mom, invited me to spoon some of the filling from the bowl. Whoa. Cool. Fruity. Reminiscent of key lime, but less tangy, more, I don't know, mango-y.

The finished pie sat on the table like a promise, but it had a hard act to follow. Stuffed chicken breasts; acorn squash stuffed with wild rice; zucchini and rice; salad; merlot. Finally, after the dishes were done, the pie.

Of course. Squash is like pumpkin. Squash pie is like pumpkin pie, except lighter, more delicate. A gustatory revelation! We watched the second half of "Julie and Julia." They would have approved. Sometimes food goes beyond satisfying hunger to providing deep well-being, and evoking gratitude for the favor and the memory to come. This was like that. A yum with a deep bow.


Winter is over a week old. The sun sets five minutes later than it did last week, but it seems that we've gained more daylight than that. Lemony light now lingers through bare branches at a quarter to five.

But winter gives with one hand (daylight) and takes away with the other (degrees). Today was a day for seeing winter as a two-fisted god, or maybe its henchman, the icy north wind in the Ojibway tale who tries to freeze Shingebiss, the plucky little merganser duck who's safe and cozy in his lodge. I can hear the north wind out there whipping around our lodge tonight, but I think it doesn't want to be in here. Out there is its place to roam, the wind from Canada, the one we call the Alberta Clipper, racing down from the prairie provinces like a hockey player streaking for the empty net, no defenders in his way.

We think we know North? We've got a lot to learn about North.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Worff, Harff, Worra-Worra

On the road again, staying with our friends Judy and Paul (who first planted the seed of this blog) in the nw corner of Connecticut, trim little die-cut state I grew up in, though that was down south in the stubby panhandle of Fairfield County, but I digress. Not easy to get a grip tonight. I'd set up at the dining room table, near the couch where my son Matt was trying to sleep, but he kicked me out after observing drily how little I'd written. So now I'm in bed, trying again.

Maybe my problem is the unconscripted, demobilized quality of these days out of uniform, like Confederate soldiers coming home after the war. Not fully post-Christmas because they’re also pre-New Year. They’re either free of the holidays or trapped by them. Or something else.

Sunday was at least Sunday, busy with year-end and decade-end reviews in the Sunday papers. M, T, and W are freestyle. Offices depleted (take a long lunch). Kids on vacation. If not bored, then uncertain. Betwixt and between.

This could be an opportunity. Three days to devote to another cause: what a friend, artist Walter Kopec, calls pondering. Yes, of course, read the new book, listen to the new CD. But also stare out the window. Sit in a café and watch the world go by. Take a walk with little to show for it. Do nothing and say nothing with full expertise. Consider the fate of the tree in the living room, still on duty but facing in “January” that same undefined future that the jack o’ lantern faced in “November”. Contemplate the blank calendar, the blank screen, the blank sky. Welcome the three wise guys: As If, Not Even, and It Is What It Is.


My advent calendar is winding down, but to not be Advent (about which I know bupkis), it needs to go past Christmas. Sunday’s revelation was the roaring, feral clouds above Route 2, I 95, and the Mass Pike before they finally shook themselves to tatters and yielded to the blue over Belchertown. Clouds have messages, whole pages of mute Shakespeare, especially when they tower and roughen and bellow and insist and take on larger-than-life El Greco Miyazaki Noh Yes Maybe wind-whipped temperaments and seem to have names like Harff and Worff and Worra-worra like wild things having a wild rumpus.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Two Quiet Days

Christmas and Boxing Day seem cut from the same cloth, tuned to the same music; not the Lone Ranger and Tonto, but their horses, Silver and Scout, roaming free in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains under a waxing moon. Both days are quiet postludes in a way. Today is post-Christmas; Christmas was post-itself, in that the day felt like a calm following the turbulence that led up to it. The presents were opened, and were worth the anticipation. The tree presided over the ceremony with dignity, a perfectly behaved tree in a living room, decorated with colored lights and small animals, like a large upstanding bear with winking lights in its fur. And many games of Bananagrams were played at the dining room table while outside a custom of birds whirred in and out of the bird feeder: chickadees, tufted titmice, house finches, goldfinches, cardinals, blue jays, and most surprising of all, a slim and handsome, sand-bellied, ladder-backed, red-cowled, Red-Bellied Woodpecker. And there were walks on the beach at Sears Point in the afternoon and evening like stepping into a Dutch winterscape, except with lighthouses on the far shore instead of windmills. And a distant raft of winter ducks on the placid gray inlet, mostly scoters or scaups with a handful of buffleheads for variety.

Today was a day for coming home, doing crosswords, and walking down to Spy Pond, under the same overcast sky as yesterday, along with a few quirky by-joves to choose from. A crisp, laundered, twenty dollar bill in the clothes dryer. A snowman, created by 4-year old Ella and her dad down the street: three chubs high with a flowerpot hat, a snub carrot nose, and a brown weed-sprig for a pipe, with miscellaneous pebbles for the rest. And a genuine revelation. Down at the Pond, while Carol shot videos of the ice cover (slabs near the shore the shape of New York's boroughs), I tried the wrong end of the binoculars. Excellent! A beautiful dinner-plate frame of shore, pond, and sky! The Dutch masters would have approved, or would have sucked on their long meerschaums and shrugged, but that would be good enough. "We call it 'the wrong end,'" I would have added, thinking to win them over with irony. But by then they would have waved me away and set up their plein-air easels, pleased, after all, by the gunmetal sky and the bare trees. Though a few ravens wouldn't have hurt.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Red Rubber Ball

It could easily have been the candle. Or even the figgy pudding. But I'll go with the red rubber ball.

