Monday, December 6, 2010


I am sitting in front of fifteen candles—two menorahs, seven candles each plus one
shammes serving both. The bottom one features eight Klezmer musicians. The top one branches over them like an iron tree. It's the next to last night of Chanukah, a kind of guerrilla holiday about guerrilla fighters, the Maccabees, and one of those Wag the Dog stories—the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days—that was probably cooked up to fund-raise for the new temple. Still, it all adds up to a good sturdy story promoting light in a month of daylight deficit. The darkness is almost at the bottom of the well. Pretty close to welling up with daylight again, a minute amount per day, soon. Meaning we're at the far turn of the orbit, in the coda of the year.
What's a coda? An endpiece, a final bow. "Something that serves to round out, conclude, or summarize and that has an interest of its own." From cauda, "tail." Wagging the dog, like I said. The trees are bare; the weather lacks warmth. What decorations accrue is up to us, our invention: paper snowflakes, popcorn garlands, glass balls with deep blue and deep green and deep red reflections, like a tasteful Miss Rheingold ad in the fifties, when a set of Waterman fountain pens made a nice gift, or a carton of Lucky Strikes, or Johnny Walker, "still going strong," striding booted and tophatted and confident into 1959.

December is mostly night, mostly artificial light, candles arrayed in a row, dwindling, getting shorter, fizzling out. Ten left. Nine? No, I'm wrong. Little buds of flame, still hanging in there. Finally giving up in long sinuous farewell ribbons of smoke. More interesting in their coda than they were in their reign. Seven... Wick filament glows. Falls. No smoke! Five. Flame sinks. Flares up again. Dies twice, grabs at life, goes out. Three. Getting dark. Some smoke lasts a second, another sends up coils and arabesques for a full half-minute. Two. One on each side of the missing centerpiece. Both dimming to orange. Yellowing up briefly. Orange. One smoking now, but still lit. Unlit. Sunset. Followed a few seconds later by its twin, who goes in the exact same way. Done.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


For the past month I've been posting these entries by the week, instead of every day or two or three. It's like changing from the local train to the express. You don't get off at every station. You let the little depots whizz by between the warehouses, the marshes, the woods, the golf courses, more warehouses, and then you pull into Monday again.

So I've been thinking about the week as a concept, a word, and a landscape.

The concept is interesting, how we've historically corralled gangs of days into different-numbered weeks. The seven-day week is pretty old and well-established, but various cultures have had weeks of between three and ten days. And then there's the Pawukon calendar in Bali, which according to Wikipedia, "is a 210-day calendar consisting of 10 different concurrent weeks of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 days." Whatever sticks, I guess. For us, four cycles a month seems to strike a balance between exhaustion and refreshment. But it's all pretty arbitrary when you think about time as basically an unnamed flow of befores, nows, and afters. Less terrifying, more friendly, if you give them names and numbers. I myself once tried personifying the week from its initials as "Mt. Wt. Friss," a former professional wrestler. Haven't heard from Mountain Weight in some time.

As for the word week, it sounds like something a baby duck would say. I prefer the French semaine. It's got a nice heft, like a handsome piece of silverware. It's got seven letters, appropriately. And it resembles "Southeast Maine," which I also happen to like. Alas, we're stuck with week, with its weak creak of a wooden wheel going round and round. Never mind. It's fortified by weekend, which sounds like brunch and a movie.

As for the landscape, this week was a good example—maybe the best of the year—of how seven days can share a contour and common cause: in this case, the care, feeding, and burping of Thanksgiving, a large holiday with a long name and a refrigerated history that trails behind it, combining uptight buckle-hatted Pilgrims and their hipper, less-clothed Wampanoag neighbors, whose strange alliance and feast we restage in our homes with relatives and friends.

So, Monday wakes from its dream of the weekend. Blinks. Raises up on one elbow, lifts the blinds, sees the giant turkey in the distance. Scheiss. Lets blinds fall. Its job is to get the momentum going. Good luck. But it does, sort of. Cleans the stovetop. Does a load of laundry. Shops at WiseBuy with the winking Owl. Nothing very imaginative, but necessary. Monday is a scowling day, the first day, Big M with the owlish eyebrows. "What?"

Tuesday is the mayor of the week, the one who cuts the ribbon, digs the honorary spadeful of dirt, gives the commencement address at the high school. Also is no slouch on the dance floor. Tooz, it's called. Hey, Tooz! As far as this week goes, Tooz takes on the big jobs like the bathroom floor as well as some daring ones like toothbrushing out the grime in the rubber lining on the top of the freezer. And defining ones like going to the barber and springing for a beard trim. And the first guest arrives! Carol's brother, Norm, from California. Now the week becomes famous.

Famous? I'll show you famous. It's Uncle Wally! Thursday’s sidekick, Watson to its Holmes. "Wednesday's a half day." Yeah, right. Only the most-traveled day of the year. But Wally is the same old Wally, humming "Elmer's Tune" while doing a few of those last-minute chores, like sweeping the schmootz off the back stairs, changing a light bulb, trimming his nails. Wal-ly! Wal-ly! And more guests arrive! Jacqueline and Edmund. The siblings together again! This is getting exciting.

