Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Of course, thanks to YouTube, I can just show you here (start at the five-minute mark) , but I kind of enjoyed describing it. Which is a similar appeal of October—Tobes!
We throw our arms about each other in a brotherly hug. There's no other month I so enjoy describing, following around, back in Nature Reporter mode (press ticket in my fedora). But I'm tardy, it's already post-Columbus Day. Sorry, Tobes. Part of the problem was this lingering summah. It put October in an overwarm limbo, like the delayed autumn in Chris Van Allsburg's The Stranger, caused by the temporary amnesia of Jack Frost (never named, but who else would it be?). Even a querulous screech owl in the maple outside my window was whinnying its unease. A seldom-heard sound that immediately puts you inside a kind of medieval litho.
Then today, a return to normalcy. The sky is mapped with altocumulus clouds, the temp back in the orchardly sixties. Summah, I think, is sashaying back to Bermuda, or St. Pete, or wherever she goes. And olly oxen free! the rash is loose in the maples, the amber in the honey-locusts, and the fool moon, due tonite (I saw its dress rehearsal last night) wears a knowing look, a canny, lemme tell you a story look, a third of the way into the month this moon owns. This moon. This noble leotard. (You mean leopard) That's what I said. A leopard in a leotard. We tolerate much from this canny moon, because it's serious, but in a funny way. Is all about costume, candy, voyages, rocket boys (October sky), corn mazes, cider, sweaters, desperados, bumper cars, ostriches, okay now you're just getting silly, corn silk! punkin Dunkin' donuts, cold nights, rugged individualists in plaid wool shirts splitting logs and hearing the split echo. The split echo.
These are the October crickets, carrying the threnody forward like a relay race, through the basking afternoons to the early-turning evenings. That code that may mean something or nothing, or a very meaningful nothing. Time chirps. (Tobes... How should I end this?)
Hail, hail, Freedonia! Land of the brave and free!
[long pause, filled with the sound of cascading silverware]
Groucho: I can't understand what's delaying that coffee pot!
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
And the sky says You Are Here.
I saw it the other day as a map. It's other things, too: a circus, an ocean, a ceiling, a port. But from outer space it's the map the planet wears of white swirls and contrails over the undermap of blues and browns and moss-greens. That's the same map we're looking up at, only ours is the local version, bound by local horizons, a few miles across. And wouldn't it be interesting if we could open a map like this, like something out of Harry Potter, showing clouds and air currents in ceaseless motion, revealing and concealing our whereabouts? But it would be unnecessary. Looking up, we know that here and now is beneath the sky directly overhead, and that varying degrees of then and thereness stretch to the horizon, which is that edge of the world people once feared as the border of Never. Now we know it's just the border of Not Yet and Eventually. Which may be why horizon clouds sometimes make me feel a little uneasy, because they're experiencing some time behind or some time ahead, a distant conversation I can't hear. (I really don't know clouds at all.)
This has nothing to do with the Red Sox. Or maybe it does. At some point tonight we will be directly under the outcome of their last regular-season baseball game, and it will bring many of us joy or consternation or an extension of anxiety for one more day. I cannot ride the cloud that already knows the answer. So I will ride the planet and wait for it to be the current current overhead. But I hope to hell they win and the Rays don't.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
I say give me a reason to wear a sweater and these big high-top slippers I just got from Lands End for 9.99. Put me in the catalog with the other dudes in the wool tartan plaid shirts and the wide-wale corduroys. I'll go wandering off in some wet meadow instead of posing with the Irish setter, and come back with my cuffs wet and a dozen cockleburs on my sleeves. And I'll lead a mutiny of the models to throw off their veneers and look and act like real people, but it will be quelled by a silver-haired dad model with the testosterone of a teenager, curse my luck. And no one will ever know about the brief rebellion that took place between pages 78 and 81. Needless to say, I was not asked back to the Lands End catalog.
Just as well. I have already begun buying pumpkin muffins at Dunkin Donuts and half-peck bags of apples at Stop and Shop, and today I lingered over the Halloween cards at Walgreen's. And I am definitely thinking about kettles of broad-winged hawks migrating over the summits of Mt. Watatic and Mt. Wachusett. (Gesundheit.) I say, be seasonable.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Unlike Irene, we are in the lees of Lee, the dregs, which is making for a wet week. A rainy, gray September is not much different from any other wet, gray, rainy month. It discourages uplift. It has the weary sound of windshield wipers on intermittent just as you realize there's not enough drizzle to cover its complaining sigh. Today's continuation of yesterday's rain began with the unwelcome but fitting sight of a few hundred little maggots making their blind way over and up and down the garbage container, which I'd put out for the trash collectors the night before--larvae-free, as far as I knew. I hosed it down, grimly and, to passing cars, redundantly, except the hose was way more effective as a vermicide than the drizzle.
On Thursday the last wet heavy downpour, amid which I drive my son to school, joining a long line of cars queued up in the AHS turnaround, off-loading kids to be educated by strangers on another first day of school -- or the year.
Back home, I finish Zeitoun while the rain thuds down like an old vendetta. Then just a grudge. Then it lets up, which is too bad because now it's merely wet outside and the sky is white and tight as a short-sheeted bed with the annoying schuss of cars and trucks going to unknown places.
Eventually I go outside to put a Netflix in the mailbox (the red envelope now as common and telling as the YOU-GOT-A-TICKET! orange of a traffic citation), and mosey down to Spy Pond, where I see piles of clouds massed and milling like a demobbed army waiting for a new war. This one, Lee, is over.
