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Monday, July 26, 2010

In Praise of Squirrel Literacy

“Squirrels nest in trees?—No way. I thought they lived in stone walls or in holes in the ground like chipmunks,” protested a friend in her early 40s. A similar response from a second friend suggested a pattern. (Both, of course, were referring not to short-tailed ground squirrels but to the ubiquitous grey squirrel that has adapted so successfully in our midst.)

Both of my friends are graduates of fine colleges, but, remarkably, both have lived nearly their entire lives—nearly 95 years combined—in rural Hatfield, Massachusetts. Unlike neighboring Northampton and Amherst—both multicultural hotbeds—Hatfield—with its predominance of Polish, Irish, and Anglo-American descendents, is as ethnically homogeneous as the milk from its Holsteins. If I moved to Hatfield and its several Jewish families fled, I would be the town Jew. This year’s high school graduating class of about 40 sported one African American—a school-choice nonresident [Was she pushed or did she jump?]

Squirrel Literacy Now! If my two soon-to-be former friends from the sticks are so profoundly squirrel-challenged, what about the rest of us from places on the map that don’t involve squinting? A recent New York Times article by science writer Natalie Angier makes a splendid case for squirrel literacy and the squirrel’s—especially the grey squirrel’s—extraordinary adaptive fitness. According to Angier, they can leap 10 times their body length, and rotate their ankles 180 degrees, which allows them to grip with the tenaciousness of a reverse mortgage salesman at a senior center. Those assets combined with double-jointed hind legs allow squirrels to accelerate and change direction on a dime. If they played football, they’d be finesse backs, split ends, safeties.

The surprisingly sophisticated squirrel brain allows for tactical deception. They’ll bury a nut/seed, dig it up, and rebury it, over and over again. If they suspect they’re being watched, they’ll fake the interment and move on to safer ground. Confession is good for the soul. As a five-year-old, I watched a squirrel bury an acorn from my backyard window. When the critter vanished, I retrieved the nut and jiggered the burial site to appear untampered. Then, at my back window, I observed the creature dig in frustration. In retrospect, I’m not proud of my behavior then and, for that matter, of my unkind words above directed at the good people of Hatfield. But for me, impulse control has no pride.

Squirrels are also “master” kvetchers, emphasizes Ms. Angier. Their repertoire of chucks and kuks runs the gamut of negativity from mild discomfort to the prospect of neighborhood-wide bedlam.

A Tale about a Tail. Without question, the squirrel’s lightening reflexes, its loquaciousness, and its juiced-up metabolism give you one furry jive artist. That was much of the charm in Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, an account of escalating squirrel chutzpah in the face of peril—the taciturn, lethal owl, Old Brown. During the six-day adventure, Nutkin’s siblings and cousins paid Old Brown tribute in mice, moles minnows, and fat beetles, the latter which Potter insisted were as good as plums in plum pudding for Old Brown. Nutkin, on the other hand, offered annoying riddles and escalating impertinence, which culminated on the sixth day:

Nutkin made a whirring noise to sound like the wind, and he took a running jump right onto the head of Old Brown!...Then all at once there was a flutterment and a scufflement and a loud "Squeak!" The other squirrels scuttered away into the bushes. When they came back very cautiously, peeping round the tree—there was Old Brown sitting on his door-step, quite still, with his eyes closed, as if nothing had happened. But Nutkin was in his waistcoat pocket!
This looks like the end of the story; but it isn't.Old Brown carried Nutkin into his house, and held him up by the tail, intending to skin him; but Nutkin pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two, and he dashed up the staircase and escaped out of the attic window.And to this day, if you meet Nutkin up a tree and ask him a riddle, he will throw sticks at you, and stamp his feet and scold, and shout—"Cuck-cuck-cuck-cur-r-r-cuck-k-k!"

A Jive Artist Supreme!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

When I think about the Celtic's Ray Allen, I think about retired Cleveland Cavalier Mark Price. Mention Mark Price--I think about phonology.

In April 2009, my son and I lucked out with a behind-the-scenes tour at the TD Bank Garden, several hours before a Celtics game. Shortly after admiring photos of Ted Williams’ elegant swing in a mini-shrine devoted to the great batsman, we noticed Ray Allen alone on the floor circumnavigating the 3-point arc. I began counting. Before I lost interest, Ray had made 17 of 20 3-point jumpers from his “spots” around the arc. Most of the positive outcomes were all net. If you focused on just the bottom of the net, you’d see it flip half a foot upward with clone-like precision before dropping back down in the ball’s wake. Ray’s delivery was efficient but much more. Its gracefulness was a basketball analog to the Williams swing.

