Saturday, November 27, 2004

Two Confessions

I met Grace again on the river walk yesterday. She stopped and smiled. A little sheepishly, I thought.

"I've been bad," she said, and held out her hand.

She was holding this

and a twig with a single red berry.

It was the very same milkweed pod that's in my photo. I'm sure of it.

"Oh," I said, startled. "I took a picture of that ! I called it Septum, because of that graceful partition !"

Grace, I think, will be a good custodian of the milkweed pod. She has a keen eye. She looks closely at the world. She pays attention. She can discourse at length on the enormous palette concealed in the word "brown." She knows the hawks and the herons who frequent this bend in the river. She quilts and paints and told me she loves her most recent painting -- trees -- because of its purples and yellows. Trees are her usual subject, but the colors surprised her.

"Purple," I said, "like those alder catkins."


Grace is not much of a criminal. At worst, a petty thief or a grave robber. Certainly not a murderer. I thought of the beautiful stand of Jerusalem Artichoke that had bloomed a few hundred yards down the path last summer. How, returning along the path one day, I found they'd been beheaded. Every last one of them. I inspected the truncated stems as if I were a forensic botanist. They were cleanly cut, maybe by a very sharp knife, or good scissors.

It was a case of mass murder.

So what species of criminal am I, pointing and shooting as I do, stealing light and freezing time ? One takes pictures, after all. An act of appropriation. Of framing, as in, Hey, I was framed !

I am voyeur, kidnapper Collector of images.

And there's places for people like Grace and me: incorrigibles, career criminals, living devil-may-care lives way beyond the allowable three strikes.

Thursday, November 25, 2004


I went out walking late this afternoon to shake off my Thanksgiving postprandial torpor and to enjoy the last moments of a strangely balmy day. The weatherman had promised an abrupt shift toward evening: high winds, rain, thunder possible, temperatures plunging from the sixties to the thirties. Already clouds were gathering -- low, gray agitated clouds, darkest in the west.

I decided to walk through the little cemetary around the corner. As I passed through the gate I noticed a small, white rectangular sign: You must leave by dusk. Or you shall be deemed a trespasser. This is not a playground. I looked around nervously. It could well be construed as dusk. But it was not really that late, just cloudy ! Plus I was certainly not playing. Or was I ? What is play, anyway ? Skateboarding ? Strolling ? Communing with the dead ? I headed up a small rise, graves on either side, imagining the cemetary gates swinging shut behind me, imagining being trapped in the graveyard overnight, imagining being cuffed and hauled off by the cemetary police. Or at least by some deputized gravedigger wielding a dangerous, sod-encrusted shovel:

Dinchoo see da sign, lady ?

I could lie ! It's a very small sign. One could even call it inconspicuous ! But would he believe me ? What if he'd seen me read it ? And why is he talking like a character in a Raymond Chandler novel ?

Suddenly something disturbed my noirish revery: sinuous against the grim granite block of a headstone, flagrant in the gathering darkness, bloomed a hot pink lawn flamingo -- right from the sod of a grave.

I relaxed. The sign was just kidding. It was a playground after all. And I was welcome. I was more than welcome.

I was right at home.

Sunday, November 21, 2004


The narrow depth of field of the macro lens creates the illusion of little self-contained worlds, each complete with its own light, its own atmosphere, its own mood. Looking at the little weed worlds in my photos, I'm reminded of the feeling I'd get in path lab in med school: that the palisades of pink and blue cells under the oil immersion lens seemed like alien geographies and landscapes into which I'd been dropped. They were as beautiful and queer as dreamscapes, new cosmos for which no language yet existed.

Joseph Cornell's boxes are little universes, each with its own private semantic. Universes whose grammar is one of juxtaposition, like the famous and fortuitous dissection table rendezvous of sewing machine and umbrella that engendered Surrealism.

Today, fishing for a lost button among the random objets that lead a quiet, subterranean life at the bottom of my pen basket, I came up with these evocative items:

Make what you will of eraser, faceless Christ, old chestnut and Audubon bird whistle.

Or of the marble, screw and thimble beside the forty year old nubbin of bread (keep this and you'll never go hungry) I got as a child in some cathedral in Quebec.

The world of these honey locust pods is dark and grave -- forest green going to black. They seem like elders, stiff, severe, spondylitic; they glisten, as if laminated, or coated in brittle ice. Dead already, or very nearly so.

