Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Cherry Tree Snack Bar

            For the last couple of springs now, part of my seasonal ritual is sitting at my desk and watching birds tear off the white blossoms on the weeping cherry tree in the back garden. In a few days the birds virtually denude the tree of blossoms.
             Are they eating them? If so, why discard them so quickly? As I watch, the white blossoms litter the ground beneath the tree.
            My first hunch was that they were pulling the blossoms off to expose what they're really after. An early season infestation of caterpillars? The twig ends where the cherries will grow? -- if there were cherries. Since this is an ornamental I've never seen more than two or three small hard berries on the tree that a hungry animal might mistake for a cherry. I've seen bluejays apparently try to eat them in late summer; peck them at least. They don't pull off the tree easily. And surely there are no berries in spring.
            In other years, during the period of short warm winters (we had the last, I believe, only two years ago), the caterpillars were thick on our trees. I saw them drop from the big overhanging oak tree (if the cherry tree is a pleasant little Quincy hill, the oak is Mount Rushmore) onto the wands of the cherry tree. The holes appeared in the leaves almost immediately. But even in the warmest spring the caterpillars don't invade until May.
            When their numbers started to bother me, I sprayed them with a biological agent. Some years the tree's leaves were eaten so significantly in early spring the tree grew new leaves. But you'd be hard put to find a caterpillar anywhere in New England this week. It's too cold. If they survived the winter in any form -- eggs? -- they'd likely know enough to wait longer to increase the chance of surviving to adult stage -- gypsy moth, tent caterpillar or December moth -- before taking on the world.
            Birds however, at least many of them, are all-weather creatures. I hear them singing if I open the kitchen door long enough to take in the newspaper. When i go outdoors to rake in the cold, their spring song, or mating call, fills the airwaves. I stop and stare up into the bare trees, but they're hiding on me this year. They own the heavens; my eyes are just a visitor. I think the low temperatures are dulling my vision. It's definitely too gray to feel the urge to take pictures.
            Back to the case of the beak-ravished cherry blossoms.
            After talking to Anne -- "You're right," she said, after staring out the window, "all these birds are on the tree and they're pulling off the blossoms"; like, was I making it up? -- I gave in to my curiosity and Googled the subject.
            I wrote something like "Why are the birds eating my cherry blossoms?" and got pages of  responses.  
            The internet of course is always enthusiastic, even when not particularly informative.
            As I clicked through these, almost none of the responses came from scientific organizations -- nothing the professional bird people, or plant people. However I was offered a feast of opinionating from the sort of blog that invites you to ask a question and then wait for the commentary, useful or not, to roll in. Lots of folks, it turns out, want to share their cherry tree stories. (So here I am adding another one.)
            The most authoritative sounding of these came from a blogger who sourced her info to the the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. It turns out, this site reported, that blossoms are "highly nutritious. According to the Georgia DNR some experts believe that the flowers have even more food value than buds."
            Another plant query "chat" site reported the same problem, a witness testifying that "house finches were eating the newly opened flowers" on his cherry tree. "They were just nipping out the sweet nectary part of the flower and dropping the rest of it on the ground. The ground under the cherry tree was covered with blossoms when the finches were around."
            This nipping and dropping sounds like an accurate portrayal of the phenomenon I've been watching.
            The solution came, this source noted, when the crows began replacing the finches on his property.
            Crows? No thanks. That sounds to me like the solution was worse than the problem.
            Finches are small, colorful birds that hang around your bird feeder all winter and sing in their seasons. A small platoon of them recently hung out on our front porch on the rainy day (photo at left) -- a sort of company on a gloomy Saturday afternoon.
            While a bright spot in early spring, cherry blossoms don't last very long even if the birds leave them alone. I'm glad the blossoms' nectar is going to feed another life form. 
            I am, however,hoping some other plant or colony of flowering groundcover steps up to provide some color. If the sun ever dopes come out again, I need something to take a picture of.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Shakespeare's Birthday: Celebrating a New Troupe and a New Theater

