Sunday, December 21, 2014

In the Vintertime

I suppose I've recollected this before, like a geezer apt to repeat himself, but it gives him such pleasure, just smile, nod, edge toward the door and make a dash for it —

It was this little ditty my mother used to sing. Probably a camp song; she loved remembering those. It went:

In the vintertime,
In the valley green,
Ven the vind blows on the vindowpane,
And the vimmen from the Vaudeville
Ride velocipedes on the vindowsill:

Ah, men!
Ahh, vimmen!

There's a temptation to look up these mementoes on Google, but when you do, as I just did, you risk knowing more than you wanted. Yes, you get your memory validated, but instead of being your personal "Rosebud," redolent of the time it came from, your time, you henceforth have to share it with a lot of other children who had a sled just like that.

Or you can ignore those other children shouting in the snow and close the door, you're letting in the vind.

The reason why I bring this up? Because today is a day worth marking, the beginning of winter, whose cold, dark, modus operandi have been with us for weeks, but now it's officially culpable.  Easier to lay it at winter's door than to assign it to autumn. This has all the signs of Wintah's woik, says the detective bitterly, rubbing his hands nd checking the falling dark against the time on his wristwatch. Damn it, curses his excitable partner. Wintah's back.

Except that there's good news in it, too. It's the longest night, sure. But tomorrow the light allotment starts to swing the other way. Something to do with the sun, the angle its rays strike the earth, and the position of where we are in our orbit. It's like some myth in which the Gloomy Gus on the black horse has to tolerate the company of a troubadour seated behind him, playing hopeful airs on his lute.

And on that note, I leave those tiny ladies to pedal their tiny penny-farthing bicycles on the vindowsill while the wind buffets and rebuffs the windowpane affectionately.

Amen. Ah, vimmen.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Tempus Fugit

That's how this last week of my month (the one I was born in, that ends with my last name) started, with a coded message from a crossword puzzle constructor who embedded it among all the numbered x's from the past week's six daily puzzles:


It was even more clever than that, with a different riff on the theme of time in each puzzle, but the final message was timely enough: time flies. And to hammer the point home, I could apply it immediately to my annual visit with my birthday on Monday, good old October 27.

Not just mine, of course. Most years, I spare a passing thought to some of my birthday-mates, like John Cleese and H.R. Haldeman. But this year I was proud to let one of them hog the limelight. Dylan Thomas was celebrating—or we were—his centennial. October 27, 1914 in Swansea, Wales.

Tempus, tempt us! On Sunday at 3:00 p.m., I connected to a live-streamed broadcast of DT's then just-written radio play Under Milkwood from the 92d St. YMHA, where it was first performed back in 1953. The following day I carried a copy of his collected stories, none of which I read, but it was good to have him around. I like to tell myself that we have certain things in common: love of language; self-absorption. ("Among other things, he knew himself very well," says Leslie Norris in the Foreword, citing all his brilliant letters of apology as evidence that he knew his own faults very well.  Uncanny—I'm always apologizing!)

Anyway, I visited my birthday on Monday. I only had a day to spend with it; that's the way these things work. When you're very young, it's a very long day, and I spent a long anticipatory month of days getting ready for it. But by the time you've called on that day 66 times, it doesn't feel much different from most days. Still, it is your day. You're entitled to one by tradition and personal history. If you let someone know, even a stranger, he or she is practically obligated to wish you a Happy Birthday, and pass along a mental image of balloons, cake, people in conical party hats around a table. Only a practiced cynic, after years of diligent study, can pull off the observation that bumping into the day you were born is hardly reason for a big whoop-de-doo.

People take it seriously. Tempus fugit or tempus fuggedaboudit. Which brings me to my sister's birthday card. That is, Dotch, who's four years older than me and whose birthday is 25 days after mine. We had this little ritual as kids. We'd ask each other on the day, like a couple of novice interviewers, "So how do you feel? Are you sad? Glad? Mad? Bad?" And  because it was a kid's thumbnail way of taking stock, the other person would sometimes take it seriously. And because we are so used to the tradition, we refer to it as adults, too.

She wrote: "I would really like to be in your mind to know how you're looking at life these days. Are you mad, sad, glad, scared, accepting, curious?" In large part, I know she's talking about this disease I'm carrying around with me. It's just humble old Parkinson's, diagnosed five years plus ago. And I think she's probably also talking about our mutual health issue—old age.

When I first wrote down my answer, on my birthday, I was sitting outside the Kickstand Cafe (formerly Jam 'n Java) with a hot cider and an open notebook (and a ship to steer her by) and the day was warmish for late October, so I wrote: Glad. The day has cooperated and a day can define a life, temporarily, but time doesn't know it's temporary.                              

Then I thought about the other days. I needed some new designations. Like Vlad. As in Vlad the (self) Impaler, when I'm mean to myself. And I can be Dad, which is mostly a form of Glad, seasoned with Bad and a little Vlad. On rare occasions I am Strad, the perfect instrument, apt to be left on the back seat of a taxi, but usually found and returned. Too often I am Chad, as in Hanging Chad, half-in and half-out, half hole, half paper, half negative and half positive. There I am trying to dismount my bike, unable to swing my leg, either leg, over the bar. Fortunately I'm in the backyard, so if I fall, it will be on grass and earth. Finally I recognize what I need to do: rest the bike on its side and step out. Easy. 

But I am also optimistic despite evidence to the contrary. For want of a better term, let's call that Plaid, a pattern to be on good terms with, adaptable, mood-suiting, Black Watch tartan flannel, which I am lately apt to misbutton, have to start over, and my fingers are not as effortlessly deft as they were for decades. And tucking the shirt in and cinching the belt is laborious, too, But if it's a shirt you like, then it's worth it.

To sum up, I am Glad, Vlad, Dad, Strad, Chad, and Plaid. And Bashful.

Wow, November already? Tempus fugit, dude! 


Friday, October 17, 2014

Bareback Writing

So jump on. No saddle, just straddle the withers and away we go like a trick rider, standing up, flipping over to one flank or the other while the mount canters around the ring and then, at full gallop, charges out of the rodeo palace like in The Electric Horseman when rhinestone cowboy Robert Redford decides enough is enough, this animal needs to be free, and he propels the horse up and down random streets in this dusty Western town, pursued by police cars until he finally breaks out of the grid into the open prairie outside of town and outdistances his pursuers.

