Sunday, March 27, 2011

Good Old Days

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.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dumb Old Ordinary Moon

I meant to be like a cool dad and pile the family into the station wagon (well, the Honda Accord) and drive to the top of Arlington, Robbins Farm, with the unimpeded view of Boston and the eastern horizon. There to see, no, behold, the rising of the supermoon, as big and astonishing as a giant yellow banana custard pie, 20% bigger than normal full moons because it's at the perigee of its orbit or something, a position it achieves once every 18 years.

But I forgot.

Until my father-in-law came up from downstairs to suggest we go outside to see the brightest moon there has ever been. (Doh!)

So we all trooped dutifully outside, but by then it was an hour or two above the housetops, floating free, with no horizon's trappings and trimmings to show off its hugeness. In the words of my friend Kitty Colton, who also arrived late, but expected more, it was just the dumb old ordinary moon.

Which is extraordinary enough!
Yeah, yeah, be quiet. Next time I have a chance to see the supermoon I'll be eighty. If I'm lucky. And watch, it'll turn out to be overcast that night. And I'll think back to the one I missed when I was sixty-two.

Did you see the Twenty Eleven Supermoon, old-timer? they'll ask. (Long whistle of appreciation) I heard it was "awesome"! (They'll say it in patronizing quotes, the way people say "groovy" now.) Was it as awesome as they say? "Awesomer," I'll mutter, and describe the rising pie I never actually saw, except in my imagination.

I'll tell a Baron Von Munchausen tale about how the moon was so close you could put up a ladder and climb onto it and go bounding around like a kangaroo. And people went skateboarding in the craters and you could breathe because it was sharing Earth's atmosphere. And people took tons of photos of themselves on the ladder or at the foot of the ladder looking up, like some old postcard with the caption "WOTTA MOON!" And then, of course, the moon would edge away, gradually at first, like a big ship leaving the harbor, and then little by little putting out to sea, or sky. And maybe a few misguided adventurers from Kansas or Honolulu or Papua-New Guinea decided to remain on board the moon for an 18-year hitch until it came back to port. Their families and loved ones had begged and pleaded for them to change their minds, but no, they were moonstruck, you could see it in their eyes.

"Look for me when the moon is full or in last quarter," they'd say in a hoarse dreamy voice like Henry Fonda as Tom Joad at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. "Wherever you see a lunar eclipse on a night where the wind is blowing the October leaves across the sky, I'll be there. And wherever two lovers are a-settin' silhouetted against the moon of June while they listen to a crooner croon a tune—but not Pat Boone; anyone but Boone, even Lorna Doone—I'll be there..."

At which point they will totally give me up as a crazy old geezer, even making the circular sign with their forefinger, the international signal for barmy, loony-tunes, batty as a ballpark. And all because I felt like I had to enlarge the dumb old ordinary moon.

But that's what it's there for!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Live Your Life

I just read that Garrison Keillor is planning to retire in a couple of years, after he finds a replacement host for A Prairie Home Companion (yeah, sure), and I suppose says one final “That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children…are above average.”

He is entitled to retire. Seventy years old in 2013. Had a minor stroke last year. Has other things he wants to do. And it’s not as if I plan my weekend around PHC anymore, the way I used to in my late twenties and thirties.

But the fact is the guy’s been a fixture in my life since the 1970s. What will I do without him?

I’ve had many a dream about Garrison Keillor. In most of the dreams we know each other slightly. Sometimes I’m just in the audience or listening on the radio. Once I appeared on a version of his show, a character in an elaborate radio play. And we’ve had a number of writer-to-writer conversations. I’m usually pretty awestruck, even in the dream.

I had one such conversation with him recently. In this dream, I attended a show of PHC held in some small-town auditorium or town hall. Then afterwards, either he sat down at the table where I was sitting, or I sat down at his. We chatted—good show; thanks—and then as I was about to leave, he gave me some parting advice. “Live your life,” he said, and something else that was a minor adjunct to it, like “and don’t sweat the details.”

