Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Birding

Merry Christmas, everybody!

I hope everybody is doing well, and enjoying the holiday. My thoughts are with you all, and especially with my Grandma and my Mom and her two sisters, Marilyn and Patti.

Last night I spent a very nice Christmas Eve with my cousin Kate and her husband Kevin, their two kids James and Petey, Kevin's parents and his sister's family. We had a wonderful meal and it is nice to spend some time with family when I am otherwise spending the holidays alone here in Boston. No reason for too much pity, however; I will be spending a week each in Cincinnati and on Whidbey Island in January.

Today was my second annual Christmas Birding trek to Plum Island. We are in the midst of a stellar year for winter finches and frugivores such as redpolls, bohemian waxwings, evening grosbeaks, crossbills, etc. In particular, Common and Hoary Redpolls have been reported very consistently in the Hellcat parking lot on Plum Island, and I was hoping to see them there. No such luck. It was actually a pretty quiet day, with low numbers of species and individuals found (at least by me and those I was with). Nonetheless, you couldn't have asked for a nicer day and as it turned out I found a few nice birds anyway.

The highlight had to be the northern shrike; I was driving south along the refuge road and saw a bird perched at the top of a roadside tree, cocking its tail and grappling with the branch in the breeze. I got out and saw that it was a northern shrike. I watched it for a half-minute or so before a small flock of goldfinches came along and buzzed it repeatedly; it left its perch and flew across the road into a thick bramble. I lost sight of it but a moment later I heard a cardinal start pitching a fit, and suddenly a female cardinal burst out of the shrubs and flew across the road, the shrike in close pursuit, maybe just four feet behind it. Then I lost them; I don't know who came out the winner.

Other highlights included a Rough-legged Hawk and a Snowy Owl. For those who are interested in what a slow christmas morning's birding at Plum Island might bring, here is my complete list of species: Candada Goose, American Black Duck, Snow Bunting, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Northern Shrike, American Goldfinch, Northern Cardinal, American Robin, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Tree Sparrow, European Starling, Northern Harrier, Snowy Owl, Horned Lark, American Crow, Blue Jay, Rough-Legged Hawk, Mallard, White-winged Scoter, Common Loon, Mourning Dove.

On the way home, I stopped off at the Ipswich River Sanctuary, still hoping for the redpolls. No dice, and their feeders were empty, so it was very quiet. However, I did add: Red-tailed Hawk (a wonderful view), Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse and one very friendly Chickadee that kept landing on my head! (They are used to handouts here).

On my way home, I also saw a Raven, my second for the week (the first was in Newton, outside my place of employment, of all places).

Not a bad morning, after all. 28 species. Later on I'll check massbird.org and see some fellow birder post 50-60 species (or more!) in the same locations, I'm sure.

Merry Christmas!!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

First Snow and a special message for Gabby

As I am writing this, we are in the midst of our first real snow of the season. It's a real storm; it's not blowy or icy but there's a lot of accumulation. I woke up to reports for the Boston area of 3-7 inches, but I think we've got 9 or 10 already and it's still coming down steadily.
The first snow is special; I'm always surprised and delighted at its pure, uncanny beauty when it first appears. If I ever found myself living someplace where this didn't happen, and it certainly could happen, you never know what life might bring, I would miss it. I think I would especially miss taking a walk in the late evening as the snow still falls, when most everybody has gotten off the streets and has bundled up inside. The sidewalks and roads are empty and the silence is breathtaking; you can hear the little music of the snowflakes falling on the ground. I will stand and watch the snow fall against the light from a streetlamp, just happy to be in it. Later, I will sit in bed trying to read a book but my eyes will still be drawn to the snow outside, and I will fall asleep wondering how deep it will be in the morning.
And before I sign off,
HAPPY BIRTHDAY GABRIELLA!! I love you, Gabs, and miss you! See you soon!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Blue, Blue Hubbard Squash

One of the best, and simplest, things to cook during this time of year, this cold and blowy time of late Fall and Winter, is a winter squash. These are certainly some of the most enjoyable vegetables (fruits, technically) to shop for, as their eye-popping colors, shapes and textures never fail to entertain, from acorn to spaghetti (a prize to the reader who can come up with a winter squash further on in the alphabet). Orange, yellow, green, striped, warty, curved, the varieties seem endless, and the big bushels full of them are one of the signature sights of Fall.

I've recently discovered the amazing hubbard squash, sometimes called the blue hubbard squash after it's wonderful sky-blue color. This is the big bruiser of the squash family, other than the mutant show-pumpkins. I've been told that if you buy a whole one the best way to break it open is to throw it from your roof. Luckily, there's a local grocer who cuts them up into nice wedges for less adventurous consumption. The flesh inside is a nice light orange, and the seeds are large and plump. I've also found the hubbard to be one of the tastiest of the winter squash, far outstripping the acorn (which I find a little bland) and easily contending with the butternut and the baking pumpkins.

My favorite way to cook one is to carve out the orange flesh away from the seeds and the skin and chop it into medium-sized chunks, an inch or two all around. I toss these with olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped fresh sage and throw them into a cast-iron skillet. Put it into a 400 degree oven and oven-roast for a half-hour to forty-five minutes, turning with a spatula every fifteen minutes or so. They should get soft and nicely browned on a couple sides. That's it, you can now eat them.

Oh, and the wonderful side benefit, my favorite salty snack in the whole wide world, spicy squash seeds. Separate the seeds (unhulled of course -the fiber's good for you, and crunchy) from the flesh and inner glop - though I recommend NOT cleaning them completely - a little of that stringy orange squash innards toasts up very well with the seeds, adding a little sweetness. Toss the seeds with olive oil, salt, pepper, and ground dried cayenne, to taste (in my case lots) and spread out on a baking sheet. These can go right in the oven with the squash, and will come out sooner. Shake them around every few minutes until they are toasted brown on both sides and sizzling. I dearly love these. If I could find fresh, raw, untoasted, unhulled pumpkin seeds to buy by the pound I would do so. As much as I love winter squash, I just can't eat the enormous quanitites I would have to in order to fully satisfy my craving for the toasted seeds.

Leftover squash, by the way, is great in soups (and great just reheated) but my favorite use for it is in a risotto. The soft texture and caramelized flavor perfectly suits the creamy complexity of a good risotto.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Future Is Unwritten

Yesterday I went to see the movie Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten. Joe Strummer was a musician and one of the guiding lights of one of my very favorite bands, The Clash. He died in 2002 at the age of 50 from a congenital heart defect.

The Clash were an English punk band formed in 1976, and one of the few bands to break out of the punk blueprint and have a widespread, lasting, and meaningful impact on music and culture. This was in large part due to the talent and charisma of Joe Strummer.

When I was in eighth grade I bought a cassette of the American release of their first album, The Clash, and it would not be an understatement to say my life was changed. I never really belonged to the culture of punk, and had been brought up on a diet of Mozart and the Beatles, but I was instantly blown away by their energy, their hooks, their sound. As I explored further and got older, I realized that, musically, they were ambassadors and experimenters, delving into dub, reggae, balladry, rap and funk in addition to their straightforward rock’n’roll and punk, and to these ears, succeeding spectacularly at all of it (most of the time).

At the time, I just loved it and didn’t think much of it, and my love of the Clash served as a launching into new realms of music, to the Ramones, The Specials, The Talking Heads, The Sex Pistols, and many others. As I got older, though, I found myself wondering just what it was about Joe Strummer’s voice that I loved so much. It was really more of a hoarse croak; he didn’t sing out of tune (that role was relegated to Mick Jones, the other guiding force in the Clash) so much as sing beside the tune and on top of it. I think Joe Strummer had something like a genius of personality. He was able to put his whole creative being into his singing – you couldn’t help but feel him, his integrity, his energy, his anger and his optimism coming through like an electric current. I now think that he’s one of the great rock and roll singers of all time.

The movie was very moving and very thoughtful. It didn’t focus so much on Joe Strummer as a musician, on his influences or on how he and the rest of the band expanded their sound and became successful, creative and diverse band, so much as explore his life and decisions . In that sense, the subtitle The Future is Unwritten is perfect, and watching the movie made me understand with poignancy that life itself is a creative act, starting with the way we think about ourselves and the world around us.

