Saturday, January 31, 2009

Swing, batter batter

So far, the best part of this long winter is knocking down the icicles. I do it with a bat; Leigh taught me how. I'd been wondering for about five years why she kept that red, wooden baseball bat in the bedroom. Burglars, I figured, although we live in the middle of nowhere, as they say. It'd have to be a weird and determined burglar, one set on stealing, say, lots of catfood (from Fargo) or, perhaps, Diet Coke (from Leigh). I've got nothing worth stealing unless someone was looking for letters from my friends, student papers, or a random collection of stones and/or bones. Weird and determined, for sure. But irrelevant, because the bat's purpose isn't to ward off a hypothetical thief. It's to knock down icicles. Not those pretty, freeze-pop kind of icicles that look good enough to pluck off the eaves and lick (like the ones in the photograph). I knock those off with a metal shovel, and when they fall they sound like bells. No, I'm talking about the ones that are as big as your leg, as big as your 6-year old, as big as you. An icicle that could kill the sorry body hunched below as it lets go its perch.

Icicles that big hang from the roof of our second storey -- bad ventilation, heat leakage, whatever; everyone around here's got the same problem -- and in order to remove them I have to climb onto the back of a futon, crank open a screenless window, balance on the windowsill, lean out a ways, and do my best to take a swing at the ice mass. It's a little tricky, somehow like hitting a pinata, not because I'm blindfolded, but because my range of motion is limited by a) the house; b) a wall of windows; and c) my questionable balance. One false move and I'm either breaking a window or breaking my back. "Try to hit it at its widest point," Leigh wisely advised. "Don't swing so much as poke." I've developed a sort of awkward, two-fisted, overhead swing slash poke slash hammering motion to knock them down.

Sometimes I give a preliminary tap -- the way actual batters might tap home plate before getting ready to swing. Then I get ready for the real hit... concentrate... aim... Cra-aa-aaaaack! I'd initially expected more resistance when I swatted, thought it'd be like hitting a wall with one's fist, but it's not like that. There is resistance -- the icicles are thick, and heavy -- but it's a subtle pause, and gives way almost instantly to a freefall that I wish took longer, wish could go in slow motion. The icicle tilts, sometimes breaks into two pieces, and for just a split second is falling, somehow glorious, somehow catching the light and thrilling. The glory is short-lived, as glory often is; the ice inevitably lands with a thud in a giant heap of snow. It sounds what I imagine a body would sound like in similar circumstances, and I'm always a little let down, a little dismayed when I've completed the task. Feels almost like I've killed something.

Icicle: a tapering mass of ice formed by the freezing of dripping water. The definition makes me happy. Even the spelling makes me happy. (Ask a roomful of third graders to spell the word and delight yourself for hours: eye sikle; ize sickels; I siggle, ayesikkels...)

So much pleasure... so why do I raise a bat to it?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


So the other day I bundled up and prepared myself for a round of clearing snow from the driveway. There wasn't much -- 4, 5 inches -- just enough to necessitate removing it in order to get the car out. The sun was shining, my mood was up. This was in contrast to my usual snowblowing demeanor, which involves grumbling, swearing and, on occasion, weeping. There may have even been a time or two when I've looked up at the sky, heavily into the drama of it all, and asked why god had forsaken me. The snow, in other words, often gets the best of me. Once there's a foot or more, the work is hard. The driveway -- only about a third of which is visible in this photo -- is steep in places, deeply rutted in other places, and the snowblower itself is petulant, deceptively heavy, and more than willing to engage like a champion in our love/hate relationship. One gear doesn't work, occasionally we'll "toss a rod," which makes the whole machine tilt to one side, and even on a good day it's not my favorite way to spend an hour. I've compared it in the past to wrestling with a refrigerator. Uphill. In the cold. So I'd say it's generally like that -- only worse.

The snowblower and I, in short, have a history. On this day, however, I had put that history aside and was approaching my task, if not cheerfully, at least not with dread. Trudged out to the garage, turned this lever, lifted that lever, pressed this button, that button, and heard the machine roar to a start. As I pressed the handle that engages the rotating blades, the snowblower stalled. I repeated the process, still in reasonably good humor. Stalled again. Third time. Stall. Went inside, consulted with Leigh, who is on crutches and can't, therefore, attend to this sort of issue herself. She hypothesized that maybe a line had frozen. I had no idea if there even were "lines" and, if there were, what those lines consisted of, and had no clue as to whether or not they could freeze. Nonetheless, it seemed like a possibility, so I took her advice and started the thing up again and let it run for a while. Let the engine warm up -- that was her thinking -- and that'll melt the frozen lines. All would be well.

After ten minutes of listening to the din and feeling the lighter side of my mood dribble away, I tried to engage the blades again. No luck. Or, I should say, luck approached from afar. Our neighbor, Mark, yelled over, wanting to know if everything was alright. He lives in shouting distance, and with all the snow -- its way of insulating the environment, allowing sound to travel easily -- it was almost like we were standing within ten feet of each other although we were yelling across two substantial yards. I briefly explained the situation, across the acres, and he said he'd be right over. I said a quick "thanks" to the gods of small town neighbors' good-heartedness, and met him at the top of the driveway. "Sounds like the blades are frozen," he said. "Hmm," I said.

