Sunday, June 28, 2015

a song or two a day: a pea-picklin’ diary

Sunday A Week Ago
“Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” (1946) Irving Berlin for the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun. (Ethel Merman!)

Because these bugs caught my eye.

First Alternate: “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” (1928) Cole Porter. (Alanis Morissette does it.)

Second Alternate: “Go Cubs Go” (1984) Steve Goodman.

“Goodbye Old Paint” (early 1900s) One Cowboy or Another.

Because there were runaway horses and a round-up on the road.

First Alternate: “Go Cubs Go”

“Blue Skies” (1926) Irving Berlin.

Due to an exceptional sky, exceptional breeze, exceptional all-around weather … and then I discover Whispering Jack Smith.

First Alternate: “People Get Ready” (1965) Curtis Mayfield, first recorded by The Impressions.

Second Alternate: “Go Cubs Go”

“Thunder and Lightening” (1972) Chi Coltrane.

Because overnight thunder and lightening over fields of flickering fireflies.

First Alternate: “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (1968) Burt Bacharach and Hal David for the Broadway musical Promises, Promises. Many have recorded it, including Chet Atkins, Dionne Warwick, Tom Jones, and, of course, Tok Tok Tok.

“Abendsegen (Evening Prayer)” (1891-92) Engelbert Humperdinck from his opera Hansel und Gretel. Libretto by Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheid Wette. Sung here by Kathleen Battle and Frederica von Stade.

Because on our morning walk to the river a deer watched as Josie and I approached before leaping high, turning in mid-air, running down into the wooded gully, and then Josie leaped high and followed, and then I did not leap high but walked over to the edge of the gully and was taken aback by this dark, mysterious wood.

I did not know of the opera based on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, and I did not know there were two Engelbert Humperdincks (that, alone, is something to think about), and I did not know these lines that, translated from German to English, begin “The Evening Prayer”:
When at night I go to sleep
Fourteen angels watch do keep
“Alley Cat” (1962) Bent Fabric.

Because a flimsy day with no song, Marian Anderson, Nina Simone, “Amazing Grace” flitting through the mind but not sticking, and Josie wants a song about ducklings because he saw ducklings on the river, and I tell him no, what you saw were mergansers, but he insists on calling them ducks and then I say, no, mergansers, and he gets such a kick out of the word mergansers that we go back and forth and back and forth for no reason at all except giggles, and then we forget what we were talking about (oh, yeah, there were four merganserlings following their mom on the river today and Josie chased them, he on our shore and they far over by the other, but that doesn’t bring a song to mind), and then Elliott pipes up: Alley Cat. Say what? Alley Cat!

Never Been Any Reason” 1974 Mike Somerville (Head East).

Because driving home from the farmers market it came on the radio and and I cranked it up and it stuck in my head just like it did once or twice or maybe many times 39 (or whatever) years ago.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

wild flowers and night out with Josie: daisy, daisy

After a day and a half of grey skies and rain, blue skies and sun. It is mid-afternoon, I feel drowsy. Josie and I go out on the porch. He settles down on the step. I check back inside for Elliott, does he want to join us?, but no, he is settled in the chair.

I snip spent flowerheads from wild columbine, now waist high in the garden. I transplanted the columbine from the wild a couple of years ago. The garden is going wild. The chives are massive, have been blooming purple-headed for weeks now, purple heads covered with ecstatic, trembling, black and yellow bumblebees. The bird’s-foot trefoil snakes as if fat with mice through the columbine, making a nice yellow-red mix, and it scrambles around and through the arching green of the day lilies. Wild daisies run rampant. Yes, daisy season has started. They are in the garden, where I did not put them, in the yard, where I mow around them, and in the fields, all over. I cut a few to bring inside.

The wild roses are doing well in front of the cabin, are full of spring green but yet to bloom, hardly budding. Wanting to transplant another one or two along the west side of the garage, Josie and I stroll down the driveway as that is where I found the other roses, along the drive. Josie’s stroll is more of a dart and dash, jump and roll, stop and look, leap and lunge. Suddenly, the sweetest aroma. I bend down, pluck a white clover blossom, hold it close, breathe deep. Then I spot a wild rose and near it a raspberry bramble. Yes, I think I would like both along the garage wall.

