Saturday, July 31, 2010

M meets M

July: I am
August: the sea
(sum: mer)

Funny how words can get in their own way. Notes turn into a poem, and then the accidental poem becomes a boulder in the stream of the essay, which was supposed to proceed from the notes—which were inspired, if that's the word, by sixteen multiple choice questions I've been writing about dividing syllables. Specifically the VC/CV rule. If a word has a vowel followed by two consonants followed by a vowel, like summer, then it's divided between the consonants.

I am/ sea.

And by coincidence, in five minutes July, the first full month of summer, meets August, the second full month. In short, it's sum: mer. M meets M.

And it is, in some ways, the real hinge of the year. June gives the spring, all complete, to July. July heats it up, wears it out, puts it through the wringer, and hands it over to August like a pair of red, itchy, long underwear. August thinks "aout! (ooh!) It might as well be...fall." And so begins the downfall of summer. But it's way more subtle than that. It's not what August hands to September. Just a touch of spentness, a southerly slant to the sunlight, a bit of Shakespeare in the meadow, played out by Goldfinch, Tansy, Loosestrife, and Touch-me-not getting fatter in the pod. "By the aut-ing of my tumns, something august this way comes."

And I don't mourn too much for the late, great July, because I do think, more than many adjoining months, July and August are twins. In fact, the red long underwear can easily double as one of those old-fashioned bathing costumes from the turn-of-the-century, back when "By the Sea" was all the rage.

So let us begin our rounding of Cape August with a glimpse of kids like us, jumping the waves at Coney Island in July or August, 1904. Everyone: "By the sea..."

By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea!
You and me, you and me, oh how happy we'll be!
When each wave comes a-rolling in
We will duck or swim,
And we'll float and fool around the water.
Over and under, and then up for air,
Pa is rich, Ma is rich, so now what do we care?
I love to be beside your side, beside the sea,
Beside the seaside, by the beautiful sea!

Saturday, July 24, 2010


To be in the town of Chatham, on Cape Cod, usually means spending time on Old Queen Anne Road, which is a handy way to get to Route 6. And to be on Old Queen Anne Road in late July usually means seeing a lot of Queen Anne's Lace, the doily-headed wildflower of mid-summer.

I know there's something going on when the QAL is at large on the roadsides of New England. I keep an eager eye on them from the passenger seat, like a grinning dog scenting summer from the open car window. And they go rushing by, more than bystanders, more like gnostic nomads whose migratory path crosses ours this time of year. So they wave from snatches of wild grass and sometimes quite a big swatch of meadow they have taken over. They are part of an army of summer itinerants who ride the coasting time from middle July to middle August, joined by a rising chorus of crickets and even katydids...katy did its chugging every few yards from the retreating coastline, subtlely retreating coastline, of summer. Other hoboes fall in with them here and there: blue chicory (blue sailors), goldenrod, little tansy butttons, and lilies of the tiger persuasion. But Queen Anne's Lace knows what's up, that summer is moving, as sure as a current in a slow stream, and that somewhere downstream lies dozing August.

Tonight, which is really 7/27, the biggest hobo of all rose fat, full, and yellow as a yam, naked as a Necco wafer. I am speaking not of the cold aloof moon of November or March, but a big warm over-the-cornfield moon playing mask and unmask among the clouds that appear to be trying to hide it, except it keeps popping out like a badge that will not be denied. Preside it will over the katydids, the crickets, the chicory, and the Queen Anne's Lace, who sets a table for it where all may dine. Before their epic journey to somewhere or other. Before another round of The Hobo's Lullaby.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Forty minutes of my life I'll never get back

I recall a Scrabble tournament I was in about 25 years ago. On the first day, I got the starting time wrong, and when I finally, exhaustedly, cursingly, burst through the hotel ballroom doors, fifty minutes late, there was my opponent, a prim lady sitting at a board with but a single word on it: YODEL. That's fifty minutes of her life she'll never get back. I don't remember if she had a book with her, or maybe her knitting, or if she simply spent the hour, between glances at her watch, contemplating the cosmic YODEL. ("little old lady who?")

Anyway, I was thinking about my own experiences with misspent or strangely spent time yesterday, and the fine line between deeming them worth the life they've used up or not.