Sometimes it works that way. And sometimes the horse takes charge and ambles up into the nearest clump of tall grass and weeds, like a horse named Tennessee I once tried to "steer," yanking ineffectually on the bridle, in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, in my teens, while it ignored this inconvenience on its back. Metaphors do not come with a guarantee of performance. But the idea is just jump on and see where the words take you or you take the words—out into the starry night, up into the weeds, or—c'mon horsey, giddyup, c'mon horsey (while a Mr. Ed laugh track underscores the indignity)—nowhere.

And at three o'clock, the hour up, the wrangler wipes down the horse, who hasn't broken a sweat, and asks, "How was it?"

Magical. Exhilarating. We were one animal. The wind in my hair, the wind in his mane. Next time we go full Pegasus. Pega-sus, Pega-sus...pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Pega-sus...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fifteen Minutes

I'm here, in the morrow. Pushed it to the last fifteen minutes of the day, which being the morrow, is Wednesday's share of Tuesday. Except the morrow is actually Thursday now. So I guess I missed the train to Morrow. As the Kingston Trio noted in part of the soundtrack of my boyhood, "Morrow is the hardest place I've ever tried to go." That song was a little exasperating to me in a just-kidding way. I often tried to figure it out, which was probably a fool's game. Yesterday, aka today, wasn't bad, but if I don't put the concertina back in its box, I'll be none too fit for today, aka tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Staring in the mirror

Not quite sure what I intend with that title. Probably a statement of contemplation: visiting this blank white space for the first time in more than two months. It often starts out with staring in a mirror, writing does, but pausing at it now, the phrase seems a little disturbing. Staring. Not looking, gazing, or even peering. A fixed look, a bit nonplussed, discovering something, perhaps. It reminds me of one of my son Matt's early films, which he co-directed with a friend, called Solitude. Partners were given a stock script often used as an acting exercise, and asked to interpret it any way they chose to. He thought of staring in a mirror.

But as Lewis Carroll demonstrated, a looking-glass can be an opportunity, a portal, a conveyance, The white space, it turns out, may start out as a mirror, but often becomes a screen, alive with pictures that are conjured with the concatenations of words. It can also go back to being a mirror.

I will leave this mirror/monitor for now because it's nearly one, my butt hurts, and I haven't stacked the dishes. But I will return on the morrow, also known as Tuesday, and see where this goes.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Adventures in Writing!

Time to tune into an old radio program from a bygone era...


Aye, Captain?

Fill up my Loomis, lad; I've a tale to log!

Aye-aye, Captain!

Loomis Fountain Pens, the leak-proof, smooth-flowing pen preferred by more explorers for making  entries in their journals — presents Adventures in Writing!                   

Then the real program begins with young Tommy Pinkus sitting at his kitchen table, the clock ticking, an open notebook in front of him, trying to come up with an idea for a story. Occasionally, his cat, Falconflick, leaps up on the table, knocking over the ink and sparking an inspiration.  But however it happens, the boy writer always gets an idea, his pen begins to scratch, the narrative unfurls in an authoritative voice-over by the narrator, Philip McAdoo, and tonight's adventure is underway.

Of course, before that could happen the real scriptwriters labored that week in a painful, drawn-out, hit-and-miss, process having more to do with deadlines and desperation than magic. Or else a distinctly manual kind of magic. 

Sorry to say, you won't find any evidence of that radio show if you search for it, except perhaps in this blog. (But wouldn't that be a cool thing if I'd conjured it into existence, in a Twilight Zoney manner. Take note, Tommy Pinkus.) 

Obviously I'm trying to conjure a little ironic magic for myself, as if the title Adventures in Writing, declaimed by a sterling-voiced announcer, could make words flow spontaneously through the nib of my own version of a Loomis fountain pen:

...whilst rounding Cape August, in the fog-chilled valleys of West Marin, California, at the hidden beginnings of the Perseids meteor shower...

You gotta work with what you got, what matters, which may be too boring and everyday for Tommy Pinkus, but constitutes an adventure nonetheless, just as the meanderings of an ant on a sidewalk constitute a journey. 

I thought about the meadow we had cultivated by benign neglect, in front of our house. More public than the unmown grass bordering the driveway and the unmown, weed-choked, jungle of a backyard, it took over the house-wide strip of grass with the sidewalk on one side, Allen Street on the other.  At first it was just tall grass, then clover, then it got interesting. A meadow's-worth of Queen Anne's Lace. And a companion weed, unknown but standing at attention like the Queen's Own Guard, three feet tall. Bees and wasps and butterflies visited. 

Opinion was divided in 32-34 Allen as to whether it was beautiful or an eyesore (that wasn't how eyesore it); a wildlife preserve or an unkempt embarrassment.

The neighbors shuddered. The neighbors admired. The neighbors didn't even notice, much less care.
It wasn't our responsibility, it was the Town's. Not so, or true in theory, but not ever in practice. 
Pay Matt to mow it and the side strip. Let it stay till the summer's end. 

Finally, it came down to what Charlie thought—Carol's dad, who lived on the ground floor and was our gardener-in-residence emeritus. And Carol maintained that he didn't care for this opportunistic weed patch. Not even the Queen Anne's Lace? I tried to see it through objective eyes. One minute it was a sweet oasis, a caravansary for travel-weary meadow seeds, a habitat where once lay a featureless, anonymous, border that had supported our noble maple tree, felled in the great microburst of 2012. The next minute it was a tattered remnant of a household that didn't shower, ate out of cans and left them lying around,  let the newspapers pile up and tumble down the front steps, and whose doorbell the neighborhood children dared each other to ring before running away.

Fine, I said to Matt. But you have to take a photo of it before you do the deed.

The meadow lives!

Sunday, July 27, 2014


There have been a few doorways I've stood in since my last post. Not sure where they would have led, maybe to a familiar vestibule, maybe to somewhere else. 