We return to the cabin, walk toward the river, cut through the field to where there should be a patch of raspberry brambles and yes, they are there, sporting sparse yellowish white flowers. The field has burst forth with flower and it makes me heady, all this that comes from the earth untended, unplanned. The daisies dominate, but goat’s beard will bloom soon and its tall, gangly stalks demand attention. There is a vast stretch of lesser stitchwort, its tiny white star-like flowers nodding yes and no and maybe on the end of their tangled thready stems, and there are grasses of various heights and hues—greenish, greyish, brown and lavender—some already with hanging purple seed heads, and bright spots of orange smiling throughout thanks to the orange hawkweed. Swamp buttercup provides small, glossy, papery yellow blossoms, and again there is the clover. Smelling sweet.

The sky is blue, yet laced with gauzy remnants of rainy days past.

We feel as if we would like to sit on the porch for a while, doing nothing. A hummingbird is a ways off doing the U maneuver—flying back and forth in a U, buzzing like crazy—and other things seem to be happening, like birdsong, buzzing, it’s hard to pinpoint. Josie is sure there are deer lurking out there in them thar woods, and Elliott has joined us, stretching his long, languid carcass across the boards, closing his eyes. It is nice. But, a few days ago, Josie and I decided we need to get out more, so we go in to get ready to go out, to L’Anse, to a free outdoor concert to be held in a beautiful little park along the Keweenaw Bay.

It’s a fifteen-or-so minute drive, and our first stop is for dinner at The Drive-In in Baraga. Coming down the slope into town there’s a boogie disco tune on the radio and I’m kind of wishing Louis were here to dance with me by the bay, but right now he seems long gone and maybe that is a realization long coming but that is, quite often, my way. So. Dance with Josie? Nah. I am pretty sure he has four left feet.

I have been thinking a lot about loss this week, perhaps too much, but it feels to be leading to a good place. Because loss, eventually, must be accepted, must be reconciled, and how do you get there? Well, that is your business. And how you move on, that too is your business. It seems important to move on. But it seems important, also, to understand that the past is never truly gone. Loss may occur in a singular event that is soon past, but its effect is ongoing, always present, always moving with you through the present, into the future. What you do with that, how you handle it, how you see it, how you think of it, how you come to live with it, make peace with it, well, that is up to you. But the past—particularly how you see the past—is never not going to be there, never not going to be part of your life, part of your experience.

I came up with, of all things, a formula.

Future = Blank + (Present + Past)

It’s a dynamic formula, one you can play with, for instance blank can become what you make of it or the unexpected or both, creating a new formula such as

Future = (The Plan + The Unexpected) + (Present + Past)

We could also subtract that which is overlooked and divide by time, or, I think, just stick with blank.

The Drive-In is crowded. We pull in at the far end of a line of ten or so cars and trucks and vans, looking like a motley crew of work horses tied up at the hitching post, waiting for feed bags. Josie is uncontrollably excited, hopping around the van, barking, whining, and I think he must remember he got a French fry here once. He puts his paws on the sill of the open passenger window, throws back his head and crows. He really needs to get out more. A young woman, our waitress, comes to my window to take our order: a turkey burger, small fry, a small root beer float. A bit later I find out that they are out of turkey burgers, so, in a pinch, I order a cheeseburger. The float comes. The cheeseburger comes. The fries come. My tab totals $3.76. I pay. But, before leaving, I question the tab. I am told: All is well.

Despite a little ice cream from the float, a bit of cheese from the cheeseburger, and a few salty fries, Josie is still wound up. We have to stop at the store to pick up food for Elliott, and this activity puts Josie in a frenzy. He does not wait for me quietly. He really, really needs to get out more.