A week or two ago I came upon my son in his room with a crowd of Dungeons and Dragons miniatures assembled on the floor. A bit of a jolt, seeing your 15-year-old playing with plastic monsters and demons again. "That brings back a lot of memories," I said carefully. "Yes," he replied. "I'm selling them on EBay." Oh; right.

And indeed, the following day he set up a tabletop photo session, adjusting the light, improving the angle, etc.; composed his text for maximum allure; uploaded the works and waited for the bids to come rolling in. Which they did, in spades, topped at last by some lucky guy in Alpharetta, Georgia.

So, cut to the Arlington Post Office on Monday. Matt's on the Cape, entrusting his parents to box and pack 130 D&D critters of various sizes and threats, from Noble Salamander to Greenspawn Razorfiend. We selected a box, borrowed a scissors from the obliging postmaster, and purchased two rolls of blue bubblewrap. Then we completely took over the leftmost counter with an operation worthy of "Chicago Hope." Carol was chief surgeon. I was the tape-roll nurse, occasionally pausing to swab her forehead. She expertly cut the wrap into individual sections to accommodate big suckers like, say, Eldritch Giant, or fragile dudes (don't say that to his face) like Demonic Gnoll Archer. Then we made up bivouacs for small armies of little nasties like Wererat Rogue and Witchknife.

Occasionally other customers tried to horn in on our operating table. We sighed stertorously behind our masks, irritably sweeping away scraps of bubble-wrap and curls of tape. They completed their business in a hurry.

Finally, one more layer of clear bubble wrap for prophylaxis, seal the box, present it to the postmistress along with borrowed scissors and various bubble wrap bar codes, and off they go. Good luck, Ogre Executioner. Safe trip, Doomfist Monk.

I suppose there's a third category between time wasted and time worth spending: time wasted worth wasting more time writing about.

Remember us, Ratswarm.

Monday, July 19, 2010


The Pilgrims (who were once on Cape Cod) would have taken a dim view of lying in a hammock like I was. "What doth thee think thou art doing, Brother Harold?" Cotton Mather might have asked, hands on his hips. "Watching the nuthatches," I would have explained. "They're like little boats, cruising up and down the tree trunks, like they're on wooden rivers. They even sound like boats, with that 'ank, ank, ank' of theirs..." Cotton wouldn't have been amused.
The devil's workshop, he probably would have thought with disdain. And maybe so, if the devil is in the details.

Summer is unique that way. A plethora of details, and ample time to notice them, from a hammock or maybe a kettle pond on a July afternoon. Our friends Judith and Daniel and their son Jesse are well acquainted with these glacial, rain- or spring-filled ponds around Wellfleet. They took us to one yesterday called Dyer Pond. Getting there requires a drive along a rutted road through a scrub woods. Then you walk down a fire trail until the pond comes into view. And welcomes you in.

I'm no swimmer, but I know what I like. A freshwater pond, surrounded by woods, mostly blue sky above. Just under warm wading in, then the whole cool-skinned embrace of the water as it decides to accept you. Then comes the look-at-me-I'm-swimming backstroke and the oops-I'm-almost-drowning sidestroke back to where your feet can touch the bottom. Then about a half hour of what I call dragonflying.

Along the shore, a few trees projected outward and low, a yard or so above the water—rough-barked conifers as well as smooth-trunked deciduous trees stripped of their bark. They formed cool glades to glide through like a stealthy crocodile, a nearsighted crocodile who would slue up to the trunk and peer at a large pond spider until it became aware it was being peered at and vanish. Or extend a finger to touch a bead of resin among the shingled pine cones, whose stickiness the water would not defy. But most particularly, the nearsighted crocodile would slide among the long, spearlike, tubular pond grasses and get as close as he was able to the dragonflies and damselflies.

