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.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Romancing the Day


New? As in new chance, new leaf, new slate?

New by popular agreement, which is pretty convincing. New number, new calendar, new big untrodden field of time. Four new seasons, twelve new months, including your birthday, the Oscars, the World Series, elections, appointments, events, experiences... 

Or not so new. No newer than any other day-in, day-out. Same old witchcraft, same familiar bad habits followed you across the ones column to 2014.

New by choice; why not try it on? If you're going to seize a day, seize January 1. Not to say that I seized it.  This first day is like a blind date. Hard to know if you should do special things with Jan, take a New Year's Walk around Fresh Pond; say hello again to Rock Meadow— or just be your same old flawed self.

I ended up with some of each. Slept late, spent the next several hours wandering through an indoor compost of domestic chores and laptop distractions defiantly undifferent from any old last-year day. 

Then broke that pattern to get in 20 minutes on the fitness club treadmill like every other guy trying to make good on his new year's resolution.

Gave Matt and his friend a ride to a movie, and on the way back, was beguiled by the new late light: pale pink twilight at the westerly side of Spy Pond. So I parked and walked over to bear witness for a few minutes.

The pond surface was frozen. The trees across from me left gray frozen reflections in the ice. That was sort of new, the idea of frozen reflections. On the nearer shore to my right, the trees semed to leave white reflections. The white was from the sky, the open part berneath the slate-gray clouds. 

All of this suggested a message  about nature and art—space and imagery. Nature making art? A composition of sky, frozen water, light, trees, and even people: I could see distant black stubs of ice skaters. Could nature be art? Like truth is beauty and beauty truth? Or is nature just the random, self-ruled organization of the original, sometimes creative, sometimes destructive, while art is once-removed, in the eye of the beholder? And is beholding different from seeing? Does it require wonder, which is what? Seeing but not judging? Holding the mind wide open?

Well, let it be a miracle in the old sense: not something defying logical explanation, but something to be wondered at: frozen tree reflections in evening light. A small-r revelation. 

A collaboration between what you see and how you see it. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Cup o' Kindness

The watch ticks on, oblivious to the importance of its ticks. But the watch-wearers know and are making much of the passage of time today, like kids busily making a big sand castle against the imminence of the tide that will soon pound it down.  As the saying goes: Time and tide wait for Norman. And Norman's taking his sweet time. 

Think about it, but not too hard, whilst I open the last six hatches of this mystery march through December...

Boxing Day

This is one of those days that provides a window to Canada, if not Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, all those other places where English is spoken in funny accents and Christmas is extended by a day that's apparently for boxing things--either to give to the neighbours, or to return to the shops. There's no evidence that Boxing Day is an occasion for fisticuffs, except maybe a clue that surfaced on a walk with Carol. My hands, though gloved, were cold, and Carol explained that I should move all my fingers from their separate tunnels and bundle them together in the belly of the glove, thumb tucked inside, to warm up. I had no idea! Maybe Scrooge was right, and the way to warmth is tight-fisted, rather than open-handed!


Matt's writing a screenplay, a five-minute film for his filmmaking class. He was stuck. When you're stuck and the instrument you're writing on is the same one that distracts you from writing with a carnival of links and websites and videos and social media, then it's a good idea to remember what Red Smith, the sportswriter said, which in the version I know goes: "Writing's easy. You just sit at your typewriter and wait until little drops of blood appear on your forehead." Makes one miss the typewriter.
Anyway, he eventually got unstuck, blood or no blood.

Lighter Later

This was one of those little "oh" moments that the eye sees, the brain notes, and it becomes knowledge. It was a quarter of five, I was in Arlington Center, walking between the fitness place and the book shop, and I realized how light the sky was for that hour, pink to the west and evening blue, the same hue as the houses and trees, to the south. Only a week past solstice and already we'd gained back a good ten minutes of winter light. January, you old optimist!

Three books

Arlington has the coziest bookstore in greater Boston, a tiny bibliotheque of new and used everything called The Book Rack. And if you bring in books of your own to add to their shelves, you get a generous discount on used-book purchases. Thus it was that I took home three books for $9—Slaughterhouse-5 for Matt, The Bridegroom (Ha Jin) for Carol, and for me, the Collected Stories of Dylan Thomas, my birthday mate (October 27). Nothing like a new book to start a new year. Reading and exercise, that's the ticket.


Good segue: I just read Miller's Secret Rat Race. Not really. It's a cryptic puzzle clue without a puzzle, something I do aimlessly and often. You'll see the "secret" word hidden in that sentence: I just read Miller's... Treadmill, that's the answer. And there's a definition for treadmill hidden in there, too: Rat Race. All of which is just to give the treadmill its aha! moment, because I'm trying to make it more of an enticement than just a getting-nowhere-fast (or at least a brisk walk) for 20 or 30 minutes while listening to NPR on my little radio and trying not to compare myself with the woman on the treadmill next to mine, who's running in place at an Atalanta-like clip. 

Auld Lang Syne

Well, just about caught up now. Twenty minutes to midnight. Earlier I was thinking of my favorite New Year's Eve, which was when I was seven or eight and got to stay up late with my sister, Dory, who was eleven or twelve. We had popcorn and sparkling Night Club strawberry or lime soda and we watched the TV shows that were on too late, in the forbidden zone, shows like M Squad with Lee Marvin and Markham with Ray Milland, and we'd even make it up to the momentous moment, ushered in by Guy Lombardo in a white suit, leading his Royal Canadians in a fond, wavery rendition of Auld Lang Syne. Ten minutes. Old long since. Old long ago. Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Of course not. We'll toast the good old times with a cup o' kindness, for old time's sake! But I can't help adding this nugget from Wikipedia: "The melody [of Auld Lang Syne] is played as a background music at department stores in Japan to let the customers know that the establishment is closing soon."

Five minutes. Happy you near! Happy near you! Three minutes! Get ready, Georgia O'Keeffe calendar! Two...One... Harry New Year!!!! 

Well, I'll settle for the Wynton Marsalis sextet on the radio, swinging in 2014, with the top-hatted baby cutting a rug with the old geezer with the giant hourglass. 

To your health! And yours!