Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sky Commander

It being the last day of March, I thought it might be a nice gesture to fly a kite.

Kites and me go way back. In my thirties and forties, I made a succession of rattly brown paper diamond kites with tails from old bedsheets, sporting pictures of birds (cardinals, terns) in colored markers.

In my twenties, there was a transparent one I remember with the face of the bearded guy from
Zig-Zag rolling papers. The picture of a carefree high.

As a kid, I invested in a series of Hi-Flyers and Gaylas, with names like Sky Commander and Sky Hawk. Bad things happened to many of them: snapped frames, torn paper, kite-eating trees. But just as often they flew, that wonderful trick where the wind takes them up, higher and higher, the string taut but disappearing, till they're a small thing, yet under your control, a scary, potent responsibility in which you're somehow rooted and aloft at the same time.

So I was hopeful. In the garage, I knew, were two bedraggled cloth kites, acquired against a once-optimistic belief that Matthew might want to fly one. (There was one memorable kite-related tantrum in California that probably ended that dream.) I fished them out. Their bold colors were stained with years of garage grime. But the big day had come at last, at least for one of them. I chose the one striped in magenta, yellow, turquoise, and two different shades of green, with wing streamers that (I hoped) sufficed for a tail. I tied a string to the grommet. At least I remembered about grommets. And kite in hand, I drove to Robbins Farm.

Robbins Farm used to be a farm, with fields and orchards, at the highest elevation in Arlington. Then it became a park with a playground and a pair of vertiginous slides and a baseball field and an amazing panoramic view of Boston (see above). It's the place to go for sunrises and moonrises and fireworks displays arrayed along the horizon. And whatever the weather is anywhere else, it always has a bountiful wind for kites.

But not today. Today I'm a man with a kite waiting for a lift. I'm surrounded by robins—Robbins robins—singing. They are pointing out that they can fly. The eastern sky is a gray death march of clouds, somber but beautiful. If there were background music, it would probably be the Red Army, singing "Polyushka Polye." ( It's the day that it finally stopped raining, but the sun refused to unrain on March's parade. So March will go out not like a lamb. More like a sea otter.

I must look kind of pathetic holding the kite by the string, giving it a trial yank now and then. I decide I'm too dignified to run with it. I decide to be a kind of art installation, entitled Man Waiting with Kite. Then I get a little stir of a breeze, just enough to turn the kite this way and that. So I throw dignity to the wind and run, ploddingly, this way and that. But the wind is not impressed. Maybe I offended it in my post last week. Maybe there was a Red Army hymn I was supposed to sing, to evoke the wind of the steppes.

I'm thinking I should go when my cell phone groans in my pocket. It's Matthew. He has his guitar with him and wants a ride home from school. Okay. Five minutes, I tell him.

Man with kite goes striding through the playground to his car, feeling somewhat disappointed, somewhat relieved. March, he decides, appreciated the effort.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Passover Overpass

Okay, maybe I just like the wordplay. But Passover does sort of arch over me, even as I'm supposedly observing it at a seder. The Exodus story...the seder plate...the Four Questions...the four children...the ten plagues...the themes of freedom, thankfulness, community...Dayenu! They arc past, like familiar constellations. It's a complicated holiday.

We always go over to my wife's ex's house for first-night seder: we've been going there for nearly a decade. My son's height-marks in pencil are on a white wall along with those of Chuck's kids and others in the extended family. I think there are fifteen of us, and the personalities and faces are as familiar as characters in an often-performed play. (We also get together for Rosh Hoshanah.)

The blue home-made haggadahs have the faces of Ruby Keeler and Al Jolson on the cover. I can't remember the reason, except that Jolson was Jewish and they both sing. By now it wouldn't look right with anything or anyone else. And inside, the text is indeed frequently interrupted by songs. Mostly they are spirituals extolling freedom, or traditional Hebrew songs. We also interrupt the text for food: first salads; then matzo ball soup; then the main meal (brisket, kugel, beans and shrooms); then desserts. Though one could happily make a meal on the matzo and charoset alone.

Complicated, as I say. Maybe my most culturally rich holiday, if you consider the layers of history, the food, the music, the going around the table reading, the laughter, the symbolism (this stands for slavery, that stands for springtime, each drop of wine stands for a plague).

It's one of those seasonal rituals that you might not do if you didn't make the commitment by dint of habit. And one year, it might have a pro forma feel. But another year, the word freedom
refreshes its meaning. Or you ask yourself what it means if one person's freedom to choose means another person's freedom is abridged. Or you think about how it is that one group of human beings presumes to enslave another group in the first place—all too easily—or how those slavers may have been brought up to cross that line. And the songs sing you.

