Monday, May 25, 2015

'There's Something I Want You to Do': Tales from the Story Garden

            In the short story collection by Charles Baxter, "There's Something I Want You to Do," stories interconnect, but not in the sense of tying up loose ends. Loose ends are everywhere, like the fraying fabric of the human world, which is everywhere knitting itself up and pulling itself apart.
            The setting is Minneapolis, where people cross bridges over the Mississippi and walk along its banks. In one of the collection's opening stories a man with a Japanese name comes upon a woman who climbs over the railing to stand above the river -- and do what? He thinks he must intervene. Things develop from there, though not smoothly. He breaks up with a long-distance girl friend. His bridge-lady eventually tells him her real name, plays the piano for him not quite professionally, won't let him kiss her, but eventually agrees to marry him. What was the bridge episode about? Is the marriage a success? Not all the riddles are ever answered.
            We have already met the doctor friend of the man with a Japanese man (who doesn't "look Japanese" to other Americans). The author depicts him as a perfectly lovely and loving man, a devoted pediatrician snared by the young woman who sets her cap for him; but after she gives birth to their perfect, wonderful child (the number of births, marriages and divorces in these stories testify to the author's goal of depicting the 'whole of life'), she suddenly develops what appears to be a wholly irrational opposition to her husband's holding their child. He's mine, she seems to say. You have the rest of the world's babies. Why does she do this? Some evil compulsion? Are we heading toward a new take on 'Rosemary's Baby'? No such worry. Nothing that fantastic happens in Baxter's frankly realistic, middle-class American world, a world quite like our own, but gnarled with little oddities whose origin, or meaning, are never exactly explained.
            Does this disturbing fixation on the part of the pediatrician's wife undermine their relationship? We don't know. But in subsequent stories, the good, humanity-loving doctor's life-satisfaction score goes downhill -- he grows sad and obese -- though whether this early glitch in his married life is responsible is left to us to decide.
            Among the other stars in Baxter's firmament we can't forget Wes, yet another good, loving  man, but a fixer, not an intellectual. This entire stretch of the Midwest -- a region his characters frequently reproach for being bland, superficial, root-bound; a standard complaint -- is peopled by good men and sympathetic women. Yet nobody is getting off easy. On the surface Wes's predicament is the most challenging, and potentially interesting, of all the book's characters. He is raising a son by his first marriage (after his wife ran away) with his second wife along with their younger daughter when the first wife, Corinne calls up out of the blue and asks him to pick her up at the bus station. Oh my god, he thinks when he sees her; my ex-wife has become a bag lady.
            One reviewer, whose piece in The New York Review of Books convinced me find this book, contends that Wes actually loves this first wife more than the second precisely because her inability to take care of herself summons the nurturing side of his humanity. In fact, the story does not actually say this, but the situation the author places Wes and his new family in is a fertile one. How does he cope? How do the other family members cope when Wes finds no alternative to taking this helpless woman into his household?
            We see this dynamic in a later story, but this tale centers not on Wes, but on his mother, who also lives in his home. A deeply religious and orthodox Christian, she sees Corinne as God's way of providing someone who, despite her inability to take care of herself, will care for her in her last years. The mother may be the most convincing character in the book, her personality consistent with her world view, her religious interpretation of life presented without any authorial commentary or undermining by her story's events.
            But Wes's mother is bookended by another orthodox, but more evangelical believer whose crude rigidity of mind strikes me as a mistep. Remember our pediatrician friend? Now a fat middle-aged mess -- in a story called "Gluttony," though what he suffers from is more eating disorder than sin -- he's forced to meet the parents of the girl his son impregnanted after the young couple's decision to abort the pregnancy. The girl's ideologically "pro-life" mother is presented in such a relentlessly unsympathetic, life-hating fashion -- Baxter's narration keeps telling us how cold and nasty and hypocritical she is -- that we seem to have abandoned the nuanced, messy, realistically complicated world the rest of Baxter's book has taken pains to hold up to us. That famous "mirror to nature" that Shakespeare and others are famously said to have achieved.
            All in all these stories pass the major test of serious literature: You think about them after you've put the book down. Other works, engaging and fascinating while caught in their web, have released me from their clutches sooner. I don't rate "There's Something I Want You to Do" quite as highly as Baxter's fervent admirers do -- the book is called "a stunning and unique work from one of the living masters of the story form" by a back cover reviewer -- though perhaps I will come in time to be convinced.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Verses That Bloom in the Spring

I found many things to like in the poems that appear in the May edition of the online poetry journal Verse-Virtual. Among them...
             Poet Karla Huston's choice words to the "Man in Gorilla Suit on the Corner with Balloons" in the poem of that name that begins: "Was it the smell of fur that drew you/ to it, years of it embracing/ the swelter of this day..."

