Friday, April 30, 2010

A Day with Dotch

My sister, Dotch, a.k.a. Doris, has come east for a visit from California. Today was a beautiful Friday, temp. in the 70s ("Septuaginta!"), and April's farewell bow. So the day called for another last-day-of-the-month kite flight among other things.

Dotch is my favorite sister, also my only sister, still four years older, except for a brief period between October and November, when I whittle it down to three years. She taught me to ride a bike back on Nutmeg Lane, tried to teach me to dance and to understand girls, and in general has been my scout into the wilds of adulthood. The night our father died, when I was twelve and she was sixteen, she came into my room to sit with me and listen to my freaked-out babble. She still tolerates and at times even likes my babble. And after a rocky relationship with our mother in the seventies and eighties, she was Betty’s stalwart and devoted caretaker in the last decade of her life, managing her affairs and medical care through Alzheimer’s, hip surgery, day-t0-day tsuris, and finally her funeral and memorial service.

My sister is a writer and editor. I have mentioned in this blog her book, The Dogtown Chronicles, a memoir of her life with goats, sheep, llamas, and other animals in West Marin County, north of San Francisco. Here is her book's website. And here she is, reading an excerpt.

We took a morning walk around the pond and into the woods in Menotomy Rocks Park. The spanch! effect of wind smashing lightly on the water was not in evidence. But redwings owned the shore, flaring epaulettes and cheering their names from the cattails.

Then it was on to Robbins Farm to fly the kite. Readers may remember the “Sky Commander” post for March 31 describing my attempt to get a kite off the ground as a going-away salute to the month I connect with kites. Well, it turns out that April is officially Kite Month. So, another final salute opportunity.

As we approached the crest of the hill, we passed a mother and her kids who had been flying a red kite we had been admiring—way up there. But now they were kiteless. They had overcommitted their flier to distance, and it had sailed off on its own, taking the string with it.

Taking their place, we tested the air cautiously. The kite seemed eager, and after a few tries, up it went! One reason was that the kite now sported a cross-piece that was missing in March. (Who knew?) Also, the wind was incredibly chummy. The string couldn’t unreel off the ball fast enough, burning the unwary fingers. It dipped and swooped, yanking urgently at its string. I couldn’t manage to get a cellphone shot of the bird in the air, but we loved it. Not exactly a sky commander—we hadn’t let it go quite that far. But a sky rider, and a wind companion.

We also attracted a small group of three-year-olds, especially when the kite nosedived to the ground, which it did periodically. They wandered over like inquisitive lambs, saying nothing, just inspecting this big colorful thing in the grass. One boy took an experimental whack at it with his toy shovel.

After a final nosedive, we gathered it up and headed back to the car, bearing it like a triumphant aviator and its loyal ground crew.

More visits to favorite Arlington spots filled the day: Jam ‘n’ Java, my wi-fi café of choice, for lunch; a few minutes in the peerless Balich’s 5 & 10, the one indispensable emporium in town, overstuffed with everything from suspenders to pocket handkerchiefs to a childhood’s worth of toys, games, and Big Chief doodle pads; on to the Lakota Bakery for cookies of uncommon pedigree; then two obligatory games of Scrabble (apologies for NOSTRIL, ELONGATE, and PRIVATE, but not for HOAX) and a walk to Spy Pond under a grand sky of altocumulus clouds before supper. Ending, most happily, with dessert (aforementioned cookies) with pals Helen and Leo.

A veh veh good day, as our mom would have said. A veh good April, for that matter.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Fall of Spring

There are, I believe, seasons within seasons. Certainly there's a winter of spring on a raw day in March, just like there's a spring of winter in a February thaw. And in far-off June, the summer of spring will dovetail with the spring of summer. Very hard to tell apart. The difference between an exhale of one breath and an inhale of the next.

Today, however, was the rarest subseason, maybe the only day we'll see it: the fall of spring.

It's all in the intention, like a mockingbird imitating a blue jay.
In this case, the tool of choice was the wind. Big, tree-tossing gusts, a six on the Beaufort Scale ("Large branches in motion. Whistling heard in overhead wires. Umbrella use becomes difficult. Empty plastic garbage cans tip over.") Definitely that last one. And in a survival of the fittest, the air was alive with young green leaves snatched from their branches, denied their natural arc to the fall of fall, for Pete's sake.

Later in the afternoon, I took a walk in Menotomy Rocks Park, a sweet secluded woods and pond up the hill from Arlington Center. The wind had ebbed a bit, to five ("Small trees in leaf begin to sway."), but it was doing this wonderful thing to the surface of the pond—a flash, a flare, changing the color and texture in flat delicate smashes—bam! shazam!—like a Broadway dance number. I felt like applauding.

Finally, there was the crispness of the leaves against the sky, miming an October blue.
While I was having my tea and scone outside Jam 'n Java, a cardinal even appeared in the tree next to my table. A brilliant, where's-my-camera-when-I-need-it red. He essayed a few soft whistles. I knew exactly what he was saying:
"April Treat!"

