Monday, June 30, 2014

The Garden of Raised Expectations: Here Comes Summer

             Even as the much anticipated three day holiday weekend approaches, it seems to me we're at the season's height already. Summer began officially a week ago, with the longest day. For two weeks in this best of all possible Junes, the weather has been superb, the plants growing, flowers opening. 
          And then today the temperature hits ninety. Considerable humidity as well. Do I imagine the snapping of some immortal fingers somewhere. A change is upon us.
            Suddenly everything needs water.We have to work a little harder to keep the garden looking fresh.
            Let me celebrate what we have been enjoying, before it changes
            When the air is dry, the temperature highs around eighty or high seventies, the plants of this climate are happy. Everybody is good. Nobody's depending on me for heroic measures. The June bloomers are blooming, emitting scent -- roses, lavendar. My yellow friends are all at the beginning of their golden cycle. Evening primrose, stella d'oro day lilies, a flowering chamomile, a low winding groundcover with yellow blossoms running rampant in late June.
            Two other mid-summers majors about to open. Orange native daylilies, the first of them today or yesterday; and Queen Anne's Lace, some of these quite tall this year. The first black-eyed susans opened yesterday also, another iconic summer flower.
            In first of these photos I took last Friday, all with the yellow bloomers mentioned above, an annual hibiscus and a few low roses  provide some contrasting dark red. 
           In the next grouping, it's the purple penstemon blooming, while everything else is standing tall. Among the others, the coreopsis directly behind the penstemon is about to spread its hundreds of tiny yellow suns.
           A close-up of some buttery yellow stella d'oro daylilies.  
           The lavender, in the next photo, is blooming at its height, the best it's looked in a couple of years. I wish it would stay that way all summer.
           The pink Knockout roses are planted in front of the house. Behind them you can see a second round of blue clematis growing against the porch. 
           Finally, a closeup of the clematis.
           Everything in season seems to be saying, 'Enjoy it now. This is as well as we can do.' And prepare to roll with the changes.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Nothing As Useless As an Old TV

            In the midst of a heart-stopping run of beautiful days -- true June blue -- we decide to replace our decades-old television with a flat screen TV. Apparently our son has been waiting for us to do this for years.  
            I will thoughtfully omit the technical details of this operation because I don't understand them. Needless to say, we would never have accomplished this transaction without our son's assistance. And naturally, in the American consumer way, we had to convince ourselves we were buying something new to save ourselves some money.
            When the new device was up and running,we put the old TV out on the curb for the city garbage pick-up, or anyone else so minded, to take it away. That was easier said than done. Old TVs, that is to say all TVs before the beginning of the flat screen era, are astonishingly heavy. It took both of us to carry it out the front door and down the stairs without breaking anything else we owned or any part of us. Once it hit the curb, we were never going to touch it again.
            We put it out on a Sunday. It was still there Wednesday morning when the garbage trucks began rolling through the streets. Evidently the single object that no one in Quincy can find a use for, even for parts, or for scrap, is a heavy old TV.
            We have a rich history of citizen-initiated curbstone recycling in this city. Any number of ridiculous old objects, worn-out appliances, failed purchases are put out on the street. And quickly disappear. Anne says, just put it out on the street. I say, no one will want it, the garbage truck won't even take it. She wins; I drag it out. We turn out backs: gone.
            Sometimes the delivery man bringing something new takes away something something old completely unrelated to his business. An over-sized barbecue grill went away like that. I think the reason is they can't stand having an empty truck.... A year ago I lugged an air conditioner, as old and heavy as you can imagine and even more junky, outdoors on trash night and even before I put it down on the pavement a car had stopped in the middle of the street and a man and women were getting out to pick up my junk and make it their junk, for some obscure financial benefit.
            "You know it doesn't work," I said.
            "We still want it," the woman replied, in a reassuring tone.
            But this time was different. The TV sat there, an increasingly embarrassed expression spreading over its empty screen in light of its conspicuous lack popularity with the city's junk gleaners.
            Then, absurdly, Tuesday night, the night garbage goes out around here for the Wednesday pickup, someone put an old, heavy, box TV on the curb of the opposite side of the street directly across from ours. The two discarded TVs, identical in size and shape, faced one another.
            This could only be explained to me as an episode in one of those "joke-on-the-unsuspecting-public" TV shows. The script writers set up some absurd, or physically impossible, action/scene/phenomenon in a public place captured by a hidden camera. You're waiting for a bus, say -- an ordinary, jaded, seen-it-all urban dweller -- when the bench begins talking (or emitting rude noises). A balloon follows a child down the street, repeatedly bumping him on the back of the head. A clown jumps out of hiding and chases the ice-cream man into a fast-food joint and all the counter help stops and stares while they have a food fight with ketchup squeeze bottles. Meanwhile the hidden camera captures the spectators' troubled reactions. The man at the bus stop pretends not to notice. A woman double-takes and makes a face, unable to get over her ill-concealed shock -- why are the clown and the ice cream man having a food fight why she's trying to drink her coffee? A young teenager rushes off to call 911.
            So, as the expression goes, I kept looking for the hidden camera.
            But no, no comic development takes place. Then I feared the next time I looked out the window the number of TVs would have doubled again, old sets lined up in front of every house on the street. I suspected the televisions might begin broadcasting clashing TV programs at high volume. It would be as bad as an airport.
            But nothing. The two unwanted technically obsolete entertainment devices -- mere carcasses of their former selves -- remained on opposite sides of the street, awaiting their fate.
            Then early the next morning one, but not both, of the TVs was gone. I notice the absence of the 'other' TV, the one across the street, before I've even had my coffee. Thank goodness, I think, but when I look for ours, it's still there, distressingly larger than life.
Now I'm sure it's a practical joke. Maybe I imagined the whole thing: the old TVs are trying to drive us crazy. Eventually I realize that quite a lot of garbage has been picked up on the opposite side of the street, but rather less on our side.The tension builds during the afternoon: are they still coming for us or is my useless consumer artifact being left behind because I omitted some bureaucratic nicety?
            Around four thirty p.m. the recycling truck finally reaches our side of the street. I watch as a sanitation engineer snaps the white elephant up like a pizza box and tosses it into what appears to be a specially created basin for old TVs. It seems a lot of these old entertainment units are hitting the street.
            Is there anything of value in an old TV? You can't prove it by me.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Garden of Solar Desire: Can You Have Too Many Good Days?

