Sunday, December 23, 2012

Post Post

Maybe the world did end, briefly. The way that sentence ended. Would anything follow it? Of course. Haltingly, maybe. But nature abhors a vacuum, and vacuums are not especially fond of nature either. For the past year the doorbell has been ringing and it's always the same old Mayan salesman attired in a homespun breechclout, demonstrating his end-of-the-world blowout sale vacuum "with not just one u, but two." You get tired of slamming the door in his face—he's just Mayan his own business, if you will—so eventually you wave him inside, offer him a joint, put on an old jazz CD called "whether the storm?" and hear what the dude's got to say. Turns out not much. He keeps the vacuum in a bell-jar in his lap and never refers to it, much less demonstrates it. To break the ice you ask him what happened to the Mayans anyway, alluding to the mysterious disappearance of their highly advanced civilization? He shrugs, yawns something about the lousy economy, and stretches out on your sofa.  The next morning, he and the vacuum are gone.

So what do we do now, having woken up on 12/22 to find the world miraculously intact? Do we kiss the old girl, the way George Bailey gratefully kissed the broken newel post in his drafty old barn of a house, having been reunited with his own existence at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life"? Or just pick up where we left off, maybe a tad disappointed to be saddled with the same old burdens that an apocalypse would have taken off our backs, fire and brimstone notwithstanding? Or was it just a formal, culture-wide version of the same old second chance we're presented with every morning when the eyes open to the same old but also new world?

Well, whichever: we're all entitled to a fresh calendar with no mistakes and one unspent ticket for a happy new year. May our civilization thrive a little longer.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Fewness of Vember

There was plenty of vember just a little while ago. But then it got swamped by a rockfall of weather...and an election the size of an asteroid...topped off by the usual visitation of the giant Turkey, accoutered in buckle hat and blunderbuss, with tail feathers stiff and erect in whatever colors you like, but owned by black: stepping across the highways, gobble-gobble-gobble-gobbling, horribly, but meaning no harm. In fact, that long word Thanksgiving, longer than Halloween, longer than Candlemas, hearkens back to a more pious time when people said "gramercy" and "Goodness gracious" and gave prayers of thanksgiving around harvest time. That's what that naked wattly gobble means.

But there were only thirty days of vember, it's one of the humble "hath" months that wears its pants too short, you can see its ankles above its socks, for pete's sake, like june and april and too-short september too. Why not January instead? And now there's none left, no crickets arrayed to carry the tune, no leaves above the waist of the copper beech, no slice of bread to lean against the heel, no stalks of gingembre, no nutmeg for the eggnog, no, no vember!

But all it wanted was a nice elegy, something redolent of burnished blue hard-enamel afternoons and gunmetal gray overcasts, to have felt well-used, hard-working, and it was. In our house it started with "To Kill a Mockingbird," high school play starring Matt Ober as Atticus Finch, the other bird; and ended with a flurry of poems (one below) and two college apps, pointing west to Austin, Texas and southern California. 


And the death of a dear cousin, Amy Ober, which no one expected, no one was ready for. We miss her and our dreams are strange and shattered. How can we be walking around without her?


Lying on my bed staring at the ceiling
The bees are vanishing
The water's rising
The banks are failing
The sun is aligned with Jupiter
The lambs are crying
The winds are blowing backwards
The hourglass is empty
And all I can think about is you.

Matt Ober

Saturday, October 27, 2012

My square peg in a round month

As a major shareholder in the Sons and Daughters of October 27, I would like to say hello to all my homies, known and unknown, including the guy I met in Ensenada, Mexico some time way back in the seventies or eighties who gave me a drunken abrazo when we discovered we both celebrated our cumpleaño on octubre vento-siete.

I have thanked about half of the better-than-I-am friends who acted on Facebook's nudge that today is my birthday. There is probably a category for the likes of me—a dormant Facebook space-filler who keeps getting messages about other friends' birthdays but does nothing to join that welcoming chorus that has serenaded me today, a ladder of 21 wishes (so far) with affectionate multiple exclamation marks. A birthday sponge am I.

I thought I would be playing "When I'm Sixty-Four" at least once today, but not yet. That number once seemed as old to me as it must have to Paul McCartney when he began writing the song as a teenager. But I've closed the distance in a remarkably short time since back in the sixties when it was a whimsical, wistful lament of sorts of someone looking ahead to when he'll be sixty-four, losing his hair, grandchildren on his knee (Vera, Chuck, and Dave—the perfect names), good for maybe mending a fuse and maybe renting a cottage on the Isle of Wight, if it's not too dear, and wondering if he'll still be needed and fed. And now I'm him, as are all the guys I went to school with, the famous, the infamous, and the vast in-between. 

And, yeah, there's some truth to the "Yours sincerely, wasting away" line, but not enough to make it un-ironic. It has more in common with every other number, in that it's a tree ring, basically, a marker; and you look around and say, okay, and oy, and look at the leaves coming down but ain't it bootiful; and while I'm at it, hey there October, you old round pumpkin and apple month, sorry I haven't been writing about you, but I have noticed you're looking especially bon vivant this year, nice colors, good oaks, sorry about the hurricane you're ending with, but I know you're one for drama, and I kind of want the Tigers to win two so it goes back to San Francisco, and, oops, gotta go.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Cormorant and Me

Wednesday being Yom Kippur, and traditions having shrunk a bit, I take my retreat in two brief installments on the shore of Spy Pond, among the trees behind the baseball field, not far from where Matt and I heard the wing-claps of a flock of swans about ten years ago.