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Matt's day

At this writing, on the 27th, it's my son's fifteenth birthday.

Being a parent makes you keenly aware of what a big deal lurks at the core of every birthday, namely the first one: the zero birthday, or age one, as it is deemed in many Asian countries. No mean feat, emerging into the outside world, being drowned in light and noise, especially your own noise, and air, and cold.

I like to remember that long night of Matt's emergence, by Cesarian, finally, at one in the morning. Hiding somewhere in my room upstairs is a notebook with an account of the long day before the long night, a narrative of ice chips, of soothing clarinet music (Richard Stoltzman), of watching swimming crests on an oscilloscope, and cheerful, bigger-than-life, nurses coming and going like characters in a play. Then there was that separate act of chemicals, and epidurals, and inducing labor. And the last thing before the first thing was sitting in an outer room scribbling a letter of introduction to my son (for we knew he was). I was nervous about our meeting, whether he'd like me. I told him I thought we'd be great friends, but I was trying to calm myself down. Events were speeding slowly, if such a thing is possible. Coaxing a baby out from an awkward position. We were tiptoeing through a small, intense, war.

The doctor snapped at me for being in the way, and maybe I was. I had to stay on the Carol's head-side of the curtain. It was like a sawing-the-lady-in-half trick, and maybe it felt like that to Carol, but then God help us there was a thin yowl, I think, that was the trumpet of deliverance. And the next first thing I remember is a baby. A baby. Clipping an umbilical cord— finally, a job for me—did that happen first next? Or was it second next after seeing this baby on a white scale, hearing the thin yowl in the too-bright light, and looking at the blood outlining his tiny (but big) fingernails. A baby. My baby! Was I ready for this? As ready as he was for us. Not ready, but all thrown into the breach...

And when they bundled him in a blanket and put him in a covered crib, where he slept, he looked so much smaller. I could talk to him now, trying out my own role of father.

Then there was waking up in Carol's room next morning, at dawn, having slept maybe three hours, but enough to get from night to morning. It was the morning of April 27th. Of course it was 1995, just as it had been all year. And out the window were these beautiful trees, foamy with white blossoms. The war was over. We had won. We were hollow and foamy with fatigue, but as peaceful and blissful as Olympian deities looking down at an orderly universe. Well, easier for me to do. For a moment.

Now he's gone fifteen laps around the sun since then, each time getting a little bigger. Or even a lot bigger. That's the way it's supposed to work. So I say, well-run, kid. I'm jogging with you. Happy birthday.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Just a Minute

April is getting away from me, as I knew she would. Forsythias are shedding their exclamatory yellow, leaving declarative green. Daffodils and pear blossoms are dropping off the caravan. Spring has become a conglomerate, a unison of information called Spring Inc. Incrementally it will grow bigger, warmer, fuller, and change its name to Summer. And I'm saying, just a minute, whoa. How am I going to spot a Blackburnian warbler in these leafy canopies?

I missed Patriot's Day when I was out in western Mass. It's a state holiday (also observed in Maine and Wisconsin), but I think it's mainly celebrated in Boston and vicinity, where history lives in battle sites and old houses and plaques announcing events 300 years old as if they are still part of the daily experience. Boston has the Marathon on that day. Lexington and Concord have reenactments of the shot heard 'round the world at the Old North Bridge and the fateful dawn skirmish at Lexington Green. Arlington has a parade and William Dawes at full gallop up Massachusetts Avenue and demonstrations of musketry and colonial crafts at the Jason Russell House. It's definitely Uncle Arthur's Day for tunes on fife and drums. A day to measure time in many different ways: historically, seasonally, with a calendar or a stopwatch. And even one week late.

My father-in-law, C. R. Schwab, Treasurer and unofficial poet-in-residence of the Arlington Seniors Association, wrote a poem that fills out the day even further. I present it here with his permission and my thanks.

A Few Details

We were recently having lunch
At the Center for Senior Citizens.
Come to think, it might have been
Shortly before Patriot's Day here in Boston.
Or maybe one or two days after.
Anyway, talk at the table got around
To the subject of the Lexington battle
And the celebrated volunteer farmers and artisans.
At some point Win Howard—he's a member
Of the town's historical society, and knows
A lot about the Colonial period—
Well, he was filling in a few of the newcomers
On some of the local lore. I might mention
We usually have about five regulars
Sitting round an octagonal table.
The others are often new to the town
And occasionally some are from out of state.
Anyway, Win happened to say,
"You probably never heard of a club
Called the Just-a-Minute Boys. It seems
That a small group of youngsters around here—
This was ten or so years before the battle—
They joined to commiserate with each other
About their folks' constant demands:
'Ezra, help your father take off his boots;'
'Samuel, help your mother set the table;'
'Elijah, go out and call your sister.'
Well, the usual answer was 'Just a minute!'
The boys' gripe was not about being asked,
But the fact that their parents were always saying,
'Just a minute yourself! If you don't get
Those words out of your head soon,
You'll never amount to anything.'
So they banded together secretly
In order to share their common grievance.
They built a hideaway clubhouse and
Adopted the password, 'Just a Minute.'
Well, it wasn't long before they were grown.
And now instead of parental commands,
They were subject to the royal governor's edicts
And the demands of the English tax collectors.
'Just a minute,' they said, 'this is too much!'"
Then, explained Howard, this cry was picked up
Around the countryside, and soon
Hundreds of Just-a-Minutemen joined the cause.
"Eventually their name was shortened to Minutemen.
England (the colonies' parent), of course
Warned that these unruly 'children'
Would never amount to anything, but...
You know the rest." To the skeptics Win said,
"Sometimes the books miss a few details,
But their general description is correct."