And then it goes back to being the Passover overpass: idle thoughts of working in a matzo factory; speculating (correctly) that Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler had a rocky marriage, probably what with Al's oversized ego; and one more dish of ice cream 'fore I the valley below.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cold Blossoms

Today spring is a week old and we're in a familiar venue: cold, early spring. Mixed messages abound. Three days of misleadingly mild weather. Then a return of cold rain. Even snow. March snow is different than October snow. October snow is just goofing around, a dry run, a sound check. Late snow, snow that falls in spring, is the guest who wouldn't leave. Who might not ever leave, like the yearlong winter of 1816, when it snowed two feet in June, in Vermont.

But this is just the chilled landscape of new spring. We know it for its anomalies and hedged bets. Goldfinches yellow from the neck up. Forsythia on the brink but not committing. Willows taking the chance, already past the gold that Robert Frost wrote about in the poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay":

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

There's a small park just before Arlington becomes Cambridge, called Magnolia Field. Someone planted four magnolia trees there. And they fell for it, I guess. Those big fuzzy green-gray catkins have generously opened up into white blossoms. Most of them furled, but still: snowy candles. Like guests who arrived at a party way too early. Don't they usually show up in April, or even May, when Marlborough Street in Boston is lined with them? Do they feel foolish? Can they go back to bed? Or will leaf subside to leaf, before its time?

This is spring's early crop, the shivering pioneers squinting in the pale sunlight. May Easter eggs hide in their grass while robins tune up in their branches.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

O wind, a-blowing

Wednesday, a few days ago now, was one of those iconic March days. Windy.
It brought to mind a poem, "The Wind," by Robert Louis Stevenson from A Child's Garden of Verses. The copy I own, and had as a kid, is illustrated with black and white photos by Toni Frissell, mainly of her children and their friends. This one shows a little girl, about six, in mid-jump from a grassy dune, cumulus clouds banked on the horizon behind her. In one hand she holds a ball of string from which a triangular kite with stars and stripes is pulling taut a few feet to the left. It starts:

I saw you toss the kites on high
And blow the birds across the sky;
And all around I heard you pass,
Like ladies' skirts across the grass—
O wind, a-blowing all day long,
O wind, that sings so loud a song!

I saw the different things you did,
But always you yourself you hid.
I felt you push, I heard you call,
I could not see yourself at all—
O wind, a-blowing all day long,
O wind, that sings so loud a song!

I understand the impulse to talk to the wind, personify it, try to figure it out. When it's strong, and kind of a bully, it's almost a solid thing, but it persists in being invisible, and not a thing at all. Just moving air. But different from the air we move. This air has been moving for miles, pushing clouds and trees and grass and flags and what can be more invincible? The poet asks: are you young or old? Are you a stronger child than me?

Even when it's calm, it's still alive and seems to have a volition, or a whim. No wonder they gave it different names. Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breethe... It's one of the most maddening aspects of nature, that self-regulating (almost) system that doesn't need our help, that may be indifferent about us, or at least doesn't consider us to be more special than a chinchbug. We want it to turn the blades of big turbine wind mills. Or maybe what we really want is we want it to play with us, like it did when we offered it a pinwheel to turn, or a kite to take up. Or clothes on a clothesline to set dancing.

In the Mexican folktale, it's the wind god, Quetzalcoatl, who brings back the Sun's musicians to Earth, the birth of music. Which makes sense, because all wind needs is an instrument to blow into or through, or sound waves to carry, to make music. Sometimes that instrument is a tree or the wing feathers of a woodcock.

Down at Spy Pond, it was churning the water into whitecaps, sloshing little waves against the shore in drunken rodomontades. In the sky, no cloud had a chance. I watched a pair of Canada geese step carefully into the gust, somehow not even ruffling a feather. I interfered with it, but I didn't have a choice. I was in the way. It was the way.

Monday, March 22, 2010


There's something about this scene that makes the robin uneasy. Two guys standing in the gathering gloom, not going anywhere. It fusses sharply in a treetop overhead, then takes off with one final peek! They watch it go. It's getting darker. If they had topcoats and this were an urban setting, they'd be like the two gunsels in "The Killers." But it's not. It's a dim path in a woods in the old Brooks Estate. Just down from a clearing called the Stump Dump, which is where the city of Medford dumps old stumps. That's right, bright boy.

These guys are waiting for a bird. It should make its presence known any time now. This bird is an oddsbodkin called a woodcock. It's a bit mysterious, shy, lumpy, long-billed, the color of dead oak leaves. It's an apparition on chilly evenings in March, like a bird illustration that comes to life, except it requires a cloak of darkness to do so.


There it is. They relax a little and listen.


It's a nasal buzz, like a small appliance that's on the fritz. Some people call it peent. There's another one, from a different direction. On the ground—near, then far. Maybe a third one.

The peenting goes on for a while. What's going on here is a presentation of bona fides. But it's a preliminary, a planting of seeds. The two guys are waiting for the second and third part of the event. Which take place mostly not on the ground but in the sky. And suddenly it's happening. A wide gyre overhead of twitters, a circle of invisible tracks. Owning the ground, now owning the sky. The sound is produced by the wind whistling between the woodcock's wing feathers. Reminiscent of a baseball card flapping in the spokes of a bicycle wheel.