We've come over the Sagamore Bridge and through the woods to Chatham, Mass. at the elbow of Cape Cod, to keep a rendezvous with Christmas.

It's Christmas Eve, which seems to me to be where the heart of Christmas beats even more than Christmas Day. (With the disclaimer again that as a Jew, I don't know bupkis, though as the rye bread ads used to say, you don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's.) This, after all, is the territory where Scrooge saw the error of his ways, where the narrator of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" saw Santa, and where George Bailey saw that he really does have a wonderful life. To say nothing of the magi seeing the star. Tomorrow it will be a fait accomplis: the gifts, the dinner, the closed stores and trafficless streets. But today is where Christmas stops first.

And I think I saw it. Not in a big revelatory way like Rusty seeing the white buffalo in "Rin Tin Tin." But in a quiet, oh, okay, way.

We're staying with my sister-in-law and brother-outlaw, Jacqueline Schwab and Edmund Robinson. Edmund is the minister of the Unitarian church in Chatham, and tonight we went to the 5:00 Christmas Eve service. It was a full house, and understandably so, because who doesn't like singing Christmas carols with their neighbors, a couple of hundred voices strong? And the evening was stuffed with carols like a scone with currants: "O Holy Night," "Angels We Have Heard On High," "The First Nowell," "Joy to the World," "O Come All Ye Faithful," and more. There were also readings. "If Christmas Eve Happened Today" set the scene under a Texaco star with three Hell's Angels in attendance. And of course Edmund read A.A. Milne's "King John's Christmas," in which King John, who "was not a good man" and who is regularly stiffed by Father Christmas, hopes once again for chocolate, nuts, a knife that really cuts, and if not those, then at least (and most of all) a big, red, India rubber ball.

The climax of the service is the singing of "Silent Night" while the congregants all hold lit candles in the darkened sanctuary. What is it about candles? The small but concentrated light? The obvious power of fire yet reduced to this personal, hopeful potential? And with "Silent Night," a song as peaceful as they come. This wasn't commercial Christmas or even charitable Christmas. This was just beautiful Christmas.

So it could have been the candle for the penultimate advent window surprise. Or even the mysterious figgy pudding that was invoked in the Christmas Wish after the candles were extinguished. But I'll go with the big, red, India rubber ball that comes sailing through King John's window just as he's given up all hope (and which Edmund reveals from inside his robes with a climactic bounce), because even bad guys need encouragement, maybe even more than good guys do.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Secret Santas

It's the eve of Christmas Eve as I write this, a shadow eve. I spent it wrapping these things that up until a few hours ago were just merchandise. Now they are singular things, dressed in fine disguises, along with a bubble of promise that the recipient will grin and exclaim and be better, and gladly so, for having it.

A powerful thing, Christmas. It's not exactly what it seems to be. It seems to be about money. But underlying even the most venally motivated purchase in the frantic atmosphere of a store filled with secret Santas rummaging and overturning goods, buying something so as not to leave someone ungifted or buying something because so-and-so may be buying you an expensive gift and you don't want to look like a skunk at the potlatch, no offense to skunks, or even not buying something because it's too expensive for the likes of so-and-so—-underlying all that is the practice of giving, which we learn at some point as kids, having received and received for years, and now we bring our own wad of bills down to the marketplace and roam the aisles like neophyte SITs (Santas in Training), picking up this, putting down that, picking it up again, shlepping it around for now until you find something better, which maybe you do--the perfect thing that you know so-and-so will take pleasure in. You can even picture her grin, and maybe the hug afterwards. And even if you take reflected pleasure in her pleasure because it reflects well on you, hey, you've taken one step further toward earning your beard.

To shore up this posturing, as if I, a Jew, knew more than bupkis about Christmas, I open the little window today to reveal a card from my friends Pat and Dave down in snowless Orlando:

And with it they added this sentient sentiment:
"Fake snow, fake dog, fake urn, fake wall, fake sky, fake rosy cheeks -- but real, actual, heartfelt season's greetings!"

Thanks to them and pleasant surprises to you all.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

At the end of the day

It's a favorite phrase on the BBC and NPR, usually when some pundit is coming to a healing or damning conclusion: "At the end of the day..." Meaning in the final analysis, when all's said and done; except boiling it all down to one day gives it a very simple, almost Biblical, feel. Because we can all relate to the measuring of our lives in quotidian doses. As if each day is the whole play, especially these short winter days. At the end of the day, what you gather is what you got. However random those gatherings are.

I begin with this foolosophical fanfare because of what I got today. Not a big catch, just two, one early, one late. It started with hearing about the baboons. A story on NPR, by way of Radiolab ( A scientist, Barbara Smuts, spent two years in the close and constant company of a troop of thirty baboons in Kenya. She recounts one day when she was walking back with them to their sleeping quarters. They were following a stream, and at a certain point, at the edge of a pool, the baboons all stopped. They fell silent. Adults and babies alike. No noise. And they remained like that for about five minutes: seated on rocks, contemplating the pool, but in an unfocused way. Barbara had never seen this before, and only once since. Baboons apparently in communal meditation. Or some shared reverie.

Hearing this mystery was a kind of driveway moment, where you dare not turn the radio off. (In this case, a bathroom moment.) It wasn't that it was such a deep mystery. More like a dream, a code. We don't know everything. There was some hope in that.

I could easily have not been listening, and my day would have contained no baboon mystery. Also, if I hadn't entered the Emery Park turnaround in Lexington center, around 3:45, after buying Matt a pair of winter boots the size of two Louisianas, I would have missed the goats. A white one and a brown one, at the end of a leash, being walked by a lady like big dogs. "Goats!" Matt yelled. "That totally made my day!" Of course it did, mine too, smashing into the mundane like a ball-rocketing break shot in a game of pool, sending the predictable and the typical fleeing to the pockets. Someone walking a pair of goats in the center of Lexington, MA has that effect.

