Update: twice a week

twice a week


I have been fooling around with this blog again, now that my energy is coming back, and have decided that two blogs a week (Sunday and Thursday) are perfectly sufficient for now – for myself (to make myself feel productive) and for all of you readers (so that you don’t have to read too much of my drivel).

 

 

 

Now and then there will be a special post – like this one – but they will almost always be short or topical or informational or seasonally-oriented.

 

 

 

How’s that for a deal?

 

 

 

Happy Christmas from your sleepy little friend . . . .


 

The cormorant and the mayflower

cormorant and mayflower

I was walking across the Point Street Bridge recently, here in Providence. There’s an ancient wooden piling / dock beneath the bridge, which is now terribly rickety and unsafe.

But the birds love it. There are always gulls and ducks there, and sometimes egrets and swans. And almost always there are cormorants: lithe delicate birds with slender curving necks and broad wings, which fly low over the water’s surface and dive quickly to snap up fish with their sharp little beaks.

The cormorants were resting that day. It was warm and humid, but there was a pleasant quiet breeze blowing off the land toward the ocean; I could feel it up on the bridge, and the birds on the piling could feel it too.

One cormorant was facing into the breeze, its winds outstretched as if it were flying. It stood and rocked gently in the cool breeze.  I took some pictures, but I’m not very good with my phone’s camera, so you can barely see it:

cormorant flying

“He was pretending to fly in the breeze,” I said to my friend Cathleen later, showing her the photo. “He looked so serene and happy.”

“He was drying his wings,” she said soberly. “It’s just instinct.”

Maybe Cathleen is right. But I prefer to think that the cormorant was dreaming about flying.

It does my heart good to see things like this. Not very many things make me truly happy, now that I’m a sour old codger. Partner makes me happy, and once in a while Apollonia or Cathleen says something that makes me laugh.

But seeing that bird in imaginary flight made me happy. Sometimes small things – a flower, a tree, a bird – take us out of ourselves; they make us realize that life isn’t as difficult as it might be, and that sometimes there are moments of pure unconsidered joy.

Which brings me to Elinor Wylie.

Elinor’s poetry is mostly forgotten nowadays. She was active in the 1910s and 1920s, and died in 1929. She’s a minor poet, but (I think) an important one. I have bits and pieces of her verse rattling around in my head all the time.

This is the last stanza of her poem “As I Went Down by Havre de Grace”:

As I went out by Prettymarsh

I saw the mayflower under the leaves:

Life (I said) is rough and harsh

And fretted by a hundred griefs:

Yet were it more than I could face,

Who have faced out a hundred dooms,

Had I been born in any place

Where this small flower never blooms.


Botanizing

botanizing


In Tove Jansson’s Moomin books (which you should read, if you haven’t), there’s a character – a Hemulen, if that means anything to you – who collects stamps. He finally collects all of the stamps in the entire world. He despairs, because now his life has no purpose anymore. But then he realizes: he can start collecting plants instead! His life has meaning again!

I love plants. I don’t have a garden, which means I subsist on a few houseplants and a few office-grown things (which I’m very proud of, as they’ve grown extraordinarily). So, when I walk back and forth to work, I examine the gardens and yards and fields I pass by, and I identify the plants I know, and I puzzle over the ones I don’t know.

The one above, for example. What is it? Yellow vetch? Alfalfa?

Nope. I finally identified it. It’s Lotus corniculatus: bird’s-foot trefoil.

I walk by a field full of it every morning on my way to work. First I noticed them out of the corner of my eye, thinking I knew what they were. Then I took a closer look, and realized I wasn’t so sure.

I checked the leaves the other day, and now I’m sure. It’s L. corniculatus, all right.

Any day upon which I identify a strange plant is a good day. It gives my life a tiny bit of added meaning.

I think I must be a Hemulen.


Skunk hour

skunk hour


The Providence area is full of wildlife. I wrote about fisher cats not long ago, nasty weaselly things prowling down by the riverside. Foxes are being seen this summer all over the East Side (though I haven’t seen one yet, and I would love to, because I think they’re cute). Bunnies are everywhere. Ditto big ugly garbage-eating raccoons. Ditto possums, one of which hissed at me a few years ago when I passed it on the street.

