Monday, May 31, 2010

Rear Window

Lying in bed, awake but not up, listening to the sounds of the early morning from the open window behind my head. There is a softness to the acoustics of this early hour that makes the sounds filtered and precise and storylike. I remember it from when I was a kid. Lying in bed on a Saturday morning at 82 Nutmeg Lane, listening to the shouts of my friends in the street outside, like characters in a play, until I had to get up and enter the scene myself.

This time the characters were the little girls in the house behind ours, especially one who speaks in ringing proclamations. The words just a wee bit too distant to make out in the breeze, except for "Mama, I wanna go outside!" Commentary supplied by fussing robins and a gang of blue jays. All of which, with the faint rumble of the world's traffic in the background, makes a neat deep window of the day, corresponding to the one marked 31 on the calendar.

That window is also Memorial Day, a paradoxical holiday with solemn rationale, but in practice festive, the gateway to summer, observed with backyard cookouts and other summer fare—"the stuff of dying wishes," as summed up in the last panel of "Arlo and Janis" in today's Globe.

Larry's Big Day

What scene would the window play out for the red-tailed hawks? Festivity, solemnity, or some combination?

On a mid-morning visit, we noticed fewer of the faithful than usual in front of 185. Turning onto the access road that wound behind the building, we saw why. A bigger crowd was gathered there, facing a telephone wire where a young redtail was perched. It was Larry, the middle fledgling. He had flown!

Yesterday, around noon, Lucy, the first to hatch, had drawn cheers from the humans and gawks from her siblings when she took a wing-aided jump a few feet up to the top of the window post, captured in Ernie Sarro's blog. A flight? Not quite. "Branching," it's called, when they do it in trees.

Then, this morning, shortly after 6 AM, Larry seized his moment. I got it secondhand (it made the evening news): He had unfolded his wings, lifted off the ledge and flown—flown—to the Circle Furniture roof next door, from there to the Dunkin' Donuts roof; from there to a few more hopscotch squares until reaching this iffy perch. Apparently mom and dad had flown by once to persuade a mob of blue jays not to mess with their son. He had remained on the wire for more than an hour.

As we were about to leave, Larry had enough of teetering on his talons. He took off! Flapped those wings like he knew what to do. Showed up again shortly afterwards on top of an air conditioning duct on another building. At one point mom and dad both appeared, circling high overhead as if in parental celebration. One down, two to go!

We paid another visit, my father-in-law and I, around 5:00 in the afternoon. Lucy and Lucky were still in the nest. And where was Larry? I put the question to photographer Andy Provost, stalwart vigil-keeper with the white moustache and courtly manner. He was on a cell phone. "Larry flew into a window and landed on the road," he answered briefly. "He's hurt." And, he added, being waited on by a lot of well-meaning people who would do better to leave him alone.

I hesitantly joined those people, expecting to see Larry still down, maimed. But perhaps he had only been dazed, for he was now up on another overhead wire. Poor Larry! The facts were confused, but apparently, not yet schooled in the deceit of glass, he had flown into more than one window and had at one point alit in the middle of the Parkway. Two birders stopped traffic in both directions, then one shooed Larry to one side of the street with a blanket, having been advised by a policeman (yet another bird expert) not to pick it up lest the stink of humans drive away its own mom and dad. And now here he was, wondering perhaps why he'd ever left the nest.

Then the grown-up arrived. A wildlife control officer from Mass. Audubon had been summoned. After hearing the facts of the case, and observing Larry on the wire, she noted that all this interest in the hawks was "fascinating," but Larry seemed fine, not down, not limping, and our presence was stressing the bird, stressing its parents (at one point, mom had landed on the opposite roof, then flown off), and we should all leave. Defensively, some pointed out that we had already taken some risk in trying to save Larry's life. She understood that and reiterated her viewpoint. It was not without merit. And her authority was impressive. Reluctantly, the crowd drifted back to the nest side of the building, wondering perhaps if this, too, was now against the rules.


The day ended under what appeared to be a smoky pall from millions of backyard barbecues. It turned out to be the smoke from 46 forest fires burning in Quebec. More solemnity confused with festivity. From Mayday to m'aidez. Though rain was expected. And beautiful, birdiful, verdant, oily, complicated May vanished in smoke and thunder.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Vigil

The vigil has been going on for a couple of weeks now. On both sides of Alewife Brook Parkway the congregation has grown, people camping out in folding chairs, people with spotting scopes, binoculars, and massive, multi-lensed cameras on tripods, all tilted at the same upward angle, trained on the window ledge above and to the left of the big red 185 on the up to now hardly-noticed office building across from the Fresh Pond Shopping Center.

But this spring, 185 Alewife Brook Parkway has been the home address of a much-noticed family of red-tailed hawks. And for the past week, that attention has built tenfold as birders and photographers (see above, by the peerless George McLean) and the irresistibly curious gather daily to witness the moment when the robust older chicks, named Larry and Lucy, and maybe even the youngest, Lucky, will “fledge,” or FLY.