Ding-dong! Whoa. Giant turkey is at the door, wearing buckled hat, carrying blunderbuss filled with tulips. It's the day itself, granddaddy of all Thursdays, floating zeppalin cartoon characters down Fifth Avenue. Banquet table unfolded in living room, both green tablecloths, extra chairs. House filling up. Mark, Wendy, Emily, Benjie, Uncle Jacques, Aunt Mimi, Jill, Linda, Astrid! Kitchen gnomes basting the fowl every half hour till the thermometer pops. Jacques doing the gravy, Wendy the sweet potato, Edmund the collard greens, Mark the pies: pecan, apple, and pumpkin. The line winds through the kitchen, filling plates, sitting down, eating, more eating, the day filling up like the house with its own gabbling, gobbling expectations until, many loads of dishes later, goodnight, goodnight, thank you, goodnight.

What does Friday do for a chaser? Start with pancakes. And bagels. And then it’s supposed to be this big honking day for shopping. So some go down to Harvard Square. Some take a walk down to Spy Pond. Some take a long nap (lagniappe). This Friday spreads what’s normally the last third of Friday (release! liberation!) over the whole day. Movie? Why not! Do the Friday Times crossword? Of course! Catch the sunset, which is a good one. Then reconvene for supper, followed by a singalong. If you insist. This Friday is an expandable valise.

Saturday and Sunday are in the unusual position of bringing a little order to the proceedings. Thursday acting like a Saturday? Friday like a second Saturday? Who’s the real Saturday? Saturday! Prove it. Well, there’s Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me on the radio. And A Prairie Home Companion. And Saturday knows how to handle leisure. Thursday overdoes it. Friday can’t handle the responsibility. Friday’s a pirate, not a cruise director. Less is enough, suggests Saturday. Leftovers can make a meal.

Sunday rested. Bought a Times. Ordered in. Watched football. Sunday knows how to end a long weekend. Spend it all.

(Farewell, November!)

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Leaves, at the end of their tenure, seem to have personalities. They resemble us. They display bold colors and patterns. They cling—no! Don’t wanna! They yield (how gallant! how mature!) and fall. They are driven along the sidewalk relentlessly and made to whirl around in pointless little cyclones by an invisible taskmaster. Where they finally settle they lie like deadbeats or fallen heroes. For Halloween give them a trumpet; for Thanksgiving salute them with Taps, and a parting palindrome. “Be them. Leave them be.”

I am taking November’s measure week by week this time around, which is good because the month is moody and doesn’t neatly submit to generalizations, except maybe that one. Some days are placid, others wild; some are balmy, others cold; some are Technicolor oaters, others monochromatic film noirs. But one bold statement I will make: November is about subtraction. The bravery of the few; the bare beauty of less. Sans leaves, sans daylight, sans crickets, sans everything. Well, not everything; got carried away there. Canvasback and ring-necked ducks are here. Shakespeare’s here, for sure. Especially in Sonnet #73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire

Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Of course, he was what when he wrote that, 35? No matter. Let us bid adieu to those who take their leave; to the last cricket who has just enough left to scratch a chirp, weak but brave, and is bidding adieu to us from deep in a bush. It has been keeping up its narration since May, spooling and unspooling the tale of time. It must be tired now. Goodnight, cricket.

And to the few remaining leaves on my tree across the street, and to the fallen ones lying around its trunk: You did a good job. All that a tree could ask. The next generation will hope to do as well. Goodnight, leaves.

And goodnight, dwindling daylight. We don’t begrudge you ditching us for the southern hemisphere. We know you’ll be welling back up in December. Well well, daylight.


Coda: Minus sun, I’m.

Another sunset coda. This is a solo number. I was walking along the bike path by Spy Pond, not far from the above-mentioned cricket. The sun was very low. I stopped to admire the brilliant yellow maple leaves, translucent with sunglow and splashed with shadows of fellow leaves, behind, below, above, in subtle motion. The sun was setting. The lower leaves lost their reflected light, their shadows, went opaque. The tier of leaves above them still held their light, like the upper windows of a house, but soon, ehh, their lights subtly dulled, too. Finally the topmost leaves were left, grinning in the sun, nyah-nyah, still got ours, until, nope. Gone. No mas. A sunset by subtraction.

Goodnight, sun.

Happy birthday, Dotch!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Visiting My Secrets

Meanwhile, deep in the pars compacta of the substantia nigra, something was killing the dopaminergic neurons. But what? Brady Kinesia knew, but he wasn’t talking….

What’s inside stays inside most of the time. The body’s goings on are as mysterious to me as the fine print in a pharmaceutical ad, or the workings of a computer. But sometimes messages surface, indicating that the norm has changed.

