Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sol St. --> ice

Meaning: we orbit the sun on this elliptical path called Sol St., and now we're heading toward winter (ice).  I.e., solstice.

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.

Its actual name is eté.


Post Card

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

Dads on parade

Eyes right! Dads salute. Phalanxes  of dads, good dads, bad dads, adequate dads, self-conscious dads, all marching smartly down the Champs Elysees in the traditional Ban-Lon golf shirt and matching slacks. And who are these champs Eli sees? Famous dads like the prophet Abraham. (That thing with Isaac?  That's some serious cojones.) And give it up for William "Ever Heard of a Cutting Board?" Tell. Each champ is riding in a separate shiny convertible. Atticus Finch tosses fistfuls of pecan pralines to the scrambling kids. There's Jim "Father Knows Best" Anderson and Ward Cleaver waving from the back seat of a vintage '58 Plymouth Belvedere with tailfins. There's my dad, driving the old '54 Pontiac, looking tender and tired.  And there is me, somewhere in the back, atop an elephant. "How'm I doing?" I yell to the onlookers, trying for a little Ed Koch folksiness. Laughter at some ironic response from the elephant. A street sweeper follows.

Post Card:
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

Postcards from the Attic

It's time for a new approach to these dispatches. I've felt that since last November, having looped a year in smallish increments of, and about, time, and since then haven't been sure how or even whether to proceed. Longer essays? More personal memoirish stuff?  The news? Peevish, curmudgeonly diatribes against the improper use of so? Back to the threnody of crickets? Sure. Maybe. All five. I dunno. Communication just really needs its own entry in the big book. A nest among the talking drums, smoke signals, semaphores, and sky writers. So: blog. A blog can be a private mumble in a windowless writer's booth or a rooftop soliloquy to an audience of chimney swifts and chimney sweeps and chimney pots (I'm thinking of that steeple in Rye, England, with a vast view of Victorian brick houses and the river winding its way to the sea the way I once imagined Puddleby-on-the-Marsh in the Doctor Dolittle books).
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

So what?

So, what's with so?

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


I hate to say it, but if you're a Jan firster, as to where the calendar should begin, this is the fold of the book, where the ever-changing main character reaches her prime, and as the old lyric from Carousel goes, June is bustin' out all over. How do we love thee, June? We begrudge thee not thy boon jugs--sorry, thy june bugs--mosquitoes, fireflies, summer storms, sizzle and steam. And wherefore cometh these thees, anyway? Because we do dress up for June, fuss around it, play the fool at the wedding, flay the pool (the backstroke) at the wetting, sing ridiculously romantic songs, and then feel like we overdid it a bit, maybe, afterwards. But the strawberries! The strawberry shortcake and bluegrass music at Russell Orchards, outside of Ipswich. And maybe somewhere there's still a bobolink around. (I know where: Fred and Judy's meadow behind their home in Sherburne, NY, on that hilltop road--New Turnpike--that you have to get lost to find.) And rhubarb! Strawberry rhubarb pie--the essence of June. Soon, in July, there will be the beginning of tree fatigue. The foot can be lifted off the accelerator and we can coast to the coast of Maine or Oregon, see Atlantic puffins or tufted puffins. A long slow coast to the coast of autumn. But not yet, we're only at the fold of the book!

Friday, June 3, 2011


A beautiful day today. And in the middle of our small state, people in Springfield and other towns we didn't know the names of, like Monson and Brimfield, woke up to what should have been a bad dream, but  persisted in being the fact. Houses, buildings, trailers, a used car lot, smashed and stomped by wind turned mean. It's hard for people not to assign malevolent qualities to a tornado. And especially this spring: the south, Missouri, and now New England. Something is going on out there. It's still somewhere else, even though only an hour and a half away, so it's not our reality the way it's theirs. For us it's TV images. For them it's their home and all their possessions snatched away or demolished. It's getting on the phone to insurance agents all day and dealing with itemized lists of furniture, clothes, books, pictures, and neighbors coming over with food and relatives calling frantically. Somehow in time it will shrink and harden into the Tornado of 2011 as the injuries heal and life goes on. But now it's people hugging and saying things like "I'm still in shock," and "Thank God we—" and "We lost everything. Everything! Every single thing we own." And thinking about the basics: food, water, a place to sleep, friends. Not here, but there, and not far but near. Amazing.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tornadoes, here.

I first heard about the tornado watch from my sister-in-law, Jacqueline. She called on her cell phone from the outside world. It wasn't a tornado warning, she emphasized, just a watch. But still: here in Massachusetts? Just the chance of a tornado in our very un-midwestern state was an unlikely, alien threat.  A mad dog loose in the neighborhood. An escaped prisoner who'd been convicted of grisly crimes.

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.