 

 

And then there are skunks.

 

 

They’re always smaller than I think they’re going to be, like kittens. Their colors are lovely. But they’re alarming, for obvious reasons, or maybe just for one very obvious reason.

 

 

I can usually smell them when they’re in the neighborhood. Either I’m especially sensitive to their scent, or my rural upbringing makes me more aware of them. (Our old family dog back in the 1960s got sprayed more than once, and I can still hear him whining and crying in my mind.)

 

 

I was coming out of the local market one recent evening. It’s only about two blocks away from our apartment, and I have my choice of two routes home: a dull route that goes straight down the avenue, and another much more interesting sidewalk that winds up the hillside and is surrounded by shrubbery. I usually choose the winding sidewalk for the sake of aesthetics (even though I know that robbers and muggers are probably waiting among the shrubs to jump me), and so I did the other night.

 

 

But a young skinny guy was coming down the walk toward me, jabbering at me. I thought (charitably) that he was speaking on his Bluetooth, but then he approached me with an earnest look on his face. “There’s a skunk up there!” he exclaimed. “At the top of the path! He’s looking very – territorial!”

 

 

“Which way was he facing?” I said. “Toward you, or away from you?”

 

 

“Toward me,” he said. “But he wasn’t moving, and he had a determined look on his face.”

 

 

That was enough for me. I thanked Mr. Skinny Bicycle for saving me from a fate worse than death, and went home via the dull safe route.

 

 

Here are the last four stanzas of Robert Lowell’s great poem, “Skunk Hour”:

 

 

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.

 


A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here–

 


only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

 


I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air–
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.


 

The pleasures of the elderly

pleasures of the elderly


“Did you see ‘Scaramouche’ on Turner Classic the other night?” I asked Apollonia the other day.

“What? Yeah, I think I switched past it,” she said. “Who was that? Rory Calhoun?”

“Nah,” I said. “Stewart Granger.”

We both laughed. “Same thing,” she said.

“I’ll say,” I said. “I think they were the same person. Maybe he was Rory Calhoun on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, and Stewart Granger on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.”

Now we were both laughing like idiots.

Off in the corner there was a table of younger staff members, listening to us. They stared at us as if we were patients in an asylum. We were aware of them. But we kept laughing. No, more than that: we laughed even harder because they were staring at us.

Questions:

  • Does any of the above make any sense to you?
  • Do you know who Rory Calhoun was, or Stewart Granger?
  • Does “Turner Classic” mean anything to you?

It’s a habit of the elderly to mumble and cackle over the past. But this is a game we elderly people like to play: making reference to things that happened long before the other people in the room were born. It’s a way of getting even with those young people, with their music and their slang and their television programs that we’ve never heard of, and their texting jargon that we still haven’t quite figured out.

This is one of the great pleasures of the elderly: to make younger people uncomfortable.


Too much garbage

garbage


Recently our office converted to a recycling scheme, and we require our staff to separate their recyclables from their non-recyclables. Most of them do it; some don’t. This shocks me. Don’t they care? Don’t they understand?

 

 

That’s one issue. Then there’s the issue of the volume of the garbage we produce.

 

 

Partner and I, between the two of us, produce at least three or four thirteen-gallon bags of garbage per week.  What is it? Newspapers. Food waste.  Food containers and boxes. Wrapping paper. Plastic bottles. Junk mail. Waste tissues, and paper towels, and napkins. I took a bag out to the garbage this evening, and it weighed at least ten pounds, and it was maybe two days’ worth of kitchen garbage.

 

 

Partner and I aren’t doing this on purpose, I swear. Nothing is going into the garbage that we can reuse or repurpose. I try to do everything I can to reduce waste. I minimize wrapping. We take our own reusable bags to the grocery store. I buy perfectly normal groceries.

 

 

And yet we’re producing garbage like hooligans.

 

 

What the hell’s wrong with us?


The art of the tummler

art of the tummler


Partner and I were down on Cape Cod a few weeks ago, and we ate at our favorite restaurant, Captain Parker’s in West Yarmouth. The bar is always crowded with locals (always a good sign), and the dining room is always crowded with tourists like us (also a good sign), and the seafood is excellent.