The two guys turn, peering into the dimming blue. Too dim to find or follow the bird. It's supposedly 100 meters up. Then they hear the third sound. A sharper sound, a series of falling chirps. Random, keen-edged. Almost a sobbing quality. I fly for you. I die for you. If that isn't love, it'll have to do. Until the real thing comes along. Then silence. Has it plummeted to its death? The ultimate sacrifice?


And the whole thing starts all over again. The sky dance, it's called. The two guys (me and Ed) hang through about five iterations of the performance, an audience of two. Usually it comes back to earth far to the left or far to the right of us. But once or twice. we're close enough to see it, a shadowy lump, and once right in front of us, fifteen, twenty feet. Close enough to hear a little wheeze of air before each peent. Close enough to see it abruptly take off on another sortie.

Finally, it's too dark for us, maybe too dark for the woodcock. We leave it to the night, to whatever other woodcock or woodhen may be listening. A real rite of spring. "Yeah. A real riot, bright boy."

* *

Marj Rines, stalwart host of the Menotomy Bird Club, has created a great web page to the woodcock. Which see:

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Vern Al, the Equine Ox, and other legends

The equinox is getting away from me. It was actually yesterday, a day that achieved a rare 70+ degrees in March. There should be a special yoicks! or halloo! for attaining such a rung of pleasantness. Perhaps it should be the Latin word for seventy: septuaginta. I can picture people calling to one another across Mystic Lake as they hoist their ukuleles: "Septuaginta!"

I also forgot to balance the egg. The tradition being that on the precise moment of the equinox, you can balance an egg on its end. But it turns out Snopes, the urban legend debunker, says this is a bogus claim. Apparently you can balance an egg on its end any day of the year.

That leaves me with one more piece of folklore that I seem to be sole custodian of. Namely, the thundering hoofbeats of Vern Al, the Equine Ox. Since no one has actually seen Vern Al, it's hard to know whether it has the body of an ox and the head of a horse or vice versa. I prefer to see it as a combination of the best features of both: fleetness, endurance, strength, sensitivity, wildness and domesticity. Vern would be the equine name, Al the bovine. Kind of a Norman-Saxon thing.

Which brings us to the song, sung to the immortal theme of that classic TV show, The Adventures of Robin Hood:

Equine Ox, Equine Ox, riding 'cross the plain;
Equine Ox, Equine Ox, with your horns and mane...
No one but you
whinnies its moo,
Equine Ox! Equine Ox! Equine Ox!

To carry spring abroad requires a blend of ox and steed
A victor strong of back and swift of leg!
As robust as a bison yet equine in dash and deed
And sensitive enough to right an egg!

Equine Ox, Equine Ox, riding 'cross the plain, etc.
And so, as the thundering hoofbeats echo into the distance, we wish good luck to Vern Al, the Equine Ox, who may well resemble a wildebeest (above), which also possesses the horns and mane, if not the breadth in the beam. We are mindful that the balance of day and night, ox and horse, is but a momentary equilibrium, and that we may not see septuaginta again in March, but we're grateful to see that reassuring rump disappear up Mass. Ave., toward Lexington, as William Dawes and his mount did 235 years ago: a fiery horse, the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty "Hi Yo Silver! The British are coming! Halloo to the spring!"

Thursday, March 18, 2010


So it seems that winter left early. Maybe it was because of Evacuation Day. I could have told it that it didn't have to evacuate the premises on the 17th. The day commemorates the British evacuation from Boston back in March of 1776! Too late. Gone. And since nature abhors a vacuum, spring moved on in. Three days of temps in the upper sixties.

I went for a walk yesterday around 3. First stop, Gail Ann's, the old coffee counter in the Center. Iced decaf. Harvest pumpkin muffin. Sitting outside at the folding table, being a representative of the Guy Sitting Outside of Café With Iced Coffee on a Balmy Day. Jotted down a few Observations in my Cahier. Then continued on my way, down to the woods at the foot of Mystic Lake, where I'd been "among the birds" early in the month. This time, all quiet. Then, an arrival. A large alighting and folding of big wings on a long branch. A red-tailed hawk, with prey. One foot on something grey and furry, a paw dangling, probably a squirrel. We watched each other. I left first.

On the way home, the warm afternoon did this thing time out of season does, like Indian Summer in November. KInd of dazes you. Like a half-remembered old tune, in the air. Passing these small sunlit houses. What song? Something sweet, like "Goodnight, My Someone". Had we really gone from travail to nostalgia in four days? Then a specific tune took over as I passed someone's front garden full of lily of the valley. "White coral bells upon a slender stalk..." A song my sister learned in camp and taught me.

New untimely pressure to get out, enjoy the day, gather the season, keep up. March?

