Wednesday, February 3, 2021


Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me.

I often hear characters in pop songs and in shows for the stage singing about their dreams. About how they yearn to turn their dreams into reality, if only, if only, and before it’s too late! Dreams of a better life, of romance, of finding themselves, of finding their true place in this crazy mixed-up world, yeah. Sometimes they’re daydreams and sometimes they’re nighttime beddy-bye dreams, and sometimes you’re not too sure. One thing’s certain: dreams seem roundly regarded as propitious, good, comforting, often thrilling, and helpful for pointing the way forward.

Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk,
Talk about things you’d like to do.
You got to have a dream,
If you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?

The way the story goes, if you can dream it, you can do it. To me, this is a fairy tale, but (or, therefore), audiences seem to enjoy these songs of tinsel and greasepaint, and so by this time we have many of them knocking around the old jukebox of the mind. Probably songwriters generally meant “envision” when they said “dream,” but “dream” fits the metre better and besides it has these mystical, dark-of-night overtones, inviting the notion that bright ideas and inspiration and even wisdom can come to us unbidden while we’re asleep and be applied to our waking life with a good chance of success.

I dream nightly, but almost never do I dream of anything I would like to see realized or replicated in real life, please no. My dreams are nonsensical, and they rattle me. As for any lessons they might impart, these tend to evaporate when I wake up, and a typical dream leaves little except a sour taste, a certain horror at what I’ve just witnessed, and sometimes, for a moment, the strong urge to patch things up between me and the people in my dream, as if it had been real: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t really mean to say such a thing . . . how can I make it up to you?”
I know why I dream and I know what the problem is. No matter how long and involved my dream seems to be, I’m convinced that I dream it all just within the few moments before the need to get up and pee becomes urgent enough to wake me up. It’s a pressure situation all right, and it causes me to have particularly rushed, complicated, pointless, distressing dreams, hurried housecleanings of the dark corners of the subconscious. But even while they’re going on, part of my mind tries to stand apart, tries over and over to make sense of what’s happening and explain the dream to itself.

Well. I happen to be a fan of railroads, especially old railroads, especially abandoned old railroads, where sometimes the bridges and tunnels and stations and freight houses have been left behind, slowly falling to pieces, and on certain days where the light is just right, you can stand on the old right-of-way and imagine the great engines thundering down the line, making the earth shake. And which is more poignant, more sweet/sour? The vision of the railroad in its heyday? Or the poignancy of the crumbled empire, the great scheme that’s come crashing down, the emptiness and the loss and the bitter wind that blows? So! Quite a few of my dreams end up involving railroads. In particular, for some reason, a frequent guest is the Central Massachusetts, one of the sweetest/sourest little rail lines that ever ran.

Here, now. Let’s imagine ourselves at Boston’s North Station in the 1950’s, as a shiny Boston and Maine Buddliner leaves for its nightly trip to Clinton, many miles to the west on the Central Mass. Ridership has been declining for years, and somehow it’s not surprising to see that the single car is as high and as wide as a regular one but shorter than a Nash Rambler, with room enough only for the driver, the conductor, and maybe four passengers. It slides out of the depot onto orange rails running down a blue cobblestone street (such history, such charm), and the cobbles are wet, glistening with silver suds, a sailor’s duds, a bag of spuds, them Crips and Bloods . . .

Steady, there. What better time than now to mow the lawn, wouldn’t you say? That would be relaxing, and would sure go a long way towards tidying this place up. Pull the cord and off we go! And so now I’m mowing the tall grass between the rails of the Central Mass., out in Sudbury or Hudson or somewhere, what a disgrace, they can’t even afford to maintain the ROW anymore. There’s a cool breeze but a blazing sun, and old sheds alongside the track, what’s in them, old hanging sliding doors faced with clapboards that have warped and sagged in the sun, and the paint, once a cheery red, has faded to a whisper of dirty pink. Yellowjackets furious in the dusty air. A signal can be seen up ahead, and it’s lit! It’s red up ahead, it’s always red up ahead, it doesn’t mean a train is coming, it means no train is ever coming. Red is the color of NO, of bankruptcy, of shame and failure and scandal! Beyond, a torn tornado is touching down on a concrete horizon and Tom Brady is there too, good ol’ Tom, so steady, so reassuring, rearing back with that football, about to let it fly, a calm gaze and an aw-shucks grin: “Don’t worry, Bub, I got you covered.” It’s my train now, my train (what train?). My train is full of butter, my train is full of asphalt, my train is full of musty old air and cobwebs, broken glass, scraps of paper, and, mainly, to be honest, nothing much at all. Nothing at all, just hot dusty air in each car, open it up and see, pick it up like Godzilla, shake it out like a Parcheesi shaker, out spills nothing.