One was during the early stages of the World Cup. The field of colors and emblems, order unraveling into momentary chaos and raveling back to order, reminded me of stamp collecting, back when I was a bedroom globetrotter, making colorful rows of peasants from Osterreich, King Leopolds from Belgie/Belgique, and musicians from Magyarorszag. That was when the world was mainly a map, with the British Commonwealth countries in pink, the French countries in green, and Greenland was by far the biggest land mass in the world. Geography forgave history. World War II had happened, but it had retreated to playing army in the Kligermans' back yard. Now we had the Good Neighbor Policy, Japan made our Crackerjack prizes, and the news was a mix of stories with faraway villainy, like the Iron Curtain, balanced by reassuring happy tales, like singing Israeli children.

A week or two ago I lingered over another portal, a product ad in the mail with the hook, Hearing Loss or Just Earwax? which turned out to be a promo for a diagnostic tool called the Video Otoscope. Something about the intrusive familiarity of the word Earwax appealed to me. Good name for a lowly character in a crime novel, or one of Dick Tracy's foes, like Pruneface. Good rainy-day time-waster: check out the list of Dick Tracy villains on Wikipedia. There must be hundreds, from 1931 through 2014. And if you're also a fan of old-time radio and have 46 more minutes, I recall a Dick Tracy radio broadcast from 1945 featuring a cast including Bing Crosby (as Tracy), Dinah Shore (as Tess Trueheart), Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, etc. etc. It's amazing what a little earwax will lead to.

Most recently, a phrase floated by. I caught it in my butterfly net. Here it is: creative hope. I'm not sure what it means, but I like the way it teeters its wings back and forth. I think it can stand up to some pondering.  

There's regular hope, which was the last thing in Pandora' box after all the evils had escaped. It's a good thing, regular hope, but it seems kind of overmatched, pitted against all those scourges bent on sowing terror and suffering. (Though it must have driven the evils crazy when they were all living in the box together.) Practically speaking, it seems to me most effective as an attitude. To remain hopeful. A hedge against defeatism. Hope springs. Fingers crossed. Hoping against hope--which sounds contradictory, but maybe it means like pressing hope against itself, doubling it. As ardently as it's invoked, it still strikes me that hope is kind of passive, if hardy. Emily Dickinson called it "the thing with feathers" and marveled that it never stops at all, nor asks anything in return for its willingness to sing in the storm, as it were. 

But what about creative hope? What would that be?  As I fill this white space with letters, words, sentences, perhaps I am employing hope creatively. Hoping not for something, which may be an investment in disappointment. Investing, instead, in possibility. With creation as your part of the bargain. I create, therefore I hope? No, dude, the other way around. This is delicate. I could be mistaken. 

Maybe it could be hoping for something--change, a non-specific pleasant turn of events--but not just waiting for it. Doing something. Making something. 

I'll ponder on it some more.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Three Birds

So I went back, looking for bird truth, whether in the form of elusive birds, capricious birds, theoretical birds, vocal birds, no birds, too many birds, not enough birds, cautious birds, hidden birds, bird coalitions, independent birds, beautiful and drab birds, mellifluous and strident birds.
Henry David Thoreau (not really)

May, that spring concoction with a pinch of winter and a sprig of summer, is a matter of record now. For me it was mostly defined, as usual, by the influx of migrating birds and the success or failure of my attempts to see them, whether in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge or in the woods of the Brooks Estate in Medford.

I began a post two weeks ago representing three stages of that event. First, whetted by my frustration with not being able to match the bird movement in a given spot with the same spot seen through my binoculars—I looked instead for the elusive "truth of birds": the reality that birds inhabit as birds, as distinct from the celebrity spotting that is the birder's game, fueled by the lure of, say, the throat flame of a Blackburnian warbler in a treetop or the sweet sweet chew chew of an all-blue indigo bunting.  

Bird truth is an ascetic pursuit, the equivalent of munching Essene bread. It requires a broad consideration of the bird's environment or a deep consideration of the bird's behaviour—with a u—the impulse driving the catbird's beatnik colloquy, for example, or the nuthatch's nervous but dogged energy (even though you'd trade a Talmud of catbird truth for a momentary gander at an indigo bunting turning from turquoise to ultramarine in changing light).

But then there is the parable of the three birds—on a morning when I went to Brooks, third week of May, the bushes and trees still lousy with warblers. And I saw one, and it was good!— a common yellowthroat. Little bandit with the black mask, skulking in a bush, olive and yellow, being furtive but allowing itself to be seen. So I continued to the pocket meadow and along the trail through a copse of trees and shrubs called Warbler Walk and lo! I beheld a magnolia warbler in good light, among the leaves, and it was very good—brilliant yellow, etched with black streaks and marshmallow white. High definition, sufficing for a treeful of barely glimpsed rarities. So, emboldened by the good yellowthroat and very good magnolia, I betook me to the Lounge, a clearing where two trails T and many species of  passing passerines are known to hang out, and behold! there was a black-throated blue warbler at the end of a twig, inky head tipped back, singing its arcane rising zoo zoo zoo zee, not any competition for a thrush, but giving its all. And it was enough. Three good birds can a merry May make.

There wasn't really a third stage to my Birder's Progress, except maybe a reconciliation of bird truth and celebrity spotting: See what you can see. Which may be what a lot of those warblers are singing. See...see? (Get it? Got it?) 


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Mais oui!

Here it is May. Already the eighth day, a fast week since Mayday, which somehow became ship-to-shore code for "Help!" One might have legitimately radioed it that way this past winter—"Mayday!" as in,"Get me the hell to Mayday!" or "There's no place like May...There's no place like May!" But I'm pretty sure Mayday is a respelling of its French homophone, "M'aidez!" or "Help me!"

May we? ask the yielding landscape, the spring migrants, the testing flora. And the reply, hesitant in April, is finally a welcoming "Mais oui!" Dare to change your wardrobe; pump up your bike tires; guillotine your storm windows, dare to go sashaying along Spy Pond in shorts and T-shirt, and acknowledge those airborne stirrings of puppy love, poodle kanoodles, boxers-in-briefs.