About a year and a half ago, I went to a neurologist in Cambridge with a narrative about my left hand. It didn’t seem to be as quick on the uptake as my right hand. For instance, after it finished setting down a bottle of seltzer, it didn’t seem to know it could let go of the bottle. It was sort of sweetly befuddled. At the keyboard, it tended to lie on the left-hand keys, occasionally causing unwanted commands, while righty moved way the hell past centerfield to take charge of most of the letters. Then there were these periods of general slowness, especially in the kitchen when Carol was zipping around getting dinner ready. I’ve always been on the slow side—the dreamy kid, the distracted ambler—but this was not the result of distraction, more of a disinclination.

The doctor looked me over, had me do a number of movement tests (touching my nose with eyes closed, flying out my fingers on command, etc.) and then said, a bit circumspectly, “What you’re describing is similar to the stories that people tell who have Parkinson’s disease.” Five months later, I came back to see him with the same stories. This time he was pretty sure that I was one of those people.

The average age when people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s is sixty, which was exactly my age at the time. I felt both consoled to be joining a statistical club, and pissed off that I had stepped in it. Interesting that the brain had the thing probably years before it became wise to itself, like finding a bill that had been buried in a pile of New Yorkers. Now it was just getting around to telling me (“Been meaning to give you this…”). And now I’m just getting around to telling some of you.

What does this have to do with an almanac, a blog of days? It is, I guess, the old thing. How surprising it is when it comes up. We baby boomers tend to take our nickname seriously. We’re a bunch of kids and always will be. (Maybe every generation feels that way, but I doubt it. We wear baseball caps; they wore fedoras.) This is not such a bad thing. I saw it at my college reunion: the 22-year-olds in the 62-year-old bodies, balancing dignity on a foundation of lunacy. But it means that owning one’s Parkinson’s disease (or other evidence of aging) is a slow process. I have it, they said. And I believe them. But it’s like accepting a house guest you don’t know very well, some distant cousin. You change the sheets, make up the guest room, and you can hear it snoring and it doesn’t put the milk away. But it’s not going to leave, despite the hints you might drop about it maybe visiting some other cousin. And gradually, somehow, you accept the fact that this bizarre guest is you, or at least yours. Which means it’s not so bizarre, because you’re not so bizarre. Not to yourself.

So you go about clothing that invisible thing, the diagnosis, in new habits and information. Like remembering to take the afternoon pill. And fitting a half hour of exercise into the day: riding the road of NPR on the Nordic Track; walking the hills of Arlington with no destination, but briskly; doing a minute of jumping jacks as if being pursued by the crewcut ghost of Coach Peasinelli. There are also newsletters people mail me, symposia every other month (Boston being the Center of the Medical Universe), and news of Encouraging Developments in the media, because this is a high-profile disease with two enormously popular and well-loved people who have it, Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox.

Of course the exercise, the seminars, even this post, are all on the outside looking in. It couldn’t be otherwise. I wouldn’t want to book space on an Elderhostel cruise through my body to follow the Carbodopa and Levodopa to my brain.

For now I will use my goofy left hand, Gaucho, as my chief informer and intermediary. And my right hand, Dexter, will, when necessary, give his brother a spontaneous hug.


Our Tree

In other news, our tree is looking particularly beautiful these days. We adopted it from the Town of Arlington in a plant-a-tree program about four years ago. Then it was just a skinny maple sapling with a ball of roots and bound branches. We chose a bare stretch of ground between the sidewalk and street in front of our neighbors’ house. Their son Lucas was four, and he helped water it. It needed a lot of watering that first year, and our neighbors took on that task way more than we did. So it’s at least as much their tree as it is ours. But I still feel a paternal pride when I walk by it. It’s got to be about twenty feet tall now, with a four-inch trunk and a big crown of seasonably red leaves spreading in all directions. That’s my tree, I think, even though I kind of know it’s its own tree now. A young adult tree, with birds in its branches and groundwater in its roots. I don’t think it knows me from any other passerby on Andrew Street. But I bet it knows Lucas.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Man Raking Leaves

It was supposed to be a father-son job, one raking, the other bagging, or both doing each—and for a while, it was. Or rather, two solo jobs: me in the backyard, Matt along the driveway. Something about claiming your own territory, maybe. We merged for a while in Matt's side, moving his golden piles by the armload into a hungry leaf bag. Then lunch called Matt upstairs and a band practice took him away. I remained to be the man in the yard, raking leaves. A classic, seasonal role. An inspiration to the neighborhood.

As tasks go, it's a good one. It's outside. It's cold but I'm dressed appropriately. I've got on last winter's gloves and a fleece hoodie and green Red Sox stocking cap. I've got the simple but specialized tools of the craft, the triangular rake and the tall yard waste bag. And it's a finite task, limited by so many leaves over so much yard, and no more.

The leaves are obliging travelers. They have yielded to the journey, however long it lasts. Some are wet, some dry. Some cling to the hooked plastic, or wooden, teeth of the rake and have to be removed by hand. Some still have bright colors and patterns. Others are dark and sodden, belonging to the soil more than the tree. They have good wet, mulchy smells. And engaging with them adds to the soundscape of the street—the laconic scrape...scrape...of rake on asphalt, softer on grass; the rumbustious, cornflakesy, crush of leaves in leaf bag, shaken and pushed down to half their initial volume.

