Thursday, April 25, 2013



Spring has sprung, as they say. The trees, most of them, burst their leaf buds about a week ago. It seemed like they went all at once, instead of species by species, though some seem slower than others. The oak leaves are still very small, although the red maple, I just noticed, are nearly full-sized. And I'd hardly noticed the oaks blooming at all before they started to leaf out, which surprised me. The forests are turning green, but it's still a sort of young, fuzzy green, and the canopy is still mostly open. I looked out the window the other day, and the young leaves on the shrubs and saplings, like fat green flakes, fogged up the previously clear forest understory like wet snow.

The silver maples are rapidly maturing their winged seeds, though their flowers only finished up a few weeks ago. Norway maple seeds don't mature until fall,or maybe late summer, though they bloom in late spring. I think silver maples, being river trees, try to get their seeds onto river banks bared by spring floods. Or maybe they're actually water-dispersed? They lean over the water, when they can. The sweet gum flowers, little pyramids of green, plush balls, are starting to fall, those that weren't fertilized, I guess. Cherry is flowering, though I don't know what kind yet, and all sorts of grasses and lawn plants are. The front steps are covered with little discarded vegetable scales, green with brown tips, that I guess popped off some species' buds when they burst, like training whewels discarded.

You, of course, probably don't care about any of this, being as they're plants you can't identify (yes, they're all angiosperms--you'd get that part, and you'd be right. There is no shame in accurate vagueness). One you might not even have encountered at all; the American hollies are dropping their old leaves, now. Your hollies are deciduous, and bare their winter branches in wet and frozen places. Ours are evergreen, their leaves thickened, leathery, lobed and spined, and their old leaves fall at the same time as their young leaves spring, giving our yard a fresh carpet of stickers. I walk around barefoot anyway, I don't care.

What I think you might care about is what I saw on the Weather Channel yesterday, a radar image of the Mid-Atlantic region with an angry-looking red and green ball, what looked like a round and very intense storm over the middle of Delaware, and almost half the size of that state. It was, the weatherman explained, a flock of migrating birds. He'd been following them on the maps all evening, and they were headed north while the wind blew towards the southeast. A flock of birds like a storm, all of them on a mission, and forty miles wide.

The weatherman also pointed out that the satellite image beneath the clouds showed real color, and where we are that color was green. The green lapped against the bases of the mountains to our west and ran north to a line that crossed New Jersey a little more than halfway up. Beyond that, the ground was greenish grey. Spring, sweeping North. It's made New York by now, I'll bet.

I'll be sweeping north soon, too, to New Hampshire and then, briefly, to Maine. I wonder if Spring will beat me there or not?

And it's almost a week now since another traveler went winging. Chris and I walked down to the little beach so we could watch the launch of the largest rocket yet to go up from Wallops Island. It was a test of a rocket that they hope to use to resupply the International Space Station.

We didn't make it to the beach in time, because we left the house too late, but we made it to the earthen causeway that links what used to be Cropper's Island to the mainland. We sat out on the cement fins that line the water there, and looked south.

And you know, we almost missed it. I was expecting, you know, something that looked like the shuttle going up, or virtually any rocket I've seen in the movies; a needle rising at the top of a column of fire and smoke, a line of smoke linking the distant rocket to its launchpad out of sight below. We didn't see it. I spotted what looked like an airplane, oddly reddish-orange and trailing a quickly-dissipating stub of a contrail. I dismissed it and looked away. Then Chris cussed, saying "Oh, f___, it's the rocket!" And indeed, it was; it had caught his eye by producing a true contrail as it passed through some appropriate layer of sky. As it rose higher, it stopped leaving the trail. What I'd seen was the exhaust fire itself.

Through binoculars, it shown a rising white needle, with a double feather of fire behind, one feather ahead of and outside of the other. They were reddish-orange, the same color that iron filings burn, if you drop them in a Bunsen burner flame. We watched the rocket for eons of seconds and it was totally silent, rising. It looked like it was moving horizontally across the sky, but it was really rising, probably vertically, or almost so, and as it approached the center of the sky, the zenith, it foreshortened until I could hardly see the rocket at all, only the glow of its fire at the back. And then it vanished. It had shrunk to a point, but it did not shrink smaller, it just went out, like a light. I had my binoculars on it when it did it, and I didn't lose it, it was in the middle of my field of vision. It just vanished. The sound had just reached us, a low, roaring growl, a huge sound.

