Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Meadow lights

Friends ask me if I've been birding lately. It's usually a reliable go-to in conversations. Not so much, I tell them, with an apologetic shrug. The fact is, there's a bit of a disincentive to do what you usually do just because you usually do it, even though you're usually glad you did it when you do it, for the usual reasons.

It's also the case that I did not see a scarlet tanager this spring or hear a veery, or cross paths with many warblers, as I might have if I'd persevered;  and while the space they would have filled is okay, like the little hopeful black-and-white pictures in a stamp album, the real stamps would have been better, I know.

Sometimes you have to keep up the old rituals because if you don't keep them up, you might lose your way some day, like a fellow who can't remember which house is his.

Which is why I went to look for fireflies out at Rock Meadow in Belmont on Sunday night, the second night of the so-called supermoon, the moon in perigee, venturing closer, like a wild critter hoping to be fed.


I stopped first at Robbins Farm, the hilltop park in Arlington Heights with its unimpeded view to the east. It was around 8:45 p.m., a little past moonrise, and Arlington did not fail me. Around 300 people were arrayed on the grassy ridge, like observers at the apocalypse, with telescopes and flashing cell phone cameras trained on a rose-colored translucent moon just climbing out of a gray mist.

I like it that a good number of my fellow townspeople will assemble to watch a moonrise, even if it's been hyped as a supermoon. They must have been pleased to see their separate yens braided together into a popular event, with a line of cars slowly cruising for rare parking spaces. Or maybe they'd hoped they would be the only ones.

I watched their kids racing around, not showing the least interest in the main event, but maybe tucking away the memory of a summer evening when they all went out to see the moon. And maybe they'd gotten a brief explanation of the moon's elliptical orbit and learned those two mysterious astral words: apogee and perigee, like twin brothers in a Persian myth.

But I had other lights to see. So I angled back downhill toward my car, passing a woman who'd found a good solitary spot for a picture. I took her place. By the little community garden, through a perfect-sized gap in a leafheavy tree, the rosy moon—not especially super, but getting its due—peered back.


I followed the back roads into Belmont and ended up at Rock Meadow, feeling pleasantly sinister as I pulled onto the dirt shoulder and slowly got out of the car like a suspect in a Perry Mason episode. Entered the meadow on a path through tall grass, a darker indentation. Came out into the wide view. And saw the first spark.  Firefly!

The man with the faltering step clumped his way along the boardwalk. I was invisible, like the tree that falls noiselessly. No one was around to see my Adventures of Tintin t-shirt. Mosquitoes registered my presence, but I thwarted them with my Deet. They hate Deet. You just have to say "deet" and they leave you in peace.

More fireflies were trying the dark, finding it a lightworthy medium. I walked and took them in, collecting sparks and flashes, discerning color—yellow, a few white—and duration—mostly periods, a few elongated into dashes—and profusion—more in the wetter swale, fewer in the drier. Sometimes I watched without glasses, widening each spark into a ghostlier sequin, a trick I've tried with frozen rain and fireworks displays.

They simultaneously invite and resist analysis. The word bioluminescence is approximately the length of one flash. A cold, chemical light is too cold and chemical a fact. That it is a summer delight and fantastic, serving a practical purpose that translates as romantic— getting warmer.  Cool signals; meadow lights. Keep it brief.

As I neared the apogee of my walk, a yolky light was gathering near the top of a tree along Mill Street. I stood a while, waiting for it; then, impatient, moved myself, making it rise free again, the moon that had shyly followed me, yet was still back at Robbins Farm and a million other places.

Now I had two companions of light: the big chummy moon and the collective telegraphy of fireflies: one constant, a bit solemn, like a god looking for a friend; the other inconstant, but exciting, a language come to life, now an eachness of separate signals, now an orchestral wholeness of meadowspeak, which if it had music, might be Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night Dream Overture.  

Hard to leave these companions, but what's a hello without a goodbye? A midsummer night's dream, maybe; dream optional. I backed out slowly to a few final firefly flashes—those last, long, midsummer notes—and gave a farewell salute to the moon--which deserves its own song.

Friday, June 21, 2013

That Rainbow

Remember that rainbow?

If you'd never seen one, or if it had been a long time since you'd seen one, this was the rainbow to see. Not just a rainbow, but an arc-en-ciel.  That kind of rainbow. Like playing the word RAINBOW for 82 points in a Scrabble game.