Mais oui! But of course! And in the Truth of the bird, this run of days is when it's time to fly a long distance, from here to the other here, also known as northern America, which is very exciting to us terrestrials, who have a kind of album of living experience with spaces for each FOY (first o' year) kind: Baltimore oriole flashing orange on a treetop,  wood thrush singing the Song of the Forest that Pan taught its oldest ancestor, dipped-in-blue indigo bunting, and twenty-odd kinds of warblers teasing us with colors and peewee cadenzas from the trees, especially the Blackburnian, Canada, Prothonotary, Hooded, and Chestnut-sided I will once again fail to see. But then again, I may. And if I don't, I won't dis May. Much. And dat's all I got to say.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Loose Change

Thirty days hath...that Aprille with his shoures England now that April's... the cruelest month...come she will...and she did, and now she's leaving, the bard of months, Shakespeare's month, taking her poems with her? Maybe not.

It's a rainy night, even rained out the Red Sox, and I'm looking back at the calendar page like a five-story building, about to exit through the lobby door marked 30, with a polite doorman in a rabbit suit or maybe it's a white rabbit in a doorman's uniform, ready to let me out.

I should have chronicled the transformations of this blue-gray civil war of a month, but its spring cavalcade lacked momentum, seemed like a street magician running rapidly through her repertoire of tricks, the uprising of green happening accidentally through cold days, raw days, days of crocus, days of matzo, days of wind, rain, and sun, of brillig daffodils and mimsy florets in the maples and blossoms in the magnolia trees, and another night of cold and wet authored by the same April.

I've been saving the title phrase, loose change, for too long. It refers both to the dilatory timetable of spring and in particular to the bright proclamation of the song sparrow, melospiza melodia, delivered from a singing perch and resembling the dispensing of new-minted coins from one of those silver coin dispensers the Good Humor man wore on his waist, a unique piping cadenza: dime! dime! dime! centime, ha'penny, nickel nickel nickel nickel, centavo, franc.

I've missed the rest of the avril aviaty—the tail-wagging palm warblers, phoebes packing a species vocabulary into their repeated names, maybe a brown thrasher, no telling who else. Maybe May...she will stay, but I must away!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Out Like a Wet Simile

It's a raw rainy night out there. Evocative. I'm afraid crimes are being committed as the clock nudges toward midnight. Maybe not, but it suggests footsteps behind you, matching your gait, someone comfortable in the pages of a whodunit.  Reminds me of the night I was walking around Chestnut Hill Reservoir when I lived in Brighton. I heard a noise behind me. I walked faster. So did whatever was behind me. I began to run. It matched my pace. Faster—same. I finally stopped and turned around, stiff with fear. I had tangled up with some cast-off fishing line and a few noisy items of junk, all hitchhiking along.

"I am the viper! I'm here to vipe your vindows!"

This is March going out like a lamb who should be in a warm barn snuggled against some fleecy hay-mate, dreaming of certified public accountants vaulting over a cubicle, but instead is picking its way along the rainy street, bleating piteously. Not pitiously, more piteous than that. Wet wool. What's worse? I'll tell you what. Woof! Lamb pursued by the Hound of the Baskervilles across the dread moors. Finally, exhausted, it turns to face its dogged pursuer, get it? hoping to find a fishing line tangled up with a read-aloud baby book of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, read by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose name makes baby laugh. Instead—worse. Lamb faces a lion, whom he/she/it must somehow persuade that they are one and the same, that the leonine days of early March have evolved quite naturally into the docile temperament of a lamb, and furthermore this is lamb's territory, this is late March, the last day, what are you even doing here, you maned interloper? And it works, the lion backs away, embarrassed, feeling cub-foolish, while the lamb advances, fleece dripping, having found its Inner Ram. But do not push your advantage too far, young ovine, for there is a joke circling overhead about pulling the wool over your eyes, and it's I must now be going to beddie-bye.

So enjoy your moor, even if it's a dream and you're really in that cozy barn after all, and it's the CPA's who have to make it home in the dark and the wet. 

Good night, flock, and good luck.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Daylight Savoring Time

Hope stopped by for a visit today. Winter had a senior moment. The dribs and drabs of March were rearranging into the birds and bards of April. What released this new surge of optimism? Milder temperatures; and a dividend of daylight we pay ourselves this time of year as part of the Spring Forward and Save Daylight Sale!

Daylight is an almanacky word, slightly herbal, smelling of woodsmoke, and good for you. It shines with almost the same brimming beam as delight. However, its allegiance is divided between the day and the light, and it wanders into other contexts—the living daylights (sense and sanity) that are knocked or scared out of you; the daylight you put between two things that were too close together; the dawning awareness of something formerly obscure.  

Twice a year, daylight is a commodity, a natural gift we can seemingly control like a tap or a dam or a lock. In pre-spring we save it by cutting an hour out of the day and putting it in the bank, to be redeemed in the fall. Somehow this game of self-deception works. The twilight that only yesterday belonged to 6:00 now belongs to 7:00, and 6:00 basks in the bronzy late sun that used to be the property of 5:00. And so on: natural light flooding new windows of time with brighter, newly-appreciated, luminosity.

There' s something charmingly old-fashioned and Groundhog Daylike about this formula of turning clocks and watches ahead or back twice a year, revealing "our" time as the malleable stuff it is. Ironically, this tick-tock tactic is meant to give us more time for nature's time, the planetary orbit (or bit thereof), the energizing earth and atmosphere, wind and water, "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower," to quote Dylan Thomas's powerful poem about youth and aging.

I'll buy some of that juice, Bruce.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

march forth!

It's March's version of Groundhog Day. No furry critter looking for a sign, but the day itself delivering  an invitation to launch, a kind of call to arms, and feet. 

Interesting how many months have a first-week day that launches its particular 4+ week trek with vigor, introspection, or festivity: New Year's Day, Groundhog Day, March Forth, April Fool's Day, Mayday...July 4th...Rounding Cape August (not widely known), Labor Day...Day of the Dead...and "the first of December was covered in snow..." To say nothing of exclaiming "Rabbit, Rabbit!" for luck on the first day of every month, if you remember.

Back to March Forth. Like most wordsfolk, I believed I alone discovered this remarkable sound-alike coincidence back in the 1980s. I remember working in an after school care program in Newton, Mass., and on 3/4 I organized a parade through the empty halls of the school building we inhabited: a half-dozen or so kids and me, banging rhythmically on pot lids and other noisemakers, chanting "March forth! March forth!" after I assured them that it was indeed a real holiday, even if they'd never heard of it.