I went back to the woods today, by bike this time. I had not an "among" moment, but a bona fide "with" moment. It was a goldfinch in a tree. I finally spotted it on a branch not far, maybe twenty feet, away. It was changing! Its head was yellow, a little black coming in, the rest of it still in winter drab. I sat down at the base of a tree opposite. And its trippy spiel was going on and on: "Whereas...and whereas...and whomsoever...and whereas...therefore, I hereby do help me...perchickoree (amen)."

Just that one goldfinch. A lucky recital. And then, a couple of postludes. A trilling junco. And another brief set from a Carolina wren (above), usually transliterated as, "Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle," but this time I heard "Jubilee, jubilee, jubilee."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Beau temps!

Five crocuses: four purple and one yellow. These blinked anew from the front garden today, the day we landed on Mt. Ararat after the flood and took a look around, temperature in the sixties, a little wearing of the green in the grass, and song sparrows counting out their bright change in pennywhistle and harmonica. Laissez le bon temps rouler!

Leave it to the French. They have the same word for time and weather: temps. Good times: bon temps! Good weather: beau temps!

Actually, the French have two words for time: temps and l'heure, the hour. But that's interesting, too. Because if I read my Larousse correctly, l'heure seems to be more about measured time, timely time. And temps is more about time in the abstract, time as a vessel.

Phrases using heure: to be paid on time; the latest news; overtime; what time is it?; to arrive on time; for the time being; there was a time when; to do something at once.

Phrases using temps: to kill time; to have plenty of time; to gain time; now and then; to have a good time (let the good times roll!); meanwhile; in the old days; there is a time for everything.

I mean, there are overlaps, but generally, I'd rather live according to le temps than l'heure.

* *

As for St. Patrick's Day, all I can say is what I said about forty years ago when McKenna, McQueen, and I went down to New York to stand on 5th Avenue near the park, maybe with a beer in a glove, if that's possible, or a hat, watching phalanx after phalanx of dapper Irish-American ladies march by proudly hoisting their banner proclaiming the Ancient Order of Hibernians, while I yelled to them encouragingly, "God bless ye, Hibernians!" and they waved and smiled back, so I yelled it again and maybe what started out facetious became sincerely happy to be participating in the St. Patrick's Day parade and to be 21 and an idiot but a harmless one.

Monday, March 15, 2010


Today’s forecast: Beware.

A look out the window could tell you that. This rain is Arkian now. But appropriate for a day to be spent inside, no going out for a chicken Caesar, and if you ate one, you might as well have et two. Know what I’m saying? It’s brutal out there.

Ides of March. Those ancient bad days persist somehow. Even if we don’t know what it is, it’s the can with a slight dent, the potato with a funny-looking eye. Why buy trouble?

Never mind that every month has an Ides, and that it just meant the middle of the month in the Julian calendar, from iduare (“to divide”). It’s the hand-me-down word. What do we do with it? It sounds plural, like whatever it is is ganging up on us. It sounds like “eyes.” Beware the eyes of March. Yeah, I can see that. They’re set too close together, like the i’s in “criminal.”

We were trusting March a week ago. Temperature in the fifties. Sunny. Ushering it to the best table. Frog-marching winter out the restaurant door like a diner who’d overstayed his welcome. That was our mistake. It was really the prince, incognito. The March we’d trusted was the fickle one. Winter was just being winter.

Beware getting too deep into metaphors.

Anyway, it’s going to be nice tomorrow, which is not the Ides of March, but the beginning of the second half of March, the part that’s an anagram for Charm, with that new hour of daylight we just bought shown to its full advantage, and winter, what can I say? You rule. For four more days.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


It’s raining. Boy, is it raining. This is one of those rainy days that we’re always saving it for, whatever it is. I missed Donald Duck’s Birthday yesterday. (See ) But I should get behind Pi Day today.

I am no mathematician, and the whole notion of giving pi a day strikes me as a little geeky. But as an almanacker and time-twiddler, I like that this constant, 3.14159… is celebrated on 3/14, especially at 1:59 a.m. (one minute before Daylight Savings Time!) and again at 1:59 p.m, and that it coincides with Albert Einstein’s birthday.

So it behooves me, as the centaur said, to spend a little time with π, which is the lower-case of the sixteenth Greek letter (the upper-case being Π), and which the Greeks, by the way, pronounce “pee.” And it is pretty cool that no matter what size a circle is, the circumference of that circle is always 3.141593 etc. times the diameter. And it is also worth noting that the reason that letter pi was chosen is that it’s the first letter of the Greek words for periphery and perimeter. And of course there’s the matter of a circle’s area being π r squared, which is ironic because pie are round, normally, not square— the exception, not ironically, being a Greek pie, spanikopita (spinach pie), which are often square, and even when they’re not, spinach pie are a square meal, yessiree bob.

Still raining, and looking just as dark at 5:30 as it did yesterday at 5:30, so where’s the fun in that?

One more pi thing that comes to mind. There’s a song whose title is trapped in my brain and today’s a good day to say it: Push-ka-pi-shi-pie!

