Funny, the things you remember.

No – the things that never go away. That lodge in your mind. All my life I’ve thought about the last page of Karla Kuskin’s children’s book, Just Like Everyone Else. My parents must have read it to me… I must have read it…

The final line –

Then Jonathan James flew off to school.

– seems to have echoed down the years for me. Who knows why. Flew off to school.


A German Filmmaker Working on a Feature About…

Wojciech Fangor will interview Mr UD. Details as the project proceeds. Put fangor in my search engine for my Fangor posts.

The Blissful Garden

I love to look at your garden. It’s so … blissful.

A young woman said this to me yesterday. She was walking her dog by my house.

I was standing on my toes, trimming the ragged top of a … what? I don’t know. I’m bad on identification. A honeysuckle tree?

The loppers cut blindly; I couldn’t see up there. Every few moments I stood back to see whether I’d gotten the tallest shoots.

Over the years I’ve sculpted this unexciting bush/tree at the edge of my front lawn. It anchors one end of my split rail fence. I’ve flattened the top and let the sides spread, and it’s become a dense respectable looking something.

Why is my garden blissful? Because I do think she found the right word. The other word a lot of people use is peaceful.

Well, it’s a green garden. Not eco-green (though with my absolute lack of chemicals I guess I get eco points); all-green-plants green (with very occasional touches of non-green). For inspiration on green gardens and what they can be, scroll through these images. And these.

You possibly think of Japanese gardens when you think of all-green gardens. My garden has stuff in common with Japanese gardens, and the peaceful, blissful vibe passersby pick up on is I think probably similar to what you feel strolling around landscapes in Kyoto, etc. (This example, however, is in Portland Oregon.)

I’ve got lawn. It’s weedy, but it’s a rich smooth calm expanse because it’s well-established and I mow it regularly. Motionless baby rabbits currently spend all day on it, eating white clover. There’s a massing in front of the house of rhododendron, viburnum, korean spice bush, butterfly bush, hydrangea (I guess I can do some identification), maybe boxwood (not sure; three large very sculptable bushes were here when we bought the house from the sons of Munro and Margaret Leaf, and I’ve planted around them). Lower down there’s hosta and liriope and vinca and ferns and ivies.

Our lot is very wide. On the other side of the lawn I planted pachysandra five or so years ago, and it’s now thick and beautiful. Looks sort of like this. Halfway submerged in it are our topiary bulls – an homage to the author of Ferdinand the Bull, who lived in our house. They look sort of like this, since we stuff them with moss rather than plant things on them. Even so, the pachysandra always makes it way up into the bulls. I snip the plants off. I prefer the way the bulls look mossed.

Whenever I see the word sphagnum on my bag of moss, I think of Cecilia Bartoli singing Rossini’s “Canzonetta spagnuola” — in my fevered mind, there’s some connection between spagnuola and sphagnum.

What else? Out front again, black river stones lie beneath another edge of the fence. I planted some small light green grasses in among them a couple of years ago, and they’ve come up well.

I like the combination of black and green. I could look at kiwi fruit all day.

The bulls are not my only non-organic element. In the middle of the lawn sit two brown butterfly chairs (our house looks very ‘fifties modern, so this seemed the right way to go), and between them, on a black metal stand, there’s a luxuriant yellow coreopsis spilling out of its (yes) black container. The only negative here, I’ve discovered, is that our many birds enjoy the plant so much that they congregate, and shit copiously, on the butterfly canvas.

Speaking of birds and rabbits – Anyone who reads this blog knows that UD‘s garden attracts insane amounts and varieties of wildlife. I chronicle the more dramatic viewings (hawks, a mink, big effing snakes) in these pages, and I inevitably feature more than anything else the ongoing surreal drama of ever-increasing deer families everywhere. I mean, they live on our property, behind the house, high up in the woods, and they’re just always here. But there are also hooting owls and barking foxes at midnight, and an orange cat who tries to kill all the birds, and turtles and voles and once I found a dead rat. Racoons and opossums go without saying.

Hovering threateningly above all of this are the trees. Very old, very big, very everywhere trees. Parts of them are always falling, especially during the violent summer storms. Right now a haul-away job awaits UD in the very thick of her woods, where, two nights ago, a bunch of pretty big branches came crashing down.

But anyway. The point is blissful. The point is peaceful. In sun and calm weather the trees benignly shelter UD’s carefully clipped, carefully planted green swathe. From a low-hanging branch she’s hung wind chimes she got in Bali, so there’s the pleasant low click of the cylinders in counterpoint with the wood thrush.

I think the blissful peaceful feeling comes ultimately from the ‘total world’ effect of all this green. There’s very little traffic, so it’s quiet; and the houses in every direction are, like this one, swathed in green. The houses are small, so none competes with the natural setting. I think at the moment all those soft silent rabbits in particular account for the way-Henri Rousseau feel of the place.