            The imagery Trish Hopkinson finds to talk about the sensation of loss in her moving poem "The Seams":

When you lose
the loss of others
in waves,
a crushing longing
of memories
seeps in under
the floorboards,
warps each plank
and raises
the seams.

            Barbara Crooker's apt comment on what draws and holds your attention in a great painting, in her poem "Manet and the Sea":

Who cares about those convicts rowing a path in the moonlight?
It’s the water we want to look at, taking its own sweet time
as it steps up to the microphone to solo, an improvisation in blue...

            What Chris Anderson does with the discovery of a tail feather from a hawk, "gray and black and dirty white":

I like how hard and stiff the quill is, like bone,
and yet how light, too, how hollow.

Holding it, you think of flight— 

though you also think of Dante
and Shakespeare and Keats,
dipping it in ink and starting to write.
             From a the quill of a bird feather we're carried to a contemplation of the greatest artists working with the simplest of tools.
            Lex Runciman's catalogue of inspired pairings that constitute, in the alchemy of verse, "one thing" in the poem of that name:

Pears and the mayfly hatch were one thing.
And plums withering and olives littering the floor
Were one thing.  And what the spiders said spinning,
What slugs intoned, what onions in their harmonies grew,
What a kestrel’s eye understood and the mosquitoes knew
And what leeches and eels contemplated in their solitude
Was one thing.  The arc of the sun rising and Venus rising
And the moon peering at us with its rheumy eye
And papyrus in the backwash, the kelp forest
And the swoop of bats and their dreamless sleep
And the open mouths of poppies, and sand dunes,
A drift of camas, a cane thicket, jackrabbits
And purple vetch, a stand of wheat or mustard or daisies,
A horse with its nostrils flared to the wind
Was one thing.

Hila Ratzabi's superb, unsentimental observation of a hawk eating a fish it has caught, in a poem that concludes:

The fish has quieted down
Under the biting beak

As bits of itself
Drop back to the canal.

Jeff Worley's grimly amusing poem, mockingly titled "So You Want to Be a Teaching Assistant in English," especially his depiction of the mood of a seven a.m. class in Witchita:

And they really hate this first assignment—  Write about your most intense personal experience— 
because their most intense personal experiences
were lips-stuck-to-frozen-lampposts
kinds of things, or, worse, they’re still waiting
for an intense moment to occur to them,
some razory lightning bolt of experience
to rearrange their bland circuitry.

The music of the language in Kevin Heaton's depiction of a vow that's serious as an oak tree, solid as earth, in "I Plight Thee My Troth":

But oaken vows; seminal
and lovely. Fluent vows that intertwine and add

ring years to shaded valleys that tenure gracefully--
imparted faithfully from loblolly bridges

into brook shadow unisons.

Robert Wexelblatt's frank evocation ("In May") of the 'shameless' eruptions of those first fleshy days of spring, when we get a visit from our old friend "protean Eros":

All life is shamelessly on display
in halter-tops, myrtle blooms,
as if bared flesh were normal, erupting
spirea, impudent smooth thighs;
sober grey magnolia branches break out
in sudden tulip truths like jokes of which
every punch line is protean Eros.

And poet Luis Neer's response to "the fangs of the void" in a poem addressed to himself:

Blink your eyes, Luis Neer:
your feet have bumped against 
solid soil.

The walls
are solid,
the record player
is solid,
the pages
are solid,

the typewriter wails,
the ocean is howling--

the soul of the universe
fills up
the entire universe.