It's amazing how many leaves you can get in those bags. Whole mountains disappear into them. But their capacity is not unlimited. A printed instruction says to fill bag no higher than dashed line, to which you must roll and crimp top of bag. (There's a verb you don't see too often in American signage. Crimp.)

I don't think these bags existed when I was a kid on Nutmeg Lane in Stamford. Back in the fifties, the autumn ritual was burning leaves. We carried them, I suppose, in big bushel baskets or by the wheelbarrowful to the foot of the driveway and the grownups tended to the controlled blaze, deep inside the leaf mountain, in shifting billows of smoke that got in your eyes and clothes, but who cared? It was exciting, and it smelled great, and it certainly did the job. The pall of smoke rose high above the neighborhood like a benediction. (This was long before air pollution and global warming existed, of course.)

Is it good for the leaves? I ask myself. Should I rake them to the edges of the yard, let them be mulch for the bushes, where older generations of leaves lie a-mouldering in their graves? I'm not even sure where the leaf bags will end up. Landfill, I suppose. Is it okay to take them so far away from their trees? But the tree evicted them, and the wind proposed a journey with no fixed destination. We're extending that adventure, maybe. And it's better, most would now agree, than cremation.

These are the mortuary thoughts of a man raking leaves. As they fall, so will he rake. Amen.


Coda: Chasing Red

We had planned to take a walk, just down to Spy Pond, at 4:30. But I got involved with trying to help Charlie, Carol's dad, with a new flash drive, and by the time I came back upstairs it was getting dark—the new, early dark. So we gave up on the walk. But five or ten minutes later, Carol called me urgently into the kitchen. The sky behind the neighbor's backyard was suffused in raspberry, rose, red. If I hadn't gone downstairs, if we'd taken our walk, we'd have been down at Spy Pond to see that over the water. But not too late, maybe. A quick walk! Get your shoes on! Out we ran. Emerging on Mass. Ave, Walgreen's was silhouetted against that still glorious rubescent sky. Still time! But the horizon was drinking it down faster than we knew. By the time we'd made it down Linwood to the Pond, only a band of pink remained, like a faint milk moustache. Got sunset? Not anymore. Nearby, on the shore, a photographer's lit umbrella shone as white as a moon. A fortuitously timed fashion shoot. But nothing lasts forever, certainly not fashions or sunsets. Or maybe everything lasts forever, but not in one place. The red had ridden off to the west, pursued by a rapid shadow. Holding on to our kitchen souvenir, we went home.

Monday, November 1, 2010


A little Halloween parable from last night. The doorbell rings, I hurry downstairs to the bag of candy. Open the door: it's a dad and two kids. Little girl, little boy. Boy, about six, in a dog costume I think, gives a lusty yell of "Trick or Treat!" Whereupon I, in my best avuncular, chuckling, front-porch, manner, say to him: "Well! After a Trick or Treat that good, I guess I'd better give you some candy." Which he accepts, but then before he leaves he looks up at me and says seriously: "If someone else comes who doesn't say Trick or Treat as good, you should still give them candy."

He's right.


Normally there's no second team behind the Red Sox that captures my heart. But I love San Francisco—I've been going there for years to visit my mom and sister—and I'm glad their lovable baseball team has won the World Series. I remember my disappointment when the Yankees, who won too damn much, beat the Giants in '62. (I was in high school then, in El Paso, Texas, listening on someone's transistor radio.) In '89, they lost four straight to the Oakland A's in the Bay Area series, which featured the earthquake on Oct. 17th, to make it even more ruinous. And then they came so close to beating the Angels in 2002. But not to be. It took this Series, in which they were the prohibitive underdogs, for the long-suffering SF Giants—much cooler and funkier than their New York forebears—to win at last, and they made it look easy against the heavily favored Texas Rangers. So I say the baseball season couldn't have ended better.


This blog is due for a change before I start repeating myself as I lap November. I'm not sure exactly how it will change, except that it won't be mostly time pieces henceforth. Enough seasonal, monthly, and holiday musings, I think. An almanac can collect other kinds of things: lore, limericks, happenstances, birds—there have to be birds—daydreams, memories, factual excursions, and sea glass.

And since I won't be trying to keep up with the calendar, unless I want to, these entries will probably be spaced much farther apart. I might have only a few posts in November and December—no advent peek-a-boos this time around—while I look back at what I said here over the past year and maybe try to see if it coheres into some kind of book.

So, to all my readers, present, past, and future, I say "Humpty Dumpty," which you may recall is short for "Have a great fall!"

Yours fondly,

Old Hatch


Sometimes it takes over from October in gray and rain—a sodden beginning. Sometimes, like today, it's all cold, brilliant blue and topaz, half-dressed trees, crunchy underfoot, and a ragtag squadron of jack o' lanterns lined up on railings and doorsteps, squinting and agog at the new post-Halloween world. Starting with Día de los Muertos, with fancy-togged skeletons in Mexican tableaux, with black-cloaked porch goblins looking a little embarrassed, with all the saints—the ones you know and the ones you don't.

