Out (sort of) with the old, in with the newer

my old computer

All my computers have been hand-me-downs. This was my third — a 1997 or 98 Proteva. It used Windows 98. It was slow but serviceable — literally. At one point a couple years ago, the fan broke and my cousin-in-law Jeff (see Credits) kindly installed a new one.

my new computer

Two days after Christmas, Jeff arrived with a newer computer, a two-year-old Dell with 1.5 GB of RAM and 214 GB of free space on its hard drive. Now I’m learning how to use Windows XP — after changing everything to look and act as much like Windows 98 as possible.

To the left of the sleek new black box you can see the gray case that contains my manual backup system in case of apocalypse or an extended power outage. It’s an old Olympia typewriter — the one I wrote my college papers on, and all my poems up through the late 80s. My dad got it when he was a kid.

We kept the hard drive from the old computer, too, mounting it inside the new box alongside its faster, emptier counterpart. It has a mere 917 MB of free space, but so far — knock on veneered particle board — its little motor still works. Now that I have a CD burner and working USB ports, I can think about backing up my files.

It’s hard to believe that years of work can fit so snugly in the palm of a hand.

hard drive

The old doesn’t go out, exactly, but more deeply inside. And what comes in — well, it’s new to us, perhaps. But on the other side of the world, they’ve seen it already. We’re all living on borrowed time.

Weather report

sheets on line

It got up into the 50s today. Where’s winter? There’s no snow in sight.

hoarfrost on wild turkey feather

A heavy hoarfrost this morning covered roofs and fields with the thinnest coat of white. When the sun came up, it vanished in minutes. By early afternoon, winter insects were flying. My brother Steve hiked up the hollow and reported seeing a strange species of fly with red eyes.

witch hazel 2

It’s hard to believe a new year is right around the corner.

On the 13th day of Christmas …


My writing table is clean for the first time in three years. Digging down through the piles, I discovered some unopened correspondence — can there be anything more melancholy? — and four envelopes that I’d put stamps on, presumably for letters I never finished writing, or wrote and then decided not to send.

With two or three years’ perspective, one has a better idea of what’s really necessary to keep, and what can be pitched. I found multiple copies of minutes from old meetings I couldn’t remember having attended. I found articles that I had set down where I would see and read them, but then quickly buried with other, more urgent things. I had to create four new file folders, and in the process reacquainted myself with my filing system, which is not organized alphabetically but by logical relatedness.

For example, in one of my file cabinets, a folder marked “Me” — for expired passports and the like — is followed by “Stuff” — owner’s manuals and warrantees — and then “Financial Crap.” Beyond that, the back half of the drawer holds files of correspondence from family and friends — letters and postcards, poems and photos. Going in the other direction, “Me” is preceded by “How-To” (which is practically empty; I’m not very handy), “Herbs,” and at the front of the drawer, a number of bulging folders devoted to beer and brewing.

So here I sit at my clean, almost empty table, struggling against the blankness of this virtual page. I feel suddenly very exposed. But that NY Times article I blogged about the other day, “Saying Yes To Mess,” frightened me. I never like thinking I might be part of some trend or movement.


Last night we asked my cousin Morgan, who is still young enough to believe in Santa, how her Christmas had gone. “O.K., I guess,” she said. “But I have so many toys now! Next year I’ll have to have a little talk with Santa, and tell him not to bring me too many more toys.” I’m not sure she realizes that many of her cousin Elanor’s toys, including some that were in my parents’ living room last night, had once belonged to her.

Of course, Elanor is young enough to be happy with practically anything: an empty plastic pint container can provide hours of amusement. And Morgan’s attention is drawn often enough to natural objects — a mantid egg case, a goldenrod gall. She brought the magnifying glass that my mother had given her on an earlier visit and wanted to take a close look at everything.

Most interesting of all — to me, at least — is Morgan’s penchant for spinning stories. A toy or other object no sooner attracts her attention than it is endowed with a personality and a basic trajectory of needs. We humans are all still animists at heart, I think.

Rain for Christmas

Hard rain for Christmas, starting in the afternoon. Within a few hours, the water from my shallow well has a reddish-brown tinge.