My train now runs out along a very tall earthen embankment, high above a green valley in the countryside between two forgotten station stops. Up in the air my train makes its way, shakes its way, and blows its whistle and it sounds both like a whistle and a Fats Waller record, oh mercy! I’m on the train, up upon this mountain of earth, and I’m also down below it, looking up, it’s a picture postcard, a turn-of-the-century colorized postcard, soft pinks and yellows in the sky, and it is very sweet and stirring and what a cozy time we’re having and it’s my train, which would make me very old by now. What is this place? Where do I live? Where shall I live?

Steady, there. As it happens a house is for sale (it’s being auctioned, really) in Wayland, a nice town, a posh town. We arrive there on a perfectly fine, sunny morning to meet with the realtor, and at first things look OK. It’s a tall two-story, wood-frame single-family on a slight rise, almost completely surrounded by a monoculture of tall, leggy, straight-up white pines. It’s cooler underneath the pines and the light here is dim, the ground is soft with a carpet of fallen needles. Nee-dullsch. Above us the house shines in the sunlight, its gables and dormers (so many dormers) looking monumental, and, through the regimental stands of tree trunks, a bit surreal. We walk all the way around the house without coming nearer to it, as if assessing it in a virtual way.

Unsurprisingly, the property backs up to the Central Massachusetts (the cab of a rusty engine that is shuffling by can be seen just over the berm that obscures the rest of the train). Also, an old canal is back there too, parallel to the railroad. Dead trees lie in the stagnant water, rotting. Such history! Such charm! But now we come around to the front of the house where there’s a grand stone staircase leading up to the main entrance, and a woman is there, slumped on the steps, and something is very wrong, she is weeping, ranting, shouting (barking!) at someone, maybe  at us, though she seems not to see us (where’d the heck that realtor get to?). Maybe she’s a tenant? Or maybe she’s the soon-to-be former owner and is even now being evicted from her own property? She’s very upset! Her face is a rupture of angry tears and flushed skin and sticky-looking spittle, there’s something streaky red in it, ghastly; she is beyond using words and is just wailing, moaning, hawking, spluttering.

We back away and scurry around the side of the house and immediately forget the woman on the steps. Here, we begin to see why this house is being auctioned off. There are other buildings here, just beyond the property lines, and in the bright (harsh) (glaring) sunlight they show up excruciatingly well. Before us is a burned-out brick carriage house with pitted, once-fancy limestone pillars (where are the horses, where are the old jalopies, what’s become of them, what has happened here?). And over there are some squat industrial buildings, workshops-like, more recent perhaps, abandoned, sooty, disheveled, with ragged tar paper flapping, rubbish of every kind tangled up in the dead grass, overgrown brush, all thorns and burrs, and rusty barbed wire in loops and whorls, and crudely painted signs warning “Keep Out — Trespasing Prohibted.”

Who would ever buy this house, under any circumstances? Oh, and, by the way, what house? The wailing and shouting have stopped and I turn around and the house and the pine trees are gone and I am alone. But the railroad track remains, so suddenly I am walking (west) along it in a headwind. I walk for hours. I pass by scenes I recognize from picture books about old train lines, and I pass by scenes from no old train line ever. I come to the black mouth of a tunnel and it is late in the day now and I am shivering and hungry and except for the rail line I am lost. I can’t go back, and the wooded country rising steeply to my left and right is obscure in the dusk and appears to be wilderness, with a covering
of snow, lacking roads or trails or buildings or lamplight, so onward I go.

I am running now, stumbling and tripping. The ballast cuts my knees and hands. I can see a headlight coming (and you could certainly see this coming) behind me and the air shakes and the ground shakes and I am trapped and my legs have turned to noodles, there is nowhere to hide, nowhere I can climb to or crawl, it’s cold, hard, a choking smoke, a ruthless machinery, a cage of rats,
do it to Juliaaaaa a a  a   a     a

      — a-WAKE!