That moment, certainly for the oldest two, is considered (by human experts) to be several days overdue. The first chick, Lucy, hatched in mid-April. The other two emerged at five-day intervals. Redtail chicks normally leave the nest after six weeks, give or take a few days. 46 days is the outside number bruited about. Today—May 30—is, I believe, day 49.

I’d been hearing about them for weeks from friends, fellow birders—there was even an article in the Boston Globe—but I had promises to keep and warblers to chase. Only this past week have I joined the fold, the day after the heat wave broke.

I saw the parents come and go, demonstrating the goal with agility and finesse. I saw Dad, also known as Buzz, settle on the big Fresh Pond Cinema marquee in the shopping center, just above “How to Train Your Dragon,” and proceed to shake a dead mouse by the tail to free it of blades of grass (none of this vegetarian crap) before ferrying it across the parkway and dropping it in the nest. I saw Mom, a.k.a. Ruby, deliver some luckless fledgling, a starling or a robin, only to have the trio ignore it, perhaps because it was unplucked.

Mostly, along with everyone else, I watched the fledglings. I watched on the shopping center side while standing in the hot sun; on the 185 side while lying down in the shade, sniffed by an inquisitive Shih-tzu. I watched the chicks eat; poop (the wall behind the nest marked with mysterious white runes); perch on the nest edge three abreast; beat their magnificent four- to five-foot wingspans in each other’s faces; nestle next to each other; step on each other; and at times, thrillingly, take practice jumps into the air, causing corresponding leaps in the observer’s stomach.

But not fly.

You can’t help but wonder if this burgeoning community of vigilantes is, ironically, cramping their style. Hard enough to take the ultimate leap off the high diving platform without a crowd of your once and still distrusted enemy gathered below with hardware not unlike cannon barrels aimed at you.

But after all this time, they probably know that the vibes are good. In fact, maybe we’ve made their comfort zone too big. Given them too compelling a reason not to flee, lest they deprive us, this obviously friendly gang, of their company, or at least to keep an eye on what we’ll do next, to chronicle our comings and goings, sometimes hatching out of our strange metallic eggs, but not, disappointingly, taking wing.

Instead, we’re apparently nesting, too, taking up residence opposite theirs. Becoming instant cognoscenti for the benefit of passersby.

“What kind of bird is that?”
“Is that an eagle?”
“What’s everyone looking at?”

And we (professional or neophyte) reply with pride or with weariness, depending on how many times we’ve answered, but with a deepening sense of propriety: “Those are red-tailed hawks. Babies. 49 days old. They’re going to fly. Any minute!”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Numerous Days in May

Minus birding, minus just going outside (too hot), minus a post of palindromes (too hot to hoot), what’s left?

How about an incomplete list of the holidays I missed noting this month: Martin Z. Mollusk Day in Ocean City, NJ (1); Lumpy Rug Day (3); Respect for Chickens Day (4); Totally Chipotle Day (5); No Pants Day (7); No Socks Day (8); Limerick Day (12); Root Canal Appreciation Day (13); Mike the Headless Chicken Day (14-15); May Ray Day (19); Eliza Doolittle Day (left) (20); and Towel Day (25), in honor of author Douglas Adams.

To make up for my oversight, I will choose three days to belatedly observe. I had a chicken salad sandwich (or a “chick sal sand,” as the waitress in “Five Easy Pieces” called it) for lunch, so that either embodies or rules out Respect for Chickens Day. Call it a wash.

I haven’t been wearing socks all day, so put me down for No Socks Day.

And I can’t very well pass up Limerick Day. Here are three lime rickeys:

Forcing a rhyme in a limerick
Can be cute, but it’s mainly a gimmerick.
One should practice restraint
Or it might leave a taint,
Like a dish overseasoned with turmeric.

* *

A citrus fruit high on a shelf
Rhymed with no one except for himself.
He was one lonely orange.
Then he thought, “Orange-schmorange!”
And went on a date with an apple.

* *

The writer would like to suggest
that you stop now and then for a rest.
Too much
aabba can cause a
Slight feeling of nausea.
So pause: a nice walk might be best.


As for Towel Day, I did use one today, and I also reread a few chapters from Norman Corwin’s Dog in the Sky, which Douglas Adams surely would have appreciated as a forerunner to A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Since I don’t have any Adams lying around, here are some excerpts from a favorite section of Dog in the Sky. It’s Runyon’s encounter with a cosmetics salesman on the Dipper Clipper, en route to the Division of Time:

“Between the cosmic and the cosmetic there is a thing,” he said, pleased with what he thought was an epigram….