However, word has spread, probably disseminated by those same kids, now in their mid-thirties, although somehow also trapped as eight-year-olds in my memory.

A quick swoop into Google yields such evidence as the terrific March Fourth Marching Band, the March Forth Fun Run in Seattle, the March Forth With Hope Foundation to cure cancer and the"How to Celebrate March Fourth" website, with instructions for throwing a celebration of setting goals (4. Choose your food based on a marching theme, such as trail mix, shoestring potatoes, "lettuce march" salad, rocky road, etc.)

Me? I'm writing about it. Isn't that worth something? Isn't a blog entry a marching forth? You wish, pal, says my judge, who's that guy of indeterminate age on the treadmill next to mine, who sets his speed to Intimidate, making my 3.5mph look sedate by comparison. Except I didn't even go to the workout place today, of all days. And yes, a message on the talking drum is a marching forth of sounds. It just seems a little like "talking the walk".

So, fine, I'll march 4th to Walgreen's to pick up a prescription, at least, knowing that the real test is not March 4th, but March sixth, which doesn't command anything, says the gravelly voice echoing in the empty gym, except a little attention, maybe? If that's not too much to ask?  

Friday, February 28, 2014

Nail Clippers

What can I say? This was an icy month. I slid all the way from the Beatles to the end of February, almost into March.

March! That's a serious gear. You got your Ides. Your Daylight Savings Time. Your red-winged blackbirds. Your Purim. Your spring.

But February did its job, built the bridge from January to March in just 28, spanning a considerable gap when you compare New Year's and the vernal equinox.

I started the day trimming my fingernails with very tiny nail clippers that seemed to lack the bite for my right thumbnail, so I put it back in the medicine chest and spent the next ten minutes searching for a bigger one, knowing there were probably ten hiding in various catch-alls around the house, not finding any, and settling again for the little weak-jawed one, which at least didn't have one of those annoying little chains that get in the way. It required an assist from a pair of blunt scissors ("Look, pal, I won't lie. You got some horny nails. I mean, I've seen toenails that were more cuttable.") but it did the job.  And I'm not saying February is like a pair of weak-jawed clippers that gets the job done, I'm just saying the metaphor is available.

Anything else to report? Red Sox lost their first Grapefruit League game to the Twins.  February delivered baseball. More snow due on Monday. That's on March's watch.

Discussed with my therapist, Jack, the gulf between my nocturnal and morning self. Concluded they need to coordinate. Morning guy glances at the ambitious to-do list penned by energetic night guy when all seemed possible, fed by some untapped well of dopamine I can only access after eleven o'clock. Sometimes he even identifies what task to do first, second, and so on. Morning guy, however, feels like reading the Boston Globe, fairly exhaustively, including the obituaries and how Jeremy Lin did for the Houston Rockets last night. Or chooses a finite but meaningful task like wiping off a drip spot in the refrigerator that's been there since the first Bush administration. Or trimming his nails, which becomes a 45-minute saga. Night guy holds no sway in this noisy, bright domain. Perhaps John Kerry can broker some kind of partnership, like the one between the clippers and the scissors.

Nail clippers, I told Jack, sounds like something I'd write a blog post about. Amd so I have.

Goodnight, February, that 28-ed.
Goodnight, nail clippers that collaborated.
Goodnight, pen that wrote this entry.
Goodnight, Night guy, standing sentry.
Goodnight, March, in half an hour.
Goodnight, snow and hoped-for flower.
Goodnight baseball, goodnight blog,
Goodnight Sid Caesar, Harold Ramis, 
and the old Groundhog,
who went back to sleep.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Oracles

Feb. 7, 2014

As we mark fifty years today since the Beatles arrived in America, I'm struck by an observation I read: If we had been celebrating the music of fifty years earlier back in 1964, we would have been reminiscing about the songs of 1914. Not likely! 
Not all half-centuries are created equal.

The name Beatles and the old black-and-white footage of the scene at JFK (then just renamed from Idlewild) and even watching them on "Ed Solomon," as my grandmother called him, are scrapbook memories, but for some reason the songs and the esprit or whatever it was about those four time-travelers from Liverpool, are still relevant, still exciting, still necessary.

I'm not sure if that speaks to the steep acceleration of change between 1914 and 1964 (two world wars, the Depression, the atom bomb, the cold war, space, radio, TV, cars, jazz, art, civil rights, Samuel Beckett, Alan Ginsberg, Gertrude Stein, etc., etc.) compared to the less dizzying (but still impressive) seismic events of the last half-century (lunar landing, Vietnam, computers, 9/11, Iraq, climate change, Obama, and the Beatles).

It's possible that 1914–1964 did most of the heavy lifting to get us to the Beatles, and it's also possible that the Beatles don't seem to have ever been out of date because of who they became, together and individually, so we retrofit their relevance back to "Love Me Do." And it's very possible that they had the secret (of life, happiness, time, love, art) and we believed it. 

I remember hearing about Beatlemania on the news. I was fifteen, living in El Paso, Texas with my mother, sister, and grandmother. The news report on CBS showed these four European bandmates in Sweden, hurrying past a huge throng of screaming fans. I think it was December. I remember snow. 

It was mildly interesting, this phenomenon. But it was in Europe, which was a faraway land of Laughing Cow cheeses and peasant dances and cuckoo clocks. Still, there was a feeling that Beatlemania was something to know, or else why would Walter Cronkite be reporting about it.

Some weeks later, I was at my friend Richard Trejo's house. We were working on a science project, which involved lowering a negative and positive carbon battery rod into different water solutions to make a light bulb light up or not. It was a modest trick. Most of our energy was going into sanding the wooden mount. And at some point, we put it aside and Richard produced the record. He had it. "Meet the Beatles!" 

There they were on the cover: faces half in shadow, wearing solemn, inscrutable expressions like four moons or four oracles. They knew something I didn't know. Deeper than celebrity. Having been somewhere, and not just Europe. Richard took the LP out, set the Capitol rainbow rim whirling on the turntable, the needle obediently dropped in the groove, and the secret jumped into the room in a cluster of rollicking chords: "Oh, yeah, I'll...tell you something...I think you'll understand! And I'll say that something... I want to hold your HAND..."  

