Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Gargoyle

We took a walk, around 1:00 this afternoon, Carol and I. It was gray. Yes, a cardinal was singing. Nothing very organized, but I've heard them enough times in the last few days to convince me that the bottle has been uncorked. Many lawns bore evidence of the terrific windstorm a few nights ago: huge fallen limbs and branches in piles. No snow, though. Some powerful spell has kept it away, giving us rain instead.

We walked past a house with a garden full of tchotchkes. There was an orb covered with colored mosaic tile and mirror bits, little stone bunnies, little angel statuettes, little stone birds around a small birdbath, and a couple of gargoyles. One of them could have been the zeitgeist of late February: hunkered, cold, naked, glumly waiting.

I should say goodbye to February, but I already did, on the 23rd. ("Here's your parka, what's your hurry?") Even so, the month insisted on playing out its string, which is its right: it's entitled to the full 28. Not that people have been making it feel wanted lately. (Can't wait for March! When the hell is spring going to get here?)

If that weren't bad enough, the 28th (today) suffers from comparison with its flashy Brigadoon-like neighbor, who co-opts it every four years, on years divisible by four— Mr. Leap Day himself, Twenty-nine! (leaps in, handing his cape and tophat to some month-valet) This year isn't one of those years, though, so we have to settle for the "common" last day, Mr. Twenty-eight.

Never mind. It's Purim! That great puppet show of a holiday with Haman (booooooo!), Esther, Mordecai, Vashti, and King Ahasuerus. Whirl your greggers against naysayers and anti-winterists! It's also the night of the full Snow Moon. And it was a very festive last day of the Vancouver Olympics, and an amazingly memorable day to celebrate being (an adopted) Canadian and a Vancouverite by singing as much of the words to O Canada as I remember. (I'm in the home stretch after "God keep our land...") So I'll add a bit of the mosaic orb to keep the gloomy gargoyle company.

And in five minutes, I'll say: "Rabbit, rabbit!" to March first.

Friday, February 26, 2010

For Fred

Maybe you already know Frederick Busch as a reader. He was prolific: 25 books, many literary awards, well-connected, well-reviewed. He was also my teacher at Colgate, starting there the same year we did. He was 25 in 1966, his novels and story collections ahead of him. So he led the way both by wisdom and by example. And he and his wife Judy became family. We babysat for them as students. Afterwards, we kept in touch, writing, getting together at class reunions, or when Fred was on a book tour, and once, in 2003, about ten of us for dinner in New York.

Last Tuesday marked four years since Fred died of a heart attack in New York, age 64. Four years used to be a considerable chunk of time. All of high school. All of college. Now it's just the recent past. I remember we were buying a car that week, and how sad and heavy it was to go through the minutiae of life. Somehow we accommodated ourselves to that impossible news, and then not quite a year later to the news of Judy's death from a brain tumor.

I wrote this four years ago:

Here are some ideas I have learned through the luck of having Fred Busch as my teacher of writing. This writing business is serious. It matters. It’s also hard, and if you’re honest, you can’t fool yourself into thinking it’s easy. It requires work, and often pain. The payoff is reaching something hard to get to, and believing you can get there again. These lessons (not always put into practice by the student) required a stern, kind, wry, encouraging, passionate, hard-ass, and only slightly older wizard to summon the fire.

So you carry the wizard along with you, and that way you keep the fire going.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Inconvenience Yourself Day

It really is. Or was. There's only a little over an hour left of it, but enough time to mark it for future reference. According to the website,, the day occurs on the fourth Wednesday of every February, and is all about putting yourself out a little for someone else, especially total strangers. Stopping to open a door for someone. Getting up to give someone a seat on a bus. I even asked my teenage son to inconvenience himself and bring his breakfast dishes into the kitchen. It worked, amazingly.

But being the skeptic he is, he also wondered if this inconveniencing thing has to go against the grain to count. If someone gets pleasure out of walking an old lady across the street, are they really putting themselves out? Aren't they, instead, feeding their jones for good deeds? Maybe even basking in the reflected virtue of their all-too-convenient inconveniencing? Does the oyster put up with the irritating grain of sand in order to cash in on the pearl? These are good, lawyerly questions conveniently designed to get out of detaching oneself from the couch and bussing a plate of waffle crusts into the kitchen sink.

However, there's another app to Inconvenience Yourself Day. And even unapologetically self-absorbed people can use it for their own benefit: Avoid the cozy, safe, convenient path. Take risks. Get outside. Floss. Write something daring. Deviate from a routine. Attempt the impossible, or at least the unlikely. Rock the boat.

My father-in-law, who lives downstairs, writes poetry. When I described this day at dinner, he remembered a poem he'd written. It may actually reconcile the self-serving and giving-unto-others spirit of the holiday.

It's called "Spare Parts."

We all, most all, know
To have a spare tire in the trunk,
To keep, if you dare, a spare key
Under the back door mat.
There's the goal of a spare roll
Of bath tissue at hand,
And a spare button in the bureau is best.
We know to keep a spare beer in the fridge,
A spare can of beans near, or
A banana, but
Do we remember to carry
A spare smile,
A spare "thank you,"
Or to have a spare minute
For another?

— C. R. Schwab

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Li'l Febber's Last Stand

Talk about an ice show. All this week, Arlington birders have been sharing photos and emailing each other about the bald eagles on the ice of Lower Mystic Lake. An adult and a second-year juvenile were seen down on the ice shelf, dining on something, fish or fowl, while interested crows hung around, hoping for scraps. At one point the adult (smaller) eagle goes stalking off with its wings raised above its head as if to say, “I raise you from an egg to get attitude? I don’t need this!”