The Canada geese are avidly grazing, yanking up grass in their black bills like it's going out of style. I frown on this despoiling of the lawn, but I'm not willing to make like a dog and yap them into the water. Then I see with pleasure another bird on the periphery of the herd. It's a spotted sandpiper. I've seen it here before, again in company with the geese. It picks its way along the shore, flies briefly to a rock, where it teeters, as they do, then flies back and resumes its foraging. It's not tiny, maybe seven inches long, but among the grazing geese it's like a mouse, a mascot, one of those symbiotic little opportunists that hang around big animals in a fable-like way. The geese don't seem to mind, but it's not exactly underfoot either.
The moral may be: Birds of a different feather flock together in the lee of the weather.
Monday, September 5, 2011
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
I was going to write about a good day, which I stumbled upon briefly last week, before the storm. It was one of these days that merge summer with fall. The tiredness in the leaves suddenly reinterpreted with a surmising breeze.
A good day is a kind of persistent daily myth. We're bidden to have it by waitresses and cashiers and bank tellers as if we're each embarking on our own private folktale and need this verbal amulet (Y'all have a good day) against trolls, ogres, and jabberwocks. It's occasionally celebrated in song, like Paul McCartney's edenic mantra, "Good Day, Sunshine" or earlier, that old pop standard, "It's a Good Day," which Peggy Lee wrote (who knew?), the one where she, or Perry Como, encourages the sun to rise and shine. We seldom have a good day like that, but it's frequently possible to find pieces of a good day in your path, which are good to pick up and collect, like beach glass.
My good day began with a good decision: to conquer my laziness and pump up the tires of my bike to the 35psi rock-hardness that a good bike deserves. Feeling uncharacteristically competent, well-situated, and fortunate that I didn't have a flat tire--far from it!--I continued on to the bike path that runs along Spy Pond and invites riders of sufficient mettle to go as far as Bedford to the west or Somerville the other way. I took the westward turn and there by the path was this guy I'd seen before: an itinerant bike mechanic who had a mobile bench set up and one of those stanchions for hoisting a bike like a patient in a chair. I pedalled on by, for what need had I? But then I thought, and slowed, and stopped, and turned around, and went back. For I did have a need. My bike wouldn't change gears to the big sprocket, the one where you work the hardest, thus confining me to pedalling that was too rapid and too loose for a velocipedant such as myself. Having already done my bike some good, I was well-poised to do it better. The bike mechanic, Tim by name, labored over my Univega for a good twenty minutes. I tried it out. Success! Ten bucks and a two buck tip. On I went. Through Arlington Center, past the Uncle Sam statue (the real guy, not the symbolic guy), and all the other landmarks: the old Brigham's ice cream factory, the high school, the Dept. of Public Works. Pulling in at The Bike Stop, secure in the knowledge that my bike was in good repair, needing only a cold drink.
Realizing I was in the midst of a good day (vaguely aware that it had something to do with bicycles) I sat down on one of the plastic chairs under the trees with my can of pomegranate Polar Seltzer. I extracted a pad from my backpack. "A good day," I wrote, as if I were an expert, "should have the following ingredients:
1. An expenditure of worthwhile effort (e.g. work, play, art, repair, volunteering, writing, exercise)
2. A mind-engaging period of input (reading, music, conversation)
3. A pleasant surprise or serendipity, either external or internal (i.e., a good idea)"
I needed a mnemonic. Effort, input, surprise. E – I – Oh.
Did my day qualify? I put air in the tires, I filled six flashlights with batteries in advance of Irene, I wrote this; I half-listened to the radio while doing a reasonably hard crossword puzzle; and a pleasant surprise: the bike repair dude.
A final observation: "What goes well with Polar Seltzer? Oral pretzels."
Thursday, August 25, 2011
On Tuesday, we got an earthquake -- or anyway the house rocked gently back and forth like a giant cradle. We never get earthquakes.
And right now, Hurricane Irene is rolling slowly up the Eastern seaboard, due to arrive on Sunday. Supposedly she will be more irenic (peaceful) than she was in the Caribbean. But not so irenic as to be ironic. Anyway, we almost never get hurricanes.
I'm not suggesting that we all bone up on our Armageddon Preparedness drills (basically yelling "Armageddon outa here!" and running like hell). But it does seem like the end-of-the-worlders could have had more recruits if they'd waited a few months.
As earthquakes go, it was a carnival ride for toddlers. I was at the dining room table when the house was possessed by the gentlest swaying, forward and back, accompanied by a rockinghorse creaking. Except it was dumbfounding. The equivalent of a giant ? over the head of a cartoon character. At first it was a sensation looking for a name. Pretty soon the brain came up with the name--more of a tentative suggestion. It couldn't really be an earthquake but of course it had to be an earthquake. The rocking continued. (These were those fat, slow seconds reserved for unusual events.) So, what to do about it? 1. Ride it out. It was so gentle. Almost fun. 2. Mosey outside. Would it soon become less gentle and not at all fun? 3. Something about standing in a door frame. A few more fat seconds later, the rocking ceased, the creaks subsided. The gods had finished their bouncy-bouncy. Relief and disappointment high-fived each other like a pair of tectonic plates.
