16 November 2008

"Sic Transit Gloria Continental!"

That's what Jon said early this morning as he, Donna, and I exited the newly-redesigned Giant Screen Auditorium at Denver's Continental Theater.

We three were very disappointed. Not only was the movie, Quantum of Solace, pretty lackluster, but they finally did it: they wrecked the Continental.

This was Denver's last remaining big movie palace from the 1960s. It has been going strong, and was always a lovely place to see a movie. A big barn of a theater, the formerly 999-seat auditorium featured a large, curved screen. Sitting within the first ten rows or so, obsessive viewers such as ourselves could feel that we were really "in the movie."

Another lovely thing about the Continental of old was its seats. With gentle pressure on the seat back, the seat itself would slide forward and the back recline at a perfect, restful, angle. And there was always tons of legroom.

The only thing left is the legroom, which is still ample.

But the new seats are horrors: one-piece uncomfortable buckets whose only movement is to rock. The back and the seat are one, curving piece. So if your body doesn't like the configuration of the angle, too damn bad. You are stuck with it.

What a shame.

It was somebody's (very bad) idea to turn this lovely auditorium into a kind of gargantuan joke version of the modern "stadium seating" theater. A fine concept, maybe. Maybe in somebody's mind. But they succeeded in creating an unlovely, uncomfortable hybrid. These seats and this seating arrangement do not work in this theater, with this screen!

The lines of sight, nicely balanced in the original design, now suck. Yes, they suck.

For those of us who like to sit close to the screen, that screen is now too high above us for a pleasant view. And for those who like to sit further back?. . .

Let me tell you. You knew that I would. After the film, as Jon, Donna and I wandered disconsolately around our now-vanished cinematic Eden, I went and tried out the very first row of the stadium seating section of the theater. You'd think that from here, dead center, the view would be pretty good.

It is not. The screen looks anything but "giant" from that vantage point. It looks small and paltry and oddly stretched. They didn't account for the fact that this is a curved screen! From those "ideal" seats, you are looking at a stretched, twisted ribbon of a screen, thin in the middle, larger at the ends. It looks terrible!

I can only think that from further up it must look even worse.

Grrrrrrrrr. . .

To cap it all off, you now pay $11.00 for the privilege of viewing a film in this big mistake of an auditorium.

I've had so many happy and exciting experiences in this big theater. It has always been my favorite in Denver.

It is so sad to see it suffer this fate.

So, to repeat Jon's words:

Sic Transit Gloria Continental.

09 November 2008

Building and Loan

Woke up Wednesday morning, day after the election, with an image in my mind.

It was George Bailey, running down the main street of Bedford Falls, seeing all the old familiar sights, having woken up from his nightmare, yelling "Yay!!!!"

That's how I felt that morning.

"Hello, you lovely old Building and Loan!!"

06 November 2008

What We Did and How it Makes Us Feel

The feeling of having come together as a people and having elected this man, this self-confessed "most unlikely candidate," goes way beyond the historic milestone of his being this country's first African-American president. That unquestionably enormous fact is now history and will be written in the books, logged down.

One can speak, as many are speaking, of epochal changes, of a sea-change, of a transformational character.

But what I am feeling, what so many seem to be feeling, a lightness of heart, combined with deep pride, and a singing note of exhilaration, goes way deeper.

We've been cynical and battered so long.

And the cynic in us and the cynic outside can whisper that it's all projection, all symbolic, that we are loading a lot of hope and joy on a young man from Illinois.

And I say, that's right: we are feeling the beginnings of what it feels like to have a leader.

04 November 2008

Voting: The Reality

Howdy, folks!

My last, elegiac post gave my feelings about voting. I had written most of that a while back, but had to publish it before actually going out and voting, for goodness' sake.

So, today being THE DAY, I did go out and vote.

I pulled up and parked on the street at 11:27 am. My polling place (always a new one: don't think I have voted at the same place twice!) was the Washington Park Community Center, located in the east side of Denver's park of the same name.

I had wondered where I would park. I had wondered how long the fabled long lines would be. I had expected I would have time to drop a few tweets to Twitter friends, and to read my book, "The Unfolding of Language."

So I walked up the road toward the community center itself, looking for people streaming out, looking for the lines. I love those big black-on-white signs officially announcing 'Polling Place for Precincts . . ." They made it official. This was the place.

I went inside. The place is a community center with a large gym, workout room, and pool. Quite nice, actually.

And I still didn't see the line.

I was standing there wondering where to go when a fellow near me asked, "You here to vote?"


He pointed me around the main check-in desk and to the left, down to the gym.

I was trembling with excitement.

Followed the short hallway and the ramp down to the wide-open double doors of the gym. There, people were standing around, waiting to greet me.

Waiting to greet ANY voter.

In short, reader, there was NO LINE. Not a line at the table where they look your name up in the voter rolls. Not a line waiting for a voting booth. There were ten or so of these booths set up in the middle of the room, and three or so other people voting at the moment.

I approached the alphabetically correct "line" at the folding tables, and gave the young man my name. Just to make sure, I handed him my official voter card, the thing I got in the mail that told me that this was my polling place.

He riffled through the log. He paged forward, then back.

He looked up at me and said, "Um, I'm not sure. . ."

The guy sitting next to him asked me what my precinct number was. I told him. It was two-nineteen.

"Oh, well, 219 isn't here. You have to go somewhere else," said the second, older guy.

I was dumbfounded. But not convinced.

I knew that it said 219 right on my card, the card the young man still had in front of him on the open voter rolls. And I knew that that card had this location as my polling place. All of which I told them.

Looking behind the election judges, I saw a second row of folding tables. Piled on these tables were stacks of the paper ballots we are using in Denver County this year. They were allocated by precinct number. And right there at the first stack was a small hand-lettered sign that said "219."

As I tried to point that out, the older guy was telling me where I had to go. He insisted that it was not very far away.

He was "sure that 219 was not here."

Then, a breakthrough.

The younger election judge looked back at his computer printout rolls, back at my card, paged a few pages, and found me.

Then they fell into their official mode, the one man writing down my voter number in a log, the other one taking my signature.

"Well, what was this all about?" I asked.

"I was spelling your name with "Ha" instead of "He."

"Oh. That would do it," I said.

The rest of the experience went smoothly. I was handed two large thin cardboard ballot cards. They were inside a plain white "security sleeve." I took them over to one of the "booths," which was a flimsy but official place to write and to shield my ballot on three sides.

Our ballot here in Colorado was long this year, but I was perfectly prepared. I had my cheat sheet with me in my book, and I took it out and filled out the ballot.

These ballots, I assume, are identical to the ones people have been using for some weeks of mail-in voting. Next to each choice, each candidate, or the words Yes and No, is an arrow missing its middle section. To mark your choice, you connect the left and right parts of the arrow. A nice dark, thick pencil for this purpose is wired to the voting booth.

When I was done with that, I was not sure where to take the ballot. Looking around, it became clear. There was a table set up across the room with two large boxes. Somewhat disturbingly, one was red and one was blue, but this had nothing to do with party affiliation! The red one was for mail-in ballots that people were walking in with. The blue one was for people voting today, like me.

Part of this whole experience is the interaction with the people manning the polls. Obviously, it didn't start well for me, with the two somewhat incompetent election judges who were very quick to assume I was in the wrong place. But it ended well, with the pleasant lady standing behind the table with the boxes. We talked a little bit about the light turnout. She supposed it was because so many people voted early or by mail-in ballot.