That photo I didn’t get. But I did come upon these seven Canada geese yesterday, all arrayed on the lake ice and facing the free water of Mystic River, as if they were all that stood between winter and spring. Their domain is cracking a bit, the ice awash today. And tonight the battle goes on. To the west and north, snow is falling at two inches an hour, they say, but here in Boston, it’s supposed to be a little of this, a little of that, some snow, then some rain, maybe a little sleet. How about some nice hail maybe?

It’s February’s last stand. Not meekly is it going out, but with a sense of inevitability. What March comes in like—lion, llama, or lima bean—depends on what February goes out like. Maybe like a frustrated eagle, maybe like a stalwart goose. But whatever it is, today begins its last Napoleonic, wintrish, waterish, week. So goodbye already, short stuff: here's your parka, what's your hurry?

Monday, February 22, 2010


“Have ye heard any cardinals??” I ask my wife and son when they come in the door, like some kind of landlocked, cabin-feverish, Ahab. The answer is always the same: no.

Meanwhile, my friend Ed emails me from Somerville: “The cardinals along the bike path this morning were singing up a storm!” This is the same Ed who two days ago agreed that marking the winter-busting song of the cardinal based on someone else’s experience “would be hearsay.”

So, disallowing Ed’s birds, I pedal on, out to Lexington, down to Alewife, back around to Medford, listening for the pure slurred cherry whistle that cracks the ice, because almanacs are all about signs, tipping points, critical masses, shingles being hung out, and this one goes with February. Only it can’t be hearsay, or hearsong, for me to hang out the cardinal poem. Right?

From cherry notes to cherry trees: Happy Birthday, Mr. “I Cannot Tell a Lie”! (Fond snatch of three-cornered hat and tousling of powdered wig) Of course, it was a lie, the cherry tree thing, but a much-loved lie. Much of what we think we know about George Washington is based on hearsay, come to think of it. Chopping down the cherry tree. The wooden teeth. Throwing the silver dollar across the Potomac. But it’s okay, because we kind of know they’re myths and Washington lived in that quaint period before photographs anyway.

So, maybe cardinal hearsay is okay, too! After all, it’s hearsay to start with: only a rumor of spring, probably to be gainsayed (ok, fine: gainsaid) by a few more reversals of the weather before it finally bears fruit. So why not take stock in Ed’s Somerville cardinals, after all? If a cardinal sings on a bike path and I’m not there to hear it, does it make any noise? (Fond tousle of wig again.) As sure as George chopped down his daddy’s cherry tree!

So, what the heck, it’s still precedence day. Here, before the fact, is the cardinal poem, which means I'll probably hear it tomorrow.

out in February!
Not the blossoms
but the FRUIT!
takes one on the chinzer
on the choppers
on the SNOOT!
When you
hear that cardinal whistle
it’s a signal
something’s LOOSE
Don’t ignore it
kid, explore it!
All aboard
the red CABOOSE!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Yours For Ever, Lunch Counter Jones

Last time I was recalling my first encounter with a character from Vancouver’s past named Lunch Counter Jones. This was sometime in the late 1970s. I was sitting at a table in the Vancouver Public Library, slowly paging through a Vancouver World from 1888. The library hadn’t put all the old newspapers on microfiche yet, so this was the real thing, big yellowed pages snowing little flakes.

Vancouver in the 1880s had grown from a little sawmill town on Burrard Inlet into something more serious. It had rebuilt with a vengeance after the inevitable big fire. The railroad was coming. There were stores, saloons, restaurants; in the World, lots of ads, lots of confident boastings of a city on the move. Stanley Park had just been formally dedicated a few days earlier. But there was also one little farewell.

At the bottom of a column entitled “City and Country News” was the heading JONES’ LUNCH COUNTER, followed by a short paragraph. The author wanted to thank his customers for their loyal patronage over the years, having sold his business to Messrs. Tilden and Ward for reasons of ill health. It concluded: “[the proprietor] intends to travel…and perhaps after regaining his strength may return and reside amongst us and run a chicken ranch, for at the price of eggs here he believes that is the best paying business.” It was signed, “Yours For Ever, LUNCH COUNTER JONES”.

Prior to this I had been thinking of beginning a children’s book called “Windowsill Tales.” A boy cooped up inside on a typically rainy Vancouver day makes up stories to amuse himself: nature stories based on what he sees outside. But the kid was too boring. I needed a mobile storyteller, someone already out there. Maybe someone who knew Vancouver’s history. Maybe I could bring back this guy Lunch Counter Jones.

So I did. I had a little girl wish him back, for reasons not revealed till the end. He appears in a rowboat out in the Gulf of Alaska. He befriends a sea gull. He rows his way down to Vancouver and has to accustom himself to a city older by a century. He befriends other critters. He tells them stories. They tell him stories. The book starts in August and ends the following July—kind of almanacky. You get glimpses of history and mythology involving animals and people. Jones finds out why he was wished back and off he goes again. I called it “Yours Forever, Lunch Counter Jones” and wondered if I’d hear from Jones’s descendants after it became a wildly successful Canadian children’s classic. That what-if hasn’t proved out yet.