Then, disappointment. The beautiful little park along the bay is empty. No people, no sound, no gathering, no music. All has been moved indoors, to the hockey arena. The dreaded hockey arena. But, it is a beautiful evening, a beautiful spot, so Josie and I walk along the bay. At just a little past seven the sun is beginning to fall westward, down through the vast blue sky, across the bay, across the water, and I imagine that sunsets from here are often quite nice.

Empty bandshell.

On the way home, I stop at the arena and sure enough in the middle of the large cavernous space there is a small crowd seated on metal folding chairs listening to Jan Arnold. I ask the first person I see why the concert was moved inside. Because, she said, at 4 p.m. the evening’s weather was forecast to be about 50 degrees with strong north winds. She seemed apologetic, slightly hopeful, the chairs are over there, she said, go ahead and grab one. But I don’t.

Back in the van Josie is howling. We head home, sit out on the porch for a while, watch TV for a while, head up to bed. Josie is dog-tired, floppy as a sack of taters, I must carry him upstairs.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

the four robins: a mangled opera

This week I wanted to write an opera, but first one thing then another got in the way and I never found that big block of time one might think necessary to the writing of something as grand as an opera. Perhaps I squandered my time. Perhaps I had the time and squandered it.

The four robins, last Sunday.

Every once in a while I get caught up in listening to opera. It’s kind of like when I get caught up in that sadness and grief thing—I am not sure where it comes from, why it hits me. I indulge, it goes away. I don’t understand it, have no idea what I am listening to, what it is all about. Most operas are written and sung in Italian or some other language I do not know. Perhaps that is part of its appeal.

The four robins, Monday.

My opera was going to be about the baby robins. This week I got caught up in them, too. While I played my CD “The Best of Italian Opera,” Grubbs, Stubbs, William, and Fredericka (yes! a fourth baby robin!) were growing like—apparently—baby robins. Which means swiftly. I continued to take a picture a day, and it was Tuesday when Fredericka appeared. At first her name was Jimmy-Bob, but a friend didn’t like that, so I changed it to Fredericka, and that could be what brought about the idea of writing an opera because the friend who didn’t like “Jimmy-Bob” also doesn’t like country music, so you see the connection.

The four robins, Tuesday.

I never intended to write a real opera, of course, but rather a piece of writing simulating an opera. I even queried Google with something like “opera structure” and got a great hit titled “Operatic Structure” from a Professor Michael Dicker of Illinois State University. I saw no reason to search further, as I was only going to spend a few days on this, and Prof. Dicker presented it all so neatly. All I needed was an overture, a recitative, an aria, and a chorus. And my opera would need no more than one of each, as it was to be just a one-scene, one-act opera, an opera-ette, as it were. And now I remember I did squander some time thinking of fun terms like “operatita” and “operettatita” and the like.

The four robins, Wednesday. Grubbs preparing for his aria.

At first, I thought it was going well. One morning while walking Josie I composed an overture and then the recitative came easily. Where I got stuck was the aria. I had a theme in mind, but time was short. I thought I might cheat by finding an existing aria on YouTube or something, so I emailed an opera buff friend asking if he could point me to an aria with my chosen theme. While waiting for a response, I did some vague online searching, read some translations of lyrics, and realized, boy, I don’t even understand this stuff in English. I felt not so dumb, though, when my opera buff friend responded to my email saying he’d like to help, but he’s never quite sure exactly what it is they’re singing about … and believe me, this is a very smart guy. Anyway, I read somewhere that all arias are about love, but love is a broad topic, many sub-themes, perhaps that is why it is so interesting.

The four robins, Thursday. Grubbs is a little miffed.
He thought he was getting the aria.

Anyway, I ended up writing my own aria, to be sung by Papa Robin, and I might as well admit I did get the whole operatita written, but it’s pretty bad. Maybe if I spent more time on it. Yes. Maybe I will spend more time on it in days and weeks to come. Perhaps some week when 508 pounds of beeswax isn’t arriving from Iowa and a wheel isn’t falling off the new mower and financial matters aren’t demanding attention and there isn’t an order for 40 charmers plus all the rest and Josie isn’t attracting 10,000 ticks and the Cubs aren’t playing the Tigers and the Blackhawks aren’t in the Stanley Cup and the grass isn’t growing and the two main computer programs I use aren’t freezing up every day, “not responding,” they say, and I am actually using my time rather than squandering it. That’s when I will fix up that operette I once wrote about the four robins.