            The Bay Colony Shakespeare Company celebrated its first year by putting on a Shakespeare variety show last weekend with music, singing, laughter, soliloquoys, death scenes, and a few grand tragical passions.
            The new regional theater company began as a collaboration between two strong professional actors who happen to live on the South Shore, Neil McGarry and Ross MacDonald. A company of talented young and middle years actors appears to have sprung up around them. This summer they will perform three plays in repertory in the new performing arts center in downtown Plymouth; a repurposed church called The Spire. If you've got a huge tower on Main Street, might as well flaunt it.
            My wife and I lived a long time in Plymouth Center before moving a decade ago to get closer to Boston. We didn't see a lot of theater there and seldom caught a whiff of Shakespeare (though occasionally local affairs brought to mind canonical titles such as "Much Ado About Nothing" or "A Comedy of Errors"). So the prospect of serious theater in downtown Plymouth strikes me as a major step up.
            Saturday night's gala showed off the talents of a lot of the company's performers, with MacDonald and McGarry taking a couple turns in memorable moments from the playwright's ouevre, but leaving plenty of stage for the others. Young Ross Magnant played a compelling Hamlet (a role taken by McGarry in the company's first "Hamlet" last summer; it's on this year's bill as well) to Elizabeth Hartford's Ophelia in the "Get thee to a nunnery!" 'mad' scene. A quartet of young ladies sang "Sign No More" (from "Much Ado," also on the docket this summer). Tom Grenon performed the "If you prickest me do I not bleed?" soliloquy from "Merchant of Venice." James Bocock spoke the Romeo side of the famous tomb scene in "R&J."
            With old tomes on the stage about her Poornima Kirby performed a scene from "Doctor Faustus," which to my knowledge Shakespeare did not write. McGarry spoke a speech from "Sir Thomas Moore" -- the single page, McGarry told us, that Shakespeare penned in that collaboration. The speech is an apposite warning against the jingoistic urge to banish foreigners (or 'strangers' in 17th century vernacular) from your land. How would you like to be in their shoes? Moore asks in effect.
            Meredith Stypinski sang the opening verse to "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" though I wish she'd been given scope to do the rest of this highly amusing take on the Shakespeare curriculum from the Cole Porter musical comedy "Kiss Me Kate." Stypinski and Cameron Gosselin then gave a rousing pas de deux from "Taming of the Shrew."
            MacDonald tore up the hall in the murder scene from "the Scottish play" (as McGarry referred to it) with Erica Simpson as his cold-blooded Lady. He also performed the prison soliloquy from "Richard II," delivering high intensity readings in both these famously demanding roles.
            Then McGarry and Poornima Kirby took on one of my favorite scenes in the whole canon, the crucial dialogue in "Much Ado About Nothing" between the sparring partners Beatrice and Benedick in which they confess their love -- previously cast as mocking rivalry -- but only after Beatrice rages over the injustice done to her friend and utters a wish that someone would stand up for her honor by challenging her accusor. If I were a man, she says, "I would eat his heart in the market place." At this point Benedick considers all that's at stake and when he decides to cowboy up, things suddenly get very real between them.
            Three plays this summer: Macbeth, Much Ado, and Hamlet. I can't wait.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