Forget Ray’s streakiness in this year’s playoff finals. Historically, he shares stratospheric company with the NBA’s shooting elite. Only Reggie Miller has made more 3-point shots. And in lifetime percentage for free throw completions, Ray ranks number nine (.885) on a compressed roster led by the astounding Mark Price (.904).

These days, Price, who spent most of his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, is a shooting coach for the Atlanta Hawks. He trains other NBA players at the Mark Price Basketball Academy in Suwanee, Georgia. The academy’s Mark Price Shooting Lab employs radar and video tracking equipment to evaluate shooting arc and the mechanics of a shooter’s form.

Mention Mark Price--I think of  phonology. That’s because of a memorable moment with my late aunt—a language scholar—inspired by my high school friend, Marc Price. Aunt Sylvia and her husband, my Uncle Bill—a philosopher and editor—were language sticklers. They were that rare couple that at the dinner table might argue over the use of the subjunctive.

One June just after the end of the high school year in Worcester, Massachusetts, Marc and I visited Sylvia and Bill in Washington, D.C. Marc returned to Worcester a week later; I stayed on in Washington. After he had left, Sylvia remarked that she had enjoyed his company. But she had one reservation: Every time you hear his first and last name together, she emphasized, there’s a sonic explosion. That’s the k sound and the p sound colliding without the buffer of a consonant in between. That’s phonological trouble, she said. I’m sure his parents had no idea what they were doing when they named him. We’ll all just have to grin and bear it.

For the future author of Wig & Pen, that insight proved far more eventful than dinner time revelations about the subjunctive. It was the beginning of a realization that I had better pay greater attention to the role of sound and rhythm in both writing and speech. So in making tradeoffs as a writer and editor, one inevitable question on my short list of concerns is and always will be—How does it sound?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bastille Day Greetings from Wig & Pen!

Je me souviens! On an extended August weekend in 2002, only nine months before American supermarkets would begin bowdlerizing “French” from French fries after France’s refusal to buy into the mess in Iraq, Amherst, Massachusetts welcomed an unprecedented invasion of Francophiles.

More than 1,000 owners and enthusiasts of schlumpy Citroëns descended on Amherst and the University of Massachusetts for the International Citroën Car Club’s annual convocation. The first such gathering outside Europe, the event attracted owners from that side of the pond and others who had trekked in their marginally dependable autos from as far away as Washington State, British Columbia, and Mexico.

With exhibits at the university’s Student Union and Campus Center and hundreds of Citroëns parked around the campus pond, the gathering reached full strength on a 90 degree Saturday afternoon. Every owner had a unique tale to impart of how and where he had purchased his Citroën, his Job-like patience in securing replacements for malfunctioning parts, and his survival on the road in an oversized kitchen appliance.

Like antique car owners, Citroën drivers don’t drive—they motor. By necessity, they are resourceful mechanics. And their bricolage extends to amenities. One owner proudly showed me a phonograph secured on erector-set brackets in the crawl space otherwise known as the back seat. A second revealed an oddity under the dash of the passenger’s seat that  looked like an ensconced aquarium with a spigot. It produced cold Orangina.

The gathering disbanded on Sunday morning. That afternoon on a drive north to Greenfield via Route 5-10, I noticed a disabled Citroën on the side of the road. Several miles later I saw a second and then a third. From that point on I looked away. Two days earlier, meeting up with a supercilious Belgian in Antonio’s Pizza in downtown Amherst put things in perspective. When I joked that Citroëns would struggle in Nascar, he sniffed, Monsieur, it iz not ze speed, but ze nuance of your adventure that matters.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Lately I’ve been listening to Charles Ives’ Holidays Symphony, a compelling four-movement evocation of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, July 4th, and Thanksgiving Day. Ives was a true music revolutionary. Some consider him America’s greatest composer.

Ives’ movements often begin contemplatively and build, sometimes fitfully, to crazy-quilt climaxes of multiple American musical themes.  The Holidays Symphony’s 4th of July movement, for example, juxtaposes fragments of Colombia, The Gem of the Ocean; The Battle Hymn of the Republic; Yankee Doodle; Reveille; and a jagged motif by Ives himself. You feel that you’ve time travelled to some late 19th –early 20th century overloaded soundscape of musical Americana that’s on the verge of an Ivesian  breakdown. That’s usually when Ives pulls the plug, leaving you in a parting wake of musical contemplation—an exit rather than a resolution.

