Anne Notations

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Look at that redhead!

Ever since I hung a suet feeder outside our living room window shortly after Christmas, we've been visited by a sweet little downy woodpecker and a northern flicker (another type of woodpecker), both with small red stripes on the back of their heads.

Today's visitor, however, was far more resplendent: a red-bellied woodpecker. Really, the belly doesn't look red to me (although the bird book describes it as a "red wash"). But that bright head! Magnificent. Caroline and I stared while Michael aimed his camera.

This male woodpecker used his extra-long beak to vanquish a small flock of starlings that tried to chase him off the suet cage. Power to the ’peckers!

Monday, January 21, 2008

His urgent, beautiful words

Today the kids and I are relaxing at home, thanks to a national holiday in honor of civil rights martyr Martin Luther King Jr. Every year on this day I have gathered the family to watch a videotape of King's immortal "I Have a Dream" speech, the capstone of a massive 1963 march on Washington on behalf of equality and justice for people of color in this slavery-haunted nation.

Since our move, we no longer own a VCR or, in fact, any videotapes. Nor do we have a DVD version of King's address yet. I was astonished to see that no television station appears to be marking the holiday with a broadcast of it. So I Googled.

If you have never actually read the text of "I Have a Dream," please pause right now and do so here. Then, watch the embedded video of King's actual delivery.

Words are the treasures of my own life as a reader, writer, and editor. The first time I read King's dream speech – in the pages of the wonderful Notre Dame Magazine, years ago – I gasped at its preacherly beauty and flow. I knew he was a leader of people, but I now appreciated what manner of writer King was, as well. He was a master of the motivational sermon and a lyrical poet for all time. The cadence and beauty of King's words was, and is, mesmerizing.

With a nod to Abraham Lincoln, whose statue brooded nearby that August day, King referred to the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln had signed 100 years earlier.
This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

King quoted Isaiah 40 – "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed" – and added,
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

The last portion of King's dream speech is a thrilling incantation that echoes the lyrics of "America" and underscores, through repetition, his theme of freedom ringing from mountainsides across the land. His concluding words reveal to his audience – who by now are applauding wildly and shouting "Amen!" and "Yes sir!", as if in a revival meeting – what is possible.
And when … we allow freedom [to] ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when allll of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last!
Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Here, I always have to stop and blow my nose and wipe away some tears.

We all know that King wasn't a saint. He was accused of having extramarital affairs (the curse of more than one charismatic, handsome leader) and, more disturbing to my editorial sensibility, of plagiarizing portions of his Ph.D. dissertation at Boston University. Martin Luther King Jr. was a real man, a human being with weaknesses and flaws. Painting him as a saintly artifact does no one any good, least of all King's memory. To me, 40 years after his death it is more important to appreciate that King stepped up when an articulate leader was needed by the Civil Rights movement. He put himself in mortal danger. He even got himself put in jail.

The best of King's prose is ageless. In April 1967 he spoke to clergy and others who opposed the Vietnam War at New York City's Riverside Church. How contemporary his invective against greed sounds today:

We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

In the same speech King repeats a phrase from his "I Have a Dream" speech – the "fierce urgency of now" – and rails against complacency.
Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. … Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late."

In his last speech, on April 3, 1968, to a small group in Memphis, King made it clear that he was still fired with that fierce urgency. On his way there to support a strike by 1,300 black sanitation workers, his flight that day had been delayed by a bomb threat. He knew his enemies might kill him at any time. But he would not be diverted by mere mortal fear.
I’ve been to the mountaintop. … And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But … we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The next evening King was fatally shot on his hotel balcony. He had lived only 39 years. According to his biographer, Taylor Branch, an autopsy revealed that King had the heart of a 60-year-old, evidence of the punishing stress he had endured on his chosen path.

How will we honor the work of Martin's brave heart? How will we respond to his lovely, stirring words?

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Click on photos to enlarge.


When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Gloom, grumble, and hindsight

Friends, I have been stressed and tired lately. It's hard to blog in this condition. What strength I have in my personal reservoir is needed simply to get myself out of bed and into work each day.

