Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Pocketbook Caper

Dumpster diving was nothing. Last night’s adventure begins with a cancelled meeting. Last minute cancellation, no notification, only a sign posted on a board once we get inside the church building.
We walked back to Park Street station through the Gardens and the Common, sharing an umbrella as a light drizzle grew stronger, then tapered off. We waited in Park Street, took the Red Line home to Quincy, stepped off the train at our station, and Anne announced she was no longer in possession of her pocketbook. We scream at the conductor; the train pulls away.
Downstairs, the station minder made some calls, and then we made some calls, but no one reported finding the pocketbook on the train. Around 10 p.m. Anne gets the idea to call her cell phone number. And a few minutes later we get a call.
“Did you just call this number?” a voice asks. “We’ve got your phone.”
Overjoyed! What a relief! How can we get it back?
But, overhearing the call, I get a funny feeling. The guy on the phone doesn’t identify himself, doesn’t say he’s calling from the MBTA, gives only a first name when asked for his name, and can’t come up with a street address for his building.
He says we can come get the pocketbook.
“Ask him for the street address!” I coach from the sidelines, hopping up and down on one foot in agitation. “How are we going to check it out?”
“Kenmore Square,” Anne says into the phone, repeating some information. “Beacon Street.” She hangs up.
“Please tell me you got a street address?”
“I got an intersection.”
She tells me some street names. An intersection, if it’s a major one, can have maybe 12 or 13 addresses, buildings, businesses, whatnot, on its various corner points, I point out. This one is major, Beacon and Chestnut Hill Avenue. We find it on a map. It’s a long way from Kenmore Square.
Nevertheless we get on the road; drive the expressway, take Storrow Drive to Kenmore Square, turn onto Beacon Street. It’s late enough by now so the streets have little traffic. We fly through the lights, drive through the darkness. It’s still a long way.
I’d been imagining out destination would be some busy T office in busy Kenmore Square. I’ll wait in the car and we’ll be out of there in minute and speeding cheerily back home. Now I think, “You’re not going in there alone.”
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I told him my husband is coming with me.”
Great, we’re safe now. “Did you tell him your husband is packing?”
More dark streets. I begin to have second thoughts about the whole expedition. What I’m thinking is…
So this guy, let’s call him first-name “Pete,” calls up and says he has her phone – which he easily could have acquired in any number of ways – and he doesn’t say he works for the MBTA until Anne explicitly asks him, and when she asks his name give his only first name, and when she asks him his office’s address can only give an intersection, and when she asks him what the building looks like says it’s “a station.” And who also says we can come pick up her pocketbook any time all night…
So while I’m driving down Beacon beyond Coolidge Corner, beyond Harvard Street, beyond any place in Brookline or Brighton where I’ve ever been, the headline I’m seeing in my mind is “Two White Middle-Class Idiots Murdered in Pocketbook Scam.”
I have half a mind to turn the car around.
When we finally get to this promised intersection, driving along the streetcar tracks, Green Line cars scattered everywhere as if suddenly abandoned by drivers who felt a pressing need to do something else, stores and buildings and businesses (as predicted) all over the place, cars parked everywhere with nobody in them and nobody on the sidewalk because it’s late, and no MBTA station anywhere, no T signs on any of the buildings, I ask, politely, “So where the hell is it?”
“I’ll call him,” she says.
I nose the car around a few parking areas; no place to park, and back out onto the avenue, ready to turn around.
A few attempts at dialing. What if somebody else answers the phone?
Then “Phil” is on the phone. Anne says we’re at the intersection; where’s the office?
The light turns, I take the green arrow, drive across the tracks right in front of a Green Line streetcar with nobody in it, and pull over to the side of the road.
“He says it’s near the Dunkin Donuts.”
Oh sure. Likely story. Is there any intersection in Greater Boston that doesn’t have a Dunkin Donuts? I peer out the windshield and say, “We’re at the Dunkin Donuts.”
There’s a narrow lane behind the store. “Is it down the alley?”
Phone: What?
“At the back of the Dunkin Donuts.”
Phone: Where are you?
Anne: “We’re at the Dunkin Donuts.”
Phone says something.
Anne to me: “He says there’s a road just past the parking lot.”
I pull the car around to the other side of the store. We see a parking lot. We see another narrow road just beyond it. Apparently “Phil” has never been to the back end of the Dunkin Donuts. He really needs to get out more.
This narrow road has streetcar tracks implanted down the middle. More cars, and a few streetcars, are parked every which way. A few feet down the road we spy a small, nondescript building with a glass door and a light on inside and an incomprehensible poster in the window, and no sign suggesting the place has anything to do with the T.
“Oh, here it is,” she says. “You can just stay here, I’ll be right out.”
“You don’t want me to go with you?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll just be a second.”
I stay in the car. I watch her enter through the glass door, disappear from sight, and return half a minute later with the pocketbook.
So no scam. “Phil,” she reports, is just as vague as he sounds. The business of his office is inexplicable. Somebody turned in the pocketbook somewhere on the T system and it ended up here. Phil never goes anywhere beyond Dunkin Donuts.
Pocketbook in hand, everything turning out all right in the end, we head light-heartedly home and run smack into a hellacious traffic jam on the expressway.
I think I may be owed something.

