Sunday, February 24, 2008

Frost at Midday

Massachusetts got as the locals like to say 'pounded' with snow Friday, starting after 6 a.m. and continuing through early morning Saturday. I worked from home in the third floor guest bedroom, converted into an impromptu office thanks to Comcast broadband and a wireless router. Through a narrow window I could watch the flakes swirling down and around the historic Marblehead rooftops - like a Longfellow poem, updated with telephone wires. Probably something like 10 inches, but cold light flakes and sunny weather made for a relatively painless cleanup Saturday. Today, Sunday, I have a different but equally New Englandy view from my desk in the downstairs family room. Looking out at the backyard, I see the odd succession of elongated holes - like a careful giant's footprints - that Casey made as she galumphed across the deep layer of white. Periodically the wind sends a clumpy dust of snow down from the big pine tree at the end of the yard, bringing to mind Robert Frost's jauntily glum ditty -

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And changed some part
Of a day I rued.

If I were still a literature teacher I would set my students to pondering the fine blend of the playful and the stately in these short rhymed lines, particularly the concussion of 'mood' and 'rued'. Poor Frost - he couldn't even talk about being happy without thinking about regret. As a genuine countryman, however, he was more careful about projecting his moods onto the natural landscape than Coleridge, in 'Frost at Midnight':

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud--and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
’Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

Sitting inside by fire is obviously more conducive to pathetic fallacy than tromping around in the woods. But Coleridge too discovers a change of mood in his own internalized landscape, blessing the sleeping manchild next to him - as only a citified English Romantic poet can do - with the promise of a daily heaven on earth:

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

What a turn of phrase - 'the secret ministry of frost'. Enough to give you chills, sitting warmly indoors on a sunny weekend morning. I love Robert Frost but I'm more temperamentally aligned with Coleridge, leaving aside his addictive penchant. Still I'll have to face crusty New England nature a little more directly when I start jogging next week. Nothing secret about the ministry of frost on the roads of the North Shore in February.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


It's the lead up to Valentine's Day, which means both my usual drivetime companions, WGBH and WBUR, are in the middle of romantically themed pledge drives, offering flowers and chocolate in exchange for a year of guilt-free listening. (You can tell in an instant, and with a sinking heart, it's not Morning Edition.) So I was doubly happy I had downloaded a new audiobook this morning, for what turned into an hour and a half commute. Chekhov short stories, narrated by Kenneth Branagh. Couldn't even remember putting it in my wish list, but there it was, five minutes before hitting the road - I needed only three to download the file and sync it with my iPod. Reading and writing in the digital commuter age: the subject of another blog.

If Chekhov had written the tale of my commute, my whimsical self- satisfaction would have been quickly and not so whimsically cut short: I would've forgot myself and rammed a surly marine mechanic in his pickup. Or I would have had to stop to watch someone's aging mother inch her way across the street to 'Our Lady of the Sea' church - putting me in mind of my own mother or my own age. Or I would have simply ignored a sky painted the color of hope as I passed Swampscott harbor. But modern life is not so well-constructed or so true - the sky and the people kept to themselves, and I was able to lose myself in Chekhov's sly, tender and rollicking Russian panoply all the way to Cambridge. The one unexpected twist in the trip, a utility truck fixing a street light near the airport, which backed up traffic to Wonderland, only prolonged the enjoyment. God bless your pointy little beard, Anton Pavlovich!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Return of the non-native

What better time to come back to the blogosphere than in the wake of Super Tuesday and Mitt Romney's withdrawal from the Republican runoff. A time of hope - or at least relief that Mitt's plastic smile will be off the networks and front pages for a while, except perhaps briefly at the grand old party's convention. A soul-searching op-ed piece in the Boston Globe today explored the ambivalence many successful Mormons apparently feel to exposing their religion in public. Romney's experience will probably not help his coreligionists resolve their doubts anytime soon.

Our dog Casey lying in the sun reminds me of John McCain. She is a nine year old Glen of Imaal terrier - in dog years the presumed nominee's junior by almost a decade. But they share the same shaggy eyebrows and truculent, mercurial temperament. Inside the house she is mostly interested in trolling for table scraps, rolling over for belly rubs and digging for badgers under the couch. Outside, when not chasing tennis balls, she sits on the steps barking furiously at any alien dog that passes our gate, or sometimes - to all appearances - at nothing at all. It's her job to patrol the borders and keep the homeland and her family safe. She would definitely stay in Iraq for 100 years, if necessary.

On Super Tuesday Julie and I were riveted to the widescreen TV in the family room, expertly critiquing the talking heads and the production values on CNN, MSNBC and PBS. Today's events in Washington State, Nebraska and Louisiana flew somewhat below my radar. I was more absorbed with with the struggle to choose a new car (Prius..? Matrix..? Jeez, I don't even need a Democratic party bumper sticker...) and another moody Keira Knightly performance at the Danvers Hollywood Hits, this time in the sad, dark, slightly over wrought "Atonement". But at 9 pm I caught up with my Google homepage, which trumpeted the news that Obama won with a margin of nearly 70% in both western states - Louisiana had not yet been called.

This earned approval from the three teenagers in the house, one of whom voted for the first time in Tuesday's primary. They like pretty much all their friends are Obama supporters. Although they may not know much about his platforms he is "the man" - so transparently cool and connected that he might as well be the only candidate in the race.