With the light on Vancouver these days, a made-for-television light, I’ve gone to the file cabinet and brought Jones out again. Good old Jones. He helped me get to know the bones of the city. To put him in different places and see what he saw, I did a lot of wandering, from West Point Grey to the Fraser Valley. I did a fair amount of rooting around in the city archives. I invented a few myths, like the day elk of Jericho (Jerry's Cove, an old logging camp) who clashes with the night elk of Locarno every vernal and autumnal equinox. I wrote a few tales that rang true to me, like the one about the blackberry scout who turns purple first to be a model for the other berries. Wrote some fatuous stuff that makes me wince a little. But mainly not, mainly I feel affection for Jones and for the Vancouver I brought him to and he brought me to. The one I still see in dreams: a kind of fabled place, with storied mountains and inlets and trees, never mind the skaters and skiers and snowboarders.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Vancouver on my mind

Forgive a spasm of memoirishness today, probably the first of two parts. I’ve been feeling a little odd/wistful with Vancouver showing up everywhere in the news these days. I lived there from age 24 to age 37, but I left (like Ronald Colman leaving Shangri-la) 25 years ago. It’s been kind of like seeing your ex in the movies. In fact, I’ve gotten used to seeing a lot of Vancouver in the movies, but not on this scale. Most of what I’ve seen in glimpses looks the same: the blue north shore mountains, the trawlers on English Bay, the Lions Gate Bridge stretching over Burrard Inlet: that seductive geography.

Time spent, but still not spent.

I moved out there in 1972. The reason was graduate school, an MFA program in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. I had been hitchhiking the summer before through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, and the landscape said, “Stay here,” which is what fabled lands have always said to travelers, from Ulysses to Manco Capac. The rain didn’t concern me. I reasoned it was what kept everyone from going there. It was a secret, mostly, and I figured Vancouver, in Canada, tucked among straits and islands, had to be the jewel in the crown.

Which it was, although after a few months it ceased to be the subject of a National Geographic article and became where I lived, which for a while was a fifty-five-dollar-a-month basement apartment I shared with two Trinidadian brothers and a Bolivian-German-Israeli girl, a mile or two from UBC. I was intending to get my degree and move back to Watergate America. But then came the Adjustment of Status Program, a two-month window in 1973 during which students, draft resisters, and other huddled, yearning masses could become landed immigrants inside the country, meaning you could stay, get a job, be legal.

So I stayed, sitting out the rest of Nixon, Ford, Carter, and most of Reagan. I subsisted on government grants and unemployment insurance. Got involved with Vancouver Co-op Radio (CFRO), co-writing and producing kids’ programs (“Hey, Listen!” and “Jinglepot Road,” among others) with a gang of American and Canadian friends.

I roamed the beaches of Kitsilano and Point Grey, getting to know Jericho, Locarno, Spanish Banks, and the University Endowment Lands in fair weather and foul, stalking herons, harlequin ducks, and the elusive, mellifluous varied thrush.

I launched a career as a playground monitor and after-school daycare worker, spreading rice cakes with peanut butter, playing monster with eight kids hanging from me, renting films from the National Film Board. And I discovered an old character in an 1880s Vancouver newspaper, a restaurant owner named “Lunch Counter” Jones.

More on whom next time. I’ve got to go out and listen for cardinals.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On "On"

Many of my readers may marvel at the audacity of an almanacker such as myself, who habitually loses his way in a simple conversation… at my audacity, I say, in holding forth on an almost daily basis, on a variety of timely topics, which is to say, temporal topics…or even temporary topics…as if I were some kind of cockamamie expert, which I am. An expert on the cockamamie, that is.

So, con perméso, I shall essay a short essay on essays, or say-so.

Step 1. Pretending to be an authority.

It is vital to choose a topic you have at least a momentary interest in, like a gannet clinging to a rocky ledge. Ignore the thousands of other gannets around you and the theoretical availability of other clingworthy rocks. This is your rock, you chose it: occupy it!

Remember that your interest is a powerful bond between you and your rock. Do not diminish it. Instead, enhance it by marveling at your finding each other and at the adhesion between your cling and its surface.

Do not compare yourself to any other imaginary “better-qualified” authority on this topic. This is just another rapacious gannet who is trying to steal your rock. Cling with gusto. If necessary, personify gusto as Gus Toe, the best clinger in the business.

Step 2. “On”

Consult yourself as if you are a skeptical but tolerant audience. In the interest of honesty, corrections and start-overs are not just forgiven, they are applauded. If, for example, the gannet comparison begins to stale, move on.

Consider the “on” of “On Gannets” or “On Sharkbloom,” which is not the same “on” as “On Comet! On Cupid! On Donder and Blitzen!” That “on” is also important, encouraging the words and the ideas that drive them. But first, it is important to get a purchase on your topic. Not for nothing does that sound like a fiduciary transaction. Interest bears interest. Buy Baltic! Buy Mediterranean! Do not disqualify anything: Childhood experiences with sharkbloom; dissecting the word sharkbloom; disdain for sharkbloom (don’t feel you need to celebrate your topic; interest can be destructive, too); and in general, deconstructing sharkbloom.

Deconstructing is a term we often pretend to know the meaning of, but do we? I just looked it up on Wikipedia, and I have no idea what that definition means. Do I care? Will that stop me from using it? No, it won’t, because going back to step 1, I am not afraid of using my puny knowledge base as the podium for my pontification. In other words, any fool can begin an essay but only a clever fool can make it to the end.

Step 3. Making It to the End

As many of us learned in college, quantity does count, especially in the so-called personal essay, where almost anything is fair game. Touching base with your topic now and again keeps the game fair, but can you digress?

An interesting question. Chico Marx was known to gamble on horses, but does that define the man? In this case, yes, but one shouldn’t overlook the fact that he had a bar mitzvah back when his name was Leonard, and he was his mother’s favorite son, if you see what I mean.

In a humorous personal essay, you may think you have even more liberty to stray from the point, but if the reader loses confidence in you as a driver, she may insist that you pull over at the nearest gas station and let her out. This you should do, because this will give you time to wrap things up as if that was exactly the place you were going to end up anyway.