When the Clash disbanded, Strummer went through a difficult period, some ten years or so, and he was clearly depressed and didn’t hide it. He was torn by the desire for success but turned off by the commercialization of his music and his persona (a very moving scene in the film has a friend describing him as breaking down in tears when he realized that the U.S. Armed Forces were using the Clash song "Rock the Casbah" as a rallying cry for the first Iraq war). He was confronted with people’s expectations for him to follow in the Clash’s footsteps and at the same time his own needs to grow and do new things, even as he didn’t know what those things would be. It seems he finally came out of it with the simple act of working, of finding a new band and just doing whatever came naturally without any preconceived notion of what he could or could not do, or with what anybody else expected him to do. He died a happy and productive person in the full flowering of an artistic rebirth.

I’m far from an objective viewer; Joe Strummer has been a hero of mine since I was thirteen. But I heartily recommend this movie to anybody, not just fans. Also, incidentally, the last albums that Strummer recorded and released with his band The Mescaleros are all worthwhile. A much mellower vibe than the Clash, as one would expect, but vital and exciting work, and full of Joe’s inimitable, fractured voice. Of course, if you don’t know the Clash, please go out and listen to London Calling, right away.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

This year, through a convergence of circumstance, poor planning, willful denial and solitude-seeking, I am spending Thanksgiving on my own. And though I will miss family and friends who I have celebrated with in years past, I am nonetheless looking forward to my day. Rest assured that I will be thinking of all of you as I go about my own celebrations (if indeed you were concerned).

I have started the day by reading in bed, always a pleasant activity. I am reading Nancy Farmer's The Land of the Silver Apples, a fantasy taking place in ancient England with a good dose of Viking berserkers. The title comes from a magical poem of Yeats which I am going to put here for you to enjoy. It has a certain air of celebration to it which I think is appropriate.

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor,
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

-William Butler Yeats

I love Thanksgiving because, for me, it is a holiday with a strong spiritual dimension but no specific religious affiliation. I think it is good to remember that the first Thanksgiving, according to tradition, was celebrated by two peoples of differing beliefs. And giving thanks for the good things in your life is something that everybody can do and appreciate. And there are so many good things I am grateful for, Family and friends, life and good health, good food and a comfortable apartment, a wide world full of places to go and things to learn about, the third movement of Beethoven's 'Archduke' piano trio, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, a nuthatch descending an oak tree and the dawn chorus, deep oceans and shallow creeks...I could go on forever, never stopping.

Now, I am drinking a cup of green tea (Lemony Gunpowder, it is called!) and will put in an hour or so of writing before turning off my computer. The rest of the day I am indulging in my own feast - but no turkey; I don't see what I could do with an entire bird, and if I just were to get a leg, I would have nothing to stuff. So it will be roast chicken with herbed stuffing, mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts. Wonderful stuff, though I will sorely miss the traditional spinach ring that my Aunt Ellen always makes. The rutabagas, not quite as much.

Love to all,

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Once and Future King

Certain subjects of legend and myth are mined over and over again by writers, and none more so than the cycle of tales referred to as the "Matter of Britai"n, or more commonly the Legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, of which countless works have been written. I've read many of them over the years (a large portion of them are books for younger audiences, a field in which I read heavily), and many are excellent. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon and Jane Yolen's short trilogy about Merlin comprising Hobby, Passager and Merlin come especially to mind.

I've just finished reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King, and I feel somewhat stunned in its wake. It has been a long time since I've been quite so enraptured and rewarded by a book, by something so pleasurable yet so challenging and full of riches of all kinds (possibly not since Moby Dick). It certainly stands as one of the greatest works in the Arthurian vein, and one of the great fantasy novels, if not one of the great novels, period. It is full of high and low humor, a startling variety of language, wonderful passages of natural history, unpredictably anachronistic references in future and past directions, endless insights into human and social nature, and finally, timeless storytelling of legends made real, sometimes painfully so. I often found myself amazed that so many different approaches to the narrative were so effective and seamless; one would have thought the effect somewhat disorienting or jarring.

The full work is made up of four shorter novels that are usually published together. The first one, The Sword in the Stone, is about young Arthur's boyhood and education at the hands of Merlyn the wizard. This book is the easiest to read and the most engaging, and certainly the most comical, but it is no farce nor simple fantasy. It is an episodic bildungsroman; if nothing else just read it with an ear for language and an imaginative eye on natural history. The book is full of old english words having to do with ancient sports such as falconry and jousting, and my head rings with them even if I barely understand what they mean. And the series of captivating passages where Arthur (or young Wart as he is called) is changed into a perch, a merlin, an ant, a goose (a particularly beautiful scene) and a badger as part of his education are richly poetic, the characterizaton of the animals he interacts with imaginative, moving, perfect.

The following three books follow the more 'mature' part of the legend, and are definitely grimmer and more serious works, though not mirthless by any stretch. The Queen of Air and Darkness is about Arthur's early years building his new society and the troubled Orkney brothers (Gawaine, Gaheris, Gareth and Agravaine) and their mother Morgause, who is also Arthur's half-sister and seduces him to bear his only child Mordred. The Ill-Made Knight is about Lancelot and Guenever and their troubled romance. Lancelot here is a remarkably complex and fleshed out character, mercilessly portrayed yet with great compassion, and the passage depicting his ultimately aborted attempt to remake his life with Elaine and their child Galahad is especially moving. Finally, Candle in the Wind is the shortest book, and brings about the inevitable conclusion set in motion by Arthur's seduction by Morgause and the affair between Lancelot and Guenever, and is also a surprisingly successful evaluation of the human troubles with government and violence.

The entire series makes a work of deep and complicated layers of all the stuff of human experience, ultimately troubled and difficult yet leavened with beauty and compassion and kindness and humor and the grand spectacle of the world; an illuminating, comprehensive and puzzling novel that I will return to again. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Some Thoughts on Writing and Rewriting

(Engraving by Barry Moser)
I'm in the midst of the most productive and enjoyable stretch of writing I've ever had, and it's very exciting. Considering that I spent most of the last year making no progress, and doing nothing at all writing-wise except for a brief hash at a third draft last Winter, it feels great to take some big, positive steps forward. Even better, it's great to find myself in a steady rhythm, working daily and enjoying myself. It's hard work and there are miles to go, but right now I'm moving along.

I'm currently working through the third draft of my novel, provisionally titled The Vampire of Castle Esterhazey. In reading the interviews and essays of other writers, I've ascertained that there are nearly as many ways of revising and rewriting as there are writers. Some rewrite from scratch, paying little or no attention to previous drafts. Some pore over the text with a comb, spending more time tweaking than they ever did writing the earlier draft in the first place. And of course the decisions people make are wildly divergent: some engage in wholesale restructuring, some add characters, some change point of view, some just add judicious filler here and there to flesh out character, setting or atmosphere. I guess it depends on what you feel the text requires, and what you're capable of doing.

Anyway, I'm not sure that an entire rewrite wouldn't be the best approach, but I can't bring myself to do that after working so hard on the earlier drafts. I am doing a substantial amount of new writing, though. I've introduced a couple new ideas, mostly to give my main character, Claude, more motivation and a more active role in his own destiny. Also, I've tried to heighten the tension and feeling of danger at the very beginning of the book, partly through a prologue that introduces the main bad guy, who hadn't show up until nearly half-way through the earlier draft, right at the start. I've also replaced scenes that I thought were clumsy or didn't make sense or had bothered me for various reasons. All these new passages often force me to substantially rewrite other scenes and to carefully search for paradoxes and inconsistencies in plot or language. Kind of a potpourri of approaches, but I do think this draft is a significant improvement.

One of the down sides of all this is losing scenes or passages that you loved, that just don't make sense anymore in the flow of the story, or that you just can't find a place for. I have one waking dream that Claude has where he imagines himself as a wolf, running through the forest, that I like as much as anything I've ever written. But now, I don't know where to put it, and I'm afraid I'll have to ditch it.

Ultimately, though I'm warming to the revising process, the original round of writing and inspiration is the more enjoyable, and the new passages I'm working on come much more readily and smoothly than the parts that I'm revising. Of course, it's great when I can dump a large stretch of the old draft into the new with only minimal change, as that gives me the sense that I am making quick progress.

I've made the mistake of loudly advertising to friends and family my goals and objectives in the past, making me feel foolish when I don't follow through with them. Apparently, I'm not going to stop this habit. I plan on finishing my third draft by the end of the year, and then work on getting some readers for it and submitting it to publishers and/or agents.


P.S. The following quote is the most helpful single piece of advice I've ever come across for anybody engaged in a creative enterprise. It's from an interview with Barry Moser, a wonderful artist and writer (check out his illustrations for Moby Dick).

"The most important advice I can give anyone--and forgive me if this seems glib--is to work. Work. Work. Work. Everyday, at the same time, for as long as you can take it--work, work, work.You can't depend on talent. I've taught for over thirty years and never met an untalented student. Talent is as common as house dust, and--in the long run--about as valuable. But nothing is as valuable as the habit of work, and work has to become a habit.