Mainly I awoke with the “Live your life” part. It seemed both simple and profound. What else are you going to do with your life but live it? Unless it was a counsel not to commit suicide. Or did it mean “Live your life”: don’t squander it; don’t take a passive role. Live it, steer it, feel it, orchestrate it! Will do. I mean, I will if I damn well feel like it.

Or possibly, as a frequent mentor and ideel in my dreams, he meant to stress the middle word: Live your life. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Wait, I get it. Live your life; not a fantasy, not a fiction, not even a blog.

I don’t know. Maybe I was saying it to him what with his pending retirement. Be well, GK, do good work, and keep in touch.

A sneaky way to give advice to myself.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Didn’t that name mean something very different a few days ago? A faraway land with a lot of people and a lot of energy. Mt. Fuji and delicate cherry blossoms in Kyoto. An amazing story of a bitter enemy whose cities we atomized sixty years ago, and who soon after became a charming friend and cultural alter ego. If the land itself remained faraway and storylike, its products mated with us and our vocabulary: Toyota, Sony, Honda, kimono, manga, Miyazaki, Mitsubishi, Pokemon, geisha, hibachi, haiku, samurai, sushi….

And still it’s so, but under a terrible dark, scary, pall. An accident that stays in our periphery, the thought of it never far away, and now Japan means something else: a fragile place, some skinny vulnerable islands, with so many people who have died, and whose survivors must all be stunned, scared, if not in a state of post-traumatic stress disorder to match the trauma that has overtaken Japan.

We’ve had earthquakes, but long ago (San Francisco) or at a far remove from our perceived center (Anchorage). We’ve had other natural disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, forest fires, even a few volcanic eruptions—that felt like deep wounds. But for national trauma we’d probably have to compare this to 9/11. It’s inexact in its particulars, of course. Ours was inflicted by people and the death toll was small by comparison. But the insult to the national soul, if there was one, seems similar.

So what do we do? We do what we do. Memorize those images: the creepy, insidious video of the tsunami rolling over the farmland, overtaking the orderly patchwork of crops, like chaos devouring civilization. And on the news tonight, gigantic tuna-fishing boats, the size of factories, lying on their sides in the roads of a fishing port. They had been out in the bay. The tsunami dragged them in like a stupid god. And a few people standing here and there, stock-still, trying to comprehend it.

Go on about our business. Watch the TV shows we always watch, speculate on the college basketball tournament, listen to James Taylor, order a coffee and muffin, maybe feel a little grateful, even guiltily grateful, for things like meals and showers. Check out the Times online or NPR for the latest news of the new troubled-sounding Japan. Write about it or write about bluebirds, read about it and read the comics, think about it and lots of other things, fleetingly. Donate money or think about donating money. Go back to the coffee and the email.

Reflect on how it seems our planet could take us or leave us sometimes. Or how, if we’re so smart, isn’t there anything we can do to settle those restless underground tectonic plates? No. Furthermore, the fine print on the ticket says that the planet will not be responsible for…and there’s a whole long list of “acts of God,” including earthquakes and tsunamis.

So we will just have to eat the warranty along with our fellow planetoids.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lost and Found

Into the vessel of time is poured event. Sounds heavy, but it's merely me sitting in a Dunkin' Donuts with a hot chocolate and a doughnut, writing coffee-shop faux wisdom as the hot chocolate and the doughnut slowly lose volume and mass, and I slowly gain it.

We have lost an hour. Careless of us. I'm trying to think where I last saw it. I definitely had it yesterday afternoon when I went out to Rock Meadow in Belmont. I was resuming my search for red-winged blackbirds—except this time there was no doubt I'd find them. They've been pretty well established, by all accounts, for at least two weeks. Still, putting the stamp on the corresponding photo is pretty gratifying, even if it's expected.

There was an array of them in the wetland that crossed the meadow, ringing like telephones, mostly unseen, but a few occupying places high in the bare treetops. I focused on one, flaring its fiery red epaulette in a semaphore designed to carry long distances. Nearby, posing for the same home movie, was a grackle, iridescent cousin in the blackbird family tree. They'd made the trip from somewhere south, maybe not far, maybe the Chesapeake. The vanguard of the vagabonds.

