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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The two most beautiful words in the English language

Henry James said they are "summer afternoon" and Dorothy Parker riposted "cheque enclosed." On the day after the solstice I'm going to claim "summer evening."

It could have been the perfect one, last evening. (It wasn't quite, for reasons you'll see.) The air was cool and dry, the ocean that interesting mix of placid surface and smooth rolling waves breaking white on the rocks. Evening, of course, begins in the late afternoon around here, 5:00 (4:45 if you're desperate) with drinks on the deck, a book, crossword puzzle, or just gazing. There ought to be a word for a gaze that's deep and satisfying.

The birds as usual were the main attraction. Gulls and ducks in abundance, the occasional cormorant and osprey, goldfinches bursting out of the balsam fir like a shower of sparks, a bald eagle in imagination, and the flock of crows that calls this shore home: one of them sat on top of a nearby spruce and did his exuberant triplet - CAW! CAW! CAW! - at least 10 times, in a voice as loud as a lawn mower. Maybe it thought me unseemly for looking so idle.

In honor of the longest evening of the year, I had planned to stay out until dark, some 4 hours away, eating and drinking and reading and watching, but it got too cool and a little buggy, and I brought my celebration behind glass. It would be light again soon enough.

It wasn't the perfect evening to celebrate, after all, not yet. That happens later in the summer, in August, the season of change in the north country, the season for changing those two words back to "love you," or even better, "my family" when they join me on the deck, in memory or in fact.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Having the privilege of taking care of two yards, I think quite a bit about the concept of Lawn. One of ours is in the suburbs. conventional, bordered nearly all the way around by clipped hedge or trees planted in a row, and it is somewhat ratty looking, with weeds and bare spots and chipmunk holes, because we don't have a lawn service and are not terribly serious about brush-cut perfection. The other is in the country (more or less the country), somewhat bigger and less conventional, just as weedy if not more so, edged by wilder vegetation, and including a large leaching field out back that I mow as if it were lawn. Both lawns look great in June (but don't look too closely), pathetic by August.

Actually, I don't really take care of yards. I merely mow the lawns, and occasionally provide some muscle or weed duties in the gardens. We break down our outdoor duties along stereotypical gender lines, sweat vs esthetics, for example, or action vs emotion.

So we maintain our patches of control against wilderness. Humans love contrast, don't we, or is it that we need contrast? In spite of all conventionality, a tended mono-culture lawn still looks great against profusion beyond. The lined edges of a garden, curved or straight, rock or rail tie or just edged dirt, still look great between cut grass and clipped hedge. Even the unnatural mound of a leaching field shines in the middle of woods like a glade. And my absolute favorite part of the country lawn is the twenty feet that span the edge of the bank, especially on a stormy day like today when the surf crashes below. The wildness, and the control, are always within reach.

By the way, Wikipedia has an excellent entry on  the lawn, in spite of calling it "managed grass space" with no hint of irony. It's a potent symbol of many things, including privilege, especially before the invention of mowing machines in the 19th century when laborers and animals kept lawns trim. America adopted the lawn wholesale from the English, a not-so-subtle indication of class and race in our so-called class-less society. Perhaps it's really because lawns are a terrible waste - the water, fumes of fuel, the chemicals, the @#$%^&* leaf blowers - and we're proud that we're prosperous enough to afford them. And in spite of the modern trend to tear them up and plant fruit trees or cactus (or is that being done only in places with water crises?), we hang on here in New England, of the manor born, mowing to our hearts' content.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Women writers

I'm in the middle of an amazing stretch of fiction reading. Having finished Life After Life (Kate Atkinson) and The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout), I'm now reading The Round House (Louise Erdrich) and Dear Life (Alice Munro). I've had to read a couple of Peter Lovesey detective novels in between just to keep from being overwhelmed.

That these four writers are female is exactly the point. They are among the best writers today (and one of them is the best), and I don't understand the various biases and prejudices that are still current. Certainly women don't seem to get the press that the glamour boys - Michael Chabon, Martin Amis, the Jonathans (Franzen, Safran Foer, Lethem), Junot Diaz - get. There's the Wikipedia scandal in which women were being shunted off into a separate category of writers, and the on-going study at the Women in Literary Arts website showing that literary magazines are still heavily biased to men.

Not that there aren't terrific male novelists. Jeffrey Eugenides, Kent Haruf, Peter Cameron, Stewart O'Nan, and Howard Norman come immediately to mind. But for controlled passion, exquisite language, fidelity to story and mood and family and character, the women are in the ascendant, if not already triumphant. Men seem mostly interested in their plumage.

It's my bias, of course, but to me it's like the difference between a hot city sidewalk and a cool country shore, between conturbation and contemplation, between "Look at me!" and "Look at them," between the novel-as-TV and the novel-as-it's-always-been. Enough of irony already!