November has work to do, different from any other month's. From January through most of October, the work is about creating with the sun, first lengthening days, then a cardinal's song, then greening, growing, blooming, fruiting, ripening—even long after the days have started shortening, the ripening continues in new leaf colors, new fall flowers, a new fullness. Then it's November's task to take it down, just as artfully, but in brown. In service to the minus.

Because at this time of year, less is more. Wabi-sabi rules. By December it's more or less done. Winter is winter. But it was November who made it happen. Took one set down to make room for the next. Not that November wants thanks. Oh, maybe an acknowledgement.

Good work, November. Good weather for writing. Good browns. Nice topaz.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


When they removed the apostrophe from Hallowe'en, they made it less scary.

The apostrophe is the missing tooth in the jack o' lantern.
It gives the word a hiccup, an echo, a disguise.
Without it, you get Halloween, which has a polite, one-word leer—decorative double letters and the colorful H and W. But where does it take you? To the local CVS and around the neighborhood.
Put back the apostrophe, you get mystery.
A much older word, showing the seam of two words, meaning All Hallows' Even, the eve of All Hallows' day—the day of the hallowed (a "Holy Ned!" of a word, waxy as tallow).

It's a spooky chasm between one month and the next for us, one year and the next for the ancient Celts who carved it at the tail-end of their year—the night when the dead may roam among the living. (CUE ORGAN)

We've made it our own. Cloaked it and costumed it in safer garb, while venturing as close to the dead as we dared. Like Orson Welles's pre-Hallowe'en prank on October 30, 1938 ("Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and saying 'Boo!'"). And even that was too close for a lot of people.

Last Halloween (not Hallowe'en), I included the first of three Betty Begonia poems I wrote for my mom. Here then be the last, my own blogosphere version of dressing up as a cowboy or ranchera or circus performer (in honor of my juggler son, Matt) and saying: "It's Betty Begonia and her Grandson!"

“Dear Gram,” Betty read, “How are you?

My round-the-world trip’s nearly through.

I’ll drop by for a visit

next Saturday. Is it

convenient? Hope so! Love, Matthew.”

As Ringo peered over her shoulder,

Betty mused, “He’ll be seven years older

since last he were here...”

and she dabbed at a tear,

which boggled the buckskinned beholder.

“Her grandson?” said Thomas to Jim.

“I don’t think I’ve heard about him.”

“Yep, a circus performer

and quite a barnstormer:

he’ll leap sixteen sheep on a whim.”

Two days later they met the noon stage

and out stepped a tall lad whose age

was sixteen or less.

He was dressed for success

in a suit of pale yellow and beige.

Before introductions were done

he was juggling four satchels for fun

while tipping the porter

a dime and a quarter

produced from the ear of a nun.

And all the way back to the ranch

when the buckboard passed under a branch,

young Matthew would grab it

and, quick as a rabbit,

flip over—which made Ringo blanch.

The cowboys at first were agog

each time Matthew sprang like a frog

up into a tree

or juggled a bee

and three pine cones while rolling a log.

But after two days had gone by

their well of good nature ran dry.

“Again?” Ringo muttered

the tenth time Matt buttered

his sourdough toast on the fly.

“This kid, he gets all the attention,”

Thomas grumbled to Jim. “Not to mention

he’s showing me up.

I slurp from my cup;

he don’t ruffle the dang surface tension!”

“Yeah, but Betty just can’t get enough

of her grandson,” Jim said, “and that stuff

that he’s learned in the circus,

so let’s don’t let him irk us.

I say we make friendly, not gruff.”

Whereupon with a forthcoming grin,

Jim ahemmed and said, “So...mighty Quinn...

Care to go for a ride?

Take your time to decide.”

Matt smiled and answered, “I’m in.”

They suggested the gentlest horse,

but the boy said, “You’re joking, of course!

I’ve ridden wild stallions!

I’m used to rapscallions!

I want one with fury and force!”

So they led out Ms. Thunder Ann Lightning

whose way with a rider was frightening.

When the saddle appeared

she bucked and she reared.

“Much better,” young Matthew said, brightening.

“No saddle. I’d rather go bareback.”

He spat on his hands, smoothed his hair back,

took off at a run,

vaulted high and, for fun,

did a somersault—smack on the mare’s back!

With a whinny like hell in a bottle,

Ms. Lightning took off at full throttle.

Matt clung to her mane

and he yielded his brain

to the mercy of Quetzalcoatl.

“Not smart,” Ringo said. Jim agreed.

“I suppose we should do the good deed.”

“I suppose,” grumbled Thomas,

who disliked melodramas,

“and I guess we’d best put on some speed.”

To their horses they swiftly repaired

in pursuit of the runaway mare.

Her dust cloud soon bloomed

and then the mare loomed

like the fruit of a daredevil’s prayer.

“Hang in there!” yelled Jim to young Matt

who was lying impressively flat.