Sholom Aleichem! (Today’s his birthday!)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Curve of the Month

I think there is a day or a period of days when you can see the curve of time passing broadly in the month. Different from the day to day to day progress where time moves mosaically, its transit undetected until after the fact.

In August, February's opposite number, there's often a big rain, I've noticed, that breaks a long muggy period. And after the storm, you get a glimpse of fall. Just a glimpse: high clouds in a bluer blue sky, a fresher breeze, a clean-washed face, ready for change.

I think I detected its Feb. counterpart today. Another snow blew in yesterday, a real embrace, not that air kiss from last week. A good solid six inches, and we woke to cake frosting on all the branches and twigs, snow blobs that began to fall on our heads as the morning indicated that this would be a forty-degree day. It was a storm we recognized as February's: stickier snow, a tick beyond mid-winter, rain on the Cape. And afterwards, today, in the flocs of snow in the branches, in the flow of clouds over Spy Pond, you could see, not spring but that big curve of the month, more indicative than Spring Training that we're going somewhere...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Precedence Day

The only useful knowledge I retained from Miss Pauls's sixth grade class in 1959-1960 is the following litany we recited every morning after the pledge of allegiance. It was kind of fun, like skiers verbally moguling together downhill:

"Washington Adams Jefferson Madison Monroe [pause]...Adams Jackson Van Buren [pause]...Harrison Tyler POLK Taylor, Fillmore Pierce Buchanan Lincoln Johnson Grant [brief pause]...HAYES Garfield ARTHUR Cleveland HARRISON Cleveland...McKinley Roosevelt [big final descent:] TAFT Wilson Harding Coolidge Hoover Roosevelt Truman Eisenhower Kennedy Johnson." Actually, it ended with Eisenhower, but when I recite it nowadays I have to add at least two more names to bring it to a close.

So much for the presidents. Probably their names could have been 34 breeds of dogs or World Series MVPs, for all we cared. It was Miss Pauls's thing, like her idea to have us put on "The Mikado" as a class play because she was jealous of the play we had written, called "If Kids Ran the World," which was a huge hit, of course. But I digress.

I actually wanted to use this post to discuss precedence, not presidents. But since I'm riffing off Presidents' Day, I thought I'd give them precedence. Kind of an age before beauty thing. The point being that just because they come first, doesn't mean they're more important. In fact, sometimes it's good to start with the lesser and build to the greater.

For example, today I had this rare fillip of energy at the beginning of the day—holiday, free-square energy—and what did I apply it to first? Organizing my sock drawer. Finally, maybe the first time in two years! Balling up unballed ones. Throwing out several pairs purchased during the first Bush administration. Setting free a few widowers who were never going to be sock puppets. What gave this chore precedence? The fortuitous propinquity of a laundry bin. But just because Buchanan precedes Lincoln doesn't mean he was a more important president.

Next beneficiary of the fillip was what I call Archaeology: going up to the little room I call my office and sorting folders, papers, books, magazines, pads, photographs, envelopes, tchotchkes, pens, wires, clothes, and trash. A hateful, depressing task that probably was more important than sorting the socks, but if I'd started with Archaeology, those socks would have had to wait until Obama's younger daughter became president, by which time they'd be in some landfill. I put a few books in a shelf. I created a new pile and stacked it in a different box. I made the waste basket feel important. I promised to visit more often.

Where am I going with this? I'll tell you where I'm going with this. We don't really need a Presidents' Day, but we do need a Precedence Day. A day in which we get to putter, sputter, mutter, and clutter, all for the purpose of figuring out, and celebrating, what's important in our lives. Since we just had Valentine's Day to pledge our troth to loved ones, let this day be about occupations and pre-occupations. I'm not even going to make a list of what those might be lest I appear to an expert on the subject. But I will say that I'm glad I devoted the last hour and a half of the afternoon-evening to going meadowing, which is something I haven't done for a while.

My meadow of choice was Rock Meadow in Belmont, where I've been traipsing for the past, oh, 25 years. Where I used to see meadowlarks and still see bluebirds and sometimes falcons and rough-legged hawks, and once a surprising warbler, Brewster's or Lawrence's. I forget which. They've landscaped it recently, so a lot of old trees and stumps I'd befriended have gone. It's much more open now, which still gives me an uneasy, over-exposed feeling, and also made for a windy and chilly walk. The thing about meadowing is that you have to discover this interior point to it, a kind of harmonic with the meadow. This is not as mystical as it sounds. It comes down to being interested in what's going on. It's a bit like what Paul's grandfather in "A Hard Day's Night" recommended that Ringo do, rather than stick his nose in a book. Namely, go parading.

There was a map in the Rock Meadow parking lot indicating a "multi-trunked tree" in the far corner from where I was. So that became my nominal objective. I'm not sure I actually found it. But what did happen was the sun came out, turned the tawny grass into a soft fur underfoot, and gave a promising light to the edge of the boardwalk, which gave a pleasant percussive clonk underfoot, like a xylophone in monotone, as I made my way back to the parking lot.

And I'm glad I went there yesterday, because today the meadow is covered with snow, a good six inches from a storm nobody's scared of.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cupid meets Tiger

When I was a kid, there was this little kid, a son of some family friends, who had a famous quote. He wasn’t especially precocious, but he said this thing that became an oft-repeated line in our house. This was it:

I was going to business. And on the way, I met a tiger.

Of course, it was all in the delivery: very matter-of fact, with kind of a verbal shrug at the end. And you could picture this little kid with a fedora hat and briefcase, encountering this tiger. A James Thurber cartoon.