The two-year-old sits in the middle of the carpet, dwarfed by the pile of her presents, which she evinces no interest in trying to unwrap on her own. Her parents take turns unwrapping them for her and exclaiming over each on her behalf. Gently they take the previous toy or book from her hands and show her the new one: Look, Elanor, look! To look is to grab. To grab is to become much too deeply engrossed. Doesn’t she know she’s on stage, here?


James Brown has died. What was he to me, that I feel his loss so deeply? White people and black people don’t even have the same thing in mind when they say funk: a blue mood, or the rank smell of sex?

Reading the eulogies, I start thinking of those two years Brown spent in prison, long after he had become a living legend revered by the toughest rappers. What must that have been like for him, and for the other prisoners? How I would love to be the one to write the story! But I can’t, and it’s not just a matter of being white and nerdy. My blue moods couldn’t possibly do it justice.

I’ve written probably all I’m going to write about James Brown already, in this poem — the screenplay for a very brief documentary, in which I do not appear simply because I’m busy doing the filming. Who directed, then? Good old blind Chance. I put a dollar in his cup when we were through.


Usually we go for a walk on Christmas, but the rain kept us all indoors. So instead we watched A Prairie Home Companion, directed by Robert Altman — speaking of those who have recently passed away. I liked the fact that the angel of death — or Dangerous Woman, as the credits describe her — takes out the bad guy near the end, but it changes absolutely nothing. And I cheered the stance of Garrison Keillor’s character, GK, who, while happy to include sentimental songs, remains steadfast against eulogies and memorials. “I don’t like to tell people how to feel,” he says, and “You play every show as if it’s your last.” The movie’s enigmatic ending can only be understood in the light of that sentiment, I think. It’s up to us to retell the stories and make them our own. How fitting that this turned out to be Altman’s own last work.

Getting the tree

At the Christmas tree farmWe went to the Christmas tree farm yesterday, the whole lot of us. If, as they say, Christmas is for children, the main focus of our seasonal sentiment this year is my two-year-old niece Elanor — too young herself to possess an ounce of sentimentality, much less to understand all the folderol about Santa and sleigh bells. We thought she’d enjoy meeting the reindeer they have at the tree farm, though.

Last year, it had been my other niece, Eva. She was ten at the time. Both girls love animals, and are equally extroverted, but the differences in their reactions to the place were striking. Whereas Eva had been a little afraid of the reindeer initially, and then became entranced, Elanor showed no sign of fear, grabbing at a reindeer’s snout at the first opportunity. But then, much to our surprise, she grew bored and wandered off. She was much more attracted to the homely little brown-and-white dog that lives at the farm. It kind of makes sense. The reindeer were enormous, were on the other side of a fence, and were really only interested in one thing — treats. The dog, on the other hand, was Elanor’s size, with just about the same level of hyperactivity. She raced all around getting into things, as dogs will do, digging and sniffing, and led the way when we all trooped down the hill to find a tree. She had an odd way of running, with her hind legs appearing slightly out of alignment with her front — an old injury, perhaps. When she squatted to pee, I couldn’t help thinking that a male dog would’ve made much better use of all those thousands of tree trunks.

At one point, the dog stopped to take a crap with Elanor close behind. Steve had to run and pick her up before she could start playing with the intriguing little presents that had just popped out of the dog’s chimney. The dog trotted away with one turd still clinging to the fur on her hindquarters.

When deliberation over the tree started in earnest between Steve, Dad and me, Elanor charged off in the other direction, toward the backyard of an adjoining house that probably belonged to the tree farm people, given the dog’s familiarity with it. Mom and Karylee told us later that it was all they could do to keep Elanor from climbing through the fence to play with a small flock of very large Guinea fowl. The ersatz Africa was just a few hundred yards away from the faux Arctic.

We tend to prefer trees with a more open, natural look and several spires at the top, but since most of the trees on the farm have been pruned within an inch of their lives, it took some looking. We finally settled on a tree that had a large bird’s nest in it — possibly a catbird’s nest, I’m guessing. Steve and I took turns struggling to cut it down with a bow saw, which is also part of the tradition. It just wouldn’t seem right to carry a chainsaw.

