Monday, January 19, 2015


I think it's time to write about something besides writing,  

Not birds. Or maybe not-birds. Ed Hazell and I drove out to Forest Hills Cemetery in a remote corner of Boston to see a reported black-backed woodpecker, which is usually a bird of the Canadian north. Sun just rising -- I drove straight into it, plus the windshield slow to de-fog; had to pull over once. There was also black ice when we arrived at the cemetery. 

Gates were locked. We managed to thread our way through a car-wide passage around a storage facility, and found our way to the spot, a small rise where the gravestones of Henry O. Aldrich and several Pilkins back onto a copse of trees, a small slice of a woods.This was where the woodpecker had turned up every morning between 8 and 9:30. Does this story end with a stunning view of Picoides arcticus flaking bark off a spruce? No. We stood around with a handful of other binoculared and long-lensed suitors, listening to other birds--nuthatches and chickadees. A red-tailed hawk came by. We glanced at our watches, not surprised, more like routinely disappointed. Which eventually becomes an only slightly less valuable outcome than if we had seen it. Because we had engaged with the world  and maybe were seen by the woodpecker, which doesn't count. But we do.   

One not-seen black-backed woodpecker

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Square Don't Care

I like writing in graph-paper notepads. I've probably got a dozen of them in assorted piles, in various sizes and bindings, more of them started than finished. If you need a straight west-to-east line to provide a shelf for your words, it's there, but it's also tolerant if you wander off a bit. 

The page doesn't say "Write this way" like standard ruled notebooks do. The vertical lines and the horizontals have equal status, collaborating on a light grid with a trustworthy but unofficious function. It makes a background murmur like the Grand Concourse of Grand Central Station Uniform but not blank.

The empty page extends an ironic bow: a combination of "we've been waiting for you" and "pardon our appearance." The squares may offer nothing—zilch—or fanciful doodles. They could be mosaics, crossroads, or cells containing anything, including your own beeswax. Words find good traction along these boulevards, especially in the smooth black ink of a gel pen.

The squares could also be units of time, a template for a universal calendar, currently empty of events but accepting donations. With what to fill this screen? Drops of paint or nectar? A challenging crossword puzzle, the movie reviews in the Friday Times? The latest news from Paris? 

Fill these cells with a harmless essay, doing your exercises, making excuses, doing the dishes, drawing cartoon people with big noses. They could be peeping-tom windows in an apartment building, portals to the past or to Neverwas.

Anyway at some point you're going to move from those cubbyholes to this white blogpost (Russian for "blizzard on the trackless steppe") where famous writers pad by silent as ghosts and watermarks; and imaginary monkeys bang away at typewriters, writing everything that has been written and will be written, including these words, which is both reassuring and frustrating. Yes, it validates you—this too is literature!—but how do you avoid plagiarizing from these rhesus pieces?

Fortunately, the square don't care.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


The garbage truck gulped down a few more Christmas trees on Allen Street today. A sure sign that the patina of New is giving way to the under-layer of  Nu? which is Yiddish for “So?” with a dose of irony: So: what did you expect? So, whaddyagonna do?  So, that’s life.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with New. I like preserving that New Year’s spun-sugar Faberg√©-egg pristineness all day, taking a new year’s walk in the cold sunshine, saying Happy New Year to a passing stranger like you’re hand-delivering a card, getting home for the Viennese waltz broadcast, and admiring the new calendar—Japanese woodblock prints taking over from Georgia O’Keeffe—even though half of January’s days are already inscribed with appointments. Keep it new.

But there’s no denying the long guttural drawl of the garbage truck pulling up like a foraging dinosaur. Nu? Whaddya got for me? White bags with red drawstring bows? Brown bags chockablock with recycled bottles, boxes, and other bric-a-brac? Toss it in. What, that’s it? No appliances, no mattress, no bales of Boston Globes going back to last summer? That’s okay. I’ll be back.  

Turns out New gets old in a hurry  But luckily there’ll be another behemoth coming next Tuesday to take it away with a belch and a familiar groan.

Nu? You were expecting something else?