UD’s Sister, the Morrissey Freak…

… called her five minutes ago from North Carolina, where she’s just gotten back from a Morrissey performance.

I was in the front row, and at one point Morrissey pointed to me and said “I know you. I watch your YouTubes.” [UD‘s sister sings versions of Morrissey songs on a series of YouTubes. She’s actually got a pretty big following.] And he said “I’m going to embarrass you.” And he handed me down the microphone. I sang a line from Jack the Ripper.

A photo from the concert.

At around the 56 minute mark, you can hear Morrissey admire her YouTubes of his songs, and you can hear her sing her line (“Crash into my arms.”) from Jack the Ripper.

Baez in Bethesda

When Joan Baez received Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award this week, it made me nostalgic.

Baez hates nostalgia as only someone who has lived long enough to be the object of every old hippie’s nostalgia can be. For a lifelong pacifist, her language about it is positively violent: “I think I’m trying to strangle people into coming up to the present so much of the time, because people tend to live aeons ago.” But there’s nothing wrong with being knocked back to the past now and then, and the occasion of her award knocked me back.

It knocked me back to 1968, to after-school afternoons I spent in the biggest bathroom in my parents’ house in Bethesda (good acoustics), playing my nylon string guitar and singing Child ballads the way she sang them, the way I learned them from listening to her. Geordie, House Carpenter, Queen of Hearts — they were all songs of doomed lovers, all fraught tales set in the darkest of keys. Matty Groves, an adultery and murder ditty, had twenty three verses. I knew them all, and went into long trances, chanting them in my little echo chamber.

There are certain soprano voices – Kathleen Battle’s, Julia Lezhneva’s – equipped with an absolutely eerie high-piping perfection, a radically original and expressive force. Joan Baez was my first encounter with this type of unsettling sound. Long before I knew anything about the operatic voice, I was haunted by the folk treble, and spent hours trying to produce it myself. “Beauty brings copies of itself into being,” writes Elaine Scarry in her book, On Beauty and Being Just. Beauty inspires imitation. Wherever Baez was when those notes streamed out of her, I wanted to be there too.

Almost fifty years later, I still pursue that treble. I’m at my baby grand in the living room now (the guitar leans on a wall nearby), but the tattered Joan Baez Songbook remains my favorite thing to play. W.H. Auden called music “the best means we have of digesting time,” and I think that’s because – for me, at least – the making of music never changes. It’s always in some ecstatic way the journey back to tonal paradise.

Think of that whole “lost chord” idea in Arthur Sullivan’s famous song. The chord he keeps searching for was “the harmonious echo / From our discordant life.”

No doubt Baez will receive the Amnesty International award for her political work with a sense of irony. “I’m a little concerned about offering hope,” she said in a recent interview. “But one has to bash on regardless.”

At a young age I sensed the serene concord Baez had somehow made all the discordance of life yield; I sensed the way she summoned that harmonious echo again and again. And that’s also a form of bashing on – keeping the long song going, verse after verse, whatever the circumstance.

Having heard Baez, how can I (to quote the great old American folk song) keep from singing?

“Silt, Muck, and Swirlies”…

… is the title of UD‘s latest dispatch from her hometown, Garrett Park, Maryland.

UD’s friend Sarah (who just got back from…

… Gore Vidal’s house) leads the charge against noise in her neighborhood.

UD’s father interviewed in 1972…

… on CBS News. About his cancer research.

A Swarm of Bees in May.

Here’s the nursery rhyme. I just found a massive swarm of bees in May.

I was in my backwoods.

Mr UD ordered a new chaise lounge, and for some reason they sent us three. I’d carried one of them on my head (thinking, as I did so, about my time in Bali, where women carry things on their heads) out to a clearing I’d made under a honeysuckle canopy. The idea was to create a very hidden green space – kind of a natural bird blind or something. As I hacked and raked and then settled the chair, I noticed a huge sound – like an oncoming train. Down the the path a bit, midway up a very old tree, what looked like thousands of bees were swarming.

Back inside, I emailed the Montgomery County Beekeepers and heard back right away from someone wanting to know if the swarm was still there. If it was, he’d be out immediately.

I went to check, and although bees buzz around as you walk, the swarm is gone. No more sound of an oncoming train.

But the beekeeper I’m emailing with tells me to

Feel free to call me directly if it shows back up. Usually they will swarm to a tree while they are looking for another location to call their new home. Usually it is not too far from where they were when they swarmed so you may want to go back out and check later in the day.

UD learns about bees.

A GW Student Talks About the Amtrak Crash.

One of the passengers was 18-year-old Gaby Rudy, a student at George Washington University who had been sleeping in the last car when she felt it verge off the tracks and then flip over.

The car immediately began to fill with smoke, she said. She called 911. And then she saw another young woman on the floor. Her back was injured. Rudy said she helped her out of the train.

Rescuers told them they had to run across another set of tracks in case another train approached.

They walked into some woods while helicopters circled above.