I'll go with the goats for today's advent window. But at the end of the day, it's probably the baboons I'll remember.

Monday, December 21, 2009


It has that clean palindromic look, the only date that does besides 11/11. (01, 02, and 03 don't count.)
It's a guaranteed visit for any almanacker worth his salt (a holdover from Roman times, when soldiers were paid in salt, or "salaries").
It has a spareness about it, or should, which is why this snow happened just in time.

At 12:47 p.m. I was probably having a bowl of beef barley soup, unmindful of the moment when the sun stood still over the Tropic of Capricorn, or latitude 23.5 degrees south, leaving us with the shortest rays of the year and the shortest day of the year, by two seconds.

But as you can see, at the last hour I heeded the almanacker's call to salute one of the four major poses on the orbit, the one where the earth is tilted on its axis so it looks like the Northern Hemisphere is going ewww, rearing back as if it suddenly got very freaked out by UV rays. While the Southern Hemisphere is going yeah baby toast me, gimme some heat.

To wade into the solstice is to be immersed in mystical-sounding terms like the obliquity of the ecliptic, and the celestial equator of the celestial sphere. All of which has to do with measuring that tilt with invisible planes and axes. Because we are this big old clock, you can set your calendar by us, and Dec. 21 is one of those days to draw it out of the waistcoat pocket, glance at it, murmur "winter" and put it back.

Or if you prefer, you can throw a log on the fire and think of poor Persephone (today's advent chick) in the underworld, while remembering that tomorrow will be one second longer than today was. She's coming back.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fin d'automne

Endings sound better in French. And autumn gets sort of lost in in its last, shared month, winter-trademarked December. Especially in the wake of today's blizzard, and the foot-deep snow we dug through, attention should be paid to the season that had its last full day today. Au revoir, automne. Even in your winter guise, we knew you.

The sunset tonight belonged to autumn, maybe a going-away present. I was up at Menotomy Rocks park. I thought the sky would stay the soft amethyst it showed at 4:10, but it intensified, turned into a hard-to name burning color, maybe vermillion, an orange-violet that seemed to bypass red. Meanwhile, a father promised his son hot cocoa when they got home. Two sledders made a go of a woodsy hill. A skater was shoveling the small frozen pond. A dog sported a handsome red sweater that it must have gotten for Chanukah. And the surrounding houses contributed their jeweled lights and one bright flat-screen TV football game to set off the dusk.

Many choices for today's advent surprise, with the snow and the aftermath, but I'll go with that amethyst to vermillion sunset through the mesh of bare trees, a kind of farewell to autumn from autumn.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Waiting for the snow to start falling.
Waiting is the event drawn in chalk on the driveway before it happens. Waiting is two crows rowing across the gray cold sky. No, too poetic. Delete the crows. Waiting is waiting for any bird in silhouette to fly across the cold gray sky.
We've been waiting all day, talking forecasts (from three inches to thirteen), shopping or not, thinking pre-wearily of shoveling out. Now it's night. So I'll go to bed and wake up to pee at three and be unable to resist going to the window and watching the windblown snow-flies swarming in the cone of light from the streetlamp near the house. One to two inches per hour means a nor'easter with conviction. And then I'll wake up again in the white-lit morning and watch it come down.
So what's in the waiting window tonight? The streetlamp. Like candle number six yesterday, it stands vigil, but not for itself. More like the dude who signals to the surprise party, shhh! he's coming!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Eight flames

Another way of measuring time, the mysterious shortening of eight candles in the menorah. They all started more or less together, and they are ending at eight different heights, like a calliope. But you don't see them shorten, any more than you see the minute hand move. It's the last night of Chanukah, the prayer spoken as the lead candle, number eight, lent its flame to the other seven. And the number two candle, the purple, is very low. No wax left, Just a filament glow. There's the plume of smoke. Number three will be next. Someone should have bet on the red one, number six. Shoulders above the rest. There went number three with a wet sputter. The one I chose, green seven, will go next. But wait, a surprise. Number four took a leap into the abyss. It's gone. And wow, seven and eight just sputtered in tandem, but number five beat seven. Then number one just went, Seven is hanging in there! Just six and seven now. Wait. There it goes. A beautiful straight plume of smoke. A nice death. Number six, the red one, is alone. Looking very brave and vigilant. Still with a generous collar of wax. Why so much fitter than the others? But it too is looking low and tiring fast. It could linger or take the sudden plunge. Impossible to guess. It's going. Now it brightens, rallies, strengthens. Suddenly gutters and is out. But the filament glows a second longer. Now it's gone too. And so are the eight days and nights of Hanukkah, which I think of as the female spelling. Only the smell of candlewax remains, a sleek, opaque, not unpleasant smell, like a Russian salesman pausing to remember his roots.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cowled Comfort

Reflection of myself in a subway window on the Red Line, from Central Square in Cambridge to Alewife, where a night bike ride home awaits through a wind chill of minus two.

I've got my dark green cowl on. It used to belong to Matthew. Still has the KIDSOKZ label on it. I wear it on the really cold days under the bike helmet. I could take it off; the subway's warm. But outside it's so rigorously, bonesettingly frigid that there's no desire to do so. Other people in the car have their hoods up. You can't be too warm.