April: Back to the Beginning

            Going  back to the beginnings. I pick the brown, dried leaves off the plants, rake the dried-up ground, looking for signs of life. The day, a Saturday, grows warm. Anne and I take on the front yard. I find the green leaves of the tiny crocus plants, but if they flowered when we were off on our vacation trip, if they flowered at all, and the blooms they have vanished without a trace now. I clear the leaves from a cluster of tulips but the teeth of the rake tangle with the new green and tear off a flower stem: one tulip we will never see this year.
            The signs an extra-long winter; the body count is high. I try to remember what's missing.
            Some hyacinths, with pink and white flowers, emerge from under the line of boxwood shrubs along the sidewalk. Some color at last. I remind myself I have some new ones to plant there; the area needs perking up. Spring needs brightening. It feels to me that the first wave, the avant garde, has been decimated. The next wave is tulips and vinca; it will get better. Besides, I had half of April in Lebanon; not a fair comparison.
            On the strip of earth between the sidewalk and the street, I rake carefully looking for green growth to jar my memory. What did I put there? Green fingers groping among the dead leaves, a slight fuzz on their surface. Ah yes, it comes back to me. Last fall I transplanted some blacked-eyed susans into a rough-weedy patch. I am an opportunity gardener, and the opportunity came when these bold volunteer perennials, seeded by a previous generation, planted themselves in the minute creases of space between bricks in the back garden walks. It was a challenge merely to remove them with some remnant of root stringing along behind the fuzzy leaves and stem.
            I planted them into a spot I usually abandon to the volunteers of the wild weed kingdom of Quincy -- weeds, the world's most reliable survivors -- because it's the place where the trash barrels and their tops inevitably end up ever the garbage men are through tossing them. Some of these transplants took and put out their happy-faced yellow flowers with dark "eyes" in the center before winter closed in. Trash cans landed on them anyway. So, I thought, let's see how they measure up against the toughest competitors the city has to offer: garbage men and weeds. Some appear to be back.
            This is how we start out each year. Life crawling out of the primordial ooze. Bare earth, twists of root, scraps of litter, brief flashes of early bloom, twigs, broken branches and other remains of last year's plant materials. A slow start; a desperate hunger; the world needs greening.
            It will come. Day by day we see it. The green will overtake the brown. We're the observers. We work around the edges of things. We clear up the waste.
            Living things with the deepest roots, it seems to me, keep the truest time. Trees are blossoming, just when they should. The weeping cherry tree whitens in its season. All else will follow.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

'Emergency Cinema': Films of Syria by Syrians

            Abounaddara is "the nickname for a man with glasses," according to the group of Syrian filmmakers by that name (see who produce short films each Friday on life in Syria today. They call what they do "Emergency Cinema." 
           The Abounaddara name stems from the Arab tradition of identifying people by something that relates to their profession. The group cites the precedent of a Syrian film and video pioneer who called himself "the man with the camera." On its site, Abounaddara says its first love is for short and documentary films, that the group is part of "the world republic of documentary cinema," and that members are interested in stories of everyday life.
             We saw a selection of Abounaddara's films, stitched together for an hour-long program, in a "video festival" in Beirut ten days ago. A couple days later we saw some more of these films at the American University of Beirut, an English-speaking institution, in a program that included a Q&A with a member of the group. I found the films in both programs very powerful.