I fumbled with my cards a bit. She told me that no, the security sleeve doesn't fit in the slot, just the ballot cards do. She told me to just slip them in the slot and tilt them up, so they would slide in.

For some reason I flashed on a death at sea, where the wrapped-up corpse is up-ended into the briny deep.

Erasing that from my mind and laughing at myself a bit, I tipped my ballots up, slid them in, and cast my vote.


I love to vote.

I am a voting fan, a voting junky, a voting devotee.

Sure, the activity is one of civic importance. It is one of our basic rights. It is one of the only times that your opinion counts to the country at large. All that sort of thing. Right.

But for me, the very act of voting bundles all of that and more up into a semi-religious civic rite, with time-honored traditions and trappings. It is the act itself and civic-holy approach to the act and the feeling of having done something important that gives me such a charge.

My devotion to the mystery of voting goes back to one childhood scene. One time my mother took me with her when she went to vote.

I knew this was something special, and something reserved for those mysterious beings who both protected me and bedeviled my world, adults. Though my mom and dad were of different parties, and always joked that their votes would "cancel out," they still always went to vote. And, though my mom might be inclined to tell me who she voted for, my Dad's vote was his secret, not to be revealed lightly.

This impressed me.

So, I already had feelings about the deep mystery of voting when my mom and I arrived at the town fire station, not far from our house. To tell the truth, it might have been the town hall building, I'm not sure which. This is not the important part of the memory, the visual image and the feelings I still carry with me.

What I remember is the machines, and the people in the machines. These were the old-time classic full-body voting machines, where you stepped inside and drew a huge muscular lever that closed the curtains behind you with a ringing clunk.

But I, perhaps ten years old, was not allowed inside the booth. I stood over at one side of the room and looked at the row of monolithic machines and the people doing whatever they were doing inside there.

All I saw were pairs of legs sticking out.

There was the bottom of my mother's green coat, and her bare legs, her feet in flat black shoes.

She seemed to be in there a long time.

What was she doing in there? What were all these adults doing that was so important that I was not allowed to do it as well or to even see it being done?

Looking at my mother there, from the back, at her legs and at that big curtained machine, I thought suddenly about The Wizard of Oz. "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" But that was my mom behind the curtain now. The fumbling Wizard made himself into that scary, fire-drenched floating head! What would my mother do in there?

But it reminded me of something from Sunday School, too. Something about the temple of Solomon, and the place back in the temple, behind a curtain, where only the priests were allowed to go. Back where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.

Eventually, the curtains parted with a ratcheting clang, and my mother was delivered back to this world and to me.

Ever since then, a numinous exhalation surrounds the act of voting and all its trappings for me.

I sit here in the wee hours of Election Day 2008. The day has finally arrived.

Later today, I will go to a local community center and take my place in line.

I hope it will be a long, long line. There is something wonderful about a long, long line when everyone is in that line for the same reason and when most of the people feel about voting the way I do. Any person who does not want to be there is welcome to get out of line and go home.

But no. The long line of like-minded folks endures.

Eventually I will reach the election judges behind their folding tables. The first one will give me a voter registration card to fill out with my name and address. Birthdate optional. The next one, looking at the card, will look me up in a big computer printout of my precinct. Or maybe on a computer. That happened last time, although the failure of some of these computerized voting rolls was a scandal in the elections 2 years ago. A third judge will write my information down on a big sheet, to show that I have, indeed, voted. He or she will also give me my ticket, a printed slip of paper that I exchange for the actual process of being ushered into a voting area.

Another election judge will be scanning the room for a place for me to actually vote, waiting for the next person to be done with the activity.

This year in Denver county, we are using paper ballots, because of various scandals and challenges resulting from the use of electronic voting machines two years ago.

So that will be a new wrinkle for me. . .and also a kind of hisoric echo, back to basics.

I'll stand there in nervous anticipation, the voting ticket clutched in my hand, watching the body language of the election judge, looking for someone to be done.

And then the moment comes.

I'll be led into some kind of array, some kind of alcove, some kind of place to actually cast my vote.

Let's draw the curtains right here. This activity is private and does not bear up to the light of day. Grab that big red handle, if you will, and sweep it from right to left.


The curtains are closed.

Sssh, quiet!

We're voting now.

01 November 2008

Halloween Visitors: A List

Spent Halloween at my stepmother Amy's place.

For the first time in many years, I got to see some trick-or-treaters. I even got to give out the candy. I had a blood-red glass bowl filled with a mixture of "fun size" Snickers, Nestle's Crunch, Kit Kats, and Hershey's kisses.

I expected the little little kids to be coming around with their parents quite early, around 4:30 or so. But really, the first visitors, a small girl devil with her demon mother, came by just before 6:30.

The kids started out very small, like the amazing elfin Spiderman I opened the door to find next, and got bigger as the evening's modest parade went on. In the middle were the middle-school kids, too cool to wear costumes (unless those "cool" outfits they were wearing were their costumes!) They got taller and edgier toward the end, like the young man who announced himself as "a dead skateboarder," and who, indeed, had a full-sized skateboard right through his body!

Four days before Election Day, many of the older kids heartily approved of my "Obama/Biden" t-shirt.

For what it's worth, here is the modest list of trick-or-treaters at Amy's house in suburban Littleton:

- 1 small devil (1 accompanying parent)

-1 small Spiderman
-1 spider baby (in mom's chest harness)
-(2 parents)

-2 slightly older cute witches

-3 young teens, 1 dog. (too cool for costumes. small fluffy dog carried like a baby under a blanket)

-2 small Transformers
-1 self-confessed "homicidal murderer"
-1 girl genie
-(1 parent)

-1 dead skateboarder
-1 Jason

-1 female duck
-1 vampiress
(arrived after 9:00, after we had given up and closed the front door)

-7 assorted older teens: vampires, "a black man," hockey goalie, etc.

12 October 2008

The Things My Brain Does Sometimes

Larry K., Larry W., and I were gathered around the lunchroom table, working on an after-work crossword puzzle.

The clue for 21 Across read like this:

"'______ Blues' (Abbey Road song)"

"Hey, look at this!" I said. "This is ridiculous!"

"What?" said the Larrys.

"Well, look. The answer here should be "Yer Blues." But "Yer Blues" is not on Abbey Road. That's ridiculous. Just totally wrong."

Larry K.: "What album is it on?"

"It's on the White Album, of course."

Larry W: "No, it isn't."

Me: "Yes, it is!"

Larry W: "Well, I know the White Album really well. I have the White Album. I don't really know Abbey Road. But it's not on there."

Me: "It is. It's definitely on the White Album."


One of the Larrys: "Well, maybe they are looking for some other song here."

Me: "No. Look. "Yer" fits perfectly here. It's got to be "Yer Blues."

Silence. More crossword work.

Then, me: ""Yer Blues" is NOT on Abbey Road."

And so we continued working on the crossword. Much haranguing and some hilarity.

I only thought of it again the next morning while I was shaving: "Yer Blues! Larry must know the song, but not know its name. It is a hard song to forget. Yes, I have to prove that it is on the White Album."

I thought of the song, with John Lennon nearly shouting its scary-violent suicidal lyrics: "Yes, I'm lonely. . .wanna die!/ Yes, I'm lonely. . .wanna die!/If I ain't dead already/Ooh, girl, you know the reason why," all rough and punctuated by fuzzed-out guitars. Great song! Though one that, admittedly, scared me a bit at the young age when I first heard it.