I advise anyone to listen to music. Listen to Bach's Art of the Fugue and The Goldberg Variations. Listen to them over and over, everyday, day after day until you begin to sense, if not understand, what Bach is up to. Then implement what you intuit from your listening into your own work. I don't care if you don't like classical music, or if you feel that it has nothing to do with what you do. Do it. It is invaluable. Let the music fill your mind. Let it flow over you and into you until you are aware of nothing else. Bach and others of his ilk will teach you form and structure and rhythm and all sorts of things you've never imagined, especially about the unexpected element--if you will only listen.

What else? Experiment and fail. Move on. Always keep in motion and finish the job, even if it's not exactly what you hoped it would be or not as good as it could be. The fact is that it will never be as good as it could be, and that's okay because it's all part of the never-ending, self-perpetuating growth process--and failure is the foundation of that process. I've done over two hundred books and not one of them is perfect. But I'll tell you this: I would rather have the two hundred and fifty-six imperfect books that mark the vectors of my journey through my art form than to have one perfect book that marks nothing but its own perfect self.

More I can't advise, except (as corny and prosaic as it may seem) to put love first in your life: love of your work, and of other people, and of yourself, and of whatever things of the spirit move you. Have fun and maintain a fierce sense of humor. There are few things so serious or important that they can't be laughed at, or even poked a little fun at.

And lastly, a short litany of dos and don'ts:
Avoid the cute, corny and obvious in your work.
Read Ben Shahn's The Shape of Content--a few times.
Don't be afraid to do better work than you already do.
Bathe and brush your teeth before an interview.
Never underestimate the value of luck.
Practice safe sex.
Don't do heavy drugs.
Don't get drunk and drive a car.
Get plenty of sleep.
Eat your greens. "

-Barry Moser

Monday, November 05, 2007

Word to Your Mahler

Yesterday my orchestra, the Arlington Philharmonic, performed our Fall concert. We always close this performance, full bore, with a big symphony. This time we did a symphony by Kallinikov (No. 1 in G minor), that I had never heard before, or even heard of. Somebody mentioned that it was a popular symphony with youth orchestras, which may be true, but it was nonetheless challenging for our players. However, Kallinikov's #1 is not the subtlest of symphonies, allowing us to hash through its often long-winded and grandiose gestures effectively. I don't really mean to disrespect either the symphony, which certainly has some stirring passages, or our players, who are always spirited and committed, but I must admit that this symphony is just not one my favorites.

We also played a series of five songs by Gustav Mahler scored for orchestra and voice based on poems by Freidrich Ruckert. Our voice was supplied by the wonderful young soprano Dana Schnitzer. I've never performed orchestral lieder like this before, and it was a great pleasure to do so and to learn these wonderful songs. The songs are not really linked, and as such are all quite distinct musically and textually. "Ich atmet einen linden Duft" ("I breated a gentle fragrance") is spacious and surreal, "Un Mitternacht" ("At Midnight") is powerful and heavy, searching and challenging. Best of all is the moving "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" ("I am lost to the World"), a slow, restful song about death, about moving past the living world into a realm of peace and serenity, a subject that brought out the best in Mahler. (It also is a theme that the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt-Leiberson excelled at, and there is a great recording of these pieces, though just with piano accompaniment, with her at the helm). Playing these pieces with a talent like Dana's was a real pleasure, and I found the experience quite moving.

Though I often complain about my orchestra, about having to go to rehearsal when I'd rather go home and vegetate, about our often gloriously amateur performances, about feeling unprepared because of my unwillingness to practice adequately, it has always been an enjoyable and rewarding part of my life, and of my week, and has only grown so over the years. Yesterday, while playing the last movement of the Kallinikov (not my favorite piece) for a very small crowd (Pats - Colts game on the tube) I realized how much I was enjoying myself, and how much I was putting into my playing, how focused I was (at least until I started thinking about how much I was enjoying myself...) even as I was faking it through some of the more challenging figures...well, I don't really know where I'm going with this, but God Bless Music. Writing and storytelling may have taken over my more worldly aspirations and much of my creative energies of late, but music is still...music is...

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Outer and Inner Wilds

These pictures are from the top of Mount Osceola in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As you can tell, the leaves have gone past their prime, particularly this high up (Osceola tops 4000 feet). The views were wonderful, nonetheless, taking in a wide swath of rugged terrain from the Southern White Mountains and the Lake District to the Presidentials to the north, where the highest peaks disappeared into distant clouds. From the picture of Chris and Anne, my fellow hikers, you can also tell that it was cold up there! We were pretty well decked out from the start, but of course the 3+ mile hike up got our furnaces going and we were quite comfortable until we finally stopped got to the top. The fierce winds up there promptly had us grabbing for every article of clothing we had stuffed in our backpacks, and even so, after we finished our peanut butter sandwiches and snickers bars, we didn't linger for very long. Even on the nicest of days, weather in the Whites can be challenging.

On another note, I just watched the movie Grizzly Man. This is a documentary film put together by Werner Herzog from footage shot by Timothy Treadwell over the course of several summers he spent observing and filming grizzly bears in Alaska. Timothy had a unique and very intimate relationship with the bears he spent so much time in close proximity to, and ultimately he was killed and eaten by a bear, along with his girlfriend. I'm still not completely sure what I think or what I want to say about this film, which is certainly some testament to its power. It is a very moving film, and startling as well, bringing out many conflicting feelings and ideas through the course of its hour and 45 minutes. Even as I had to acknowledge that I thought Mr. Treadwell was seriously unbalanced and courting disaster, there were many scenes of uncanny beauty and powerful, genuine displays of emotion and love. Ultimately, as is the case with many Herzog films, this was more a film of the inner wilds of the human mind and heart, here shown through the fierce search and self-deceptions of a very troubled but genuine and kind, if not completely harmless, person. Complexities abound. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Did I see you on TV?

Well, here I am watching the start of Game 2 of the World Series, reflecting lucking into a ticket for Game 1 last night and watching the Red Sox thoroughly demolish the Colorado Rockies by the score of 13-1. I think it's fair to say the fabled momentum of the Rockies ran into a brick wall. Tonight, of course, is a whole new ball game, metaphorically and literally. Anything can happen, but it's hard to look at the Red Sox lineup and come away without confidence.
My cousin Nik's husband Eric got a couple of tickets through his work, and was generous enough to bring me along. All he got in return was a short night's rest on the cushions of my old, shabby couch. I suppose I'll be in his debt for quite a while.
The game itself was a blast. Not the kind of game you'll see highlights of for years or decades to come, no last minute heroics (Carlton Fisk waving his long ball fair), no fights, no pitcher's duel, just a sound beating. Beckett was lights out from the start and we had the game well in hand by the third beyond reach by the end of the fifth. But there's a great energy to a post-season game like this, and excitement and a lingering sense that anything could happen, even when it clearly can't.
I think the most entertaining thing last night was the comically intoxicated guy sitting to my right who mercilessly heckled the Rockie's right fielder Hawpe all night. "Hawpe, get a job!" "You're a loser, Hawpe!" and some language I'd rather not repeat. Then, in the eighth inning when Hawpe caught a routine fly ball, he yelled "Nice catch, buddy!" in what sounded like a genuine tone of voice. This guy also continued to heckle the Rockie's pitcher Francis two innings after he had been replaced by Morales. Ahhh, the Boston Fenway experience.
Now we're down 1-0 in the second inning, J.D. Drew is on first and Varitek is up, and I'll leave it at that.
Go Sox.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Dribs, drabs and one bad poem

I've just begun a full week's vacation, and in the modern 5 days on 2 days off workweek that means 9 days. And with no travel plans or any kind of obligation, really, that seems like a lot of time on this side of the fence. Of course, on the other side, next weekend, say, it'll seem like it's coming to it's conclusion all too soon, and I'll be frantically trying to relax with superhuman zeal in order to stretch the time and feel ready for another couple of months before my next break.

No travel plans or obligations doesn't mean I don't hope to accomplish something. Many of you who read this know that I have been working on a novel for a couple of years, and that after a very productive first year and a completed first draft I have lost a lot of my forward momentum. Revising is a bear, and my full work schedule, distractable nature and writer's block has made what I hope is a temporary mockery of my writerly aspirations. However, I have been brainstorming and plotting a little more productively lately and have re-started my second draft in a more promising and exciting way. This week I hope to really get a large, significant chunk done on my second draft and leave the week with it progressing fluidly and a daily writing habit back in place.