He then started a procession of perfume sensations going under Runyon’s nose. “This,” he said, “is OPENING MOVE and this one is called MANTRAP. We expect both of them to sell well throughout Camelopardalis, because they are made from the bile of camels and leopards. Local pride, you know.”…

When he had exhausted his perfumes, he told Runyon about the invincible line of lipsticks which he carried, and he recited the names as he would a catechism: “Rising Moon, Wet Maroon, Ruby Ink, Parlor Pink, Country Maid, Scarlet Shade, Cupid’s Bow, Virgin’s Glow, Slightly Kissed, Amethyst, Bloodshed, Seeing Red, Rose Petal, and Hot Metal.”

Runyon looked out the window at the bright blue galaxies burning beyond the black Coal Sack of Magellan, and he found that by concentrating on the great lights yonder, he could make the voice of the salesman seem farther and farther away.

* *

In case I forget, tomorrow is Cellophane Tape Day, Friday is Slugs Return from Capistrano Day, and Sunday is Hug Your Cat Day. Among other abundant excuses for celebration.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The land of Mayjune

Mayjune. That would be a nice name, and it is for at least one person who surfaced when I Googled it. You’d have to live up to a name like that. Be willing to be evocative. (There must be people, real or fictional, named for each month, day, and season. May Pang, June Allyson, Tuesday Weld, January Jones, Thursday Next, and Spring Byington, for starters. November Brown would make a good name for a torch singer.)

Mayjune is where we are now, the green still fresh, trees still fluffy, the tale of the year still developing, but also that mysterious zone where spring takes on summer. (That's a summer tanager, by the way, in transition.) Mysterious because the signs are both subtle and sudden. A path that’s unexpectedly overgrown. Crickets chirping in the meadow, like a thought you didn’t know you were thinking. The woods suddenly hollowed of migrants and their frenetic energy, settling into a thoughtful realm again. Bubbles of heat that chase the corduroys from the bureau and the shorts and short-sleeved shirts down from the attic where they’ve been hibernating. Dictatorial thunderstorms.

If May is a combiner, she is also a qualifier. I like what she does to nouns you didn’t always realize were verbs. April May June. Or she just as easily may February. March April May. (But always to a different drummer.) May June July: a toast to heat and summer vacation.

In sum, here’s a little poem in honor of today reaching the high eighties:


Summer takes some of the spring.
Summer takes some of the fall.
Summer takes some of whatever it can
‘Cause summer just loves to sprawl.

Friday, May 21, 2010

End Notes

One little refuge: the patch of woods at the southern end of Lower Mystic Lake. The same place I wrote about in early spring ("Among March") has become a reliable hangout for warblers lately. Mostly heard, not seen. But some grin-worthy exceptions. The black-throated blue warbler flaring its wing. A black-throated green, briefly. A Tennessee, as plain as they come, stuttering its loud staccato high in a treetop. And yes, finally: a Canada!—glimpsed for three seconds from behind, so I was denied the reward of the black necklace. But after stalking it up one path and down another and finally venturing into the understory as close as I dared to the bush where I'd heard its percussive twittery burst, I was glad to see any part of it.

Now the parade of northbound migrants has pretty much moved on, from palm warbler to blackpoll. Meaning the month of rolling opportunity is mostly over—getting up at 6 am in the hope of nailing a Blackburnian or an indigo bunting—and so are all those little detonations of hard-earned or dumb-luck reward: Hearing that Sweet-sweet, chew-chew... (indigo song!)... spotting movement in a tree, around ten o'clock, between two bare branches...and seeing it! bright turquoise blue, in full sun... Thank you.

(It's not completely over. Just today, in Belmont's Rock Meadow, I saw my first brown thrashers, posted up in two treetops, delivering their paired imitations like crazily disciplined catbirds.)

But what is also mostly over is seeing birds as celebrities, or as names and numbers on a checklist, which gets wearying after a while.

I know there are plenty worse agenda for a day than tallying flycatchers, and I know keeping track of numbers is important to bird conservation. But it will be a relief not to tally or stalk at all. To appreciate the homies again: the downies, the nuthatches, the tufted titmice, the mourning doves. And to listen to birds not to find them but to hear what they're saying, and watch them not to record them but to see what they're doing.

At least for a while.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Riding on the roof

I have no idea what that means, but I like the sound of it. Well, maybe one idea. I get a little bird-driven in May, as you may have gathered from recent posts. And I may not be done. Still haven't seen my indigo bunting or bobolink. Probably too late for a Blackburnian. And as for the Canada, it's your move, dude. The point is, sometimes you've got to set your own agenda, especially in an almanac, which tends toward time-sensitive events. It doesn't have to. I mean, sure, I had a great two or three minutes this morning following a black-throated blue warbler up the rungs of a bush, grinning when it flared its wing briefly and the sun louvered through it. Happiness. Of the deep-sigh variety. But you can also take a break from the things you have to write about. You can just go riding on the roof.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


It's the first song I listen for in the woods of May: the mystical filigree of the wood thrush.