C. R. Schwab

Friday, April 23, 2010

New York, New York

It's two days after our trip to Manhattan. In lieu of blogging from a café full of New Yorkers, I'm sitting here with Carol at the RMV in the Watertown Mall while she
waits to get a new license.

But I won't let the City fade. Cue the music: New York, New York, a hell of a town; the Bronx is up and the Battery's down; the people ride in a hole in the ground...

For me, New York usually starts in the train station of some metro suburb. Waiting for the train in Pleasantville, it was the same banked excitement as when I was a kid in Stamford, looking at the show ads: what was playing on Broadway or at Lincoln Center or the Radio City Music Hall (the Dalai Lama?). Then the train arrives. New York bound!

The conductors are the first New Yorkers: brusque, all business, click of their punch saying what's what. New York spools the train in, through the green purlieus and burgherly towns, enough of those, on to graffitied walls, tunnels, warehouses, bigger, closer buildings, the seats of commerce, bricked, blighted, neighborhoods, and black: belowground. Finally, Grand Central.

The Grand Concourse, meetingplace to the world, under the green constellations. No more giant Kodachrome showing a more colorful-than-life vista of Americana. But the big four-way clocks still summon all who need information. And the echoing voices of travelers coming and going still say, This is a Big City, kid. Don't get lost.

* *

D line to Grand St. Our goal, 108 Orchard, the Tenement Museum, created to remember that crush of humanity that filled these streets south of Houston St. around the turn of the century and may have included my grandfather, Meyer Novick, a tailor from Belarus. We booked a walking tour and went to have lunch at Katz's Deli. Fifteen dollar brisket sandwich! On the other hand, the best brisket sandwich I ever had, and we all dined on it, more or less.

Headed back for our 1:45 tour, "Piecing it Together," about the garment industry in these buildings. We crowded, twenty of us, into the narrow dim hallway of 97 Orchard St., which we were told housed 7,000 families from 20 countries between 1863 and 1935. The furnishings were unaltered. Two dark, barely visible paintings in ornate frames on the walls. The only thing we were allowed to touch was the bannister. It was a reddish hardwood, nicked and scratched, gripped and rubbed smooth by hands of every age and probably in every way, casually, angrily, wearily, thoughtfully.... Not to make too much of a bannister.

The tour was a little tiring. The docent talked a bit too long. But compared to a typical house tour, being held back by a velvet rope from a reconstruction of some landed gentry's well-appointed room, this was a moving change. The peeling layers of ancient wallpaper. The sense of exhaustion and the noise from outside. The crib in the kitchen and the dress model by the window. It wasn't a museum experience. It was life interrupted.

We caught a cab to the lower west side: 10th Ave. and W. 22 St. Had tea at the iconic, deco Empire Diner, due to close on May 15. Walked across the street, passed a mysterious helmeted accordion player, and climbed a metal stairway to the High Line.

Between 1934 and 1980, an old elevated railway, the High Line, used to run here from lower Manhattan to 34th Street, delivering goods to and from west side food factories (like Nabisco). Then it outlived its era and was going to be demolished. But cooler heads prevailed. In 2002, the city agreed to a proposal to preserve and convert the old el to a greenway. Designs were submitted, one chosen, and the result is this amazing lush walkway with miniature grasslands, a birch forest, gardens, flowers, blooming trees, art installations and wooden lounge chairs full of basking, reading, iPodding and iPadding New Yorkers, all under the benign gaze of the Empire State Building and nearer Chelsea buildings.

It starts at Gansevoort Street and bends past 14th Street to around 23rd Street, where, for now, the greenway stops and the future stretches ahead as empty track to, eventually, 34th.

This is a very fine thing for New York City. We all have a trackwalker in us, and it would please a New Yorker like E.B. White to walk a park that isn't sequestered from the city but passes through it, is among it, looking west to the busy Hudson, north to the Empire State, a modest thoroughfare that befriends the buildings and is a kind of pleasure cruise for the passerby.

In sum, a nice pairing of perspectives, the Orchard Street tenements and the High Line greenway, looking back and ahead.