It’s a kind of faux calypso number written by Louis Jordan et al. and revived recently in the Broadway revue called “Five Guys Named Moe.” Here’s how it starts:

Saigo boy from Fyzabad
a little town in Trinidad
took a plane to New York town
he dressed up like a circus clown
with the tenor sax in hand
say he maestro of a band
ask him what's the latest thing
Saigo boy begin to sing:

Push ka pi shi pie — eh eh
Push ka pi shi pie — eh eh
oobli aayee eye yay abla
it's the new calypso bop

So now it’s in your head. And if you want to hear what it sounds like in Danish, which is related to pie, here’s a group called the Linie 3 doing it.

Happy Push ka pi shi pie, especially good on a rainy day!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring Forward! Winter Awkward.

It’s the Ringling Brothers Daylight Savings Time! Wake up, crocuses! We lose an hour! How do you lose an hour? Seems like carelessness in the extreme. Actually, it’s all too easy. Just turn that little doohickey (that, in fact, is its technical name) so the minute hand goes around the little circle, which drags the hour hand with it to the next number. There’s your hour. Not really lost at all. Just unnaturally sped up, an hour in a second. We get to do time’s work!

It’s times like these that you realize just how artificial measured time is. Hey, let’s turn the clocks forward! Like an agreed-upon prank. Like Backwards Day, or Talk Like a Pirate Day. Or maybe it’s like being your own tooth fairy: putting a dollar under your pillow the night before for the pleasure of finding it next day.

Do I sound snide? I guess there’s a part of me that’s feeling sorry for Standard Time. It was making such progress. Worked with the sun, one on one, every day, to gain those winter minutes. Pushed that sunset from 4:15 to 5:00 to 5:30 to 6:00. And now, with one deft, impatient, twist of the doohickey, we take over, ordain sunset to be 7:00. Hey, whatever you want, man.

Oh, I’ll enjoy it. Have dinner out on the back porch. Move that bubble of afternoon into what used to be evening. It’s just… Couldn’t we have the decency to wait until winter is done? The local newscasters are going to be all over “Spring forward!” while winter, entitled to its final week, quietly stuffs its parka in a big dufflebag, makes a big sign to hold out while hitchhiking: NORTH; and decides not to quarrel over the rent deposit. No, maybe it’ll just SNOW ON US!

Don't forget to set your clocks, dudes.

Friday, March 12, 2010


If this were a real almanac, I'd be making an entry every day. No. Because this is a real almanac (as opposed to an ideal one), I don't make an entry every day. But I still feel responsible for the days that get lost in The Meanwhile—which is really no meaner than the Good While, which people are often generous to ("I swam laps/wrote letters/played Chopin for a Good While") but usually never meet ("I' waited in front of Schrafft's for quite a Good While!")

Meanwhile, things happened. On Wednesday, friends Anne and Peggy lured me back to Lower Mystic Lake. The bald eagles have apparently decided the time was ripe to leave for points north. But we were happy with a white-breasted nuthatch yanking up and down a tree like an arboreal tugboat. You know, life was lived, those days counted, too. So why did they get meanwhiled, while this day doesn't, Mr. Time?

Because, Skippy, time needs to refresh itself. I remember a game we used to play called "Meanwhile." Someone would start a story, as crazy and complicated as they wanted. "Once there was an elf named Leo who lived in a cave on Mt. Lilimanjaro. Not Kilimanjaro--Lilimanjaro. And he had a sweet tooth, and it was so sweet that it never gave him any trouble until one day it said, 'Leo, go down to the valley and get me a box of figgy raisin bars!' Meanwhile--"

And then the second person starts an entirely different story. "Meanwhile, in a kingdom several mountains away, an evil duke was plotting revenge." And so it would go, sometimes one story line looping around to an earlier one, but usually each story veering off into its own world, because that's what meanwhiles are meant to do, Skippy, take a side track and don't look back. Understand?

Skippy (still puzzled): Yeah...but what happened to Leo the elf?
(Cue raucous silly Mr. Time music.)
That's all the time we have time for, kids. Meanwhile, don't forget to take your time so you can give your time to others!!! (Throws big air kiss to audience. They duck. Air kiss travels out studio door, through lobby, out theater door, into street, where it strikes evil duke on forehead, changing him for the better for approximately ten minutes.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Blogging is a little bit like what I once fantasized about doing when I was a kid: having a license to send out transmissions on my shortwave radio. I never did; I had a receiver instead, so I mainly listened to dahs and dits from other people, the ubiquitous CQ...CQ (seek you, seek you), or growly voices, like sparrows gabbling in a tree. Or I roamed the shortwave band for Moscow and Hilversum, Holland, and once Johannesburg! which had commercials (Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes)!

This is not as instant a broadcast as radio would be, of course. But when you hit "Publish Post," it's gone, out there, on the airwaves, for better or worse. (Did I offend movie stars or friends of movie stars yesterday? Too late. I'm certain Steve Carrell and Meryl Streep are great. Too late.)