I was thinking of trying to incorporate some of this ongoing project of mine into this blog, but I'm not really sure how I would do that in a meaningful way, and especially in a way that readers would enjoy. Everything would be in a constant state of flux anyway; it's not like I would even have it in some kind a state where it would be readable in a serialized format. I am hoping, however, as a way to mix things up a bit and keep myself from burning out and stalling, to work on some writing exercises and maybe some short fiction and even poetry along with my ongoing work on the book, and if any of these things bear fruit maybe I'll share them. Or even if they're no good, maybe I'll share them anyway just to give you an idea of what I'm doing. Or maybe I'll get sidetracked yet again by birdwatching or fiddling or cross-country skiing or rehabilitating 1950's muscle cars or whatever and forget all about this.

Other than that, I'm still working on my little course of study on farming and permaculture, and am almost through with the book on cheese.

As a goodwill gesture, I'll give you a poem I worked a year ago for inclusion in my book, ostensibly as the lyric to a song that a character was singing. It's pretty bad, I think. It was an attempt to write something in the style of Schubert's more fantastical songs, such as Der Erlkonig (whose lyrics were by Goethe), but has nothing of the tension, dread and imaginative voicing of that work. Anyway, here it is:

Who rises high o’er the barren fields?
To search the sky, heaven’s vast shield?
‘Tis the moon, Selene, her eyes alight
Night’s wave of stars within her sight

Searching, searching those deeps, so high
Through thousand eons in the sky
The darkened earth both cold and warm
Turns endlessly in her arms

Through thickest forest and shadow hills
His steed rides ‘cross the night’s bone chill
A hundred beasts fly in his wake
His face a blackened helm of demon’s make

Spied dreaming Selene, her wide white face
And spurred his horse to pace
Her steady flight o’er shriven ground
The hunt commenced without a sound

The starlit void misled her gaze
Her eyes lost, through infinite maze
Turns hallowed sight to fallow earth
And hollow hope for lover’s search

Beyond forest, ‘cross barrow downs
Within lost, rising, encircling mounds
A pool of silver, deepest glass
Spied dreaming face of love at last

She slowed her flight to match the turning
Face below, eyes yearning, burning
Eyes met, pale stone bridge of desire
Born of inner heart, red fire

Iron hunter leapt into the air
And climbed each incandescent stair
He drew his bow and arrow wide
As he drew close to end his ride

But lifting from the unguous murk
Of lake’s bottomless mud-black lurk
A shambles rose, with one great eye
Saw haloed goddess in the sky

Rose to break its highest ceiling
And shattered highest love’s reflection
She blinked, and cried a broken sound
Selene’s long bridge of love came down

Who rises high o’er the barren fields?
To search the sky, heaven’s vast shield?
‘Tis the moon, Selene, her eyes alight
Night’s wave of stars within her sight


Friday, October 12, 2007

Happy Birthday To Me

For today is my birthday that is what I've been told
What a wonderful birthday I am one more year old
On the cake there'll be candles all lighted for me
And the whole world is singing...
Happy Birthday to Me!

Thirty-eight years old today.

Live long and prosper!

Love to all,

Monday, October 08, 2007


Though the pleasures of Spring and Summer have grown on me over the years, Fall is and always has been my favorite season of the year. Winter I enjoy for the spectacle and surreal beauty of snow and the bracing energy I feel walking around, fully bundled, in the cold dry air. Spring I love for the newness of its life and for the cacophonous migrations and dense, complex music of birds. Summer is that lazy break, staring at the sea while hot winds flow and juicy vegetables grow. But Fall I love mostly for itself, its inner spirit and the air that surrounds and seeps, the smell and spooks of October and the knowing maturity of November, the leafy colors that turn, red, orange, yellow, brown, black, with the even pace of my own steps until I'm waiting, ready for that first fall of snow.

These pictures were taken during a camping and hiking trip to the October Mountain State Forest, of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, with my friends Anne, Chris, Michelle, Karen and Katy. My apologies to Chris, Michelle, and Katy who are unforgivably not pictured, as my picture taking skills seemed to lack some consistency this weekend, and many of my shots were hopelessly blurred.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Dark Star, Star Trek and Burma

I'm sitting here in my apartment, listening to, of all things, a recording of the Grateful Dead from 1970 that I just downloaded from Itunes. Listening to, specifically, that night's wonderful, slippery, genuinely moving workout of their psychadelic classic 'Dark Star'. This makes me think of my freshman year in college, when I used to wander the basement corridors of Barrett Hall listening to endless renditions of this and of Dead favorites seeping out from underneath doors and through windows, candles lit and smoke drifting til late late in the evening hours.

What is this song about? "Dark star crashes, pouring its light into ashes.Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the axis. Searchlight casting for faults in the clouds of delusion. Shall we go, you and I while we can Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds? Mirror shatters in formless reflections of matter.Glass hand dissolving to ice petal flowers revolving.Lady in velvet recedes in the nights of good-bye.Shall we go, you and I while we can Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?" I have no idea, but it's opening imagery, the evocative paradox of the title, and the drifting, empty melodies serve to suspend me in some beautiful, forgotten corner of distant space.

And what about outer space? A nice segueway- with my crazy-busy month earnings I bought myself a present - the complete third season of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation', and was pleasantly surprised to find myself genuinely moved to tears by the first epsiode I chose to watch, 'Who Watches the Watchers?'. In particular, a scene where Captain Picard brings a member of an intelligent, pre-industrial race of people up to his ship. Her people have been accidentally exposed to his crew and begin to believe that they are gods, and he has an interesting, discourse with her explaining who they are and where they came from in order to prevent them from descending into superstitious nonsense. I know it just cements my reputation as a geek, but there's nothing like watching a bunch of good-willed fellows exploring the galaxy and making friends with aliens to make me feel good about my fellow human beings, hopeful for their redemption, their inner beauty and their better instincts.

Which brings me to Burma, Myanmar, which has been much on my mind lately, as my sister Meghan and her husband Todd are over there experiencing, well, what exactly I don't know. Internet service has been largely cut off, and there are few if any foreign journalists there and limited ability for the Burmese to report on exactly what has been happening. Official government reports list nine fatalities, some web sites report probably thousands, a bloodbath. There is no undue reason as of yet to fear for my sister, she is not involved with the protests and she is careful and smart, and the Burmese, aside from their military and their leaders, are a very peaceful (and unarmed) people.

What direction now? What to hope for? A slow, peaceful transition to a democratic process of governence, of course.

May all beings have peace and joy in their lives.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Cheese and Cthulhu

Even though I've been in what I call my 'crazy busy' season for the last two weeks, other things besides work still find their way into my time and thoughts, thank god. In the mornings I've been spending maybe a half-hour to an hour before heading off to work reading the book American Farmstead Cheese by Paul Kindstedt. This is not a consumer's guide but rather a general guide to making and selling what these days we call 'artisanal' or 'farmstead' cheeses. I believe that the work 'artisanal' refers to the individually hand-crafted nature of the cheese, whereas 'farmstead' refers more specifically to cheese produced by the goats, cows or sheep of one single farm, rather than made from a blend of milk purchased from several locations.

I consider this book to be a 'general' guide in that it does not have specific recipes, but it does get quite specific into the chemistry of the ingredients and the process. I was initially somewhat surprised to glance at the book and see many molecular diagrams referring the the ionic structure of things like lactose and casein as well as detailed flow charts referring to enzymatic action and development of peptides, and I was, maybe, not as excited as I had been to plow through it, but it has been an enjoyable and enlightening read so far.

One particular insight has been on the variety and diversity of cheese throughout the world. There are literally thousands of named cheeses, but there are only so many basic steps to be found in the cheesemaking process (according to this book, there are eight), and there are certain basic ways each of these steps can be varied, leading to a much smaller number of basic cheese 'types' - maybe twenty or so. Such as soft-ripened cheese, 'mountain' cheese (swiss types, mainly), cheddar types, etc. The rest of the diversity comes from the individual character of place, terroir if you will, from the livestock used, what they graze, climactic considerations during aging, and the like.

Having cheese on the brain, I went over today to the wonderful Cambridge store The Formaggio Kitchen and purchased, more or less at random, some nice American Cheese (not Kraft singles). A mild but earthy and buttery washed-rind cheese from Vermont called, (ahem), 'Timberdoodle' and a nicely sweet and crunchy cheese with a lovely, lingering taste of caramelized onions called 'Roth Private Reserve Gruyere', which is also made in Vermont, I think.

