Archive for May, 2010

Black Cab Driver

May 27, 2010

I am not proud of my behaviour in the following story, but I hope you will agree it is funny:

Always been a fan of London’s black cabs – those roomy, rounded, homely hybrids with the cheerful yellow light up front when they’re free.  They can turn on a dime in the narrow London streets, and their small but steady diesels grickle-grickle familiarly and patiently outside your door while you say goodnight to your guests.  They are invariably clean, and have ample room for your knees, your suitcase, or four friends.

And best of all, the drivers – the most voluble in the world since New York yellow cabs have been largely taken over by immigrant mumblers with cell phones – have ‘The Knowledge’ – an encyclopaedic overview of London, which is the size of LA but without any of the freeways or even major arteries.  Getting from one place to another in London is an absolute maze of tiny streets, requiring a literal couple of years of going around London on a moped, with the ‘A-to-Zed’ street atlas mounted on the handlebars, learning a series of routes, until you can recite them off by heart to the examiner:

“Get me from Earl’s Court Tube stop to Croftdown Road in Kentish Town” – and the aspiring cabbie will have to reel off the succession of perhaps two dozen street names involved in the journey – Portobello Road, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Marlborough Place, Highgate.  And that’s only half of it, because there are perhaps a dozen possible alternative routes between any two spots, and depending on the time of day, a good London black cab driver will know the timeliest pathway to avoid the snarls through which most Brits drum their fingers patiently.

I drove in London for nearly 10 years, and certainly knew my way around the bigger streets of the West End, and fancied myself pretty canny on the various routes to my friends’ houses, but anything new required the A-to-Zed on the seat or lap next to me – before the days of SatNav, o ye young’uns.

But when my friend called me a mini-cab (the private competitors to the unionized black cabs), I assented rather than have to walk out to the Maida Vale with my suitcase to hail one.

Bad move: we were only going down to a hotel near the British Museum, but his guy – a studious looking young man from Ghana – kept looking at his A-to-Zed at every stop light, barreled down a road armed with ‘sleeping policemen’ – lumps designed to slow him down, but instead bouncing me up out of the back seat  of his little Vauxhall (Chevy) every time.  When he took me to the wrong destination, and had stopped to consult his map yet again to get me back to where I was going, I lost it.

“For crying out loud, you have thrown my head against the ceiling, taken three wrong turns, and now delivered me to the wrong address and now you don’t know the way to the right one!”

“I am sorry, sir, but I am not a black cab driver.”

In my annoyance I misunderstood:  “I don’t care what colour you are, if you are going to hold yourself out as a taxi driver, you should know the city you drive!” I cried, throwing a five-pound note into the front seat and clambering out with my bags.

It was only as I climbed into the black cab I found nearby (who did sweep me to my hotel with calm assurance) that I realized my mistake, and blushed at the memory of his nonplussed face.



May 21, 2010

Over here in Oxford still, with our two Danes, two Israelis, two Poles, two Italians, two Spaniards, two Irishmen, two Scots, two Americans, (no Germans, interestingly) and 8 assorted Brits who could probably be paired up cleverly if I had the time – two locals, two jaded Londoners, two northerners with the lilting voices of the shires.  We don’t let the nationals partner up with each other for the bodywork exchange, by the way, so they have to mix, but never have I had a class where lunchtime sounds like such wonderful glossalalia – a United Nations of bodywork!

But I can’t stop feeling Bambi, so here’s her sad story.

Once plentiful, around my home, I rarely see a wild rabbit in my woods walks (and when I do it’s a streak of fur – they are so fast), though I see tracks in the snow occasionally on my winter skis.  They’ve been hunted out, but they may rebound in the coming years, since no one goes out with the beagles and a shotgun any more since Mervin died; these wild bunnies are too hard to find.

Even the non-human predators – fox, fisher, owl, coyote, mink – that were the bane of Quan’s existence when we first built the rabbitat eight years ago seem more recently to have retreated elsewhere (at least since the barred owl:  Knock on wood, the rabbitat, now pregnable with rabbit tunnels to the outside and gaps in the gate, remains an oasis for Quan’s rescued domestic rabbits.

A couple of Fridays ago we got a knock on the door after dinner, a brow-knitting experience in the country, where most folks we know would just walk in if they saw the light on – so a knock can mean trouble.  There under the front door lamp was the daughter of a acquaintance down the road and her 10-year-old son Mattias; they had just seen this wild rabbit get struck by a car, and had scooped her up from the side of the road in Mattias’ jacket and brought her to us for care.