Anyway, I wasn't going to post anything today, but sometimes the hour is ripe. Matthew's playing guitar with Led Zeppelin at his laptop; Carol's learning some new animation technique at her desktop. I should broadcast, even if I don't have anything to say, because it's a busy living room, and I could always take a look at the calendar.

Barbie was introduced today, back in the 50s. It's also cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's birthday. At one time those were opposite poles of America's crisis of confidence: a doll of American perfection vs. Soviet scientific supremacy. Moving on...

It's Panic Day and it's Get Over It Day. They sort of cancel each other out. And it's Joe Franklin Day. Good old Joe, droning mainstay of New York TV, the precursor of all talk show hosts, but homey, like your uncle interviewing Alec Baldwin in the den. Like a broadcast from the living room.

And finally, it's Unique Names Day, a day to celebrate people you know who have unique names. Well, I don't know about people, but I spent the day researching weird sea animals, among which were the leafy sea dragon, piglet squid, hatchetfish, blobfish, gulper eel, yeti crab, Christmas tree worm, brittle star, fangtooth (ogrefish), pistol shrimp, glass shrimp, Dumbo octopus, Ping-pong tree sponge, dinner plate jelly and my favorite: the stoplight loosejaw.

Signing off!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Seeing Martins

Dang, the Oscars are over. Was it worth the four hour investment of my Sunday night, including the smarmy red-carpet interviews and Neil Patrick Harris's dance routine? Not at all. Would I do it again? Of course. Why? I'm not sure. The Academy Awards is one of those red-letter days. Not a holiday, but an event laden with great expectations, and towing a mythology of rising curtains and dimming lights and roaring lions and the cartoon and the newsreel.

I don't get it, but there seems to be this need to see movie stars, hear them say potentially wise and moving and funny things, have the camera pounce on their grins and scowls as it roams their godlike assemblage. No doubt they are better than us. No, they're luckier than we'll ever be. But they're undeniably beautiful and talented. And they're also real people, kind of. It's easy to digest their accomplishments. We know them! We've seen their giant faces so often that there's practically nothing they can do that will surprise us, not that we want them to, any more than we want a fig newton to taste any different. That Steve Martin! That Alec Baldwin! Their faces are almost Hirschfeld caricatures of themselves; you're tempted to squint at Meryl Streep's hair for a NINA. We also hate them a little. Resent their gold dust, their airs, sneer at their humble remarks, wait eagerly for their faux pas, their miscalculations. Because, how dare they outdo us?? And how dare they fail??

It's interesting to compare seeing movie stars and seeing birds. Especially these waning winter days when you scan the thickets and marshes for new arrivals as if they're arriving by limo. Is that a grackle taking flight? It is! First grackle! Binoculars go up as eagerly as a thrust autograph book.

Yesterday morning, with a group of birders out at Dunback Meadow in Lexington, Marj Rines let out a "whoa!" somehow discerning the soft warble of an Eastern bluebird in the distance. Then, too briefly for the rest of us, Renee LaFontaine spotted it in a faraway bush. Definitely like seeing a star, same hunger satisfaction, but wild, chancy, accidental, near-miss.

By contrast, the Oscars are an aviary, all the birds in their finery gathered together in one pleasure-dome. Better to catch an unexpected glimpse, like I once had of Sidney Poitier on a street in London, leaving a trail of "Wasn't that—?"s in his wake. Or the day they were shooting "HouseSitter," with Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin at my office building in 1991. Rumor had it that Steve Martin was riding a bicycle in the lobby, and if you approached him he would hand you a card that said something like, "You have had an ennobling encounter with Steve Martin." Pretty cool. Approach a purple martin, say, in one of the parking lots out at Plum Island in another six weeks, and it will wheel away with a sharp twitter, no less reserved and just as famous.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Suddenly, maybe

Today, numbers have stories to tell. March, six days in, is still deciding what to come in as. Lion? Lamb? Worm-eating fernbird? This brings to mind the famous John Belushi routine from SNL about March, which I reproduce here courtesy of Chuck Welch and Tom McMahon:

Chevy Chase: Last week we made the comment that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Now here to reply is our chief meteorologist, John Belushi, with a seasonal report.

John Belushi: Thank you Chevy. Well, another winter is almost over and March true to form has come in like a lion, and hopefully will go out like a lamb. At least that’s how March works here in the United States.

But did you know that March behaves differently in other countries? In Norway, for example, March comes in like a polar bear and goes out like a walrus. Or, take the case of Honduras where March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a salt marsh harvest mouse.

Let’s compare this to the Maldive Islands where March comes in like a wildebeest and goes out like an ant. A tiny, little ant about this big.

[holds thumb and index fingers a small distance apart]

Unlike the Malay Peninsula where March comes in like a worm-eating fernbird and goes out like a worm-eating fernbird. In fact, their whole year is like a worm-eating fernbird.

Or consider the Republic of South Africa where March comes in like a lion and goes out like a different lion. Like one has a mane, and one doesn’t have a mane. Or in certain parts of South America where March swims in like a sea otter, and then it slithers out like a giant anaconda.

