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.