November Sunsets

We rake leaves. We go to the store. Commuters drive home from work. I put the perennials “to bed” by drawing leaf mulch over them. Anne cleans up the sidewalks and curbs and driveways and patio and other places where the leaves can’t rustle around all winter without being a problem to someone. She walks home from the train in the evenings.
Whatever we do, wherever we are, once we’ve turned the clocks back, sunset catches us too early each day.
Early dark is a shock to the system.
Change, in the solar sense, happens slowly. The hours of daylight dribble away tiny bit by bit. Minutely might be the word, because it’s a matter of a minute or two each day. It’s hard to register slight daily changes.
Where was the sun yesterday? Where is it today? Our eyes can’t tell the difference. Since we live indoors instead of largely outdoors, like our ancestors, few of us note the change in position of a sunrise, from one season to the next, or note where it sets on the horizon now as opposed to where it set last June (when the hands of the clock climbed toward nine p.m.).
Or how high, or not so high, it stands in the sky at noon compared to where it stood at 1 p.m. (daylight savings time) on the summer solstice.
It’s the end of daylight savings time, the sudden loss of an hour, that puts the difference in our faces. We miss that extra hour of sunlight at the end of the shortened day. For many it’s the difference between coming home in daylight or in the dark.
Coming home in the dark is like saying goodbye to the world, certainly the sunlit world of nature, for the whole work week: “Take it easy, world. I’ll look you up again on the weekend.”
Those of us who work at home or have a more relaxed schedule, whose workday doesn’t hinge around the conventional end of the business day, find it easier to stick our face out of doors during daylight to register the new patterns in the bare trees, count the last orange leaves on the cherry tree, monitor avian life at the bird feeder (I wrote “bird fever”: what am I being told?), or stomp down to the corner store on any excuse to get a mouthful of fresh air.
Some of us watch the light fade from the sky every day, as if obeying a ritual in a private religion. For me sunset-staring is never more important than in the short days of November and December. The more we are indoors, the more the spectacle of nature is reduced to one simple, remarkable, all-important fact: sometimes light, sometimes dark.
Often we are in our car when the fundamental change takes place. It catches us in traffic on the way home, or racing a light to beat the traffic. Or we pass a big plate glass window walking the corridors of commerce, or medicine, or academe. The sky is painting its big message in broad strokes and bright colors. Daytime is over. Prepare for a lengthy period of lightlessness.
We’re still natural enough beings to notice this. The advent of electric lighting changed the human experience of night. Darkness is now more of an inconvenience we can quickly remedy (unless a freak storm takes the power lines down) than the serious barrier to human activity it posed for all the millennia of our species’ existence up to a century ago.
But sunsets still speak to secret places in our minds. Slow down, they say, have a care. Find shelter, warmth, companionship. Maybe a storyteller and a glass of grog.
And the annual plunge backward in time makes us more aware of them now than at any other time of year. Maybe that’s why they seem more beautiful, certainly more stirring, than ever.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Anne Goes Dumpster Diving