The damselflies adhered to the grasses like pennons to a halyard, their wings straight along their trainlike bodies. They were electric blue or violet and would lift off when approached, but soon resettled. In fact, the crocodile saw there were a dozen of them attached, straight and blue and fading to blurs. In addition, there were ruby-red dragonflies, bigger by far and higher up on the grass blades, like pilots inspecting the surface for snags. Their pairs of wings lay flat and perpendicular, as if an older technology than the sleek darners. The nearsighted crocodile lifted his hand to see if he might be able to touch the red dragonfly. Then he thought better of it. Watching was enough and being paid the mutual respect of the dragonfly remaining at its pilothouse, unbothered by the crocodile's proximity. So he put himself into reverse and backed glidingly away from the dragonfly, the grasses, and the damselflies, letting the details merge into one big green and blue watercolor.

Friday, July 16, 2010


July 16 is lots of other things, of course. It's International Juggling Day. It's Ginger Rogers's birthday. It's Friday. It's hot again, back in the 90s. It's the day our friends from Pittsburgh arrived for a stay; tomorrow we'll go with them to the Cape for the weekend. But more than anything it's what July 16 is every year, just because it's July 16: the yahrtzeit, the "year's time", of my father's death in 1961.

A yahrtzeit is one of those customized occasions, a day with your name on it, or your family's name, a day you know with a little-used sense. There's probably a German word for that sense, meaning "memory of the heart," something like that. In our temple tonight, they will read my dad's name. I won't be there. Nor will I light a yahrtzeit candle, as I have in some years. Too hot for a 24-hour candle. Maybe a briefer one.

If my mom's birthday three days ago was a watermark on the day, this is a more of a brand. Is it just the difference between life and death? Birthdays being the index of years within a life, and a yahrtzeit being the index of years without? Or is that just essay talk? Because birthdays also look at a life after the fact and a yahrtzeit can celebrate a presence as much as it marks an absence.

Except there's that date, July 16, when I was 12. The long night, listening in my room for the footsteps of someone arriving with bad news—trying to keep it at bay, but instead predicting it into existence, the footsteps, the doorbell, the rabbi at the door, the news.

That forever marks a day, no matter that next year will be fifty years since, and he'll still be 48, me looking at 63. So I can see why you might as well light a candle or say the mourners' kaddish. Or write a blog puzzling it out. And maybe end with a letter he wrote to Betty in 1940, when he was 27 and so was she, about four months before they got married, in the high tide of their lives...

July 5th, 1940

Miss Betty Novick

c/o Warden Lawes

Sing Sing – Simon Simon –

New York – New York. Heh, Heh.

Bet you didn’t expect to hear from me to-day. Guess that means I win 15 kisses again. Or maybe you mean to win this bet and collect 15 kisses yourself — either way, I don’t care.

Did you have a good time in Amherst? How were all the folks? What did you hear from the mob? Did you “grease” your Maw and oil yore Paw? Do you mind my asking all these questions? Do you wash your undies in Lux? Do you see your dentist twice a year? Do you know I’m the one guy in the world who wants to get “B.O.”? Do you know why? Efsher kennst du mir usen?

A bunch of Who-shot-John?, huh. I’m leaving for Bosting to-nite at 5:30. Have nothing new to report except that I missed you terribly and will continue to do so till we see each other next.

Picture of me missing you terribly

(Me missing a shave terribly)

(Me missing a couple of teeth terribly)

If you look for me in the above picture you will be surprised to find me missing. Instead I have substituted a reasonable facsimile.

I know a guy who once wrote a letter for some particular reason — I don’t remember what it was — something about a substitute for a prostitute who was destitute in an institute, I believe. But I have absolutely no reason for writing other than to let you know I’m thinking of you constantly & love you very much.

So saying his pen ran out of ink and he just about had enough left to say au revoir and je t’aime


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

July of the Spirits

There's a movie out there. It's definitely Felliniesque. I wandered into it yesterday on the lawn of Killian Court, MIT, in the long late afternoon. That's where the spin jammers gather every Monday, from 6 to 8.

Matt, my son, is a juggler, a diabolo spinner, a rhythm ace. (This is so unlike me that if I didn't see a strong resemblance I might question his paternity.) His mentor, Jeremy, a member of the group A Different Spin, invited him to come down to Spin Jam and check it out. So we tagged along.

