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whatisawbutton
A blog on random scenes

Note: I have moved this blog to a new address: www.calebdaniloff.com/whatisawtoday/. But feel free to hang out as long as you please -- all original posts, including the inaugural one, are still up. Archives are active, too.

Thanks. C.



Blog on the move
Sunday, September 17
I’m pleased to let you know I'm moving this blog to a new address and into more bloggy terrain – comments, permalinks, site feed, etc. I’m leaving the current site up a little longer for stragglers. Click on the link to get to the new site. The URL is www.calebdaniloff.com/whatisawtoday/. For those who have the blog linked or bookmarked, please note the slightly different address. Hope you enjoy the new look and feel.

The burden of self improvement lifted
Wednesday, September 13
In Vergennes, this week’s Victory Baptist Church sign: “Normal is just a setting on your dryer!” It took a while for the message to worm its way into my brain, even an inspection of my dryer dial this morning. But to my relief, I finally got it. I also let the dictum free me from the pressure to be delicate, and less dry. And to at last quit the backyard where I work on my extended tumbles.

A post-industrial message
Monday, September 11
Down by the waterfront, across from the dog park, an old Dumpster sets against a stone wall. The wall is speckled with graffiti like “Matt reads playgirl. what a fagit.” Other sentences snake along the stones with their bloated letters and lack of surprise. Walking the path today, I saw a man lean his bike against the Dumpster. He pulled back one section of lid and peered into the small dark cavern. He pulled back the other section and seemed to recoil. He jumped on his bike, empty-handed. When I approached the steel green container, I saw what had spooked him. Spray-painted on the underside of one of the steel flaps: “Jesus wasted his time on us.” Revealed like a fortune cookie.

The drive to party
Wednesday, September 6
On Shelburne Road this morning, I hit a stretch of radio where every station I normally check was in the midst of a commercial run. So I dipped into the lower frequencies. I found only one song – “Party All The Time,” Eddie Murphy’s ill-fated foray into pop music. A major cheese blast from the past. My girl wants to party all the time, party all the time... I didn’t feel like talk-radio or silence so I rolled my window up tight and kept the song on. I came up behind a rusty green Subaru Outback. At the wheel a young kid with peroxide-blond hair tufting from a white painter’s cap worn backwards. And he looked like he was balls-to-the-wall rockin’, hands chopping the air, head bobbing. The more I watched his unadulterated and unashamed seat dance, the more I realized his movements were matching the Eddie Murphy song in my car beat for beat, stab for stab. I couldn’t believe he was listening to the same tune. He was probably still in diapers in 1985. But for a few moments I was heartened that he seemed somehow connected to that era, that he harbored a guilty pleasure, that his punk-ass uniform was just that. I pulled into the left lane to get a better look at my new comrade and saw that he had his windows up, too. Sharing the same embarassment. I smiled. I felt less separated from the world as I eased up beside him. Until I saw that he was on his cell phone, yelling and screaming, hands slicing the air for emphasis, a heated argument, the kind of fight you might have with a wild girlfriend. I sighed and pulled ahead. Maybe Eddie Murphy had tapped into something after all.

Footsteps above my head
Tuesday, September 5
On Spear Street in South Burlington, it’s not sneakers or hightops that dangle from a set of powerlines, but a pair of men's dress shoes. I picture a businessman – tie-knot loosened, shirt untucked, barefoot – shedding himself of office desks and meetings and impatient clients. Tossing it all away to chase the dreams of his youth. Further south in Pittsford, a pair of white baby shoes dangles from a phone wire stretched across Route 7. I imagine a little arm heaving the small ankleboots toward the sky, chubby feet clad now in sneakers with good traction, eager to start chasing the dreams of his future. Both sets of shoes have been hanging undisturbed for several years. I wonder if that former businessman and that child are still on the move, heading for the same airy place, and whether they'll recognize each other when they get there.

A heavy rain
Friday, September 1
The early-morning fog lifted from the road, the sound of my sneakers scratching gravel suddenly louder. The light was clean, fresh, rose-colored. But it soon revealed a road punctuated with dead frogs, some as flat as shadows, others smushed into the shape of coin purses, splayed legs for handles. Several frogs were intact. One lay on its back, arm laid across pudgy white belly as if snoozing after a meal. This is not the first time I’ve come across a scattering of dead frogs on my morning run. I craned my neck skyward but it looked perfectly clear, not a frog in sight, no plague moving in. I just hope the Christian Right never finds this place.

