Monday, October 26, 2020

Turning out

Saturday was the first day of early voting where I live. My wife and I have already voted by absentee ballot, but yesterday I happened to walk by the local early voting site, which is in pool complex in our village park, and was surprised by how many people were lined up to vote -- wearing masks -- with a steady stream of cars discharging more. I live in a reliably blue district in a safely blue state, but it was heartening to see so many people taking this election seriously, even if one party doesn't think that "rank democracy" is as important as property rights and in fact has based its entire strategy on an anti-democratic electoral college and on erecting as many hoops as possible to make it difficult for people to vote.

In ordinary times a president who has lied and blustered his way through four terrible years, who continues to downplay a pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 Americans and done long-term damage to the economy, who can't even pretend to feel empathy, who has contempt for science, and who has thrown in his lot with violent militias and bonkers conspiracy theorists, would have no chance of re-election. And, if the polls are correct, he doesn't. Ojalá.

I refer anyone who is stil wavering to the endorsements -- all of them unprecedented -- from Scientific American, Nature, and USA Today.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Homage to E. B. White

I found these two grave markers in an out-of-the-way spot a few minutes' walk from the more accessible family pet cemetery I posted photos of a few years back (earlier post here). Strangely enough, though these two are only a foot or so apart and I've known about Wilbur's stone for some time, I never noticed Charlotte's until today. It must have been hidden by the moss and leaves. In a few years no doubt it will disappear entirely.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Notes for a Commonplace Book (28)

Charles Dickens:

I had no thought that night — none, I am quite sure — of what was soon to happen to me. But I have always remembered since that when we had stopped at the garden-gate to look up at the sky, and when we went upon our way, I had for a moment an undefinable impression of myself as being something different from what I then was. I know it was then and there that I had it. I have ever since connected the feeling with that spot and time and with everything associated with that spot and time, to the distant voices in the town, the barking of a dog, and the sound of wheels coming down the miry hill.

Bleak House

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

At the equinox

This ill-starred year grinds towards its end but still has ample time to accumulate additional misfortunes. My body remains on summer schedule, attuned to neither the clock nor the sun. I lie in the dark and wait for signs of daylight, then rise and perform the little rituals of waking up the house. I draw curtains open, put water on to boil, make breakfast. Outside I've already pulled up the tomatoes and summer squash, and the okra is bearing more slowly as the daylight dwindles and temperatures begin to drop. I wrap up the butternut squash fruits in pillow-cases at night to keep the deer from eating them before they're ready to cut off the vine. The resident hummingbirds still buzz around their feeder, but the swallowtail butterflies that feasted on our zinnias all summer have moved on.

Gardening plans, early morning walks, things not accomplished, will have to be deferred. There's a sense, in general, of being balanced on the cusp — but of what? Winter's grim days and long nights can't be avoided, and spring now seems very far away.

One late afternoon I came across a barred owl at the edge of a wood. I wasn't looking for it, nor it for me. It settled on a branch and looked me over, but not so intently that it couldn't be distracted by a hawk calling in the distance. Somehow it will probably make its way through the winter. I'll keep an eye out for it next year.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

One a day (conclusion)

One hundred days ago I set myself the task of reading The Decameron at the rate of precisely one tale a day, and this morning I finished it, right on time. For those who are only vaguely familiar with the work (as was I), Boccaccio's collection has particular relevance at the moment, as the frame-tale that supports it supposes that a group of young Florentines escape from the plague-stricken city into the safety of the countryside, where they regale each other with stories until it's time to go home.

Presumably conditions improved a bit in their absence; in the summer of 2020, sadly, the world is still very much a mess. (Where I live COVID-19 cases are, for now, down significantly, which is something, at least.)

But back to Boccaccio. Escapist as it may be, it's a delightful book. I'm not sure I regret not reading it earlier; some things (like Moby-Dick) arguably benefit from being encountered later in life. The Signet Classics translation by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella that I used is lively and readable. Some of the tales are little more than anecdotes, and a few of those rely on snappy repartee that perhaps loses something out of its cultural context, but there's plenty of variety and entertainment here. As with any self-confident writer, Boccaccio plays both sides at will, alternately upholding virtue and openly advocating infidelity, bad-mouthing women for their fecklessness and defending them against jealous and tyrannical husbands. Piety, thankfully, is in short supply, and the clergy come in for a robust helping of abuse.