I thought of it today because the kid in the quote could be Cupid arriving for work as Valentine’s Day dawns, with his bow and arrows in his briefcase, and who does he encounter, also going to business, but a tiger. Because today begins the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese lunar calendar.

This is one of those clashes of titans that almanacs have to deal with every now and then. Who yields? Neither. Love is love. China is China. Valentine’s Day comes but once a year. A year outlasts a day. So today is colored orange and red, two colors that only normally co-exist in an orange-cherry Twinsicle.

“Hey, Tiger.”
“Hey, Cupid.”
Gung hee fat choy.”
“Close. It’s Gong shee fah tai.”
“Not a problem. Here. Have a red envelope.”
“Aw. A two dollar bill!”
“Don’t spend it all in one place.”
“Here’s a red envelope for you, too.”
“Aw. ‘Roses are red, oranges ain’t. I’d put on some stripes, but I don’t have the paint.’”
“It’s the thought that counts.”
"Good luck.”
“Thanks. Hope you get lucky, too.”

• •

No cardinals seen to lend their red (or orioles, their orange), but mark today as the first Stratojac day! After pancakes, I ambled down to Walgreen’s in Stratojac (down vest) over flannel shirt to get the Sunday papers. A declaration that we are on the Washingtonian side of February now, redolent of cherry trees and crossing the icy Delaware. Gong shee fah tai. Congratulations and prosperity!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Free Icons

An iconic kind of day today. To start with, Lincoln. His birthday used to be a very big deal when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure we got that day off, and probably Washington’s birthday too. Mind ye, that was before President’s Day, and maybe even before we got February vacation. However, a few traditions remain. You’ll still see the odd passerby wearing a fake beard and stovepipe hat. And you can still say: “Four score and seven!” to someone and you’ll get the old reply, “Our forefathers!” with the double beard-pull. It’s rare, but it happens.

I went out after lunch, hoping for another icon. (This part’s factual.) The non-snowstorm had taken winter with it, to regroup. It was in the high thirties. No wind. Sunny. With those conditions, people unzip their coats and cardinals feel the urge to sing. And once they start those big round cherry whistles—do I mean cheery whistles? Yes, that, too—it deals winter a body blow. The first cracks appear. But though the day was ready for it, the reverse was not true. I tried Buzzell Field, where Matthew used to play Little League; Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Meadow Brook Park: all likely places for cardinals to hold forth. Nothing.

I came out at the southern end of Lower Mystic Lake and headed for home. Then I remembered the eagle. There were three or four reported around Mystic Lakes, one adult, the others variously younger. I’d given up looking for them, but what the heck, I had my binocs with me. I scanned the trees along the western shore. And there it was. The adult. Out on a projecting branch of a bare tree, next to a tall conifer. Seeing an eagle puts this soft thud in your chest. Its bigness, the weight of it. The colors: familiar as a flag’s. Chocolate brown in shingly layers. Vanilla scoop of head, I could see it turning. Seeing me in fierce close-up, no doubt. The fact of a bald eagle perched in an Arlington neighborhood, a five minute walk from home. I mean. You want an icon. There’s your icon.

When I lived in Vancouver it was still exciting to see a bald eagle, but it wasn’t uncommon. Especially around Point Grey, the part of the city jutting furthest west, you could count on seeing at least one eagle in a tree on Wreck Beach or on the edge of UBC. Also to the east, out in the valley of Pitt Meadows, which had its own weather, its own moods, its own bestiary of eagles and hummingbirds and sandhill cranes.

Tonight Vancouver was awash in icons at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games. There were iconic bears, maple leaves, prairies, whales, mountains. I even saw a couple of eagles during one of the frequent sweeps of iconic landscape. There were also iconic Canadians like Donald Sutherland and Anne Murray and Bobby Orr. All these icons were beautifully and intricately arrayed. And expensively, of course, because art is not cheap on the grand scale. But it’s worth noting that icons are basically free. It’s the presentation that runs up the price. I would enjoy buying Donald Sutherland a cup of coffee, almost as much as I enjoyed stumbling on that eagle today. But I’d hate it if there were an icon fee I had to pay. Luckily there wasn’t (unlike for my Vancouver friends), and the ceremony was pretty cool, mostly.

Four score and seven, dudes.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Eleven's Island

We wear guest badges on friends' birthdays, entitling us to be co-celebrants, in an outside-in sort of way. February 11 is my friend Marjie's birthday, one of the handful I remember from year to year. So I stopped in.

It’s an interesting group, those who share Marjie’s day. You could say the same about the sharers of any birthday, of course. But one name stood out. Tina Louise, who played Ginger on Gilligan’s Island, was born on 2/11/34. Clicking on her name and following where it led, I ended up in a video of a Gilligan’s Island cast reunion on a late night talk show in 1988. Everyone looked pretty good!

It made me think of the day as Eleven’s Island, cast only with 2/11 celebrities. Thomas Alva Edison would take the role of the Professor, of course. He's in his hut, inventing a radio made from coconuts and seaweed. The sign on the hut says "Inventing! Do Not Bother Me," so no one does, though he'd be surprised at how fondly he is toasted by us tourists for the light bulb, the record player, and the motion picture.

The movie star, speaking of motion pictures, could be played by the original movie star, except that Tina didn’t really like the role, and who can blame her. So we’ll give it to Jennifer Aniston and let Tina expand her horizons, maybe go off beachcombing with Marjie.

The part of Mary Ann, the girl next door, will have to be played by Sarah Palin. Not exactly type-casting, but it adds nuance to a boringly wholesome personality. What she lacks in sincerity, she makes up for in guile.