These poems fill up my universe.
Take a look at the poems in Verse-Virtual and you're likely to find others to fill up yours. 
The link is:

Friday, May 15, 2015

Garden Openers: Look What's Up in the Middle of May

            Some of these plants remain a mystery to me. This tree (pictured at top) has been growing for years underneath the cover of the much taller closely neighboring mulberry tree. It blossomed white this week. Does anyone one know what it is? A variety of cherry?
            And then there's this blue sparkling tiny flower (second photo) with mint green leaves. I transplanted this plant from Plymouth when we moved here to Quincy ten years ago. I still don't know what it is.
            I know the name of this plant (third down). It's called Lungwort (or Pulmonaria), but my camera doesn't work well with this shade light, so it's hard to distinguish it from the surrounding viney vinca.
            The strawberries began showing their white blossoms this week. That means fruit will follow. (fourth photo)
            The flower spikes of the Ajuga opened this week. They're a dark color than shows in the photo. (fifth photo)
            Forget-me-nots, a pale blue flower with white centers are shown here, with Ajuga spikes in the background. This plant is migrating from where I put it to an area it appears to like better.  (sixth photo)

            Another blue flowering groundcover that blooms in mid-May is the thickly blossoming Speedwell shown in this photo (seventh photo).
            Another low groundcover, Sweet Woodruff, blossoms with low white flowers in May. This plant has also redistributed itself around the garden area. (eighth photo, foreground)
            The white blossoms on these plants (photo nine) completely eluded my memory but I found the ID tag that came with their purchase. It's called a "spring Anemone." Very delicate texture on these flowers; I hope they last a while. (ninth photo, pink bleeding heart in upper part of photo)
            Finally showiest flower, and by far the largest, in the early mid-May ensemble is the Chinese peony. The first blossoms opened yesterday when I took the picture. Today they all opened (tenth photo) They're luscious.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Solar on the roof: The Garden of the Sun

So far today, by about 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, we've produced 3.62 kilowatt hours (kwh) of solar energy. The day's still early. So far, in less than a week, we have offset 6 pounds of carbon emissions.
            Solarize me, baby. Tell me I'm not the only one.
            We have a few other measures of our ongoing solar energy production, endlessly tracked by the personalized website the company gave us. So far, I'm told, the day's solar production has prevented 6 mi of greenhouse emissions. If only I knew what 'mi' were.
            On Sunday, warm and sunny, we produced 27.51 kwh, 20 percent of a typical full-week's household use. So we're producing more than we use and it's likely that we will build up a substantial credit to set against the colder, less sunny months when we must rely more on power from the grid, i.e. electricity produced by whatever source the power company happens to purchase. The usual stuff, oil and gas fired plants, even a few coal fired plants (not many in New England), nuclear reactors, hydroelectric from Canada. Some percentage produced by sustainable wind and solar producers. And some power made from fracted gas wells, where water is pumped (i.e. wasted) deep into the ground to the detriment of the environment. Power grid sources: most of which continue to deliver greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at an unsustainable rate.
            And which will, quite possibly in the not so distant future, undermine and destabilize civilization as we know it. What happens then is anybody's guess. I hope I'm somewhere else by then, watching another channel.
            Getting solar installed on your roof is not extraordinarily difficult, but it is more difficult than, say, buying a car. Even more difficult than buying a home computer or other digital device, which usually takes us about half a year to do. (We have 'home improvement projects' that take considerably longer.)
            It took us at least half a year, probably more, to get solar panels on our roof from the time we began exploring options offered by a couple of companies. The options aren't all that different , they're just confusing to understand. When the company puts panels on the roof of your house, is it "our" or "their" power? Where does it go? Can you 'keep' your own solar power? (No.) The website they gave us to watch the little bars go up on the graph titles its initial category as "my solar production." But I know better, it's their power. Wwe pay them for it.
            How much money you're saving by paying the rate you've contracted for with your solar company depends on how expensive power from your ordinary power company is. In an area such as Long Island, where I grew up, you'd be saving a lot because the cost of power is high. In the Boston area, where we live, the cost is lower. The chief financial benefit is locking in a good rate for solar power for long period; a rate lower than what you're paying for power from the grid.
             The solar companies you deal with are likely to be based somewhere else. If you like reading emails filled with technical information, you'll enjoy this process. I hated it. Anne took over, not out of love for the subject but commitment to the goal. Even after we signed a deal, they got our names wrong on the contract, city hall insisted on giving them the wrong address for our house. The company sent a doughty local contractor to crawl all over over roof in winter (more than once) because like all organizations, they are a bureaucracy with their own rules and red tape, and if the engineer sign-off guy in California can't tell from the photos sent to him that your roof is the way they want it he won't sign off. It's a little like asking a guy to fire a drone from half a world away, only not so murderous.
            Really, the key question the company asks is does your roof, or enough of your roof, get enough direct sunlight to make putting the panels up there economically viable? With ours, one half of the roof, the southern side, gets plenty of sun. The other side has trees and a much worse angle on the son. Our next door neighbor, who professionally helps people use sustainable energy, doesn't have a roof area that receives enough direct sunlight cutting down a tree. He doesn't want to cut the tree; I wouldn't want to either.
            The only part of the going solar process that went quickly and easy was the the April day when the local contractors arrived to put up the panels, and the wiring, and the various electrical boxes that are now encrusted on your house, like large inorganic coral.
That went by in a flash. These folks knew what they were doing. They work in our region. 'This is the third house we've done this week,' the electrician told me; it was Wednesday.
            Waiting for their work to be inspected was pure local bureaucratic annoyance. Encouraging a local city hall to get on the stick cannot be done from California. Weeks in the planning, the act of inspection took 15 seconds. Some day artificial intelligence will arrange these connections much more efficiently. The next hangup was waiting for the power company to turn on their part of our new meter; they have to come to the house to do it. We were told to expect weeks of waiting -- the company has no incentive to be quick about this; they hate residential customers going solar, less profit for them. But they were out in a week, probably because Anne found somebody to call.
            So now since May 5 we've produced 150 kwh, 25 percent of a full month's use, saving over 229 pounds of carbon emissions. We saved the equivalent of planting only 2 trees in our neighborhood. Homeowners, take note, trees do a lot; they eat carbon.
            It's after eleven now, we're up to 6.7 kwh for the day, but the weather is cooling, our hourly rate declined.
            Still, solar panels give you us another reason to root for sunny days. And, after all, I have always loved sunny days and have no inclination, whatsoever, to move to Seattle.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Seasons in the Garden: We're eating May