Picture a grassy quad, about the size of your average village green, filled with people, mostly in their twenties, all more or less in motion, the motion usuallly centered on some moving object. Many of these were poi, which are often a long stretchy fabric with something balled inside at one end, twirled in simple or intricate figures. There were also staffs, hoops, devil sticks, and Indian clubs flying and spinning. A guy came bounding by on a pair of curved jumping stilts, looking like a large faun. Another guy carefully rotated by on a tall unicycle. The scene only needed background music, preferably by Nino Rota.

Matt appeared to be the only diabolist. His uniqueness was getting lonely when Mooch, another member of A Different Spin, guided him over to the Indian clubbers, and there he remained, tossing clubs with three adult jugglers for the next hour or so.

I haven't conveyed the random, interactive aspect, new arrivals hugging, cheerful announcements of so and so's birthday, the casual gymnastics, the sense of a small circus in contented, fluid, rehearsal. Nor am I sure I've conveyed how it's a movie. But that's because I'm on the outside looking in, so for me the scene is what it's about more than what it is, which I'm not sure but I think has something to do with flow, being in the zone, being totally focused on your spinning or juggling or stilt-walking or unicycling....


The next day I drove Matt to a small park in a Somerville neighborhood—Nunziatio Field Dog Park—where he goes on Tuesdays for an hour to help Jeremy demonstrate the diabolo to kids who have signed up for it with OpenAir Circus, a Somerville kind of junior spin jam. I settled myself on a stone wall at the rear of the field while he did his thing with the diabolo, a butterfly-shaped yo-yo that pays whirling, gravity-defying visits to a taut string. The heat of the day had abated. Here was the movie again, more accessible this time, because the spinners and stilt-walkers and hoopers were all little kids, and flow meant something else to them, both easier and less disciplined.

On one side of the field was the chainlink fenced-in dog park, a kind of gymboree for dogs while their humans sat or stood around, occasionally stepping in with a sharp command when a fight broke out in the makeshift pack. On the opposite side from me, seven triple-decker houses of seven colors stood in a row. And overhead, a sky of heavy gray clouds looked for headway. Among their midst was a watermark indicating my mom's birthday, the second year it has been a historical one rather than a live one.

She would have liked this movie, especially with her grandson in the middle of it. It reminded me of that painting by Breugel the Elder, called "Children's Games," which featured a couple of hoops among the eighty or so games depicted. These kids were fewer but having just as good a time in their games, their devil sticks and hula hoops and pois.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Tale of Three Passports

I got my new passport in the mail, ahead of a trip to London next month. There I am, looking slightly sinister, like a man caught in a spy ring. I immediately placed it beside my previous passport, issued in August, 1969. You want sinister? Here’s a terrorist’s mug shot if ever there was one. The forelock of shame. The thwarted, gloomy gaze. There’s a story there.

It was the best of times and the worst of times. Simultaneously.

Best of times: I was twenty, I was in the village of Uig in the Isle of Skye, Scotland, it was summer, and I was off to write poetry in a Scottish meadow where sheep were grazing. I had flown to Scotland and hitchhiked from Glasgow to the Edinburgh Arts Festival to meet up with a girl I’d met the year before while studying in London. This time it hadn’t gone well. But never mind. I’d seen Ian McKellen in Edward II and the British premiere of “Easy Rider” with a gang of Scottish bikers occupying the front rows. I’d slept on a hill in Oban. And now I was in the Isle of Skye.

I took a path from the youth hostel where I was staying, to the sheep meadow, and I wandered. (Did I actually write anything poetic in my journal? I doubt it.) I was guessing my way back. There was a ravine, the River Rha, cutting me off from the other side. But ravines, I reasoned, grew shallower the further upstream they went, did they not? I would outwalk it. When I judged I had gone far enough, I headed down. I soon discovered that the ravine was, if anything, steeper here, not shallower. And then I finagled myself onto a small rocky outcropping with nowhere to go. A double waterfall was roaring below me. In one hand I had the leather pocket secretary that contained my journal and a few other items: namely, money, passport, and airline ticket home. Perhaps I had been reluctant to leave them in the hostel. Perhaps I was by temperament a hobo, carrying all my possessions with me. Withal, as they say, I was in a tight spot.