Do other birds listen and think, “I wish I could sing like that”? Doubtful. For one, it would not serve any purpose if a red-eyed vireo, say, sang like a wood thrush. For another, birds only get jealous in folk tales. Nor do they trade, or harbor, compliments.

But we like to hear the wood thrush, and we’re animals. Cousins to birds on the DNA Tree. So who knows. Maybe there’s an aesthetic sense among birds, too. Not so much the art as the mechanics. Along the lines of, “That’s a well put-together song.” Or “That song’s all it can be.” Or, among rival wood thrushes, a simple recognition: “That bird's song is sylvan (i.e., resonant, euphonic, effective in the woods)."

A description of a wood thrush’s song works better if the reader’s heard the real thing. Then the words trigger the memory. And you can take the short intro: tut-tut-tut… the liquid, fluty…and the tingly little trill at the end—and set it in a cool green forest, and give it a mysterious, echoey, arabesque quality. And maybe even picture the singer (rusty and chocolate brown head to tail, black dapples on white breast) opening its bill and these complex, dreamy lyrics sailing out.

Other birds are sylvan. Many of them are thrushes. The veery has a delicate silvery swirling song, echoing downward like rainwater in an elf’s washbasin. The Swainson’s thrush goes in the other direction, swirling up. The hermit thrush looses a long ethereal note at different pitches and after each one shimmers brief cadenzas.

Adding to the ambience of the May woods is an Eastern wood-pewee, with its plaintive peee-oo-wee? pee-ooo. Also a red-eyed vireo, seldom seen, incessantly interviewing itself in short…widely…spaced…one-word…or…two-word…phrases…until…you get…tired of…scanning…the leaves...up there. And of course there’s the ovenbird, ringing out in rising volume from the forest floor, somewhere, everywhere: cher-tea, cher-tea, CHER-TEA, CHER-TEA, CHER-TEA!

But without a thrush, especially a wood thrush, the woods lacks a certain aural beauty it might have had. Sylvan.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tanager, Scarlet

It's not really a showboat like the others. Not an extrovert like the oriole or a "glorified robin" like the grosbeak. Its song has been famously compared to a robin with a sore throat. A raspy, tuneless singsong that is nature's way of distributing gifts fairly so that you don't get the looks and the voice.

But however un-mellifluous it may be, that sound, carried over an acre or two of treetops, works like a siren song. Distant raspy lilt!: drop what you're doing and proceed with all due speed to the source because if you're lucky, oh what a reward.

When I was a kid, that bird represented one of my earliest incursions into my father's den of expertise. We had a woods behind our house on Nutmeg Lane, and one day I saw, high in the canopy, what I knew to be, from my Alan Cruikshank bird book, a scarlet tanager. I only saw it briefly. It looked totally exotic and out of place. What was it doing in a Connecticut woods? Belonging here, apparently.

My dad doubted my identification. Here, in our backyard? I must have been mistaken. A cardinal, more likely. But then, shortly after, in the tall gray pages of the Sunday New York Times, superseding even Dad as a bastion of knowledge—vindication! An article about scarlet tanagers spreading northward, or eastward, into the city's suburbs. 

I can understand his skepticism, even if I trusted Cruikshank and my own eyes over my dad's. This hot red and black bird, more than most other birds in their breeding plumages, looks like a souvenir from a tropical rainforest, an escaped papagayo. But we drink in that scarlet like vampires because we need it. It's an eye thing. We need so much natural scarlet, so much rose, so much indigo, so much tangerine in our optical diet. 

As for the tanager, what does it get out of it that makes it choose to have its brood in New England? Maybe up in our Puritan and Wampanoag woods of May, far from the toucan and the quetzal and the cock-of-the-rock, it feels more amazing. The Scarlet Pimpernel of Medford, Mass. (We seek him here, we seek him there, we birders seeking him everywhere...) 

Or maybe that voice is the giveaway. A hard, plain Yankee argument in the eastern hardwoods. Its home.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Field Notes 3

Showboats, cont.

The second showboat bird is more of a people's bird than the rose-breasted grosbeak is. After all, you don't see a baseball team named the Grosbeaks, do you? (Actually, the Cardinal was once known as the Cardinal Grosbeak, so maybe you do.) Never mind. I'm referring, of course, to the lusty maestro of the elms, the Baltimore—no, Northern—no, Baltimore Oriole.

Color comparisons are subjective, but seeing your first vibrant oriole orange in full sun is right up there with the grosbeak's rose. In a way, it's more of a full drink of color than the sip of the RBG, more tangy though maybe not as sweet. And again, framed with black and white to set it off to brilliant advantage.

