Saturday, April 30, 2005

Cleaning Up Chuck

Today was Earth Day in Waltham, and time for the yearly spring cleaning of the filthy, litter-strewn Charles riverbank. I pried myself out of bed into a gray day that promised rain, full of reluctance and excuses -- I did it last year, it's someone else's turn this year, what about that little twinge I felt yesterday in my left shoulder, maybe I shouldn't risk it, I'm an old codger after all, let the young 'uns do it, plus it's going to rain....

I raised my left arm. No twinge. No haler joint ever moved. The granny routine was not washing. I'd have to stop playing the gray hair card. I'm not that old, after all. And the forecast said the serious rain would hold off until the afternoon. So I had no excuse. Not really.

What kind of schmuck would bitch so vocally about the river trash and then not lift a finger to clean it up ? Plus I wanted to give something back to the river that has been so gracious to me. So it was settled. I'd go.

Last year the river was crawling with volunteers. We were practically fighting over the trash -- hey, that's MY Doritos Bag -- I saw it first ! It was as if a swarm of trash-eating locusts had descended on the riverwalk and stripped it clean. There were even boats to get the offshore detritus. Today there were way fewer. And no boats. Nonetheless, we each got our allotment of trash bags and plunged in.

There was a Rubik's cube floating in the bilge under the trestle. Near a neatly capped insulin syringe and a styrofoam take-out container. We crawled through muck and bramble, eyes alert not for the red or yellow flash of a bird, or the subtle white or purple of early wildflowers, but for bright plastic. I made note of a stand of four-petaled yellow flowers and horsetails that I'd have to revisit avec camera, and some beautiful red seedpods like these

that I hoped would survive the afternoon rain so I could photograph them tomorrow.

And, once again, at morning's end, just as the fitful drizzle became rain, the river was restored. Not completely, but palpably. I trudged out of the woods near the end of the path with the last of my bags. I'd just packed up the soggy pile of discarded clothing that I'd photographed several times. A municipal truck laden with trash bags was parked on the narrow macadam. I handed over my bag.

"Are you just about wrapping up ?" the driver asked.

"Yup," I answered. I looked around. The path was deserted. "I think I'm the last one."

There was more trash. I'd hoped the river hermit's camp -- abandoned for the past twelve months, the tent gone, the suitcases still disgorging dirty, soggy clothes -- would get cleaned up this year. But no.

I couldn't face the river hermit's abandoned midden alone. It was raining. I was mud-soaked to the skin. My white canvas shoes were black by now and full of water. I was probably incubating poison ivy, lyme disease, tetanus and hepatitis. Sporotrichosis from Rosa Multiflora. But my shoulder felt great. I headed down the clean path back toward my car. The meadow was lush and green with grass and clover. A brilliant, little yellow bird flittered through the witch hazel.

I crossed the footbridge. The trashfield beneath was gone. Soon arum, pickerelweed and waterlilies would bloom out of the rich, black mud.

Across the bridge, I turned and faced the river. I looked around. After a cyclist passed, I was alone. I felt silly, self-conscious, but I had to do it. I had to punctuate this cleansing of peccata mundi, this purification, with some kind of gesture. Too shy to prostrate myself on the sidewalk, I settled for a furtive, joyous, riverward gassho.

There is no ground
holier than this.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Privacy Rights

I opened my mortgage statement this morning and found one of those ubiqutous two page single spaced documents printed in opthalmologically unfriendly eight-point type entitled "Your Privacy Rights."

"You talkin' to ME ?" I muttered with the impotent balefulness of severe undercaffeination.

As usual, the gist was that I had the right to have The Mortgage Company sell my demographics to certain "affiliates" (ie. any purveyor of "products and services" that forks over enough dough to buy their client list ) who have only my comfort and interests and needs in mind. The kindly folks that would like to sell me credit cards, mortgage insurance, subscriptions, time shares, exercise bicycles, home decorating accoutrements, fog horns, kitty litter, cubic zirconiums, whoopee cushions, and penile length and/or breadth enhancers. Stuff like that. Folks who send out unstanchably bubonic levels of junk mail.