 

 

I recognized our waiter on sight, as he’s waited on us before. He was a big cheerful guy, who worked the room like an expert; he chatted us up, wanted to know if we were golfers (which flattered us both, as we’re not golfers by a long shot); he got involved in a long conversation at a neighboring table about a recent Red Sox game; he jollied up the nearby birthday-party table by wanting to know where everyone was from, and pretended to know terrible stories about people from those towns.

 

 

He was, in short, a tummler.

 

 

From Dictionary.com:

 

 

tummler [toom-ler]: noun

  1. 1.     A male entertainer as formerly employed by resorts in the Catskill Mountains, who combined the duties of a comedian, activities director, and master of ceremonies, and whose responsibility was to keep the guests amused throughout their stay.
  2. 2.     Any lively, prankish, or mischievous man.

Origin: 1930-35 Yiddish tumler, one who makes a racket.

 

 

Many of the comedians of my childhood – Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Phil Silvers – worked as tummlers early in their careers. Most of the big Catskills resorts have closed down since those days, of course. But the personality type (see definition #2 above) will go on forever.

 

 

Our friend at Captain Parker’s is a good tummler: friendly, amiable, and with a excellent sense of when to stop.

 

 

Some tummlers, however, do not have this nice awareness of their role. They think of themselves as the lives of the party, and end up being – well – obnoxious.

 

 

I think we all know a few of these. They’re noisy, and they never let up.

 

 

We like an occasional dose of Jerry Lewis or Milton Berle. We don’t want to live with them.


 

Radio scripts, 1939 – 1942

 


While browsing through the (unpeopled and lonely) stacks of the Providence Public Libraryrecently, I found a couple of gems: “The Best Broadcasts.” They are collections of the best radio scripts aired between 1939 and 1942.

 

 

Oh my god what nostalgia! George Burns and Gracie Allen (Gracie was running for President in 1940, as the nominee of the Surprise Party). Fred Allen, doing a spoof of Clifton Fadiman’s “Information Please” showDame May Whitty doing a grim little dramatic monologue written byW. H. Auden. Bette Davis as Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s sponsor / imaginary girlfriend. Clark Gable in a very funny romp about an adventurer marring a wealthy woman.

And Jack Benny!

 

 

(Now listen, Jack Benny was before my time, but he was still around in my childhood; he died when I was seventeen years old, and I remember feeling very solemn when I heard the news. I think I realized then, for the first time, that there was an older generation and a younger generation, and that one of these days I’d be promoted into the older generation. And then – uh-oh!)

The Jack Benny show had everything. He had his regulars – Don Wilson the announcer (who also read the commercials for Jell-O, which were part of the show, and are included in the script), and the young goofy singer Dennis Day, and Jack’s wife Mary Livingston, and Jack’s black butler Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and the singer / bandleader Phil Harris, who was too cool for words (in the 1960s he was Baloo the bear in Disney’s “Jungle Book” movie).  Also Jack’s polar bear Carmichael who guarded his safe in the basement, and his ostrich Trudy in the back yard, who ate all of the bills Jack received. (Rochester: “Trudy ate so many bills yesterday that she’s laying eggs in her sister’s name.” I don’t even know what that means exactly, but it’s pretty funny.)

Hysterical, right?

Then there was a radio script about childbirth, from 1939 or so. I was a little startled that it actually mentioned having a Wassermann test (for syphilis). And there was this tender dialogue after the birth of the child:

Mary: Hank, do you care that it’s a girl?

Hank: No, Mary, that’s swell, I don’t care a bit.

Also there’s some talk in the preface to the 1939-1940 book about “the German race” and “the British race” and (get ready) “the American race.” Is there such a thing as the “American race”? If so, I don’t know of it. But, you know, I dimly remember in my 1960s childhood hearing and reading that same expression.