The idea used to be to find a meadow, a glade, a rock, somewhere private, and take stock. Sometimes this was when I was also fasting, so the contemplation would lapse into dozing, irritability, or feelings of virtue. I would ride my pen through random observations of nature and the passage of time, mixed with important revelations of self-improvement. This time I've given myself about fifty minutes, like an appointment with a shrink. I'll settle for a good think.

I seat myself on the thick roots of a maple tree, back against the trunk. I have a nice window on the pond, framed by the maple's overhang and some compound-leaved saplings. Locusts, maybe. I watch a cormorant not far off-shore swallowing a small fish. I don't get excited about cormorants. They resemble loons, the way they sit low in the water, but they're more angular. Their beak tilts upward. They're loons that turn out to be cormorants. I watch this one dive with a quick slithery pounce...then pop up somewhere else a minute later. 

A caravan of gray, laden clouds rolls along the horizon opposite me, betokening rain. The trees are a mixed palette of greens, some yellow, a peek of orange. This balance will change.

Why I do this: 1. Because it feels good to let things happen, randomly: wind in leaves, squealing gull, creaking tree; orderly cloud flow and wind-riffled pond surface, punctuated by the peekaboo appearance and disappearance of the cormorant. 2. Because it feels good to describe things.

The cormorant has climbed up on a big round orange buoy and it is holding its wings outspread like an orchestra conductor. Cormorants have a raw deal. They do not have the oil glands that ducks, geese, loons, and grebes have, to keep them waterproof. So they have to air-dry their wings like clothes on a clothesline between their series of dives, otherwise they might get water-logged.

It strikes me that I have been given a good symbol for the day of atonement. We all have our challenges. I've got Parkinson's, self-absorption issues, motivation issues, etc. Ya want a list? The point is, you've got to meet your challenges with wings outspread. You've got to get on the ball (keep your balance), open your arms, feel the wind, and keep your chin up. All this I learn from the cormorant. Whom, may I add, I will no longer disdain as a low-rent loon.

Pinnacle Rock

 September is the hawk migration. Hawks and September, sharing the same deep blue cloudy toasty raw windy day, depending. Which means, usually, driving out to Mt. Wachusett, an hour or so west, to not see invisible specks that only the Swarovski and spotting scope crowd can see. Luck is a scattered traffic of passersby riding the airstream overhead—kestrel, osprey, TV (turkey vulture), 'tail (redtail), sharpie (sharp-shin), sighted, called out, followed, recorded. And sometimes, on rare Septembers, wheeling kettles of broad-wings by the dozens, and when I'm not there, by the hundreds, even the thousands.

But this year I didn't make that journey. I had to settle for the poor man's Wachusett—Pinnacle Rock, an outcropping on the northeast shoulder of the Fells Reservation, a 2500-acre green space a short drive from home.  I went first by myself, sitting on the summit for a good hour, as if filling the position of Fells guru, and seeing nary a hawk. And I went a second time last weekend with two friends, Helen and Ed, less for hawks than for Pinnacle Rock itself.

I led the way up Fire Trail 56, an uphill walk that levels off, through a corridor of woods—oak and pine, sassafras, aster, and goldenrod (still drawing bumblebees). It was the cooling kiln of late September, lazy but purposeful. We took a side path along a new ledge of rocks, and then it was all rock, just rock: a short ascent, closer to the sky. The pinnacle.

We installed ourselves on three adjacent levels and took in the view. To the north and west lay  nameless neighboring towns (Saugus? Melrose?). To the east, the blue Atlantic. And all around us an expanse of apparent bushes that were really the tops of trees.

We talked, but at this height talk was concurrent with a secondary activity—being above, and exposed; being seen and seeing. Nature was the other party—the host, in fact—with whom we were conversing. So the conversation ranged from news to "olds:" a discussion of the lobes of oak leaves and whether a certain arm of land was Nahant. I saw a hawk in the distance, just above the horizon, probably a redtail. Last time I was here that would have been the culmination of my stay. This time it was a peripheral detail, on a par with the blue jays that flew across the nearby treescape. 

What we saw depended on how we were looking. Sometimes serious topics—work, illness—grounded us. Then a turkey vulture interrupted, rising out of the oaks a hundred yards away, and tilted past us, just above the trees, black and careful as a judge on skates. We watched it teeter by, hunting for smells, feeling for wind, following some winding air route, finally flapping for momentum. That was cool, being above a vulture.

A short time later, a query: Is that another vulture? It was directly above me; then the sun was in the way, so I didn't see it until it was in the clear. It wasn't a TV. Too big for a redtail. What was it? An osprey? No, not an osprey. It could only be an eagle. A juvenile baldy. That underwing pattern of brown and white, and the long wingspan. An eagle, we concurred. On one level, just another chance bird. But higher in our hierarchy—a good sign, maybe. Sufficient for September, for sure. 

Pinnacle Rock delivered.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

September Suspenders

Two days I've been saving up.