Sprig was becoming more nasal, more energized. Spri(n)g: you could almost hear the n. I walked the paths, the boardwalk, the back trail, looping through the little woods. It was less muddy than I expected and mostly snow-free except for strange broad patches of snow with that mushy, Italian-ice consistency. Why do they resist? Something to do with tree shadows? Angle of land surface? There were also in the grass small blebs of something like dumped ice shavings, in obvious, "What a world! What a world!" decline, looking quaint and sad.

Walking back to the main path, pausing at McLean Creek, I became dimly aware of a warble in the background, among the ringing telephones. I didn't take special notice of it. Then my ears sent my brain a text query: Isn't that a bluebird? And my brain produced a reasonable memory of the warble and agreed: Yes, I believe it is! Upon which, in high alert and excitement, ears, brain, and the rest of me stalked the elusive bird, which, obeying the law of demonstration in reverse proportion to desire, refused to sing. And then there was a flutter to my left and yes, it was a bluebird, swerving into a no-place-to-hide treetop.

It was turned slightly away from me, gray as driftwood above and pale rust below. Probably a female, unless the light was turning blue to gray. It was an airy sight, something of the sky, or "Hope is the thing with feathers." It was a solitary reminder—before the buzz of the May migration—that birds are the air folk. Their songs are snatches of wind. They navigate air currents with the ease of inhabitants. Take a temporary rest or longer stay in trees (the oriole nest still hung, nodding, from its branch-end). Are solid but light as balsa, whether wren or great gray owl. To be at home in the air does not explain everything, but it's worth remembering.

The bluebird dropped down in the tree and eluded my binoculars. I had other offers. Robins presenting their availability in branch-owning poses. A Carolina wren at the back edge of the communal garden, invisible as usual, but singing an exact, bird-book teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle, somewhere nearby, and soon distancing itself from my cloddish, earth-bound prying.

I got back in my car. I went shopping. I went home. We had supper. We watched "Fargo," including the Bonus Features. At some point Carol turned several clocks back one hour. Aha. That was probably when it happened. The lost hour.

Maybe I will put up flyers in the neighborhood.

Hopefully, in Rock Meadow we will put up fliers in bluebird houses.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


March is a tedious game of Hangman.
_ _ _ _ _ _
Is there an H?
Is there a W?
One. W _ _ _ _ _
Is there an I?
W I _ _ _ _
Any N's?

It got warm last week, around sixty. Then it rained. And the day, amazingly, dawned on a landscape without snow, except for the few tenacious hangers-on. Yards and flower beds were revealed for the first time since December 26 of last year. The ground looked tender.

This is the odd maybe/maybe not interval between winter and spring. Call it Sprig, after a guy I saw walking along Mass. Ave. the other day, carrying a few stalks of what looked like pussy willows. Not exactly a sprig in the parsley sense, but the word seemed to fit. Almost spring? Yep. Half-sprightly? Okay. Coming to grips with change? True.

So I walked down to Mystic River, the same stretch I visited last fall when the rear guard of bumblebees were still visiting the goldenrod and the top of the river was a perfect mirror. We think of seasons as a cycle, and they are, but it's the half-cycle comes to mind when you're almost at the far shore of winter. Six months ago it was September. A journey ago. November... December... Then everything went dark. And white.

And now it's no particular color. The color of Sprig. The river was pewtery, the sunset was egg-yolky, the feeling was ehh, y'know. Unsettled. Like we just arrived, looking around. Muddy patches. Persistent ice. The new land.

But the Canada geese were already pairing off, sailing upriver. And mallards were, too. And that red-winged blackbird I was looking for a couple of weeks ago, it was up in a treetop, going boom-shakalakalaka, boom-shakalakalaka.

It's Sprig!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I am marching to Pretoria! Send money.

I'm not really marching to Pretoria, but if I had to march, I think that's where I'd March first. They have these beautiful purple jacaranda trees everywhere, and the temperature is in the sixties this time of year. Nice zoo, too.