The most sobering volume is the 1939-1940 book, which covers a period in which Europe was at war, but America hadn’t entered the war yet. It includes an FDR speech in which he talks about the need for neutrality and pacifism, but also the need to be prepared for – hm – eventualities. (There’s a note in the book about Senator Borah of Idaho, who said that FDR was too convincing when you listened to him live; Borah insisted on reading FDR’s speeches in the paper the next day, to get them unemotionally. I know what Senator Borah meant. I don’t like to listen to political discourse; I prefer to read it. It’s less inflammatory.)

Also in the 1939-1940 book was this note about why so many comedy shows were included in the text: “It is a hard year, and it is going to get worse.”

And it did.

But there were still comedies on the air.

Coming up next: “Fibber Magee and Molly”!


From paradise to parking lot

weeds-in-field


You know I have a great affection for weeds. I grew up on the edge of a National Forest, and we had more land than we could use (my parents started with twenty acres of woods and pasture, sold half, and still couldn’t figure out what to do with the remaining ten acres). There was one small patch of weeds, probably twenty feet square, just off to one side of our house, on a little hill. My mother insisted that it be mowed from time to time, but I resisted. I rejoiced in it. It had everything: dandelion, chess, quack, vetch, three kinds of clover, plaintain. I literally used to roll in that weed patch on sunny days. It was a miniature jungle, just right for a little boy.

I visit my old home on Google Earth from time to time. The house is still there (though greatly changed). But I see that my old patch of weeds is all plowed up now, made into useful ground.

What a pity.

Even here in Providence, where people have been building and ripping up and building again for over three hundred years, there are still little patches of chaos. One of my favorites was on Angell Street, a few blocks from where I’m writing this. In summer it was practically tropical; it featured a couple of gigantic trees-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), that fabulous fast-growing weed tree, bigger than any I’d ever seen in southern New England, and at least two dozen smaller species.

Then, about ten years ago, the bulldozers moved in, and they plowed it under, and they built a Starbucks.

Another piece of paradise gone.

There’s another little patch close to our apartment, a hill with trees and flowers. Huge mullein thrive there, and weedy maples, and Queen Anne’s lace in summertime.

The backhoe was there this morning, ripping it all up.

Sing it, Joni Mitchell!


Candy

 


I have written about Apollonia and her sister Augusta. There is also a third sister, named (for the purposes of this blog) Agrippina.

(All great comedy groups come in threes. Think of the Ritz Brothers. Think of the Marx Brothers. Think of the Three . . . well, you know who I mean.)

Anyway: “So we’re in the hospital,” Apollonia says. “It’s very late. Agrippina says, ‘Go get me some candy. Licorice. I want licorice.’ I said to her: ‘It’s after midnight. Where in the hell am I going to buy licorice for you?’ And, very calmly, she says: ‘Go to a movie theater.’”

Apollonia and I are silent for a moment. “That’s brilliant,” I said. “I never would have thought of that.”

“Yeah, well,” Apollonia said wearily, “listen to this. I said: ‘You think I’m gonna go out to a movie theater and get you licorice?’ And she says: ‘Yeah. And I want that kind – you know? – with the pieces that are all different shapes. You know. With the little candies stuck to them.’” Apollonia goggled at me. “What in the hell was she talking about?”

“Allsorts,” I said, quick as a flash.

“What?” Apollonia croaked.

I was sitting in front of my desktop computer at the time, so I quickly Googled an image (see above). “Licorice allsorts,” I said. “My favorite. I loved them as a child. Not commonly available. Buy them when you can.”

“Oh my God!” Apollonia moaned. “You know about this stuff too!”

That same day, I went to two CVS locations, and a Bed Bath & Beyond, and a RiteAid, and two other places, and I’m still looking for licorice allsorts. (I’m sure they’re available online, but that’s like shooting fish in a barrel. I want to find them in the wild, in their natural environment.)

When you’re a child, what do you want? Candy. But adults won’t let you have it.

The most wonderful thing about adulthood is that you can buy yourself all the candy and toys you like, and no one can stop you or say no.

I will find licorice allsorts. And I will buy a package for Agrippina, and five or six packages for myself, and maybe some bubble gum for Apollonia (she’s a big Bazooka fan, although she’ll settle for Dubble Bubble).

And we will all be childishly happy.


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