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

My Morning

Somewhere around 4:30, I wake up. Not for the first time ever, I mutter to myself, “darkest hour / just before dawn.”

As it happens, this is not a summer morning, when the donzerly light would already be leaking through and around the window shades. This morning, the bedroom is still drenched in darkness, as it will be for another hour or more.

I feel crummy. My head aches. My mouth tastes sour. Part of that has to do with needing to use the toilet, and there can be no putting that off.

I throw the covers to the side (so as not to get tangled up in them and fall), and roll to a sitting position on the edge of the bed. My feet look distant and ghostly. I rub my eyes with both sets of fingers, an activity the pandemic doctors warn you against. The air in the room is neither warm nor cold: a heat pump on the far wall fills the room with processed air that hovers around 63 degrees. We run the pump to keep the main thermostat from tripping and the furnace from coming on. Years ago, before the heat pumps, we would set the thermostat to 55, until winter really and truly arrived, saving cash with every shiver, but now we have a dog and he sleeps near us in his dog bed on the floor, and by no means and at no point will I tolerate the thought of him being be too cold, or too warm, for any length of time whatsoever.

I get to my feet and feel my way around the foot of the bed. It has a wooden frame (queen-size) in a vaguely country style. We bought it in the 80’s at Grover Cronin, now long gone, after deciding it was high time for a young(ish) married couple to trade in their old king-size mattress (which used to rest on the floor of our apartment) for something more grown-up and less needlessly roomy. I shuffle across the carpeted floor, careful not to trip over Rufus, who sometimes leaves his bed to curl up near the doorway, invisible, a dark puddle within a dark pool.

I do have trouble with my balance now, in the dark. Gripping door frames one by one, I carefully make my way past the top of the main stairway. I haven’t forgotten the morning when my dad, in his 80’s and still in his old house, lost his balance on just such an early-morning errand and tumbled to the bottom of the (uncarpeted, oak-tread) stairs. Ouch! My brother, who was living at their house at the time, called to tell me. My dad didn’t break so much as a tooth, but they took him to the hospital anyway, and parked him for several hours in that special place just off the ER, admitted but not admitted. I went to see him; he was on a hospital bed under a pile of warmed towels and hooked to a monitor. His face, which had acquired several purple blotches, was all I could see. He looked as if he’d been in a fight. Beneath the harsh hospital lighting, his teeth seemed yellower than usual. The first thing I recall saying to him was, “Have you had a look at yourself yet?”

Anyway. My morning.

Back from the ’throom and under the warm covers again. Rufus is rousing, thinking that it’s time for the Dawn Patrol, but it’s not, no, not yet. Ssh, Rufus! Ssssssh! It’s too early. Bed, Rufus. Bed.

I lie on my back waiting for sleep to return, feeling the weight of the bedspread and the comforter. Are we comforted yet? I try not to think about anything. Especially, I try not to invite thoughts about the day to come, but they traipse in sometimes and have a seat anyway. All right then, what does the day hold? What will I be doing? What am I looking forward to? What am I dreading?

Bits and pieces float through my mind. I notice how undisciplined my mind can be. Scraps of songs, scenes from movies, memories of past delights and disappointments, upsetting events from yesterday’s news, pictures of this and that and her and him.

I make an effort to bring up soothing images. Here I am once again visiting friends at the Rhode Island seashore in early spring, privileged to be up in the cupola of a rambling, turn-of-the-century woodframe house, looking out over the nearly treeless landscape where the old pasture lands, those that haven’t been turned into house lots, are greening up. Weathered pink granite ledges erupt from the earth here and there. It is a landscape as old as any in New England. Blur your eyesight a bit and you could be viewing what was left just after the last ice sheet departed.

Below, in the yard where the hammock and lawn chairs haven’t been put out yet, the warming sunlight and the biting wind are playing their timeless game of tag. In the distance is the little beach club, deserted, where yet more privileged people will come in July to toast themselves. Just beyond is the vast ocean, somewhere between its winter iron-gray and summer azure, the welcoming deep azure of leisure.

Or maybe I’m alongside the little rail line on the Cape that runs down to North Falmouth. It is a sunny summer day but the crowds are elsewhere. The line was built so that fertilizer dealers could get guano hauled out to market from Woods Hole. Pee-yew! But now it is part of the quaintness of the Cape, the fraying quaintness. Buzzards Bay is out beyond, the seagulls and the sailboats and the life-giving sea air, and the place where we’re staying for the night is comfortable and nearby.