So I'm here to try and hold onto it.

This was on Monday, 6/17, early evening. It had been raining and storming most of the day, a bad-tempered afternoon, grumbling with thunder. My father-in-law, Charlie, was with us and I think dinner was over (no Colbert to divide our  attention) when he got up and  moved with purpose to the front windows. I saw with surprise that the sun was out. Brilliantly. But that wasn't it. "Do you want to see a rainbow?" he asked.

We all hurried outside. There it was, spanning the sky across the street, vivid enough to be spread across two pages in a picture book. The two "then that means..." ingredients were there, sun and still-splashing rain, but the product was past the process now. It was steadily ripening, subject to scrutiny, of the gape and gawk variety.

It was clearly a double rainbow, which seldom makes it to the picture books, but always feels like a little extra in the paycheck, ephemeral though it is, with the colors in reverse.

The colors. The phenom itself. In the spectrum of sky events, of which recent ones have been dread conclusions, dark and destructive, what to make of this myth? Seven colors, arched in unison, polite but meaningful, a rare logo signifying—itself. Shape and hue and accidents of science. A casual weather ad and "your message here."

Or no message here, any more than a morning hermit thrush song or the air-water-sun-ordained instructions of the troposphere.

And why that two-tone sky shading? Dark above the arc, light below? Tell me, you physicist, you meteorologist; I don't want to know.

Matt wasn't with us. He was having supper in an Arlington restaurant, nearly home from his camping trip. Should I call him? Parental intrusion or aesthetic uplift? Err on the side of duty. "Hey, Matt—if you want to see a fantastic rainbow, go outside." "Where?" "Look toward Cambridge. Or just look up. You'll see it." "Oh, wow." (A dad's reward.) "Thanks." (No thanks necessary.)

Then came the picture-taking: kind of puny and pathetic, holding up a cell phone to the sky, another eye, the one with the literal memory, though bound to be juiceless next to the thing itself, kind of like these words.

But how could it be otherwise? Only a rainbow can be a rainbow.

Reluctant to leave it, we left it. It seemed to fade, then strengthened. It lingered against the roofs and chimneys. The setting sun robbed it of energy at last.

It became a Did you see it? topic of conversation. It appeared in the newspaper—it wasn't just ours, but apparently all of Boston's—in amateur photographs and in the form of a How Rainbows Form diagram in the Metro section, illustrating the bending of colors, twice or three times, inside a giant round raindrop.

That was the last I saw of it until now.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Kite Tail

I am waiting for my son's eBay sell-by deadline to arrive. (New uses of time for a new age.) While he is away on a camping trip on a small island in Lake Champlain, I have been enjoined, in a page of detailed Instructions, to find and print out the shipping label, locate the buyer's address, and finally, since there are two things he's selling, to "Make sure to send the right item to the right person."

It's weird having the kid off on a six-day camping trip instead of having his large energy in the house. I am not used to having this much time to myself. No laptop glow illuminating his face at midnight. No unexpected guitar riffs. No thundering footsteps on the stairs followed by a request for money. Instead, a bulging silence. This is all a rehearsal, I suppose, for September, when he begins his immersion in film production at Concordia University in Montreal—a fact that is starting to lose its fold-lines since being pulled out of the package, like the unironed grey or maroon academic gowns he and his classmates donned last week for their high school graduation ceremony. Part of a train of end-of-the-status-quo events that has been chugging by this month with bunting and whistle stops, with joy and sadness, with excitement and fear about the next leg of the journey.

As my long-retired barber Teddy used to say when I brought Matt in for a haircut: "He's a big guy anymore!" followed by "Don't worry about nothing."


Gowns and trains? Only with brides, I suppose. When else can a textile metaphor comfortably blend with a mobile one? Maybe when it's a rag-tied bow tie kite tail, whipping and dancing behind a paper diamond, the kind of tail you rarely see anymore. I couldn't even find a decent image of one on Google.

Whence cometh this kite tail metaphor, guv'nor? the children want to know. Well sir, sez the storyteller, the other day I was thinking about those two Jujubes currently upon us—I speak of course of June and July. What about 'em? Well, just about how this year, what with the graduation train and vacation plans and the eminent domain of summer, they've blended their juju into one fat dual month (called Julien, maybe?). And wondering if this kind of blending is a function of advanced age, where routine-oiled months bump into each other in an impatient traffic jam. Will February merge with March into Mary? Followed by the portmanteau months of A, Julien, Auber, Omber, and Dejean?