DK, while writing his jazz cantata, The Death Of Simone Weil, decided to quote little snippets of WW II German marches in one of the sections. A little sardonic quodlibet, as it were. So he sent away, through the twin miracles of google and the internet, for a tape.

Ever since then there's been a particularly unsavory subtext to our junk mail. Military catalogues. Firearms. Historical army uniforms. Goods and services slanted uncomfortably toward the demographic "skinhead."

All for a sardonic quodlibet.

Of course, if I were to (perish the thought) ungraciously -- nay, unnaturally ! -- decline The Mortgage Company's generous offer, I could "opt-out" by dialing a certain number and "following the instructions provided." I shudder to think of the byzantine phone menu that lies at the end of that number. The mind-numbing on hold music (Kenny G), the densely-branched algorithm -- if X press 9, if Y press 6, if neither X nor Y press 32,to repeat this menu press 7 -- the intermittant soothing voice crooning "your call is important to us," interspersed with peppy little marketing blurbs and segueing, after 13 minutes, into sudden dead, electronic silence and dial tone.

There's probably a clause in there somewhere that discloses that opting out will result in the immediate notification of the Department of Homeland Security and the immediate and irrevocable placing of one's name on every known airline's "do-not-fly" list. As an unamurkan terrist.

Each day at work the secretary staggers into my office and deposits thirty pounds or so of medical junk mail on my desk. Mostly magazines and newspapers. Slick ones. Free ones. That come (and come and come) unbidden. Like "Medical Economics," "Physicians Money Digest," and "Diversion." And others with more pretense at being vaguely clinical. All arriving thanks to out friends at Big Pharma. All thinly veiled vehicles for pharmaceutical ads. Part of my daily exercise routine is heaving them en bloc into the trash.

By regulation, each of the magazines periodically sports a tear-off postage-paid card stating that, in order to keep receiving the wonderful, free publication, I need but check off the "yes" box and drop the card into the mail. And then the slickly packaged half-truths about the latest and greatest heart-mutilating COX 2 inhibitor or newest suicide-inducing SSRI on the block will keep coming my way. Forever.

Of course I never send any of them in. But the magazines keep coming. More and more of them. Bubonic. Pandemic. Same ones, different ones, new ones, old ones. They breed, mutate, intermarry -- "The Journal of Geriatric Neonatology," "Annals of Psychoanalytic Microbiology," "Finnish Journal of Cosmetic Cardiology" -- and there is no stopping them. Ever. Believe me. I have tried. I have the scars to prove it.

I wish someone would change the universal marketing default setting to "opt-in."

Absent that, I wish they'd stop calling their ceaseless, boorish, uninvited intrusions "My Privacy Rights."

Sunday, April 24, 2005


The sound of wings beating the air -- a series of soft thuds rising from behind to overhead -- startled me. Something large had launched itself aloft. I looked up. There it was, perched on a high branch, craning its neck around. What was it ? I watched it for a while, took its picture and walked on.

I am an ornithologic naif. I can barely tell a sparrow from a starling. All I could think was hawk for the sheer size of it.

When I got my pictures developed I was astonished. The thing had a strange, leathery, red head. What could it be ? I went through my categories of "big birds." There was the yellow one on TV. Ostriches, which are flightless, so this wasn't. Maybe it was a hawk after all ? I thumbed through pages and pages of hawks in my Peterson's Guide.

Not a hawk.

It looked kind of like a turkey. But there were no turkey pictures in Peterson.

I think I took a picture of a wild turkey ! I announced to DK.

Mmmmm, Wild Turkey ! he joked. Meaning the booze.

He's even less of an ornithologist than I am. And neither of us drink. I don't eat birds. He does. But, kind husband that he is, he once bought us a Tofurkey. We read the instructions: Bake For Three Hours. Forget about it, we muttered in chorus and chucked the thing into the freezer. What good is a thing like a Tofurkey if you can't nuke it ? And, for that matter, why is there no Easter tofu ham ? No To-ham ? To circumvent the inevitable toe jam jokes ? Not fair.