These alder catkins, on the other hand, hang in luminous space, still, serene, balanced. They are gently curved, nubbly, embryonic, promising life and transformation.

The wild cucmber is its own universe -- tendril, flower, leaf, fruit, all magically deployed like a Rube Goldberg machine.

This world -- dusty green dendritic lichen world -- feels both ancient and child- like to me; it's a dense, dissolving scribble; it's veins and smoke; it's submarine. Things float and rise.

These bedstraws, silhouetted against deep, luminous green, remind me of creation itself -- stars being born; tracings in a bubble chamber.

I could look at these images all day. I could lose myself in them. As I lost myself as a child in blue willow landscapes and comic book panels.

The ways of lenses are beyond me. Medically, I embarrass myself around diopters. It took me months to understand how a macro lens sees the world -- what the backgound light will be like, what part of the subject will be infocus. I had a cheat sheet taped to the back of my old camera, an ancient, reliable Minolta 7s I inherited from my in-laws.

And then, of course, there's digital.

Its greedy little eye takes in everything, from nosetip to infinity, the forest, the trees, the bark, the beetle on the bark, the spots on the back of the beetle on the bark. It's got more resolution than our grim little president has resolve. Hairsplitting resolution. Hyper-real, like an Andrew Wyeth painting: hit "100%" and each hair on the kitty makes its claim on the eye.

One can go from a panorama of my study

to the shingles on the neighbors roof

with a few mouseclicks.

The digital eye is democratic, giving equal importance to the kitties asleep on the comforter, the flamingo night light on the bureau, and the athlete's foot spray on the bedside table.

Plummeting down and rising up through resolutions, one feels a little like Alice in a pixilated wonderland --

Croquet, anyone ?

Monday, November 15, 2004

Public Service Announcement

To those of you who have ever considered substituting laundry detergent for dishwasher soap, I have three little words.


-- This home ec moment brought to you by Paula's House of Suds.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Vegan Culpa

The first snow, which fell overnight Friday in an unexpected amount, was a serious snow. The small trees by the river were bent under the weight of it, more than one would think, as if they, too, had been taken by surprise and had been unable to brace themselves.

I was braced, though. Double socks, long underwear, and even my old leather-and-rubber felt-lined lace-up boots, a gift from my ex husband a quarter century ago. (My description makes them sound vaguely erotic. Believe me, they are not. They are industrial. Although, I admit, there is a certain eros to the industrial.) They're one of my two non-vegan articles of clothing. The other is a red, woolen scarf my Lithuanian Bubbi knit even longer ago and which I still wear.

I've been a bad vegan lately.

Two packets of non-vegan veggie burgers, one containing egg white and the other cheese, had been languishing in my freezer for months. I bought them both by accident, since their boxes resembled the vegan kinds I'm used to getting. The first surprised me. I opened the oven and found that little nubbins of strange cheese-like substance had burbled up out of my dinner. I went back and read the box. Cheese indeed.

I ate them anyway.

And, last night, I cooked and ate the other kind, fully aware of the egg whites they contained. It was a kind I used to eat when I was just a vegetarian. A kind I used to really, really like. A heavy, greasy, fattening kind. Mmmmmmm, fattening.

They were tasty.

So there's my list of transgressions against vegan orthodoxy. Each has its accompanying rationalization.

The boots ? The cow's long dead. I contemplated the cow with reverance, and gratitude for keeping my feet warm. I asked its forgiveness. Tossing the boots out would be a waste. I'm a cheapskate. My other, vegan boots -- synthetic Payless Shoe Source specials, probably made in a third world sweat shop -- are too small to accommodate two pairs of socks. I tried. They hurt.

The scarf ? We're talking my dead grandmother for Christ's sake ! Family values, sentimental value, some kind of "value" must pertain here that transcends the discomfort a sheep, long gone to mutton, endured getting shorn circa 1965.

And those cheesy veggie burgers ? It was a double accident ! First I bought them and then I cooked them through inattention. Isn't it a sin to waste food ? Think of all the hungry people in the world ! How could I possibly throw away food just for a "belief" ? Preposterous. It would be a sin NOT to eat them.

But then there's the matter of the greasy, delicious ones. The ones I might have bought by accident, but cooked intentionally, even though I had plenty of the vegan kind. The ones I wanted. Because I knew they would taste good. So I ate them. Those veggie burgers.