Awake, again! Damn! It’s almost 6:30! Speaking of guano, the dog’s probably about ready to explode. Well, not on my watch!

Dog fur
Mission accomplished
Well no, not yet

It’s still dark in the corners of the room. I flip on the hall light so I can find my warm socks and my jeans and a fleece to go over my t-shirt. The dog is up, tail wagging, wanting a good-morning hug and a chuckle under his chin and a brisk back rub from shoulders to rump. He vigorously shakes his head, and his dog tags jingle like the telephone ringing in “My Three Sons.” It’s for you! He gives off a rich aroma that was novel to me six years ago but is now part of daily life: my dog, and my home, and me, we all smell alike. I will follow this sunrise routine for more than 2,500 mornings to come. And I wonder what will happen after that, when Rufus is gone. I push both thoughts out of my mind.

Rufus is happy, happy to see Daddy up and moving, but he really wants to go out right now. Down the stairs he plunges, and turns left at the bottom: go sniff the sofa in the living room, go sniff the dog bed near the woodstove, see if anything’s changed overnight. A dog of routines. I follow down the stairs more slowly, my hand sliding along the railing as I descend into the murk. I don’t like darkness, have always feared it, imagining strange little noises behind me. I flip on the kitchen light, then the light in the mudroom where Rufus waits, bouncing from foot to foot. On the way, I grab my phone to check the temperature and conditions: will I need gloves, will I need boots, which coat to wear, will Rufus need his coat? I make sure I have poop bags in my pocket, and decide whether it’s dark enough to bring my phone for its flashlight, which will make it easier to locate the poop once it appears. Find a leash, attach it to his collar, unlock the door, open the door, open the storm door, and step outside.

Down three concrete steps, across the walk, and onto the front lawn, with Rufus pulling on the leash despite the many hours we’ve spent trying to train him out of the habit. Room for improvement there. Rufus is leading with his nose, obsessed with soaking up the vital scents and smells of the outdoor world, reading the terrain: who has been here, how long ago, how many, which way did they go? I can smell it too, but I don’t have his nose; to me, it is all just various kinds of rank.

But! Almost every morning it is beautiful outside. There are days when sleet-in-your-face or black-ice-on-the-driveway or cold wind or deep snow or pelting rain can make us both miserable, but I was surprised, early in my dogwalking days, to find that such mornings were comparatively rare. Today, the sun is just inching over the horizon, its first rays firing the tops of the tallest trees with amber light, while the sky in the west is a leaden blue-gray with an inner glow, an iridescence. My phone-camera stays in my pocket; it would never capture what I’m seeing.

I usually hum nonsense tunes over and over while Rufus sniffs around the yard, searching for just the very most exquisitely right spot to do his number 1.

Dab that polliwog
To and fro —
Moosilauke Moosilauke
Bing Bang Joe!

This day, for some reason, the prevailing theme is Peggy Lee’s “It’s a Good Day.” It gets into my head and won’t get out.

Yes, it’s a good day for singin’ a song
And it’s a good day for movin’ along
Yes, it’s a good day, how could anything be wrong
A good day from mornin’ till night

I coax Rufus to get down to “business,” but there are some things you just can’t rush. We move into the back yard, and I take a moment to look up at my house, this structure of uncertain durability, the mismatched angles of its roofs (main house, garage, sunroom), the stubby chimney. Not a handsome or especially well-constructed house, it has gotten us through another night and for that we will be grateful. Many others are not so lucky. This gets me thinking again, briefly, about privilege. Here live two grown-ups and their dog. A nice dog. There’s food in the fridge and oil in the tank. None of them works for pay. How do they do it? Does it matter? Is it anybody’s business but our own?

You can walk downtown in your birthday suit
I can see you walkin outta the Bank of America with a whole lotta loot
Ain’t nobody’s business but your own

Having finished his number 1, Rufus usually wants a longer walk, sometimes up the street to the old cemetery, before he is ready to assume the question-mark posture that indicates the time for number 2 has arrived. Before we got a dog, dealing with the doo was one of the things I least looked forward to. Squeamish! But I guess I passed that test. I’m a good dogwalker and a model citizen too. Except when it drops into a foot or more of snow, I always pick up after him. I step on the leash so he won’t wander away, swoop in with a bag (compostable, as if), scoop up the goods, and knot the bag, all in a few quick, clean motions that bespeak my years of practice. You’d have to say I’m pretty proud of this capability of mine. Back when I was working, there were things I got paid for that I wasn’t anywhere near as good at. And soon we are headed home, one of us feeling lighter and both of us feeling better.