Nobody on the planet is a better advocate for Ives than Michael Tilson Thomas, who demystifies and adds excitement to The Holidays Symphony in a terrific DVD in his Keeping Score series. After he dissects the symphony movement by movement (accompanied by vivid multimedia examples), he treats you a winning performance under his own baton with the San Francisco Symphony. Visit the Holidays Symphony’s Keeping Score website here.

So how about an Ivesian symphony dedicated to genuinely obscure state holidays—i.e., holidays celebrated largely by state employees?

That occurred to me on Bunker Hill Day (June 17th), one of three springtime holidays “celebrated” by state workers in Massachusetts. The other two are Patriots Day and Evacuation Day. (The latter commemorates the day in March 1776 when the Brits abandoned Boston.) Massachusetts may lead the nation in such state observances, but other states, in their own poignant celebrations, have much to offer the musical enterprise at hand.

Favorites include Cesar Chavez Day in California, Arbor Day in Nebraska, and Pioneer Day, a.k.a. The Day of Deliverance, in Utah. Alaskans celebrate Seward Day and Alaska Day and Hawaiians undulate on days that honor Kamehameha the Great and Prince Kūhiō. Finally, there are holidays heavy on southern charm like Lee and Jackson (that’s Stonewall, not Andrew) Day in Virginia and Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.

With a so much inspiration and so little time remaining on another one of my state days off --a Personal
Day--here are my preliminary .   .   .

Sketches for an Ivesian State Holidays Symphony

First Movement: Lee and Jackson Day—Virginia, January 2. A choral quartet version of the elegiac southern hymn, Washing in the Possum’s Bounty gives way to a spritely string orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. (evoking the exuberance of Confederate aspirations). Staccato upwellings of Dixie intrude, yielding a strident hybrid consummation. After the bottom drops out, a lone fiddle takes us downstream with a spectral rendition of Robbie Robertson’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

Second Movement: Evacuation Day—Massachusetts, March 17. For openers, any lush Elgarian theme will do for veneration of all things British.  Upon restatement, the theme incurs escalating pepperings from impolite fifes and drums. Next, a full orchestral wash of London Bridges falls victim to merciless sonic deconstruction. The movement’s coda—the specially commissioned Evacuation Tango—accompanies footage of state workers rising en masse from their desks and abandoning their offices.

Third Movement: King Kamehameha Day—Hawaii, June 11.  Sonic titillation from a lapping surf morphs into a traditional Hawaiian chant with thumping shark-skin drums offering a plea to the forest god Kane for Kamehameha the Great’s (1738-1819) shadow “to never grow less.” A spinning Bakelite radio dial surfing across snippets of big band swing settles in on Laurel and Hardy’s rendition of Honolulu Baby (Where’d you get those eyes?). In recessional, slack key guitar master Ledward Kaapana bids us a terminal aloha with Lei' Awapuhi (Yellow Ginger Lei).

Final Movement: You decide! My short list is a toss-up between Utah’s Pioneer Day (July 24) and Rhode Island’s Victory Day (August 15), which celebrates the United States’ defeat of Japan and the end of WWII. For Pioneer Day, you might glean inspiration from the apocryphal  From Jeptha’s Bosom: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Wonder Years. If you favor V-Day--Rhode Island is the only state that celebrates it, probably because of the heavy involvement of its naval bases in the Pacific War--why not finish up with Randy Newman’s exuberant Political Science [They All Hate Us Anyhow, So Let’s Drop the Big One Now?]

An Ivesian Puzzlement

Finally, Wig & Pen  wonders how Ives would have viewed this proliferation of state holidays and their “get out of jail” cards for state and (other) employees. Music, after all, was Ives’ avocation. In the work-a-day world, he commuted from Danbury, Connecticut to Manhattan as an insurance executive. He ultimately owned his own firm, Ives & Myrick (1907-1930), where he developed estate-related insurance products for well-to-do clients.

In the early days of the last century, many viewed the insurance business as radical. By the standards of the day, then, Ives pushed the envelope both in business and in music. Given his pioneering disposition, would Charlie Ives have welcomed state holidays and encouraged his employees to take the day off?  That Is The Unanswered Question.

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