I pictured myself checking out my white-vinyl version of the White Album and finding the song right there. And did I keep my copy of Abbey Road when I sold off most of my lps years ago? I hoped I had. I could check there first, just to prove it.

That was a precious album to me, Abbey Road. I got it for Christmas the year it came out, Christmas of 1969, months before my family left New Jersey to move to Colorado. My friend, Chris Moffa, also got the record at that time, and we listened to it carefully, minutely, lovingly, over and over again. For me, that whole album still breathes a dash of brisk winter weather and my friendship with Chris Moffa.

I thought about the album. Thought about how I have played side two of the record about 10 times more than I've played side one over the years. Yes, side one has a lot of good songs on it, sure, but side two of Abbey Road is just beautiful, one of the great album sides of all time, including that amazing song-after-song grouping that starts with "You Never Give Me Your Money," peaks at "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window," and ends with "The End."

I realized, standing there in my bathroom, that I didn't think I could even list all the songs on Side one anymore. It had been a long time since I'd played it. Let's see, it ends with that amazing sonic storm, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" grinding on, over and over again, until you are never sure when it's going to suddenly cut off. And "Maxell's Silver Hammer" is in there, and "Octopus's Garden." What begins the side? Hmmmm. . ."Come Together," isn't it? And right in the middle, there is kind of a longer, violent song that always kind of scared me as a kid. What was that?

Uh-oh. No. It couldn't be. Hmmmm.

"Yer Blues" is on the White Album, dammit. I know it is.

Could this be happening? Could I actually have transposed one song from one album to another in my memory? It had happened before. There have been things I swore I knew which turned out to be just wrong. And not just once before! Geez. I thought that song was on the White Album! I really did. And I shot off my stupid mouth to Larry and Larry! But it looks like I am wrong. It's that song in the middle of side one of Abbey Road. Damn! Those crossword puzzle editors wouldn't let something like that get by, would they? Certainly not Will Shortz. Hmmmmm. . .

With a silly smile of shame on my face, laughing at myself, I went out to the living room and looked through my few remaining lps. And I found the song. Right there between "Birthday" and "Mother Nature's Son". . .on the White Album!!!

I felt so good. At least this one time, my memory was not playing tricks on me.

Though it had been, of course. For a few minutes I had convinced myself that the song actually was on Abbey Road, to the point where I knew which side it was on and which track it occupied on that side. I could see it there in my mind's eye, hear it, and had feelings about it.

It turns out that my boyhood feelings about that song on Abbey Road, which was really "Oh! Darling," were similar to my feelings about "Yer Blues." Both songs were violent, screaming, about lost love, and made my 12-year-old self cringe with excitement.

I just now read that, though "Oh! Darling" was sung by Paul McCartney, John Lennon remarked that it was the kind of song that he himself would normally have sung.

So, while I can understand how my brain could swap one song for the other and really believe the new arrangement for a few minutes, it just points out again what strange and protean landscapes are our memories!

04 October 2008

Another Spider

Down at Amy's yesterday afternoon.

Standing in her kitchen, I chanced to look out the window. Up under her eaves and silhouetted against the sky I saw a big, dark blob.

A spider. A spider! An amazingly big spider!

If I stood at the right angle and looked at it against the neighbor's house, I could also see the spider's incredibly intricate, large circular web. The web was over a foot in diameter and beautifully constructed. I wondered aloud how long it took this creature to make such a web.

I was thinking back to that other spider, the one on Amy's porch. You may remember, in "The Spider on Amy's Porch," how, in blind ignorance and the stupidity of the moment, I obliterated a jumping spider, Phidippus Audax, using Amy's tiny shoe.

Well, as I stood there looking at this spider, maybe the largest spider I had ever seen "in the wild," it felt like a second chance.

That was, of course, simplistic and unfair, since I had killed that other spider. Nothing would bring that spider back. But this was a second chance for me, at least. I was determined not to make the same mistake. I would not kill this spider. I would not let Amy kill this spider.

Amy was standing there talking about how she used to be tall enough to stand on the back steps and brush off cobwebs under the eaves with a broom. She asked if she should go get a broom.

"Spiders are good, Amy," I said. "They kill a lot of flies." I used this utilitarian argument because Amy does hate the flies, moths, and other bugs that congregate around her front porch light. Also, I didn't want to get into the deeper issues. And besides, Amy understood. She remembered that other spider as much as I did.

But backlit against the afternoon sky, this was one amazing, angular chunk of a spider. As I stood there in awe, Amy said, " Too bad you can't get a picture of it."

This, I think, was Amy's sly way of saying, "Why don't you get a picture of it?"

Of course!! Why not?!

Instead of killing it, this time I could photograph it.

I whipped my new cell phone out of my pocket and tried a few shots. I knew that, whatever kind of pictures I did get, they would have to be severely enlarged to see any detail of the spider at all. So I took a couple pictures, with the spider barely visible as a speck against the sky, right at the center of the frame. I went through the manipulations of blowing them up in the camera.

But, backlit as they were, the pictures came out as dramatic but entirely dark forms, with no detail.

I decided to go out on the back steps, to see what I could see from there.

When I looked up at the spider, I was thrilled! I could see all kinds of detail from this angle.

The spider was not dark at all, but rather beige, as if he was constructed out of old parchment. And he had interesting markings, light and dark dots, all over his legs and his body. Wow!

And how big was he, really? This is a tough question, since I spent lots of time taking pictures of him and later enlarging them to get good big images. I'm guessing his body alone was around half an inch long, and with his legs added he filled up most of an inch, maybe.

In all the time, some ten or fifteen minutes or so, that I spent gazing at the creature, he seemed to be posing for me. He didn't move much, just swaying a little as the afternoon gusts moved his web. I tried picture after picture, knowing that most of them would come out blurry when blown up enough to see the beast. Eventually I braced the cell phone camera against the brick of the house to keep it steady.

That's how I got the picture you see above.

Definitely the biggest spider I have ever seen.

I'll go further than that: It was the best spider experience I have ever had.

28 September 2008

Sarah Palin Creeps Me Out

I was sitting in Amy's living room with Amy and a former neighbor of hers, an old friend who was visiting for a few days. On TV was Nightline, and we were watching bits out of the Charles Gibson Sarah Palin interview.

The words just dropped out of my mouth: "This woman terrifies me."

Amy and her friend both looked at me. They didn't disagree. They were just surprised that I said what I said.

Thing was, I was surprised, too.

I've been thinking about Sarah Palin and the whole Palin effect kicked off by her speech at the RNC, and trying to figure it all out.

My thoughts here are based on three appearances: her acceptance speech at the convention, the Charles Gibson interview, and the recent Katie Couric interview.

I watched all three on YouTube.

First, I was thinking about the deep, mesmeric effect she seemed to have on a huge swath of the American public with her first, big speech at the Republican National Convention. The adulation seemed hugely at odds with the image she was presenting, somehow. I wondered how to explain it.

I thought then of Ronald Reagan, and the huge disjunction between his TV image--might as well say his screen image--and the words that were coming out of his mouth, especially at press conferences. This was one time where my predilection for radio listening served me well. Listening to a Reagan press conference on the radio, one could hear how disjoint and avoidant and rambling and generalized his answers were. . .and one was not caught up, riveted by his hypnotic ex-movie-star persona on the TV. To me, Reagan's backgroiund as an actor and his brilliantly practiced presentation of his visual image went a long way to him being dubbed "the great communicator."