The Baltimore oriole does seem to like us. I say that not just because the other day one flew to a low limb about twenty feet from me and proceeded to preen itself most comfortably, fanning wings and tail in orange-white slats, zipping up feathers with its blackbird beak. I say that because of its song. It's made to be whistled back. Always a simple, clear, tinkertoy of notes, two to ten notes long, perhaps even borrowed from human sources (one book reports an oriole in Pittsburgh, in the 1890s, whistling the melody of the day: Ta ra-ra boom de-ay!), over and over. Inviting reps from humans. I know this because once in the Fenway, in Boston, I took one oriole up on it. It whistled. I whistled. It whistled again. I made another attempt. Like this? ..... No, like this ..... So it went, for a good ten minutes, call and response, bird and "bird," until one of us gave up, not sure who bailed first. But I think of that oriole whenever I hear some seesaw of notes in a tree, another invitation, and I'm tempted to engage, like a carnival game where you lose your shirt but you can't help it. It's just so darn whistleable!

A bright Northern Oriole (a.k.a. Baltimore)
flies through a neighborhood whistling his call to more
species than birds. He comes down to a beech
where humans have gathered to learn what he'll teach.

"Am I not handsome?" he whistles quite clearly.
"Old shellfish are yellow," they echo, or nearly.
"I'll make a good mate," he sings to them brightly.
They pipe back, "The eggs of my cat are unsightly."
He seeks to correct them. They try it again:
"The beak of my uncle resembles a hen's."
He moves to a new phrase: "Keep back from my tree!"
The best they can do is, "I'm bird as a free!"

An hour of this and their lips are unpuckered.
They wander away, half-parched and plumb tuckered,
until one remains: a small girl, barely five.
She calls up in English, "I'm glad I'm alive!"
He answers in Oriole, "Hip hip hooray!"
And they trade joyous phrases the rest of the day.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Field Notes 2

The Showboats

Until you've seen them, the migration is out of whack and May isn't May, no matter how many warblers you've seen. Then, after you've seen them a few times, they're everywhere, it's enough already. They roam the canopy like loudspeaker ads on election day (unless you're looking for them; then they're as scarce as a kind word).

Ladies and germs! Give it up for the big-color trio of the treetops: the grosbeak, the oriole, and the tanager!

Citizen Grosbeak
It is not easy to call out a rose-breasted grosbeak, even to fellow birders. Its name is too long, and there's no abbreviation that doesn't sound awkward or cute. "There's an RBG! A rosie! A ro-gro!" And if you mention it to a nonbirder, it comes off sounding like a birdwatching parody: Look! A rose-breasted grosbeak! A double-breasted seersucker! But the bird itself is one of the first ahhs of the season, and even after it becomes too common to get excited about, you can't help but have another look at the Bib.

You hear it first. A clear rapid whistling meandering up and down, doubling back, loudly and richly, the vocal equivalent of créme brulée. It even wobbles a little, like the boy's moved by his own performance. "A robin with singing lessons!" exult some bird books, not exactly a compliment to either bird. It's true, its outpouring is sort of robinlike, with the merest of pauses between phrases. But it's chestier than a robin, a backyard Pavorotti. And instead of the tenor's white handkerchief, it's got the Bib.

Sometimes, just to be mean, it won't show the bib. Just the back of the black-and-white tuxedo. But it's the bib we stalk it through the jungles of eastern North America to see. The bib is the RB of the RBG. We don't care so much about the gross beak, even though it's a snazzy ivory against ebony, like a piano's keys.

No, it's when it turns into the sun, crisp white shirtfront stained with a delta of rosé, especially if it's our FOY (first-of-year) grosbeak, that's the moment—maybe the first big smile of the season, meaning no disrespect to the palm warbler or the phoebe. Not that all grosbeaks are equally endowed. Some bibs are small goblets, others are cups that runneth over. But it's that color, that rose, that stimulates our receptors as if we were bees or female grosbeaks or thirsty winos. A little more to the left. Perfect.

Next: Lord Baltimore

Friday, May 14, 2010

Field Notes

Where have I been? Birding, mostly. May is the month for migrants, sweeping through the woods, fattening up on grubs and seeds. And waiting for them with mental checklists if not real notebooks are the slightly obsessed legions of birders who need to be out there tallying an indigo bunting, an orchard oriole, a veery, a night-heron, and as many different warblers as the canopy will divulge, especially today, Bird-a-thon Day, the big May fund-raiser for Mass. Audubon. So for the next week or two, at the risk of boring the uninculcated, I will send dispatches from the field, or from the bivouac, beginning with one I’m still looking for.

* *

O Canada

What is it about the Canada warbler? It’s elusiveness, for one thing. So far, it’s looking like another spring without seeing one. Friends have seen them. Peggy saw one that made her gasp. In a jealous pique, I accused Ed of seeing one, even though it was probably a Magnolia. Bernie, a birder I’ve been running into at Brooks, tells me where he saw one: take the dirt path along the back of the pond in the cemetery. I go. I listen for that explosive burst of sound. I stare intently for a movement in a bush. None.

In the bird book it doesn’t look any more spectacular than the Magnolia, which also has a black necklace, plus other black streaks on bright yellow. But the Magnolia is much more available than the Canada.