            When the cherry tree begins to open its white blossoms, the bird arrives to sit at the very apex of the tree, one by one eating all the blossoms. Of course, she's not really eating them. She picks each one off, stabbing it with her beak and flicks it off immediately onto the ground. Grabs another in an instant, does the very same thing. I watch her do this to a dozen or two before I can't watch any more.
            The next day she brings a friend.
            I think they're finches. Some red around the upper breast or shoulders.
            No one knows exactly what they're doing. My latest theory is that there's some moisture in the blossom they're throwing, or trying to throw, down their gullets. Some precious drop of nectar.
            I feel the same way about the birds on the cherry blossoms as I do about the balmy spring days that have at last reached us. I love that they're here, with their sudden acceleration into T-shirt temperatures, but I don't want to go through them too quickly.
            Now that spring has finally settled in, I'm fear the beast of summer panting close behind. Summer approaches with its large, happy jaws, eating up those eighty degree days.
            And so, yes, the weeping cherry tree blossoms have come and gone. You anticipate the annual bloom, you want it, but you know it's going to go by fast. Even if the birds weren't there to scatter the flowers and speed the process, the blossoms don't last. It's not their job to hang around.
            The white week on the cherry tree is the beautiful moment. Beauty isn't the blossoms' job either, it's just a way to spread the fertility around in case there happens to be another tree, of the same variety, in the near neighborhood that wants to make fruit. Sounds unlikely but somebody fruits; somebody must, there are always more cherry trees. I realize, of course, the trees they sell us, the ones we buy, are 'man-made' in nurseries. The tree don't know this. Or, maybe, they don't care.  
            They will go on being trees. The birds will go on being birds. The tulip flowers opened in the last few days. The flowers won't last very long if the warmer weather, which we adore, flaunting our cold-bitten selves in its softening influence, goes on as it has the last few days. The daffodils, in contrast, have bloomed for a month; because, it was a chilly month.
            You can't have what you want very often. And when you do have it, you can't have it long. So I am dragging my feet in the merry month of May.
            I don't want a return of chill April, frigid March, near-freezing temperatures over night. I don't want the hot-fan setting of the warm winds of July. I want what we have right now. We're having it, but we're eating it too -- like the proverbial cake in that most common of cautionary axioms. We're eating May. But if we eat it too fast it won't last long.
            Of course it won't last longer than it's supposed to no matter what we do. So we might as well eat it up.