I didn’t get a picture of this. You’ll have to take my word for it.
Saturday we found a pile of roof slates, most of them broken, a few still whole, raining down from the roof of a fine brick building.
Sunday we went back for them. It didn’t prove quite as easy as we thought.
We discovered them on our walk through the Neponset River Reserve, beside an estuarial river that runs along the border of the city of Boston. Men were throwing the skin of an old roof off the top of a handsome brick building. What looked at first like a great dark trash pile proved to consist largely of pieces of slate roof pieces. Later, on our way back down the same path, a worker in a hard hat was taking down the yellow caution tape; apparently roof removal was over.
“Do you mind if we take a few of these?” Anne asked.
“Take as many as you want,” he replied. He picked up a few unbroken slates to help us gather a haul. But we could only carry a few each; they were remarkably heavy and the sharp ends cut into your fingers as gravity tugged on their weight during our burdened trek back to the car.
A boy on a bicycle road by. “Scavenging,” he observed.
We made plans to come back the next day, park nearer the building, and scavenge with a vengeance. We wore work gloves. We wound our way through Dorchester streets to Lower Mills and found the business, let's call it “Superfluous Storage,” which had its own convenient parking lot.
Sunday noon. Mostly quiet. A young man raced across the apron on skates, playing street hockey with himself.
We parked, found the opening through the fence, walked down to the path and discovered the roof refuse pile completely cleaned up. They worked quickly, Anne observed. The answer was back up in the parking lot: a large black dumpster brimming with roof debris, most of it brilliantly shaped stone.
We back the car up close to the dumpster. The thing has tall sides, too all to reach inside from the pavement, but the dumpster has been parked next to a loading dock.
Anne walks up the dock, puts her feet on the lower rung of a black metal fence and reaches into the pile. She pulls out a few pieces, piles them on the forward corner of the dumpster. From there I can grab them and carry them to the trunk of the car.
After the surface pieces have been gleaned this way, my wife needs to extend her reach. She climbs a little higher on the fence, extends a foot experimentally into the dumpster and calls,
“I’ve been wondering if it’s safe…” – appearing to make up her mind in mid-sentence – “…to do this.”
The second foot lands with a lurch beside the first on the top of the pile.
She’s standing in the refuse. Dumpster diving.
“If I fall in,” she calls, “I know you’ll rescue me.”
As it happens, I’m simply the mule, carrying armfuls of recovered slate to the trunk of the car. We gather forty or fifty of them, maybe more, I lose count quickly.
The slates are beautiful in the way of strong natural materials worked by human beings into a general homogeneity of size and thickness. I realize I have no idea how rock is turned into roof slates. But whole or broken, they have character. They’re all the same “slate gray” color. Their striation patterns are all unique.
We take them home. It’s time to rebuild the garden paths.
Now we have something to walk on.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Learning to Say Borage

It’s late on a Saturday afternoon when friends (well my wife’s brother and his wife, really, but they’ve been good friends for decades) come to look at the garden. It is the middle of November, and I can point to the autumn tones in the remaining foliage.
We walk the leaf-strewn paths until we get close to the vegetable garden.
Oh, she says, you have herbs.
In a little patch formed by sawed-off logs, I have planted some herbs. Oregano is the most faithful, and we still have plenty of pointy green fingers of chives. Do you have rosemary? Well, I cut the rosemary and brought it indoors to dry.
But there’s another plant flourishing here, with half a dozen stalks of good green leaves.
What’s that?
Borage. I pronounce it with heavy start, as it the first syllable were “bore.” Boring age?
She says, wait, I think it’s “bor- ajjh” with the accent on the second syllable.
“Let’s find out,” she says.
She pulls out her iPad. (Or maybe it’s an iPhone. How can you tell?) She tries some instant magic. It doesn’t work.
He pulls out his Ipad, says, Wait. Nothing happens.
We make a few other attempts at pronunciation: “boor-idge” accent on the “boor.” Another version with a heavy “ahddje” at the end.
Suddenly she thinks of something else to do with the machine, a dictionary site, and sure enough, there’s the word. According to the pronunciation marks, it’s a really short “o’ as in ‘or’ and quick ‘ej,’ Slight accent on the first.
On the screen it shows something like: “/bor-ij.”
I practice saying it a few times, but don’t really get the finer phonemes.
“You can pick the leaves for salad greens,” she says.
Now that’s useful. “Oh,” I say, “I’ll do it for a salad tonight.”`
We move on to look at the wasted canes of raspberries, black berries, the low green leaves of strawberries. I say I am putting lime on the strawberries to sweeten the taste.
We go inside. We drink tea, eat scones. Other relatives arrive, a pre-party for the family event on the following day. Anne roasts a chicken.
I forget to pick the borage leafs for salad greens.
I forget how to pronounce borage.
A week goes by, including a couple of nights diving below freezing. I finally remember to go look for “/bor-ij.”
The leaves look fine; I pick a handful. The plant is even trying to flower. The salad is delicious.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Putting the Outdoors Away