Then there's the Blackburnian, which is just as elusive, and even more gasp-evoking with its fiery throat, but it’s more famous, a matinee idol, a flash in a treetop; please, no autographs.

We concoct these personalities for birds—polite waxwings, affable orioles, madcap mockingbirds—and to me the Canada seems intriguingly moody, not just shy but difficult. Its song has a random quality, a jumble of notes that other warbler outbursts seem to resemble but turn out not to be.

I cling to the memories of ones I’ve seen in the past. One in a certain bush near Halcyon Pond in Mt. Auburn, pointed out to me by a birder in a satin Celtics jacket. One I stalked myself in the meadow behind McLean Hospital in Belmont. I think I spished it out—faked an alarm call, which should be against the law, but isn’t.

What is it about the Canada? It’s the only bird that makes me ask what is it about it. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get lucky.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I have this theory that merry, as in "the merry month of May" secretly means lustful and lascivious. I'm sure I was influenced in part by that song from Camelot, "The Lusty Month of May" ("when tons of wicked little thoughts/Merrily appear"), and also by The Merry Wives of Windsor—I assumed the wives were making merry (nudge nudge, wink wink) with John Falstaff.

Well, maybe. Turns out the wives are having more fun just stringing him along and getting him to dress in women's clothes or having him get dumped out of a laundry basket into the river. Hijinks, not lowjinks. And I can't find one lewd definition for merry in my Webster's Unabridged. It's all about delight, pleasure (no hint which sort) or happiness. Laughingly gay; overflowing with good humor and good spirits; jovial and mirthful. The closest it gets to illicitly merry is a definition for Merry night (British): "a dance held at a public house or inn." (And did you know that a merrythought is another word for a wishbone?)

So, okay, maybe merry is just understood to be naughty sometimes, whatever Webster says. Irony isn't always official and words are vessels there for the filling. Unless it's not even ironic: happy is as happy does!

All I know is right now there's a lot of fowl out there doing what any cocky dude'll do. The other day I saw a couple of catbirds. One was all puffed up, kind of a light gray, like he was lit up, and doing this sidestep along a branch, kind of gliding toward another catbird. His intentions were clear. The object of his desires didn't want an audience, maybe. She flew.

Last year I saw a cedar waxwing doing this little branch dance, hopping from one leg to the other. Assuming he didn't have to go. And the previous May I was in the right place at the right time to see a couple of big Cooper's hawks getting it on, high in a treetop. Call it merry, call it lusty, call it peter-peter-peter from a tufted tit. Reminds me of a silly poem I wrote once about the scarlet tanager:

What did the Puritans think, to see
a scarlet tanager in a tree?
Did one glimpse put thoughts of sin
into the head of Hester Prynne?
Did the bird cause Cotton Mather
to work himself into a lather?
Was that flasher from the tropics
one of his favorite sermon topics?
Oh, tell me how the Puritans managed
when their days were scarlet tanaged?

Credit to Hilary Wallis for the merry photograph.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Doris and Harold

During my sister's recent visit to Boston, we took a walk, the four of us, through Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Dory noticed a gravestone bearing a symbol that was new to her: a sculpted stump of a tree. I explained that it meant the person buried there had died young—had been cut off in his or her prime. "Doris's grave has one," I added. "I could show you."

So the next day we drove out to a Jewish cemetery on Washington Street in Woburn, Mass. to see the graves of Doris and Harold, our dad’s younger sister and brother, who died at 21 and 25 respectively—Doris of pneumonia, suddenly, in 1937, and Harold of Hodgkin's disease in 1943, after a long battle.

Not only because they were so young when they died, nor because they are our namesakes, we think of them as brilliant and extraordinary. By all accounts, they were.

Doris was a gifted artist, a painter and sculptor. In our den, when I was a kid, we had a bust that she had made of a bearded Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It was perfect.

Harold was deft, too, a gentle wit, kind of Gatsby-handsome. I’ve seen one photo of him, with fair hair, and two of Doris’s watercolors of him in my uncle Norman’s home. I don’t have many Harold stories (or Doris ones either), but there’s this from one of my dad’s letters to my mom, shortly before they were married, in June of 1940:

Everybody here is well — including Harold, who looks like a million bucks. He’s quite a kid. I asked him to recite the alphabet so he promptly began, “A, B, C, D.” Then he stopped and I said, “Well, go ahead.” And a perplexed look crawled into his face and he said, “There’s more?"
* *

After the intersection with Montvale Ave., Washington Street loses its commercial apparatus, and after a few blocks, its trees. The cemeteries appear on the right, three of them. We pull in at the second one: Beth Joseph III.

I’m used to cemeteries, like Mt. Auburn and Medford’s Oak Grove, as places of nature: birding opportunities, mainly. There, the graves are peripheral, running third behind birds and trees. But this cemetery’s purpose is unambiguous. It is a roster of the dead. The graves are arrayed, sometimes crookedly, in long crowded rows, often with barely an inch of space between them. It is businesslike, nothing pastoral about it.