I'm kind of fascinated by my cowled reflection. Dark hair is hidden, so all that's visible is my spectacled face and white beard. I look about seventy, and too tired and chilled to bother with appearances. I feel like I'm in disguise as an old guy. Old Like Me. Even though the me studying the me in the window is deep down the same scrawny kid who used to make faces at himself in another mirror fifty years ago. But the old dude in the window reveals none of that.

Anyway, let the little window today show cowled me, with commentary in the terse bitten-off scriptese of Rod Serling: A young man gets on a train at Central Square, protected from the elements. But the one element he can't protect himself from lies inside the fleece. Namely, time. Next stop: the Twilight Song, as my grandma used to say.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Duck that Showed Up

I really wanted to see a canvasback today. Or a redhead, its smaller look-alike cousin. Or at least a hooded merganser where I always see them, in Black's Nook, the little pond off Fresh Pond. But Black's Nook had too much ice for hoodies. And try as I would to make the little flocks I saw on Fresh Pond into canvasbacks or redheads, I can't argue with the facts. They were ring-necked ducks. A perfectly fine winter duck to see. Nice glossy black head, handsome grey sides, and the telltale ring around the bill. But add another color to the ensemble, like the chestnut head of the canvasback and, I don't know, it quickens the blood. Anyway, the little window goes to the ring-necked duck, for showing up. And second place goes to the canvasback and redhead, who couldn't be bothered. But just to encourage them, here's a poem I wrote about them a few years ago.

The Redhead and the Canvasback

A redhead and a canvasback
one crisp December day
swam up to one another
in the middle of a bay.

“Incredible!” the redhead marveled,
paddling round and gazing.
“The red, the white, the black! Why,
the resemblance is amazing!

Do you suppose it’s possible
that in another eon
we shared a common ancestor,
some duck we can agree on?

It’s such a nice coincidence!
Two species so synonymous!
The black, the red, the white! You know,
that pattern's not the commonest!”

The canvasback looked down his bill
with something like disgust.
“First of all, my head,” he said,
“is chestnut. Yours is rust.

Secondly, my back is white,
while yours is clearly gray.
And, finally, our profiles
are as close as night and day.

I am a drake of longer lines;
your build is somewhat tubby.
My bill is dark and aquiline
and yours, two-tone and stubby.

As for a common lineage,
your research is misleading.
These so-called similarities
are rather...surface-feeding.”

The redhead rocked upon the waves
and stared out at the shore
He thought about what he had heard
and thought a little more.

Then, turning to the canvasback,
he shook his rusty head.
“It’s unbelievable!” he quacked.
The white! the black! the red!”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Return to Alewife

What if you had an Advent calendar, the traditional kind, and you decided not to open one of the little windows? Just left it sealed. Moved on to the 16th. Kind of perverse, right? Might drive kids in your family crazy, even if they knew it probably concealed something obvious, like a candy cane or a drum. But still.

Well, that's what I did today, or didn't do. I was biking near the Alewife Reservation, en route to getting Matt a CD for Hanukkah (Magical Mystery Tour). And I decided to pay a return visit to the bird box that inspired this whole small-a advent hunt. The bird box whose lid I raised to reveal a sleeping field mouse a couple of Decembers ago.

Since that time, Alewife has been landscaped, to its benefit. Trails established, wetlands protected, new marshes encouraged. More of a wet meadow. Less of a hobo jungle. (But still also an industrial park.) I didn't see the original bird box, but I found another pair of boxes sharing the same pole among the scrub. I leaned my bike against a post and ventured in. The box I approached was just a bit too high to allow a good peep-in. I looked around for a boulder, something to stand on. Nothing. I considered my bike. Too unstable. I reassessed. If I left the box alone, I'd avoid waking up a sleeping mouse, and possibly rendering its abode too dangerous to stay in. Or I'd avoid being disappointed at seeing no mouse at all. Two commendable avoidances.

So I let sleeping mice or no-mice lie. Returned to my bike and was rewarded by a hoarse cronk of a great blue heron, likewise unseen. I rode on through the industrial park, whose cranes were the unfeathered variety. Around to the upland forest of silver maples and wetland, maybe Little Pond. Heard the thin whinny of a downy woodpecker, unseen as well. It was mild for mid-December, the sun falling to its last hour, and I felt a closer bond to the month than any day so far. This is my place, it seemed to be saying with a shy pride. Not a beautiful place, but home. The brown drab weedy mien I'd disparaged weeks ago now seemed only appropriate. No need to gussy it up with lights or cover it up with snow. The truth is, December is about sleeping. Sleeping field mice, dormant trees and plants on hiatus. So, pipers piping and drummers drumming: salute the ebb, the 4:12 freefall. Light candles if you wish, but the winnowing of December, at least the one in these latitudes, calls for darkness and suspension.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Little Drummer Boy

I love that scene in Casablanca in which Carl, the headwaiter (the great Hungarian actor S. Z.Sakall), sits down to have a drink with his two old friends who are on their way to America. After their toast, the man turns to his wife and asks, "Sweetnessheart, what watch?" She looks down at her wrist and replies, "Ten watch." He remarks, "Such much?" And Carl, bemused, comments, "You will get along fine in America."

I was thinking of time all day today. Starting in the beginning of the day. I went to bed at 1:40, a time that invites the judgment of one's peers. Normally I get up for my son at 6:30, so that's about five hours of sleep. But I woke even earlier, registering that it was 6:19 and Carol was still asleep. (She normally gets up at 5:15 for her job as a high school teacher.) "Carol?"