We eventually, one long, dull afternoon, baked the Tofurkey. DK hated it. I pretended to like it. But, secretly, it appalled me. It was a tough, glutinous blob. He fed his to the garbage disposal. I choked mine down and put the leftovers in the freezer. And, three months later, threw them out. I could not face the leftover Tofurkey.

So had I seen a wild turkey in the woods of the Broadmoor Sanctuary ?

Today I remembered my little, purloined red-bound copy of Audubon's Birds of America (popular edition) . Purloined, you ask ? Purloined, apparantly, from the Andover West Junior High School library. I honestly (honestly, your honor !) can't remember boosting it. Maybe it was my brother ! Or Jay Leno !

Have I mentioned that I went to Jay Leno's High School ? Or, for that matter, has he mentioned that he went to mine ?

Have I mentioned that I have a mint condition copy of the June 14, 1968 edition of IMPRINT, the Andover High School newspaper, of which, as a senior in 1969, I was to become Editor-In-Chief ? The very issue in which the article "AHS BIDS FARE WELL(sic) TO TWO OUTGOING SENIORS" appeared ? There, below a photo of Mr Leno as a baseball-bat wielding toddler, is the prescient assessment:

"He was constantly funny, and although some of his jokes were corny, he never ceased to amuse his friends and classmates."

"Maybe I should try to sell this thing on Ebay," I said to DK. "But that would be really, really tacky. I can't believe I even thought of it. How low. How exploitative ! Imagine that -- me, trafficking in celebrity memorabilia. On the internet. I am such a tacky woman."

"I like tacky women," he chortled.

So, anyway, I thumbed through my purloined Birds of America and there was my big bird, Plate 65, thick brown body, little leathery red head -- A Turkey Vulture.

Vulture ?

I'd been alone in the woods with a vulture ? With a "carrion feeder" with a "six foot wing span" ? That passed so close that I could hear its wing beats ?

Carrion feeder. How auspicious. I think I'll just put that old newspaper back in the box at the bottom of my closet.

Sunday Bog Blogging

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


"Let's go. Let's GO-O," the child wheedled, waving the trail map at his mother. She, deep in conversation with a friend, didn't seem to hear.

He stabbed at the map with a plump finger. "Let's go to Turtle Pond. Vernal Pool is boring ! I want to go to Turtle Pond !"

I'd just been to the vernal pool and, earlier, had been to Turtle Pond, a tiny, pretty, pond set between woods and a field. A pair of young fathers -- an angular, dark haired man with narrow glasses, and an endomorphic ruddy, curly-topped fellow with an English accent -- were shepherding three toddlers around its edge. The dark haired man was being pedagogic. Loudly pedagogic. Boomingly pedagogic.


"How, Daddy ?"

"Oh, that's complicated."

I peered into the still, bronze, cloudy water. They were hovering there in the shallows, looking back at me. Big, flat squarish heads that tapered into tails. They were the size of a small child's fist. A turtle sunned itself on a log.

Then I'd sought out the vernal pool. It was, after all, spring. And a vernal pool, like everything, is transient, ephemeral, fleeting. I passed a small greenhouse, climbed a hill, crossed a small pine wood and spotted the pool straight ahead in a glade.

It was a windless day, and the much of the surface of the pool was coated with yellow pollen and crisscrossed with black, sharp tree shadows. Where there was no pollen, the surface was dark and still and held reflections of surrounding trees. It was a complex welter of shadows and reflections. Opacity and transparency. I took some pictures.

And now I was headed back to my car. I passed a second group of Sunday strollers -- man, woman, three boys. The boys were laughing and talking. Two of them -- pale, doughy, crewcut pre-adolescents in sleeveless shirts and baggy shorts -- carried nets, and one carried an empty clear plastic box with a handle. The woman was drinking from a massive, styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts container with a domed plastic lid.