So I thought: do we have here in Palin a kind of female Ronald Reagan?

But no. There is something else there. Something that was bothering me intensely. And it continues to bother me.

The rumors and backstories and chat spread like bad weeds. The library censorship story especially intrigued me. But I quickly learned that much of this was being embellished, made up, or conclusion-jumped in the blogosphere. (Even without the made-up parts, the raw dirty verifiable core of the library story sickens me.)

But what I was feeling about Palin was something different. I wanted to figure out why I had just blurted that out in my stepmother's living room, "this woman terrifies me." That was a visceral reaction to something. It felt instinctive.
It felt animal.

So this has nothing to do with ideology or background or rumors or experience or any of that. It is strictly something I feel looking at her when she speaks.

She seems artificial, somehow.

She seems like someone who has carefully learned the words and the minutest of facial expressions, and she is putting on a show. There's nothing behind it. Or what's behind it is completely locked down, inaccessible.

She has a zombie-like quality.

More than all that, or maybe a clue to all that, she seems frighteningly humorless. She knows how to deliver a joke, sure, like her famous hockey mom/pit bull/lipstick comment. . . but watch that moment again, as I just did. Even this joke seems very controlled, very rehearsed, and like there is not really any good humor or jokiness behind it.

This is all massively subjective, but it is something I really perceive in watching this woman.

Earlier tonight I heard a woman from India, part of a roundtable discussion of American politics, and of Palin specifically, on the bbc. Twice or more she just casually referred to Palin as a "barbie doll." Just as part of her point, she used this expression. The moderator suggested that some people might be offended by such a label. But the Indian woman had said what she said not as some great revelation, but as something that was just the obvious image projected by Palin.

So, yeah, there is something oddly artificial about her.

One could say, I suppose, that she is just a very practiced speaker.

But doesn't a really practiced speaker use his or her own humanity as a selling point?

Maybe it is not that she is humorless. Maybe it is that she doesn't betray any weakness or humility. She is all polished and strident and smug.

That's why I veered away from the Ronald Reagan comparision (though I think there is still something in that.) Part of the Reagan persona was a kind of folksy self-deprecating humor. Whether part of his schtick or something more genuine, there was a definite humility there.

I don't see humility in Sarah Palin.

I don't get a feeling of self-criticism or self-examination from her.

She seems to be. . .and this goes for both her big public speech and her more intimate interviews. . .a woman without a shadow.

And I find that terrifying.

07 September 2008

The Night Before the Convention: Back Window Story I

Stuff happens outside my back bedroom window.

My window looks out on the alley, on a nexus of nothing and darkness and nothing. Right at the head of my bed, right above my head as I sleep, the window shows a view of a kind of no-man's land, unclaimed property where one end of an apartment building parking lot meets the alley and forms a dark corner behind the hundred-year-old house in which I live.

Because this is such an odd forgotten spot, strange things happen there. It is tucked away and dark, even during the day, and people think they can hide there and do things.

Little do they suspect that I might be lying on my bed, listening, and that if I raise myself up on an elbow, I can get a good view of parts of their hiding place.

Several cars have been ditched there over the years. Bums call the corner home for short spans. And of course there have been amorous episodes, the most memorable clinch in broad daylight and mercifully brief.

Some of these Back Window Stories will appear here from time to time.

For now, I'd like to tell you what happened out my back window on the Sunday night before the Democratic National Convention.

The town was tense in the run up to the convention. People were telling tales of hundreds of police in riot gear on average stretches of Broadway south of downtown. At a party that weekend, there was much discussion of what was going to happen, with the slightly older folks hoping that nothing seriously violent would occur and the younger folks just so sure that it would, and kind of hoping so.

I tend to go to bed early on a Sunday night, in order to go to work early on Monday morning. So there I was in the cozy dark of my bedroom, there below the window, at a bit past ten.

I woke with a start to some noise in the alley at 12:46 am. Some crash out by the dumpsters woke me.

I keep my glasses close to me in bed, and I took them out of their old battered hardshell black case and put them on and looked out.

In the summer, the window is shielded behind the fronds of some rank luxuriant weed. This serves two purposes: it shields the south-facing window from the hot summer sun, and it serves as a blind when I choose to spy on the world outside. I can see out, but mostly from the outside people see the green growth in front of the window's screen.

At least I hope that's what they see.

As I looked out that night, I saw the scene at the dumpsters immediately. Two young men had pulled up their small black pickup truck in the apartment building lot and were loading something into the dumpsters. They had black plastic bags, I saw, and were dumping something from the bags into the dumpsters.

This would not have even caught my attention, except for the fact that it was just before one in the morning. The world was very still and quiet. Most people were in bed, or at least inside. And here were these two guys dumping stuff in the dumpsters.

That also struck me as odd. It was not just one dumpster, the one nearest the window, that they were using. They were distributing their dumping among not one, not two, but three dumpsters down the alley. This would suggest that the dumpsters were full, and they had to use more than one.

The scene just struck me as weird. Middle of the night. Two guys dumping something from black trash bags into three separate dumpsters.

It's not like I thought about it very logically at the time. My brain was muddled by my interrupted sleep, so I didn't think very far into the situation. I just saw what I saw and knew that the pieces weren't adding up somehow. The time of night was the oddest thing, certainly. And the three dumpsters, that seemed weird. Mostly, it was just an interruption of my sleep that should not have happened, so I kept watching and my brain kept chewing at it like a dog's chew toy.

When the two guys were done at the dumpsters, they disappeared somewhere. They didn't seem to be at their truck, and I figured they had gone into the apartment building.

My brain was simmering with it by now. Normally I am a person who has no trouble going to sleep. Only very occasionally is my mind so occupied with something that it keeps me up. This night was one of those occasions.

I kept thinking about what I had seen. That, and the fact that I could vaguely smell some kind of planty, agricultural sort of smell from the dumpsters across the way. That and the fact that the Democratic National Convention was beginning the next day.

Call it paranoia. Go ahead. I won't be hurt. Call it.

OK, now that we have labeled it, we can describe it a little further, or show where it was carrying me.

I thought in the dark of that night of the Oklahoma City bombing. I thought of how such a bombing was carried out with a truck full of fertilizer. And I smelled something from the dumpsters.

Now, dear Readers, I have to say that I didn't really BELIEVE that the dumpsters were turned into potential bombs to wreak random anarchic havoc on the eve of the DNC. I didn't. Not really. But you know how it is: the thought did go through one part of my brain.

I find such states of mind fascinating, actually. How your brain can encompass these two things at the same time, and 13 other odd flavors layered in there to boot. Know what I mean? At the same time you can be filled with enough fear and credulity over a simple event in the alley, another part of your brain knows that it is just brainstuff going on and knows it's just stories you are telling yourself.

So, while one part of me knew that the most outlandish ideas I was making up were just that, outlandish ideas, another part of my brain still thought that it was at least a bit suspicious that these two guys had loaded stuff into three separate dumpsters at near one in the morning.

I was fully awake by this point and decided to get up and go into my front room. I considered calling the police, but was not at that point yet.

I wandered around a bit, sat in the chair in my front room. I thought about my brain and the stories I was making up. Knew they were stories. But I like to tell stories. My brain likes it a lot.