For the millionaire and his wife, we have, let’s see, how about Burt Reynolds and Eva Gabor? She can reprise her Green Acres role of a transplanted socialite: “New York is where I’d rather be! I get allergic from the sea!” And Burt could give Thurston Howell a brooding, ah-shaddap, read, more like a financier would be.

Finally, that leaves us with the actor Leslie Nielsen as the Skipper and the vegan singer-songwriter Never Shout Never as Gilligan. I have no idea what their chemistry will be like, but if things get tense, we can bring in Brazilian bandleader Sergio Mendes to loosen things up.

Tour’s over. As we sail off into the archipelago (“Next stop, Abe Lincoln, Bill Russell, Charles Darwin, Christina Ricci…”), we bid farewell to Eleven’s Island and get an answering wave from Tina and Marjie, who are roasting marshmallows over a driftwood fire. Let's wish them both a happy birthday, shall we?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Oobleck Effect

There's always one snowstorm like this. It's hyped for days, goes from a few inches to a foot, okay nine inches, well maybe five. Then a few inches, like we said. It's okay, just a little winter hysteria (wisteria?), also known as the Oobleck Effect.

I went to Jam 'n Java around 3. It's a dimly lit, cavernous café with lot of natural light, big windows still bedecked with winter scenes, including a snowman suicidally holding a hot cup of coffee. Snow was coming down, but gently. Saving its punch for the rush hour, no doubt.

The last snow we'd had had thawed, then refroze hard into curbside sculptures that were now boring. We were ready, more or less, for a new delivery. The predictions were nothing like what Philly and New York and DC were getting, but enough to make us nervous. What is it about pending snowstorms that makes us so nervous we close schools with a slam and recheck the accumulations every ten minutes and buy two of everything at the Stop & Shop? It's the Oobleck Effect.

Oobleck--perfect word--was coined by Dr. Seuss for his 1949 book Bartholomew and the Oobleck, in which the King of Didd, bored, decides to do nature one better. He orders his wizards to create a new weather. This they do. The next morning a green wisp arrives. Soon it begins to fall as tiny pea-sized green blobs. Before long they're baseball-sized, then watermelon-sized. Everything gets stuck in oobleck and is completely immobilized, including the king. Only when his page Bartholomew persuades him to apologize for his hubris does the sticky stuff melt away.

I still remember having an Oobleck party in second grade, with lime soda and green cupcakes. But we knew it was evil stuff, especially at the beginning, when it was just green smoke.

Snow has that ooblecky quality when it is forecast a few days out and when we haven't had it for a while and others have, and now our shield has finally failed us. UH-oh... The grown-up part of us groans at the prospect of shoveling it, parking in it, slipping on it. But the kid part of us wants the blizzard, the more z's the better: a blizzzzzzzzard.

Only not this time, kids. But it doesn't really matter. By now we're all at the point of winter when everything gets maximized. The storm that doesn't materialize is almost more annoying than one that does, like one of those maddening dud sneezes that goes ah- but not choo. Snow, cold, wind chill, it has all outstayed its welcome now. Somebody needs to apologize.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Heart Association

In 1960 my father wrote a short essay about himself for his 25th class reunion at Harvard. It begins this way: "A magazine editor friend once described me in a phrase as 'The Scrooge of Valentine's Day.' This probably sums me up pretty well."

He explained that when he joined the New York Heart Association as its public relations director, around 1951, he lobbied to change its symbol, the valentine heart, to an anatomically correct, cardiovascular heart. But after going through congestive heart failure and then a successful operation in 1954 (one of the first), he changed his mind. He recalled all the cards, letters, and encouragement he received. "Like Scrooge, I saw the light," he said. "I am back at work, have been for more than five years, and have completely abandoned my crusade against the valentine heart."

I think about him as the p.r. guy when I read that February is American Heart Month and that February 1 was National Wear Red Day, and I wonder what kind of ad he might have aired during the Superbowl to reach that audience of one hundred million. Back in the 50s, February was always the time of the big annual fund, like now, because of the valentine tie-in. I remember the big black and white glossies of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds: the King and Queen of Hearts in '58 or '59. Another year I think it was Perry Como and Dinah Shore. And after his operation, he didn't hesitate to publicize himself.

There was a Sunday-supplement piece he wrote called "I Beat Heart Failure." It included staged photos of models portraying him—some guy, looking strange with no moustache, struggling to climb a flight of stairs at a train station—and us (after the happy ending): silly laughing blond people playing ping-pong!

There was also an hour-long radio program, airing in February, of course. It was one of a series on NBC called "Biographies in Sound." The announcer was none other than John Cameron Swayze, famous for his Timex commercials ("takes a licking and keeps on ticking"). And the subject was my dad, Emil H. Ober. He wrote in the reunion essay: "By some curious quirk I was sandwiched in between the week they did Will Rogers and the week they did George Washington. This made me feel pretty important until suddenly I realized that I was the only person on the series still living." My mom and sister and I were on it too, and this time we got to play ourselves.

His mended heart gave him a pretty good seven years. But it failed again in 1961. This time a second operation couldn't help him. After all that ink on his own behalf, he must have felt as if he'd gotten a busted warranty. He died in July, age 48. We moved to El Paso, Texas, to live near my mom's brother, and everything changed, which it would have done anyway. Except for the model family, which continues to play ping-pong in 1955.

The American Heart Association website says that February as National Heart Month started in 1963, but I wonder if my dad had something to do with the planning stages, back when he was the Scrooge of Valentine's Day and writing confidently: "In the Fiftieth Anniversary Report, I shall be glad to give a more detailed account of my personal bout with heart disease, as well as windmills."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

At home with the Dickenses

It snowed like the dickens in the mid-Atlantic states this week. And for once New England gets to feel relieved, if not smug, that it's not us digging out from two and a half feet of snow. But even though we didn't get hit, li'l Febber is baring his pointy teeth and the cabin's feeling a mite cramped. One can only play Bananagrams so many times.