Most animals who come here, even ‘my’ cats, even me myself, end up bonding with Quan, she has such a way with animal natures.  Occasionally, however, one will go for me.  Way back when, Kato the attack rabbit would aggressively bite anyone who came near, going for their hand or pantleg, or even a towel dragged in his vicinity.  But somehow I could pick him up, cuddle him to my chest, put my chin on top of his head, and he would chutter happily and go to sleep.  Quan warned me he would tear my throat out one day, but he never did, and he passed away peacefully of old age this last winter.

And Bambi was another; I fell for her immediately.  Frightened beyond measure by this whole new world, but helpless with shock and a bum leg, she had no choice but to allow me to examine her for broken bones while Quan prepared her a box of hay, alfalfa, and water.  She had a grazed knee (and ticks in her ears that had to be removed) but nothing seemed broken, and I got a weak response from pinching her toes on the otherwise limp right hind leg, so we thought there might be a chance of her recovery.

“Bambi’ occurred to us right away – she had a long face and eyes that protruded out of her skull like a deer.  Her feet were not furry and cute, but long and splayed at the end into three toes with long toenails.  Lean and muscular, she stared with the wide eyes and extended forelegs of fear, but she was so weak and hurt she soon gave in and seemed to relax and accept the attention she got in my lap.

Quan showed me how to get water into her mouth with the barrel of a syringe, and we gave her MediCam for pain, and I spent as many hours with her as I could, snuggling her into my shirt while I answered emails, working her gamy leg, and calming her as best I could.  She seemed to welcome my visits, closing her eyes and relaxing as I stroked her nose and head with short strokes, ‘licking’ her as a mother would (and as Quan has taught me, probably never would have thought of this myself).

I fancy that I’m level-headed, and sometimes laugh at the lengths Quan goes to for her animals, but I went ass-over-teakettle for this poor little woodland creature who ran out of the woods at the wrong time into a Volvo’s bumper.  By Monday morning when the vet opened, she was getting more distant, and the leg had stopped responding.  And indeed, the vet found what I had not: a break in her delicate little spine that spelled no hope.  Christine is so kind, and Bambi went peacefully and painlessly into her good night, and I have had a leak in my heart ever since.

Hearts heal, and love changes over time like good soup, for sure – Quan and I, 18 years in, have tasted many of its flavours – but love is no respecter for time: that little brown creature had me from the moment I lifted her from Mattias’ coat and has me still – to be so close to something so wild and free, an innocent so hurt by our so heedless need for speed.

It’s Joni again:

In the night it snowed

Fast tracks in the powder white

Leading out to the road

Winding from her tender grasp

Wild things run fast


May 16, 2010

To set up class today in Oxfordshire, we tootled through the countryside.  Where last time it was the early flowers – daffs, tulips, blossom trees, and forsythia – this time is the later flowers and the fields of rape.  They grow a lot of rapeseed in England, and at a certain time the fields go an intensely unbelievable yellow with the flowers.

‘Rape’ is actually derived from the Latin rapum meaning ‘turnip’, but its homonym has such a negative connotation that for marketing purposes, Canadian Oil – Low Acid became Canola and the darling of the health set.

Misty’s Gradu(alis)ation

May 16, 2010

Misty graduated college this weekend, magna cum laude.  Graduation ceremonies come in two varieties – too hot and too cold – and this was the too cold kind, wind whistling in from Boston Harbor under the edges of the outdoor tent. Though a ceremony is only an outward sign, with silly hats, banal speeches, and a mere moment on the stage receiving your diploma and a shake, it certainly set a seal on Misty’s three years of very focused and productive work.  She certainly enjoyed it for exactly what it was.

I was so happy to join Giselle, her mother, in celebrating her achievement.  I was touched that my brother, my sister, my niece, our longtime friend Annie, and my wife cared enough to drive down for the event.  Sadly, my mother couldn’t be there, but she was able to see the event streamed live over the computer.  The rest of Misty’s grandparents have all passed;we had her when we were already past it ourselves.

More relevant still were the 24 hours after, when we got to spend time together reminiscing about the old days – our own college days, Misty’s early years – and looking forward to her challenges ahead.  She is well-founded, mostly through her own efforts.  I worry – every parent does, and with reason – but I do not fear for her.