         (I found some of the films we saw in Beirut posted on the group's Facebook page, but subtitled in French --fine in the Syrian context, but harder for Americans. You can also see some other films of ordinary life in Syria on on its website; click on the pictures on the home page and then choose "English subtitles.") 
            Here are a few recollected images from the films we saw.
            Masses of people pour from mosques to gather in the street for large demonstrations, everyone chanting slogans that called for the end of Syria's authoritarian, police-state regime led by dictator Bashar Assad, the son of the Hafiz Assad, the country's dictator/president from 1971 to 2000. Assad's 'party' has been power since 1963. This is the background for the demonstrators' cry "The people want the regime to fall."
            The revolutionary formula "the people want --" echoed the cries of the Arab spring three years ago when nonviolent popular uprisings against undemocratic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia overthrew rulers there. In Libya, when demonstrators were brutally attacked by Quaddafi's government and took up arms, America and its allies backed the rebels, knocked out Quaddafi's air force, and provided other aid. The rebellion succeeded.
            When rebellion spread to Syria in 2011, the Assad regime sent snipers and paramilitary thugs to kill demonstrators and terrorize the areas that supported them. As in Libya some of those who wanted change -- certainly a majority of Syrians favored a democratic replacement for the Assad dictatorship -- felt compelled to take up arms.
            This time the US and its western allies, for a variety of reasons -- the cost of intervention; the fear of adding fuel to the fire; concern about the potential recipients of US arms -- decided to let the rebels go it alone even though the government had the heavy weapons and the airplanes, military supplies for the dictatorship continued to flow in from Russia, and it was clear from the start that the toll of the fighting on the civilian population would be very great.
            The film, to be clear, doesn't "say" any of these things. It shows the demonstrators flooding the streets. 
            In another film we hear gunfire and some screams. In one segment we see a crowd of people digging a child out of a mountain of wreckage and churned up earth from bombed buildings. But the film collective made the decision (as we learned from its representative at the AUB program) not to show violence and murdered bodies because the international media coverage of the violence in their country -- the massacres, the outrages, the body count -- threatened to desensitize the world to the concrete human realities of the "emergency."
            To Abounaddara, the representative told us, the non-stop emphasis on bloodshed, he said, cannot help but distort the picture.  However -- and from an aesthetic point of view you can argue that this approach is more effective than pictures of the dead -- in group's films ordinary Syrians speak very bluntly about that human cost of three years of violence between the regime's backers and the rebels.
            We see (and hear) a boy of about ten living in a tent tell the camera about the people killed in a government bombing of his neighborhood. There was another boy, the child says, not his friend -- more his brother's friend -- but someone he knew a little, who couldn't be found and was believed dead. Then (our child informant tells us) searchers climbed the roof of a building and found the boy's head. So they buried his head.
            Our child witness recounts some other details of the destruction as well in a voice and manner of a child anywhere with something interesting to tell, and with a certain childlike fascination for the grotesque, rather than as a traumatized, stunned, desensitized or even distraught victim. He's not a ghoul or a martyr or a saint -- he's just a kid. He pays attention to what's going on. What's going on is horrific, but he's alive and living the life he has.
            In another film, a rebel fighter recounts his decision to leave the Free Syrian Army, the largest secular rebel group. The first goal of the Free Syrian Army is to protect civilians, the Syrian people, our soldier-witness says. But the army unit he was part of made decisions that in his opinion left civilians exposed to violence in order to pursue other goals. It nagged him; he talked about his bad conscience to other soldiers, and together they made the decision to "turn in our rifles" and leave the Army. They went home. Now, he says, "I do nothing." He's not happy about his current status, but not willing to pick up a gun again either. He's Everyman faced with impossible choices.
            We see and hear a grand cleric offer a nuanced explanation of how the demonstrators against the regime were driven to rebellion. So do you support the rebellion? an off-camera voice asks him. His reply is beautifully phrased and completely (laughably) evasive.
             We watch a spokesman of one of the extremist groups that have entered the war with the goal of establishing a "religious" regime give a PR speech. He mentions the "hypothetical" possibility of creating an "Islamic state" -- and the filmmaker is unable to suppress a yuck. The laugh makes the film.
            Some of the films shown at the AUB program were perhaps even more powerful. A woman in conservative, traditional dress -- very common in Syria -- says to the camera that when she asked at one of the government offices to see her son, a body is produced. "They let me see only his feet -- only his feet!" she says and breaks into uncontrollable sobs.
            A man seen in shadows recalls obsessively, with frequent repetitions of the central point, "and then I cut his throat." He had enlisted in the rebellion for good reasons, he tells the camera. "But that didn't give me the right to cut his throat." 
            He says, "I don't know why I did it."
            The Abounaddara representative said his collective was originally formed, back in 2010 before the Arab Spring, to counter the almost wholly negative images of Syria that appeared in worldwide media. Syrians have the same aspirations as the rest of us, the collective believed: they're facing predicaments peculiar to their past and present; here's how they live. This founding premise provides some context for their decision not to show images of violence while continuing to explore real life for real people.
            When questioners posed questions about the "war" in Syria, the group's representative replied that they still think of what's happening in their country as "the revolution." I so hope they're right.
            The atmosphere of the very first, wholly unexpected short film screened at AUB stays with me still. In a nightclub somewhere, a local band is performing a cover of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall," the rock song with the chorus "Leave them kids alone!" The audience, all standing, all young, not looking at all 'traditional,' and probably consisting of middle-class, secular, privileged, Western-oriented kids, are visibly quivering with emotion, shaking and bellowing all of the song's lyrics along with the band -- the most authentically Dionysian gathering this aging hippie has observed in years. "We don't need no thought control!" the kids scream. "Teachers! leave them kids alone!"
            In the context of Bashar Assad's Syria this cry for freedom struck me as the most natural emotion in the world, and its expression a pure, ecstatic and joyful release.
            I hope the Syrian young get the freedom they want; and, like the rest of us, learn that youthful rebellion is not enough. But, so far, no one is willing to help them. I still hope that will change.   
            Revolutions, like human nature, like spring, get quashed in some places at some time. But inevitably they spring up again. Putin, Chinese communist dictators, North Korean nutcases, wacko anti-women American legislators -- pay attention. You're all on the list: Leave the people alone.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Old Poets Never Die