* *

Oh, yeah. Wednesday: The NBC tour...Top of the Rock (70th story Observation Deck of the Rockefeller Building)...and a stroll through Central Park to the Conservatory Water (model sailboat pond), where the scopes are still pointed at the eyrie of Pale Male and Lola, the red-tailed hawks who have been nesting on a ledge at 927 Fifth Avenue since 1995. See them here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

To Our Good Old Planet

Earth Day. Well, why not? It's an amazingly hospitable place, all things considered. If it takes one dedicated day for us to toast our good old sphere—typhoons and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions notwithstanding—well, seize the day. Or at least give it an approving pat.

I'm not as green as I used to think I was. I tend to walk past Masspirg volunteers with their clipboards and their manipulative pitch, "Hi. Do you have a moment for the environment" (What? No time for your mother planet? What kind of ungrateful son-of-a-bitch are you?) They're on the front lines of Earth activism, I know. I'm back in the bivouac, writing about my relationship with nature, or going birding, and not even telling myself anymore that some essay of mine is going to improve the lot of this beautiful old fortune-favored, life-supporting, orbiter of ours. Which is in trouble. I believe that.

Aside from this post, my Earth Day moment was the ten minutes I spent lying in a hammock in my backyard this afternoon, looking up at the sky, watching cumulus clouds form and reform as they moved overhead through earth's warm, carboniferous, beautiful, blue atmosphere. I should write a poem to the earth, I thought, with rhymes like birth, dearth, girth, firth, mirth, Perth, and worth. Or I should go down to Meadowbrook, the little wetland squeezed between a cemetery and Mystic Lake, with my tall rubber boots and a bunch of garbage bags. I thought about how "Earth Day" is sort of redundant, because what is a day but one sunrise-to-sunrise revolution of the earth, turning on its tilted invisible axis. And I tried to think of all those tiny events going on as the shadows raced around the globe: babies being born, puffs of smoke from death-dealing weapons, ships moving in oceans, animals in motion, spring in motion, fall in motion, weather in motion...

In the end, I half-fell out of the hammock and went inside to finish unpacking, then came back outside and shot hoops with Matt in the driveway.

Tomorrow is also Earth Day.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dispatch from Pleasantville

Goad It On

At this writing, I am sitting on a front stoop in Pleasantville, NY. We're at Carol's cousin's house and the sun has won the day. Matt is sitting next to me, playing blues riffs on his cousin Benji's electric guitar. Spring is in high-def down here. Driving down, the hills of Dutchess County were obedient with light green, a command taken up in amazing unanimity. On the lawns dandelions abound. White-throated sparrows are piping their clear Morse Codish old...sam...peabody peabody peabody, kind of a one-bird air purifier. You can see just how close April is to May down here. It's about a week further ahead in the plot than we are in Boston.

Yesterday we were in a northern tier—Northampton, Mass. and northwestern Connecticut—where spring is taking a more cautious foothold, behind us. We were at Smith College at a recital by Alicia DePaolo, whom I have known since she was four. She is 21 now, a lovely and supremely gifted soprano, singing a program of baroque songs by Handel, Purcell, and some lovesick Italian fellows. To say it was beautiful is to raise the describer's white flag: words not equal to task.

The program included "Three Supernatural Songs," a trio of short poems by William Butler Yeats set to music (the composer, a Smith professor, was in the audience). In the spirit of Poetry Month, I reprint one here:

A Needle's Eye

All the stream that's roaring by
Came out of a needle's eye;
Things unborn, things that are gone,
From needle's eye still goad it on.

I like the idea that the stream—life, nature, the current of being—is driven by the not-yet-alive and the once-alive.

I forgot my father's birthday this month, as I think I do most Aprils. I think it was the 18th, or maybe the 14th. A lapse. The dead don't speak loudly, and spring is a clamor. Still, an almanacker should do better than forget his dad's birthday.

However, if what Yeats says is true, and my dad is part of the force that's responsible for spring, then all that time I spent distracted by tree florets and goldfinches was actually time spent remembering him.


I said to Matthew, "This time I show no mercy."

We were driving from Northampton to Salisbury, Conn., a ninety-minute drive. I suggested a game of Ghost to pass the time. Carol declined. Matt was willing. After giving him my warning, I proceeded to lose the first game. And the third. And the fifth.

I began a new round with an M. He said Y. I thought of adding an R for myrrh, which he might not know. But if he did, it would land on me, so I opted for lobbing out an S, not sure where mystery or mysterious or mystic would land. In any case, he didn't cooperate. Seeming not to have a clue where I was going, he said E.

MYSE? What the hell? Was he throwing in the towel? "I challenge," I said, feeling a bit merciless, even though I had warned him.

"Myself," he said.

Arrrrrrrrrgh!! Totally blindsided! And, he pointed out with a grin, it would have landed on him. Unless, I thought, he turned it to "myselves....." Oh. Never mind. But what a good title Myselves would make for, say, a memoir of a multiple personality.

Anyway, it was clear that a Ghost's creed should be: "Avoid mystery. Always opt for myself."