Misty in a Mortarboard


May 9, 2010

In the time of the iPod, we can indulge any musical penchant so easily, good quality earbuds tucked into the interstices of our lives.  I’ve been in a totally Joni Mitchell mood recently, between her Blue and Dog Eat Dog.  Didn’t go so much for the early folksinger, the Michael From Mountains and Chelsea Morning girl, and I preferred the Judy Collins version of Both Sides Now and Tom Rush’s version of Circle Game and Urge For Going. But once she got away from Graham Nash and had the fling with JT and started to rock, I was hooked.

She is celebrated as a keen emotional poet, which I will add to in a moment, but don’t pass over her music.  Bob Dylan is consistently under-rated as a musician, and so is Joni.  The chord structures, the key changes, the rhythmic syncopation, the innovative exploration – she deserves to be remembered as a jazz musician, and not just for Mingus and the new Both Sides Now.  Because Blue, For the Roses, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Hejira, Court and Spark, and Wild Things Run Fast are full of the most amazing tunes.

Who can resist lines like:

There was a moon and a streetlamp

I didn’t know I drank such a lot

Til I pissed a tequila anaconda the length of the parking lot

I talk too lose, again I talk too open and free

I pay a high price for my open talking

Like you do for your silent mystery

Talk to me.


There’s a gypsy down on Bleecker Street

I went in to see her as a kind of joke

She lit a candle for my love luck

And eighteen bucks went up in smoke

I was able to follow many of the songs on Blue and a few on the others on my own guitar with my own cracked voice, but she soon outdistanced my ability in music, and I could just stand slack-jawed in wonder.  And in any case, I am not bringing her up for a critical review, but just because she is speaking to me deeply right now, in whatever transition I am in the very midst of, well inside –“laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release”

So, to pick one among the many – A Case of You, Amelia, Barangrill, Let the Wind Carry Me, Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, For Free, All I Want, Free Man in Paris, Raised on Robbery, Electricity – let’s go with Hejira – certainly works as a poem, but if you have a chance, have a listen to it’s spare but rich arrangement – Joni’s simple but driving guitar arpeggios and Jaco Pastorius’ soaring and unexpected fretless bass – that’s all there is, and all that’s necessary.

Was she really just 30 when she wrote this?

Hejira – Joni Mitchell

I am traveling in some vehicle

Or sitting in some cafe

A defector from the petty wars

That shell shock love away.

There’s comfort in melancholy

When there’s no need to explain

It’s just as natural as the weather

In this moody sky today.

In our possessive coupling

So much could not be expressed

So now I am returning to myself

These things that you and I suppressed.

I see something of myself in everyone

Just at this moment of the world

As snow gathers like bolts of lace

Waltzing on a ballroom girl.

You know it never has been easy

Whether you do or you do not resign

Whether you travel the breadth of extremities

Or stick to some straighter line.

Now here’s a man and a woman sitting on a rock

They’re either going to thaw out or freeze

Listen… strains of Benny Goodman

Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees.

I’m porous with travel fever

But you know I’m so glad to be on my own

Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger

Can set up trembling in my bones.

I know – no one’s going to show me everything

We all come and go unknown

Each so deep and superficial

Between the forceps and the stone.

Well I looked at the granite markers

Those tributes to finality – to eternity

And I looked at myself here

Chicken scratching for my immortality.

In the church they light the candles

And the wax rolls down like tears

There’s the hope and the hopelessness

I’ve witnessed thirty years.

We’re only particles of change I know, I know

Orbiting around the sun

But how can I help that point of view

When I’m always bound and tied to someone?

White flags of winter chimneys

Waving truce against the moon

In the mirrors of a modern bank

From the window of a hotel room.

I’m traveling in some vehicle

I’m sitting in some cafe

A defector from the petty wars

Until love sucks me back that way.

Ok, so not all of it’s yours, some of it’s hers, but enough of it is ours to treasure, savour.  The triste that it is really universally and depressingly true, but the succour of having someone to share it with.  Thank you, thank you Joni for your work.

Beavering Away

May 8, 2010

I am so happy to learn of the beavers who have built a 2800′ (900 meter) long dam in a ‘virtually inaccessible’ part of northern Canada (someone spotted it on Google, woooden-ya-no).

I have always admired the beavers for their industry and perseverance, and copied their workaholic ways.  Many a time I saw them in the pond over the hill from our house when I was young, orange incisors leading their muskrat form down along the lakeside.  Now I live looking right over that same pond and I never see one, never hear their tail slap when they see me.  My neighbour owns the pond, and he regards them as a nuisance, so he encouraged Adam Rice to trap them, and trap them he did, a snare that drowns them as they come into their den from under water.  The den mounds up so they can be dry when they get in there.  The dens are all falling apart now, as there is no one to tend them.  I asked Adam why he traps them, and he said he gets $50 for the pelts, and I said, “Lot’a work for 50 bucks” and he said, “Well, guess it’s a family tradition” which is an unassailable verity around here.