I'll be reading my poetry, for about 10 minutes, in a poetry program at Plymouth Library Tuesday night (4/22, beginning 7 p.m.). The program consists of 7 Plymouth area poets plus me, grandfathered in because I used to live in Plymouth. I published poetry a long time ago in my pre-newspaper Boston-Cambridge youth and gave readings with my "group." But I won't be reading any of the old stuff. I'll read a few recently written pieces.
    Here's the program description from Plymouth Public Library and the list of readers:

"Local Plymouth Poet Read-A-thon at the Plymouth Public Library
On Tuesday, April 22nd at 7 PM you are invited to meet and greet local Plymouth area poets reading from their repertoire of works. The Plymouth Public Library wants to celebrate our local poets and give the public an opportunity to mingle with the talent in our community. This program will be held in the Otto Fehlow Meeting Room, Plymouth Public Library, 132 South Street, Plymouth, MA.
Poets scheduled to read at this event include Barbara Siegel Carlson from Fire Road, published by Dream House Press, as well as Look Back, Look Ahead, by Srecko Kosovel, a translation from Slovene; Chuck Harper from Fragments, published March 2014; Robert Knox who is a correspondent for the Boston Globe and an avid poet; Rona Laban will read selections of her poetry from Making Waves and Voices from Everywhere, two poetry anthologies; Ellen Jane Powers from Celestial Navigation, published by Cherry Grove Collections and chapbook, Toward the Beloved from Finishing Line Press; Dolores Stewart Riccio will read from Doors to the Universe and The Nature of Things, two collections published by Bellowing Ark Press; and Lisa Donna Sampson, will read Chemistry Lessons at the Beginning of Life from Tupelo Press 30/30 chapbook, 2014.
There will be a book signing at the conclusion of the program for those poets with published works as well as time to speak with the poets and get inspired, as the Plymouth Public Library celebrates National Poetry Month!
This program is sponsored by the Plymouth Public Library Corporation and is free with no registration required. The library is fully accessible; please let us know if you need special accommodations to attend. For further information, please contact Jennifer Harris at 508-830-4250//TTY 508-747-5882 or visit our website at for a calendar of our events."