September 10

I am a deep October man
sitting on a rock on the shore of Spy Pond,
Five female mallard ducks paddle by me, sensing opportunity.
Long shells with eight oarsmen or oarswomen glide by at a distance
plowing through shimmers of sun in the water.
"That's it guys!" calls a coxswain,
loud and encouraging in the afternoon of September tenth.
The wind is up. Summer is a shrinking thing.
Its time is short. But the sun is strong still
and the clouds are like soil turned over by
a ploughshare

Adventures in Writing

 A daily conversation between trees, sun, air, and water, condensing into coded configurations of clouds. I don't know what they're saying. I'm like a reporter in a country with a language I don't speak. Guessing is encouraged. Rhythms abound. Shells, ducks. Waves, wind. Nature is what we call it, from the word for "being born." Because it's always claiming life as if it just arrived, which it did: constantly just arriving.

September suspenders
holding up fall
September sepulcher
a big leaf pile
September separation
sky and cloud
fizz of crickets
macintosh apples

September 11

It's the sacred bullet hole in the calendar: edges singed brown, going all the way through the 11and every 11 of every September.  And I recognize the weather: a big high pressure dome with a deep cerulean sky, beautiful summerfall day, reassuring warm sun and crickets repeating measured tempus fugits from the bushes. Summer at her most desirable, when she's packing up, when she's getting rare and yet lingers, especially in the morning, stretched out in a chair in Brooklyn or Far Rockaway with a coffee and the paper when something happens in lower Manhattan—distant confusion, something not right, an airplane flying into one of the skyscrapers and smoke billowing for miles.A distant catastrophe, almost small enough to be meaningless, but all those distant sirens are real, and so is what's on TV. And the days stayed persistently beautiful for weeks.

Friday, September 7, 2012

School Daze

Today, for probably the last time ever, Matt went back to school—in the one-building, ship-o'-learning, sense. That kindergartener who brought home over-glued Cheerios on construction paper is now a senior in high school, Class of 2013. I swear I watched him carefully, minute to minute, day to day, year to year, and still don't know how he got from one to the other. I think it happens at night; and in the morning this newer model replaces the memory of the old one.

Coincidentally, I received an email this morning from Freda Nelson Evans, faithful custodian of my own high school tenure in El Paso, Texas, reminding me of the upcoming fiftieth reunion—or better yet, quinquagenary—of the Class of 1966, in four years.

Got me thinking about school, this alternate universe we have access to for a certain number of years. When it's active, it's awkward, mysterious, and occasionally exciting. We upload the accumulated knowledge of the human race, find much of it useless and boring, but some of it gets through and fertilizes us, fills in our still sketchy template. As well as the social thing: playing nice; working well with others. Life 101.

With Matt, the parts that I know got through are writing and movies and certain books, like The Great Gatsby, and Siddhartha. It's also where he developed a yen for filmmaking. What use the calculus, Latin, Chemistry, and European History will have remains to be seen. Crossword puzzle answers; conversation filler; maybe some kind of mental mortar that holds future ideas together. 

Anyway, after this year high school will probably become a general slurry of life lived, as it does for most of us, as it already has for him with middle school and grade school. Those alternate universes become addresses that we still can technically claim as alumni, but there's always a feeling of ringing the doorbell of a house you once lived in and the current owner looks at you, polite but guarded, suspecting you're really a thief looking to case the joint. "This is our place now," she says, half-obscured behind the screen door. "You don't belong here anymore. Go away. Shoo."

But maybe Freda Nelson Evans will come to your rescue, shouldering Mrs. Metaphor aside and opening the door wide. Then you'll have to decide whether it's a museum worth visiting or something more relevant, like fodder for a screenplay or a blog post.

Monday, September 3, 2012

September Septet

Interesting how the same bunch of letters—s, e, p, t—can acquire such different personalities. You got Sept., the month just begun, redolent of slowly-cascading yellow maple leaves, yellow pencils, yellow legal pads, yellow schoolbuses, and yellowjackets—all slowly cascading. Then you got sept, French for 7, a tidy Gallic word built for subtlety, with a silent p. Then you got septic, which will take its business elsewhere. 

I'm going with "September septet," suggesting a jazz combo, the days of the week, and a commitment to seven Almanac posts this month, starting with this one.

First, how we rounded Cape August into the Bay of September.

Background: One year ago, Matt had his first driving lesson in a dusty parking lot in Point Reyes Station, California. Over the following eight months there were twelve "official" lessons at an outfit called Arlex Driving School run by a husband and wife duo who seemed to be from a Fifties dark comedy directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Rounding out the year was a scattering of supervised practice drives, culminating in a cram session of parallel parking.

Which brings us to the last day of August—Matt behind the wheel of the Honda, me with Google Map printouts in my lap along with a folder containing Proper Documents. We have negotiated the meandering game-board directions of many-named Route 60 and 107 and we are noodling along a broad shaded street in Lynn, Mass., one of those mysterious towns to the north I've never been to, looking for the Registry of Motor Vehicles. It turns out to be disguised as an old armory building. We join a glum-looking collection of teenagers on the steps. A sign on the tall, Oz-like, armory door instructs us to press the bell—about eight feet up on the door frame—which we do, without result. Another gaggle of teens on the sidewalk is getting high fives from Sal of Sal's Driving School, whose placard-topped car pulled up a few minutes earlier. He has come to wish them luck. 