‘Cause it’s a good day for payin’ your bills
And it’s a good day for curin’ your ills
So take a deep breath and throw away your pills
‘Cause it’s a good day from mornin’ till night

We come in through the back door. It’s beat-up and needed replacing a year ago, but that will have to wait. Anyway, I am always delighted that it’s warmer inside; it’s as easy as that to make me happy. I take off his coat, take off my coat and fleece and hat and gloves, find a towel if it was wet out, and dry his paws. After half a dozen years, he knows to offer his front paws to me for drying, one at a time. I tell him to “spin” and he turns 180 degrees so I can reach his back paws more easily. Then I unclip his leash, hang it up, and usher him into the kitchen with a set of gestures I use only at this time of day. “Let’s get you something good.” I fish out an especially tasty treat from the dog-treat cupboard and have him “sit,” though often he is already sitting by now. “Good boy! Now, go see Mama.” And off he trots, up the stairs and back to the bedroom.

There is a completeness and a rewarding simplicity to this morning routine that I know I will miss.

For a few minutes I have the kitchen to myself. It’s one of the first pleasant interludes of the day, pleasant because it is quiet and unhurried, and I have no deeds to do, no promises to keep. I turn on the heat under the tea kettle, having filled it the night before. I find yesterday’s tea leaves in the fridge, packed into a tea strainer, and set it atop a clean mug. I’ll get four or five cups of strong-enough black tea out of these leaves before putting them out in the compost heap. It used to be black coffee for me, two big cups at home and then two or three at the office, but no more. I knew one morning last spring that the time had come to stop with the coffee, and I did. Mostly.

Now it’s down the hatch with my daily medicine (Lisinopril for blood pressure, Simvastatin for cholesterol) and vitamins (B-12, a multivitamin, zinc). And some dried fruit (prunes, dates, apricots), part of my daily push for sufficient fiber.

I take my tea upstairs. Annie is awake but under the covers. I raise the shades if she hasn’t already done it. We lost our real shades when we replaced our windows two years ago; to be perfectly honest, our present shades are just a pair of dog blankets (very room-darkening) attached to the top of each frame with tacks. We roll them up from the bottom right corner and clamp them at the top with clothespins. Every morning, yes! Just like apartment living, in the years of cheap apartments way back when.

I flop onto the bed, prop myself up with extra pillows, and have a look out at the street and the neighbor’s big yard, or the woods between our shed and the old cemetery, depending on which window. Rufus often joins us, and for a while it’s just a cuddle-pile and there is nothing at all wrong with anything, nor could there ever be.

I pull up the weather on my phone and let Annie know what the day will be like, and how cold or warm it is right now, because she will soon be getting ready to take Rufus on his second outing, a longer walk on the nearby rail-trail. I tell her what it felt like outside, what birds or animals I heard or saw, whether the clouds are gathering or clearing. “How did you sleep?” “How did you sleep?” Sometimes we talk about the news, or what we have to do today, but not much; we don’t want to ruffle our own feathers.

Then she’s up and showering, and the day is underway. My morning begins to come apart, and also to gain momentum. Sometimes there’s a trip to the supermarket. Sometimes there’s an appointment. Some mornings I paint, or write. Sometimes there are tasks, like sweeping out the garage or filling the feeders. Sometimes it is boring, but in a good way. We are of an age where, although we would change some things (starting with the shades), we realize we have been lucky with this life. The dog is perhaps the luckiest, because it’s all the life he is ever going to know, and he is delighted with every minute of it.


Addenda: more “music” for walking the dog at dawn.

Souza manna pooza and a
Souza manna poo —
Souza manna pooza, now
Whatcha gonna do?

Motoboat Jones gonna
Bolton egg down
With a whatzu, whatzu
Comin into town

Hello all the ticky tacky
Mama come and see —
Look at all the ticky tacky
Crawlin up a tree

Bailey got a bloviator
Ask about a chockablocker
Filibuster fascinator
Juvenator Joe

It’s a cup-chak
It’s a walla-walla-doo
Get yourself a hinney honey
That’s what I would do

And those are the clean ones.