That sound went on for several minutes, longer than we thought it would. Eventually it, too, vanished, and we continued our walk.

Later, we looked it up online and learned that the rocket's first-stage burn had lasted four minutes and that it had started to power down fairly abruptly at about  three minutes--on the video we saw online, filmed by a camera actually on the rocket itself, the red fire largely went out at that point, the exhaust turning clear grey, except for occasional flares. I'm not sure, but we could have watched it for a few minutes. Accounting for the time it was in flight before we saw it, it's possible what I saw when it vanished was the engine powering down. It's possible we heard all four minutes of sound. And the thing is, when that video showed the engine start to power down, the sky from the rocket's position appeared black, and the Earth curved below. Is is possible I heard a sound from the doorway of space? from the last possible moment before sound itself stopped in the air thin to vanishing?

I'm not a big fan of aerospace. It's not my kind of science, and except for communications and scientific satellites (pointed at Earth) and the search for potentially dangerous asteroids, I regard the space program as a waste of resources. And noise pollution, apparently, as it was astoundingly loud.

But that rocket sure was pretty.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Hi, there,

I assume that you and yours are ok after this remarkable week, as I have not heard otherwise. I have not asked, because if something was wrong you would be too busy dealing with it  to respond. But I have been thinking about you.

What a week; political debates, explosions in both Boston and West, Texas, a massive manhunt, and today a rocket launch not far from my house. At least the rocket was both peaceful and intentional. This week I have joined in the national ritual of obsessively watching the news, as though watching something happen was the same thing as doing something about it, a kind of mass secular prayer.

What can I say, other than what I have already said, which is that I'm glad you apparently have not been blown up? I could say the expected things, but other people already have. And anyway, I don't feel the expected things. I never do at times like this. I don't feel a sudden flush of vulnerability. I'm always surprised, but not shocked, when violence erupts in some unexpected place. I mean, why shouldn't it happen here, beyond the fact that it shouldn't happen anywhere? I'm not overwhelmed by grief or sadness, either. I'm not angry. I'm mostly just solemn and alert, conscious that what is happening is a Big Deal.

Why am I not sad? I remember, after 9/11, sitting in a park near my house trying desperately to be grief-stricken, and it just would not come. I've learned since then to stop trying to feel what I don't, but it still puzzles me. I still wonder what it means about me, or what other people think it might mean about me.

Maybe I just don't understand violence or hate. I mean, I do understand, at least intellectually, several possible motives for this type of attack. What I don't understand is how anyone could actually want to kill other people. It's like how it's hard to properly appreciate the scale of interplanetary distances or the size of the national debt; they don't seem real. How can I be angry about something I can't quite believe? I don't understand hate and I don't understand hating, and I do not want to ever understand.

Then, too, if I'm going to have a knee-jerk emotional reaction, like sadness or fear, it's going to be to something personal and immediate. I was thinking about this the other day, by a lake inNew Hampshire. My personal, immediate situation did not include a bombing. My immediate situation included pine trees and brilliant blue water and a bath house, painted red, upon which a moth was trying, completely ineffectively, to blend in by resembling a grey patch of lichen. To move beyond the immediate, I have to think, and that changes my perspective. I want to know that my friends are ok, and I want to find out what is going on, what the scope of this attack may be, and what our country's response will be. I worry about the health and safety of our nation's Arabs, who of course had nothing to do with this attack, but unfortunately that is not likely to matter. I worry about the political repercussions and whether this will become another excuse to further erode or civil liberties and privacy. That day by the lake I didn't yet know who had planted the bombs, and I wondered if this attack would lead us, again, into war.

It's not that I can't feel sympathy for strangers far away. Occasionally a news story will strike home and reduce me to tears. Like an interview with a little Syrian boy who calmly described watching his neighbor killed by bombs. Or the documentary where they said bowhead whales can live two hundred years and so some of them can remember the height of whaling. Some carry old harpoon heads deep in their bodies. And I just started to sob, thinking of these animals and how American whaling, for us a matter of history we consider safely abandoned to the past, is still a living memory for them.