There you can buy land real cheap, you know. And there’s a country where March hops in like a kangaroo, and stays a kangaroo for a while, and then it becomes a slightly smaller kangaroo. Then, then, then for a couple of days it’s sort of a cross between a, a frilled lizard and a common house cat.

[Chevy Chase tries to interrupt him]

Wait wait wait wait. Then it changes back into a smaller kangaroo, and then it goes out like a, like a wild dingo. Now, now, and it’s not Australia! Now, now, you’d think it would be Australia, but it’s not!

[Chevy Chase tries to interrupt him]

Now look, pal! I know a country where March comes in like an emu and goes out like a tapir. And they don’t even know what it means! All right? Now listen, there are nine different countries, where March comes in like a frog, and goes out like a golden retriever. But that- that’s not the weird part! No, no, the weird part is, is the frog. The frog- The weird part is-

[has seizure and falls off chair]

The weird part is that Belushi died on March 5, yesterday, in 1982. Could it have been 28 years ago?

The other number that tells a story is 50, as in fifty degrees, which it got up to today, and beyond. I tried to interview the last remaining black chunk of snow in the Walgreen's parking lot, but it had no comment.

Birds, however, did. Song sparrows, whose Latin name is melospiza melodia, may not know from fifty degrees, but they do their own non-numerical counting, measuring out their newly-minted jingles in a practiced repetition, something like: "this, then another one, then a different one, then something else, higher, and again and again and again and again, then something else, lower, and definitive," bringing the elegant little declaration to an end. Then the whole thing is repeated, maybe with variations. All over the country, moreover, song sparrow jingles are perforating the silence of winter by the thousands. Also, of course, cardinals are delivering up their clear wakeful notes in multiples, not counting them, but repeating them, as many as necessary.

What this adds up to is something hopeful, something we want to call spring, but we're cautious about March releasing the wild dingo or the anaconda. So we take it, if you will, bird by bird.

I'll note one other number: one hundred, which is the number of posts on this blog with this one, which means that I have followed the orbit from October to March, so far, and that the next post will be 101.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

March forth!

It's the only day of the year that supplies its own horoscope. It doesn't tell you what good fortune will ensue, of course. That would spoil the fun.

Advocates for National Grammar Day have also co-opted it, seizing on the noun turned verb and the adjective turned adverb as their rallying cry. But I say, forget the grammar: seize the day!

So I went back to bed, read a bit more of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, fell asleep, and then I was ready, boy. Went upstairs. Shifted a few piles of papers, threw out a bunch of floppy disks, got that room looking sharp as a button.

I remember in another lifetime when I was an after-school care worker, my first career, I convinced about five kids to go up and down the school hall with me, banging on drums and tambourines, yelling, "March forth! March forth! March forth!" Those kids probably have kids now, and I swear, when I put my ear to the window, for one moment I heard the distant sound of a crow.

Of course I went out to cast my bread upon the waters, had lunch with my friend, artist/ponderer, Walter Kopec. And he had the perfect piece in his studio: Vertebrae of Hope. A minimal dude bending his backbone to contemplate, and maybe reach down for, the word IF.

Sometimes the marching forth is subtle: inconveniencing yourself a little to pick up the IF, not just think about it.

I took the Silver Line to Downtown Crossing. Lots of marchers in the rain. Took the Red Line back to my bike, and on my way out of Alewife, passing the marsh at the foot of Thorndike, whazzat? Through the tuque and the bike helmet, a familiar sound, like a telephone ringing....

Red-winged blackbirds! They're back! About twenty males silhouetted in a bare tree against the gray. A tree they knew and associated, perhaps, with their own march forth.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

February 31

"A softer energy?" (my premature characterization of this fickle month yesterday)

C'mon, we're talking about March here. Or could it be that February stowed away? Maybe we should just give February 31 days and start March tomorrow, on March 4th, which sounds like a setting out anyway.

I mean, I know what I meant by a softer energy: birds in their element, not spending their energy defending against the elements, for a change, not hustling to get from point A to point B.

I picture yesterday's nuthatches heading down the trunk a little faster today, wound a little tighter. It's a different face of March. It looks like how I think of Poland during the 1940s: dour, beetle-browed, stark, suspicious. Back to the hunkered gargoyle. A few flakes this morning, too, kind of a distracted, fretful flurry.

Lower Mystic Lake might be ice-free, but Spy Pond still wears a thin, what-are-you-lookin'-at, ice cover. A kind of tar pit for skaters. Except for a little canal along the shore, where a pair of swans—neither one a blogger—seemed unconcerned with the weather, the month, the date, anything but their own swanniness.

As for me, I indulge my almanackiness. Perhaps we should let each day define itself, rather than correspond or not correspond to the definition of the month. 365 separate entities, which when you stand back from them blend into the shadings of a season in progress.
--We already do.
--Oh. Yeah, I guess.
--Are you going to get this overwrought about every contrary day in this contrary month?
--You never know.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Among March

March called on me around noon, the way a friend might, not directly but by dribbling a basketball and clanging the backboard invitingly. So I went outside and we said "Hey" and I followed it down to Mystic River.