He pulled up alongside

of the mare, stride for stride,

and yodeled “The Nebulous Gnat.”

That tune was almost guaranteed

to divert almost any stampede

among horses or cattle

engaged in a battle

with panic, or anger, or need.

Meanwhile, seeing his opportunity,

Thomas came to the rear with impunity.

Yelling, “Time to skedaddle,”

he leapt from his saddle

and with Matthew he formed a community.

Tom’s riderless horse was soon caught

by Ringo, who’d never been taught

to round up loose strays.

He just did it, unfazed,

like a Roy Rogers wannabe ought.

At last the three cowboys were able

to make things a little more stable

for horse and for rider

and a swig of hard cider

didn’t hurt, back at Betty B.’s table.

“Ms.Thunder Ann Lightning?” yelled Betty.

“Were you boys born with brains or spaghetti???”

But Matt held up a hand

with an air of command

that he’d learned on the vast Serengeti.

“They tried to dissuade me,” he said.

“But I paid no attention. Instead,

I was reckless and foolish,

self-centered and mulish.”

He paused, both his ears turning red.

“My act may be famous, but they

are the ones we should cheer for today,

‘cause next to their feat

my tricks can’t compete:

not a chance, not a prayer, and no way.”

A long stretch of silence ensued

until Jim interrupted the mood.

“Hey—show me that thing

where you fly through a ring

like a quail, upside down, would ya, dude?”


Finally, a last scene for Halloween (not Hallowe'en) gleaned from a brisk walk down to Spy Pond to bid October adieu (before the ado). A squirrel came pouncing across a lawn. It had something in its mouth. Looked like a stick from my angle. But Carol insisted it had writing on it. Sure enough, when I walked back a bit to improve my view, I saw a gleam of metallic paper. The object was oblong. It was a Hershey bar! (Seriously!)

Either people aren't choosy about who they give candy to noawdays, or that was the MOST convincing squirrel costume I've ever seen!

Happy E'en!
Happy Een!
Happy somewhere in betwe'en!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ah, vimmen!

Some days bring their own quiet significance. Yesterday (the 28th) was one of those.

To begin with, it was the first day that was no longer my birthday, a kind of un-distinction observed by a resigned re-shouldering of the rest of the year.

But it was as much what the day was as what it wasn't. A walk outside into the afternoon soon revealed that this was the key day: October's October. The trees seemed to have given their all, yielded up every color they had in them, colonnades of color, and having done their utmost, were beginning the turn to the utless. Sidewalk cyclones roamed the streets, whirling leaves into mad skitters. More leaf flurries than the day before, and few moments without at least one leaf twirling or floating down from some tree. The old trick or treat: now you see it, now you don't.

I went to check on the big maple, the bellwether tree in front of the Unitarian church. I'd sat under it a month ago when it was just beginning to turn. Completely bare now!

Overhead, highly patterned altocumulus clouds sheeted the sky, but below them afternoon sun defined distant trees like solid bronzed cutouts. And then the pewtery clouds overtook the sun, and there it was. November. A reminder that bronze is brown in another light. Later on, the sun came back, defying the slaty cloud cover in that classic New England sunsplashed overcast October sky.

Finally, the day was my mom's yahrtzeit. Two years ago Betty O., Sober Ober, passed away, age 96, loved by a lot of people, and I think she knew it. Shortly before she died, she broke a long silence to say "Thank you" to her caregiver, Rosie, who had just turned her in her bed. Good last words. Thank you comes from something good and gives it back.

She was complicated, like all of us: a worrier, a saver, a high school basketball player, a pianist, a nurse, a performer, a harmonizer, and a poet. She'd been a camp nurse when she was young, and had learned a number of camp songs. One she used to sing went:

In the vinter time in the valley green
ven the vind blows on the vidowpane
and the vimmen from the vaudeville
ride velocipedes on the vindowsill.
Ah, men! Ah, vimmen!

(Note: According to Google, most versions have the vimmen from the vaudeville riding their velocipedes in the vestibule. This makes more sense, but it doesn't rhyme, and who cares about sense? Me, I prefer the image of the tiny women on their tiny velocipedes running races on the windowsill.
Okay, ma. I'm going to bed.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Our Old Boxcar

It's the day before the day after my birthday, and I have been doing nice things for myself. To wit: finishing a couple of excellent crossword puzzles; playing a lot of 40s vintage Sinatra; lingering over lapsang souchong tea and English muffins; reading a bouquet of birthday wishes from friends on email; and now sitting in the coveted bentwood bench overlooking Spy Pond.

The trees on the opposite shore and on Elizabeth Island are old gold, bronze, copper and maroon, layers and layers like breads in a bakery. The colors seem to bring the trees closer than when they were all more or less the same shade of green. However, you need to shade your eyes to see them well. Otherwise you get a glare of old gold, even with the overcast sky.