The ones I desired.

Little venial sins are one thing -- sins fostered by accident, inattention, expediency, competing values. But pure desire is something else. It's mortal. And dangerous. Pure trangression. Revolt, in fact. Next thing you know, I'll be clubbing baby seals and eating veal marsala three times a day. On my leather sofa. In my silk pajamas. Drinking wine clarified through isinglass.

A sybarite, a voluptuary, doomed to vegan hell.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Wheee !

Nothing in civic life from the largest scale to the smallest scale seems to be making sense these days.

It took us, oh, maybe ten or eleven years to finally take the plunge and buy a house in 1998. It's not that we didn't look. I grew perversely fond of the mild voyeurism of attending real estate open houses. Of spying on people's wierd stuff. We went to a million of 'em. To this day, DK and I can cruise the local neighborhoods and reminisce about seeing this house or that house. "Our houses," we call them, as if we were real estate magnates. It took getting our apartment of 13 years sold out from under us to get us to budge. Which was an excellent piece of serendipity, given that the real estate market went acutely berserk shortly thereafter and as a result we probably could not afford to buy this big, old, dilapidated house today.


During one of our more intense house searches we briefly entertained the notion of buying a duplex with another couple, a pair of very blond Scandinavian musicians, colleagues of my husband, younger than us, who were looking for a house in which to start their family. We actually found a big old joint, rather perfect we thought, in Newton, the town where we were living at the time. "Great schools" goes the conventional wisdom about Newton, though, like all conventional wisdom, it virtually cries out for a snarky, debunking blog entry.

Now, Newton's a pretty hoity toity town. Way upscale. Our apartment was right next to Boston College on a little cross street of modest duplexes, an island of real estate sanity amidst broad avenues and winding tree-lined side streets of ridiculously big and breathtakingly beautiful Victorian and tudor-style mansions.

"Who lives in these joints," DK and I would speculate on our long evening walks down these dark, deserted lanes, "and what third world country did they exploit to afford them ?"

Anyway, our friends ultimately decided against moving to Newton.

"It's not diverse enough," they explained, invoking the cultural education of their eventual babies. OK. We could dig that. No problemo. We could picture them -- and us for that matter -- in Jamaica Plain or Cambridge or Roslindale, in a city that more resembled the world-at-large than Newton.

Except for one thing. They immediately moved to Lexington. Possibly one of the most WASPy towns on the face of the planet. Real John Updike territory. As in a town where the influx of two Swedes probably up-ticked the "diversity" scale into the red zone.

Which brings me to the "small scale civic life not making sense" thing that is the destination of this ramble through the whackily undiverse landscapes of suburban Boston.

Massachusetts has a new statute that designates police and fire stations as "safe havens" for unwanted newborns that desparate parents might otherwise be abandon to the elements and certain death. It seems that although the head of Lexington's "historical commission" is all for the concept, the idea of actually placing signs on these municipal buildings indicating exactly where to bring the infants is prohibitively "inappropriate to history"

Lexington's Baby Haven advocate is a fellow named Michael Morrissey. He apparantly worked tirelessy to get the statute passed, and was eager to facilitate its implementation. According to the Globe,

This month, he proposed a black-and-white, 9-inch-by-12-inch sign that says ''Safe Baby Site" in English and Spanish, and shows a drawing of a baby. Knowing that his local fire and police stations are located in the town's historic district, near Lexington Green, Morrisey appealed a week ago for the commission's approval. To his surprise, they said no.

Joann Gschwendtner, head of the nine-member commission, said she did not object to the appearance of the signs, but worried that if the commission approved Morrisey's signs, it would have to do so for every advocacy group.

"Pretty soon the front door will be like the bulletin board of a grocery store," she said.

Huh ? (Cue sounds of mind boggling.)

Is she setting up a straw man or simply taking the "slippery slope" argument to disingenuous, NIMBYesque extreme ? Or both ? How does allowing a sign on the door of a municipal building anouncing one of its new, important functions necessarily lead to an unstoppable flood of signs for "every advocacy group" ?