Belatedly, words spilled out. "Holy shit!" From Matt's room, an echo: "Holy shit!" He came out, looking agog and delighted. I was happy for him. A grandpa moment at age sixteen.
I looked at my watch. Seven minutes to two. It seemed important to fix the moment. Next important thing was to validate the event by finding it in the media. But it was too fresh. It was still in the tender "what the fuck was that??" phase, a story not yet told. Nothing on the Internet, the radio, not even a businesslike bulletin bursting through the bubble agony of the soaps.
The soft tissue was already hardening into history, though. Brains were busy measuring it, making sense of it, canvassing reactions to it. My father-in-law came upstairs, bemused and amused. 5.8, epicenter near Washington, D.C., he reported.
The innocent, freefalling, naked sensation--the ? moment--was a gently rocking memory to be freely distributed as "DId you feel the earthquake?" trading cards. Those who hadn't, somehow had.
"Are you having a hurricane party?" I heard someone ask someone else today. Meaning Irene. And there will be a run on milk and water and chips and salsa and other essentials. Some people in Winthrop will board up their windows because you can't be too careful, as the too-careful say. Mainly, the expectation, at least two days before, is a kind of fun hurricane, like the fun earthquake.
We can feel guilty or grateful that our disasters don't measure up to the maximum hell that other places get. No famines, no floods, no fires. What we have is heck. No shame in that.
Monday, August 22, 2011
There's usually a day in August, following a heavy rain, when fall looks in. I think that might have happened today, or begun to. It was still humid enough to make my hair sweat, but a new breeze was abroad. And still is tonight. Making urgent conversation with the leaves, over the neighbors' air conditioner, in a kind of surflike susurrus. Possibly prepping them on the endgame over the next few months. They say it will rain before dawn. Then become cooler than it's been, maybe. Rumors abound.
Augur could be the name for this time of August-with-a-hint-of-September when we start to look for signs, of which there are plenty. A timeline of flowers, leavetaking of birds, drowsing of trees, oasting of weeds. Then it becomes a bit more pointed, a little more -ember. Call it Auger. Then Amber. The last summer ale. Then it's a whole new project, September, rolling in on a tide of yellow pencils and three-ring filler paper and other taut intimations of, write it on the board, flab quivering under sleeveless arm as chalk moves left to right: M-s S-c-h-o-o-l-b-u-s-s. Is that really her name? Yes, but it's pronounced SHOOL- buss. And anyway, wake up, daydreamer, it's August, still August. A.k.a., Gus, the janitor. How was your vacation, Miz Schoolbus? Fine, Gus. How was yours? It ain't over, Miz Schoolbus. I'm still sweepin' the clouds away. You do that, Gus. Yes, ma'am. (He whistles the old tune down the polished corridor and, can't help himself, breaks into his Maurice Chevalier imitation: "I don't care what's down below, Let it rain, let it snow, I'll be up on a rainbow, Sweeping the clouds away!"
Saturday, August 13, 2011
I went out last night, but the moon glare was pretty bright. I didn't get further than Adams before walking home. The night was lit up like a murder scene from Perry Mason, with Tragg and Drake laboring down a hill to a suspicious black sedan, its doors flung open incriminatingly. I might have seen something that might have been a tremulous whisker, but it consumed itself like a mark on a magic slate.
Now it's the night of the 12th, supposedly the peak. I find myself reluctant to chase after these almanac milestones with the zeal I once did. I was present at least one night. Even if I didn't drive out to Rock Meadow as I have in other years, lying down on a hillside, letting my eyes roam the starry gazillions. Ah, there! It only takes one, but then you get greedy. Tonight I let them draw their chalkmarks unobserved.
It was a good day, though, one of those high August days of clipper ship clouds in a vacation-blue sky, and the Spy Pond song sparrows, the youngsters, were practicing their newly-mastered cadenzas, and the renditions are sounding more ornate, and less sticking-to-the-template than they were a week ago. The female mallard ducks looked as pondworthy as kayaks. I walked up to Menotomy Rocks park, hoping to hear a wood-pewee in the woods and I did, after a while. The importuning pee-oo-wee? repeated like a kid going "I gotta pee," followed by the wistful "pee-oooo," as in "never mind."
Sunday, July 31, 2011
I've been on vacation, mostly, in July. It was over the moment our airplane rose off the runway at SFO—an audacious thing to do, which made everything that had been right-sized around us become smaller and smaller. Unreal, a toy geography. It displaced us, we belonged to the barren zone of the sky, and we were brought back home like disobedient fugitives. We managed to run away again, to Cape Cod, and one day to Tanglewood to see Steely Dan. We drove there and drove back, so nothing got small. But California, we have to squeeze the memories out of a kind of extruder. Quentin, the llama in my sister's yard. A blue grosbeak singing from a telephone wire. A friend's house in Berkeley with avocado trees, a palm tree, and a redwood. Fireworks over the Marin County Fair. A Giants game. A Cubana band at the Dance Palace. All true but taking on the granular texture of a story now.
So I find myself aout-daciously rounding Cape August, as I always do, but usually with a stretch of vacation in the middle. Last year it was a trip to England. Other years, California or Maine. This year, the month lolls before me like a red hound dog on the sidewalk. I will get to know it in one place, through heat wave and thunderstorm, through perseids and loosestrife. I will follow the intensifying crickets and the occasional washboard katydid. I will accompany summer with empathy for its aging, for we are both approximately 63. We are both heading for September.