I called for help, the first time I had ever dared to announce to the wide world that I was helpless. No one could hear me, probably, over the roar of the waterfall. I was very scared. I considered my life, only twenty years of it, and the possibility that it would be over, done, if I made this blunder even worse.

I needed two hands. The right hand was busy holding the leather organizer. I needed to free it for more important work. It did not occur to me that I could shove the amanuensis into my pants or my sock. I should have. My own solution was more of a cartoon idea, a light bulb in a thought balloon. I would toss the thing onto a flattish square foot of grass a few feet away. Then I would maneuver myself to a more advantageous position, and then I would retrieve the thing and I would be all right. But it started with the toss. So I readied the toss. It was not a difficult toss. Just a gentle, short arc. Easy. Here we go. Toss…plop… And I watched it continue its not-so-flat momentum and tumble over the side into oblivion. My money, my passport, my airline ticket. And my poetry, let’s not forget my poetry, which was the reason I’d brought the damn thing.

No time to indulge in shock. I had two hands. I used them to get down the ravine, around the waterfall, and up the other side. Got back to the youth hostel, babbled my tale to a fellow youth, who immediately organized a search party for my organizer the following day, reasoning that the waterfall had kept it pinned in one place. I tagged along, watching my heroes have a hell of a good time manfully diving and coming up empty. I took a train back to Edinburgh, I assume with a loan of money from the youth hostel. Got a new airline ticket. It happens. And got a new emergency passport at the U.S. Consulate, the one with the woebegone, worst-of-times, mug shot, hours before flying home to my comparatively uneventful life in college.


Passports sure have changed. This new one is filled with engravings of iconic Americana: Francis Scott Key beholding the star-spangled banner, eagles, mountains, Liberty Bell, locomotive, clipper ship, etc. Looks like a warehouse for dollar bill art. Also lots of epigrams, like this one from LBJ: “…Is our world gone? We say ‘Farewell.’ Is a new world coming? We welcome it — and we will bend it to the hopes of man.”

Of course the image that I return to is the one on page 2 opposite the We the People page: me in the new world, age 61, bent to the hopes of my family, my ego, humankind, whatever. Set down next to the mug shot of the woebegone mad bomber of Uig, forty-one years ago. I don’t say “Farewell” to him, obviously. In fact, I'd like to import from him some of that daring to be dumb, to risk, to lose. And also tell him, “It gets better. But you’ll never be twenty again.”

We are, it turns out, our passports.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Hot Heat

We are in the summer position on the orbit. The pilot is wearing shorts. No, I'm kidding. There's no pilot. (No pilot?) Don't worry, the planet knows the route blindfolded. As I was saying, we are in the summer position, where the sun's rays strike the Northern Hemisphere at a short and direct angle, like the kiss administered by the sailor to the nurse on V-J Day. This makes it hotter. It's as if the equator has moved up, like the belt on an alter cocker, who you wouldn't normally associate with kissing a nurse in Times Square, but, trust me, even an alter cocker can get lucky.

The point is, it can get vicious out there. Sometimes, like yesterday, it's as if a mad dog were reported in the neighborhood, an escapee from the veterinary hospital for the criminally insane. So you stay inside, in front of the fan and the air conditioner. You're safe inside. But eventually curiosity overrules common sense. You go outside on the pretext of mailing your Netflix, and the dog immediately comes bounding onto you like Rin Tin Tin on a rustler, fangs bared, and knocks you down, burying you under a mountain of fur. "Nice doggie," you say, muffledly. And it is a nice doggie, it turns out. It licks you roughly, sits up on its haunches, thumps its giant tail. And you and the mad dog become best friends. Later this friendship will save your life, during an alien heat wave brought on by a rogue sun, like in the fable of Androcles and the lion. Not to apply a simile to another simile, which makes as much sense as putting a band-aid on a band-aid. Which may be another simile.