What else is going on? For those of you with an appreciation for the cosmic horrors of H.P. Lovecraft or just an interest in oddball movies, check out The Call of Cthulhu, produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Clearly a work of love, this is also a fascinating movie. They filmed it as a silent movie, as if it had been made and released in the late twenties (when Lovecraft was writing). A stroke of genius, really. I'm not sure there is really any other viable way to capture the feel of a Lovecraft story or of the elusive madness found in his gods and demons. There's really no way, so why try? The moody, dark black-and-white sets, the surprisingly effective stop-motion animation for the monsters, used sparingly, and best of all the excellent soundtrack worked wonders for this almost untellable, unshowable tale of monstrous, alien horror dreaming in cities beneath the sea. You can get it from Netflix.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Squirrels and black walnuts

Sometimes life gives you neat little coincidences, small convergences that brighten your day or give extra heft to the things you're doing or thinking about, sometimes shedding light on the web of connections we're all a part of. My friend Jeff, who lives in El Paso, told me that the very same Vietnamese Restaurant I visited and lauded in my blog three weeks ago happens to be maybe his favorite restaurant in the world (Nha Trang, Chinatown, Manhattan). A simple thing like that somehow seems to accentuate my sense of community and confirm the emotional experience I had eating there with good friends. Kind of silly, maybe? After all, it's just a coincidence, right?

Then this morning as I was finishing a conversation by phone with my mom, I watched a gray squirrel hop across the small row of potted herbs I have on my back porch with the pale-green fruit of a black walnut tree in its paws . It stopped at the side of my struggling dill plant and quickly and efficiently buried the racquetball-sized fruit in the corner of the pot. After a few more moments checking that the coast was clear, the squirrel scampered away down the porch.

The coincidence here is a little more nebulous, but interesting to me nonethless. I've been reading about permaculture and ecological design lately, which really emphasizes using nature as a guide and resource for creating productive and sustainable agriculture that also encourages (and is itself enhanced by) healthy wildlife populations, and watching this small mammal squirrel away his stash really put a succinct exclamation point on a lot of the ideas and concepts I've been thinking about. Of course, my little herb garden (5 small pots, and unfortunately my tarragon seems to be on the way out) hardly equates with any kind of permaculture system, or even any sort of real garden at all. Plus, squirrels are hardly indicators of good wildlife habitat, as they are everywhere (they do need trees, however, at least the gray squirrels we have here in the East). But it still reminds me of the complex world of life we live in, which is sometimes all I really need to make it through another day without a frown on my face.

I'm glad I was able to create a place that the squirrel was able use; and I hope it comes back to reclaim its tasty nut and fill its belly at a time when food is not so easy to come by (black walnuts, while a royal pain to dehusk, crack and extract, are utterly delicious and very distinct in flavor from the more familiar English walnuts). The chances of a black walnut tree sprouting and thriving in my dill container is nil.

Now to see if I can find the tree that the nut came from...

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Permaculture and life-changing epiphanies

I've just started myself on a self-directed course of study into sustainable agriculture. My interests in the subject go all the way back to the beginnings of college, where I participated in the (somewhat chaotically managed) Earlham Farm Program and lived on the associated 'Ag' Hall for a few semesters. During my senior year some friends and I formed a student-run seminar called (something like) 'Topics in Sustainable Agriculture' where we looked at the field from a number of different angles. Some of the things we encountered during this really exploded in my consciousness, particularly the astounding book by Wendell Berry The Unsettling of America.

Over the years, this topic always remained an interest for me, but as is my wont, I drifted into and through many other interests over the years. Over the last few years, however, it has come back to the forefront of my mind, spurred on by my always growing interest in cooking and good foods and various ever-present environmental concerns on the national and world stages, from global warming, 'peak oil' and agri-business consolidation to more prosaic things like soil erosion, pollution and loss of urban and rural biological diversity.

I feel like a few insights and encounters over the last couple years have combined with some lengthy, and not always pleasant, soul-searching to produce a very recent epiphany of sorts. This is that I can't really think of any other field, or subject, that has the potential to combine so many interests and concerns of mine into one field of study or effort. Especially for someone so scattered and easily bored as I am.

One of the deepest revelations came from an article on a bio-dynamic vineyard in France that I read in the New York Times a while ago. I remember being particularly struck where one of the winemakers contrasted their approach with more common forms of contemporary agriculture, even other 'organic' approaches, by revealing that (I'm paraphrasing here) 'if you have a problem with an insect infestation, instead of purchasing insect predators such as lady beetles to take care of it, create an environment where the beetles want to be there in the first place'.

This idea connects deeply with the basic principles of Permaculture and Ecological Design, which I've been reading about lately. I've seen many different definitions of permaculture, but if I was to do a concise summary of its philosophy and intent, I would say the following: Permaculture is the practical application of ecological knowledge to the creation of healthy, sustainable habitats and cultures.

When this crystallized in my head, it really lit a spark in the once-a-scientist-always-a-scientist part of me, that I've often missed over the years. But also the creative side of me. I'm not ready yet (and may never be ready) to say that I'm going to up and become a farmer, but I can't think of a more creatively and intellectually challenging project than to take a piece of land, of this earth, and try to study it and figure out what you can do with it, how you can make it a place that sustains you and others with its bounty while remaining a healthy part of the greater ecosystem, flush with natural diversity and wildlife, a place connected, a place for people yet tied to the greater wilds.

Some revelations come from more modest, unexpected sources. I recently read a book for middle-grade readers by Kate Thompson called The New Policeman which was a very enjoyable book, a quick read, that depicted an Irish family of musicians and cheesmakers (as well as a few gods, demons and fairies). There were a couple of scenes, throwaways really, where the mother would be discussing the upcoming ceili dance that they would be soon holding in their barn while packaging up a round of fresh cheeses made on their land. As I'm a musician myself (and currently somewhat infatuated with Irish fiddle music), these scenes really clicked with me. That somewhat utopian, romantic, yet reachable idea of integrating your life on many levels.

I feel like I'm beginning to drift off topic, maybe. The book I'm studying right now was originally recommended to me by my sister Franny. It's called Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture. I haven't finished it yet, and maybe I'll write a more formal review of the book for this blog soon, but right now I'll just have to briefly recommend it whole-heartedly for anybody interested in these issues I've been discussing or even just anybody who likes to garden. I think the book is worth it just for its chapter on soil, really. Not textbook level, certainly, just one of the most lucid, concise explanations of what soil really is, how soil develops, different properties of soil, and of course how to develop good soil in your own yards and gardens. But the book has much more, and over and over eloquently and accurately bridges the gap between the study of natural ecosystems and how they apply to healthy gardens and landscapes. Certain things are stressed repeatedly, important principles of permaculture (and healthy ecosystems in general) such as encouraging over-all diversity, mixed-species cultures, complementary plantings, using micro-climates, using plants with multiple functions and uses, attracting wildlife (including rich populations of insects), healthy soil, using perennials when possible...

The picture I posted is an illustration from this book, looking at the layout of a small 1/4 acre homestead designed from an approach using ecological design and permaculture.

The next book I plan to study is another book from Chelsea Green Publishers entitled American Farmstead Cheese.

I really like cheese.

Monday, September 03, 2007

My friend, the wren

I think that the carolina wren has become one of the most beloved birds of eastern north america, especially in the small towns and suburbs where you can find them hopping and perching busily about, singing and scolding. They are attractive birds ( like all wrens) and very small, of a lovely dusty rufous brown back with beautifully barred edges, a cream and buff breast, a bold white stripe above their eyes and a delicate, curved beak that they use to snare all manner of insects as they bounce about. Even better, they have miles of character and personality, are endlessly curious and non-stop vocalizers, whether it be their jarringly loud but musical song (tea-ket-tle tea-ket-tle tea-ket-le was how I learned it) or their numerous and diverse warning and scolding calls. They like backyards and open woods, cobwebby garages, sheds and woodpiles.
I've been very pleased to find them a common presence in my new neighborhood, and I never tire of their simple, forthright song, frequently reminding me of the smaller, delicate communities that persevere all around me. They live in conspicous pairs all year and interact with each other and with their human neighbors so consistently and enjoyably that many households virtually adopt them as a second family, watching out for them and busying themselves in the wrens business just as much as they do in ours. I spent the weekend up on the north shore (of Massachusetts) with my good friends the Monnellys and enjoyed not only the presence of the wrens but also Dorothy Monnelly's constant and caring, inquisitive attention that she lavished on the diminutive birds. "I just think she doesn't like that chipmunk nosing around," she'll say as we listen to one of the wrens in an endless series of its musical rasberries.
In my more heavily settled neighborhood, I haven't quite made such close acquaintance with my local wrens, but I hear them daily and have observed them hopping about my tiny little containers of herbs searching for a morsel here or there. I hope they found something, and that they return often! Though I can't really claim such a feat with my tiny garden, planting your yard and garden in such a way that attracts and entertains local wildlife seems like it would be one of the great joys of such an enterprise (and then the deer eat all your tomatoes...).
My Labor Day weekend was overall a very nice one. Apart from the wren, the other pictures were taken at the Appleton Farms Grass Rides, a nice (but confusing) network of trails through the woods and meadows of a small part of Ipswich. We saw peeper frogs, friendly dogs and two dangerous-looking amanita mushrooms that were really quite beautiful, in pristine condition, with wide, snowy white caps and tall, straight stems. I didn't think to get a picture of them. The people on the bench are my friends Michelle and Anne, and I don't know what the flowers are - my botany is rusty.
Anyway, I hope that everybody enjoyed the holiday and that they enjoy their end of summer and entrance to fall. Tomorrow I start on four very, very busy weeks of work delivering violins, violas and cellos to countless hopeful schoolkids all over New England. After a difficult couple of weeks, I really feel I could use a little more time (just a little bit, please), to sort some personal things out and ready myself as best I can, but I am just going to have to muster on. Time waits for no one, as they say. Who they are, I have no idea.