Waking to lateness is a kind of eruption-cum-D-Day landing. "What happened?" she asked, blankets flying. I suddenly remembered her radio going off on Sunday after she'd gone upstairs and me sliding the bar on the radio to Off. It was the wrong Off. So, amid the falling cinders of her (initial) annoyance, I got up, made her a quick PB&J sandwich for breakfast (and one for Matt for lunch) and felt defensively remorseful and then just defensive as the topic turned to the undone dishes in the sink: another casualty of the wee hours. (We; ours)

I couldn't go back to sleep yet. Had to go get a flu shot at 7:45. Borrowed my father-in-law's car, had it back as promised by 8:30, but was too tired to go to the morning Tai Chi class at 9:00, even though I didn't finally drag myself to bed till 9:40. But that set the tone for the day. Slept till 11:40, missed a work phone call. Foozled desultorily through a few chores, including the abovementioned dishes. Left to meet friends for tea at 3:30, just making it after waiting for 25 minutes in line at the post office, glancing at my wrist periodically (Three watch. Such much?) while the line inched slowly forward.

I realized what my advent picture was for the day, a December classic for a change: a little drummer boy. That's basically what watch time or clock time is, it seems to me. A little drummer boy marching in place, tirelessly drumming to an endlessly reliable rhythm. And depending on which drumbeat we link our movements to, we're late, we're early, we're right on time. I don't disdain this servant of ours. I'm just not sure what relationship he has to the time dictated by the space dance of the sun, Earth, and moon. He seems oblivious. But he also reminds me of the Salvation Army guy outside the drugstore today, steadily ringing his bell and offering to watch my bike for me. "You will be rewarded for your vigilence," I promised. To which he replied, "It's all about helping." Yes, it is, I thought, feeling like George Bailey at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life." But later, after I stuffed two bills into the X of his kettle, his "Thank you" seemed a little tardy. The moment had passed.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Having Troubles, Bubbles?

Dec. 12

I want to be the seventh.

Carol and I were having tea at Panera's up in the Heights on Saturday, and I was having a moment of feeling old, creaky, sluggish. When I remembered a catchphrase from my past. "Having troubles, bubbles?" I think I adopted it from my sister, maybe as far back as 1958, and I suspect it was meant to be used ironically, maybe one level nicer on the kind-cruel continuum than "tough tamales." I mean, it could be almost caring, but in a playful way, with the objective of jollying the recipient out of a funk. The point is, no one says it anymore. It went the way of "Mercy buttercups" (for thank you) or "Agatha, agatha!" (for agony, agony). Maybe that's a good thing, but it made me laugh to think of it again, which is good, too. I could see saying it to someone, sincerely.

I couldn't help comparing it to the catchphrase of the moment, which I think has to be, "It is what it is." I've been hearing it everywhere lately. Friends, receptionists, barristas... And I can understand the currency, how well it suits the grim matter-of-factness of the laid-off landscape. I use it myself. And I don't doubt that it would rate higher on the weary comfort scale than "Having troubles, bubbles?" would, which suggests the spunky empathy of Doris Day in blushing Technicolor. So where am I going with this?

Simply that I Googled "IIWII", not even sure if It Is What It Is rates an acronym, but sure enough: 123,000 references, starting with the Urban Dictionary, who pronounce it "ee-we." And then I Googled "Having troubles, bubbles?" with the quotation marks to keep it intact. And--six. That's it! Six hits. So I'm entering this tag (plus of course it's my advent revelation du jour) and I want to be the seventh.

Dec. 13

That would be Sunday, which now is actually yesterday, and only because I don't want to fall back another day on my advent tally (so much easier to have those little surprises pre-chosen). Today's is a time. Open the little window and the square underneath will say: 4:12. Not a chapter/verse notation. It's the sturdy minute that bows but will not break. On December 3, the time of the sunset earlied out at 4:12 p.m. It has held fast to that number for ten days and counting. And it's only because the sunrise stubbornly persists in getting later that the days are still getting shorter. But we're talking by under a minute shorter since 12/7. This is the glissade into winter, folks. 56 seconds on the 8th...52...48...44...40...36...and on the 21st, two seconds shorter. Then, on the 22nd, ready? One beautiful second longer!

But not yet. The point is, take 4:12 to heart. It will hold the line. It will get us there. It is what it is, in a good way.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


I considered wind-chill for yesterday's revelation. You wouldn't see it in an advent window, but you'd sure feel it. We weren't winter-toughened yet. Probably felt like 15 degrees.

I took a stiff walk down to Spy Pond at sunset. Nice lemony sky, flecked by cloud flak. The pond troubled and aslosh with wind. And then the aha moment! Rimming the pond, miniature ice sculptures, as if fashioned by mouse artistes. Weeds all along the shore jacketed in ice. Fanged with ice. Stems leaning out with thin icicles like bird stockings hanging from a line. No ice on the pond, but this was the first step. The wind and the slosh moving from the outside in. Just as the coolest Wheatena is around the rim of the bowl. I walked along, inspecting. You could see stems and twigs imprisoned in thick ice parkas. Or more delicate filigrees. The art installation continued for yards in either direction. And a few inches inshore from the sculptures, beads of ice in the grass, waiting for a foothold.

So, time to take advent inventory: Full moon, No Man Can Live Alone, the sun, New York, American wigeons, a kid on a sled, an Aboriginal petroglyph, a swatch of carpenter's blue, winter rain, Swingin' on a Star, and iceweeds.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Deconstructing Moonbeams

It all started with Andy Williams. He was on the Diane Rehm show this morning, promoting his new memoir with the nifty title, "Moon River and Me." They were talking about how he moved out to LA in the forties with his three brothers, a singing act. Whereupon Diane played a clip of "Swingin' on a Star": the familiar Bing Crosby version with a smooth male quartet harmonizing on chorus ("Or would you like to swing on a star...?") Was this just to capture the era? Nope, it turned out that the male quartet on the song was Andy Williams (at age 17) and his brothers. Who knew? Which got me thinking, for hours, about "Swingin' on a Star."