Where was I? Right. On my way to the big mailbox outside the main post office to make it in time for the 5:30 pickup. And it actually wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. No roaring hellhound. In fact, pools of shade that kicked up their own cooling breezes, where sleepy shade-trolls collect your nickel with an ingratiating, broken-toothed smile. (Back to 2d person speculative again...) So you drop in your Netflixes and head home, and the Torpedoes sign on the Quizmo's window seems to say Torpidoes, but by and large people don't look too uncomfortable. Neither do small people. In fact, when you re-enter your home, even with the fan and the AC, it feels worse. A pathetic attempt to create your own cold weather, which doesn't make a difference in 3/4 of the house. The truth is, you had better luck outside. In here, you feel sapped. Out there, there's at least a narrative: the alter cocker attempts to jump over the sun, burning his kishkes, the mad dog laughs to see such sport, and the sailor runs away with the nurse, who certainly can can-can!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cicada summer

It's official. I heard my first cicada today. The steely, steamy, simmering siren song of summer.

And this span of days, July 3 to July 5, was the bridge into cicada summer. Highs in the nineties, ushering in the first real triple H (hazy, hot, humid) heat wave, and it isn't surprising, because it's the Fourth of July. Remember? My mother gave me fifty cents to see the elephant jump the fence. He jumped so high, he hit the sky, and didn't come down till the Fourth of July. That Fourth of July. When all things are possible, big, noisy, and opportunistic. It's America's birthday party, after all. You know the downbeat: BOM bom ba dum bum...pum pum pum pum pum PUM!
And once again we give our hearts to John Philip Sousa, like when we were kids somewhere, seriously buying into this USA thing, with the cymbals and brass and piccolos and the baseball cards and bunting in the spokes of your bike and be kind to your web-footed friends for a duck may be somebody's mother. Here's a particularly peppy rendition by an amused but dignified Leonard Bernstein.

I missed the fireworks this year. Not the Esplanade (haven't been there in ten years), not Robbins Farm for the big-screen telecast; not even on my own TV. Mostly we were AC-potatoes. Something about July 4th falling on a Sunday blunted it, even though we had this extra day cushion, July 5th, to compensate. Somehow that just weakened it further, as if July 4th needed help or legitimacy. On the other hand, if you didn't put the responsibility on the holiday, then what you had was a colorful long weekend, a collaboration between July 3, 4, and 5 to stir something up. And what it was for me on Sunday evening was a sunset like I've seldom seen over Spy Pond, a sustained orgasm of colors and textures of clouds, herringbone and moonscape and a watercolorist's pondful of paintpots left over at the end. More than a worthy exchange for a front row of orchestral music and chrysanthemums of fireworks. Much more. If you'd been there, you would have said so, too.

And now it's the end of the last day of the trio, call them Jesse and Jim-Bob and Giulietta. We went to a movie and had pizza and Cherry Garcia ice cream. The Red Sox lost and next week it's the All-Star Game. And the cicadas are in the house.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Inda Good Old Somerstein

Uh-oh. It's July.

No help for it; there has to be a seventh month. We've been building up to it. We're at day 181, pretty much the fold in the calendar. The leaves are as full as they're going to be. It's going to get hot, weary-hot, and the trees will start to look a little tired. I can relate.

But I don't blame July. If July was a guy, he'd be grand marshal of the parade, jauntily waving right and left, pointing at some face in the crowd to make them feel special, tossing Bazooka bubble gum to the kids. And you know he'll get out of the Lincoln convertible and do that strut down the middle of Bristol Boulevard, do an angling cakewalk, doffing his hat, as his outfit keeps changing: Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, flip-flops, straw hat festooned with golf balls; Uncle Sam striped suit; Statue of Liberty with spiked chapeau; Robert Preston as the Music Man; big panama with a purple hat band. Call him Julius, Julian, Julie, Jules. He came, he saw, he's a summertime fool...

And speaking of summertime, here's a little July present, once again proving you can find anything on YouTube. This dates back to 1963. The TV show was "I've Got a Secret," hosted by Garry Moore, with a celebrity panel (anyone remember Bess Myerson?).

The gag was that the show found 24 people from the New York area phone books whose names (mostly) matched the lyrics to "In the Good Old Summertime." I.e, Inda / Good / Old / Somerstein (the star, of course). I was 14 at the time, but I remember it fondly. The chorus of 24 is conducted by none other than Meredith Willson (speaking of the Music Man). So, here's the part where they sing the song, after a last bit of guessing.

Roll on, July. I'm ready for you now.