However, these dead are not entirely strangers. I don’t just mean Doris and Harold. While we’re hunting for their gravesites, it’s impossible not to feel a kind of kinship with these Bostonian Jews, those who had come over from Europe, or their children or grandchildren, some of them babies. Their names sound almost familiar: Morris and Ida Weiner, Libby Katz, Hyman Horch, Ida Polatnick, David Kadish. Some of them might have known one of the Obers, or known someone who knew an Ober or an Ober cousin, like Harris Sobell. Some of the graves even have photos in porcelain cameos. Libby Katz is broad and Russian-looking. Morris Weiner has a trim moustache and a banker’s bowler hat, but soulful eyes. His wife, Ida, looks formidable in her steel glasses.

Dory calls from a few rows away. She has found Doris’s grave. It’s tall, white, with a sugary texture, and the cut-off tree forms it like a pillar There is a cameo photo, too, almost painting-like. Dreamy eyes, sweet smile, wavy brown hair. I can imagine her mixing paints, shaping Tchaikovsky’s beard. Those eyes focused, making an artist’s calculations.

It occurs to me that they must have all been standing here on a cold day in February, all the brothers, Emil, Harold, Norman, and Ralph. Also their parents, Mike and Gussie, whose stone is now next to hers, the low gray one marked OBER.

Harold’s grave is one row away, near the street. It’s wider than Doris’s. No sculpted tree trunk, but a small inscribed tree showing the top hewn from the bottom. “In Our Hearts You Live Forever,” it says, and much more in Hebrew. As usual, I am struck by his birthdate—October 28, 1917—one day after mine.

He was never Hal, as far as I know. He inhabited the name Harold in a lithe, athletic way that I can’t. Maybe it was a more comfortable age for Harolds. (When some flack calls me Harold, I feel a tad geeky, as if I’ve suddenly sprouted an argyle sweater-vest.)

Nor do I think of Harold as an uncle (though we would have made a fine pair of uncle and nephew, I suspect, Harolding and heralding each other). More like an older brother I never knew.

Dory puts pebbles on the graves, a custom that makes me feel, as I follow suit, like I’m copying the adults I used to watch doing it. It’s akin to that feeling when my uncle Norman, the last of the Ober siblings, died in 2008, and when my mom died a few months later: “We’re the grownups now.”

In our hearts they live forever. Well, sort of. I'd like to think a reanimation does happen. The revival of a lively imagination or a warm memory. Kind of like the way “The Sixth Sense” ended, with “I see dead people” becoming a good thing, a useful thing, not a scary thing, both for the dead and the living.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Obers and Corwins

My father's father, Michael Ober, was a constable (a server of subpoenas) in Boston in the 1920s. He had an office on Milk Street and feigned a convincing Irish brogue, despite his Jewish-Hungarian roots. He was the oldest boy in a family of twelve brothers and sisters, the children of Joseph Ober and Celia Klein, who emigrated from their home in Kisvarda, Hungary to Boston around 1885. The three oldest—Rose, Mike, and Ethel—were born in Kisvarda. The rest were native Bostonians: Sam, Eddie, Jenny, Helen, Harry, Gertie, Bertha, Mildred, and Emil, born between 1886 and 1906. My dad, also named Emil, had a lot of aunts and uncles.

Around 1900, Rose, a talented artist and milliner, married Samuel Corwin, an enterprising engraver and printer who had emigrated from Russia in '82. Thus were joined two remarkable clans who have grown up together through one century and into the next.

Thanks to my late cousin, Bobby Ober (Eddie's son), I have a large black-and-white photo of Obers and Corwins at a family reunion in Nahant, Mass. It's the summer of 1920. They are all crammed into a broad portico of a large white house. That's Sam Corwin at the upper right, hand in jacket pocket and cigar at a jaunty angle. To his right, looking remarkably like Sam, is his lanky son, Emil, age 17. And sitting on the front steps is a gaggle of restless-looking kids. Among them are Bobby Ober (age 7), Norman Corwin (10), and his sister, Beulah (6). I'm not sure where their teenage brother Alfred is.

I've been thinking about Obers and Corwins lately, for different reasons. Obers, I'll wait until my next post to go into. Corwins, because this time of year—late April and early May—is a time of Corwin birthdays. To paraphrase Orwell, some birthdays are more equal than others. On April 28, Emil (left photo) turned 107. On May 3, Norman turned 100. I spoke to them on the phone and they sounded as courtly as ever, each in his own way waving away the hoopla. Norman had a bit more of it to endure. His fame as a radio dramatist in the 40s is unparalleled. Nor will I try to sum it up here. But I will provide a link to a nice radio piece NPR did on his birthday. And another to Norman's website.