It was one of those crooners' celestial wisdom songs that came out of the forties and fifties from time to time, and which I always fell into deeply. There was "When You Wish Upon a Star" in Cliff Edwards' vaulting cornpone ("Like a bolt out of the blue/Fate steps in and sees you throoooooooough") And later, Perry Como admonishing "Don't let the stars get in your eyes, don't let the moon take your heart" which has been a touchstone since I heard it one summer night, age seven, waiting in our '54 Pontiac near Atlantic City and looking up at the stars while my dad checked us into a motel. And Perry again with another piece of advice: "Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, never let it fade away."

But the oldest and maybe the best celestial wisdom song was "Swingin' on a Star." It had this Zen, elliptical quality, holding out this illusive reward--swingin' on a star, carrying moonbeams home in a jar--which seemed the opposite of what going to school usually brings. On the other hand, this was Bing Crosby, the God of crooners, which made it almost Biblical. True, selling going to school was a little unusual. It seemed to stand for something else. Something you knew if you lived in Hollywood in the forties, a blend of the romantic and the practical: carrying moonbeams and being better off than you are. (There was a war on. People were used to getting encouragement from the stars.)

So I Googled the song. Found out that songwriter Jimmy van Heusen was over at Bing's one night to come up with a song for the film "Going My Way." And one of Bing's sons was complaining about going to school, which prompted Bing to say, "If you don't , you'll grow up to be a mule." Nice tidy little story, though it's not the kind of song you really want demystified.

Then I went looking for various renditions on YouTube. Didn't much care for the clip from "Going My Way", with the song as an object lesson, Bing at the piano, a chorus of boys going ooh in the background and certain lads doing the animal verses. Much better was hearing the song as a ukulele lesson delivered by an avuncular guy named Michael Lynch.

But the one that came closest to getting it was a Little Lulu animated short from 1947, which I think I saw as a kid. ( In it, Lulu (playing hookey, going fishing, and seeing stars after bonking into a tree) imagines herself swinging on a swing from a big five-pointed star; confronts a mule in a book of ABCs; turns into a pig; turns into a fish; is lectured by a monkey; does a conga up a stairway to the stars made of schoolbooks, and gets a cap and gown and diploma from the moon. The only part I remembered from before is the faces of Bing, Bob Hope, and Jerry Colonna ("and be betterrr off than you arrre") appearing in a row of stars. Stars in stars. I believed it. It's that loony trusting in fantasy to get you through reality, which I subscribed to. And still do, at least in a wishful kind of way.

I know. Too much time on my hands. But it's about a star, which is a nice strong December icon. So that'll be the window today. A big five-pointer with Bing in the middle and Little Lulu swinging on her swing. Here's to jarsful of moonbeams in 2010.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Winter Rain

Back in British Columbia I used to hear it from the old-timers: "You can't get a heart attack shoveling rain." It's meant to contrast with snow, of course, and the rest of Canada, but I always got stuck halfway. Picturing some guy grimly shoveling puddles. Maybe someone crazy, the local loon in some small town. His motto, yelled to all the amused faces in the passing Via Rail train: "You can't get a heart attack shovelin' rain!"

We got a lot of rain today, but an hour or so to the west, around Mt. Wachusett, they got wet, heavy snow, up to nine inches, the kind you can get a heart attack shoveling. Usually rain is the booby prize, the shameful pink part of the satellite map, relegated to Cape Cod and the islands. Poor Cape Cod, denied the brunt of the latest nor'easter with the exciting accumulation of 5 to 9 inches or 18 to 25, and TV reporters out in the battering wind between shots of sanders on the highways ("stay inside and let them do their work") and surf smashing against a sea wall. No snow days. No rhythmic, dogged scrape of snow shovels the morning after. No looking for a goddamn parking place between plow-butted glaciers. Just ugly boring unshovelable rain.

Today, it's our turn to get the pink fringe. So I salute the winter rain and make it my advent window for 12/9. It's definitely part of the other December, the killjoy annuller of the white Christmas. It steams up the bus windows and the Internet café windows and ruins the wood you piled outside for the fireplace. It lacks the celebrity of solid water. It's just water. It runs. Unpleasantly. Down the back of your neck. Raincoats are insufficient and winter coats are too much. Wet scarves smell. Wet gloves tend to stay wet. So do wet tuques. But it doesn't care. It drips and it drums to the hearty refrain: "You can't get a heart attack shovelin' rain!"

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Other Side

December 7
In Australia, December has a different identity from ours. Its soft c is not an icy c. It's hard to imagine, but it's probably a nice, cerulean c, for summer skies. December down under corresponds to our June. I can almost see it. Almost. But November as the name for our May? No can do. Much too dark a word. It's like picturing Eeyore in a sunsuit.

Anyway, back to Australia. My wife, Carol, told me a story today that has to be the advent find for 12/7. Carol teaches digital imagery at a suburban high school and often has a student teacher through the BU Art Education dept. On occasion, a professor pops in to see how the student teacher is doing. The current prof is smart, capable, but unprepossessing: would not suggest a life of adventure. Short, plump, hair in a bun, she calls to (the unwary) mind an armchair traveler or a dilettante. And you know where this is headed.