After we got the tree all taken care of, I went back to look for the others. They’d made it as far as the road. Elanor had discovered a small puddle, and was stomping in it enthusiastically, splashing mud all the way up to her knees. “I just want you to know that Steve taught her to do that, not me!” Karylee said, watching her daughter with a mixture of amusement and dismay. “But who does the laundry?” I asked rhetorically. “Oh, well, mud washes out a lot more easily than most other things,” Karylee said. Mom managed to shoo Elanor out of the puddle, which prompted her to begin throwing stones in it instead. Gravel is one of Elanor’s favorite things.

The tree rode home in the back of the truck with all the dried grass and dead needles still attached — shaking it in the mechanical tree shaker might’ve dislodged the nest. Miraculously, when we got it home, the nest was still more or less intact. The tree sat outside until this morning — Christmas Eve — when Dad and I carried it in, according to inflexible family custom. Later this afternoon, Steve and Karylee are planning to show up with Elanor to help decorate it. My only hope is that Elanor will be as bored with the tree as she was with the reindeer, and decide to play in the kitchen, instead. Christmas may be for children, but let’s face it: when you’re two years old and surrounded by doting parents and grandparents, you can find Christmas pretty much anywhere you look.

Don’t forget to send in tree-related links for the upcoming Festival of the Trees.

Living with messiness

reindeer 1
A totally gratuitous and irrelevant reindeer photo

“It’s chasing an illusion to think that any organization — be it a family unit or a corporation — can be completely rid of disorder on any consistent basis,” said Jerrold Pollak, a neuropsychologist at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, N.H., whose work involves helping people tolerate the inherent disorder in their lives. “And if it could, should it be? Total organization is a futile attempt to deny and control the unpredictability of life.” […]

Irwin Kula is a rabbi based in Manhattan and author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” which was published by Hyperion in September. “Order can be profane and life-diminishing,” he said the other day. “It’s a flippant remark, but if you’ve never had a messy kitchen, you’ve probably never had a home-cooked meal. Real life is very messy, but we need to have models about how that messiness works.”

I’m sure this story from the NY Times, Saying Yes to Mess, has already been blogged to death. I only want to add one important perspective the story barely mentions, aside from noting that messiness is natural: the environment. Learning to live with some degree of messiness is not just a lifestyle issue. All too often, the atavistic impulse to clean things up leads people to use dangerous household chemicals, such as bleach, or worse yet, to apply herbicides such as ChemLawn to their yards.

Lawns are great if you have kids — but so are trees, for climbing and building treehouses in. And while large, well-trimmed lawns may appeal to your sense of cleanliness and order, keep in mind that they are also biological deserts. This is not a trivial issue for wildlife and biodiversity. Estimates of the total acreage of residential lawn in the United States range from 14 to 26 million acres. By contrast, the largest Wilderness complex in the Lower 48 — the Frank Church-River of No Return and Gospel-Hump Wildernesses in Idaho — is only 2.5 million acres.

Fortunately, the National Wildlife Federation offers plenty of guidance with their Backyard Wildlife Habitat certification program. Older residential areas, with maturing trees and lots of shrubs, though no substitute for natural forests or grasslands, can still provide valuable habitat for many songbirds and other critters. If you’re already doing everything right, a yard sign from the NWF might help you broach the subject with your neighbors. See also the common-sense advice from the Pesticide-Free Lawns campaign.

Ironically, self-styled nature lovers are sometimes among the worst offenders, “cleaning up” their half-acre suburban woodlots to make them “look nice,” and in the process, removing all the most valuable wildlife niches: weedy stream banks, standing dead trees, fallen logs and branches, even fallen leaves. I understand the aesthetic appeal of open spaces, but doesn’t a nice, Zen meditation hall-like room work best with a naturalistic landscape right beyond the windows? If you really can’t control the urge to keep nature in its place (and as a control freak, shouldn’t that bother you?) build a greenhouse, or start an organic raised-bed vegetable garden — in your front yard.

Let’s face it, I don’t blog about conservation issues very often. If you like this kind of post, be sure to bookmark my friend Alan’s Conservation News blog.