And I will add that one of my favorite recent memories is having dinner with Norman at his favorite Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, and having him sign my copy of Dog in the Sky, the peerless novel he wrote based on his radio play, "The Odyssey of Runyon Jones." From which I will quote one paragraph. (A bit of context: Runyon, age nine, has been journeying through the Cosmos to find his late dog, Pootzy, now in Curgatory. He's just taken a space train, the Hyperbola Superbola, to the Skjellerup Tree at East Feffy Foofy, per the instructions of a Giant.)

Runyon alighted from the train when nobody was looking, and the conductor waved and said, "Flig kazam vuz," a homely local blessing meaning "May you have a long and happy life (flig), attended by many worthwhile progeny (vuz), and be safe from the depradations of cosmic rays, and the blight of the blim smut." (kazam)
To Emil I merely owe my existence. While he was a student at Massachusetts Agricultural College (later U. Mass.) in Amherst, Emil often ate at the boarding house of Ida and Meyer Novick, who attracted many Jewish students by serving kosher. He got to know their daughter, Betty, quite well, and thought, "Here is just the girl for my cousin, Emil Ober." He was right.

Finally, one cannot dwell on Corwin longevity and nobility without honoring Sam Corwin. Remember Samuel Corwin, the engraver with the jaunty cigar who married my great-aunt Rose Ober? He made it to 110. His lifelong collection of positive aphorisms might have contributed. As well as the daily glass of sherry. A toast:

Flig kazam vuz!

Saturday, May 1, 2010


May 1...(out of breath) May 1 have this dance?

Too late. The dance card may say May 1, but today is actually May 4. Note corsage petals under the trees.

I should have known I'd arrive late for the prom. For one, my sister's visit, entailing multiple games of Bananagrams, took priority. For another, May is just so gorgeous, sensuous, lush, you get paralyzed.

I suspect I'm going to be catching up all month long.

Here are some things that happened on May 1:
It was my friend Hilary's birthday.
It was also my neighbor Ella's birthday. She turned 5, and just happened to step outside for a moment, perhaps to look at her multi-colored balloons, just as my sister and I were walking by, so we were able to wish her a happy birthday and even step inside briefly and see the Ella Fitzgerald poster on her bedroom wall.
It was the day a major water main in Weston sprang a leak, resulting in a "boil water" order for Boston and 29 other towns including Arlington.

It was also a gigantic day for birds. May is when the spring migrants come pouring into the green canopies of greater Boston on their way north, and some to stay, like orioles and yellow warblers. Usually, we wait through a few start-and-stop weeks, the flow regulated by cold and warm days. But this time, the month was not a day old and local birders were excitedly emailing each other on the Arlington Birders' List Serve: Scarlet Tanager! FOY (first of the year)! Rose-breasted Grosbeak! FOY! 11 Hermit thrush! 4 Ovenbird! 7 Blue-headed Vireo! And warblers! 12 species already! 5 Black-throated Blue! 11 Black-throated Green! Redstart! FOY!
Ovenbird and Northern Waterthrush! FOY! FOY!

Still more to come, of course. No one has reported an indigo bunting, a Canada warbler, or a bobolink yet. But this FOY business is complicated. In fact, I would like to see it in slow-motion: Upon hearing a wood thrush's song for the first time since last year. Or seeing a returned Baltimore oriole in a treetop—that smashing orange in full sun. The burst of sound or image striking neuron, triggering memory triggering emotion (pleasure), pulling face into grin and maybe a "Yes!" or "All right!" or "Welcome back!"

It's hard when you have to multiply that FOY reaction by fifty species and fit them into the same hour. Let alone develop a bad case of Warbler Neck from trying to locate a kinglet in heavy foliage while looking into the sun.

For those who need to brush up on their warblers, I'll end with a brief tutorial in verse:

Wood Warbler Hoe-down

Redstart flits with feathers fanned;
Canada wears a black neck band.
Ovenbird sings “Teacher, teacher!”
Chestnut-sided’s “pleased to meetcher!”

seebit seebit, see titi wee!
teetsa teetsa, zee zoo zee!

Bachman’s warbler’s shy as a turtle;
Yellow-rumped was once called Myrtle.
Black-and-white creeps up the trunk;
Hooded’s cowled like a monk.

zeedle-zeedle-zeedle, chorry! chorry!
chip-chup-ee, chip-chup-ee, tory tory tory!

Prairie buzzes up the scale;
Palm is known to wag its tail.
Yellowthroat looks like a bandit;
Chat serenades till you just can’t stand it!

weesee weesee, tiddle tiddle too!
ticka ticka swit swit chew-chew-chew!

Blackburnian’s throat is a blaze of glory;
Blue-wing and Golden-wing both sound snory.
Wilson’s sports a black beret
And Yellow sings the livelong day.

weeta-weeta-weetsee, seedle chup chup
witchatitty-witchatitty, zeeeeeeeeeee-up!