Monday, July 11, 2011
The other day I saw one in the kitchen, near the garbage container. A little graybrown fast thing, too big to ignore. This could only lead to an unhappy outcome for the mouse and me, the reluctant exterminator. But it couldn't be helped. Friends would be staying in the house while we were out of town. A message of zero tolerance needed to go out among the vermin. And this time the means would not be a Have-a-Heart trap with peanut-buttered Q-tips, resulting in gnawed plastic, unravelled cotton, and missing houdini. This time it would have to be a pair of beige-and-red Victory traps with spring-loaded bludgeons.
The next morning, my sleep-fogged eyes registered something dark and stationary by the right-hand trap. Death had come, at my invitation. A dirty trick, but I felt less guilty than I thought I would. Unseen mice at night leaving poppy-seed size turds in the silverware drawer was one thing. Conspicuous raiders in broad daylight was another. Rule number whatever.
The next day, some time in the afternoon, I was on the phone. "Dad!" Matt yelled from the living room. "Mouse!" It was a baby this time, a tiny gray fluffball with big black button eyes, peering at us from underneath the couch. Possibly orphaned by the events of the night before.
What followed was a kind of opera bouffe in which father and son, armed respectively with a sponge mop and aluminum bowl attempted to coax the little fellow first from under the couch, then from behind the radiator behind the couch. No amount of whacking and prying with the sponge mop seemed to persuade the mouse of our good intentions. In fact, we weren't sure exactly where it was until Matt spied it unaccountably clear across the room, huddling next to a leg of the dining room table. A different mouse? Not likely. Somehow it had escaped our dragnet and our peripheral vision and pulled off a disappearance/reappearance that nature has granted mice with the ability to do.
This called for a new strategy. Luckily, the mouse felt either helpless or invisible enough to remain beside its table leg while I rummaged through the recyclables bin and came up with a vente Starbucks container. I approached the mouse cautiously from the rear, expecting it to bolt at any second. The tail could be a problem. At last in a slo-mo fell swoop—tail at the last minute pulled in—I managed to enhouse it in the vente. It jumped and hit air-colored wall. I slipped a thin piece of file folder under it for a floor, and in a swift inversion, it became the ceiling, shortly replaced by a length of Saran Wrap, bound by a rubber band and ventilated by Matt with a few pokes of a scissor blade.
"Baby mice," I informed Matt, "are called pinkies." This one was probably too old to be called that, but still young, terribly cute, and very panicky. We slipped a couple of veggie chips through the roof holes and considered our next move. Keep it as a pet? There was the matter of no cage, going on vacation, and the fact that it didn't seem to want to be kept, from the way it kept jumping in its confines. No choice seemed kind, either to us or to the mouse, but the best one was to release it outside. Since we were going out anyway, we got in the car, container in Matt's lap, and drove down to Spy Pond.
No one noticed what we were carrying to the copse of trees near the bike path, or saw us kneel by a tree, roll the rubber band off the Saran Wrap, and give a tap or two to coax the former resident of 34 Allen St. to venture out into its new home, the great outdoors. Could it survive out here without the benefit of fallen Cheerios? Instead of our comfortable crannies, it had to learn a new wild architecture in order to avoid crows, hawks, owls, gulls...what was I doing, subjecting it to nature's rules? But this wasn't our pet hamster. And wasn't this its real home, or at least its parents'...or grandparents'....? Finally it crept out of its last vestige of human habitation and into the unfamiliar green world of grass blades and leaf litter. Big-eyed. On high alert.
Midsummer is actually not a midpoint but a broad field to get across. It takes a month or two, then it's noticeably late summer. But not quite yet. July is still a summer novel on the beach. Half-read.Along the way, the venue has a way of shifting. I started this post in Massachusetts. Now it's a cool night in northern California. There is a llama outside. Matt and his uncle are playing a duet on guitar and flute ("Goodnight, Sweetheart"). My sister is reading the Sunday Times magazine. At some point, in a few days, our midsummer will move back to Massachusetts. It will also continue here in California, and elsewhere. Canada. Florida. Northern Europe. With the best-laid plans of mice and men going predictably agley.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Almanac humor. Not to every taste.
Seven wiki-facts about summer:
It's the second-longest season (May to September), winter being the longest (November to April).
It's the heaviest season, due to the weight of humidity and people's expectations.
It's the celebrity of seasons, and occasionally it gets roasted.
Of all seasons, it changes the least from beginning to end, but more than people think.
It's alternately the most and least comfortable season.
It's simultaneously the most- and least-clothed season.
Sitting in Jam 'n Java with a tea and scone on a cool wet summer day, waiting for Matt, who's at his guitar lesson, across the street. It's the second day of rain, which means it's officially the rainiest summer we've ever had. I don't mind. Gray and green go well together. Green gets tired of reflecting sunshine. It enjoys a little damp and drear for a change. Gray doesn't care one way or the other. This is a good place to observe people. Two women are talking earnestly. One is more flamboyant, in a subdued way, wearing a long loose black blouse with white edges and many bangles on her arm. Because I wrote about her, I will remember her forever. Her companion benefits from no such immortality. Some kid comes in wearing a Bruins T-shirt that says I Want It. He joins a group at a table and a few minutes later they are playing a loud table-slamming game of Slam or Smack or whatever it's called. Outside, umbrellas are walking around. My cell phone vibrates, then makes an alarming fanfare that has me scrabbling in my pocket till I pull it out like a pestiferous crustacean. It's Matt. His lesson's over. It's also the start of his summer vacation, but because of the gray day, it hasn't sunk in yet. I put on my Russell Orchards hat and go outside into the rain.