             Everything is perfect (though, of course, it won't stay that way). But for now, in the garden as is life, everything is as good as it gets, and basically that's very, very good after nine beautiful days in a row, all of them either mostly clear and dry or completely clear and dry, and some of them, such as yesterday (June 22) completely stunning.
            All that solar energy is growing the little green tomatoes on the tomato plants in that epitome of the annual growing season, the vegetable garden. All the rest of the veggie plans are at least refraining from wilting or otherwise sickening dramatically -- or, as happens here too often for my liking, suffering from low-key failure to thrive. Basil, generally my most reliable good citizen, is lagging, and if that continues I may have to recruit some new prospects from the farm leagues.
            Among the perennials, the late June "yellow period" is starting to take over the back garden. Key performers are the yellow primrose, descendants of the flowers rescued from my mother's garden and shared with me by my sister, Gwen. Other yellows are the yellow stella d'oro daylilies, a flowering chammomile, and a creeping groundcover (that sometimes speeds up into full dash) with buttercup-like flowers.
            The rose period that had been dominating the month up until a few days ago, is still going strong. But roses, particularly the old-fashioned deep red sort of song and story... (and which in my opinion look a lot better on the vine than they do clipped and wrapped in plastic and presented on special occasions)... do fade. Some of ours on the old vines we inherited and resurrected on this property are fading. Others still coming on.
            The bigger point is that it's fun to be around your plants when they're doing good and, if I may be allowed this anthropomorphism, feeling good. You can tell they are feeling good (granted, in a plant-like way) and healthy because they have that shiny look on the foliage and the upward slant of their stems and flower spikes. Plant species are all different, but when they're happy and they know it they seem to do their own form of clapping their hands.
            Bushes are bushier. The red spirea is bursting its buttons once again and overrunning the bick walk. Since we're at the height for many species, it's actually time to cut back many of the plants that have passed theirs, so the next act can come on and strut its stuff: astilbe, spirea, day lilies, purple penstemon, coreopsis, loosesrife, achillea... And you can already see the next team lining up behind them.
            While I'm relying on "feelings" to tell me that nature is feeling good, I recently got got another clue on the nature of universal reality from the family meteorologist, Dave Eichorn. That lingering sensation of being on top of the world has some astronomical validity.
            As Dave explained, we linger on the long side of the earth's revolution in the northern hemisphere's summer. The earth's revolution is not completely uniform, I am told. Concurrently with the time of the year when the earth's axis tips the northern hemisphere directly toward sun -- our mid-summer -- its revolution bulges a little beyond the dimensions of a perfect circle. We're on the bulge now, the period of the earth's revolution that takes us a little bit farther from the sun, and the farther we are from the sun the slower we move (that's Newtonian mechanics)... So we get a few more days of being close to the summer solstice than we have on the opposite side of the year, the winder solstice. Lucky us.
            The fun will last a little longer. The weather will change and perfection will fade, of course. Every creature under the sun  -- every dweller in time -- does its thing, then goes away. Slowly, in the case of some some of us larger creatures.
            But right now we're at the peak.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Garden of Stories: "The Orphans of Race Point" by Patry Francis