I didn't want to stay around long enough to see what would happen next.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Art Of Litter

Littering has risen to a new level in Waltham. It is no longer a thoughtless and random epiphenomenon of mindless consumption. It has become deliberate. Considered. Intentional. It has, in short, become Art. Viz. this installation that I came across last week as I was walking along the Charles River.

Note the streaming green and blue ribbons, obviously chosen to echo the blue and yellow of the curiously cropped can, and to mimic the flow of wind and water. The anonymous artist displays an aesthetic that pays demotic and ironic homage to both Andy Goldsworthy and Christo and, at the same time, offers a darkly scathing and hilarious critique of post-millenial Capitalism.

The can's raw transection can only represents the artist's violent rejection of Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can iconography. It is as if "the bottom has fallen out" of the Pop aesthetic, and a deeply felt nostalgia (not untinged with bitter and ironic regret) for a more pastoral and bucolic era/art had taken its place. The evocation of effigy and gallows is deliberate: the artist rages, even rampages against the tradition so fiercely that he or she has transcended a mere "anxiety of influence" and has attained a frank, full-blown "going-postal of influence."

In its scathed, post-Pop bifurcation the can must be seen as a castratus. Its prior cylindrical phallicity has become an aluminum vagina dentata in a brilliant commentary on the illusive and shifting constructions and deconstructions and even reconstructions of gender and self.

Our anonymous artist has given us a post-post- and maybe even post-post-post-modern Wood Sprite -- ribbon-bedecked, wounded, androgynous -- which simultaneously evades and embraces commodification as it flits among the spring trees and heaped-up trash of the river bank.

Friday, April 08, 2005

That Is All That Can Be Told

It began as a simple inquiry of the most mundane sort: the consumer inquiry. As much as I rail and chafe at the label "consumer" which seems to reduce one to a greedy little mouth, I must admit that I am one. Who isn't ? I obtain goods and services in exchange for legal tender. And, sometimes, as with anything, there are problems.

Like with the lens. The lens that began, a month after I received it as a Christmas gift from DK, to project prisms into the camera's viewfinder. The lens that, one January day on the snowy river path, developed a tinny little rattle and disgorged a cute little T-shaped rod into my hand when I shook it.

So I sent it back to the Camera Store. A month later, still lensless, I called and was told they hadn't yet gotten a shipment of replacements, but probably would in a few weeks. Two months later I called again. No shipment yet. They'd inquired, but there was no estimated time of arrival for said lenses from The Company.

So I went to The Company website. It was a slick site with a promising "customer service" page, and a spiffy little e-thingy called a "Personal eBox" just for customer (aka consumer) inquiries. So I entered the requisite personal data and then composed a pithy synopsis of my consumer issue. The lens. The prisms. The rattle. The slender rod. The Camera Store's inability to get even an estimate on when a shipment of new lenses would arrive.

"Is there anything that can be done ?" I typed. Then hit send.

A few hours later, alerted by a prompt email from The Company, I returned to my Personal eBox to read the reply to my question. Is there anything that can be done ?.

There I found a reply from "Melissa K." (not her real pseudonym), The Company's "Customer Support" representative. (Edited slightly for maximum Orwellian effect)

no. ... That is all that can be told. They know what they are talking about. ... there is nothing more that can be done. I'm sure they will notify them when a shippment (sic) comes in...

Best regards,
Melissa K.
... Customer Support

There it was. I was stunned. The hard-hitting truth, love-that-can-get-no-tougher direct from "Customer Support." Unleavened by any pretense of being "supportive" or of offering "service." Without even the slightest, mollifying, insincere acknowledgment of consumer pain ! As they say on the internet, young Melissa was basically telling me to FOAD. "WTF ?" I asked myself.

Her monosyllabic ukase tolled through my mind: That Is All That Can Be Told. There it was. The ubiquitous post-modern passive voice, redolent of the death of the author, the agent, the responsible party, the social contract, of God even. We are all at the whimsical mercy of impersonal, destructive forces. Of blind, wriggling, hungry chance. All will not be necessarily be well.