Matt's driving test will be given by a heavy-set bald guy with a tattoo of the map of Italy on his forearm. He's not the thin, purse-lipped, anal type I worried we'd get. Rather, he appears to be the "drop and give me fifty" Phys Ed coach type. Bad enough. Courting his disfavor, I have to run back and get the registration. Then I have to turn the car around, which I accomplish with a dubious U-ie, awkward three-point turn, and parallel park, as if I'm the one being tested. At last I yield the driver's seat to Matt and take my place as "the sponsor" in the back seat.

He is asked to demonstrate the three never-used hand signals and then pulls out, not bumping the car I might have parked too close behind. He drives up the street and turns (though I don't hear the turn signal! shouldn't I be hearing it? Could he have forgotten??) and parks behind a car, no sweat, and—oops, doesn't immediately see someone in the crosswalk, gets a terse reminder, but with no malice—more turns, stop sign, good, enters a parking lot, exits, does a three point turn with a half-gainer toe loop and will he nail the dismount? Last maneuver: he pulls up in front of the armory, a short distance behind a fire hydrant—a trap? too close? "How far from a fire hydrant do you need to be when you park?" the guy asks. Matt hesitates. "Ten feet?" he ventures. The guy nods. Scribbles something on the form, stamps something else. "You can use your permit until the hard license arrives in the mail," he says. And we're done. Passed.

I could end it there, but when life hands you one of these rites of passage, attention must be paid and repaid.  The fact is, we were both notably older on the way back. Not that Matt seemed all that eager to flaunt society's medal of young adulthood, the license to drive solo. Mainly he wanted to get it out of the way before school starts. To draw the Chance card that says, "You passed." Which he did. By a good ten feet.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Rounding Cape August

It's my contribution to the vernacular, even if the vernacular doesn't know it. (The vernacular pretends not to know me when I call to it on the street. Call itself Pat-WAH.)
Anyway, "Rounding Cape August," a phrase I invented while sitting on the deck of a small apartment back in the Eighties, looking out at a horizon piled with clippership clouds—which stood for the piled enterprises of the fall (the new year) that only come into view at the end of the month, when you're rounding Cape August with curiosity and optimism. There's a new wind in words. Purple loosestrife in the meadow. Jewelweed pods pregnant with seeds (in the coils of a secret tripwire). Ideas are migrating, flashing in small precision flocks like sandpipers. Doodles are developing fur coats. All this as Cape August falls away like a coast seen from a ferry: lighthouse, stunted trees, dipping tern, waving lobsterman, stacked gray lobster pots and coiled rope, driftwood tree trunks, clothesline chorus line, tourists loading a van, a dog leaping for a white Frisbee, the smell of fried clams. You return the wave, but your other hand is on the tiller, your eyes on that horizon.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Maple Tree

It's an obstacle now, an inconvenient thing. Roots up, where they shouldn't be, drying out in a block of dirt. Trunk cut into chunks. Six days ago, it was an upright tree. Now it's a lying-down stump.

It isn't only our tree that is lying down. Around a hundred trees in East Arlington got uprooted or struck down in the space of five minutes. Dozens in our neighborhood. The reason was a microburst. It doesn't sound like much--a small sneeze, maybe. But it's a scary phenomenon. A storm cell, humidor for agitated air, gets an updraft of evaporated rain, hurls down a ton of wind with frightening force, and it hits the ground like insane commandos, spreading out and securing the perimeter with unfortunate collateral damage.  Just air doing what air does under certain conditions.

The rain started pelting down while I was getting in my car in the Stop and Shop parking lot. By the time I made my way out into Massachusetts Avenue, it had turned into something else—white, oceanic, sociopathic. I drove through it slowly, wipers on Bejesus speed. But the tyranny was brief. When Carol called I was  past the firehouse and the wipers were down to Holy Moley. You're going to find a surprise when you get home, she said.

Around a hundred trees. One of them lay across Mass. Ave just past where I made my turn onto Adams. But that tree was a nameless tree. This was our tree. It had fallen at a house-sparing angle, heroically. Its entire bolus of roots entangled in a sidewalk-shaped slab of dirt, as if it had fallen over, trying to escape.

There's trees--generally---and there's trees you're acquainted with, like the neighbor's stately pear trees that lean into our yard; they're likable enough. But certain trees matter for mysterious reasons. The maple tree mattered from both outside and inside the house. Coming home, it was the home guard, the giant who wouldn't leave. Mostly you took it for granted, but you eventually had to reckon with it: step in its leaves, see the moon through it, peer up at a chiding squirrel in it, and worry about it sometimes, when some unhealthy tree in the neighborhood got marked with a white X, then vanished. That's when the maple became our tree, even though I knew it was the town's tree: its crown reverse-mohawked to let the cables go through, its roots gnarled deep in the earth on the other side of the sidewalk. But whose tree was it, really, if not ours?