Twenty years gone by
Wednesday, August 30
Click here for this morning's Vermont Public Radio commentary -- a son's reflection on the 20th anniversary of his father's arrest for espionage. And if you get a chance, check out the October issue of Runner's World, now on stands. A not-too-shabby essay on pre-dawn running appears on page 94.

My power to heal
Tuesday, August 29
On my morning run I spied a dead bird ahead, on the side of the gravel road, yellow and brown wings folded tight at its sides. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing its tiny beak and flat, dry little eyes. When I got closer I saw that it was but a fallen leaf curled upon itself. Driving back from work later, I saw in the near distance the crumpled, water-logged body of a raccoon or woodchuck in the road. Its pink guts mashed, fur absent of luster, hindquarters repeatedly run over. As I veered to the right, I saw that it was just an old wet red-and-blue sweater. Right then, I decided I wouldn’t go home but instead drive toward all the local cemeteries and roadside memorials to see what I could do. Who knows how long this would last.

All of me
Monday, August 28
Last spring in LA, Chris, Shea and I were walking back to our car after a movie at The Arclight. As we scuffed through the parking garage, I noticed an older man get out of a hatchback a few rows away. He had a thick binder tucked under his arm. We kept walking. I heard footsteps quickening behind us. “Excuse me, Mr. Nelson.” We turned around. A balding man of about fifty in a trench coat stood before us, pushing the open binder toward me. “Would you mind?” I looked down. A glossy photograph had been pulled from its plastic sleeve. It was a still from the movie “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?,” the three main characters galloping down a dirt road in prison stripes. “Could you sign this?” he asked, holding out a black felt-tip pen. Two other signatures were scrawled across the picture – George Clooney’s and John Turturro’s. He’d mistaken me for Tim Blake Nelson, the final piece of his prize. I was half-tempted to sign it, but became distracted by the thought that I resemble Tim Blake Nelson. The scrawny, cartoonish goofball character. I was thrown into an existential crisis, the components of my identity free falling, numbers raining down glass windows. I’m not him, I mustered. “Oh, really, I could have sworn,” he said, closing the book. “I’m terribly sorry.” And walked back to his car.

I thought about that moment the other day visiting Chris’ father at the nursing home. Chris was breaking the news of her mother’s death. Shea and I waited outside the room by the elevators. A male resident strolled by. We said hello. He said hello. He stopped. “David Stone?” he asked. “Excuse me?” I said. “You’re David Stone, aren’t you?” No, I said, sorry. “Oh,” he said, disappointment and disbelief welling in his eyes. He stared a few more moments then moved on.

During our visit the week before, I was Jerry. Richard was in an ornery mood, demanding I move him from his chair to the bed. We called the nurses to help. Richard’s a big man with a bad foot and tubes in various parts of his body. They wheeled in a contraption with hanging handles and belt straps. As I headed toward the door to give the nurses room to work, Richard started yelling, “Jerry can stay. Jerry can stay.” I told him I’d be right back.

Other times I’m a gym rat named Kyle. At the Middlebury Shaws, one of the cart cowboys has been calling me Kyle for years and it’s simply too late to correct him now. He’s a doughy, dull-eyed guy in his early thirties. Since spotting me in the gym once when I had a membership, he loves to tell me about his workouts. “Hey, Kyle, I lost 72 pounds.” But he always looks the same.

So last night I thought I heard noises in the kitchen and went down to inspect. Before I turned on the light, I pictured them all sitting there – Kyle, Jerry, David Stone and Tim Blake Nelson – elbows on our wooden table, flipping through my childhood photo album, the sound of plastic peeling away from the cardboard pages as they divvied up the pictures among themselves.

Burdens let go
Wednesday, August 23
I was one of four pallbearers at my mother-in-law’s funeral on Tuesday. The sun was brilliant. Beyond the cemetery trees, the boys sat in their heavy equipment, waiting their turn, to earn their pay, chiding the guy in the bitch seat. Dorothy's pine casket was an awkward, heavy load, my free arm swinging wildly to keep balance as we shuffled from the hearse -- ants carrying a comrade. Inside, on a ruffled mattress, the woman who sent us corny supermarket greeting cards for every ocassion, who sang “Happy Birthday to You” to each of us on the phone or answering machine, who was so devoted to her youngest daughter that she became trapped by her mental illness. We slid the coffin onto the green belt straps over the hole and listened one last time to the Scottish priest with the diabetes-ravaged leg. The casket was not lowered until we left the cemetery, but this morning I believe I can hear her – 130 miles away – whistling beneath the earth. Something I never heard her do when she was alive. Rest in peace, Dorothy.