Monday, June 20, 2011
It was the Strawberry Festival at Russell Orchards in Ipswich, Mass. I drove up with Charlie, my father-in-law, and his friend Joan. Originally it was supposed to include Carol and Matt, but they were pinned down with schoolwork. So the dads went unescorted by their progeny. Lunch consisted of strawberry shortcake (it's all about the biscuit), cider donuts, and cheese and crackers from the wine-tasting. Music, as usual, was delivered by the local north-shore bluegrass band, Old Cold Tater. Charlie defied (or honored) his 88 years by picking strawberries out in the fields. I strolled down to see the ponies, goats, chickens, and guineafowl. Joan read a magazine and listened to the bluegrass. Children got their faces painted ("Meow, meow," sang a little girl cat) and batted their fathers with balloon animals and balloon flowers. I bought a Russell Orchards cap, a cider, three donuts, and two quarts of strawberries someone else had picked. Charlie came back on the hay wagon with four quarts of strawberries picked by himself. Joan bought a loaf of bread. We headed home, reasonably satisfied.
Friday, June 17, 2011
I will settle for postcards from the attic. I write in a small room on the top floor of a three-story house in Arlington, Massachusetts. It is, I understand, a finished attic, with three rooms, a bathroom, and a corridor. You can see what it used to look like in the storage room where a hodgepodge of luggage, New Yorkers, old computers, creative incunabula, a stuffed llama, an introspective telescope, and other keepsakes for their own sake discourage entry. In these holus-bolus surroundings, I will henceforth allow myself loftish indulgences on any subject, or at least the self-selected ones that appear in the Pez dispenser of my brain, beginning with a robin in the rain.
It's outside the window, a house or two up Allen Street. No, it just moved. I think I can still hear it, a bold shorthand of looping chirrups along a line like spring's stenographer. And it's not raining now, but it was. It's somber and windy and the maple is tossing and waving its green leaves like jazz hands. Now the robin is gone, and the gap has been filled by passing planes, a persistent house sparrow, and the radio, echoey hammering, and expostulations of the construction crew working on the house next door. And the whistling wind.
Yesterday I was thinking a lot about Vancouver, where I lived in the 70s and 80s. Being now in Boston, I had two teams in the Stanley Cup finals. And though I didn't mind that the Bruins had prevailed over the Canucks, I spent anxious hours yesterday glued to the Vancouver Sun website, following the latest updates about the rioting that had befallen my old city like a destructive man-made tornado. What feeds the need to destroy? What is that hunger for mayhem that events with large crowds make enticingly available? I got no further than the question. But I felt better when for some reason I thought of Al Simmons. What's Al Simmons up to? I wondered.
I first encountered Al Simmons at the Vancouver International Children's Festival, maybe in 1977 or so. He was and still is a children's entertainer, tall, lanky, bespectacled--kind of goofy-looking in a very genial, likeable way. What I most remember was his eye test. Wearing a long lab coat onstage, he pointed to an easel printed with rows of letters and numbers. And promptly began to lead us in a sing-along: I M 4 U, S I M, S I M, I N 10 2 B 4 U 4 F R... (say it to yourself and you'll hear the rebus) It was so spontaneous, so unexpected, so cheering, that it remains an enduring spike of happiness, 34 years later.
I must have been a volunteer at that festival, because I remember going up to Al Simmons (who was carrying around an infant at the time) in some room where refreshments were being served, and telling him how much I loved that song. He thanked me and told me it had been Jack Paar's theme song on his old TV talk show, which I didn't know.
Al lives in Winnipeg, I think. Maybe he did then and still does. There are a lot of reassuring videos of Al Simmons, young and old, on YouTube, including a great one of Al doing the foxtrot in a Dancing with the Celebrities show. And you can even hear I M 4 U on his CD, Celery Stalks at Midnight. Good on ya, Al, as Peter Gzowski used to say.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
It's taken on this new role as impresario of the explanation. I'm hearing it everywhere: conversations, radio interviews...
Someone asks a question, especially one requiring an answer of a few sentences:
How did you get into show business?
How do I get to the Major Deegan Expressway?
Why is the sky blue?
Whereupon the respondent replies:
So I was playing the part of an eggplant in a play about the Food Groups...
So you make a right turn at the light...
So the atmosphere is full of these dust particles...
So, why does this annoy me? I'm not sure.
Maybe because it presumes something that isn't so. That the answer is part of a longer narrative, a "blah bah blah; therefore...."which it isn't, so so becomes a kind of affectation.
Or that the speaker is saying, "Okay, let me break it down for you." or even "Let me dumb it down for you."
It's hard to pin down, but whatever it is doesn't reside in the entry word "Well," or even "Okay." Well and okay suggest that it's fine you asked, that you were right to ask, that there's an equality between the question and the answer.
So makes the respondent an expert; there's just a hint of "I know more than you; I even know how this question fits into the Big Picture." It tips the scale slightly in favor of the respondent.
I'm probably sounding like a lunatic, or at least a dangerous over-thinker, and I admit this is subtle. But so is one of those words that does more than you think. It's a connector: this causes that. It's an expander: I am so not ready for that test. It has serious attitude as a question: so what? (of course, the time-honored answer is so buttons on your underwear!) or when issuing a challenge: So sue me.