From inside the house, the maple tree mattered even more to me. It's good to have a tree outside your window, especially in the room where you write, especially when you write about nature. Often when I was stuck for something to write about, I wrote about the tree. Just a description, maybe the screen of green and the play of leaf shadows and sunlight on summer afternoons. Or in November, when there were only a few tough clingers left, and then none, just bare branches. Cold branches. Wet branches. Snow-lined branches. And then, eventually, a stippling of buds, lime-green florets, new leaves, propeller seeds. All this viewed through a year of glances out the window. Small certainties: leaves, branches, wind, the occasional bird and squirrel. A cheap sufficiency of Nature for the housebound. What do you have for me today, tree?


Well, I don't want to get all Joyce Kilmer here. Improbability occasionally wins a hand over certainty, we know that. The tree--what was left of it--is gone now. The DPW guys came and took the inconvenient stump away, wood-chipped it, whatever. I saved a root, a twig, a small wedge of wood. But the parts don't really stand for the whole, any more than one tree can stand for Nature.

Anyway, I counted the tree's rings before they took it away: around thirty. So if we plant another maple, say this fall, in thirty years I'll be 94, probably even talking to trees: "I ever tell you about's the damn thing... predecesssor, that's it. Maple tree. Looked a lot like you!... which reminds me. I ever tell you about the Microburst of Twenty Twelve?"

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Mae West was born with the name Mary Jane and was only five feet tall. But doesn't she seem as tall and statuesque as the Statue of Liberty in the mind's eye? Mae Questel was the voice of Betty Boop, and had the face, too: the saucer eyes and cupid's-bow lips made to make kissable little boop-boop-a-doops.

Mais oui is French for an obvious yes, accompanied by either Mae's alluring charms. Tonight I doff my top hat to a May of 31 days, a female month, maybe, buxom and feathered and cascading with song. And in an hour she will dance out onto the balcony and come back in a subtly different raiment: as June.

It's not certain which month will show up on the dateline of this post. If it's June, you'll have to take my word that I at least started this in May, and may May forgive me for apparently leaving her out of my chronicle, albeit in the consoling company of Mae and Mae.

The Hooded Warbler

May is the culmination of a grudging, then yielding, tide of green. And arriving by night is another tide: migrating birds. Some staying, most passing through.  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                We've been waiting for May since February, when the vanguard showed up—male red-winged blackbirds crushing their trills...skyrocketing woodcocks in meadows at dusk. Finally it's reliably warm, there's the right sort of wind, and it's time to go to the Brooks Estate in Medford, to see what's here.

It's a month-long premiere of the familiar but new—usually heard, then seen: first oriole! first indigo bunting! first scarlet tanager! Even first yellow-rumped warbler. Or the song alone: first wood thrush mystically echoing in the woods. Spooky poetics of a cuckoo. And sometimes it's a surprise.

 I meet friend Ed Hazell at the Brooks Estate Stump Dump (bier for Medford's felled trees in a half-acre clearing). I know that look on his face: brimful of exciting tidings. My jealousy guard is up. He can't account for his run of good luck lately, he prefaces unnecessarily. Canada warbler a few days ago (I'd missed it). And this morning, just as he'd arrived here. A half hour ago. Wait for it. A hooded warbler. 

Sincerely happy and excited for him, I join a couple of other birders trained on a section of the bushy wall that encircles the Dump. They are waiting out a bird loudly singing but well-hidden in the brush. It has that pleased to meetcha!  cadence shared by a few different warblers, and I'll settle for my first chestnut-sided of the season, until one of the birders happens to mention that it's the hooded I'm listening to.

And then it comes out. 

When you see a new bird, it's its own template. So for once you're not simultaneously comparing it to other indigo buntings you've experienced. This is the first first. The brain likes new and unusual. The senses open wider. Instead of scratching an itch, it's the original itch.

So I follow it for a long time, as long as it will let me. It's just a bird, but I keep repeating the just-seenness of that black cowl and yellow face, the exotic that is already becoming experience, as long as I can. I'm trying to do it now. It's halfway between that May morning and a photograph of that May morning.

Either way, it stands for a month of birding, never mind the lack of a Canada warbler, and even without the pileated woodpecker at the heron rookery. But that's a story for next time.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Adventures in Writing!

Today I learned that trees experience jet lag--something having to do with their circadian (not cicadian) clocks. So they must have been dismayed to have this precocious warm spell in March stir the sap, wake up the cells, pop the blossoms maybe three weeks ahead of schedule. (Think about something unattractive! Dogs peeing on your trunk! An ice storm! Pileated woodpeckers! Too late.)  And now the florets, those yellow-green flower clusters in maples, expecting May, find a cold April. What's going on? Don't you know never to wake the bear before hibernation is over?

It's Passover. This has some metaphoric contribution to make, too. Unrisen bread? No, prematurely riz. The Exodus happening while it is still raining frogs?  (Elijah mutters in my ear: Enough already. You don't have to be the wise child all the time.)

Fine: let spring figure it out.

I was biking up Broadway the other day, thinking about a dream I had. A travel dream, of course—80% of my dreams are—but a lucky one. In a pocket I discovered an airline ticket I'd forgotten about. The flight was leaving in a few hours for New Zealand, Singapore, somewhere in Africa. But how could I go? Shirking my responsibilities, not telling my family, plus all I had for money was a bank card for which my account (somewhere in Canada) was frozen. A recurring dream obstacle. Too much reality for the fantasy. So I sabotaged the dream: looking more closely at the ticket, I noticed that is was actually dated yesterday. Off the hook.