Monday, August 27, 2007

New York New York big city of dreams...

Whomever provides the city of New York with its scaffolding must be a very wealthy person. Somewhere in the Bronx there must be warehouses with miles and miles of the stuff; it seemed there wasn't a block or building facade in all of Manhattan without several tiers of it, either for some construction project or maybe just to provide shade for street pedestrians.
New York City is overwhelming, an immense, neverending stream of spectacle and humanity, noise and color, artifice and resilient pockets (or hordes) of nature, human, other, metaphysical. Coming down by bus from Boston, I was very quickly relieved of all illusions of Boston as any kind of pretender to the urban crown that New York certainly wears - long before we crossed into Manhattan we traveled past endless rows of tall, square brick residential buildings, sprouting air conditioners and hanging clothes from their windows. These were massive compounds, truly reminding me of those science fiction novels of the seventies where all of Earth's surface is covered by mile high buildings (except for the plankton farms of the open ocean) crammed with humanity, utopian or dystopian (which usually amounts to the same thing).
And then to arrive in Manhattan! This city would eat me alive, no doubt; just the pressing weight of the unending corridors of skyscrapers would flatten me in a matter of weeks, I think. Even in a short two days, the memorable sights and encounters were too many to completely list. The sweeping views from halfway across the Brooklyn bridge were a highlight, taking in the relatively modest hills and greenery of Brooklyn, the barges and pleasure boats moving through the swirling, turgid East River, the polyphony of Manhattan to the west, the stalwart edifice of the bridge itself, the many shapes and sizes of tourists (and a few locals certainly) moving with me across the span. A more mysterious encounter also somehow seems indigenous to New York - friends and I were heading back to our hotel through Battery Park late at night when a hunched, shuffling man stepped out of the dark space between to shrubs with a piece of rope from which hung the head and upper torso of a large catfish.
I was there for the wedding of my good friend Jay and his beautiful new bride Aileen, and he had gathered a small assortment of friends from my days at Earlham College, a couple of whom I had not seen in well over a decade. There is something about the bonds you make at that age: though subsequent changes and travels might be severe, though you might not stay in touch with any regularity (I am particularly poor at that), though you might have completely different conceptions of the world and its mechanics - you tend to pick off right where you left off without skipping a beat, quickly moving through the requisite reminiscing and updating into a rhythm of interaction which seems as natural as breathing. This seemed surprising in one way, as most of these people I only really spent significant time with over the course of two to four years, yet not surprising in another, because those are the years that I can remember almost minute to minute twenty years later. There are many, many single days or nights whose events I can recall with greater precision and import than the total history of subsequent years or even half-decades. These are the times where coming across a plain black pipe stretching across a gully as you wander around the woods aimlessly discussing the guitar solos of Jimmy Page can somehow come to symbolize the workings of the universe, when a few hours socializing and playing ping-pong in a basement rec room can somehow form and root the way you look at everything, the way you laugh at things, the way you make sense of things.
Okay, but back to New York - actually, what more can I say? I had a few hours to myself where I wandered and took in some requisite sights and neighborhoods. Chinatown's seafood markets bristled with whole fish of every size and shape, assaulting my senses as they lay on beds of ice in the damp heat and sun. Central Park was thronged with probably three million separate digital cameras. I sometimes wonder how much of the world, what percentage, is contained in photographic images? I'm sure there's not a single inch of Central Park that has escaped notice several times over.
I went to the MoMA, and was suitably impressed and exhausted by their collection there. I spent the most time and was most taken with the Jackson Pollock room. Recently viewing Ed Harris' biographical film about Pollock gave me a new lease on appreciating his work, and I saw more variety of expression and form in his painting than I had ever seen before. Even just sticking with the 'splatter' paintings of his most famous period, I found some that relaxed me, some that jumped out from every corner, exploding just behind and beyond my retinas, some seemed to be tugging at me, trying to tell me something very specific yet unanswerable. One in particular that I don't remember the title of had a series of angular hieroglyphics in red embedded beneath the more naturalistic and arching swirls and drips, pulsing with meaning. How pretentious it all seems, sometimes, yet how essential that it's there to ponder. The world is a silly place, but the silliest things give us the greatest succor sometimes.
For my last night there we were lucky enough to be taken to a humble yet exquisite Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown for an incredible meal - nothing fancy, just perfectly prepared, delicious food, from sizzling, slightly sweet pork chops to tender chunks of beef infused with lime and scallion. There was also tender shrimp with a light, clear brown sauce that had a toasted, smoky flavor, and plain, unadorned chinese celery, one of my favorite vegetables, the perfect sop for the leavings of all the other dishes. This restaurant was called Nha Trang, at 87 Baxter Street, behind the Manhattan Criminal Court building, and I highly recommend it.
I had other good meals, of course. There was the wedding meal of course, which was superb. For lunch one day I had a remarkable taco from a place on Kenmare Street called La Esquina of chorizo, potato and cactus paddle garnished with lime, crunchy cabbage and salsa verde. Lunch my second day consisted of a hot dog (a New York tradition no doubt but a little disappointing) and later on a perfect little pie of lamb kibbeh (can't remember the name of this place, it was in the financial district). A lot of meat was eaten this weekend! I may have to spend a few days roughing it with roughage to atone (I'm not a vegetarian but I like to keep my intake down).
This is all I'll say for now. Enjoy the rest of your summer, everybody!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The horror, the horror

Do you want to hear a tale of woe? Of unreasoning fear and humiliating indignities? Of moments of black comedy that gutted me?

I'm being melodramatic here, and none of you should worry - I'm fine, healthy, nobody has died. However, I have gone through and am continuing to endure a trauma that seems to be affecting me much more than any rational look would indicate, and that is of course one of the reasons it's so interesting (though unfortunately extremely unpleasant).

By way of introduction to this story, an embarrassing admission, which some of you may already be aware of: I am scared of bats. Phobic, really. I thought I might be over it, but after last night and the way I continue to feel, I clearly am not. And it's interesting to see how one can be cruising through a decent patch, healthy, active, and suddenly a minor display of nature's bounty combined with a personal quirk undoes one almost completely.

Last night I was finishing my supper, around 8:30 or so, and I hear a noise in the corner of my living room. This first thing I always think when hearing an unknown rustling in my living space is bat, and might heart started thumping. I went over to the corner, where I have several book cases and CD shelves set up, and after a minute of trying to see back there I heard the unmistakable squeaking of a bat and a moment later it launched out from behind a bookcase and started diving and winging about my living room in it's floppy, terrifying way.

I freaked out. I opened my door frantically, which I was standing next to, leapt out into the hall and slammed the door shut behind me. About five seconds later I realized I had locked myself out without my phone, wallet or shoes (or keys, of course, which I haven't made copies of yet to stash).

That was not a nice moment. I didn't particularly want to get back into my apartment right then, but…For a little while I think I was just in shock with the sudden turn of events that had left me with no options that I could see at that moment. I just couldn't believe that I was actually in that situation.

Not liking to impose on neighbors, and thinking maybe I could figure something out, I spent about 45 minutes or an hour trying to get back into my apartment without breaking a window. No luck, no luck. Meanwhile I watched the bat flitting around and crawling about my blinds.