Below are a few of the tales that struck me as being particularly memorable.

Third Day, Tenth Story: basically a classic dirty joke, grounded in feminine gullibility and clerical misbehavior.

Fifth Day, Fourth Story: a pleasingly modern tale, ending happily, of young lovers caught in flagrante by the girl's parents.

Fifth Day, Eight Story: a gruesome supernatural horror story in which a woman is punished eternally for refusing her favors.

Eight Day, Seventh Story: the account of the vengeance of a spurned lover and scholar. (This one is particularly long and vindictive, perhaps suggesting a grudge on the part of the author.)

Tenth Day, Ninth Story: a nicely balanced story of the mutual generosity of an Italian nobleman and the Muslim general Saladin (who is, dubiously, depicted as being fluent in Italian).

Tenth Day, Tenth Story: a narrative of the unspeakably cruel manner in which a husband tests the virtue and submissiveness of his absurdly long-suffering wife, wrapping up, improbably, with tutti contenti.

I'll leave the last words to the author, who concludes: "The time has come to end my words and to humbly thank Him who with His assistance has brought me after so much labor to my desired goal, and may His grace and peace be with you, lovely ladies, and if, perhaps, reading some of these stories has given any of you pleasure, please do remember me."

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Last train out

Maybe it's the unearthly shade of red in the evening sky or the rumbling sensation below your feet, but something tells you that this time it's for real. You take inventory: what needs to come, what can be carried, what has to be battened down or left to fend for itself. Things for the road, in case...

Some people aren't budging. Take no notice, get it done. It's too late for those arguments now.

All the things you never got to: papers to organize, phone calls to make. The peonies that should have been divided years ago. Little regrets. Nothing for it.

You should have done it last year, you should have done it years ago. Maybe it's too late. No matter. Just get on with it.

In the end, one suitcase and a cloth bag with some food and a thermos. You think you must be forgetting something, but it seems to matter less with every moment that goes by. The cold feeling when you lock the door. Don't look back.

Along the road, clusters of travelers, some rushing, some hesitant. Familiar faces, no time for chat. Caught in a funnel. Momentum.

At the station, little formalities that now seem quaint. Less of a crowd than one thought. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe it's just a false alarm, after all.

As the train pulls out you don't look through the window, but the whirl around you leaves you suddenly weak at the knees. Jostle through the aisle and into a seat. A sip of cold water to settle you.

Later, passing through unfamiliar country, the grief drains away. Nothing but weariness now. What was it you forgot?

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


As this anxious summer wears on I've been making regular visits to a little pond not far away, one that, in spite of its diminutive size, hosts an astonishing array of wildlife, all of it unconcerned with our troubles. In addition to hundreds if not thousands of frogs of various sizes, which dash into the water with cries of alarm as I circle the shore, there are snapping and painted turtles, at least one water snake, small fish, and several species of dragonfly. As I arrive great blue herons fly up, issuing unearthly raucous cries, and rabbits, deer, and wild turkey browse the adjacent meadows.

The rabbits have apparently become accustomed to human presence and continue nibbling until I'm almost on top of them, a complacency that may be ill-advised as there are foxes, coyotes, and other predators in the vicinity. The dragonflies don't seem to care much about me either; they dart about, carefully avoiding hungry mouths lurking below the surface of the pond, and rest here and there on rocks and vegetation, only flitting away when I come within an arm's length. The green one immediately below is (I'm told) a female eastern pondhawk, which is a wonderful and appropriate name, for this is very much a hunting creature.

The frogs must be the keystone species here, their sheer numbers guaranteeing their own perpetuation as well as the survival of those who prey upon them. Over the past weeks the young ones have been slowly metamorphosizing from tadpoles. Some are still confined to the water, while others now hop about, soon to lose the remnants of their tails. They're utterly absurd creatures, and as such instantly recognizable as our kin.