In YIddish it's even more expressive. Nu? So--what do you think? Didn't I tell you? Do I know or do I know? It suggests any number of responses, including no response necessary.
And used declaratively, it is the way things are: So. Cause and effect in one. So it goes. And then there was Roger Angell's peerless palindrome when the Red Sox, one strike away from beating the Mets in the 1986 World Series, let it slip away between Bill Buckner's legs: Not so, Boston.
After all that, using so to introduce an innocent explanation seems harmless. Maybe I just object to using a museum docent as a parking valet. On the other hand, in this economy...
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Friday, June 3, 2011
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
I went out for a walk to mail a letter. I didn't like the look of those clouds to the north. I turned around again and opted for the car. At the post office, the lady behind the counter hummed a few bars of the Wicked Witch theme from "The Wizard of Oz." People were talking about it at Stop and Shop. It was odd to hear "tornado" in idle supermarket conversation. In the checkout line, a distant rumble of thunder gave me pause. I didn't like pause. I picked up Matt at a friend's house just ahead of some rain plops, with a slight feeling of intervention, but not a real one. More like a rehearsal. On our way home, NPR was interrupted by alarming electronic shrills and deep beeps. I recognized them: the sounds from "This is only a test. If this had been a real emergency, you would have been alerted to go to the nearest shelter, etc. " Except this was the real thing! A computerized-sounding voice droned through a list of cities and counties, most in the central part of the state, which were threatened by severe storms, including the possibility of tornadoes. By the time we got home, turned on the TV, it was more than rumor, it was videos of funnel clouds and flying debris and crunched buildings in downtown Springfield. And for the next hour it was a weather map of our tornado-proof state being attacked by a stream of incoming, multicolored amoebae parts of which indicated tornadic (they loved throwing that adjective around) activity, alongside a steady feed of Youtube videos showing black skies and down-reaching, whirling gray smoke like an evil cotton candy machine.
We are not in Springfield or any of the other little towns in central Massachusetts that improbably got whacked by twisters today. Arlington might have been in another state for the little we got--some rain, a stiff breeze, a few spells of very flashy lightning. Most of us were stunned witnesses to the misfortune of our western brethren, a gap it's hard to bridge, even by empathy. They got the tornado; it missed us. Bummer.
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
It's the birds' fault. Between April and late May, there's this amazing influx of birds, most foraging and sojourning on their way north, some staying. Each bird occupies a particular place of resonance, especially in those first re-encounters. The fashionable new, whistleable cadenza of a Baltimore oriole, accompanied by its brilliant tangerine in a treetop. The bell-flute of a wood thrush, slightly echoey, the way they like it, in the woods. The darting, precise energy of multiple warblers and kinglets, various flickers of color, here-I-ams of song. It's equal parts reunion, capture, and wish-fulfillment, to be repeated in various woods, meadows, and cemeteries every eligible early morning, alone, with a friend, or in a company of fellow obsessives.
So this blog entry, like its title, and the whole agony-reward syndrome that birding is, has been an elusive quarry. I'm not even sure if I've got a good purchase on it now, three paragraphs in. The thing to do is watch for movement and keep hopeful. This often works better with writing than it does with birds.
Birds want to be noticed by rivals or potential mates, but not necessarily by human stalkers holding up clunky eye-extenders. On the other hand, there is the curiosity factor. What are we up to? Sometimes a threat needs to be checked out. Or sometimes we occupy a zone of opportunity: food, roost, nest site. Or at least the neutral zone of familiarity. They must have assigned us a certain place in their own inner Field Guide to Non-Birds, maybe subdividing the friendlies (birders) from the bewares (quail hunters, homewreckers, etc.). Whatever the odds, to see or not to see is a game of chance that can produce cinematic memories that you replay for decades, like the two pileated woodpeckers I saw in a forest clearing in Nova Scotia, or bitter confirmation of your lousy juju.
How much is skill and how much is luck? They intertwine. You work the chance. Hear the call, recognize it, follow it to the right tree, catch the movement (knowing where to look) and it emerges! in full sunlight! Or you lose the damn landmark between the eye and the binoculars and it disappears behind a barrier of leaves and before you have it, it flies away, a brief fleeing silhouette that is a seeing of sorts, but offering no kiss of color, nothing for the memory or even the imagination.
Does it help to have another set of eyes? Probably. I think of the indigo bunting singing away in the copse of trees by the stump dump at the Brooks Estate. I peered. Nothing. The song moved. It's a very cheerful song, but brief, like a memorized aphorism. I studied the array of trees, watching for a clue, like a golfer regarding the lie. Another birder approached. He resembled a young Irish schoolteacher, with Yeatsian round glasses. He guided me to another spot, a different angle on the copse. He confirmed it was still there and fed me a careful map of reference points: the main tree, the leaning branch, the treeline behind, halfway up, and then I had it. As deeply glowingly blue as indigo buntings ever get in a shaft of late-afternoon sunlight. I drank it in. "I couldn't have done it without you," I said, and there was gratitude in that, and also a little bitterness. The bird you find on your own has a certain intimacy: you were meant for each other. But there is the pleasure of sharing: the ensemble moan of a group seeing the sunset throat of a Blackburnian warbler... And do I prefer self-failing to assisted-succeeding? What are you, crazy?