The local paper quotes Mr Morrissey:

     "It's not as though we want to do something that hasn't been done before. The reason the signs are there is to literally direct somebody to the right door or the right place rather than have a baby left in the cold, or the heat for that matter, which can be extremely dangerous," said Morrissey, noting that the standard signs are generally 9-by-12 inches. "Visually, these signs attract somebody when they're in a panic situation and aren't always thinking clearly. These will provide some very simply instructions."
     The Lexington advocate has no problem adhering to the HDC's potential size and color demands for signs because he doesn't want to be "inappropriate to history," but he made it clear that he does still plan on putting them up at the Police Station and the fire stations on Bedford Street and Massachusetts Avenue.
     "We're going to push to do this anyway," said Morrissey. "We're not trying to be inappropriate to history, but sometimes you have to look at what history you are making. We don't want history to show that somebody left a baby outside a doorway and something disastrous happened."

I happen to know that Waltham's Willow Street Hysterical Commission (cue picture of ME waving wildly and pointing at my chest) absolutely adores our sagging, snow-covered Kerry sign, our flamingo garden and our scrofulous weedlawn.

And today I declare this old house a certified Baby Blue State Safe Haven for anyone who has been abandoned by history and seeks refuge from civic nonsense from the smallest to the largest scale.

And just wait until you see my sign.

Sunday, November 07, 2004


It was the Friday before Halloween, overcast and raw. I took the day off and drove to Arlington's Great Meadows, a nature preserve whose main trail begins behind a small, private school. It was midmorning, and the loud, excited cries of children rang out from the field. I had stumbled, to my mild, misanthropic disappointment, upon an elaborate Halloween mummery that had appropriated the woods behind the school as its mise en scene. I was annoyed at my annoyance. What kind of unnatural beast of a woman is annoyed by the joyful cries of children ? Some kind of wicked witch ? I stifled the urge to turn back in search of a more deserted forest and headed toward the trail.

It began at a small pond --

-- that was completely covered with a uniform film of dusty-green vegetation. Ducks floated back and forth, trailing black slits of water that closed almost as quickly as they opened. It was creepy and silent. On a small rise I could see groups of ornately costumed adults scattered through the woods. A lady-in-waiting crouched by a stone noodling on a recorder. A tall, ghostly storyteller entranced a group of children perched on a semicircle of stones. A fairy godmother was decking a tree in bright silk banners. A group of gnomes -- one with her cell phone hidden behind her back --

-- even posed for me as I headed over a low hill toward the sere, flat, wood-rimmed meadows. By then even I was charmed. My mood lightened. I was in a Tolkein landscape, complete with hobbits, in the full, endlessly interesting dilapidation of fall. The clouds were breaking, and the morning was warming up. What could be better ?

Within moments I was alone. Children's voices still came through the trees, but from a distance, like the voices of the ethereal children in Eliot's rose garden. I soon realized my map was useless; there were far more trails opening out underfoot than it depicted, and I felt mildly anxious about getting lost. I had no breadcrumbs to trail behind me, and there were twa corbies --

-- hunkering on the topmost branches of an oak, watching and waiting.

I was getting into the spirit of things.

As was the vegetation -- dun, spindly, bedraggled, tangled, skeletal --

-- a post-copulative beauty, all sacrifice and attenuation, everything dying in each others' arms --

Overdressed, warm by now, I removed my hat and unzipped my jacket. The wind blew gray strands of hair into my face. I tried to fling them off with a shake of my head and heard the faithful little scritch my neck makes now, cute little memento mori right in tune with the hiss of the wind through the leathery oak leaves.

Suddenly, there they were, Rilke's ripening barberries growing red --

-- not succulent like some berries, but chitinous and hard as little beetles. Do birds find the fruits delicious whose pits they transport and drop ?

Everything's going to seed . It's the year's fulfillment, its ripening, its bright scatter and its long, combustive fall.

The trail ended at a stand of phragmites.

Swaying in the wind, their green, feathery seedheads filled with light, they seemed ecstatic. I felt ecstatic, too, a little bit. I was a witch of this wonderful, autumnal place. Not the good witch, a brood of children huddled under her protective cape, nor the wicked witch in her sweets-encrusted hermitage luring children toward the fiery oven within, but just an ordinary, seedy weed-witch on a walk, mild, benign, little more than a hag, really, out enjoying the company of her spindly sisters before the winter takes them and takes her down.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Taking A Participled Stand

"Hello !" called the cyclist from the path. I lowered my camera and turned toward the voice.

"Are you birding ?" he asked.

"No," I replied, looking away from the fuzzy asters and devil's beggarticks and wild lettuce. "I'm weeding."