The four robins, Friday.

Meanwhile, the robins were being efficient with their time, growing feathers and wings and bird brains and the like, and when I went out on the deck to get Saturday’s picture, they flew away. Grubbs, Stubbs, William, and Fredericka flapped their wings and flew, one by one, out of the nest. They landed in a tree a few yards off. Missie Robin, who along with Papa Robin had been in the spruce watching the nest so diligently all week, flew off in all directions, chasing her young, yeeping and cucking and all that.

Parental diligence.

So now the nest is empty. I feel like a schlemiel. Yes, the nest was pretty full and it looked as if something had to give, that someone or two would have to go, but just because they could all fly, does that mean they were ready? And just because they can fly, does that mean they are safe? As safe as they would be if they were back in the nest? If I hadn’t scared them? Made them all fly off? Do I ask too many questions?

The Four Robins, Finale.

I feel as if we blunder along, some of us, me, not knowing, not understanding, listening, thinking we’re listening, but not understanding, and we act from such good will and intention, but we blunder and stumble and squander and so much of it can be laughed at, in the end, when we realize the comic opera of it all, but until then, until you get it or get past it, when you’re still just in the midst of knowing something’s wrong, but what?, it’s like listening to an opera. You hear it, you don’t understand it, you feel it. That’s all.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

why did the robin build her nest right where she did?

A few weeks ago, Josie, Elliott and I were surprised and a bit excited to see a robin building her nest on the east end of the crossbeam just below the outer edge of the roof that covers the upper deck. We surprised her, she flew off in a flash, leaving behind a few scraps of straw that in a day or two blew away. I thought that was the end of it, and I was somewhat sad, because my first summer here there was a robin’s nest on the other end of that crossbeam, and it was filled with a trio of baby birds.

Winkin, Blinkin and Nod, in concert, 2011, West End Crossbeam.

Back then I was rarely in the loft, it being unfinished and all, or was I up there finishing it? Anyway, it was just me and old Buster then, and old Buster was no threat to anyone, so the robin settled in and laid her eggs and raised her young, twice. And I remember the following spring a robin checked out that old nest, but maybe that was when I was putting up the deck railing or something. That robin didn’t stick around. Now, for the past three years, the West End Nest has been in decay. It looks like a clump of mud.

Nest decay.

But then, one morning a week or so after startling that robin building on the east end, there she was (or maybe someone who looks just like her?), sitting on a brand new nest. And this nest is a beaut. But why on earth did she build it right there? There’s a person, a dog, and a cat gawking at you here, Missie! And how did we miss the whole nest-building act? From that morning on, every morning, every afternoon, every evening, every night, on that nest she sat, and it got so every time I went upstairs I was afraid I’d catch her right in the middle of laying an egg or something.

There she sits, the East End Nest.

We watched through the screen door, Josie, Elliott and I, and I, at least, tried to be quiet, tried to move slowly, tried to show a little respect. Then I got started on the loft window trim project. I had put off this project long enough, first waiting for the carpenter who said he would do the work to show up and do the work, and then consternating over how to do the work myself. The carpenter had said it was a tricky job, this wall of mostly windows, looking out over the upper deck, uneven and not exactly professionally put together, at least not put together in a standard way, with standard materials, so I believed what he said, that it was tricky, and how could I complete a tricky carpentry job? This project had become just another “thing,” a thing I could not move on. The bare two-by-fours and tufts of pink and yellow insulation and scraps of plastic and the ripped edges of the finished wall mocked me, every day, for years. Now it was time, robin’s nest or no, to fight back, to get this thing done, to trim those windows.

The loft and upper deck, once upon a time.