It also helps to be in the right place at the right time. I was at Mt. Auburn Cemetery early in May with friends, pursuing some warbler or other. I'd fallen into conversation, and by the time I caught up with my friend Helen, I learned what I had just missed by minutes. Flying over the cemetery in graceful formation was a trio of sandhill cranes. My grail bird! I had once missed seeing it by a day in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia. I had long fantasized about making a pilgrimage to the Platte River in Nebraska or Bosque del Apache in New Mexico where sandhills gather by the thousands. And here in the sky--three sandhill cranes passing overhead in formation. A rendezvous I had failed to keep. A picture I had to create from other people's descriptions and, in consolation, a photograph.
Not that it was a bad spring. I had a splendid encounter with a chestnut-sided warbler, didn't see a Canada, did see a Magnolia, a Nashville, a Tennessee, a Black-throated Blue, didn't see the Wilson's, the Hooded, the Kentucky. Did see redstarts. Did and didn't see a prothonotary warbler.
The prothonotary warbler is a southern beauty of marsh and swamp that I mainly know from bird books and for the fact that they are named for a rank of Catholic prelates who wear brilliant yellow robes. A fortunate wind had brought one of these golden-yellow and blue-winged warblers to Brooks Pond on the Estate. It didn't show up where last reported, but I only found out in early evening: time to tuck its giolden head under blue wing. Tomorrow morning, for sure.
I went with friend Ed, whose juju is better than mine. He had seen a pair of prothonotaries a week earlier on the Ipswich River. We worked the peninsulas along the pond, both sides. No luck. And then we ran into an uber-birder who pointed us to a group right around the corner who had the prothonotary in sight, in hand, there for the taking. It was in a fallen but leafy tree projecting out into the water. We joined the eager group. They gave us careful location notes. Ed saw it. I kept looking. "Don't try to find it with your binoculars," one burly photographer instructed me, taking me for a complete neophyte. "Look for movement first." As a result I hesitated before re-training my glasses on a yellow-and-something bird perched on the main limb. And it flew. That was it. And that was all.
There are rationalizations. The brief glimpse is realer, more birdlike, you tell yourself. Or you return in memory to the barely seen and fill it out, make the whole experience an adventure on a par with Audubon's, Nuttall's, Townsend's, any of those roving ornithologsts of the nineteenth century. Or you measure the unseen against the seen, and who's to say the prothonotary is worth more than the chestnut-sided, or if you want to add the really close look at the male rose-breasted grosbeak you saw, its fat ivory bill quivering with song. Or, fine, add the indigo too. And go ahead and throw in the pileated woodpeckers. Is the scale balanced yet? And remember, you saw it. Kind of.
Anyway, seen or unseen, it got you to finish this blog entry.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
This afternoon I tear myself away from revising old blog posts (as a book) to find the grist for a new one, because it's extraordinary out there. In the seventies! (Septaguinta!) Then Matt comes home. We should play tennis, I suggest (though my heart is telling me to ride my bike out to the Brooks Estate in Medford, listen for new birds). But he's tired, finally. Feeling a little disingenuous, I say, that's okay, and maybe we'll play when I get back.
I ride to Brooks, following a zigzag route to Mystic River, up Saltonstall Rd., through the cemetery to the woods. Try to lock my bike; no keys. Left them at home. Never mind. I wheel the bike down the path to Brooks Pond, lean it against a tree. Mallards are quacking lustily and nonstop. I go for a look and hey! There's the hooded merganser that thinks it's a mallard, hanging out with the male and female mallard "like a Ukrainian orphan," in the words of my friend Ed. And better yet! There's the wood duck pair Ed told me about. Wood duck drakes have an Asian look, a green samurai helmet, as well as a North American look, broad bosky swatches of maroon browns and whites and blacks and greens and a red eye. The hen is gray with white tear-shaped goggles. A classy couple. I watch the hoodie and the woodies for a while, then steer my bike over to the deck at the end of the boardwalk, with built-in benches. The water is high and the planks creak ominously, but I lean the bike against the railing and sit down gingerly. And write:
There's nothing new under the sun. T or F?
And think about the conspiracy of spring. Literally a breathing together of us and new scents, subtle and un-. Not sure where that sweet spicy smell comes from, but it's wonderful. There are no other birds. Well, a few common ones: redwings, grackles, distant goldfinch and ringing flicker. This mild breeze must be Zephyrus, the west wind Chaucer talks about in his April prologue to The Canterbury Tales (Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / the droght of March hath perced to the roote):
Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
It's a conspiracy because it's the old oxygen/CO2 exchange and because we're not in on it the way the rest of nature is. They're all collaborating, or being collaborated upon by this urgent warm wind that is urging up green blades and buds and leaflets, and conjuring up flowers, daffodils and forsythia, that royal blue carpet of scylla at the foot of many an old tree. It's a sexy temperature, no doubt about it, reminding you of every other sexy day in April or May with a warm breeze stirring, so the answer is:
Sunday, April 3, 2011
And it did not go out like a lamb, unless the few inches of wet, see-ya, snow that fell on eastern Mass. was supposed to be white as fleece.
After which April came in like that same shivering fox in lamb's clothing, with a weak April Fool grin.
Today is actually April 3, disguised as March 31, the day I wrote "Outs and Ins" up there. Months come in and go out in a variety of disguises, and in between they take on a costumery of other identities. This either says something about the futility of putting a face on a month, or the opportunity to put on as many faces as you like.