 It was a very simple secret if you took it that way. Or it could stand for—or lead to—or imply—something more complicated if you took it that way. Not that I was apt to hear sexual innuendo at the time. Mainly I could hear it was about energy, pumping and powerful, like the electricity that made the light bulb turn on.  Secret enough to not keep in: "I can't hide... I can't HIDE!!! 

Those four oracles were on to something.

And then a few weeks later we saw them in person. Beatlemania was in our country now. Ed Sullivan, the usually grim impresario, flung his arm wide and conjured "The BEA—" with the rest of it drowned out by a scream wall of excitement powerful enough to light up New York City. And they weren't solemn oracles then. They were enjoying themselves.  How could they not be?  

So—do we still need them, do we still heed them, like in '64? Maybe not like in '64. But like in '14. The new one.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


The date will show February 2, but it is still January as I write this. I am sitting with January, whose head is buried in his arms, his shoulders shaking, his last minutes ticking away. There, there. To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn turn turn. He turns. He's laughing like a loon. Classic January. I've been tricked. This is not Janu anymore. This is Febru, the febrile, manic, younger sibling, the troublemaker, the kid you dreaded babysitting for...

Not so, says the calendar. February is a place. We just passed the sign, did you see it? FEBRUARY WELCOMES YOU! With an array of symbols around the perimeter: LIncoln and Washington, of course, their profiles in conversation; Conversation Hearts, and a cartoon groundhog in the lower left, contemplating its shadow, which is animated to appear and disappear as clouds reveal and conceal the sun.

This is a big transition, the first page turn of the calendar (not counting the paging through the year when we bought it). It means the year is 8.3% used up. The new-car smell is kinda gone. And our mensal expectations are...not lowered, but maturing. We went through it with January: the aerial view of day-squares marked with doctors' appointments, dinner dates, life measured out in spoonfuls. While we traversed those same days underneath the light-then-dark sky as we always do, meeting matter-of-fact weather events, cold snaps, snow, rain, getting a haircut, returning library books, dropping a check in the mail, et same old cetera.

So why should February be any different? Because it's got a different name. There's power in a name. F faces east. J looks west.  Back to back, JF are two brothers being measured for height. Of course, we know Febru is shorter by a few days, but tough and wiry as a ferret.

Not so, insists the calendar, February is a game board studded with special days, starting with Groundhog Day, which sits up on top of the month like a guru on a mountaintop. It's the true north of the year, the nod that starts the mechanism. The shadow business is just a symbol of wisdom dispensed, decisions made, a furry little oracle sending us on our way. It could have been some other bellwether—will the barber give McElroy a shave or a haircut? will the crow go for the worm or the grape? But there's something about the rodent sitting up on its haunches, perhaps on a hilltop, contemplating its shadow or the lack thereof, that fills the bill. Meaningful enough to be charming, and meaningless enough to suggest...oh, never mind. No wonder most TV meteorologists cherish it as a folk-weather gimme and no wonder Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin saw it as the perfect metaphor for a movie about drilling through inertia to change.

After Groundhog Day, who knows? The day itself has been shadowed for me by the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death. But we're not trapped in Bill Murray's alarm clock. Tomorrow will be February 3. They're selling Girl Scout cookies at Stop and Shop. And past experience tells me that some time before this month is over, I will hear the first cardinal adding its valentine-colored song to the winter air.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Rooster's Step

Birds are good messengers. They're one of our most available liaisons from that club we sometimes forget or deny we belong to—the world of nature. Sometimes the message is simply: "This nuthatch is here." The surprise, delight, or other emotion that message elicits varies widely. A flock of pigeons wheeling over a town center, leaving one building for another might be the epitome of the ordinary. But we'd probably miss them if we didn't have them, for mysterious reasons. 

The other day it was milder than it's been, in the thirties, and in the hardware store parking lot I heard a robin give its ordinary cook-cook-cook exclamation (part churlish, part Curlyish) from a nearby bare tree. The very normality of it meant something—that it wasn't as cold or as forbidding as it's been. It was a day more inviting of a casual remark.

Because of the cold and a Parkinsonian tendency to blame inertia on Parkinson's, my encounters with birds outdoors have been minimal lately. And there have been plenty of enticements. An article on the front page of the Boston Globe told about the appearance of snowy owls lately on local beaches, fields, Logan Airport. The snowy owl is a messenger from the semi-mythical north: a spectral white gnome in the dunes who doesn't come down here very often. Here's a female snowy that local photographer George McLean captured, mukluks and all:

If you spend your time mostly inside, you rely on reports or photos from people who do go out, like the account I got last week from birder friend and jazz scribe, Ed Hazell. On Martin Luther King day, he went out to Plum Island, and saw 

"... A bald eagle at Lot 1. A low flyover snowy that was so spectacular and so unexpected that I nearly drove into the marshes (there were two more, stationary and far off sightings later in the day). A rough-legged hawk was hovering and hunting near the North Pool and I had a really long look. The sun was in and out of the clouds and when it came out, it lit up the hawk splendidly...."

In addition to raptors, the bum saw horned larks (little masked marauders with tiny black devil horns like someone's rude graffiti in a bird book, come to life) and snow geese, and a northern shrike (bigger, big-headed masked marauder, whose name Nathanael West borrowed for the cynical features editor, Shrike, in Miss Lonelyhearts). 
horned lark

northern shrike

When you have a banner day like Ed's, it's enough to be able to fit these new acquaintances into the system of birds. Each one individually is "this bird here", but what do we know about the "here"? I don't mean the habitat, I mean the kind of bird internet, the system of birds the messengers represent and report from, whether a ghostlike snowy owl or a drab gang of pigeons.