On to New York.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


It's spring vacation. Carol, who's a high school teacher, and Matt, a high school freshman, have a week to go boing! I, who don't have that differentiation to my weeks, will nevertheless fit my shoes with springs and boing along with them.

So, for the next four or five days, there will be intermittent bounces from the Berkshires to Westchester to New York City. Not that this will make much difference to this medium that bounds the globe in seven-league boots. But who doesn't like the idea of sending dispatches from exotic wi-fi cafes in Manhattan or pirate cyberstations from dining room tables whose locations may not be revealed?

Meanwhile, the volcano blasts on, a kind of biblical event that seems to bid us pay attention. Surely Nebuchadnezzar, or whatshisname, Nicodemus, saw this one coming. What's the message? Slow down? Don't neglect the particulars? Show a little respect? People are beginning to ask, Who did we piss off?

Not me. I think it's pretty cool, nature acting out in a Mordor-ish, Sinbad-esque way. Mind you, I'm not stranded in one continent, trying to get home to another. Easy for me to take the side of Eyjafjallajökull. Easy for me to copy and paste Eyjafjallajökull, for that matter. Eyjafjallajökull. Eyjafjallajökull. Eyjafjallajökull. I'll stop. Eyjafjallajökull.

April report for 4/17: Spring is now established. The awww phase is just about over, which is awesome in itself. Not a tree that isn't shapely with green now, a startling condition, an endemic, if you will. Raw, cold, rain has sobered up the vanguard. Blossoms are drawing less attention to themselves. Birds are waiting to see who makes the first move.

And what's with the Red Sox?

See ya!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On the Inconvenience of Volcanoes

I don't remember which one came first:

Uncle Arthur's Day for Tunes
Unclear Thursday Fortunes

I do remember a pleased feeling after I wrote them down on a small pad. And saw that they were good. And now their time has come to be revealed and shared. Because they might even mean something.

In wordplay, it's called a charade. You shake the letters one way, you get one thing—a title with expectations: Uncle Arthur's Day for Tunes. You get harmony, order, music, and Uncle Arthur, obviously a tuneful guy. You shake them the other way, you get... a troubled Magic 8-Ball reading: UNCLEAR THURSDAY FORTUNES. You get doubt, uncertainty, chaos.

Both are about time, of course. One is time with an agenda, the other without any at all. But maybe they could come to the same thing. Kind of like this Thursday. Uncle Arthur wakes up, packs his suitcase, takes a cab to the airport, expecting to board a plane for the U.S. Then word spreads about this volcano in Iceland that's sending a heavy pall of ash across northern Europe, grounding thousands of flights. Uncle Arthur is gobsmacked. Nothing to do but lean back in his black vinyl chair, put on his iPod, and listen to Ella, Nat, Frank, Billie, Tony, and Sarah.

It's like April. One day it's whatever—raw, windy, snow in the forecast. The next day, Uncle Art's out birding, listening to melospiza melodia and cardinalis cardinalis and the rest of the tunesmiths.

Had a great lunch at Colleen's the other day. My favorite restaurant in Medford. I wanted beef stew. They had beef stew. It was perfect, served of course on the cheerful Fiestaware, with a different colored bowl and plate. Behind the counter hung one of those old clocks with white numerals and a black face and red neon: Colleen's Diner. I wasn't going to, but did order the blueberry crisp a la mode—with coffee ice cream.

Meanwhile, I eavesdropped on a mother and her son, about seven, wearing a tie. "Did you know," he told her, "that you can't freeze Gummi Bears?"

I considered this a piece of information that would prove important in a later chapter.

Then a guy walks past my table, pauses, and asks me how old I am. Instant stranger guard goes up. "Why?" I say.
"You have a full head of hair," he says.
Oh. That's different. "61," I say.
He takes off his hat. He's balding. "46," he says.
"Well, we all have our crosses to bear," I say, wondering if I should tell him about my lousy teeth to even things out. But I pause too long. He has moved on, possibly taking my remark as a snide retort.
I decide not to pursue it. Full head of hair? Lousy teeth? Not a fruitful topic for conversation.

But you see what I mean? One minute it's tunes, the next minute, loony tunes. On Wednesday it's clear and sunny. On Thursday, kaboom. Iceland goes all Pompeii. Whaddyagonnado.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Poetry Slam

April is Poetry Month and except for old Chaucer, I haven't brought in any poets. That changes today! Time for an April poetry smackdown.

In this corner, the opening lines of Robert Browning's "Home Thoughts, from Abroad":

Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard-bough
In England—now!

And in the other corner, the opening of "The Waste Land," by T. S. Eliot:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Now we'll hear both poems read aloud, first the Browning,
n the Eliot.

Judge 1 (Simon Scowl): Was Browning working for the British
Tourist Bureau?
In England—now! Please. It even makes the
same leaps in logic that an advert does.
Whoever wakes in England
sees the same brushwood sheaf, whatever that is, round the elm-tree
bole, and the same chaffinch? An east-end cockney in London wakes
up and sees it? I don't think so. And he repeats "bough."