Wandered back to bed again.

And just as I had settled into bed, the two guys came back out to their truck. One was carrying something long and thin. I won't say my brain didn't make it into a gun. He put the not-really-a-gun thing in the back of the black pickup truck. The two guys got into the vehicle and pulled out and drove down the alley.

Now I had more to think about. While they had been away, I could imagine that they lived in the apartment building. Now it was clear that they had just done their mystery dumping here, and now, at one-thirty or later, were on their way away from the scene.

The heat on the stove of my brain went up a notch or two.

This was ridiculous. I was getting all flamed up for nothing. This was a very simple and logical scene. There was a perfectly understandable explanation. I needed to go to bed. I needed to be up now in less than five hours. Sheesh. Why am I letting my mind lead me on this dance?

I got up and called the police.

Yes I did. I did it to set my mind at ease if nothing else. I told them just the facts of the "suspicious activity," of course. I wasn't crazy enough to start in with the stories. I didn't even believe the stories. Just the bare facts of what I had seen. I couldn't really see either of the fellows that well, I mean, not their facial features. They were young white males. One large, wearing a light T-shirt and light shorts, the other thin and tall, wearing dark clothes. That's about all I could say. I told them which way the truck had been heading and when. Answered all the dispatcher's questions. Gave my name. Said, yes, they could contact me again if they needed to.

And went back to bed.

Still I couldn't sleep, though. I had to wait to see the results of my call.

I guess actually I did fall asleep a bit, because I woke to the sound of a vehicle coming down the alley. It was a police car.

The cop car stopped right at the nearest dumpster. One of the cops got out, shined his flashlight in there. Made a muffled comment. Got back in the car. And drove slowly away.

Fine. That actually made me feel much better. The police had come and looked and declared the situation no big deal. Nothing to worry about. Said to me, in effect, Herm, go back to sleep.

Which is what I did.

Slept just fine until my alarm went off, the first one being the news from National Public Radio, at six a.m., and the next one, the annoying beeping one, fifteen minutes later.

I got up and got ready to go to work. Thinking some, but not a lot, about the events of the night before. When I was nearly ready to walk out, I was in my front room and I heard some noise.

Some noise from the alley. Through my back bedroom window.

I went into my bedroom, stepped up onto the bed and went and leaned over and peered through the slats of the mini-blinds.

And saw two guys walking this way down the alley. One large guy dressed in light T-shirt and shorts, the other, taller fellow dressed in dark clothes.

There was no doubt that it was the guys from the night before. They walked past the dumpsters and past my place and out to the street. I didn't see where they went.

But a few minutes later I went outside myself. It was quiet, early morning. No one was around. I looked up and down the streets and the alley across the way but saw no one.

Now the weirdness of the night before was with me again, the suspicions and the gnawing fear. Mostly the oddness of this newest element of the story: why were these two guys from last night's story walking down the alley in the early morning? Where was their truck? What were they doing? Why were they near these dumpsters again?

OK, OK, calm down. This is perfectly reasonable. These guys live in the neighborhood. Just as I do. They could just as well ask what I was doing out in the street at that time of morning, peering down the alleys and up the streets.

What was I doing, approaching the dumpster, the one I regularly use, the nearest one? Why was I walking up to the dumpster here in the early morning, reaching up and lifting the lid? What was I expecting to see here at a quarter to seven?

I lifted the black plastic lid and looked in. A familiar smell assaulted my nose before I saw it. Grass clippings. A pile of grass clippings, loose, dumped, and under them a black plastic bag.

The dumpster was about half full. And up near the front, on top of some black garabage bags, loose grass clippings.

And peeking out from the corner of the pile of grass clippings, something. What? Something that shouldn't be there. Just like all the other jangling pieces of last night's story that did not make sense for one reason or another. It just shouldn't be there.

Peeking out from the top of the green pile of grass clippings was some kind of electronic component, like an old VCR or a stereo receiver, something like that.

I only saw the corner of it. I didn't dig in the clippings to see more. I was too nervous about being out here in the first place, peering into the dumpster. I looked around. No one.

So I went to work. As I drove to my first stop, Whole Foods, I thought of calling the police again, and kept thinking of how ridiculous it would all sound now, in the light of day: "Hi, I am the guy who called last night and told about the guys in the alley at the dumpsters, and the police DID come last night and looked, but this morning when I looked I saw something strange, buried in the grass clippings. . ."

By the time I pulled into our parking lot at work I felt really silly about the whole thing.

And I called the police.

This story can't really have an ending. It can't go any further than that. That is all I witnessed. No followups, no conclusions. Only questions.

Did I do the right thing, calling the police? Twice? What was so odd about what I saw? Or was it just me? But why in the middle of the night? And why three dumpsters if the one I looked in was nowhere near full? And why loose grass clippings on top of full, sealed bags? Why empty the grass clippings out of the black plastic bags in the first place? And where were the guys going, why were they near these dumpsters again early in the morning? And why, why bury an old piece of audio or video equipment in grass clippings?

My brain, of course, has come up with some stories. . .

01 September 2008

Barr Lake Story

One evening I walked along the road that circles Barr Lake, northeast of Denver.

This was unusual for me. Most times, I go out to the lake in the early morning, arriving half an hour or 45 minutes before sunrise. I can watch and listen to the world waking up that way.

Barr Lake is a prairie reservoir 30 minutes from the city. It is a magnet for many kinds of migratory birds in Spring and Fall. It is a beautiful place to walk and listen to and enjoy the many faces of such a prairie habitat.

I have been there dozens of times, in all seasons. The place is a marvel of change. Since it is a man-made water project, the level of water in both lake and the canal that skirts it is always changing. And as the water rises and falls, the landscape changes with it. The path that circles the lake sweeps in some big curves around bowl-shaped meadows that will turn, in another season, into big circular coves of the lake itself, meadow grass now all submerged, while at another time the same area will be a marsh, cattails bursting with red-winged blackbirds' squeaky trills.

A 9-mile dirt road, used by park rangers and water department officials circles the lake.

It's my habit to walk a portion of this road, clockwise from the visitors' center.

One attraction that greets me about half a mile along the road is a huge old lightning-blasted cottonwood. It is, without a doubt, my favorite tree.

It's hard to say how I have come to love this particular tree. Certainly, I have visited it more than any other tree I can think of, except those of my childhood. I have seen the huge, double-trunked creature at all times of year, at many times of day and night, in many weathers. I've seen it hard and gray and leafless, surviving through the winter. I've seen it rising out of a lake of its own fallen leaves. I watched as one of its two trunks was besieged by motile armies of ants, and watched that trunk die, and came back later to see the huge thing fallen, cracked right off, laying underneath the remaining trunk and branches.

So this one evening I was walking specifically to make it to this tree, to my tree. I didn't have much time, and just this short excursion would have to do. It was getting dark quickly. I walked just to get to the tree.

The huge cottonwood stands sentinel at one curve of the path,
a short scramble down the bank. There are no trees around it. It stands there powerful and alone.

When I reached the tree, color had mostly leached out of the day. It was as if the world was taking on the grey of the tree. I hopped and slid down the short bank in the dusk to reach the massive barky trunk. I touched it gently with my hands and talked quietly to it.

I turned around and leaned up against the trunk. I felt with my back the huge solidity of this thing, this creature. I felt tiny and insignificant in comparison. The fact that I could move and the tree lived its entire life rooted to this spot seemed a paltry consolation.