I wasn't going to write a birthday blog—hence the pre-day post yesterday. But it turned out to be another nice thing to do for myself. I need to note. Not sure why that is. A justification for being here, perhaps. I note, therefore I am. Or a justification for here—it is written about, therefore it is. Also an effort to keep up with time. I describe, therefore it slows down. (Nature seems to enjoy the publicity.)

And it is my day: might as well own it in writing, like a shopkeeper taking inventory, if briefly. So let it be told that today was warm and I put out our two pumpkins on the front steps, later than most people have—a big one and a little one. Houses, it seems, crave pumpkins like candy corn. One of these years I'm going to get a big round one and a narrow one and outfit them with a couple of derbies and carve Laurel and Hardy jack o' lanterns out of them. I'll bet someone already has.

We are still below the Leaves Dropped tide line on the New England foliage map. But it's getting closer. Mostly individuals drifting down to their mates. The sidewalk midden is looking shuffleable, if not outright crunchable. And the day was handsomely served by the earnest, dove-gray overcast, a herd in important, benign motion.

Speaking of benign, Robert Benigno is in my boxcar of birthday mates. His animated leaps do not seem to bother Emily Post in the least. There is a poetry jam underway between Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas, who of course is reading "Poem on His Birthday." And John Cleese and Nanette Fabray did a very entertaining version of "We're a Couple of Swells," almost as good as Astaire and Garland. I'm hoping they can convince Teddy Roosevelt to do "Triplets" from The Bandwagon with them, which Fabray knows very well, of course.

This boxcar is bigger than it looks. And the view of October out the open doors—fantastic.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


It's the day before my birthday. Last year on my birthday I was prepping for a colonoscopy, so tomorrow's bound to be a big improvement.

At noon or so I was sitting in a McDonald's with a latte and a small oblong "apple pie"--better than what I was ingesting last year at this time—having just re-filed my unemployment claim. I could have been auditioning for a country & western song.

"You're a freelance writer?" the Unemployment rep had asked. She did not sound like she wanted my autograph, but I said yes proudly, as if she'd asked if I were a veteran. "Are you a veteran?" she asked next. I admitted I wasn't.

She leveled a severe look at me. "Are you trying to repeat your ironic charade of last Groundhog Day (see 'The Groundhog Variations,' 2/2/10), in which you drew facile and frankly obscure parallels between collecting unemployment and seeing your shadow?"

She had me. I was forced to sign a character release form and write 100 times: "Groundhog Day comes but once a year, except in the movies."

Just kidding. It was only fifty times.

Anyhow, I resisted going home to pursue the occupation I had admitted to. It was fun sitting there surrounded by Happy Meals and looking out the window at the hoi polloi who were mostly all younger than me, and who all had birthdays too, days scattered through the calendar like candy eggs of rare design.

A great tradition, is it not, this celebrating the day you entered the world (usually) headfirst? You get to own your day, like that deed to a square foot of Alaska that used to come in cereal boxes. And if you tell people it's your birthday, even total strangers, they often automatically wish you a happy one, and maybe even encourage you to do something nice for yourself.

Candles are lit in your honor. Cake is served. Gifts proffered. Why? Just because you've completed another orbit. And because you entered the orbit in the first place. It's kind of a way of stamping your passport.

The good thing about the day before your birthday is that none of that stuff has happened yet. It's all in the future, but the very near future, just like you were the day before you were born when you were awaited with (hopefully) the highest of expectations, your entry prepared for, your relatives gathered on the lee shore with toys and kind dispositions. C'mon! Over here! That's it! Look what we've got for you!!


On the way home I took a detour to visit late October with a bike ride around Fresh Pond. It was warm. The trees were a tunnel of gold and red and green. Leaves fell as if a movie were being shot and they had to get it right on the first take. I pulled into a new wayby they'd built between the big pond and little Lily Pond, with benches and railings. Very nice. I saw off to the right what I took to be a hawk silhouette in a tree. A little more neck than hawks usually showed, but I wanted a hawk. It was a hawk. A guy with a camera came and sat down. "A hawk in that tree," I told him. "Ah," he replied. Then I saw a couple of other silhouettes one tree over. "And more over there," I added. "Comrades," he said with a slight accent. "Right!" I said, appreciatively. "Comrades." Of course, when I pedaled over for a closer look, I saw that they were not hawks at all. "Cormorants" is what the man had really been saying. But comrades was right, too.

Friday, October 22, 2010


It was just one of those things, just one of those crazy flings. I was driving through Harvard Square, past Cambridge Common, when a tree near Mass. Ave. caught a gust of wind and let loose with a fantastic leaf storm. The air around me was briefly filled with small flying leaves, a confetti machine. For a moment I felt like John Glenn in the Canyon of Heroes. It got me thinking about phenomena.

I like that abracadabra sound—PHENOMENA! Its meanings are straightforward but elusive. It can be as simple as any "observed fact or occurrence" (a singular phenomenon, that is). Or slightly fancier: "something impressive or extraordinary." (Or someone—that would be a phenom.) And then there's the intriguing Kantian definition: "a thing as it appears to and is constructed by the mind, as distinguished from a noumenon, or thing-in-itself."