Finally I broke down and woke up my next door neighbor who lent me the use of his phone and suggested that I call the fire department. God bless the fire department and civil servants everywhere. They came, with a full crew and a truck and an off-duty police officer and got out a ladder and got into my apartment through a bedroom window. The fireman walked through my room and opened my door, dodging the bat, and came back down. I quickly went upstairs, peeked into my apartment, saw the coast was clear for a moment and went in to grab my keys, phone, wallet and some shoes. Then I fled back outside.

One of the fireman recommended that I leave the window open for a while and watch from outside as the bat should quickly find its way back to the great outdoors. My family had tried that before with success, and it's much less traumatic and friendly than trying to capture or kill it, so I thanked him, they drove off, and I settled down to watch my window.

For a half hour or so I watched the bat periodically flit back and forth across my bedroom, willing it unsuccessfully to escape. After a bit it disappeared for a little while, and then to my numb shock I watched a second bat fly into my apartment. Talk about a Homer Simpson Moment. D'oh! It flew around for a while, but did not manage to fly back out. This is a pretty big window, open wide! It's like they wanted to stay in there. Maybe the bug hunting inside was good.

After watching for another few minutes, both bats disappeared for a little bit and I walked up my back steps to peek into my living room and kitchen. I saw one bat hanging from the ceiling, but nothing else. I decided the coast was clear enough for the moment and went back around and through my front entrance and into my room to get a couple things, as I had decided by this point to spend the night somewhere else. I was reaching the limit of my endurance, and stress and anxiety was flooding through my system, making me nearly ill. As I left my apartment I saw both bats, one still hanging from the ceiling and the other flying around my kitchen. I drove to where I work and spent a completely sleepless night there - even if it had been a feather bed I never would have gotten a single wink.

When I finally got up, I left a message with Newton Animal Control, and later in the morning we met at my place. We quickly located the one bat and he neatly snagged it in his net and set it free outside, and then we unsuccessfully searched the apartment for the other.

That's where things stand now. I'm at work, and I know that there is probably still a bat in my apartment that will come out later this evening. I guess the only thing to do is go back and wait for it to show, open a window again and hope it leaves, and hope more bats don't enter. If it doesn't show, that's even worse; I'll never relax again in my apartment, always expecting it to pop up at any moment. Right now I feel like I'll never relax there again anyway, now that I know that this is a bat house (I know that it didn't come in through a window, or at least 90% sure - because of my bat phobia, I'm always very careful about windows and screens).

Am I overreacting? Of course. Is there anything I can do about it? Probably, but it doesn't feel like it at this moment. Right now, I feel like I've lost my apartment, my place of peace and repose - all because of a stupid little bat that I still have to face later on this evening.

With some bit of self-awareness, I can also see that I'm not really afraid of the bat - I'm afraid of being afraid of the bat. We have nothing to fear but fear itself, right? I know that as long as I am careful not to handle the bat it will not hurt me and in fact will go out of its way to avoid hitting me. I am afraid of the fear, of the surprise and shock, of the anxiety. I am afraid!

Aggghhh, please wish me luck.

Monday, August 13, 2007

11 Sunsets

Well, I didn't really do my duty this year in photographing my vacation in Canada. Apologies especially to family - I got no still pictures of people other than myself, only video, which I haven't figured out how to attach or link yet. No doubt it's very easy, but I lack patience.

When I think back on vacations, however, the experience eventually coalesces into a series of snapshots of memory, anyway; vignettes, scenes, set pieces, whatever (Is it possible for something to 'coalesce' into separate elements?). Rather than remembering time spent as the continuous flow of experience and sense it really was, I think on images, brief moments or events, often never thinking of or recalling the connective tissues between them.

A dense, deep purple blueberry cobbler, swimming in a warm perfume of fruit and sugar.

An overactive, bellicose hummingbird chasing a red-breasted nuthatch from limb to limb of a ponderosa pine, as if the confused nuthatch had any interest in the hanging jar of sugarwater that the hummingbird was so keen on.

A tense standoff between a small brown crayfish and an even smaller minnow over a choice spot at the side of a nice rock.

Moving through several Irish reels, myself on fiddle and my cousin Brad on guitar, as the grubby, enticing odors of oil, beer batter and walleye waft around us. 'The Maid Behind the Bar' was particularly successful. Less so 'Jenny's Welcome to Charlie' but what a title!

Playing duets with my sister Esme, violin and cello, and helping her with some practicing tips that came very slowly to me in my musical efforts over the years.
Esme, remember-
1) Before you start: deep breath, fingers in place, bow on string - start cleanly and thoughtfuly.
2) Work on short musical phrases, repeatedly, and listen carefully and correct the mistakes that you hear.
3) Don't practice wrong, practice right! (Sounds like the title of a self-help book, right?) When you start playing a passage well, keep playing it until it comes naturally and automatically.

One day cruising out to the big bay to fish the Gull Island reef, we passed by a mama and baby bear swimming between two islands, a breathtaking sight that I'll never forget.

Listening to the late evening calls and songs of several loons as I lay out on the dock watching the stars appear and brighten in the night sky, brushing the mosquitos away from my legs.

Two cormorants swimming behind an enormous white pelican, just their snaking necks rising from the water, likes remoras following a shark.

A sudden burst of avian activity from a mixed-species flock through a stand of ponderosas, where a moment before there had been nothing but the wind and a gull circling over the reeds and then I marked: yellow warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black and white warbler, blackburnian warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, nashville warbler, red-breasted nuthatch, black-capped chickadee, red-eyed vireo, and a puzzling couple of sparrows - Savannah or Lincoln? Looked more like a savannah, though no yellow lores, But we're not close to any fields, really.

A sunset for every night, rarely spectacular but always unique - one night just a warm, gentle orange glow arching over the horizon in an otherwise clear, deepening blue sky, another night just three small clouds backlit and outlined in brilliant fire, interior dark and stormy, slowly drifting.

Heavy swells crashing through a wide expanse of reeds, whitecaps cresting from the steady intense wind crossing the open miles of Whitefish bay, closing my eyes and just feeling the day.

The thrill of pulling in my first Northern Pike on a fly-rod. Kudos to a green Clouser minnow (and to dad for choosing it).

Thanks to everybody up there for their hospitality and companionship - Dad, Lisa, Esme, Brad, Eric, Nik, Jim, Sue, Harper, Cambo, Bob, Ellen, Bill and Diana.

I hope everybody is enjoying their summer!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Lives of Harry Potter

Spoiler Alert!!!! If you haven't read the book, and plan on reading the book, and care whether you know juicy details ahead of time, read no further. This means you, Esme! Come back and read this when you're done.

Last night I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I would like, first of all, to say that I enjoyed the book very much and a big thank you to J.K. Rowling and all the working stiffs at Scholastic Publishing and bookstores everywhere for giving me many hours of pleasure over the years. Books have meant a great deal to me throughout my life, and the Harry Potter series struck deeply, extracting what I love best about reading and making me feel like I did when I was growing up, losing myself completely in stories and the ongoing adventures of worlds upon worlds. This stuff mattered, and still matters, thank god. Rowling expresses it exactly, and succinctly, towards the end of the book, as Harry has a final interlude in some sort of dream or half-life with Dumbledore, and he asks "Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?" and Dumbledore, always the wise one, replies "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" Our thoughts are real, and the way we think about things and what we choose to think about are the first and most basic creative acts we do.

Now that I've gotten my thanks and appreciation out of the way, I can move on to telling you what I really think; you know, all the silly over-analysis and pointless criticism with some 'I loved it when...' 's thrown in for good measure.

I was very pleased to find that Rowling was a good sport and kept all the core younger characters alive - Harry, Ron and Hermione especially, as well as Neville, Ginny and Luna (who has quickly become amongst my favorite characters, along with Snape). I respect this kind of literature as much as anything, really, but I'm not reading it for learning about the bitter truths, disappointments and failures we all must face eventually. We've lived with these characters for a while now and to see them gone and/or unhappy at the end would have been a blow.

I was also pleased to find that Snape was, more or less, a good guy at the end of it all, and not just because I predicted it all along to many doubters (Dad). I personally found it a useful foil to have at least the one main character who was not an obvious hero, who had dark thoughts and wasn't pretty or likeable, who struggled with himself and those around him, yet still found a meaningful moral compass and was somebody we (and Harry) could respect and have compassion for.