Death all around
Monday, August 21
Chris’ mother died of a stroke on Friday. We spent the next day taking care of the arrangments. The funeral home handling the service is a long-time family-owned business in Northfield, Massachusetts. Chris and older sister MJ remember the funeral director and he them. Though back then my wife was Chrissy and her sister Mary Jean. He is a rotund man in a suit that seemed too big and wore a signet ring the size of a headlamp. Pleasant-spoken, he was full of stories about Chris’ parents, and what became of other kids in town. He showed us caskets, concrete tombs, told us about the procession, the diabetic priest struggling to save his leg. At one point, while taking down information on Dorothy’s life, he spotted a bug crawling across the carpet. “Oh, look at him,” he interrupted himself. His leg shot out like it was attached to an invisible pedal and came down with a thump. He dragged his foot back without a word and turned back to his list of questions. Chris shot me look that said, “it’s all about death here, isn’t it.” I kept thinking what kind of arrangements he had in mind for that bug. Where he kept those tiny caskets.

Horse trials
Sunday, August 20
On my morning run, several hand-painted wooden signs alerted me and other passersby to the horse trials taking place at the Eddy Farm. Just past the stables and paddocks, a group of cyclists had stopped to watch the proceedings – horses trotting around square rings, carrying light women in tight riding pants, smart jackets and velvet-covered helmets. Spectators sat in rows of folding chairs. Behind them were parked large trailers with steel bars across the windows and back doors. Rippling horse muscle, wet marble eyes, speed and spirit buttoned up in shiny coats. I kept my eye on the current trial until the road curved away. But I knew the horses would be vindicated. Each and every one.

A demolition derby
Thursday, August 17
Click on the title for last evening's VPR commentary. Includes some "nat sound" as they say. Here's the intro: Last week commentator Caleb Daniloff found that nothing brings people together quite like watching a bunch of cars smash into each other.

Charles Bukowski opening the 81st Bread Loaf Writers Conference
Wednesday, August 16
I had ocassion to drive from Norwich to Middlebury yesterday. The final leg of the 80-mile trip took me over historic Route 125, a gorgeous stretch of hill road that follows the boulder-studded Middlebury River, and passes through state forest, by the Middlebury College Ski Bowl and the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers Conference. The venerable literary retreat opens today. I sometimes feel a little funny passing through Bread Loaf, especially when it’s in session – the mustard-yellow clapboard cabins, the sprawling fields, the self-conscious Adirondack chairs facing inspiration, the aspiring young writers, some unbelieving they are actually here, others that acceptance to the conference marks a literary achievement (for a long time, I believed my MFA to be just that, too, and waited to be discovered). For most of the trip, I’d been listening to Charles Bukowski, who once wrote, “Only assholes talk about writing” and upon whose tombstone are engraved the words, “Don’t try.” As I approached Bread Loaf, I couldn’t help but slow to a crawl, roll down my window and turn up Bukowski’s Consummation of Grief (“I was born to hustle roses down the avenues of the dead”). I was suddenly the punk-ass in a tricked-out ride, windows down, system up, doing donuts in the school parking lot. The poem carried me through campus, a vehicle within a vehicle. Was it too perfect that fifty yards later a large black bear loped across the road and rambled into the woods? I watched him for as long as I could, my eyes utterly removed from the path in front of me.

The brain of last night’s crowd at the Saratoga Performing
Arts Center
Monday, August 14
Fifteen thousand cloudy and pickled minds, thirty thousand hands, thirty thousand feet, spoiling for a fight, spoiling for pussy, pissing in corners, pissing in sinks, pissing in janitor’s buckets, frenzied, wailing, stomping, falling, pushing, shoving, eyes on the zipper of your backpack, the zipper of your 14-year-old daughter’s jeans. We paid money for this, to stand on our feet, on concrete, on guard, for six hours in the sloping lawn section above the pavilion. At last a weathered blond musician took the stage, and within minutes had the crowd soothed, had them singing, not unpleasantly, almost every line from every song, with heartfelt sincerity. For a few moments, I almost felt affection for the stinking mob. I love Tom Petty.