And indeed Adam’s grandfather, who just passed away, probably did trap beaver in his youth, but not to eliminate the population of the pond – either they knew not to take too much in those days, or (more likely) there just wa’nt enough of us here to make our excessive taking so hard on the other species.

So yay, it’s inaccessible to humans, but not to beavers obviously.  Toil away, o beavers, we’re not coming out there to get you.

Bringing Her Around

May 4, 2010

This is the first year I have actually gotten the boat onto my mooring in April.  Hours before April ended, to be sure, and what a ride it was!  Strange and a little ominous to have a warm northwesterly, but today is the only available day.  Having checked all I could for proper installation and readiness for sea, I said goodbye to John at the yard and set sail east out of The Gut in South Bristol with a reefed main and a full jib.  It’s two-and-a-half miles from the north side of Witch Island to the outer point of Thrumcap, and I must have made it in about 20 minutes, barreling down John’s Bay in a broad reach with a breast of swell rising and receding beneath my feet.

Even though there are more islands out beyond, Thrumcap’s rocky end marks the edge of the sea, the end of the land fingers reaching out into it.  I wanted Tycha (and myself) to have a taste of it.  Taste it we did, literally: the full force of the wind grabbed us as we rounded the outer granite ledges, shaking the boat and setting the sails to slattering along the leech.  It’s suddenly noisy as hell.

Knees and hips crouched in fear: I’m alone, and there are no boats out this early in the season, the occasional fishing boat, but none I can see right now.  If I got in trouble out here, there would be no one to hail.

So there’s no room for error in 30 knots of wind and rail under, me standing on the sides of the cockpit not the bottom, with water coming in over the coaming.  As I tighten sail, so does the angle to the confused rush of oncoming whitecaps roaring down the fetch from Boothbay, and the slap of the sides starts throwing spray over me every 10 seconds until I am drenched and tasting salt with every breath.  So now we can add cold shivering and the inability to see to the Superficial-Front-Line-tightening fear.  I have hooked myself to the life rail with a safety harness, but I don’t fancy my chances of pulling myself back aboard if I get thrown over.  Won’t last long in April water anyway.

Such cheery thoughts occupy you in those first minutes of the first challenging sail of the year, when you wonder if everything’s been done up right and snugged tight, or if something slightly worn in the chattering gear will suddenly chafe through and part. But John and Mike have done their work well, and Tycha and I both test our sinews – her the wiry shrouds and stays that hold the masts, and her sheets, halyards and blocks that bridle the horses of the sails – there’s a bunch of creaking but nothing breaks, and you can feel her – a boat’s alive – waking up and tuning herself, like a guitar long unused awakens to the touch of music.

Me too – my lily hands and airplane-fed body and computer eyes relearn the movement; the leans that take your whole body weight into the wheel, the winch, or the wave.

I am glad to say that neither were found wanting and within a few minutes I am riding the waves with a rodeo rider’s clamped abandon, a reason for having hips suddenly rediscovered, pure exhilaration dancing between the wind and the water.

It’s a struggle to come about in the now-screaming northwesterly, and I shorten the jib to working size by pulling in the furling line as I come through the eye of the wind, even though it’s such a struggle that I reawaken the biceps injury I got last fall, but after we make the turn she is perfectly comfortable heading back into the welcoming arms of the river, where the wind is no less, but the waves calm down and the spray stops, so I shiver away the last of the cold and panic; the salt dries white on my clothes, and I am glad I brought the thermos of sweetened tea.

Sailing is a meditation, and this meditation is one of constant attention.  In this bluster of gusts and williwaws, a momentary lapse could allow the boat to twist to the wind and get in trouble very quickly.  The river provides shelter from the waves, but leaves you very little leeway – one mistake and you will be blown down upon the rocks in minutes.  The boat itself is on its edge, both literally and figuratively, and so must you be.  There’s hardly time or leisure to grab my water bottle or tea thermos.

I am almost home when the wind shrieks – gusts well above 30 knots – and even with the sails reduced she is taking water over the sides and I am at the edge of my skill just to keep her balanced; no wrong moves allowed.  I doubt that in these conditions I can bring her into the mooring itself – which requires you be in two places at once, and you just cannot miss or you will be spun ashore in no time – but the cove provides just enough shelter and about 100 yards from the pennant the wind falls, the boat slows, the sun warms, and you wonder what all the fuss was about.  I cannot credit it and turn away back into the maelstrom to reassure myself that it is still there, and sure enough, I am caught in it and swooshed across the river, and come screaming back on a beam reach at 8 knots, again to duck into the lee near the mooring.