Mark proceeded to tip the snowblower on its back -- I had the weird sensation that I was eavesdropping on some weird human/mechanical gynecologic procedure -- and said "I need a tool." He maneuvered his way around the garage, which is a typical garage -- fairly low on organization, fairly high on clutter -- and intuitively found his way to the appropriate tool. (I should warn, about here, that if you retain that gynecologist analogy in your head, this is about to become disturbing.) He'd found a crowbar, and began -- what would the right word be? -- assaulting the snow blower's innards. He hacked at chunks of ice, he speared at the blades, he whacked that machine inside and out. It caused a considerable racket, what I'd normally call an alarming racket, and there were points at which I was sure he was about to destroy the snowblower entirely. The thing held up, however, and after another good ten minutes of battery he attempted to start the blades. No go.

"Gonna get my torch," he said, heading back to his place. "Torch??" I responded. "Yep," he said.

I went inside and informed Leigh that Mark had gone to get his torch. "Torch??" she said. "Yep," I said. "I'm just a little concerned," I said, "that introducing a torch into the machine, even near the machine, might be a little problematic. I just filled it with gas..." I trailed off.

"Oh god," Leigh said. "Yeah," I said.

I went back outside and met Mark at the garage. He had a blowtorch, the size of a small fire extinguisher except, I guess, its opposite. He got ready to light it and, I confess, I stepped back. I may have jumped back. Quite a ways back. I was willing to watch him blow up, apparently, if it came to that... but I didn't really want to blow up myself.

I watched as Mark ran the flame over the red insides of the machine with the fluidity of a welder, stroked the outside of the machine, over and over, smooth movements. Eventually a stream of water began to run from its interior -- a column of solid ice melting -- and a few minutes later we attempted to start the blades rotating.

They did. I mouthed "my hero" to Mark. He smiled, walked away. I cleared the driveway, wiped the snow and ice from the snowblower's guts before putting it away for the evening.

Today we're expecting another foot.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Stars wobble

This is a piece I started working on this past summer, through December. Not sure if I'll push it any further. Just felt like getting some observations on paper. Not sure, really, if it comes together. But at least it's a break from writing about winter...

(If you look closely, you can see one or two ants on the peonies in the photograph.)

The Science of Light

Stars wobble. Scientists believe that observable wobbling of a star suggests the existence of a nearby planet; the wobble is a result of the orbiting planet’s gravitational tug. Even though the planet is invisible, it’s there – the wobble is evidence of the existence of a body.

Outside, an ant navigates its way across the globe of a peony. The flowers – fat pink orbs – grow at an angle. They seek out the sun’s rays, which are obscured by a mature maple tree. The peony appears to be stretching, reaching for light. The gesture suggests elements of strain and urgency, similar to that of a horse extending its neck while running.

A flower is not a globe, a flower is not human. A flower is not even a horse. We name things to isolate them.

Although heliotropium is a particular genus of plants, over time heliotrope has come to mean any plant that grows towards the light. Names, it seems, can stretch.

A common typo: plant and planet, one substituted for the other.



That word, above – a corruption, alteration, disruption, enhancement, rupture, call it what you like, of the word light – is a poem, reproduced in its entirety. It was written by Aram Saroyan and published in a Random House collection, creatively titled Aram Saroyan, in 1968. According to the author, the book, comprised of short poems, could be read in one or two minutes. Edwin Newman, in fact, read it on the NBC evening news. That was not why the poem and its author became celebrated, however. After the poem appeared in The Chicago Review, Saroyan received a National Endowment for the Arts poetry award in the amount of $750. That’s $750 per word or about $107 per letter. Not bad.

Ian Daly, writing for the Poetry Foundation, said, “The poem doesn’t describe luminosity—the poem is luminosity.”

Jesse Helm, (helm, from the Old English meaning to guide or control), among others – notably William Scherle, a Republican Congressman from Iowa – saw red over the NEA’s award, and his outrage played a large part in making Saroyan’s poem one of the most famous in recent history. (Ask fifty people if they’ve ever heard of it, and you’ll likely get 49 negative responses. Even so: famous.)

Although it was ridiculed by others – Helm and Scherle being simply the most public and, one might argue, the most publicly ignorant – I’ve been haunted by that poem for 30 years. Is that what luminosity is – to haunt?
If you look at the sun and then close your eyes, an afterimage appears, a continuation of the light, as though the inside of your eyelids is a movie screen.

If you blink your eyes, you miss something.

Luminosity is the study of ghosts. What is left when the material body is gone? Some say light. Some say not.


Hummingbirds shine. Light bounces off air pockets in their feathers at different angles, and the clear bubbles of air act as prisms, making the feathers irridescent. Hummers have the largest hearts, proportionally, of any animal; a hummingbird heart beats between 500 and 1200 times per minute. (That upper register calculates to 20 times per second.) Meanwhile, their wings beat 25 to 75 times per second. They’re tiny, they’re beautiful, and they require lots of fuel. The Portugese call them “flower kissers” because much of that fuel comes from flowers. Procurement of nourishment – they eat while hovering – demands a long tongue and great stores of energy. Round and round they go, flying, feeding, courting, feeding, fighting, feeding. At night they become torpid, and some die in their sleep, exhausted, unable to restart their hearts.