A walk of shame
Sunday, August 13
South Street in Middlebury is considered by many to be the town’s elite address – a wide tree-lined road populated by college professors, artists, lawyers, doctors, editors. The grandest house belongs to the Middlebury College president. The others are just a shade or two more subdued but still impressive. Many have cozy wrap-a-round porches and manicured lawns. The 25-mph street borders campus; the art center, track and ballfields are a stone’s throw away. My wife and I drive South Street several mornings a week, on the way out to the gravel road we like to run. Usually, residents are still sleeping. On our way through around 6:45 this morning, I spotted a middle-aged woman hurrying across the road in a dirndl skirt, button-up cardigan and sensible flats. Her blond hair was slightly mussed. I guess the walk of shame can never be outgrown. Or outclassed.

The blink of an eye
Friday, August 11
Went to City Hall Park, to read during lunch. When I looked up from my book, I noticed a pale blond woman in black pants and sleeveless blouse, sitting on the stone ledge ringing the fountain. Her knees were pulled up to her chest, her crossed arms holding them in place. She looked mid-twenties. Her head hung down a little and she had a faraway look in her eyes. I considered her a moment, wondering if she was sad, but couldn’t tell. I went back to my story. A few minutes later, I checked the time. The woman was gone, just another radar blip. But when I looked up at the end of the next chapter, I saw she had settled on the back steps of City Hall – in the precise same pose, as if grief was a suitcase she dragged behind her. Ten minutes later, she was hugging her knees in the alley between City Hall and the Firehouse Gallery. Five minutes after that -- back on the steps, same hunched-over pose. Each time, the first place I looked there she was. As if each blink of my eye had picked her up and placed her in a different spot. As I closed my book and stood to go, she turned her head in my direction. Was she hoping I’d at last do the right thing before I left and blink her to a happier place?

A flower misread
Monday, August 7
A young, stringy-haired transient with a backpack plucked a purple flower at the corner of Burlington’s City Hall Park. He walked by my bench talking to it, and without breaking his stride or saying a word, placed the flower next to a young blond eating her lunch on a neighboring bench. The woman, startled at first, picked up and inspected the flower, then put it down with a bemused look. The man continued toward the lower green without looking back. She watched him for a moment then returned to her fork and plastic container. I watched the guy wriggle from his knapsack, strip off his shirt, spread it on the grass, then lay on his stomach. That dude is totally hoping to get lucky, I thought, she sees through that flower shit. The woman made a couple cell calls and plucked berries from a tinfoil wrap. The sky started to cloud over and the guy sat up and put his shirt back on. Then stood and left the park. Fifteen minutes later, the woman threw out her napkins and wrappers and headed out of the park as well, cupping the small purple flower – as delicate as a bird – in her hand.

The aspiration of shadows
Sunday, August 6
During my run this morning, the powerlines overhead were cast in perfect shadows along the gravel road – a row of five black lines, segmented every twenty-five yards by the shadow of a utility pole. As my own shadow shuffled between the lines, it seemed that I'd become a giant single note playing silently across a sheet of music. It didn’t stop there. On the way back, the gathering heat forced me out of my shirt. I tucked the tee in the back of my waistband. When I emerged from beneath a stretch of trees, I saw the sun had rendered me an animal on its hindquarters, tail bobbing with flight and freedom. Later during an afternoon walk, my eight-pound chihuahua fell under the same spell, his small body casting a massive hunch-backed shadow from the sidewalk into the street – a whip for a tail, axe blades for ears. I am Cerberus, he sniffed at a marigold bush, Hound of Hell. Whoever said the sun was nothing but heat and humidity.

A luxury lawn planter
Friday, August 4
There’s a house in Ferrisburgh that fronts Route 7. A small patch of lawn spills down to the roadway. For months now, a dusty green Jaguar -- of the XJ family, I believe -- has been parked at the lower edge, nose angled at the oncoming traffic. Looks mid-to-late '90s. No license plate, no for-sale sign; weeds creeping up the tires, grass reaching for the bumpers -- consumption at the pace of nature. A truck door, several wood-bed trailers and a rusty farm thresher sit on the slope above. The rareified luxury sedan seems just another piece of junked equipment, its feline hood ornament frozen in mid leap. Jaguar is now owned by Ford, which yesterday widened its historic recall of trucks, SUVs and vans to 6.7 million (due to engine fire). Industry analysts have suggested the faltering motor company, a once holy symbol of American industry, may have to jettison its prestigious Jaguar division to survive. Perhaps one of those analysts lives on Route 7 in Ferrisburgh. Or perhaps Vermonters are just good at sensing turns in the weather.

 

All posts © 2006 Caleb Daniloff


 

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photos by c. vielmetti daniloff