I am, however, stealing a march on March Fourth, the day for bold initiatives. The first step of a march may be the hardest. All that terrain ahead of you, getting the inertia up to speed, the seeming impossibility of the trek. But when you have the authority of the month behind you, it's like getting your marching orders. Go. Sing. Be well and prosper! (You ain't got no friends on the Left! You're right! You ain't got no friends on the Right! You're left!...)

But that's not what I wanted to write about.

I've been thinking about how fiction permeates reality. You got your lies, dreams, fantasies, novels, TV, movies, plays, songs, stereotypes, and cartoons. And it's a powerful osmosis, almost as powerful as the cosmosis. I listen to "Ode to Billy Joe" as if it happened, sort of. I find myself getting concerned about the daily travails of comic strip characters as if they occupy a parallel universe. And I've been known to mix the so with the not-so, myself, including in this blog. But sometimes fiction gets invasive.

About two months ago I was reading something on Facebook when a text window suddenly popped up on-screen. It was from a cousin who had popped into my life just as suddenly several years earlier. He contacted me then to inform me of a bequest left by my mom's great-uncle to me and my sister. It was a welcome windfall. This time, he was the one who needed money. The story unfolded, line by line: he was in England; he had been robbed at knifepoint; they'd taken his money, credit card, passport, everything! He needed to settle his hotel bill. How much? $1450. How much could I send? He would pay me back. The embassy could do nothing for him. His plane was leaving in two hours. He supplied me with a phone number to call. A small voice was telling me there was something wildly improbable about this, asking a distant cousin for a handout, even if we were Facebook friends. And yet it also made sense. I owed him a favor. Not that he was playing that card explicitly. But perhaps it was understood. "R U there?????" he texted after one of my long pauses.

In the end, it wasn't so much about the money, it was the hassle: calling Western Union...grappling with financial details. The story was stretching too far. "This is more than I can handle right now," I typed, apologetically. "Just get to a Western Union!" he urged as I backed away, betraying an exposed Wizard-of-Oz desperation as if to say "you don't have to like it, you just have to play the game!" I broke the connection. But I still wasn't sure that I hadn't failed a moral test.

In the end, I contacted the real cousin, who casually replied that it was a well-known scam, and he supposed he'd better change his password.

I could leave it there, but this past week there have been all these real-life examples of fiction trying to pass, or reality not being good enough. There was Khadafy in the fish restaurant, being interviewed by three western journalists, and insisting that his people loved him, would do anything for him, and the apparent protesters had been given bad drugs by Al Qaeda. Clearly, the guy was confused, or having fun. But either way, fiction won.

Then there was Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor, who got punked by a deejay posing as a Republican fatcat. For twenty minutes, Walker falls for it, bathes in it, drinks it up. But the wonderful part is that he admits in the phone call that he was intending to lure the missing Democrat state senators back to the Capitol under false (truthy?) pretenses of parleying with them, then being able to vote because technically they were back in the building. So you can't really feel sorry for the gov. If you canoodle with fiction, fiction may just want to go all the way.

Finally, the Oscars. Not really fiction, but paradoxical. We tune in to see movie stars as real people—if you call the fortunate, the glamorous, the well-heeled, real; but yeah, realer than when they're giant people on-screen playing fictional characters. And what happens? We're disappointed. Turns out James Franco was no more charming than any of us would be, apparently having an off-day, not enjoying himself. And Melissa Leo—how dare she use the f-word? Only we get to do that. We like our truth fiction-y, at least when it's on TV.

A short time after I got scammed by my fake cousin, I was walking down Mass. Ave., here in Arlington, and a guy stopped me. He was scruffy, but very affable. "Hey, it's my old buddy!" he said. "I remember you from Harvard Square!" I smiled, told him it wasn't me. But he was sure of it. "You asked me if I was a street person. I said 'Naaaaaah...'" I could tell I was being set up, but the guy was hard to resist. He invented this conversation that was so amiable, showing such a good-hearted side of me, that I ended up giving him three bucks.

After I left the warmth of our imaginary friendship, I felt lousy. Ripped off, a patsy for any con man in sight, an idiot. The fiction was much better.