I'm still going to say that the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, is her best in my opinion, although the fourth is right behind. This book suffered from some of the same problems of the fifth and sixth, with episodic plot devices that move somewhat ploddingly. Here, the second quarter of the book was especially slow, with our three heroes (and then two, as Ron takes off in a huff) spending weeks camping in the woods and spending most of their time trying to figure out what to do, often unsuccessfully. Not all of you will get this analogy, though I know my sister Meghan will, but it reminded me a bit of playing the computer text adventures when I was a kid, and I'd kind of hit a block where I couldn't figure out what to do next, trying all sorts of equally useless commands until I hit on the right one, or more rarely had a genuine moment of inspiration, like "Lift Rock. Get Key. Enter castle". But the payoff was always there, then and now. The book really started to get rolling once Ron rejoined them and they saw the Doe patronus and got the sword, and by the time they were rallying the troops at Hogwarts I was as riveted and as excited as I could be.

And then the momentum slowed again, first with an enjoyable and necessary (but maybe misplaced) look back on Snape's younger years and his friendship with Lily Potter, and then with a convoluted conversation with Dumbledore offering a little too much complicated explication, trying to tidy everything up, explain exactly why Harry wasn't already dead and who had whose parts of their souls tucked into their own souls and how that meant this person couldn't die...I think I bought it in the end but I really just wanted to get to the final standoff, which was excellent and as exciting as I could hope for (though maybe it's just a bit of a copout to have Voldemort technically kill himself when his own killing curse ricochets in his face. I think Rowling could have had Harry kill Voldemort at that point, and possibly have a stronger book from it).

I've got a lot more I could say, but I'm going to bed. I hope nobody minds too much that I'm talking about this revered book like this; I enjoy thinking about this kind of stuff and figuring out what works and what doesn't in stories and novels, even ones that I love. Of course, if anybody starts in like this with The Lord of the Rings, I'm liable to punch them.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Swim, Bike, Run

Well, I don't have any news that can really compare to my sister Franny's - she and her husband Nick just had their second child, a little girl who has just been named Sonja Frances Toombs. You can see pictures of her at her sister Gabriella's blog, www.gabriellatoombs.blogspot.com and you can hear a song her father wrote and recorded for her at his blog (or mog?) http://mog.com/Dzendvokh. It's a cool piece. Well done on both counts, Nick.
I completed my first triathlon yesterday, something I wouldn't have expected to ever really participate in, as I often tend to shun organized activities. But I guess that as we grow older we change, and I have a group of friends who were doing it, so I signed up and told myself that at the very least it would be good incentive to keep exercising. And as it turned out, it was fun, though the running leg was definitely something of a slog.
It was what is known as a sprint triathlon, which has no consistent length like a marathon does or the ironman triathlon does, but tends to be something close to what this one was: 1/3 mile swim, 9 mile bike ride, 5k run (3.1 miles). So just to be clear, this is nothing close to any sort of truly long-distance endurance event, nothing like a marathon or a hundred-plus mile bike ride (like they do on the legs of the tour de france). I finished it in one hour, twelve minutes and seven seconds, which was enough to place me 352nd in a field of 600 or so participants. I was very pleased; my only conscious goal was to try and complete all three legs without stopping and taking a break. If I had a will of steel, I believe I could certainly have pushed myself a little harder, but as I said before, I was definitely feeling it during the run portion.
The location was perfect, as was the weather. It took place on Cape Cod, in Falmouth. (For those interested the event was put on by Time Out Productions, and you can learn more about them and the results of their events at www.timeoutproductions.com). The swim portion was in the ocean, looking straight out towards Martha's Vineyard. A lovely stretch of water, clear and lush with eelgrass, and a very comfortable swimming temperature. I would love to head back down there with my mask and snorkle and see what I can see murking about through the beds of eelgrass. During the competition, things are a bit hectic for sightseeing, it's all you can do to get your head up to get your bearings from the giant orange buoys as you find yourself in the middle of a bunch of flailing competitors. I chose to stick to the outside of my group just to keep the collisions down to a minimum.
The swim was over very quickly, having got a nice boost from the current during the middle stretch, and then we were onto our bikes for a very nice ride along the shore for a few miles then through some twisty residential roads of Falmouth. I would easily have gone four times the distance on my bike, especially if that meant avoiding the run.
Have I been uneccessarily negative about the run portion? Sorry. Though I make myself do it with some regularity, as it is the most efficient way (time, cost, space) I know of to get in a good cardiovascular workout, I don't really enjoy running. Occasionally I find myself on a great day on a great path really feeling my legs and arms pumping in easy syncronicity and I feel I could someday become a real runner, but most days I just want it over with. It's hard work. And after a short but hard swim and a similar bike ride, I would prefer not to jog 3 miles. But I did, and as I passed the half-way point I realized that the only reason I would stop would be out of sheer laziness and I pushed myself up another small fraction of a notch for the last mile.
After crossing the finish line I took a celebratory swim through the eelgrass and met up with my friends - Anne, Michelle and Karen - to compare notes. I think everyone was pleased, though Michelle had some difficulties with her calf muscles (but still managed a better time than me) and Karen had shin splints. All during the run portion, of course.
I felt great, though when I arrived home in Newton a few hours later I pretty much collapsed for a long nap, from which I awoke feeling disoriented enough to dissipate some of my store of well-being from the race. I am happy to report I have recovered enough that I even considered going for a run today, but I quickly squelched that idea in favor enjoying the local breeze with a good book followed by a nice meal of grilled bluefish.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My herb garden and some culinary doings

I'm very pleased to announce the arrival of my herb garden, such as it is. Nothing in the ground, everything planted in a few smallish containers, thus far. I've gotten a book called The Bountiful Container, and with its help hope to plan for an expansion next Spring, with some bigger containers, some seed purchasing and a more thoughtful approach to placement and soil preparation. In the meantime, I've started using little bits and corners of my herbs. I've got a pot with basil, lemon basil and sage. Another pot with parsley, chives, and struggling dill and cilantro. Another pot with sorrell and rocket, my spicy salad greens. And two pots on my indoor kitchen windowsill, one of rosemary (creeping) and one of tarragon, which seems to be taking its time getting started.
I've only dared to use these herbs once or twice, preferring to let them get settled before I make any heavy demands on them, but I have added sorrell and rocket to a couple of salads and I made a 'pasta with handfuls of fresh herbs' from the gourmet cookbook the other night and I used a little tiny bit from several of my budding plants (basil, lemon basil, chives, parsley and sorrell). For future reference: use only one or two herbs - I think the flavors will be clearer and stronger, and skip the toasted breadcrumbs - they just make the dish too heavy and mask the delicacy of the herbs. In fact, though they are found commonly in many Italian pasta recipes, I don't believe that I am a big fan of the use of breadcrumbs in general, finding them at best unecessary and at worst gritty and unappetizing. Please let me know if you find them an important asset in some dish or another and I'll file the advice away. I've enjoyed them on baked macaroni and cheese before, but even there I'm not sure they've really added much. A browned and bubbly cheesy top seems more than adequate.
I've been trying to do more 'instinctive' improvising in the kitchen lately, largely from reading the Chez Panisse Vegetables cookbook and a new book about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. I've always done most of my cooking out of cookbooks, except for meals of convenience or dishes I've made many, many times - basic red sauce, pesto, regular salads and vinagrettes, fried egg sandwiches, pasta with garlic and oil, trout amandine, etc. And I enjoy using cookbooks, but I'd like to see what my more creative juices are capable of, out of curiousity and to give myself more flexibility when exploring the contents of my larder or running across good-looking produce at the market, and also out of inspiration from the great creative cooks out there.
Last night I went for it. I was at the market and decided I wanted some seafood, that had some decent looking Florida shrimp in the shell that was priced well, so I got half a pound and decided to do something spicy. I got some jalapenos and a poblano pepper. When I got home I broiled the peppers until they were black and made a salsa of them with some roasted garlic, and marinated the shrimp in lime juice and salt before cooking them on my black iron. Then I made a salad of quartered radishes with shallots, sorrell, lime juice and cayenne pepper. My starch came in the form of a few homemade corn tortillas. If I was writing the menu for Chez Panisse it would look something like this:
Radish Salad with Lime, Sorrell and Cayenne
Griddle-Seared Gulf Coast Shrimp with Relish of Roasted Poblanos, Jalapenos and Garlic
Homemade Corn Tortillas
Store-Bought Chocolate-Chip Cookies
What do you think? As it turned out, the shrimp was very flavorful and I was surprised to find that my poblano and jalapeno relish didn't really stand up to it very well - a traditional salsa with cilantro and tomato would have been better, and serve the poblanos on the side. I enjoyed the radish salad a lot, and I always love fresh tortillas. I'm getting better at them, and can really make a few of them happen pretty quickly without much fuss.
Adios, amoebas! (have I used that before? It's from an old Gary Larson cartoon that still cracks me up).