Actually, I added those name parts now. But the June-July thought was followed by a musing about two other word neighbors: persevere and perseverate ("repeat or prolong an action, thought, or utterance after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased"). You could do worse than deliver a commencement speech about knowing the difference between the two: And so (so, so, so...), Class of 2013 (een, een...), remember to persevere (veer, veer), but also know when it's time to let go of it!

I know: the kite tail. So I sez to myself, what do I do with these random, disconnected observations? And the answer was something like: Tie them to a kite tail and wait for a breeze. (Sounds like something you'd say to a perseverator: Aaah, whyncha tie it to a kite tail an' wait for a stiff breeze!) 

Which turns out to be a pretty good metaphor for a sweet afternoon on the back porch when I should be writing about Animal Farm and Stalin. On occasion, it makes sense to tie a few quiddities and quidnuncs to a quixotic queue and let it go. N'est-ce pas, Julien?


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Befriending the Quagga

There are small tyrannies we have to navigate around in our daily odysseys —little Scyllas and Charybdises. One of mine is the annoying Uttiba, whose name is an acronym for "using time to its best advantage." A stuffy moniker for a stuffy troll with pursed lips, pince-nez glasses, and a large watch worn around its neck with an incriminating second hand mowing the dial like the scythe of a fussy reaper. 

Uttiba is responsible for the dirty trick called "the best part of the day." For example, it's 2:19 pm as I write this: nearly mid-afternoon on the third day of a heat wave. What have I done so far today? Uttiba asks. Well, I did last night's dishes. Changed the garbage. Um... Does breakfast, shower, and getting dressed count? Oh, I hung up some shirts in my closet. All this spread out over 5 1/2 hours, since I slept until 8:45 a.m. Without a doubt, I missed the best part of the day, which would have been the cool, fresh, dewy part when the temperature was still in the lingering sixties.

Had I gotten up and taken a stroll down to Spy Pond, say, around seven, I would have been entitled to wear the I Saw the Best Part button and attract the envious glances of passers-by all day long (as well as maybe a few frowns from those mistaking me for a proud voyeur). But I didn't seize the hour; so instead I have to wear the I Missed the Best Part button, earning a mixed reception of sympathy, contempt, and schadenfreude from the passers-by. 

Then again, who's to say what the best part is? By common consent, it's considered to be the sunniest part. Or maybe the coolest on a hot day. Or often the morning, especially the top of it, the least-used-up, most brimful-of-possibilities part. However, for ducks and earthworms, it might be the wettest part. For Dracula, the darkest. For an artist, whenever inspiration is most likely to visit. For me, it's a moving target; I'm hunting for it and hunted by it. Usually it's wherever I'm not, though more likely to be outside than inside.

What I need is to establish new criteria for the best part of the day, standards that are more democratic. First of all, what is a day? The illuminated portion, most would agree, of one full rotation of the Earth on its imaginary axis. So first criterion: best part is the part that makes best use of the light. By that standard, mine was searching for a persistent yellow warbler in the backyard tree and right-side hedges. Never did find it, but not for lack of effort.

Second criterion offers a choice. What are the parts of a day? By common consent: morning, afternoon, and evening. And some might add night at either end. So the best part depends on a comparison. Morning slept through? No sweat, just a late scratch. So now it's between afternoon and evening. The choice is still viable until midnight, when the last betting window closes. 

Or you could say that the parts of the day are the hours. Think how many opportunities for besthood that affords. Predawn hours... Dawn: 5am to 6am...all the way to 11pm to midnight. Who would be so presumptuous as to assert that you missed the best part of the day with all those chances! Were they dreaming your dreams at 3 am?

Third criterion: eliminate "best" altogether. It's too vague and subjective—pointless, really. What's required is a collaboration with time, or at least a detente, not a measuring up to it. (Is that the best use of your time, Johnny? Who's to say, ma'am?) Better than best: the least time-dependent part of the day. Not the vessel at all, but its content. The part when something was learned, enjoyed, even glimpsed, and deemed worth remembering. 

Surely between these three new criteria—best use of daylight; best day division; best hour; or most time-defying memory—it would be easy to befriend the wild quagga that follows the sun from dawn to dusk and dares you to climb on its back.