Rudy, who had been on her way home to Livingston, N.J., called her dad. He was at Temple Hospital 90 minutes later to pick her up.

“She was very panicked and screaming,” Daniel Rudy said. “It was the most traumatic thing imaginable.”

Mid-May, With Wrens

Comical fledglings now appear out of the striped planter (kind of like this, only deeper) in which they’ve been nesting. I watch them blunder into the ivy and try to fly out of it.

These are house wrens with a vengeance. The planters sit inches from UD‘s front door; the birds seem positively to want my company.

You could say wrens are dull. A poet picks up a dead wren, and when he lets it drop

my hand changed for a moment
By a thing so common it was never once distracted from
The nothing all wrens meant

But my wrens sing beautifully, even meaningly; and they have an alluring Madeleine Albrightesque insistency about them, emanating from their sharp eyes and puffy chests. They certainly mean to reproduce, and to express themselves – which covers a good deal of what anyone does…

May is busting out all over in Garrett Park; the wren nest is one of several in UD‘s front yard. Yesterday a caterpillar worked its way along Mr UD‘s arm as he sat on the deck reading. Rabbits of course are everywhere.

I’ve been spraying the front steps to get rid of wasps in the brickwork. I’ve been poisoning the poison oak. My neighbor Caroline has installed elegant high black fencing to keep out deer. Only a bright red door in the fence gives you access to her back garden.

We are all trying to hold back, even as we invite, the natural world.

I know there’s a lot of sky…

… but still I’ve been sitting outside gazing at the patch of sky I’ve got above my house, looking for vintage planes. I figure maybe some of them on their way to or from the National Mall for today’s flyover (it starts in ten minutes) will putter through the ‘thesdan blue. (Watch it here.)

So far all I see are the usual silent thin contrails streaming out of jets taking off from one of DC’s three airports. Loud birds and squirrels take up most of the aural landscape. In particular, a wren couple built its nest in one of our rather deep containers just at the front of the house, so there’s pretty much continual hysteria as they attempt to feed the hatchlings amid many interruptions.

Tomorrow La Kid takes UD to her beloved Rehoboth Beach for a Mother’s Day weekend. UD grew up in a house where the words bogus and kitsch and commercial were attached to Mother’s Day. But La Kid is pious about it, and UD‘s not complaining.

I’ll blog from the beach.

Snapshots from Home

UD walks into the room in GW’s Elliott School building where she’s giving her Modern British Poetry final exam. No students are there yet, but a man, a Muslim, is on the floor praying. The exam takes place in minutes, so UD silently – as silently as she can – puts her computer on the front desk and prepares to hand out blue books.

The man stands up and looks at her. “Is there a class in here?”

“I’m giving a final exam.”

“Ah. Well, I’ll finish somewhere else.”

“Sorry to interrupt you.”

“No problem. What’s the class?”

“Modern British poetry.”

“Do you read Kipling?”

“He’s not quite modern enough. More of a Victorian.”

“Ah. Well, nice to meet you.”

UD in the Splash Zone

Here she is in the Dolphin Discovery Zone, where she sits just above the Splash Zone (gotta protect the laptop) watching the little buggers leap curvaceously out of the pool. In the background another lot of them is doing some extracurricular not-on-command large white ball play.

In fact it’s all extracurricular sport these days at the Dolphin Discovery Zone, ever since “the staff decided” (says a guy a couple of rows down) “that it’s not nice to make the dolphins perform on command.” So the atmosphere is church-like, as we silently ponder the pods.

“Hey let’s see the ball in there! They want the ball!” An old coot one splash zone over breaks the silence. (The dolphins tossed the ball out of the pool.) Staff’s ignoring him. But he’s right. They want the ball. Just splashing around is (to quote Beyond the Fringe) not enough to keep the mind alive.

Well they’ve all lined up for their fish buffet, and it was fun watching them eat. Time for UD to re-enter the militarized zone.

National Aquarium with National Guard

Pretty much got the place to myself. Something about recent riots and current huge-gun-toting men in combat fatigues everywhere seems to have taken most people’s minds off of the planet’s marine life. (Pun about marines goes here.) So it’s just the dark massive sharks (housed on the evil creepy lowest level of the place, with menacing music piped in) and ol’ UD.

UD will make the obligatory travel snob statement here, since she can’t resist: Having visited the Sydney Aquarium, where the sharks are under, over, and around you in even greater profusion, she was thrilled but not peeing her pants at this display. More wonderful have been the profuse reefs, which remind UD that it’s been years since she’s snorkeled, and she misses it.

Without crowds (with nobody, basically – a few stragglers like myself), you can really hear all the hokey recorded animal sounds, and that’s fun too.

One of the guards escorted me up into the rain forest (I was today’s first customer) and insisted on showing me where the tamarin monkeys (reminded UD of the ill-fated Marc Hauser) hid in the mornings. Bird life up there is even more impressive than bird life in UD‘s own half acre.

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