One day I stared at the windows. The next day I took some measurements. A few days after that I bought two one-by-four-by-eight and two one-by-six-by-eight pine boards. I remeasured, sawed the one-by-fours, put them up across the top, measured again, sawed the one-by-sixes to fit nicely down either side of the door, realized I’d made a false start with the top boards, redid that, stained the boards black. The project was now half done. Throughout it all Missie Robin remained steadfast on her nest. I worked as quietly as possible, but the fact is when you’re pounding a nail into the wall, you’re pounding a nail into the wall. Every once in a while Missie did fly off, but soon she returned.

I had a vision on how to finish the project, so I went back to the lumber yard for two more one-by-fours and one more one-by-six, asking mistakenly for two four-by-ones and one six-by-one, which really confused the cashier. We don’t carry that, she said. Oh, but you do, I said, I bought these same boards last week. She stared at me. I stared at her. Somehow we figured it out. Perhaps needless to say, I find carpenter lingo very confusing. So I must confess: I don’t know if that’s a crossbeam that the nests are on. Could be something else, perhaps a header, but I toss around that term also in complete ignorance.

On Tuesday I was able to put up a curtain rod and curtains. Missie Robin was not around. Oh! Wait a minute! There she is! Looks like she has something in her mouth and she’s poking around her nest. Now there she goes flying off again. I begin to wonder if the eggs have hatched. But I hear no peeping baby birds, see no little beaks gawking skyward.

On Wednesday I’m hanging up laundry and measuring and sawing one-by-fours and wondering … where is Missie Robin? She comes and goes but mostly, it seems, she’s gone.

When I awaken Thursday with the dawning light, I hear the shoosh of a light rain on leaves. Otherwise, quiet. The door to the deck is open, the air is cool. I begin to worry about Missie Robin. If the eggs have hatched, where’s the peeping? Aren’t baby birds supposed to peep? Or is that just chicks? But aren’t these chicks? Or do only chickens have chicks? Later, from where I stand looking out through the screen, the nest looks empty.

That afternoon I decide this worrying is ridiculous, so I take a half hour to sit in the loft, watch the nest. I notice a deer in the north field and a hummingbird sitting atop the spruce just east of the deck, and there is a robin in the spruce. Josie becomes aware of the deer so we must go downstairs, I must let him out. He chases a different deer, one grazing in the west field, and he is satisfied. Back upstairs, we jostle for position.

Avian Paparazzi convening on a Thursday afternoon.
(Photo made extra large just so’s you get the picture.)

Missie Robin shows up with what looks like tufts of grass in her mouth. She does something with this grass in her nest, then is off. Can she hear us? (We are quiet.) Can she sense us? Am I disturbing her? What is going on?

While waiting, I poke around on the Internet and find that robins often nest close to humans, that their eggs hatch in about two weeks, that three weeks after that the birdlings begin to fly, go their own way, maybe hang around for a bit, badgering Ma and Pa for food, but then off they go. I play some of the robin calls, including the yeep alarm and cuck call, and get some answering yeeps and cucks from over spruce way.

Missie Robin comes and goes, always with some morsel in her mouth, and suddenly we see the tip of a trembling beak reaching just over the top of the nest. Aha! At last! Baby robins!

Later I snap a picture. Aren’t they cute?

The next morning I slowly pull back the curtain, see Missie Robin on the nest, keeping the hatchlings warm. Throughout the day I catch a glimpse of her now and again as she brings a beakful of something or other back to the nest.

Friday I snap another picture.

It has all happened so fast.

Saturday. Hey! I think they like me!

And I know now that before I know it, these kids will be off, flying away, on their own.

I still don’t know why Missie Robin built her nest right where she did, but I’m glad she did. One morning I hope to wake up and hear these beaklings clamoring for worms and stuff. Maybe I’ll name them Grubbs and Stubbs and William. I do think there are three, though only two are readily apparent. I have not looked directly into the nest—wouldn’t that be rude?—but rather I have held the camera slightly above and clicked. Of course, that’s not rude.

I am beginning to think these fellers are pretty cute. And, by the way, one year ago today, I brought Josie home. So much to celebrate.

Grubbs and Stubbs, ready for their close-up.