Judge 2 (Ellen the Generous): Well, I think it's sweet. It's about April.
It's got that yearning, that urgency, that helter-skelter, everybody and
anybody feeling that April has. It
is an ad, spring is an ad, and I say
what's wrong with that? You take it too literally, you miss the point!
My goodness. As for T. S. Eliot, it sounds like April is wasted on you,
Mr. Gloomy Gus! Go back to bed and try waking up on the right side
next time. My goodness.

Scowl: You don't get it at all, do you? It's about the cruelty of
regeneration after a long winter of war, denial, death, privation, and
dried tubers. It's effing brilliant. Does the word
irony mean anything
to you?

Ellen: (Crosses her eyes and sticks out her tongue.)

We have a tie. Time for a limerick whose merit, or lack thereof,
both judges can agree on:

April is cruel then kind.
She frequently changes her Mind.
This aptness to vary
From sweet to contrary
Makes MUD very easy to find.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Walking around Spring

Started this on Sunday. Now it's Monday night, and I don't want to be finishing on Tuesday. So let this be a half-baked walkabout of random thoughts about spring.

Starting with "Take a puff. It's springtime."

People of a certain age will recognize that as the tagline of a long-running ad campaign for Salem cigarettes, a menthol brand. Here's a typical Salem commercial from the fifties. A dewy blonde reclines among the daffodils and blows a cloud of cigarette smoke into the fresh spring air while a swan paddles in the pond behind her. (Note endearing wobble as she rises.) A cigarette: the essence of springtime. "Filtered with fresh air!" yet. And we bought it.

I used to say, only half-jokingly, that no higher praise could I shower on a spring day, like Sunday, than to call it a Salem commercial. The sky was Salem-ad blue. The blossoming trees were Salem-ad white. It's kind of what the mythmakers did: exalted nature by making it the domain of the gods. In this case, the gods were promoting a brand of cigarettes. There was a menthol to their madness.

This made me wonder how deep we go with spring normally. Not being hooters and rutters and grass-rollers, but at best, smilers and sighers and oh-wowers. We kind of create our own Salem commercials of spring, to promote the season itself. "Take a sniff. It's Springtime!" Which makes sense. It's a short season with too many things changing and growing and arriving in too brief a time span to count. We kind of have to stand back and round it off to a green haze in the trees and register the new birds with a "Spring has sprung/the flowers has riz/I wonder where/the boidies is." Unless we take it upon ourselves to do a little census-taking.

A little goes a long way. Fifteen minutes at Alewife today. The nominal quarry: a palm warbler. The results: a low yield, but cherce. The sun and gravid clouds playing a game of optimism/pessimism. Some kind of melodrama being enacted by two pairs of very vocal Canada geese. A few random goldfinches and song sparrows adding their two cents and holding down the cognoscenti of the universe job, on par with whatever cosmic truths the sky was telling. That was it. And you could probably do nearly as well at an open window.

The shortest season, by far. Summer is macro, a blanket. Fall is short, but longer than spring. Winter's another blanket. Spring unpacks its bags in a rush and like the song says, April, love, can slip right through your fingers. So let it go but watch it go. Time to go.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The April Shower Variations

April showers today. Not a March flood-maker. This is the good rain, the rain people sing about. Al Jolson introduced the song on Broadway in 1921 (a pre-Depression cheer-up song!), and since then everyone from Judy Garland to Spike Jones and his City Slickers has taken a whack at it:

Though April showers may come your way,
They bring the flowers that bloom in May.
So if it's raining, have no regrets
Because it isn't raining rain, you know (it's raining violets).

I wouldn't go that far. If anything, it's raining opportunity for violets. Or you could plausibly say that it's "raining green florets." Anyway, I get it. There's a ton of rain in April, so make the best of it. But at the same time, it's not that hard to do. April is the remorse-proof background for rain. You walk under an umbrella past a kind of fashion show. Trees and bushes that make their own spring light. Green leaf light. White blossom light. Yellow forsythia light. And in the foreground we have Rain, the enabler, enhancer (wet leaf light), and brooding impresario, who plays himself in the opera Aprile Acquazzoni, "The April Downpours." Who can forget that brimming duet between the Tree and Rain:

—I rain upon you without surcease!
—Yet mar my greenness you cannot.
—Ho! All your florets you will lose!
—For this eventuality I am prepared.
—Bah! Your foliage concerns me not. It's for your roots I fall!
—(Aria) You fall for my roots!/For your roots I fall.

Pretty terrible opera, actually. It makes the song sound good. You could even do better singing Chaucer's Prologue to the tune of "April Showers":

Oh, whan that A-prille
With his shoures soote
The drought of March hath,
Hath percéd to the roote

And bathéd ev'ry...
Vein in swiche licour
Of which vertu, I said...of which vertu...en-gen-dréd is the flour...

