Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Goodnight, Irene. Good day, August.

We made out all right. A lot of people didn't. Forty-six people (so far) died in the storm. The rest of us survived, and some probably disdained it afterwards as not much of a hurricane. A considerable number suffered the effects of flooding, power failure, fallen trees and large branches. We who didn't suffer much more than a boring Sunday indoors brandished what we could as proofs: "There was a tree that fell at the Broadway end of Allen Street. I didn't see it. The DPW guys hauled it away pretty soon afterward." You move on because that's what we're wired to do. If you survived and were not impeded, you go shopping, watch a baseball game, write a blog about all of the above. Take your survivor's guilt with a bottle of Izze and knock on wood.


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

Between a Rocking and a Wet Place

In June we got tornadoes -- or at least they did in central Mass., an hour or two from here. We never get tornadoes.  
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


It augurs well. 
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

August calling

I should be out there watching for meteors. It's the Perseids tonight, an event that sweeps the night sky of mid-August in random streaks, some years one a minute. Wild stitches in the canopy. Always lends the month a touch of mystery.  Something other months can't boast, even ones with their own meteor showers. It's like a secret code. That Italian magical-realism war movie, Night of the Shooting Stars, that was set during the Perseids.

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."