Chatting with the prof the other day, Carol learns that she is, in fact, Indiana Jones. She has about eight degrees, a specialty in art history, and a deep focus on the art of Oceania. In fact, for most summers over the past thirty years she's been going to Australia to study Aboriginal art firsthand. This brings her to telling about last summer's expedition. Very likely last December. Her plane lands at some remote airport, perhaps Alice Springs, followed by a twelve hour drive in a Range Rover into the Outback with her Aborigine guides. The final leg is a two-hour trek on foot, which normally means barefoot, but the art prof exacts a concession and is allowed to go shod. They reach a rocky outcropping, if not Ayer's Cliff then one very like it, sacred and accessible only to a lucky few. The prof ascends. She reaches a place where she may go, but not her male guides. Meaning it is a women's site, and only women may enter. So she squeezes inside, into a recess that opens into a grotto. And when her eyes adjust to the light she beholds an Aboriginal petroglyph, twenty-five feet high. And more than that I cannot say, except that it is in the animal world. I'm not trying to be coy here. When the prof tried to take a photograph of it, a camera in perfect working order, it would not take the picture. When she tried again with a back-up camera, same thing. (Both worked perfectly well later, outside.) So you may do a little art research and supply the image yourself. And what you imagine will be today's advent revelation. From the other side of December.

December 8
The following day, we were walking home from voting for our Massachusetts senator-to-be, around 4:30. To the right, to the west, the cooling sunset. But we were in the domain of that gray-blue light when the day and night are in equal suspension. Call it the daily equinox. I've come to refer to that color as "housepainter's blue." I forget why. I have no proof, but I confidently asserted to Carol that this brief equivalency of day and night is what is really meant by "evening." So I choose that for today's advent: the other side of the sunset, facing east. A swatch of housepainter's blue.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Take That!

December, not feeling it's getting the respect it deserves from me (suspected for its fishy warmth, then dubbed dark, drab, dingy, and done) has struck back with its wintry trick, its hibernal, hyaline hexagons, no two alike, ladies and gentlemen, give it up for snow! Not the wacky, too-big, too-slow, kind that came plopping down in October. This was an organized, meaningful, flying in the streetlights, coming at you in the headlights, seasonally appropriate visitation. Not a lot here in Arlington. An inch, maybe. More up the road in Lexington. But let notice be served. December has something more than brown going for it. In fact, December invented white.

Yesterday's revelation was a winter duck. I knew some were around. I've read the posts from my Menotomy BIrd Club brethren about canvasbacks and ruddies on Fresh Pond. But I haven't been looking. Till yesterday, late afternoon, after the first of the sleet, I stopped at the Arlington Reservoir. Wandered around the edge of the pond, partly screened by underbrush. Saw a few mallards. Farther-off swans. Then something different: a gang of American wigeons. I'd gotten to know them in Vancouver, flotillas of them out on English Bay, making their rubber-ducky squeaks. These ones were quiet, smoothly gliding and pivoting, showing their white crown stripes (which give them their other name of baldpates) in the dimming daylight.

So let's see what the advent calendar has yielded so far: full moon; NO MAN CAN LIVE ALONE; the sun; New York; and an American wigeon (with maybe a few wet snowflakes around it).

And for today, the 6th, add a picture of a kid on a sled. I was dropping Matt off at his band practice this afternoon in somewhat snowier Arlington Heights. As he lugged his amp up the walkway to the drummer's house, two little girls of five or six came bopping by with a plastic sled. Matt watched. "Sleds," he said nostalgically. "I haven't sledded in so long." He paused. "Sledded? Is that right? " I assured him it was. And on the way home I stopped at Robbins Farm, the park at the top of the Heights with a commanding view of downtown Boston. At one end is Arlington's sled hill of choice. Twenty or so kids and their parents were there and the snow was obliging, the kids whizzing down, falling off, or coming to a stop, and trooping back up, to whiz down again. A kind of industry. I thought briefly of myself age ten plummeting down the perilous driveway of the Wormsers (not so steep when I saw it as an adult) on my old Flexible Flyer, the wood and red metal kind.... But, hey, Rosebud me no Rosebuds, bud. December has redeemed itself and time to go home.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Alien Summer / Knickerbocker Nights

A pair of entries spanning two days between Boston and New York...

December 3
No need to look far for today's revelation. Even the passing parade of Mass., R.I., and Conn. from a Greyhound bus window is merely more evidence of a strangely warm day in December. The surprise in the advent window today is the sun, staring down with an odd fixed stare (Sol, you OK?), making me sweat like a hothouse petunia. The rules governing Indian Summer don't apply. 63 degrees is plenty. Too much, even. The daze of reprieve is tinged with the unease of something amiss.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe has finally run a story on moths, which somehow feels related. Winter moths (operophtera brumata) are everywhere, have been since November, fluttering in headlights, showing up in your kitchen, clinging to the car windows like tiny zombies begging to be let in. Harmless now, the article says, but wait until next year, when their offspring...well, off spring.

Is this the modern equivalent of the wild dogs running amok in the streets of ancient Rome? Being an almanacker means running the hand over the contours of each day without judgment, doesn't it? Do I kick the cuckoo out of the nest? Even if I know it rolled the true warbler egg over the side to oust the competition? No, the day counts. Summer in December is the day we got, maybe just a glitch, maybe in cahoots with the winter moths. Anyway, snow flurries are forecast for Saturday.

(Meanwhile, in the back of an Arby's somewhere in Connecticut, where the bus pulled in for a passenger pit stop, I think I caught a glimpse of real December. No advent surprise. Just brown sedge or some other kind of drab weed gone to seed. And bare trees. And brown bushes. And the steely bray of a dirt bike plunging down a trail in a nearby woods. It's a dark, dingy month, at least here, which it would be, sandwiched between November and January. And isn't it because it's so dark, so drab, so done, that we have given it this jingling, twinkling makeover? Wasn't Jesus actually born in March, and didn't they move his birthday to winter in order to displace the pagan revels of Saturnalia? Well, don't mind me, December. I'm just peeling away layers.
Your witness.)