Last week we made the comment that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Now here to reply is our chief meteorologist, John Belushi, with a seasonal report.
Thank you Chevy. Well, another winter is almost over and March true to form has come in like a lion, and hopefully will go out like a lamb. At least that's how March works here in the United States.
But did you know that March behaves differently in other countries? In Norway, for example, March comes in like a polar bear and goes out like a walrus. Or, take the case of Honduras where March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a salt marsh harvest mouse.
Let's compare this to the Maldive Islands where March comes in like a wildebeest and goes out like an ant. A tiny, little ant about this big.
[holds thumb and index fingers a small distance apart]
Unlike the Malay Peninsula where March comes in like a worm-eating fernbird and goes out like a worm-eating fernbird. In fact, their whole year is like a worm-eating fernbird.
Or consider the Republic of South Africa where March comes in like a lion and goes out like a different lion. Like one has a mane, and one doesn't have a mane. Or in certain parts of South America where March swims in like a sea otter, and then it slithers out like a giant anaconda.
There you can buy land real cheap, you know. And there's a country where March hops in like a kangaroo, and stays a kangaroo for a while, and then it becomes a slightly smaller kangaroo. Then, then, then for a couple of days it's sort of a cross between a, a frilled lizard and a common house cat.
[Chevy Chase tries to interrupt him]
Wait wait wait wait. Then it changes back into a smaller kangaroo, and then it goes out like a, like a wild dingo. Now, now, and it's not Australia! Now, now, you'd think it would be Australia, but it's not!
[Chevy Chase tries to interrupt him]
Now look, pal! I know a country where March comes in like an emu and goes out like a tapir. And they don't even know what it means! All right? Now listen, there are nine different countries, where March comes in like a frog, and goes out like a golden retriever. But that- that's not the weird part! No, no, the weird part is, is the frog. The frog- The weird part is-
At this point John Belushi kind of loses it and falls off his chair. But I think I know what he was going to say. The weird part is the frog gets frog-Marched in . . . by a lion!
Sunday, March 27, 2011
I have this compost of jottings, some of them decades old. Some of them molder in the Word document where I left them, others in my scribble, usually a black ballpoint, on a small library of pads and notebooks. (In dreams I am always finding my writings in odd places: flea markets, antique stores, Dumpsters, strangers' waste baskets.) Do they serve a purpose, composting in a file cabinet? Are they in some way nourishing this writing in a secret evolution by osmosis? Or do I owe them a shot at the big-time, a "cup of coffee" in the majors, so to speak?
I have already rescued a couple of more-or-less finished pieces, giving them a shave, outfitting them in an Old Hatch's Almanac uniform, slapping them on the butt and sending them out there, like a 40-year-old rookie. "Hurry Up, Cows" was one. "Jimi Hendrix and the Jolly Jumper" was another. This one is called "Good Old Days" and hearkens back (some day I'd like to try hearkening foward) to a November day a few years ago.
Lately I’ve been writing brief entries in my “journal,” my book of days, that begin “Good old” whatever the day is. Today it’s good old November 30. I am looking out at it, through the tree, which was not possible a couple of weeks ago; but November has done its work of erasing and it leaves the world browner and colder and barer than it found it.
I started this “good old” business on my birthday, which is the one day I’m personally entitled to get chummy with—me and my fellow 10/27 passengers.
There are other days, holidays, semi-holidays (anniversaries, beginnings of seasons, big football games) that warrant an extra dose of respect, attention, or excitement: “Today’s the big day!” “TGIF!” But that’s not quite the same thing as “Good old…” It’s possible, I’ve found, just by writing an entry that begins with those words, to make a day more your own, especially a day that has no apparent distinguishing features for you. (My own good old October 27th may even be that day for many others, difficult as that is to believe.)
Take this day, which happens to coincide with this writing, an accident of time. I write “Good old November 30”—taking the “good old” purely on faith—and glance out at it to see what might justify that affectionate squeeze. Like a loyal dog the day looks back at me, eager to reward my friendly overture. Behold the wizened leaves, trembling in a light breeze. Behold the flat-bottomed fleet of scow clouds. It happens to be sunny. The light lies in musing planes on my black recliner like an old man recalling his youth. The day has a story, or at least a personality. Nor am I talking about the usual almanac stories each day contains (“On this day in 1888…”) I mean this day—which has a name, true, November 30, and a history, things happened on it on previous go-rounds, but I mean this good old brand-new day, especially when contemplated in the morning, before anything terrible has happened that might cause you to unfairly blame the temporal container of the event, which is as unfair as blaming the spatial one, but we kick the day like we kick the chair. Yet, conversely, when things are going well, do we praise the day? Do we say, “Way to go, November 30?” Not really. We congratulate ourselves, or the turn of events, which is fine, mazeltov, we should all have such days, but I repeat, I’m talking about the day, the boxcar, the one you befriended before anything wonderful or lousy happened in it.Having befriended the day, it’s easier to go out into it or proceed through it with something of a companionable feel well into the afternoon before you forget that you forged a rleationship with it, which you probably will. Though even after you do, some good residue may remain. Consciously or unconsciously, you may find yourself looking up at the sky, the day’s face, with a collusive or collaborative appraisal. Or nothing in particular, just the invisible wind of minutes scrolling by—friendly minutes, seconds you were introduced to several hours ago when the day was good old November 30 or January 19 (cold and overcast and unlovable) or March 3. These are the good old days.