I have a hummingbird feeder outside my study window. Many times an hour a hummer will arrive, hover, its wings whirring, take a few seconds to sip the sugar water, and then zip away. Sometimes two are in contention for rights to the feeder and there will be confrontations so fast that I can’t tell what’s happening. I’ll see two dark specks in a whirlwind and hear the whizz of their wings, there’s some quick vocalization, and then one speeds away and the other returns to the feeder. I’m not sure if they’re battling for turf, just saying hello, or participating in a mating ritual. But the noise is perpetually at my shoulder; I am always either anticipating the arrival of a bird or noticing it buzz away. The wing-sound becomes almost hallucinatory, incantatory, avian background music.

Hummingbirds shine, and swoop, and for just a few months of every year they are coveted visitors. They seem as fleeting as meteors, or the brief visitations of ants when the peonies are on the verge of bloom.

Visitation is, perhaps, the most bittersweet version of relationship. A visit, after all, is temporary. A meteor, one might say, visits for a split second – we spot it, but if we blink, it’s gone. The ants visit the peony garden for a few days. The hummingbirds visit my yard for a few months every year. Friends visit, family visits.

With a visit, there is always a leave-taking. Visits don’t last… ever.

To live requires a tolerance for the temporal. Visiting is a synecdoche for life. Or, to be blunt about it: we die.

How old are the stars? Between one and ten billion years. How long would it take to reach them? More than a thousand of our lifetimes.


I collect stones and bones. I collect them because they are beautiful. They are artifacts, and remind me of visits. I have looked inside the eye sockets of skulls of foxes, deer, birds. I have peered inside a turtle egg. I have broken open wasps’ nests, bee hives. Nothing shines inside these things, although there is light.

A cavity within a bone is called a labyrinth. Inside some bones you can see what looks like a honeycomb. A true labyrinth (as opposed to a maze) is not designed to confuse. There is a single path in and, therefore, out. In hiking, this would be called an out-and-back. Some labyrinths look like fingerprints. Others look like the folds of a brain.

My friend is recuperating from a brain aneurysm. He was sitting at his desk. He was fine. He saw a band of light, and then the light fizzled. It was like when a t.v. screen blows out – the light shriveled to a thin, staticky line, and then it was black. When I visited him in the hospital, our hands kept touching. We don’t hold hands in real life. But a body near a body, sometimes, is like a planet near a star. We wobble in our orbits. We lean towards. Sometimes, in my own lonely trajectory, I have a song in my head. Sometimes the song goes like this:
el aye
gee aitch
gee aitch tee.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


One of the things I've been meaning to write about: the birds' nests in winter. What I see out my window, year-round, are trees. Hundreds of trees, thousands -- probably tens of thousands -- of branches. In winter, when the leaves are gone, birds' nests are easily seen. They're everywhere, all kinds, big and small. I can see them in the eaves of the garage, in the branches of the giant cherry and maple trees, and lower to the ground, in the shrubs. My favorite thing, however, is when it snows -- each nest becomes a cup. After a snowfall -- the light, fluffy snow in particular -- all I need to do to locate a nest is to look for a pile of snow in the branches. The nests are like chalices, or cupped hands, full of snow.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Woke this morning to what sounded like scratching on the window. Figured it was a squirrel, didn't want to open my eyes. When Fargo (the cat) leapt up, I groggily looked over to see what was going on. There was the cat, hunched on the nightstand, as though ready to pounce. Outside the window, appearing to look inside the house, was a woodpecker. Not sure what kind -- about the size of a pigeon, maybe slightly bigger, with a gold breast, black specks, and a patch of red on the back of its head that was, I swear, in the shape of a heart. I leaned over and peered at the bird, the cat peered at the bird, and the bird was oblivious due to, I assume, the sun reflecting off the window glass. We were about 8 inches apart, and just stayed that way for a minute or so. It was, perhaps, the best way to wake up in a long time, and made me feel, on this historic day that will segue into another historic day, that maybe all this talk about hope has some basis.

Friday, January 16, 2009


At some point, the snow becomes a sedative. There's so much of it, and it's just there, and it keeps falling, piling, drifting. Beautiful, true, but superficial, perhaps, in the way that beauty can be. I used to feel sorry for the weather reporters in Arizona; they had to say the same words every day with the same cheerful smiles. Sunny and hot, sunny and warm, sunny and steamy... As far as forecasts go, winter here is comparable to summer there. Cold with snow flurries, arctic cold with snow showers, cold and heavy lake effect, cold and bands of snow, cold with an oscillating band of heavy snow. The sameness is what eventually becomes tiresome -- when a crow or a cardinal flies through the tree branches on a snowy morning, it's such a shock to the system I almost gasp. And when the sun comes out... even if only for ten minutes... feels like nearly a miracle.