Well, anyway, what more is there to say? That it's amazing in the first place that water should fall out of the sky, millions and millions of drops...
Dummy: You counted them all?
Ventriloquist: No, of course not.
D: So how do you know how many drops there are?
V: Don't be a smart guy.
D: Why? The position's open. (Laughter)
V: Never mind. I hope you learned something today. Like why "April Showers"—
D: Because if she didn't, she'd be doity! (Laughter)
V: —why "April Showers" is so popular.
D: Well, I dunno. Is she cute? Just kidding. It's because April showers bring May flowers.
V: Very good.
D: And Mayflowers bring Pilgrims. And Pilgrims bring funny-looking hats with buckles.
V: Thank you.
D: And hats with buckles bring snickers from Indians. Snickers bring pimples. Pimples bring grief.
V: That's enough.
D: Grief brings eulogies. Eulogies bring Al Jolson. And Jolson brings "April Showers"!
V: Are you finished?
D: Not up to me, pal.
V: We're both finished. (Takes a bow. Applause. "April Showers" theme up and out.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010


New fine shadows on the road. What from? The arching yellow-green foliage overhead. Kind of a mesh, a reticulation of areolae, if I may. May I? (I'll just tiptoe away from it and keep on going when someone yells, Hey! Who left this reticulation of areolae lying here?)

It's time to take a broader view. I feel like I've been squinting at April, peering at turtles and phoebes, quarreling over florets, flirting a little with willowy sirens. And maybe missing the bigger picture. Spring.

True, the young season took a bodacious leap yesterday, submitting to the heat of the moment and popping out all over in leaflets and blossoms. But today cooler heads prevailed. Back to the sensible fifties. Did the trees feel hung over after their binge? Did today's chill make the emboldened leaves shrink a little from embarrassment? Nah. They probably know what they're doing.

An early walk through the Brooks Estate yielded no wood thrushes, nor even an uncanny brown thrasher vociferating from a treetop. Just a dawn chorus of the usual April crew: peter-petering but never petering tufted titmice, blue jays sounding limpid one minute, strident the next, robins ringing out their moist cheeriups, a furtive chorrr from a red-bellied woodpecker somewhere, a tinny whinny from a downy, and a flicker proclaiming and proclaiming in a ringing din from some bosky podium...

How must it be for this hemisphere when the orbit reaches this zone? Did we humans ever feel that same pull, if that's what it is? Do we still, some of us? I don't just mean reacting to the warmth, the light, the delightful growth and melodye. I mean being sprung ourselves. Getting horny. Rolling around our hairy neanderthal butts in the new grass. Grunting and cawing and imitating rutting elk. Shinning up a tree to gather bunches of florets for some ugh-fest.

We kind of still do it, but tamer. Easter...estrus...Queen of the May around the maypole...give us a kiss—

I'm getting ahead of myself. April? May I have this gavotte?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Tendre Croppes

Meanwhile the heat draws the little buds out like a mystical piper's tune. Commands the maple buds to push into little florets, those delicate pea-green tree flowers that will eventually rain down from the tree in a pea-green puddle. Commands fruit trees to burst into white or pink clouds like prom queens. Beckons leaves to push out into the welcoming wake. Hastens the normal sedate timing for such opening, turns April into May June July like a giddy time-lapse movie, turns nature into Disney, IMax into Yakety Sax.

What happened to Chaucer's Aprille with his shoures soote?

Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth,
Inspiréd hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours y-ronne...

In other words, when the sweet west wind has literally breathed into and figuratively inspired, in every town and countryside, the tender buds, and when the young sun is halfway between Aries (the Ram) and Taurus, in other words right around now...when that happens, it's time to start worrying about the tendre croppes. They're growing up too fast!

And what about the smale fowles that maken melodye? Just this morning in the Fells Reservation, a birder not given to wild claims reported a blue-headed vireo, a Northern parula (lovely little warbler) and two wood thrushes! Back about a month early. Will they find sustenance in like-minded early-on-the-scene insects?

Stay tuned for the next exciting adventure of April in the 21st Century!

Sunday, April 4, 2010


While lying back on the hood of my car in the warm, pine-filtered sunshine of the parking lot at Habitat, the local Audubon sanctuary, waiting for friends Anne and Peggy to arrive, I thought about new lyrics to Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues":

When you're lost in the sun in Belmont and it's Eastertime too...

That's as far as I got, and a good thing, too, because you don't really want to rewrite an ironic blues about negativity into a feel-good paean to temperatures in the high seventies (septuaginta!) on April fourth, and the day of the Red Sox home opener too....

It was a weekend when there was no wrong place to be and nothing you could do that wasn't emblematic of how to spend the time best, as long as you were outside: take a walk and you were the fortunate walker, ride a bike and you became the opportune biker, shoot baskets in the driveway, sit on a bench at Spy Pond with a book, write banalities on your laptop, and you were to be admired as one who knows how to live, baby.