Our finances are in dire straits, due to Michael's continuing unemployment (since last May). I myself work 80 percent time for a nonprofit, so we are not exactly raking in the dough and are spending our paltry savings to meet the monthly bills. This cannot go on much longer.

In addition, our younger son continues to founder in school, get too little sleep, stay home sick with vomiting and GI pain, and in general make me feel helpless and crazy. He is getting all the help available right now (GI specialist, psychotherapy) but I've just about had it. I was reading through a humor file on my hard drive last night and saw this quote, author unknown: "Raising a teenager is like nailing Jell-o to a tree." Yeah, that's about right.

In rummaging for comic relief on my hard drive, I spotted something else I'd saved (not in the "funny folder"). It's a posting I made to an online support group shortly after 9/11 in 2001. I was struck by how well my initial thoughts have held up in the six-plus years since I wrote this in response to a poster who criticized a memorial service for the 9/11 victims in DC:

> funny, the bishop [in Washington] left out the emotion that's been
>predominant in my mind these last few days.

Hi, J–:

At yesterday's mass at St. Sebastian Church in Providence, our priest did not leave anger out of his homily. Anger obviously is one of the two or three most appropriate, justifiable, and healthy human emotional responses to the attacks.

But Father H– did speak calmly and clearly to us about the choice before us: between retaliation simply to enact vengeance, on the one hand; and on the other, a determination to see that justice is done.

Which of these paths do we find more challenging? more complex? more demanding and difficult, and therefore more respectful of us as beings with highly evolved brains and consciences?

I admit that I hated to hear our priest's sermon yesterday, because it seemed to ask of me more than I wanted to find in myself. Anger is a luxurious, adrenaline-filled emotion; it floods us and animates us and seduces us to remain in its thrall and to act quickly. (This is no doubt an evolutionary adaptation that worked well to ensure our prehistoric survival.)

Perhaps sometimes the easiest path of action also turns out to be the best one. History has taught us, however, that often it is not. May we all (including the nation's leaders) find a core of strength and wisdom to guide our emotions and actions in the aftermath of the attacks.

You can detect, I believe, an incipient fear that our leaders might act rashly in the wake of 9/11 and unlock a Pandora's box of grim consequences. And that is exactly what has happened with our rush to "liberate Iraq" and eliminate Saddam Hussein on trumped-up accusations of that country's ties to terrorists and plans for chemical or nuclear havoc. Years later, the main perpetrator of 9/11's horrors remains at large, the U.S. is reviled internationally for its blustering adventurism in Iraq and Afhganistan, and our economy is quickly sliding into a recession.

These are not good times. My own angst seems to mirror a national apprehension about the near and long-term future. I wonder which candidate for president may have the wisdom, strength, and forbearance to lead us in a more productive and less polarized direction; or, sadly, whether the U.S. has grown too big and complex for our version of democracy to work anymore, and its citizens too individualistic and bellicose to put the common good ahead of narrow agendas.

And, of course, I wonder where my family and I will be in a year or two years' time.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Picture post!

Experience has shown that I am most likely to get feedback on this blog when I share family occasions and photos – even though I'm reluctant to impose the virtual equivalent of the old captive-audience slide show on visitors.

Herewith a few pictures of family times from recent months. Hey, you asked for it!

Mid-September 2007:
We joined our dear friends Bonnie and Jay at another friend's waterfront estate in Bristol, RI, for an engagement party celebrating their daughter Avery and her fiancé Matt. Jay and Michael have been friends since the mid 1960s at Brown, rugby teammates; Bonnie and Jay are Melinda's godparents, and we all love Avery like a sister and daughter. We are so happy for everyone, and look forward to the April wedding at our own church.

Another pic from the same engagement party. Here we have three alumni of the Providence Rugby Club, c. 1970s-80s, including two of its founders: Bob, Bill, and Michael.

September 30
Melinda, her friend Julie C, and I visited Barden's Orchard in Scituate to pick apples and buy pumpkins and corn. Rhode Island is more than the Ocean State; for a small state it has many family-run farms and orchards. We love riding out into rural areas to take advantage of the harvest.

October 2007
A female Cooper hawk (tentative identification) spent a morning visiting us along the walking path. She was visible from our porch and allowed me to stroll up quite close and take photos. Splendid!