I think winter is the only season that we seriously "mid." True, there's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but no one really feels so stuck in the middle of summer that we care when that is, or have a holiday whose purpose is to measure how much time we have to endure before the season that hosts that day is over. (If the salamander sees its reflection, there will be six more weeks of summer?)

Part of the problem is that we front-end the season with so much imagery and festoonery, combining Christmas songs and winter songs, Santas and snowmen, that we've gone through seasonal exhaustion by early January. Unlike summer, when the vacations roll on, July to Labor Day.

So we tend to pause at the calendar and peer at February to see what new diversions it might have for us. Hence Girl Scout cookies. And if necessary, Charles Dickens, whose birthday is today, February 7th.

According to the wordmeister Michael Qunion, "dickens," as in "how the dickens are we going to make it to spring?" doesn't have anything to do with Charles Dickens. Lower-case dickens is an old term for the Devil ( I don't know how upper-case Dickens felt about that. I suspect he had to put up with more cheap puns on his name than he cared for. But by and large he has pretty much upper-cased the name so well, we're happy to give him the dickens, too.

I'm no Dickens scholar. I can think of one who is who reads this blog, so I'll avoid the gushing, just give Charles a warm handshake, as if we'd met during one of his American reading tours, maybe the second one, in 1868. And, okay, if he's signing books, I might ask him to sign my copy of Oliver Twist. Maybe as Fagin: "Civil words!" Or as Sowerberry: "We must all sit on Oliver!" Or were those just in the movie?

Actually, I was hoping I could pair him with a musician, like Lewis Carroll with Mozart. But all I could find as a birthday-mate was Garth Brooks. No offense to Garth, but I think I'll just put Charles's phizzog up there. And start "Our Mutual Friend" again.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Superb Owl

Tomorrow is Superb Owl Sunday, so I thought I'd share this superb owl that my friend Anya sent me. I'd like to give the photographer credit, but I haven't discovered who it is. I've traced it to a cool blog called TYWKIWDI: Things You Wouldn't Know If We Didn't Blog Incessantly (, which traced it to a website:, which traced it in turn to a Finnish one (I think):, where it has the following Finnish caption: pöllö mötkö luoti kiito, which translates as "owl mötkö bullet speeding."

I hope everyone has a superb owl day tomorrow, and may the best owl win.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Who do we appreciate?

Two days a year—February 4 and June 8—should be set aside as official days for appreciating people, especially those who we see by chance or infrequently. And other things associated with people. Why those days? Simple:

2/4, 6/8: who do we appreciate?

February 4 cooperated.
I took the subway into Boston for a dental appointment, and found several nominees. It began with a picture I would have taken if I'd remembered that my cell phone has a camera. Two German shepherds, dog guides in training, stood frozen at the bottom steps of a staircase at Alewife Station, not sure how to proceed. Their human guides, in blue windbreakers, stood beside them, amused but encouraging. Finally, the dogs gained their courage, and each stepped up.


So I got on the Red Line, and at some point, maybe Davis Square, a guy got on with a guitar. In his sixties, grizzled beard, black watch cap. I didn't pay attention to him until he loudly explained to a kid (who looked away) that he was going to sing his latest song.

The song was terrible. Something about "the baggage man" and finding someone in fifteen pieces? Not sure. Nor was his voice up to the task. Kind of wavery, striving to find the tune, unsteady volume. But the guy was on the interesting side of annoying. He got comfortable, peeling down to his black McKinnon's Meat Market T-shirt. He was probably about my age, and I studied him as a kind of reflection. Sturdy arms, weathered face. Hard living, kind of a Ramblin' Jack. He launched into an uncertain version of Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" ("Oo-wee...ride me high...tomorrow's the BRIDE's gonna come...") His voice had a nasal Jerry Garcia plaintiveness that was, well, authentic. The guy was not excruciating. He moved on to a ballad, "There was a wealthy merchant/in London he did dwell..." It struck me the guy was a troubadour.

Next came a particularly bad version of "I Fought the Law and the Law Won," completely free of meter or melody. But by now the guy could do no wrong. He was what he was, and he was cool with that. We both got off at Park St., he hastily scooping up all his layers, and I said, "Thanks for the music," even though I suspected a few fellow passengers either thought I was being sarcastic or unwisely encouraging him. He gave me a bleary look. "My entire pleasure," he said.


The dental appointment went better than I'd feared. It was just a cleaning, but I'd already postponed it once because I didn't want to disappoint Helene. She's the hygienist. Tall, calm, methodical, a bit reserved but good-humored, and from Belgium. The fact is, I'm not great about flossing, and my shortcomings do not escape her. So I tend to make Helene into the avatar of my conscience. This is a role she wants no part of. "Don't do it for me! Do it for your teeth!" she has said, in response to my admission. But my teeth cannot look at me solemnly or compare me with other, better, teeth. They, in fact, have become a kind of timepiece of my life, going back many many dentists ago, all the way back to Herb Edelson, with the warmly lit waiting room and wonderful photography annuals, if you know what I mean. My dental entropy, my dentropy, surely began back then. And now it is Helene and the ever-inventive Dr. Rothstein who have taken up the mantle of stewards to what remains. God 'elp 'em.