"No adventure in my life," I thought to myself, pedalling uphill.
A moment later, from the street, some guy who sounded around my age called: "Slow and steady wins the race!"
Not exactly refudiating my thought, more like offering sympathy: Slowing down, aren't we, Brother Tortoise?
"You bet!" I called back to my unseen encourager, weighting it with a pinch of grimness, to match his pinch of rue.
But the coincidence, the Capra-esque goodwill of a stranger, couldn't help but carom off my no-adventure thought, knocking it sideways.

A newsreel-like title formed in my mind, maybe a tad ironic, but block-lettered and self-assured all the same: ADVENTURES IN WRITING!

Can't redeem your ticket to New Zealand? Can't access your funds in a Montreal bank? Take your journey here! Our slogan: "More Reliable Than A Dream."

I present my bank card to the guard at the turnstile. I recognize her from previous encounters: bored, not unfriendly, dispenser of foreign currency and postcards. She inserts the card into some ancient piece of technology. A green light winks on. Sufficient funding, all's well. I am waved in. Welcome to Pyoltergantz. You must wisit our Museum and take jitney to the Wetlands of the Seven Martyrs where dwells the rare Magnificent Blue Owl.

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. I might just settle for a white-throated sparrow in the bush going "old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody" and a tall Easter Bunny waving at motorists from the drive-in of a car wash. It's a job.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Distant Company

I am wary of talk of the universe, let alone multiverses. But I couldn't help cocking an ear in the direction of the radio while doing the dishes tonight. It was "Science Friday" and Ira Flatow's guest, the Nobel winner in Physics last year, was talking about dark energy. It turns out there's no such thing as empty space. I don't mean because of air molecules, I mean between the air molecules. It's dark energy, says this physicist, which is also what you find in between galaxies. It makes me uneasy to hear about this dark cola of non-empty empty space between galaxies and how the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate, and people bandying about string theory and dark matter and waves and particles out there. Too far, too much, yet stretched too thin. The stuff of bad dreams. But then it turns out that dark energy is all around us, it's down here too. Much better.

I like it better when the far-flung check in, come by your campfire with a much-obliged tug of the brim. When I started writing this, around March 12, Daylight Savings Time had brought the sun deeper into the afternoon. Furthermore, storms of solar particles were emigrating to us, the little blue marble that spun and the moon that didn't. In addition, I heard that the night sky was sharing the rare company of five planets-- Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter lined up over here and Mars over there. A quintet of cowboys moseying up like the Sons of the Pioneers.

Around the 18th, I went with friend Ed Hazell to Rock Meadow, just at dusk. The reason was woodcocks. The annual spring pilgrimage to hear their nasal bzeep from the tall grass. Then to have a small chunky silhouette burst from somewhere nearby and quickly get absorbed by the dark energy up there, the waves and particles, so you follow its twitters, while turning in a circle until a sudden cadence of irregular twerpy notes descends, like a fall of trained handkerchiefs, finishing with the low-angled rearrival of the chunky silhouette. Followed by the aforementioned lonely but hopeful bzeep.

Meanwhile, overhead, seeming witness to all this terrestrial folderol, four of the five cowboys were checking in. (The fifth turned out to be a stud on Orion's belt.) I offered coffee. They just crooned.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sundog and redwings

I am not making as much of this day with its built-in bold imperative to march forth, as I have in years past. We just had Leap Day a few days ago, which I did not write about at all, despite this being the first one since I began this blog in 2009. Instead, I idly wondered: Why a leap? For one extra day? Is it a Neil Armstrong leap? "One small step for a month, one giant leap every four years." Maybe it's a leap because it's not a leap: it's just a rare day that casts a long shadow.

Anyway, the day before Leap Day—call  it Look Day—was another one of those mild days we've been having a lot of this winter, and I had a good excuse for a bike ride. It was the end of February, when one might expect to see red-winged blackbirds, a welcome early arrival in the raw, gray days of late winter. So around 5:00, as the sun was taking aim at the horizon, I set off to see if there were any redwings in the marshy area near the duck pond beside the bike path out at Arlington Great Meadows in Lexington.

As I passed Spy Pond, I saw something rare. A sundog. It's a small shard of rainbow caught in a cloud an arm's length from the sun, often both left and right. It's a trick the sun does with hexagonal crystals or "diamond dust" in an icy cirrus cloud. The sunlight hits these little prisms, bends and separates into seven colors. Roy G. Biv. Or Vib. G. Yor. It's a badge, an effect, a sign, a trick. It's fantastic and vaguely annoying (a rainbow wannabe), and short-lived. Three minutes later I couldn't see it anymore.

Then I was past Spy Pond and doggedly pedaling through Arlington Center to the continuation of the bike path, and on past the well-known landmarks—though it had been a while—Mill Street; the back of Arlington High School; the three baseball fields; the two underpasses; the sign for Trader Joe's, the back of Mal's Towing--the Lexington line--and Arlex Oil; then the little park where I saw a big red-tailed hawk and a sleeping drunk; Then crossing the last street, Fotler, before the Meadows. And moments later I can hear them, the overlapping teetering trill of dozens of male redwings, sounding like ringing telephones. I am cheered. Nice when nature validates your guess, or hope.