I'd like to be able to say that I felt the tree's life, that I tapped into its ancient consciousness, but that's not it. That's not what I felt.

Here I was with my spine resting against this immenseness. As I looked out, a tiny thing in the shelter of this hugeness, I saw its branches, black against the almost dark sky, hanging down all around me like a complicated network of blood vessels and capillaries. And at my feet and stretching out all around was a thick rich mulch of leaves that had fallen over the season and over the years. All this, too, was part of the tree's life. The tree presided over a huge swath of land and of sky.

The life of the tree was giant and grey and slow and powerful. I might as well have been one of the ants crawling up its trunk.

What happened next cannot have happened. It's the kind of thing you might imagine happening, or dream of, or see in a movie that you'd later call corny. But it is this very quality that assures me that it actually did occur. It was ridiculously awesome.

I rested there in the tree's embrace, looking out through its blood-vessel branches hanging down against a nearly black sky. And down and across that sky, from right to left, exactly where I looked, a single bright meteor arced.

19 July 2008

Emissions Lady

I recently did my stepmother a favor and took my father's car to get its emissions inspection.

(Odd. I just realized that not only do I still call it "my father's car," but I still think of it that way, even though he died in January 2001. But that, perhaps, is another blog.)

As I waited in that place which is either a long, thin building with windows or a hallway with a roof, I saw her.

She wore her blue overall uniform. Her gray hair was gathered back but with streamers flying. Her job is to finish off the inspection, take your cash or check in payment, check the gas cap seal, and send you on your way.

She has worked at this particular emissions inspection facility for years. I've seen her many times.

Standing there and watching her bustle about her business I realized that seeing her is one of the highlights about the yearly trip to the emissions inspection place. I realized that I had missed her when she was not there, that I had wondered about her and even worried a bit that she had lost the job or gotten sick.

My car's test done, she jumped in it, pulled it forward to just outside the building, looked around, and one-arm waved me out.

"Cash or check?" she automatically asked me.

Handing her my cash, I said, "Hey! It's nice to see you again! I've seen you here lots of times. You've worked here for a long time, haven't you?"

She hitched in mid-gesture and her craggy, snaggle-toothed face bloomed. She dropped several layers of formality.

"Hey, yeah. I've seen you here, too. I recognize you."

Suddenly, we were on the same wavelength.

She said, "I always like to go to places where people know me, you know? It's so much nicer when somebody can smile, like at the grocery store, where somebody's not going to raise a fuss when I point out that something is on sale or something."

I had to agree.

As she printed out my paperwork and sent me on my way, she said,"Hey, your car is doing good, there. I looked at the old numbers and it's looking good! See you next time!"

"Yeah. See you!"

Later, I was telling my stepmother about this encounter. As she told me about her own experiences with people she "knows" in the grocery store, the importance of such contact struck me deeply.

Don't we crave such experiences? Don't we want to exchange a few pleasant words with someone we have chatted with before, while they count out our change or scan our items?

Maybe it's just me. But there are places I visit repeatedly in my daily rounds and I do look forward to seeing particular clerks or serving people again and again. I look forward to the little chit-chat conversations about silly things, but silly things we two people share in particular. I look forward to them not only recognizing me as a person, but as a person that they know some little something about.

And I want these little relationships to be real.

There is so much fakery in our society, where a server is trained to say, for instance, "Hi, my name is Josh, and I'll be your server today." This is a corporate, fake attempt to imitate a real relationship between people, since that sort of thing is a rare commodity these days.

But a real relationship can't come from a single managerial-mandated introduction. It takes time and multiple visits and courage on the part of both service person and customer. Courage to not only be observant and recognize something about the person in front of you, but to eventually say something about it, make some little comment that opens up a real connection.

My encounter with the emissions lady just got me thinking about this, and thinking that it is really quite important and much deeper than it might seem at first.

Or maybe it's just me.

05 July 2008

TV Politics on the 4th

Not a big TV watcher am I. I might be if I had a decent TV with good reception.

Most TV I see down visiting Amy, as I was yesterday, on the 4th of July holiday.

And let me tell you. Barack Obama sure won the election at least as measured on Independence Day television coverage!

First, there was that ad, prefaced by a big view of Obama saying "I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message." Then blurbs about how he turned down big money jobs to go back Chicago and fight for the little man, how he worked his way through Harvard Law, etc, etc.

This was a winning ad, and it showed over and over. I saw it more than ten times in the time I was down at Amy's. It showed so many times that you could focus on different bits each time you saw it. "I saw this part before but look oh, he wants to reward employers who keep jobs in the States," etc. etc.

Saw it lots of times.

And there were maybe two or three other Obama ads sprinkled in during the evening as well.

I don't remember seeing one single John McCain ad.

Really, I don't think I saw one.

Ok, so Obama wins in the 4th of July ad race. Period. Hands down.

Then the news coverage.

Lots of shots, different ones, showing the Obama family celebrating the 4th in some small Montana town, watching a parade mostly. Butte. Images of small town America.

I saw this three or four times on local and national news programs.

And McCain??

Just a still picture of John up above the news person's head, while they tell us that John McCain is celebrating the 4th with family in the Phoenix area.

That was all. That was it.

That was all the McCain camp could manage for a 4th of July TV presence??

As I said, I am not a big TV watcher at all. But it astonished me how big the Obama presence was on the 4th, and how McCain came off as secluded off somewhere and not wanting to show his face.

I know how unfair this is and how it might not say anything of substance about the attributes of the actual candidates, etc, etc.

But we live in television times. This is not a secret anymore.

McCain and his camp really blew it on their Independence Day showing.

Hands down.

30 June 2008

One or Two Porch Time Stories

I was down at Amy's last Friday evening, enjoying some porch time.

She remembered something she wanted to tell me, but didn't remember it exactly, just mostly. It was a question on Jeopardy!, she said. It had to do with presidents and their mothers, specifically their mothers voting for them.

Well, after discussing this for a bit she realized that no, it wasn't Jeopardy!, it was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, since there were 4 choices. Something about a president's mother voting for him. Which one was it?

The answer, as it turned out, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Putting the pieces together then and since, I've figured out that the question was which president was the first president whose mother was eligible to vote for him. And thinking more, I realized, of course, that the basis of the question is women's suffrage. It is difficult to realize that women did not have the right to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

1920, sheesh!! Sometimes the shameful history of this country just jaw drops me.

When it got too dark out on the porch and time for me to go home anyway, since I worked early the next morning, Amy remembered that she had something for me.

We went inside. Amy went off looking for the item in question. I brought in my water glass and gathered up my stuff, ready to leave.

Then, in a little ceremony in the kitchen, Amy presented me with a battered black book. She said, in fact, that when she saw it on the shelf, she thought it was an old Bible.

It was a holy book of sorts.

It was my father's old crossword puzzle dictionary!

Many an evening in his later years I would see him at the kitchen table working the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, and consulting his precious dictionary and some other books.

And here was this book, now battered, falling apart at the spine and taped up multiple times, pages soft with thumbing and somewhat dirty, and with my dad's additons written in where he considered them lacking.

This was such a special thing for Amy to give me. She knows that I love to do a crossword puzzle or three with Larry after work. And while we might call it "cheating," we will definitely consult sources when the frustration level gets too high.