After a day or so of wandering in the dissed-consumer wilderness, I pulled myself together and composed a response:

Your reply, forgive me for being blunt, boggled my mind. Nothing can be done ? "That is all that can be told ?" No inquiries on my behalf can be made ? ... Your company sold me a DEFECTIVE lens. Now I must remain in limbo. For months. No one in (The Company) knows when (The Camera Store) will receive a shipment of these lenses. No one is willing and/or able to investigate this. This is information that simply cannot be determined. This does not seem like customer service to me. Or even Customer Support.

After editing out paragraphs of brilliant, eloquent and withering sarcasm, I hit send.

It had happened. My metamorphosis was complete. I was not only a consumer. I was an outraged consumer. I felt unclean. Guilty. Nay, monstrous. I wanted to hit "unsend." There, alas, was no "unsend." Oh well. I pictured Melissa opening my Personal eBox and reading my reply. Her gumsmacking increases in frequency and intensity. She emits a veritable volley of loud TSKs of disdain. Hisses of rage spout from between her over-rouged lips.

"WHATEVAH !" she screams, jabbing so hard at "delete" that her two-inch rhinestone-and-magenta acrylic fingernail splits right down the middle.

That night I found a long reply on my answering machine. From "Bob." From The Company. A cheerful,placating, helpful voice. Asking for more information. Laying out the options. Help was on the way. Succor. Relief. Redress of grievances. The consumer, me, was back in my rightful place. King. Queen. Emperor. God. Whatever. My breast was swelling with vindicated outrage. All industry was groveling at my feet.

While, probably, sneering behind my back.

Now I really felt unclean.

I was grateful, I suppose. I'd get my lens back. Maybe.

But I was longing, quite frankly, for Melissa's undisguised and righteous contempt of the whole frigging deal.

Saturday, April 02, 2005


It was supposed to rain all day, hard. It did rain this morning -- I woke to the ping ping ping of rain on the air-conditioner housing. The old bedspread I'd draped there to muffle the sound of raindrops must have slipped partway off. The other day I'd wakened to a mourning dove duet, a two bird antiphonal set a minor third apart. The second voice came from a distance, like a degraded echo. The first was close and loud. It was 5 am. "Damn bird," my husband muttered.

The rain stopped mid afternoon, but the world stayed sodden and dark. I checked a weathermap, and, assured of a rainless spell, went down to the river with my camera.

The river was full and loud, and had flooded its banks. In places, it swamped the path. The air rang with goose calls and birdsong. Trash from upstream spun caught in the tall weeds and bridge trestles. It was completely windless, and branches were heavy with water droplets. The clouds and rain had darkened the landscape by several shades since I'd last seen it. This little piece of the world had utterly transformed. It looked bruised, brooding, intense, full. Suffused. All the colors were different. The path was deserted.

Some unexpected churchbells tolled in the distance, sounding oddly like a boy falling out of the sky.

I walked and looked, taking pictures, listening, nearly drunk with pleasure. I considered swooning. The brindled, waxen swallowwort pods seemed to glow; strong, fresh, green blades and leaves were thrusting up between the composting groundcover of wet, skeletal leaves; the aspen catkins were insanely swollen, almost feathery. All around me the last stages of death and the earliest stages of life walked hand in hand.

As the rainless spell lengthened, other people appeared on the path. A slender young man with binoculars greeted me with news of a "peregrine falcon" perched on an antenna. A large, bearish man in a woolen cap wanted to know whether I'd seen the "rare black duck" right around that bend.

"That small slate gray creature with the white bill ? That's a coot !" I said.

This is the antiphonal human song of the riverbank --

Look !

Yes !

Later I learned that, in a room far away from the rain-soaked path, a strong, imperfect voice had fallen into silence. The air still reverberated a little. I felt oddly bereft. Orphaned. Something that sounded oddly like Papa ! rose to my lips.

Who among so-called "world leaders" would speak, really speak, now for peace and justice ?