But these sudden windows on others' suffering are intermittent, unpredictable. They don't happen when everyone else is feeling the same thing.

I don't really want to respond to national tragedy by talking about myself, but I can't be the only one who doesn't feel the right feelings. Maybe I just want to make a pitch for the freedom to respond however one does.

What do you think?

-best, C.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Planning to Connect

Hi, there

I'm heading north next week for a brief visit--mostly on business, though I've arranged to have some social time as well. Maybe I should have asked you if you wanted to get together, but on short notice with such a narrow window, I assumed you would not. I don't even know if you'll be in the area yourself.

But I have been making plans with other friends. Everybody's busy, of course, and I don't want to sound intrusive or demanding, so when a friend and I were discussing whether to meet at a community event or to go for a walk, just the two of us, I couched the possibilities in very cautious, understanding terms. His response both startled and warmed me.

He said that his "slightly selfish request" was that we do both.

Of course, that is very convenient, because that is my preference as well--slightly selfish or not.  But beyond being's not that I'm unpopular these days, most people like me, but when I try to make time to see my busy friends, I often feel as though I'm asking for a favor, a favor they are happy to grant, because they like me, but a favor nonetheless. I'm busy, too, but if someone showed up to visit, I'd do whatever I had to to make time to see them, and I'd be grateful that they had come. But no one comes, and when I go visiting I am cautious, careful to not wear out my welcome. I seem to be peripheral to most of the lives that are central to mine. For someone to want to spend time with me selfishly is a very great gift, the gift of being genuinely wanted.

But is that really what friendships are? A congruency of gentle selfishness, where I want your attention and you want mine, and so we trade? A year ago I would have said no. I was so dedicated to high-minded ideas of selfless generosity. Since then I have had reason to doubt that; it seems like no matter how hard I try to be generous, I still want something. I want to matter to others. I want my generosity to be helpful and wanted. And it isn't always, and when it isn't I feel just as rejected and thwarted as if I had wanted something for myself outright. So what is the point? Is it even possible to be anything other than selfish? Maybe a congruency of gentle selfishness is all there can be.

In any case, at this point, I want to be wanted, I want to relax into another's gratitude for my presence, to not worry that perhaps others have had enough of me and are hoping I'll take some hint...I want to at least not feel selfish for wanting a friend's company.

In the meantime, spring has sprung. The silver maples are setting seed, the heart-shaped ovaries of their tiny red flowers starting to widen, widen, towards they keys they will become. The red maples are close on their heels. I haven't noticed the elms lately, what they're doing, but I think the sweet gum is in flower now, or nearly so. Some of the grasses are flowering, as are the little herbs of the lawns and road verges and fallow fields--I don't know their names. The daffodils and forsythia are blooming in gardens and along roadsides here and there, maybe where houses used to be.

The birds sing all day, a wall of sound, a crowd of sound, a huge, chattering, musical crowd. Is there something about song that makes sound easier to detect? Annie Dillard wrote that it doesn't really matter why birds sing; the important question is why is it beautiful? I'm willing to argue that this is not the only important question, but I agree it is an interesting one. Maybe there is something about song, a certain class of sounds, that make them useful in a crowd of voices, and so both we and the songbirds are attracted to those sounds? But in that case, why don't we, too, speak in song? Why don't human crowds sounds like this?

I was listening the other day, listing to the almost solid wall of song, and it went on and on and on, hour upon hour. And just when I was thinking that I should tell you about it, it all stopped. All the birds stopped singing at once. If they were human, that would have been the moment when one of them, not realizing that it was the random moment for silence, would be carried forward by the momentum of speech to say something embarrassing into the lull. Let's see, what might embarrass a bird?

Anyway, they all started up again after about a minute.

I imagine they are simply identifying themselves, for the purpose of marking territories and attracting mates, and that while they may, indeed, find their own songs beautiful (why not? Humans often find our own work beautiful, even if we have prosaic reasons for working), I'm pretty sure they don't worry themselves about whether they are really wanted, and whether they should feel guilty for wanting to be wanted.

-best, C.