I’m never happy when we put the outdoor furnishings away.
Anne and I carry our garden things, chairs and tables, barbecue grill, back into the shed for their dull winter sleep of thingness. A few of them are heavy or awkward. I strain. I bother my back a little by bending rather than lowering my own center of gravity before lifting, as I know I should. The only lasting effect from the experience is the little flourish of bleeding I get from trying to manhandle a black wrought-iron tabletop and running my finger heedlessly into a screw. I feel it later on when I put my fingers on the keyboard.
I’m a little tense about saying goodbye.
Meanwhile the sun comes out, and the garden bleeds fall color. A last few branches of the weeping cherry still wave their half-golden leaves. I’m weeping now, because most of the leaves fell before reaching this color stage – the overall story of this season’s less than perfect de-leaving. The Japanese maple has concentrated its powers into a brilliant deep red, the final stage on this beauty. I’m hoping these leaves hang around for a while. The dogwood is bare, its spotted leaves slunk away like beaten curs after a rain. I look forward to its blood red skeleton riding the winds this winter in a gray and rusty rain.
The slender Rose of Sharon shrubs are holding on to some of their yellow leaves. They’ll disappear soon. What will last longer are the lacy seed heads of the maiden grass, weaving the wind above gold leaves of these same grasses and those of the neighboring northern seat oats. The thick growing seat oats have their own subtler seed heads that turn a nice coppery color, though this year the color is less pronounced than usual.
And what else? The biennial foxgloves are still green, though they just sat around and pretended this year. I’m expecting more next year. A hearty young hydrangea holds both its color and shape.
I’ve clipped and cut and dug and buried. I’ve gathered woody branches and thick stalks and put them into brown so-called “yard waste” bags, sorry that in small spaces like an urban garden these products represent waste to us.
I pulled up my patch of zinnias with sharper regret, along with the remains of my veggie garden,. These flowers couldn’t hold up to a couple of recent cold nights. I miss them on the following run of winsome fall days they would have enjoyed.
Back indoors after putting away the outdoors, the sun breaks through for a few minutes here and there. I peer out the window and see a lot of greens, yellows, reddish oranges and bronzey-browns still in the untrimmed shrubs and the hardy low groundcovers. Dammit, the thing is still beautiful.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Once More, “To Autumn”

So far November and October have changed places. Those beautiful, mellow, warm-hearted autumn days I longed for in October, we have them now.
It’s the side of autumn Keats’ great poem “To Autumn” summed up as “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”
With his “close-bosom friend, the maturing sun,” Autumn conspires:
"To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells."