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Back to Good Old English: Soaring Performances in "Osage County"

            Something about an airplane ride calls for a movie. Maybe it's sitting confined in a small place for a long time with a tiny screen staring at you from the back of the seat in front of you. Among hundreds of strangers. Wondering if the flight attendant will return with another bottle of good red wine.
            Anyway, on offer (as the Brits say) was "August: Osage County." With many A-list Hollywood actors including one who in my opinion shines every moment he's on screen, Chris Cooper. No doubt I'm biased, since he lives in Massachusetts near Plymouth, where we used to live. And maybe because he comes from the part of the country, Kansas City, close to the film's Oklahoma setting -- the "Great Plains" as the film calls it -- or maybe it's just because he's an incredible actor.... but every scene in which it appears feels like the god of wisdom -- in the form of some execcedingly practical, decent, Plains-man, foot-on-the-ground sort of guy -- has arrived on a troubled scene to speak sense, or express compassion, or decency, or just generally do the right thing. Does just being good to one another, his character (Uncle Charlie) asks in "Osage County," have to be so hard?
            Anyway, whether staying put out of necessity (on an airplane) or choice (in a theater), seeing the movie rewards your time with interest. It's a hugely compelling piece. Some critics say they liked the Broadway play on which it was based better; that the work remains essentially a filmed play rather than a film, and the movie does limit itself to a few changes of scene. But this narrowed focus comes as a relief to those of us who care more about language and character than explosions and chase scenes. My wife Anne, who found the film first, said it had more language in it than any movie we're likely to see, and after spending a few weeks in Francophone and Arabic-speaking countries, hearing so much English so well spoken was balm to my ears.  
            The action takes place a few settings. The family home, several rooms in a big house on the plains. Some encounters in the house yard outdoors, a few car scenes. By not dashing around, the movie keeps our attenion where it wants it. It stays on point, gets up close to the characters and lets them do what they have to do. It's an actors' film. A feast of talk, barbed though much of it is.
            And after enduring hours of incomprehensible announcements in the Paris airport -- and having recently taken the intemperate step of walking out of a should-be-interesting academic program in Lebanon's English-speaking university because the two speakers (one, a Syrian, doing his best) were murdering the English language -- even listening to Julia  Roberts wield the f-word to strong effect was a sweet relief. It's also a relief that Roberts isn't required to play "beautiful" in this film, her best acting job I've seen. She gives a moving, rawly emotional performance as an often unlikable woman who's being left by her husband for a younger woman. So, yeah, she's suffering and she has inherited her mother's wicked mouth.
            Her 'daddy's favorite daughter' character stands up to her physically ill and mentally cruel mother's bullying even as she fails to keep her own family together, impatient with her insufferable-adolescent daughter, undercutting her insecure husband. When she says to her husband "You're not ever coming back to me, are you" -- wait a beat -- "And I'm never going to understand why, am I?" you want to cry for the sheer painful truth of the moment. You don't want to be there, but you're moved. Ordinarily, people don't recognize these kinds of truths; and if they should happen to realize them, they don't say them.
            That's why we need theater and film.
            Meryl Streep is riveting, no surprise, in the part of the scorched-earth, nothing-left-to-lose mother. Her character is even more unlikable since her cancer, drug use, and rigid bigotted personality often render her as Mrs. Nasty among the pygmies in the family dynamic scenes -- these are the clips shown in the trailer -- but the depth and subtlety of her character need the full arc of the story to reveal her strength and intelligence. At the end she reminds us of the much "softer" addict-mother in O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."
            Pretty much everything is awful in this story of the unraveling of this family dynamic -- it's no spoiler to say that Streep's husband, an alcoholic has-been poet, disappears causing the family gathering and is found dead as an apparent suicide victim: that's what the trailer shows -- but when in a parallel, connected plot a second family starts to come apart, Cooper's  'Charlie' has a final chance to speak up for love, compassion, doing the right thing in protecting his son from his own wife's abusive tongue.
            Charlie is an ordinary guy, he drinks beer and watches the game. His wife (another great character role) brings the showy fun to her fat lady middle-American -- but his presence lends the ballast to film's flights of destructions.
            The film kept me flying right as well. Far above the Atlantic.
            When it was over I thought, 'thank goodness, something to get me over the hump.' Only four hours left to Logan.