But much more than that was just the fact of the thing. This book that still held and projected a feeling of my father, that he used every day, that his dirt and his markings decorated and perfumed.

I let the book open in my hands, riffling through it a bit. It opened to page 91.

Page 91 showed the beginning of the alphabetical 'F' lisitings.

There, in column two, my eyes fell on the first entry under 'F'

"F.D.R.'s mother.....................SARA"

27 June 2008

My Plan for World Peace

If elected President or named King of the World, I will start a global O Albele Panchhi Network, which broadcasts this delightful song from the 1955 film Devdas round the clock, 24/7.

A daily dose of O Albele Panchhi by everyone on the planet would make the world a better place.

Watch it (below) now!

24 June 2008


spiz-zer-inc-tum /spizz-uh-RING-tum/ n. [E dial. (U.S.) spizarinctum cash, specie, prob. irreg. fr. E specie]: the will to succeed : VIM, ENERGY, AMBITION

I found this word in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. It is one of those fun colloquial usages.

This one, though: I have never heard anyone say this word, not in real life, not in a movie, not even in a book!

Have you?

21 June 2008


When I was a boy of about eleven I got a diary.

It had a green plastic cover and one of those little straps and a lock. It said One Year Diary in gold on the cover.

I must have asked for it.

I think what bugged me about the diary was its layout. Each page was a new day. It started on January 1st and ended on December 31st.

This seemed strict and unreasonable to me. I soon discovered that I didn't have something to write each and every day.

I gathered that I should write about what happened on each day in question. But this was a ridiculous task for my brain. Days would go by where I did not write in the book. Then when I got back to it, I had forgotten what of note happened the day before and the day before that and the day before that.

So I would just write the truth. It started with "Forgot what happened." All this in a blue-ballpoint cursive scrawl. But soon it was just abbreviated to "forgot."

Looking at the diary now, I see sometimes three pages in a row that say "forgot."

Funny thing is, before I actually looked at the old diary, I would have said that it was largely filled with comments interspersed with my "forgot"s. But in truth I quit writing in it before the month of January was out.

I remember feeling a lot of pressure about this. Even when I did write of my day's events, it pretty much bored me. The only thrill I felt in the whole thing was during a trip to the local library, when I had caught a glimpse of the girl I was secretly in love with. I remember the shivering electricity of actually writing her name down here on this page of my secret diary.

Other than that, it was pretty much I woke up and I did this, then I did that, then I watched Mayberry RFD and went to bed. And it bored me.

But I felt that there should be more.

I SHOULD have something to say. I SHOULD remember what I did three days ago. I SHOULD be more interested, finally, in keeping a diary.

I just wasn't.

I'm thinking of this, of course, because of my new life as a blogger. I feel a great freedom and joy about this activity. I don't have to write something here every day or every other day or every week. There is no tyranny of dates at the top of pages. This thing is not earmarked for just one year, from beginning to end.

I no longer have to write in shame: "forgot."

16 June 2008

Nixon in China: A Footnote.

First, let me say that I absolutely loved the production of Nixon in China.

It was a terrific production of a truly great American opera. The singers were all right on the money, and they really looked like their characters. The set design was beautifully-utilized minimalist.

The opera was really exciting and moving. Thoroughly great.

Except. . .

Oh, there was just this one little thing I noticed. Hardly worth mentioning. It didn't wreck the opera for me or anything like that. Just something that struck me.

OK, but it did bug me for the minute or so it lasted. More than that, it made me think again about how disconnected we are with some pretty important facts.

Here it is:

At the beginning of the opera, Nixon's plane lands on the tarmac in Peking and he comes down stairs to meet with Chou En-lai and other dignitaries.

Some pleasantries are exchanged, and then Nixon muses:

News has a kind of mystery:
When I shook hands with Chou En-lai
On this bare field outside Peking
Just now, the world was listening.

He continues musing on the theme of this point in history.

Part of the set design of this production had two rows of huge rectangular television sets fly in from above, lowering down slowly until they reach the stage floor. These TVs, made to evoke the gargantuan console sets of the 1970s, are used variously as platforms and so forth. But often the tv screens are showing bits of footage of the actual historic Nixon visit to China.

As Nixon muses at his place in history, one of the television screens begins to show an animation of a spinning earth. Then another tv picks it up. And soon all or most of the televisions in one row show this earth, spinning, spinning, spinning.

Nixon is visiting China and it is a very special place in history and all the world is watching and the earth is spinning, spinning, spinning. . .

. . .and the earth is spinning the wrong way!!

I looked again. Could it be true?

I looked and thought about it. And the earth. . .nay, the earths. . .were all spinning in the wrong direction! They were going clockwise!

That would make the sun rise in the west and set in the east.

The words came back to me from my college astronomy teacher. She had nailed this phrase into our heads at every opportunity. It described the direction of spin of the earth and of the solar system, and of most planets in the solar system: "counter-clockwise when viewed from above."

And these 8 or so earths on stage while Nixon was singing were clearly turning clockwise. Wrong!

It just reminds me how there is a real ignorance about even the simplest astronomical facts, especially in movies. I am thinking right now of one in particular that stuck in my craw, a movie whose very plot depended on the phases of the moon, and whose makers got the progression of those phases WRONG! (more on that in a future post.)

I mean, this is something we learned in elementary school, isn't it? Or junior high at the latest? Why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west??

And here was this expensively-designed opera on stage of a major new opera house. How many people viewed and approved the video that appeared on those tv screens? And how many people viewed it in rehearsals and so forth?

And no one noticed that the earth was turning the wrong way??

When I have talked to people about this, some have thought that maybe it was done on purpose, to say something ironic about this point in history. But nothing about the lyrics or the set design otherwise hinted as such a use of irony.

I believe I'll write a letter to the opera company.

Details forthcoming. . .

10 June 2008

The Spider on Amy's Porch

This past Friday I was sitting on Amy's front porch, enjoying some early summer porch time.

Amy is my 85-year-old stepmother, and since my father's death in 2001, she has slowly woken to the joy to be had by sitting in the cool--or for her more often the hot--of the summer on her very small suburban front porch. This is something she never allowed herself time for when my father was alive.

Amy is a wiry and diminutive Italian Roman Catholic. She is a great observer of people, a shrewd judge of character. She has no good words to say about President Bush. And she keeps her suburban 70s ranch house absolutely immaculate, putting in more work each day than I am capable of in a week.

And, these days, she loves her porch time.

I like it, too.

It is so pleasant to sit out there with a glass of water or iced tea on the circular table between us and just chat and enjoy the day. We can spy and comment on the comings and goings at the perennial garage sale held by her neighbor across the street. We enjoy the calls of house finches and chattering house sparrows issuing from inside the gargantuan blue spruce trees my father planted in the front yard. Robins pouring liquid notes toward evening.

So, there we were just after noon this past Friday. We were chatting away when suddenly I noticed, on the table between us, a spider. Not a black widow, certainly. Not one of those typical little brown spiders you see. No. In the words of Woody Allen, this was a "major spider"!

It was big, hairy, black. It had some white spots on the back of its body. It stood up high from the table, maybe as tall as the thickness of my little finger. Including legs and all it would have fit nicely on top of a quarter. It was horrible and fascinating and utterly beautiful.

I thought.

I pointed it out to Amy and we both watched it walk under the fake flower in a basket on the glass-topped table. It disappeared into the plant.