It's good to experience it directly, off-center and in rough context, but indirect communicates too. I sometimes wonder how much of a birder Emily Dickinson was, to write "Hope" is the thing with feathers. Hope is certainly what drives birders to go out, but Emily didn't get out much, they say. Nowadays her friends would be emailing her things all the time. Ann Downer, Ed's wife, would have been one of them. She sent me this link about thirteen cozy bluebirds, which I sent to a flock of birder friends, with this verse:

Sing a song of sixpence,
Post it on a blog:
13 eastern bluebirds
Tucked in a log

One of those friends I sent it to, Hilary, replied with another bird message—in word, but also in word-picture. Commenting on my brief discussion, some weeks ago, of daylight lingering later, she wrote: "I like your appreciation of the late-day light and longer days.   Today I just read somewhere that every day gets a rooster's step longer." 

I pause to let my readers run that movie of a rooster stepping across a barn floor, setting down its spraggle-toed, corncob feet with care and deliberation.

Hilary remembered that she had read this almanac-worthy comparison in an issue of the Seed Savers Exchange, in an essay by co-founder Diane Ott Whealy, who passed along this observation from her grandmother. She wrote: "One rooster step isn’t much, but a couple hundred rooster steps is the difference between a cold long winter’s night and a glorious summer evening. You can get a lot done with a few more rooster steps."

This too is a bird message, a message by way of a bird who showed it and a person who got it, translated it, and passed it on. We could all  benefit from such collaborations!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bloody January again!

I'm reminded of that great song by Flanders and Swann, "A Song of the Weather," a parody of an 1834 English nursery rhyme that recites the months as they change with the seasons: 

"January brings the snow,/ Makes our feet and fingers glow...April brings the primrose sweet, / Scatters daisies at our feet." Etc. 

In the F and S recitation of dismal British weather, on the other hand, there's not a hell of a lot of difference between the months: 

"January brings the snow / Makes your feet and fingers glow. / February's ice and sleet / Freeze the toes right off your feet"...all the way through to "Freezing wet December; then / Bloody January again!"

Well, we elected it month number one, and it's a reasonable choice, bearing the name of the god of doors, gates, and portals: two-visaged Janus, with one face looking back at the past, and the other looking to the future. Just too bad its present is so bleak and dark and cold. (1/22/14, 12:08 AM. Presently we Bostonians are enduring a slightly overhyped snowstorm that has truly been given the name Janus.)

Here in the Hemisphere of Indirect Sunlight, January starts bravely with mournful-sounding vuvuzelas and other silly tooters, shiny top hats, balloons, and confetti, and then it settles down and gets contrarily January-like. Weather events, regimes of inhospitable temperatures interrupted by confusing spells of hospitable ones; and then, worst of all, weather robbed of color, not cold enough or mild enough to warrant an opinion, but only an annoyed shrug. Raw weather. Meh weather. Persistent gray parking lot snow weather. It's plenty enough to use as an excuse to not have anything particular to comment about in this blog for eleven days.

Except for one fun fact.                               

Maybe you heard about this. During the Golden Globes, the website for the E! network was covering the pre-awards "red carpet" event during which celebs arrive and submit to interviews conducted by would-be celeb journalists. And while the captive star was so ensnared, the E! folks would post a graphic on-screen--a Fun Fact about the famous personage. So apparently Michael J. Fox, who was up for a TV award, was walking the media gauntlet and up goes this Fun Fact: MichaelJ. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 1991.

E! got an earful on Twitter and quickly issued an apology, assuring everyone that they knew there was nothing particularly fun about Parkinson's Disease and deeply regretted the folly, etc. Meanwhile, across the Twitterverse, people were tweeting their own "Fun Facts." To wit:

Fun Fact: In 5,000 million years, the Sun will run out of hydrogen and Earth will die.

Years ago, I would have snorted at this as a smarter-than-thou cultural observer with the same non-PD perspective as E!.  But—Fun Fact—having been diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2009, I was on Michael J. Fox's squad. I felt compelled to react. Maybe this was the opening I'd been looking for to write about my own situation, in which slower is the new normal— distinctly slower than the pace of most folks out there, which used to be my pace, too, more or less. And while in itself Parkinson's does not constitute a fun fact, the fact is that there is something funny about getting used to a new standard of normalcy not shared by the mass of humanity. The time it takes to stuff a couple of dollar bills in a wallet; the time it takes to extract said wallet from the back pocket as we approach a toll booth. A well-meaning stranger asking "Are you gonna make it?"as she observes me extracting myself from a car. "Oh, yeah," I assure her.

The fact also is that Michael J. Fox is currently starring in a situation comedy about a guy with Parkinson's Disease coping with his physical and mental quiddities and with the reactions of friends and co-workers.  It's not fun, but you can make fun of it, or from it. 

So I will give E! the benefit of a deliberate misinterpretation and say, your honors, they were being ironic. "Fun fact"? Hardly. But if life is a sitcom, and it almost is, then what are you gonna do but call a PD diagnosis a fun fact, slap your forehead, and cue the laugh track.

Or wait for the English bloke on the telly, maybe one of those Downton Abbey footmen, to clomp in from outside dripping rain and mutter, "Bloody January again!"

Friday, January 10, 2014

Polar Vortex, Solar Schmortex

Off with the layers of goose-down and Gore-tex!
Gone is the siege of that mean Polar Vortex!
I'd rather look for a
Borealis aurora
Than cry, "Oh! Jan. nicks my cere-brrr-al cortex!

"Too clever, by 'arf," comments my imaginary critic, Lizzy, the chambermaid from Tooting Bec. That's what she always says about my attempts at wit. (Get it? Cry-o-gen-ics? Freezing the body? "Too clever by 'arf!") She's right, but winter makes wordplay, or attempts at it, necessary. It's an escape hatch.

That's why when waiting in traffic behind a city bus, I become absorbed by the warning sign across the bus's sooty rear: "IF YOU CAN'T SEE MY MIRRORS, I CAN'T SEE YOU." And a flood of other interpretations come to mind, such as

1) "I love you, Dolores, but I don't get why you have these mirrors over every square inch of your apartment." Dolores (tearfully): "If you can't see my mirrors, I can't see you."
2) "Mirrors? What mirrors, doc? And what do you mean, get out of your office??" Doctor (firmly): "If you can't see my mirrors, I can't see you."
3) "So, wait, Professor, you're saying when I close my eyes...I disappear?" Prof.: "Exactly! If you can't see my mirrors, I can't see you."