Nose, grindstone

UPDATE (12/23): I paid the pittance WordPress.com was asking for the right to make alterations to shadow cabinet’s stylesheet, and increased the text size to what I hope is a more readable level.

I’m still working away at shadow cabinet — and getting a better sense of how much more needs to be done. New poems added today include: Bodies of Water (extensive revision to a piece that first appeared here as prose, over a year ago); The Other Coltrane; Dust; Out Back at the All-Night Diner; The Sycamore; and The Greek. Many other poems, of course, were considered and rejected for one reason or another. I find a perverse satisfaction in that — it makes me feel clean, somehow.

Needless to say, all the poems in shadow cabinet are there provisionally, and many will undergo further revision.

Holiday letter

Eurasian water milfoil

Dear Friends,

We hope this letter finds you in good health and abundant happiness. We’re nearing the end of another solar year here, prompting us to think back upon the blessings we’ve enjoyed and the milestones we’ve passed during the course of our most recent swing around our favorite local star.

2006 has been a banner year for the most prolific of our members. The autotrophs continued to profit from the surge in carbon dioxide emissions from the planet’s least charismatic species of megafauna, Homo sapiens. At 3.8 billion years young, you might think cyanobacteria would be ready to slow down, but thanks to their ability to metabolize CO2, their populations expanded in every conceivable niche — even in newly melted portions of Antarctica! The quiet generosity manifested in their habit of fixing nitrogen wherever needed, their close partnerships with other species such as fungi, corals, and plants, and their uncomplaining ability to persist as akinetes when the going gets tough, make them an especially inspiring example during this holiday season.

Also in the spirit of the season, the dinoflagellates have been featured in a number of festive off-shore displays this past year, especially along the coasts of North America, where their so-called “red tides” excited considerable attention from other species.

As expected, those species that make their homes on or in the bodies of Homo sapiens have continued to prosper, some among the viruses and prokaryotes even evolving new strains, thanks to their hosts’ misguided efforts to “control” them. Space doesn’t permit me to mention them all by name, but Entamoeba histolytica, Escherichia coli, and Plasmodium falciparum are among those that have done exceptionally well in 2006.

Many populations of multicellular lifeforms experienced growth spurts during the past year as a consequence of their recent introduction to new ecosystems. Cheatgrass, kudzu, feral housecats and Eurasian water milfoil (pictured on card) are among the hundreds of non-native species currently doing well in North America, for example, and most other land masses large and small are also playing host to armies of newcomers. Though the original invasions might have been a poor idea, we think it’s important to support these species during a long and difficult occupation, as they strive to bring order to chaotic local ecosystems. We hope you’ll join us in saying, “We Support Our Species”!

For most eukarotes, unfortunately, this past year has been a little more challenging. Reef habitats — always among the most sensitive indicators of planetary health — have begun to die back at an alarming rate. Many marine and terrestrial ecosystems are at or nearing collapse, with hundreds of species going extinct each year. But we trust that, like most bad news, this too shall pass. Given its uniquely biocidal tendencies, we’re sure that H. sapiens will very shortly remove itself from the equation. And though in general this will be a very welcome development, we must remember the less fortunate ones in that event — the human parasites and colonists mentioned above — and keep them uppermost in our thoughts and prayers.

They say that every dark cloud has a silver lining. If past experience is any guide, in a brief ten million years or so, most of our currently troubled chloroplast- and mitochondria-bearing phyla will bounce back, stronger than ever, as fully functional components of brand-new food webs. The joy and mystery of this holiday season should serve to remind us that we’re all part of a larger plan, even if we don’t see it, and sometimes sacrifice is necessary to advance the greater good. The more traumatic the extinction event, the more creative and unpredictable the evolutionary consequences. Just look how much more closely knit we became after the great Permian extinction! It really strengthened our bonds as a family.

On a brighter note, our various tectonic activities show no sign of slowing down. Though progress in rift formation and subduction appeared incremental, slow and steady wins the race, as they say. Despite a warming troposphere and stratosphere and the associated adjustments in local and regional climates, our fundamental atmosphere-generating processes continued unabated. And as always, it’s been a good year for the magnetic field, too, protecting all of us here from the otherwise deadly solar wind. A coronal mass ejection on December 13 produced a spectacular geomagnetic storm just in time for the holidays!