I once had a naive experience of that second thing, the noumenon. Or so I thought. It was on the eve of my 20th birthday on the Isle of Wight in England. I was trying to write poetry on the shore, at sunset after two days of rain, and suddenly I had a glimpse of the unmediated reality behind words and concepts, the sun behind the sun. I called it the thingness of things.

But now I think it had to be phenomena I was glimpsing, just one layer removed. Besides, it would probably be terrifying to see the thing-in-itself, without the mind. Kind of like a bad acid trip. Because the good thing about phenomena is that it's a collaboration between the observer and the observed. It's what makes the trees I saw in Rock Meadow today beautiful. Or that leaf storm phenomenal. Or what gives not just noise to the tree that falls in the forest with someone to hear it, but a thundering, branch-snapping, stentorian crash.

So I've been out looking for more phenomena, like a cameraless photographer. Yesterday we went out to Great Meadows in Concord, a vast marshland slowly returning to its former life as a meadow. Phenomena abounded, including a pair of Northern harriers, once called marsh hawks, canvassing the reeds on uptilted wings, lifting and falling like a pair of refs working an unseen game. Then, paying a visit to the Concord River on the other side of the woods, we saw a river counterpart of that aerial leaf storm in Harvard Square. This was a leaf fleet: hundreds of yellow birch leaves sailing with the current.

But the big-picture phenomenon that has now overtaken us is the fever called Peak Foliage. Not a full tide catching every tree in its flood. But not something that can be ignored, or even deconstructed into component leaf events. It's reached that gawkworthy stage: head-turning colors that you've only seen on the throat of a Blackburnian warbler or that you desired the orange-yellow Crayola to be. And today it stirred something very like love out in Rock Meadow, those deep russets (made of red and maroon) that vibrate some intimate corresponding color you can feel in your stomach. It's very un-wabi-sabi, this "peak" worship, but what can you do about it? It's color lust.

Finally, a cooler phenom last night. It wasn't the harvest moon, technically. That was last month, floating up on the very night of the autumnal equinox. But this was a second harvest moon, as friendly as the first. (Isn't it fortunate we have only one moon we get to dress up in these different personalities, one moon to keep track of, one moon to write songs about?) The phenomenon of suddenly seeing it not very high above the horizon and not too bright, just there, hanging in the sky, big and round and startling like a face in the window.

It may turn out to be the merry face of Oliver Hardy in this scene from "The Flying Deuces" that you can't see too many times. You can focus just on Stan dancing, or Ollie singing, or the fond legionnaire behind Ollie's left shoulder. And after you see it, you can read the poem "For Laurel and Hardy on My Workroom Wall" by David Waggoner. Because phenomena aren't just in nature, ya know.

ENA!! And I l that, according to Kant, we are assistant magicians. Leaf storms, rainbows, bumblebees, full moons require our senses, our brain, to be phenomena.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Squirrel, dismayed by defoliation, to tree: "Have you taken leave of your senses?"
Tree: "No. We've taken census of our leaves." [rimshot of falling acorns]

Tree humor. Gotta love it.

I have been thinking about leaves. And thinking about the cycle of leaves leaving in October so there can be leafing in April, then leaving again....

I get flummoxed by spring, can't keep up with it. But fall has this thoughtful, austere, pace that lends itself to rocksitting on Spy Pond in a funnel of sun and looking around at the slow weft of colors and the rowing scullers, and feeling that tinge of regret, because it's probably the end of these moments of warmth, or soon will be. It's going to get colder and barer, these leaves are going to pass their peak of magnificence soon, and time feels really valuable just now.

I've been looking at leaves. Front, back, through. If you hold one up, not right up to the sun, but tilted a little, maybe 30 degrees—it glows. It becomes a light-reflecting mechanism. And you remember that this always was a friend of the sun—more, a collaborator, a kind of lover, light-made. (How does photosynthesis work? Light + CO2 = sugar + oxygen? But the leaf knows what to do with sunlight, not just bask in it.)

And then if you take a really close look at a leaf, even one still on the tree, you see how brittle it is around the edges, or tough as old leather. Or it has spots of mold, or holes and tears, or a see-through lattice of cells, or something that might be a tiny dessicated insect egg on the back. And if you look long enough, it becomes bigger, like an urban map, like a city seen from an airplane. The tiny cells stained different colors, indicating wards voting for different candidates, or burnt-out neighborhoods...

And you realize how close this leaf already is to soil, it's changing from a treeling to a groundling. But what's confusing is how beautiful it is. You don't want it to fall. If it falls, it dies. The tree, however, is not so sentimental. The tree knows its necessity. Which is sleep, not death. Hence the dry layer of cells between the tree and the petiole, the unsentimental abscission. Don't take it personally. Can't afford to carry, to nourish, to be nourished. Fluids freeze. Time to leave.

Still. Not yet. For now, it's still big picture, still storytelling with shadows and light, warmth and cool, caw and katydid, sun and wind. An old story about getting old and getting ready to go, after turning on a night light: cell by cell, leaf by leaf, and tree by tree.