Wot? Waste of time? Sez who? I say it's important, in a ritual way, like muttering prayers, or building a bridge to an alternate universe. (You would, says Lizzy.)

Anyway, I was really talking about the Polar Vortex and the Aurora Borealis, which sound like states of being, or jazz clubs, but are in fact atmospheric events that have both paid a visit this week. 

I will miss the Polar Vortex and the weather being in the news and the few days of Neanderthal temperatures and the footage of people flinging saucepans full of just-boiled water into the air and having it come down as clouds of fine snow crystals, and of other people turning bubbles into perfect wabi-sabi ornaments of bio-glass, and of other people using bananas as hammers. I know there were deaths related to the cold, and misery. But for whatever reason, I felt a slight disappointment at the big blue disk on the weather map retreating like an errant circular saw--sorry about that; he's really very friendly--or an archaic place we used to read about as kids, with driving snow and ravening wolves, somewhere in the Russian taiga. We may remember the Polar Vortex in the future with exaggerated terrors, the flip side of the Harmonic Convergence. Remember that?

Aurora Borealis could be the name of a stripper or a best-in-show Persian cat, in addition to being the classier label for the Northern Lights, which I've seen on two remembered occasions, both of them in Canada, one in a long spectral green ribbon from a train window, crossing the prairie of Saskatchewan, the other a here-and-there sky dance of no colors I can remember over English Bay in Vancouver. Down here in the Lower 48, it's a rare thing, usually the result of a solar storm, or a "coronal mass ejection" of hydrogen and helium ions, as I recall from USA Today. And this was the case yesterday, with the news that it takes eight minutes for the ions to get from the sun to us, and might very well result in a visible display of the Aurora Borealis in many parts of the globe.

I didn't rush out to see, as I would certainly have done five or ten years ago. Instead, I sauntered out onto the screened-in back porch and peered through the mesh, in which was caught the moon and a few cold stars, but no aurora. 

If I can't see you, you can't see my mirrors.

I didn't even grant myself the wish in a dream that night. I pointed to a promising patch of night sky. "There," I said to a friend in the dream. "Where?" I peered with him. Nothing. 

If you can't even conjure up a decent light show in your dream, what good is it? If I can't see your spectacles, you can't see mine.

Or maybe I didn't look long enough. I'll try again. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Great White North

Travel notes for a day-up, day-back road trip to Montreal, driving Matt and his friends, Alex and Elsa, back to Concordia University after their December break.

It seemed a little crazy, leaving a day after a foot of snow and a deep freeze Friday night, to travel  up to Quebec, just at the end of its own arctic siege, in an elderly Honda of untested fortitude. But Adventure nosed out Prudence, who had advocated for putting the trio on a Greyhound bus. No fun in that. And after all—the Abenaki brave, Throws Caution to the Winds, had promised.

So Saturday, the car full to the gills with two parents and three freshmen and various forms of suitcases, tote bags, duffels, backpacks, tripod, laptops, vinyl records, and hefty winter coats, we embarked for the frozen North. I 93 to I 89, lunch at Sarducci's in Montpelier, which wears its state capital role—compact, neighborly, gold-domed Capitol building and many-verandahed museum—with a modest Yankee dignity. And on through the northern tier of Vermont to the mysterious, minimalist, border. No reason for all these bleak governmental structures to be in this wooded, rural, zone except that two nations happen to meet here, the backyard fence of the Good Neighbor Policy, where Uncle Sam and Johnny Canuck used to hang out and sing Home on the Range and Frere Jacques, once part of the cozy, reductive world of Life magazine and Coronet educational films.

This winter day it's a bit boring, briefly bureaucratic, and a place for a bathroom break, before we resume our trip in the fast-fading daylight of a new storybook setting entirely: the small agricultural border towns of southern Quebec, the signs mainly in French, all the small houses radiating an opaque, vaguely Old World yet redefined North American, Quebecois identity, challenging the familiar with a potage of fiddle music, Canadian money, and a persistently foreign language. And northern snow. And northern wind.

White farm fields stretched away on both sides of Autoroute 133, combining two remembered images of Canadian geography—the prairie and rural Quebec— on the back of the Canadian one- and two-dollar bills when I lived in Vancouver in the 70s. 

As our invasion continued to Alasdair Frasier's fiddle music on The Road North CD, the wind picked up the snow off those fields in blinding bursts that shook the car, ballast or no, with one blast shoving the car in a bully's strong-arm toward the shoulder as two behemoth trucks thundered by on the left, glittering with halloween lights. This was exactly what Prudence had warned us about, the car on its side in a dtch, many kilometres from the nearest hostile Francophone, in brutal tundra-like temperatures. But we withstood the nudge and Carol was more jazzed than jarred. Throws Caution to the Winds laughed. Prudence humphed and went back to her tatting.

Windbreaks and a more suburban, then urban, landscape put an end to the snow snakes and wind shoves. Montreal reeled us in across the St. Lawrence River and through the Atwater Av. tunnel, finally to the familiar matrix of Rue Sherbrooke, the east-west artery that connects Matt's downtown Sir George Williams campus with Alex and Elsa's Loyola campus, twenty minutes away. We dropped them off, the car reverting to less-circumspect family vibes. 

We dropped Matt off in his former-priory dorm, Grey Nuns, to the unpleasant discovery that his room had no appreciable heat, not quite at the visible-breath stage, but barely better than outside. We left him to deal with it (well, okay, mentioning it to the security guard on the way out, receiving assurance of action on Monday and a space heater in the interim). We had supper at the same French-cuisine bistro we'd eaten at before—this time with me slightly appalling the waitress by taking mild (post-stent) exception to the ubiquity of cream sauce, not realizing how much of a staple of French cooking it was. 

Prudence had her final say, convincing us, already running late, to eschew a planned stopover in picturesque Hatley, Quebec, two hours to the east, to visit our friends, writers Steve Luxton and Angela Lueck. It would have enriched this account substantially, but likely caused spousal stress, at least in the short run. 

The Abenaki did not get involved. We made it home, emptier in many ways, especially of windshield-wiper fluid, without giving Prudence any further I-told-you-so opportunities.

Be warm, Matt.