Wherever you are in your own orbits, we hope that you are having a safe and joyous holiday season, secure in the blessings of God’s love. We wish you all the best in the coming year.


Reasons for the Season

Tyrone angel

1. The earth is tilted on its axis by 23.5 degrees

2. Other seasons all quit

3. Generals in the Salvation Army threatened a coup

4. The eager, shining faces of small children opening presents help us forget the emptiness of consumerism and greed

5. Halls needed to be decked

6. “Christmas” sounded better than “National Overweight Bearded Guy Awareness Week”

7. If we don’t cover our houses with lights, inflatable snowmen and giant plastic reindeer, the sun may never return from the underworld

8. Magi hadn’t heard the one about the camel and the eye of a needle yet

9. God had promised to bless the seed of David, whence Joseph, but, uh… never mind

10. Seven days between December 26 and January 1. Seven Basic Principles (Nguzo Saba) of African culture. Coincidence? I think not

Water on Mars

After I read about the new evidence for liquid water on Mars, bubbling up from underground and leaving brief tracks before the terrible cold burns it away to nothing, I went into the kitchen and filled a glass from the tap. It tasted vacant, like outer space.

Good water is like the face of a model: void of all detectable particularities. Regular to the point of seeming inhuman.

Coincidentally, I just found out via comments on a recent post about aquagenic urticaria,

a rare condition in which hives develop within 1 to 15 minutes after contact with water. The hives last for 10 to 120 minutes and do not seem to be caused by histamine release like the other physical hives. Most investigators believe that this condition is actually exquisite skin sensitivity to additives in the water such as chlorine.

Imagine what it would be like to suffer from this ailment: even after treatment, still experiencing itchiness whenever your skin comes in contact with what we have always been told is the source of all life.

Evidence of ancient water abounds on Mars, and the question has generally been, What if there’s life? But now, with this strong evidence that water somehow, somewhere persists, the opposite case strikes me as equally intriguing: What if there isn’t, and has never been, life on Mars?

According to Michael Malin, the leader of the team who made the discovery,

These fresh deposits suggest that at some places and times on present-day Mars, liquid water is emerging from beneath the ground and briefly flowing down the slopes. This possibility raises questions about how the water would stay melted below ground, how widespread it might be, and whether there’s a below-ground wet habitat conducive to life.

An essay by science fiction author Ben Bova helps place these questions in context.

Several decades ago, when most scientists wrote off frigid, arid Mars as a world that could not harbor life, Carl Sagan and a few others suggested that Mars was probably much warmer and wetter in eons past. Maybe what we see today, they speculated, is the Martian equivalent of an ice age period. Maybe Mars wasn’t always the way it is today. […]

On Earth, there are varieties of bacteria that live deep underground, where they metabolize solid rock. Like all forms of life that we know of, these rock-eating bacteria need liquid water, which they get from underground seeps and flows.

The same kind of organisms could exist on Mars. Right now.

And we might never know for sure. Space exploration costs gazillions, and we may not be able to afford it for very much longer.

Death is not a synonym for lifelessness. Only a planet known to have once harbored life can truly be called a dead planet. And if we ever discover that to have been the case with Mars, we’ll have to give some thought to memorial rites. We have a hard enough time grappling with genocide or the extinction of a species, so much more numbing than the loss even of the greatest or most beloved individual. Now we are beginning to see the collapse of entire ecosystems. We have no fucking idea how to mourn the loss of a world.

Interesting, isn’t it, how the language works on us? Only a place that has been someone’s home can rightly be considered a world.

If life on earth turns out to be derived ultimately from Mars, by way of microorganism-bearing meteorite(s), our sorrow and sense of disorientation will be like that of an adoptee who only discovers his adopted status after the death of his birth-mother.

Unless, of course, that mother still clings to life in some cold and sterile hospital ward, lying in a coma. We return again and again to peer down at her silent mask, watching, wondering if it might ever return to being a face. Mere biological life is not enough. We crave a response.