The day was calm, with an in and out sun. I heard a cardinal again, but now it's a March cardinal, open for business. I rode on to the copse of woods at the bottom of Lower Mystic Lake, near where I saw the stand of Canada geese on the ice last week. Now no ice whatsoever. Unseen birds were tweeting me. But by the time I finished locking my bike to the leash your dogs sign, they had stopped. So I scanned the Arlington side of the lake for bald eagles. There they were! Both adult and juvenile this time, in adjoining trees near the gazebo that has replaced The Tree at the Medford Boat Club as the reliable hangout. Juvenile noticeably bigger and marked with the piebald of chocolate-marshmallow ice cream.

I knew they were probably watching me with far better binocular vision than mine. And when I awkwardly seated myself in some shore grass it might have been just clumsy enough to offend Junior into flight, because when I looked up again she (probably, by her large size) was in the air, tilting that amazing wingspan as she turned against the backdrop of trees and comfortable houses, and then beat it slowly and magnificently uplake, finally disappearing past the Boat Club dam. When I looked back to see how the adult had taken it, the adult was gone, too.

Nothing for it but to turn back to the woods. For a while, the parts did not coalesce. But then I focused on two robins, a male and female in not too close, not too far proximity. I sensed mutual interest. It didn't develop into a consummation, but they hung around each other, maybe cooled by my surveillance. Or maybe it's just not April yet. In any case, a nice thing was happening. A few nuthatches were bellying down nearby trunks. Tufted titmice were showing up. A dark-eyed junco or two. Any downy woodpeckers? Yep, there was one working a limb, leaning back, red patch foremost. And a white-throated sparrow peeking out of a bush. No "Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody" call yet. But there was a call I knew: the "teakettle teakettle teakettle" of a Carolina wren.

It didn't all happen in a heavy traffic way. These were shy and subtle comings and goings, punctuated by multiple robins scratching in the dead leaves. But the good part was that feeling of being among birds. This happens when the parts do begin to coalesce, the trees and underbrush start to make a habitat sense, not excluding you but including you, and you feel more than just a witness, if not a participant. Something like being embedded in nature, which, it shouldn't surprise us to know, we actually are.

I tried taking a picture of the sparrow, which briefly took me out of the scene. It was a while before the among-ness returned. But however brief, or fragile, this was something new. A yielding. A softer energy.

Note: No rabbits were harmed in the planning or creation of the March 1 post. "Welsh rabbit" is made from toast, melted cheese, mustard, and other non-rabbit ingredients.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Silly rabbits

Okay: March!
The only month that's a verb—and an imperative, at that. Suggesting a brisker pace and maybe a destination. Are we marching to Pretoria? Or Peoria? Mais non, mon capitaine, nous marchons au printemps! Au vert! We are marching to the woodcocks, the grackles, the red-winged blackbirds, and the song sparrows. But first we have to deal with the rabbits.

At the biennial Almanacker's Convention in Sheboygan, the rabbits always come up.
"So, Hatch, how do you stand on the lagomorph issue?"
Polite smile. "Sorry?"
"Do you favor 'Rabbit, rabbit'? Or 'White rabbit, white rabbit'? Or a combination? Or in threes?"
"I, uh..."
"Do you believe it should be said first thing in the morning? Last thing the night before? Every first day? Or only on certain months?"
Sincere frown. "Definitely."

Seriously, I had no idea this was such a thorny patch of folklore until I Googled it today. Check out these variations:

I must have been in Canada when I first heard about saying "Rabbit, rabbit" on the first day of a month before you say anything else, in order to bring good luck for the month. And it's one of those things that sticks because it's sort of charming and connects you to time or the landscape—like making a wish on a white horse. It makes you feel as if you've tended to something obscurely important when you remember to say it (rabbit, rabbit, that is), and when you remember that you forgot, that you sang in the shower or talked back to the radio instead, you feel this tiny "damn." As if it mattered. And who's to say it doesn't?

There's probably reasons why it's rabbits and why for some, like the people of Yorkshire, the day to say "Rabbit, rabbit" or "Rabbit, rabbit, white rabbit" was today, March 1st. Maybe it's to counteract the Ides of March. (Don't get me started on the Ides.) Or maybe it's to innoculate oneself against March madness, as symbolized by the March hare (see above). Or maybe it was a fertility thing. If you subtract nine months from March, you get June, as in weddings and honeymoons. Or am I hopping to conclusions?

And speaking of hops, is it mere coincidence that as March huffs on, the hippity-hop of you know what egg-laying mammal—and I don't mean a duck-billed platypus—is going to get louder? I think not!

Finally, today is St. David's Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Wales, who died on March 1, 589. What connection to hares or bunnies?

Two words: Welsh rabbit.

Bon appetit!