            "I was never not a writer," novelist Patry Francis said last week. She was speaking about her new book, "The Orphans of Race Point," at the Duxbury town library.     
            Growing up in Brockton, a down-at-the-heels Massachusetts mill town, Francis recalled visiting the city's only bookstore, a used book shop with the smell of old paper. "Someone told me it was a front for a bookie," she said. To get there, she had to walk underneath a bridge, a dark, unpleasant place with an unsavory reputation. But then she'd hunt through the piles of books and go away delighted with a fifty-cents "prize."
            Her father, who had had a difficult life that he survived in part by humor, "regaled" people with his stories. The laughter at the end told him he had succeeded.
            And the laughter taught her that a storyteller had "a responsibility to entertain."
            She learned about people from family stories, Francis said. She listened to the older members of the family, seeking all the details about the people they remembered and talked about.
            "I became a family historian," Francis said. "Begging for old stories. We learn from these stories." Our lives are enlarged.
            But stories from life don't get chopped up into ingredients for fiction, like vegetables for a soup. Real life feeds our minds, our imaginations, but all we can say about the stories the novelist tells is they come somewhere inside. Francis said she doesn't draw her stories "from life."
            "I wanted to write about connectedness," Francis said at the library talk. Also faith, relationship, hard work, hardship.
            Ideas like this raise the interesting, not obvious question, of what a novel is "about."
            The natural tendency, even in review journals, is to give a capsule summary of a book's plot. The book is about (we are told) so-and-so who suffers a blow, or falls in love, or finds him or herself thrown into one sort of crisis or another because of this, that, or the other thing. Well, yes... and no.
            My attempt to describe "The Orphans of Race Point" -- without too many spoilers -- would go something like this. The daughter of a beloved doctor, a beloved authority figure in a close-knit ethnic community, is drawn while still a child to the victim of a domestic violence tragedy. Nine-year-old Gus Silva has retreated into silence after witnessing the death of his mother at the hands of his father. Hallie Costa's goodness and determination -- she invades his solitude to read him "David Copperfield"-- helps Gus recover and grow into a paragon of compassion. The adult Gus becomes a magnet for both hale and sickly psyches, and eventually he is victimized again by a cruel conspiracy involving a victim of domestic abuse and the evil desire to bring a good man down. Once more Hallie and a now growing, but highly unconventional "family" refuse to give up on him.
            So does this summary of what the novel is 'about' explain what kept me up late reading because I had to find out what was going to happen to the characters? What made me feel that this book had heart in it?
            Her book is about "everything," Francis said.
            Other people write stories that are "a perfect pond," she said. "I write about the ocean... It's messy."

P.S. Here's the link to the newspaper story I wrote about the summer books festival in Duxbury, Mass. Patry Francis was their first author.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Garden of Memory: Father's Day Gifts

The photo at the top of page is a Father's Day gift from Patty Surprenant, who recently paid us a visit. She's the youngest person in the picture; posed between Anne and me. I don't know the exact date of the photo, but from Patty's recollection, it's over thirty years old.
            There's no simple way to describe our relationship to Patty. Way back in the days when everybody was still skinny, Anne and I were hired to be house parents in a therapeutic milieu program for adolescent girls. The four girls in the house were no longer able to live with their own parents for various reasons. We were the subs. We lived all together as an ad hoc nuclear family suburban style in Lexington, Mass. Our daughter Sonya was a toddler when we moved in; Patty and a couple of girls were already living there. In the nature of things we got close, lived close, learned a lot about each other, endured trials and tribulations.
            Patty is a remarkable human being today. Seeing her recently made me feel good about the two years we spent as house parents. I was going to graduate school at the time, reading Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Austen and Joyce. But real life in 'the house' was teaching me things as well; sometimes more important things.
            Since Sunday was not only Father's Day, but Sonya's birthday, we took a walk in the Arnold Arboretum, where we were likely to see mountain laurel. Sonya, the first of our two children, was born on June 15. About a week before her birth, Anne joined me (for reasons not easily explained) on a walk up a mountain trail near our house in the Pioneer Valley. The wild laurel -- the flowers look like wedding cake decorations, spun sugar, white with pink coverings that fade when the flowers open -- was blooming all along the path we climbed.
            When Sonya was born a week later, hurried into the world perhaps by her mother's strenuous, though stately outing -- the 'Mountain Laurel Progress,' to name it in the manner of royal excursions -- some of the flowers we had picked that day were still in the house, waiting in a vase (on top of the space heater, Anne recalls) when mother and baby returned from the hospital. So laurel flowers have always been associated with Sonya's birthday for us.
            We spoke to both Sonya and Saul on the phone today. We have long-distance children; hearing their voices is always a gift.
            It was a beautiful day -- blue, green, and flowerful. So many gifts.