The males arrive first, I think. They occupy the treetops, full of declarative "I'm here" energy, rolling out their name-calls like excited conventioneers. I listen to the euphonious roll call with a Henry Higgins-like scrutiny. I recently read a bio of Harriet Tubman that casually refers to her listening to "the cherokee of red-winged blackbirds." I like the confidence of the common noun, but not so fast. I have variously heard it as konk-la-ree in the bird books; O quilcheeena (a Squamish Indian word meaning "many waters" because it suited a pourquoi tale I was writing about how the redwing got its call); and just plain "Booker T." The important thing is to get that gurgly syllable before the boldface trill: the look before the leap.

This time I was hearing it a little differently—maybe the call was evolving. It was a three-step run-up that sounded like what it said: "Oh vocal..." Oh vocal what? After some consideration, why not chi? The old life force thing? "Oh vocal chiiiiiiiiiiiiii!"

Welcome back, old vocal life force thing.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Right in the Knishkies

February is signing calendars in a bookstore, writing February with a flourish across the replica of a 1920s travel poster. "I pictured you differently," I say to the stout, elderly woman behind the table. "I change my appearance from day to day," she explains. "Today I am Monrovia Gates, the Jewish landlady with bunions the size of Idaho potato-toes. Oy!" she protests. "Right in the knishkies." "First of all," I tell her, "There's no such thing. It's either knishes or kishkies. And if you're going to attempt a Jewish accent, you can't say kuh-nish or kuh-vell or kuh-vetch. There's got to be no daylight whatsoever between the k and the next consonant. Knish. Kvell. Kvetch. And finally, how can you be both February and Monrovia whatever?" But she's already changed. Now she's a tall pallid neurasthenic Chinese gentleman who is an expert in marionettes who perform martial arts. He replies to every question, "Mind your own business," with a wink and a smile, as if he were imparting a humorous piece of wisdom. I believe this shape-shifter to be no February at all, but an impostor. However, the line is long, the people seem grateful, even starstruck to meet a month. They pose in front of their cell phone cameras held at arm's length, the other arm embracing "February" in presumptuous famiiarity. They think they know him/her it, don't seem fazed by the phases. Now he's a schoolboy with plastic tortoise-shell glasses, shifting in the chair like he's got to go, and go he does, turns into a bird...a...saur. A birdosaur. This it explains two-dimensionally from the calendar page for February/Fevrier: not a pterodactyl or an archaeopteryx but a silly-looking dinosaur with a fake beak. And in the picture, animated, it attempts to fly, flapping its muscular arms and by gum, gaining altitude—you can see the ground dropping away beneath it, rivers, forests, roads, an ever-diminishing Google Earth that is finally signed February by a large tin-can robot smoking a thin cheroot that may or not be a peruche of licorice. And I'm starting to miss Monrovia Gates, fake Jewish accent notwithstanding. "I missed you too, dollink!" she says, smiling broadly.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Y in "the end of January." (Cracking wise, eh?) 
Sorry, Y... We will pile on some farewell gifts to you: a used VHS of "Captain January," with Shirley Temple and Buddy Ebsen; a little silver pendant of Janus, the god of knock-knock jokes; and a wanted poster for Old Man Winter, last seen on Halloween.

Why, as in Yes! We have qualified for month number two. We have spoiled the year. Peed on the lamppost. Rolled in the cold leaf littter. And only four weeks ago it was pristine. Untrodden as the road less traveled by in a Robert Frost poem.  

Bon voyage! 

Thanks for the ice fangs in the weeds around Spy Pond one cold day, and the common mergansers at Sandy Beach off Mystic Lake yesterday, their white sides as white as fresh paint, and the sunset. "Waterloo Sunset," by the Kinks. A guy was strumming it at Davis Square today. I thought it was a George Harrison tune. He agreed it had that same touch of melancholy. Then, for my 45 cents, he played a Harrison tune: "Don't Bother Me." Very nice. (What?) Very nice! 

January shakes its head. Can't hear us against the titanic BLANT of the liner sigalling its departure.

We have boarded this cruise ship before, leaving old January at the pier, waving at us, holding up the scottie dog and waving his ittle paw as we slip the moorings and the steam horn intones several deafening blasts of farewell.

The captain's name is February.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


i'm writing with just my right hand, the left being occupied with holding a cell phone whilst i wait for an apple techie to tell me how to access a Word doc--any Word doc--without going through this Office setup hell involving dumb web sites, surveys, and updates that won't let you see your Word doc. very frustrating. very boring. i never knew till recently  that brits say whilst rather than while. I am whilsting away a saturday night in the worst way...

Well, that wasn't much fun. Apple help guy (real) kicked me over to Microsoft help line (virtual) who told me first that call volume was unusually high--even though I wasn't speaking that loudly--and then that the department of My Problem was closed for the day. So the hell with it.