Everybody loves Thanksgiving with the aunts, uncles, and cousins in North Reading. Especially with so many delectable desserts to choose from. From left: Eric, Kevin, Melinda, Andrés, and Jared.

November 2007
Caroline turned two!

Mom Leslie helped the birthday girl unwrap presents.

Just in time for the first big snow, I hung a mesh thistle feeder (tubular bag) from a tree outside our living-room windows. A squirrel promptly tore a big hole in it, and many ground-feeding birds arrived to feast on the spillage. From left: sparrow, female cardinal, junco. Since then we've hung several more (and more sophisticated) feeders and are enjoying the daily show, including goldfinches and little woodpeckers.

Our first Christmas in the Warwick house. Melinda was the "elf" who passed out presents to everyone.

Christmas morning, continued:
Went to Leslie and Jon's for a delicious brunch and more presents.

Uncle Kevin, Caroline, Uncle Andrés, and Aunt Melinda

Dad Jon helps Caroline unwrap her new flowerpot toy from Nana.

Winners of the "Best Christmas Smile" contest.

We entertained at home twice between Christmas and New Year's: first our new(ish) and fun friends Greg and Christine (parents of Melinda's best friend Julie B.), and then my brother John and wife Karen. Lots of cooking, lots of eating and drinking, lots of laughter and good times.

By New Year's Day, I looked like this:


On January 2, Caroline and I went for a very cold early-morning walk on Oakland Beach with Daisy. Check her little red nose!

Back in the warm house, Caroline ate breakfast with Poppop at our kitchen island.

Happy 2008 to all!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Bang bang

Living in the city for 18 years, I had forgotten how many active hunters there are in our little state. Late this fall, I was reminded. Just seconds after 7 a.m. on many a weekend morn we have been awakened by the unmistakable pop/boom of shotguns echoing across the water. Hunters' little boats, usually disguised with blinds and surrounded by decoys, rock in the waves right off the beach. A few times, pieces of bird shot have been blown by stiff offshore breezes onto our roof, from where they skitter into the gutters. When it comes to hunting, I have been challenged to live and let live – ironic as that expression may be in this context. But it's not easy.

Earlier this fall I was thrilled to discover a species of geese I hadn't known previously. Smaller and somewhat less noisy than the ubiquitous Canada geese, a substantial flock of Brant geese moved into our neighborhood on Brushneck Cove for the winter. I find them pretty to look at and pleasant to have around. They stick mostly to the water, occasionally gathering on the banks of the bay and the cove, conversing in alto honks and muted ruck-rucks.

The Brant goose hunting season began December 5, and every time shots ring out I know that one of the gentle waterfowl is probably tumbling from the sky, leaving behind a forlorn mate and a spooked flock. One local hunter positioned himself on the tip of our beachfront point, bringing along his eight-year-old son to watch and learn the ropes. Michael chatted with them while walking Daisy that morning. "They're great eating," the hunter noted of the geese he was bagging. "At least he's eating them, not just shooting them for the thrill of killing," I said.

Man has hunted for millennia, and I try not to reflexively embody the citified liberal softie who cringes at the thought of killing animals for food and sport. After all, while I couldn't personally walk up to a cow and slit its throat, I'm OK with someone else doing it so that I can eat the occasional hamburger or meatball. And natural death is something that, while startling, is – well, natural and therefore benign. How evocative and lovely, for example, is the skull of this decomposed opposum that floated onto our beach several times this fall?

It's the "sport" part of hunting that I don't really get. What is fun about causing death for a sentient being? As Michael says, wouldn't it be just as challenging and rewarding to "shoot" the bird or animal with a good camera?

A few decades ago, I was driving home down our hillside road in Little Compton when I spied something hanging from a neighbor's tree. It was an upside-down deer carcass, strung up (I learned) to help tenderize the muscle fibers of the meat. Bambi was swinging from a tree across the street!

That winter, on numerous occasions we feasted on our neighbor's homemade venison meatballs in tomato sauce, venison stew, and venison steaks grilled in the fireplace. The meat was lean and delicious. I made a guilty sort of peace with hunting that year. Perhaps if our new neighbor brought me a roast Brant goose, I'd gladly take second helpings of that, too.