I thought it odd that a big healthy spider would want to hang out in an artificial flower. Amy worried that it would "make a nest in there." This gave me the image of hundreds, thousands of tiny black hairy spiders flowing like liquid from all sides of the fake flower basket. But no, my mind said. It would never last in there. It would have an aesthetic aversion to the artificial flower. It would come back out.

We continued to enjoy the afternoon and to chat. From time to time the black spider would appear on one of the flower's silk leaves. I would point it out. It would flit back into the darkness between the leaves and disappear.

After some time, Amy decided she had had enough of this visitor to her porch. The spider, not me.

My attitude was that he was not doing anyone any harm.

Besides, I was fascinated with the creature. When he was on the table top, before starting his exploration of the fake flower in the basket, I got a good view of him. I could see these incredible green eyes made of a million facets. And I could see his jaws moving, crunch-crunching.

Ok, ok, I have to admit that this fascination was tinged with unreasoning fear. I wasn't going to let him crawl on my skin, for instance. I was going to keep quite aware of where he was. He was furry and complex and solid and magnificent in his spiderness. He knew what he wanted to be and to do. He was his own spider.

Amy was saying she wanted to kill him. Or "it." At the same time, she didn't really want to, or knew that she really shouldn't kill one of God's creatures. But she knew where to draw the line. She did not want this particular creature in her house. And that was that.

Amy stood up and lifted the basket a few times by its handle and let it drop. But if the spider were still in there, he was clinging tightly.

We forgot the spider for a bit in the pleasure of the afternoon's porch time.

Then it happened all at once.

The spider dropped from the basket onto the table and started crawlling away. He got to the house wall, easily scaling it and crawled along. Toward me.

Amy and I are both on our feet now.

I have my blue bandana out. Amy is behind me.

"Not with your good handkerchief!" she says. "Here, let me get him with my shoe!"

The spider is right on the house's artificial siding in front of me and Amy is holding out her tiny shoe.

The cordless phone starts ringing.

I take Amy's shoe. She answers the phone. It is my brother calling from Germany.

The spider is on the wall in front of me and I take Amy's tiny shoe and smash the plastic sole down on the spider and I feel its body collapse in a crunch. I smash it around to make sure. I take Amy's shoe away and there is a smear of yellowish-brown goo on the wall and some black spider pieces.

I thrust Amy's shoe back at her. She takes it and I sit down hard on my front porch chair. A big sob rips through me. I can't believe what I have done.

I cover my face with my hands like one of the damned.

Amy narrates the whole scene to my brother in Germany. "Jimmy killed a spider for me and now he's upset. I think he's mad at me. Now he's turning his back on me. Uh-oh."

I can't believe it and yet I did it. I did not have to do it and yet I did. That magnificent creature. That powerful, black, scary beast.

My brain says over and over: I killed the spider! I killed the spider! I killed the spider!

I killed it.

EPILOGUE: Having killed this spider, he's got a hold on me. After some internet searching, I think I've found what kind he was. He was, I believe, one of the commonly called Jumping Spiders. In fact, I think he was Phidippus Audax, the Bold or Daring Jumping Spider.

Keep in mind that he was really quite small compared to these pictures. But these convey a bit of the majesty I saw in him.

I now know that the two iridescent green parts I took to be the creature's eyes are actually his mouth parts, known as chelicerae. At the end of these long protuberances are his fangs.

03 June 2008

The 'barrow and Me - I

Why "The Red Wheelbarrow"?

Why do I adore this poem? Why have I taken it as a kind of emblem?

Why, for goodness sake, have I put a recording of WCW reciting the poem as my outgoing answering machine message? And why (I hear choruses of friends and family members asking) have I left it there, as my sole and only message for years now?


Many years.

I could say a lot about why I love this short American gem, and I intend to in upcoming posts. You will find that I have lots to say on this subject, indeed.

For now, let me just say a little about how I got to know "The Red Wheelbarrow."

I was not taught this poem in school. In that way the public school system failed me.

I probably first read it in an old hardback copy of The Oxford Book of American Verse which a relative had innocently sent to our house in a cardboard box with a bunch of other books, none of which I remember. I can't be sure I read it there, but that wonderful book was really my gateway to poetry. I would have read the William Carlos Williams poems, because they were short and easy to read and clever. I remember reading "This is Just to Say," but not "The Red Wheelbarrow."

I first really noticed the poem many years, let us say decades, later. There was this great PBS series about American poets called "Voices and Visions." Each one-hour segment was a beautiful and cleverly-done portrait of one of America's great poets. Whitman was there, naturally, as was Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and Ezra Pound and Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath and Marianne Moore and, well, William Carlos Williams.

The programs were fantastically creative and visual in their presentation, products of the New York Center for Visual History. They used filmed segments and animations and an array of other techniques to give you a really good basic knowledge about and feeling for each individual poet. Each program was unique in the way it communicated. I highly recommend them to any English teacher trying to turn her students on to poetry.

The WCW segment had a lovely section on "The Red Wheelbarrow" where the filmmakers took handheld cameras to the streets of New York City, and filmed a wonderful selection of New Yorkers reciting the short poem. It was great hearing this poem from all of these variously nervous and laughing and strutting characters!

That was where "The Red Wheelbarrow" first made an impression on me, to tell the truth.

I am a big fan of recordings of poets reading their own works. I used to comb the shelves of lps at the old downtown Main Library to glean records like the Caedmon Treasury of Modern Poets Reading Their Own Poetry. I collected poets reading on cassette, and I now have several good collections of cds with a variety of poets reading.

Including, of course, WCW doing "The Red Wheelbarrow."

So, one time I was searching for a new idea for an answering machine message, and I thought of putting recorded poetry on there.

And it had to be something short.

I remember putting e e cummings' "next to of course god America I" on my machine once. There were other poems.

But "The Red Wheelbarrow" was always my favorite. Short and sweet. No waiting on the part of the callers.

So it always came back.

And there it is today.

So, it has been years of living with this poem for me, and I have thought about it a lot.

Some of those thoughts will appear in future posts.

And once I figure out how to link a recording to a post, I'll put the poem up here, so you can hear it, too!

01 June 2008

O Albele Panchhi...

This delighful little number is from the 1955 Bollywood film DEVDAS. The little boy and girl are singing to a "Wonderful Bird." They try to make the bird come to them, perch in the branches of their own tree, eat grain from their hands. . . but have to realize that the bird is a freedom-loving, independent being. All this symbolizes what will happen later between the grownup childhood friends.

I have been nuts for this song since I saw the film. This is the essence of cute! That little girl's smile could light up all of Mumbai!

I'm frustrated, though, in looking for the lyrics online and especially for an English translation of them. The film version I viewed DID give subtitles for the song lyrics, but I haven't found either subtitles or written-out lyrics online.

I have watched this video over and over again. I hope you do too!

First Light

Well,  here goes.

I have avoided this all my life.   Even before there were blogs.

But reading a friend's blog just earlier this evening fantastically inspired me.  It turned my thought process upside down.
I went from thinking that I would like to say something but really have nothing to say to realizing how much I have to say.  I can talk about just so many things.  And I intend to.
Just the act of writing really charges me.
I've spent the last few hours trying to figure out how to make this thing look certain ways.  It is still quite rough, just a lesson plan.  Changes will happen.

For now, though:  Here I am.
(movie line paraphrase alert:  identify this film):

"Are you. . .out there!!?"