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Selected Podpieces


Driving is not the pleasure it used to be. Once you could pour down long stretches of highway at ninety miles an hour, with the occasional semi roaring past at maybe a hundred and ten. Then on the next hill the truck would be huffing and puffing in the far right lane, and you'd soar ahead, rounding some curve or peeling out on a straightaway past houses farms and fields.


I was a younger person then, and although I dare say I had an aching back and stiff knees after those cross-country trips my girlfriends and I took, I recovered quickly. Maybe after walking a few feet, like into the gas station bathroom. Now the fingers stiffen, the hands start to go numb, the knees begin to radiate sharp little pains into my shins after only a couple of hours, and the next morning I feel as if I've hoed the back forty by hand.


Of course, it could be that out there in the West, where much of my hard-driving youth was spent, there are still long stretches of highway in the valleys between mountains, between the fields of corn and the ranges of the bovines, curving along the side of a river brilliant with white foam and stones.


But the loss of speed is not my lament here. What bothers me is what you find at the end of the drive, which is nothing. Even if you've been tearing at top speed down the road, too fast for anything in your path to escape, there are no yellow smears on the glass. Nothing dead smashed into the grille. Nary a butterfly wing trapped under the windshield wiper. No sign of life, or former life, at all.


It was a rite of passage in my childhood, when I was old enough – make that big enough – to get out of the car when we stopped for gas and clean the windshield. Out of the car into the smell of gasoline, my frail skin and bones vulnerable among the steel and rubber and the filth on the hot asphalt. The brush sticking out of the well of dark water, and on the other end, submerged, the squeegee. The brown paper towels for the requisite wiping of the rubber blade between swipes. The brush end, for scraping away at exoskeletons glued by body fluids to the glass. Lunging over the hood to reach the middle of the windshield. Bending down to scrub clean the headlights. Gingerly wiping at the grille, afraid of getting water into the engine, where it would certainly stop the car from running.


Was it wonderful then? or is this a view through a deep rose tint of the spectacles? Diesel fumes, a tank of water dipped into again and again with a brush coated with dead bugs?


It turns out that I'm not the only person who has noticed the paucity of insects on the windshield. Their absence is so well-recognized that Entomologists call it the Windshield Phenomenon. Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, says that the Windshield Phenomenon causes "a visceral reaction when you realize you don't see that mess any more."


There have been many studies documenting the disappearance of the charismatic insects – honeybees, fireflies, monarch butterflies. But of the tinies that get mashed against the windshield – and are also the main food items for millions of birds and other creatures – fewer formal studies have been funded. Their disappearance has been noted mostly in anecdote. Not as many chiggers in the grass. Not many June bugs ramming into window screens on July nights.

Clean windshields.


Nostalgia for what was not so terrific is a strange exercise. Whoever thought that one day I'd wax wistful about cleaning the mess of mashed insects off a car's windshield?


One more thing you don't know you've got till it's gone.





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Poetry Sunday, WCAI





Two red-tails fly together in the broken light
that strikes the white oaks gold this wind-scoured winter day.
It is the dive toward earth that drives their joyous flight.


As afternoon sinks swiftly toward the ragged night
and sharper, meaner winds begin to mock the way
the red-tails fly together in the broken light,


a raven rasps above the pallid field where Wright's
three cows trudge single-minded toward a yellow spill of hay.
It is the dive toward earth that drives their joyous flight.


They cruise in synchrony, then crack their wings back tight
and plummet toward the indifferent cows; but always
kite at last, to fly together in the broken light.


Above the western hogback, lofting clouds ignite
with shards of sun that drape the fading hills in gray.
It is the dive toward earth that drives joy into flight.


To plunge, then suddenly erupt, must be the height
of rapture when passion is the prey.
Two red-tails fly together in the broken light.
It is the dive toward earth that drives their joyous flight.

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On one side of our yard a wooden fence blocks the view, but at the north end between that fence and the neighbor's garden shed is a gap where we can see right into their yard. One March day in between storms I was standing at the kitchen sink when I happened to look out the window just as a coyote trotted past the gap and disappeared behind the fence. Read More 

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Starting to write an essay, or a poem, or a short story, is like going shopping with the whole world as your marketplace.

It's like the cereal aisle: a mile-long aisle six shelves high filled with brightly colored boxes, and you walk slowly along reading the similar-sounding names of the cereals. All bran, Multi bran, Multibran flakes, all bran grains. Deciding among 200 kinds of cereal is daunting and even anxiogenic.

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It's funny, isn't it, how people often get nervous about saying the name of a recently dead person. When we run into a widow, or a newly-orphaned adult, or a parent whose child has died, we'll say, “How are you doing? I'm so sorry for your loss. Is there anything I can do?”  Read More 
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As I lay awake last night at three in the morning, casting around for something to think about other than my failures, mistakes, and sins, in the back, or at least the side, of my mind I was silently reciting Blake's “The Chimney Sweep,” which I had memorized many years ago because I had a recording of Gregg Brown singing Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, and since I loved his voice I listened to it over and over again, until smaller players and tinnier recordings replaced my little stereo and my vinyl records, and I never got around to replacing them.  Read More 
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The other day I saw a video of a weatherman standing in front of a live camera, talking about, of all things, the weather. He was pointing out at the San Francisco Bay, and was about to launch into a weather update, when suddenly the upside down face of a giant, wild-eyed bird appearedat the top of the screen, peering out at us.  Read More 
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The other day Pippin and I got a late start on our morning walk. It was pretty darned cold, so we strode briskly down the hill through the bright sunshine. As we came to the end of the street, I heard a screech owl calling, what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology refers to as its Agitated Bark and Bill Clap. Read More 
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Taking Aim
My Companion and I had a visit this summer from our twelve-year-old grandson and his mother. He’s two inches taller than he was last year, he has braces, and he still wears his beautiful blond hair in a buzz cut, which might look fine on a military man but is not what I’d prefer to see on a grandson. However, until someone consults me on the style I prefer, I will hold my tongue. Read More 
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There was a time when I could go to any garden center – yea, even unto a big box store – and wander through the aisles as if through a wonderland of vegetative possibility. The stunning colors, the surprising shapes of blossoms and leaves, everything was subject to my phytophilia. If it was in a pot and would grow in the ground, I brought it home and planted it.  Read More 
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