Recounting it is not so easy. As I said last time, the seductions of spring don't lend themselves to dutiful reportage. They're about melting into the moment and all that jazz. And if you do try to reconstruct the events after the fact, it's like sharing snapshots. Easier when you have cold, rain, and misery for contrast.

Or is this balking just another symptom of spring fever?

Well, if I were going to save a few images, I'd definitely include the six basking painted turtles on a log in the rain-swollen pond at Habitat, probably at that exact moment when three mallard drakes swam by behind them all in a row, green heads iridescent and military-looking.

And I would have to record the phoebe, my first of the season, high in a red-budding tree, preening its feathers.

And I promised Carol I'd say something about the heron. This was on Friday, a degree or two cooler (sexuaginta!). We were ambling through Mt. Auburn Cemetery, which will become a common venue in this space as the birding heats up. But for now, enough to say that the scylla lay under the beech and we were walking along lower Auburn Lake, which is very small for a lake, smaller than Willow Pond, where the daffodils laugh and the willows weep.

"Oh, look," says I and Carol takes a sharp breath. It's a great blue heron, her favorite bird. And very close, maybe twenty-five feet away, wading along the shore. Combined with the view through the binoculars, it was close enough to see the texture of the blue-grey feathers in spiral layers down its neck, and the elegant black ribbon off its fine head, and its pitiless, calculating, fisherman's eye.

It was a field study or rude voyeurism, depending on your point of view. We watched it shake its open bill a few times, and it brought home that animals are essentially mobile weapons, among other things. Unlike us, herons do not carry the spear; they are the spear. Or it's more complicated than that. They are the bird-spear, or spearish bird.

In any case, we saw how as it extended itself in exquisite tai chi, infinitesimally fluid, and suddenly shot forward, one movement, and came up with a large golden fish. Which it maneuvered neatly lengthwise and swallowed whole. This is called eating. Herons do it regularly, if they are to be herons. Yet seeing it happen seems so rare and wonderful and aw-poor-fish, and stop-the-presses, that it's no wonder we tend to see nature as "Nature," if we see it at all. But if we see it enough, then we become nature, which is really rare.

Playing out its haiku, the heron unpacked its magnificent wings and flew across the little lake to a spruce on the opposite shore. Heron in the tree. We watched it walk around on its mezzanine perch, probably feeling as pleased with itself as herons do, when interpreted by children's book writers. And then we ourselves moved on, all agog, as if we had swallowed a big fish.

Friday, April 2, 2010

April love

It's going to be a challenge, getting through April. I've kept journals before paced to the unfolding of the seasons, and they always seem to founder in April. It's a siren song thing. My Lorelei is a blonde at a picnic blanket in a meadow. She's singing, seductively, the Pat Boone swooner: "A-pril love is for the very young. Ev'ry star's a wishing star that shines for you..."

And next thing I know, I've gone all goofy on daffodils and cherry blossoms and little beckoning buds. And birds. Phoebes and swallows are next, and if this warm spell goes on, what's to stop the brown thrashers and catbirds and towhees from pulling me out of bed and squandering my days? Just yesterday, I was transfixed by a flicker. That amazing Scaramouche regalia: black moustache, red nape, black shield, bars, and speckles on a field of brown. And right now it's a chickadee, hopefully singing its hinged "Hi-Hope!" note and now there's an answering one, pitched slightly lower. They're duetting, call and response. You know where this is going to lead.

"Sometimes an April day will suddenly bring showers..." (Oh, good, a dampening note. Maybe I can get some work done.) "...rain to grow the flowers for her first bouquet!" (Noooo!)

And suppose I get through April. How am I going to keep up with May? You know what's coming in May. Warblers and grosbeaks and wrens! (Oh my!) Orioles, veeries, and vireos! (Whoa!) Tanagers, bobolinks, wood thrushes! (Yikes!)

Relax. Take it bird by bird, as Annie Lamott says. One tulip at a time. You've got to April before you can May. So how do you April? Same way you Marched. This is National Pecan Month. It's also National Poetry Month, National Card and Letter Writing Month, Straw Hat Month, Autism Awareness Month, and Jazz Appreciation Month. It may even be Have a Picnic with Your Siren Month. Because "April love can slip right through your fingers, so if she's the one, don't let her run away..."

Nah, I'll probably let her. But I'll bring the pecans.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Lirpa Loof

To fool or not to fool?
This is some question.
Whether it's nobler to eschew
before swallowing,
or to foment indigestion
by placing plastic vomit on the table
just to enable a goofy tradition;
or worse,
to spend two hours on a fool's expedition
in verse?

Better to be probed by aliens in a flying saucer
or intone the prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer:

"Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The drought of March (that's a good one) hath percéd to the roote..."

But April
Come she will
Whether in folly
Or in a trolley.

So meet her jocosely,
Or comatosely.
Whatever you do,
the joke,s on you!

Lirpa loof, Lirpa loof,
Wear an evolg on your toof;
Sprinkle oopmahs in their doof.
When they gag, say "LIRPA LOOF!"

Just kidding.