The bees don’t want to think it’s over, I still saw one today, a yellow-jacket, groveling in the low-lying blooms, and neither do I.
We are creatures of longing.
We long for the sublimely autumnal expressions of our climate, the modulated color tones, golden leaves flowing everywhere, over landscapes both wild and domestic, the year’s final flowers, the scents, the memories, the sense of natural and human satiety. We are fulfilled, we have come through another year, we are well at heart.
All this creates the longing for more life. Sometimes for a different life, or a better one. Sometimes renewal. A time of culminations and closures, autumn, is also a time of beginning. Because now we have to live with our indoor selves all winter.
This year we will remember the sweet, sensual days of the autumn weeks when we’re struggling through days of deep chill and thin light. This year we will remember to count our blessings and figure out how to pick the lock on our memory bank and pull out the beauty of yellow trees and a multi-colored carpet of newly fallen leaves beneath our feet.
Because it’s warm today and easy to linger out of doors and just stare at things, all the living imagery of the garden says “Autumn! Final Days! See it now!” The yellow leaves of the astilbe, the deep red final-stage color of the Japanese maple, the young wiegelia sticking bronzed branches up in the air in front of the older shrub as if waving its hand for attention.
Birds filled the back garden today, for reasons they didn’t share with me. I came outside with my camera, trying to make friends, and succeeded only in pushing them off. A woodpecker started in on a neighbor’s tree. I know this visitor, but I couldn’t spot him because the big hardwoods still have most of their leaves.
I stared upward at the ancestral oak whose leaves turn brown with a touch of maroon, looking a beautiful bronze in Keats’s “maturing sun.”
I am like a squirrel, burying my nuts everywhere. It’s a season to mature our longings and practice making better use of our own harvest of memories.
“Where are the songs of Spring?” Keats’s poem asks. “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.”
Here’s one attempt to catch a few notes:

What the Window Saw

From the window
Or so it seems
The fading Rose of Sharon
Extends a limb
Around the Arborvitae,
Though whether sheltering
Or seeking shelter
The window cannot say

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Solar Collector

On the first day of November I find myself getting in the car and driving toward the sun. I have only the vaguest idea of what my destination should be. The sun is already close enough to the horizon to reach out and hug it, so I won’t have much time to find a place.
I have a dreamy notion that I will find someplace where the sun is still warm and sit in the grass there, warming my flesh, and maybe read a little. This is the sort of thing I have done from time to time throughout my life, generally at this time of year or during the late winter-early spring transition when I am eager for the ground to warm up so I can sit on it.
I head west toward the city golf course. I am looking to find an angle on the setting sun, where there won’t be tall buildings, hills, or a high tree-line between me and sun. I am a solar collector.
It takes only a couple of minutes to satisfy myself that I won’t be able to get into the golf course on the “back” end, which faces the sun and where, I discover with envy, some slopes facing the southwest are still bathed in light. I drive experimentally down a back road but am immediately hemmed in by dead ends.
Abandoning this plan, I find my way back to a bigger road that I know is bounded by neither hills not buildings in its sun-facing direction. I look for places along this route to pull off the road, but I am in too busy a piece of the world here to find quiet, unobserved, semi-public places.
I keep driving, realizing now where I’m heading. It’s only a few minutes away, but I’ve crossed into the next city (Boston, actually), where we’ve found a parking area for a “Greenway” walking path. I park in a quiet place behind an office building, but it’s clear after a few rapid-paced walking that the path heading west will take me into shadows rather than sun. I need a higher spot; a clear perspective.
I run back down the path to the main road, take the sidewalk along it, walk over a bridge and find an unpeopled, semi-abandoned, unofficial-looking marina, with a couple large power boats parked on the earth next to an empty structure. The boats are surrounded by marsh grass turning gold in the setting sun.
I walk into the rough grass, face southwest, stand in the sun, and read most of an article in Sunday’s book review section.
This doesn’t strike even me as normal behavior. I can’t think of anyone else who would do it. But it seems to me that people, being natural beings, sometimes feel a physical craving for direct contact with solar energy. Plants strain toward the sun. I remember that this physical attraction toward a stimulus is called a tropism.
So great is their longing for solar that plants compete with their neighbors to grow tall and get more exposure to the sun. (This growth pattern makes too many of my own plants grow “leggy,” rather than “full.”) They are solar collectors too.
I’m not a very efficient solar collector and can’t power any electric devices (unlike the human batteries in “The Matrix”). But I think filling myself up with sunlight, especially after a period of challenging weather, helps keep me going.
Here’s a photo of a praying mantis clinging to the outdoor light on the front porch. I think he’s trying to store up some solar energy too.