It’s the kind of time drink is made for, but I have nothing but water on the boat – left my flashlight and whisky behind on this maiden voyage.  But there’s no real need for alcohol, I bandage up the rope burn I got in a bad moment so the sails won’t get blood on them – you can’t do a sail like today’s without joining The Order of the Bloody Knuckle.  It’s good to put the boat away, praising her and crowing about our feat – which no one but us two will really understand..

Then sit in the cockpit, letting the residual cold and fear and tension drain out of my body until there is nothing left but the warm pulsing peace of a well-used neuromyofascial web.


May 2, 2010

Spring proceeds in fits and starts here on the Maine coast.  We had April weather in March so the magnolia trees are already losing their tulip blossoms to the wind, but then we had March in April so the tulips themselves are just opening and nodding to brighten our days.  There was a bit of snow day before yesterday, but now the drone of lawnmowers carries everywhere on a warm capricious breeze.

But we’re gone from The Ram into The Bull, and with the full moon Annie is taking aim at the garden.  While we wait for the rototilling man to turn the peat, alfalfa, and our very own seaweed and horse manure into the soil, she is busy germinating seeds.  Not being a gardener, I supposed you just poked seeds down into little pots and waited for God or DNA or Mother Nature (to cite the Holy Trinity) to work their miracle.

(And what a miracle it is: I remember a sproutist in Hawaii first showing me in 1977 the difference between germinated and ungerminated food.  He took sunflower seeds and put them in a jar of water overnight. Next morning, he drained them and bid me compare: the regular raw sunflower seeds – heavy, chewy, oily, yum – versus these germinated ones – light, crispy, way differently flavoured, even more yum!  The only difference was the overnight germination, the activation of dormant life.  Later, when they were fully sprouted, he ground them into ice cream.  He was a bit of a nutter about living by Genesis 1:23, easier on Maui than out here.)

But Annie is not taking any such miracle for granted, and is watching over her charges like a mother hen – spraying them, patting them, taking them closer or farther away from the stove or the sunlight as conditions change, clucking over the dozens of little plastic pots.  Honestly, she looks like she’s about to sit on them, wiggle in, and stay there until they hatch.

Such is the broodiness of the dedicated gardener in early spring.


May 1, 2010

Pooky, that unfortunate animal, arrived from the shelter, a feral Manx, ill used, ill at ease, and just generally ill.  Quan nursed him back to health and got total devotion in return.  The health was relative: Pookie was still skittish in the extreme with the rest of us, ill tempered with the other cats, especially poor Amelio, and retained an infection in his ear.  When he shakes his head, yuk comes out and speckles the walls, the windows, the bed spread, your face – it doesn’t bear speaking about, really.

I have been agitating for Pooky’s advancement to outdoor cat status, but Quan resists this solution for some reason.  He’s too crotchety and sick to be given away; we won’t return him to the shelter, so the only solution seems to be to put him to sleep.  “I will take him there, but you have to make the decision.”  Months have gone by, the months of winter, and none of the vets or nostrums Quan uses on herself and then tries on everybody else have cleaned up this ear, or his temperament for that matter.  But she loves the cat, for all its ill will or maybe because of it.

When I got back from England and saw the brown flecks on the new paint job in the hall, I asked her again.  “I suppose it’s really time,” and I can hear in her voice that finally she means it.  Apparently so can Pookie, who looks up from the living room rug – and he must have taken it in, because that night he disappears, never to return.

Now we have lost a lot of cats here since we’ve moved in – 8 in 8 years – a couple to old age, a couple to cars, the rest we suppose to foxes, fishers (a kind of weasel), and one to a rare bobcat or mountain lion.  So the grounded and logical explanation is just that this was Pooky’s night to get got, but how coincidental, how beyond coincidental that he should go that very day.

In imagination, we see him walking away down the road, his little kit bag on a stick over his shoulder, “Well, if they don’t want me…”   Sniff.  It’s sad.  I really hope he did make a conscious bid for freedom over the indignity of the pentathol prick.  It’s spring, and he’s wily, and he could make it in the woods, I bet.  Personally, I don’t miss him, though I know Quan does.  But to me it’s just another example – the rabbits, the horses, the turkeys – of her advanced ability to speak to and with the animals.  (