A Drift of Red Osier Dogwood

I could take this appreciation to day's end, when I sat through a grand two and a half hours of the live Prairie Home Companion cinecast at the Burlington movieplex. Following Garrison Keillor in his Anoka High band jacket ("Gary") through the cold, snowy neighborhood of the Fitzgerald Theater as he buys a popcorn at one shop and pie a la mode at Mickey's Diner...and of course, I just did. But he's almost family and gets appreciated all the time. So, I'll conclude not with a person but with something people did. Passing the Old South Church on Boylston St., I was stopped by an outdoor art installation: several dozen deep red-stained wooden sticks clustered together behind a bed of dry grass. And a sign: "A Winter Stick Garden: A Drift of Red Osier Dogwood." This tableau was meant to bring to mind a familiar setting to beach walkers, a shrub on a salt marsh. To bring the point home on this cold midwinter day was the following text: "Here in the coldest and darkest time of year, we make bold to proclaim that spring and life are on the way." Yes, let's make bold.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Groundhog Variations

I had a lot of time to think about Groundhog Day today. I was stuck in the waiting room of Career Source, where an Unemployment rep holds court every Tuesday and Friday. I was waiting to refile my claim. I was #31, sitting at a table with #29, a man with a trim beard and an organized manner. People sat around with books and crossword puzzles, looking solemn, bored, wary.

I wrote:
I'll be ready if someone comes out with a clipboard and asks us, "Does anyone know what day it is?" Some people will answer, "Tuesday" or "February 2d." But when she calls on me, I'll say, "Groundhog Day." "That's right," she'll say, and others will wince that they missed the answer. It could cost them a job referral. "And what is the significance of Groundhog Day?" she'll go on. This time someone else rushes to answer, but in his haste he gets it backwards. "If he sees his shadow, it's going to be nice. If he doesn't, it's going to snow?" I raise my hand confidently. "If he sees his shadow, he'll get an interview. If he doesn't, it may mean he doesn't exist. And if he doesn't exist, his claim will be delayed. So that's why, to ensure that you cast a shadow, you should always carry a light source with you, like a flashlight or a candle. Hence the other name for the holiday: Candlemas."

She nods. "Which rhymes with?"
She marks something down in her clipboard that may have relevance to our future. Six more months of unemployment? A shovel-ready job destroying woodchuck habitat?

There follows a spelling bee that consists of one word: Punxsutawney. Only I get it right, and I add that it comes from the Delaware Indian word meaning "village of sandflies."

At this point, someone is shaking my shoulder. I lift my head from the table. "Number 31," a lady says.
"I have been here 4 1/2 hours," I say, following her to her cubicle. "I've been here eleven years," she replies. "What is your favorite holiday?"
"Groundhog Day," I answer carefully.
She writes that down. "Why do you consider the groundhog a role model in an uncertain economy?"
"You've got to take what you can get?" I guess. She frowns slightly. "Um. And whether he actually sees his shadow doesn't matter. It's that he got out of his burrow and looked." She smiles this time.
"If you could be any—"
"—animal besides a groundhog, what would you be?"
"Grog hound. No, ground squirrel. Aardvark."
"Take this seriously, please."
"How can I when your eyes are so bewitching?"

This time my shoulder is shaken more roughly. It's a tall, heavyset man with tattoos and a goatee. "We're closing," he says. They've turned out most of the lights.
"How long have I been asleep?" I ask.
"How the hell should I know?"
I pick up my stuff, shuffle to the door, then turn. "Just tell me one thing. Did I see my shadow?"
He grins, revealing metal teeth. "You're looking at him, pal."

* *

They trundled me out of my burrow,
Set me down in this snow-crusted furrow.
And then for a sport
Waited for my report
Like I'm Edward R. (expletive) Murrow

How'd you like it, I wish I had said,
If some bears threw you out of your bed
So you're freezing to death
As they look at your breath
To see if bad storms lie ahead?

On the other hand, there's only one holiday in the pantheon of holidays that honors an animal, and you're it, Hawg. So contemplate your otherness. Is it what you is or what you ain't? Who knows?

Who knows what light we displace, what shade we give, what time it is when watches fail? The shadow knows.

(Cue spooky laugh. Fade to February 3.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Li'l Febber

Take the initials of all the months of the year and put them in order, starting with this one.


Now spread them out, add a little punctuation, and voila! A mythical radio personality, big as the year, spinning an orbit's worth of "music of the spheres"--I'm talkin' about


Which seems to support the theory that February should have been the first month. Except that it does make a really good second month. You probably need that slow start in January, a month to get used to the same-as-last-year-only-worse tsuris (earthquakes and other miseries).

And then you get to turn the page to a cute month. Shorter by three days. And right off the bat, tomorrow, another contemplative, will-it-or-won't-it Janus-day involving animals and weather--a kind of taking auspices. Then a steady feed of events:

Groundhog Day. (I know I already included it, but I WOODCHUCK it all for you, Valentine!) The Superb Owl. Abe and George. The first cardinal song that's not an idle sound check. Pussy willows, I believe. And Mardi Gras! And Purim! And President's Day. To say nothing of the month as a whole: Black History month, of course. Also National Cherry Month. National Canned Fruit Month (in pear juice, of course, not heavy syrup). And American Heart Month, which my dad may have had something to do with. (More on which to come.)

But then you have a bit of the December problem. Where's the real February behind the events? We know it can be cold and nasty, like being trapped in a cabin with a sawed-off trigger-happy kid who shows a row of pointy little teeth whenever he grins. But it's equally prone to thaw.

In which case the cabin door unlatches to reveal a cardinal among the pussy willows with a cherry redundantly in his bill, and the kid shyly hands me a red construction paper and cut-doily card smelling sweetly of liberry paste, saying "Hapy Febuary I was only kiding."