December 4
Too many revelations, big and small,so let's just put them all in one window called New York.

• T-bone steaks and rare conversation at the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill around E. Ninth St. Eight guys variously in the arts, gathered here by our mutual friend, John, raconteur, writer-producer, in from L.A.
• Two Hispanic women in the subway, one looking older and more careworn than the other, with her toddler son in her lap. As she talks, the boy caresses her long thumb grasped in his small hand.
• Another passenger, muttering to himself, burdened with two huge bouquets of flowers and a mylar birthday balloon, which he doesn't always succeed in keeping out of the personal space of the faintly annoyed woman next to him. (Soldier On, Good Sir, to quote from the Hall's cough drop ads surrounding him.)
• A pair of topiary dinosaurs strung with tiny lights outside the American Museum of Natural History
• Inside the museum, an exhibit on the Silk Road, recreating the journey from Xi'an to Turfan to Samarkand to Baghdad, including a typical outdoor market with furs, fruit, nuts, aromatics (e.g., bdellium, or gum guggul), oils (patchouli, putchuk), and dyes; music; clopping camels and braying asses; and stories such as the Stonecutter who wished to be the sun, then a cloud, then the wind, then a stone, then (beset by stonecutters) himself again
• Back in Boston, on the Red Line subway, a woman sits down next to me who seems to be from New York. She perches in front of her large lucite handbag, crosses one elegant, tawny leg over the other, is wearing a maroon leather coat, black beret, and fantastic leopard-skin high heels. And she proceeds to spoon with deliberation sumptuous spoonfuls of whipped cream drizzled with chocolate syrup, from a venti container of some extravagant dessert coffee. Across from me is a kind of mirror me, a guy in his seventies, old Bostonian in leather cap and coat, giving her the eye. I catch a glimpse of her face. She's beautiful, of course, in a dangerous, noir, Kathleen-Turner, way. She gets up and gets out at Central Square in Cambridge. Other passengers murmur and laugh nervously in her wake. The old dude and I exchange a mysterious smile.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No Man Can Live Alone

I went out around 4:15, the time I seem to emerge from my labors these days, like a starved vampire. My senses were bared for a revelation. I kind of like this adventing business. Like adventuring, except more limited in scope. More like one of those GPS scavenger hunts. I harvested a new word from my nearest mailbox, but it didn't count. I had discovered it a few days ago. It was at the end of a printed warning to bring any item larger than 13 ounces to your post office. "Failure to do so," it concluded, "will result in the return of your mailpiece." I liked mailpiece. It had a slightly medieval sound, like codpiece. It seems well-entrenched on Google, but it was new to me.

I biked on into the gathering gray of evening. No moon visible. What was I looking for? Something big? Tiny? Would it be dishonest to browse the interior of a flower for some hibernating beetle? Shouldn't it just appear unbidden, like the fieldmouse in the bird box? I rode on along the Bikeway. Another possible candidate was the bench for Eugene McGurl, an Arlingtonian who took part in Doolittle's raid over Tokyo, and died three months later over Burma. But again, I knew about it already. And besides, they'd moved the bench.

I chose a place to turn around, a pull-over by Buck Field, where Matthew's baseball team, the Blue Jays, had ingloriously lost to the Rockies in the Babe Ruth League playoffs last June. As I wheeled around, I found myself looking at graffiti on a white warehouse wall. NO MAN CAN LIVE ALONE, someone had written in red, with an arrow pointing to one of the tags. Not the usual sort of thing you see spray-painted by a graffitist. Kind of deep. Kind of shallow. Did it have anything to do with the real December? Sure. Not really. It would do.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Last ember

Funny how the words have come to sound and look like their months. September suggests a fresh lined yellow pad of paper. October is all rounded and open, like a pumpkin with nothing to hide. November has those dark consonants, the color of brown wet leaves. And December has the icy c: a cold tinselly sound.


Hard to get to know the real December. No other month is so dominated by one of its days, maybe because that day is near the end of the month that ends the year, so Christmas exerts a gravitational pull on December even stronger than the one Halloween has on October or Thanksgiving on November.

There's one way of slowing down that cascade of days. December has its own calendar. LIttle paper windows to open each day of the month until Christmas, usually revealing things like angels, toys, wreaths, ornaments. We even had one once when I was a kid. I remember it hanging in our kitchen, an exotic item in a Jewish household, but I enjoyed those little daily revelations.

One December first, a few years ago, I was wandering through the meadowy acreage of Alewife Brook reservation. Came upon a bird box, one of several put up to attract bluebirds. On a whim, I reached up, opened the hinged wooden lid and peeked inside. There lay a little field mouse, fast asleep. Of course there would be! I quickly reclosed the lid. And it occurred to me later that what I had here was the first opening of a natural advent calendar. One could fill all the days of the month (or any other month) with such unexpected revelations, ones that shed light on the other December. Or just passed the time interestingly.

So let's try it. Here's the first opening, an easy choice: the full moon. It's actually full in about four hours, on December second, but close enough for jazz. I didn't expect it and there it was, no longer the scary guy it used to be, but an entertaining, burning cold, movie using borrowed light. What to call it? Usually December's moon is the Cold Moon, but this December has two full moons. I suppose the second one, on the 31st, will be called the Cold Blue Moon.

And here's a runner-up, a word I discovered this morning, in a preface by Christopher Morley describing Sherlock Holmes. He was, Morley said, an infracaninophile. Any guesses?

Time's up. A champion of the underdog. (Of course it would be!)