Speaking of "hell": Had a dream last night in which my son Matt and I were on a game show (this game show element has been appearing frequently in my dreams lately) as a father-son team. We were pitted against two other pairs. One pair was Rudolf Giuliani and Sarah Palin. The other pair, non-celeb, like us. The object of the game was to keep talking coherently on a particular topic and then lob it over to your partner, who then lobs it back to you, etc. I muttered "Baseball and Art" to Matt before we went on. I introduced us, on-air, to the judge. Apparently doing so broke a rule, but the emcee, slightly embarrassed, laughed it off, noting what a spontaneous fellow I was. Then we began, desperately trying to keep alive a narrative about a shortstop who became a pitcher and then someone hit a ball straight up, sky-high...somehow it ended. I don't think we did well, but we were still in the game. Then one of our opponents introduced himself as hailing from Arkansas, and in another burst of spontaneity, I affected a southern accent and said, "The hell you say!" and immediately realized I had blown it as the emcee turned pale and then bright red and said that that was wrong on so many levels and I knew the show would have to go off the air. Feeling ashamed but taking the bailout of waking up, I did so.

So it's come down to telling my dreams, has it? Well, whatever fits. My resolution to pound out a half-hour entry per day didn't gain much traction, diverted as I was by a pair of manuscripts this month, one about Frederick Douglass, the other about Pompeii. Good topics, but wearying and not leaving me with the kind of clean, beckoning half-hour I required, notwithstanding the time I was devoting to reading the Boston Globe comics and other guilt-making fripperies.

Anyhow, the flat rock has come down for its second skip on the lake's surface, even if it took a phone queue and a dream to guide it. So we'll see where the next one lands.

Meanwhile, here's to the pursuit of happiness. May the whistle be worth the whilst.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

No idea

So I wrote to my sister, Doris, after the last rust-in-the-pipes entry, that I would henceforth find a half hour in the day, every day, to bang out an entry in this lately untended Almanac. Why? Because I need to exercise my writing voice as well as my extremities, and because the ground is fertile for good intentions this week, in this first blast of cold air that's sending everyone bundled up into the nearest glasses-fogging tea or coffee shop to make an authoritative to-do in our new 2012 to-do books.

10:30 p.m. is late to be doing this tonight, and I don't have a narrative of any kind, except the poor griot's story of: the day, one half a whirl of the planet, with the promise of a waxing moon. My day was full of minor stressors that didn't do more than bare their teeth and utter guttural growls, but still. Let's see: woke up around 6:50 am, lurched around aimlessly, made Matt's lunch (PBJ and an unready banana), drove him to school because it was cold. (Bad dad? Good dad?)  Had an appt. with a pulmonologist who reassured me that the tiny nodules in my lungs are too small and whatever to worry about. Then back home by way of picking up a copy of Huck Finn for Matt, and into a snarl of little tasks and responsibilities--a doctor's appt. for Matt clashing with a meeting on Friday, but whattyagonna do?--a maimed email account that's too full because I hate deleting stuff, especially George McLean's nature photos--dishes unwashed--work that felt a piece of cake yesterday looking tall and stony today.

But the day ended nicely with "Winter Shorts," five one-act plays at Matt's high school including his, in which he plays an earnest, horn-rimmed psychic being dumped by his latest date because of his annoying habit of finishing her sentences and predicting the next minor event. Very funny. He's got good comic chops. Well, that was 1/4/12. And I went over my half-hour.

Monday, January 2, 2012

O is for Pumpkin

O is actually for October, but if you have an orange and black crayon and write it big enough:

O c t O b e r

—you'll color in those O's and make them pumpkins. How could you not? They are starting to appear on doorsteps, porches, front walks, as if they arrived by nightly migration, descending from the mackerel sky, circling over neighborhoods, and choosing individual houses to drop in on. 

They possess a calm, mysterious, spherical noumenon—thing-in-itselfness, if you will. But their essence is hidden. So what do we do? Cut into them, scoop out their wet, stringy insides, carve a face into their rind, animate them with fire, and set them out as lanterns.

Your mother used to admonish you for playing with your food, but pumpkins are different. They don't insist on being food. They tolerate Halloween foolishness like a small dog putting up with baby clothes. They will submit to the imposition of a leer, a grin, a frown, what have you, with the equanimity of the truly round. Even the invasion of a candle doesn't seem to bother them.   They give up their persistent vegetative state by posing as us. (I speak not of the 1700-pound state fair monsters that are more kin to the pump than the pumpkin. Bigger than any pumpkin has a need to be.)

I started this contemplation of the pumpkin in mid-October. It is now three weks later, in early November. Jacks are still riding the doorsteps with gargoyle masks of surprise, anger, craftiness, serenity, and puzzlement. They have submitted to snowhats after last Saturday's nor'easter...

and there's been barely a flake since. Hi, Old Hatch here, no longer in October; no longer in Nooooooovember (get it? No, longer?) In fact, neither Nov. nor Dec. ever got posted. Sorry, Nov., sorry Dec.  I have ridden the time tram over to January, and the number clicked to a 2, irretrievably. It's 2012, which looks better-guarded with those two black swans, fore and aft, escorting the binary prisoners to some unknown rendezvous. January 2, to be precise: 1/2/12, if you must, the sound of soldiers drilling double time. The first step forward into the big white calendar page. New Year's Day doesn't count, except for the inaugural walk in a festive 54 degrees. A cirrus circus. Tomorrow's a cold one, 1/3, and it's already skating out onto the big white pond. Ready?