Monday, December 18, 2006

... But Not A Dry Cold

New Englanders take great pride in our ability to navigate the roadways in all kinds of driving conditions, especially those caused by winter storms. We malign and curse those in other parts of the country who are not as familiar with these situations. And who, when confronted with even the least amount of cold weather precipitation, either bring their motoring life to a complete halt or (even worse for those of us behind them) slow down to an excruciatingly slow pace.

Nevertheless, my worst ever winter driving experience took place during early October 2000 in the arid desert of the Big Bend part of Texas.

Mars and I were ending up our second week of vacation in that part of the country. It is a place that we prefer to visit in early Autumn when the tourists, such as they are, have left to get their kids back in school, but the temperatures are still normally in the low sixties to mid eighties - perfect for hiking in the Chihuahuan Desert by day, and staring at the mysterious Marfa Lights at night. And it's a dry heat.

After seven warmer than expected days in Lajitas mostly spent trekking in Big Bend National Park we were now staying at the "Historic" Prude Ranch in Fort Davis, at about a mile in attitude the highest town in Texas. It's a "dude ranch", but we weren't dude-ing, just using it as a base of operations for our travels to the towns of Marfa, Alpine, and within Fort Davis itself to the McDonald Astronomic Observatory "Star Party" and the eponymous original cavalry fort.

On Thursday of that week, at four o'clock in the afternoon it was too hot (mid nineties) and the sun was too intense for us to lay and read by the outdoor pool. The next day remained overcast and foggy all day and the temperature never got above fifty. We hiked in Davis Mountains State Park, just outside of town, wearing sweaters, Gortex parkas, gloves, and hats (the latter of which it had been recommended to us that we pack on all our trips in case of unexpected cold).

Saturday we spent the day at the opening exhibition of Dan Flavin's Neon Light Installation at the Chinati Art Foundation in nearby Marfa. The institution resides in an abandoned military base about one half mile outside of "downtown" Marfa and consists of a series of disconnected building (all former barracks) that have been converted into either art spaces, living quarters or offices. The Flavin show was located in three of the structures in the center of the complex, each separated from the others by a few hundred yards of open walkways. The land around the building is flat and mostly barren.

Since there was to be a Mexican Fiesta Dinner on the streets of Marfa that afternoon, and since parking is extremely limited at the foundation we parked downtown and walked to Chinati. The skies were gray and cloudy. The temperature and the unrelenting wind were both in the low thirties. We had on all of the clothes that we wore hiking yesterday plus our Gortex rain-pants over our regular ones, and a second layer of tee shirts.

Mars and I walked as quickly as we could to the site, at times leaning forward like ski jumpers in order to move through the onrushing cold air currents. At Chinati we moved even faster from building to building where the prevailing breeze was stronger because of the canyon effect within the complex. Once inside we lingered perhaps longer than we normally would have over the colored lights of the abstract neon installations - the only warmth that we could find in the Chihuahuan desert on that Saturday.

Because of the cold and wind we decided to forgo the outdoor dinner reception. However we did stop at the local Dairy Queen on our way out of town for a small Hot Fudge Sundae. New Englanders do love their ice cream.

Sunday morning we were to drive back to El Paso, a trip of about three hours. When we awoke at six thirty it was snowing but the ground was still warm enough so that the white precipitation wasn't accumulating. By the time we hit the road about an hour later the snow had turned to sleet and the ambient heat had dropped to the point where the falling ice was remaining in that state when it hit the roadways.

There are very few people who live in this part of the world - that's one of the things that Mars and I like most about it - and as a result very little traffic. The roads are generally straight. And when you look ahead over the many miles of future driving that are stretched out in front of you, there generally aren't any cars or trucks coming your way. On our first trip to Big Bend, a beautiful early fall weekend day, we saw twenty vehicles during the eighty-mile trip between Van Horn (the turnoff from Interstate 10 out of El Paso) and Marfa (our destination on that day). This was the same route we would be taking back today.

You are probably more likely to see a descanso (those southwestern roadside shrines decorated with artificial flowers and personal memorabilia that mark the location of a fatal car accident) than an actual, healthy moving motor vehicle. In the weather that we were heading out in we didn't expect to see anybody at all.

And we didn't.

We did however see frost-encrusted cacti standing incongruously on the ice covered desert floor. The wilderness in this part of the world is not the most colorful to begin with - especially in September during one of the many successive drought years that the region has endured - but normally the landscape has at least the natural look of an old faded sepia photograph. The frozen sleet had obliterated even that tiny bit of color leaving us with something slightly less colorful than a basic black and white photo.

Most of the land, although it looks vacant, unused and uncared for, is privately owned and is used for grazing cattle. Because vegetation is so sparse on this land, the number of acres required to feed a bovine necessitates either very small herds, or very large spreads - or both. I don't know the ratio of cattle per acre but in our informal observations we would frequently measure (from named gate to named gate) ranches of five or more miles. And we'd see perhaps a handful of steers - all of them spread as far apart as possible, like the unspoken protocol in the men's public shower at my health club, each going to farthest available geometric point in order to take advantage of the full amount of social space allotted to them.

On this day however the bovines that we saw were all grouped together into an ill shaped huddle with their backs to the wind - with what we assumed was the highest-ranking member of the pecking order snugly sequestered in the innermost part of the formation and the neophyte grazers taking the brunt of the storm. (More likely the latecomers simply got consigned to the outside.) The faces of the steers displayed the empty-minded determination of someone confronting an unpleasant situation the cause of which they had not a clue about, nor the expected duration, nor the possible outcome. Other than when they were being herded into their pens for one of the cattle-raising rituals it was probably the only time that these ruminants ever got together for group socializing.

Our car, a rental Chrysler Cirrus, was looking like one of the outermost steers - pelted by ice and buffeted by winds, with ice rapidly sticking onto any surface not warm enough to immediately melt it off. Periodically the front wiper blades looked like the icicled eye lashes of the badly beleaguered bovines.

There were no tire tracks in the freezing slush and at times it was impossible to tell where the road itself was. But we pushed on slowly, hoping that the small front-wheel drive sedan was capable of handling the icy road conditions. Several times however the tires seemed to be stuck in an unseen groove, unable to be dissuaded at all from the path on which they were heading. All I could do was let the car slow down and then steadily turn the steering wheel until the vehicle reluctantly moved in the direction that I wanted.

During those moments of non-control, and even more so after when we finally made it to El Paso and cool but sunny weather, I thought about how the media would report our accident - "Texas Ice Too Slick For New Englanders - Several Cacti Shattered".
And what our descanso would look like.

We first learned about these thruway memorials in 1992 on our initial trip to New Mexico and have seen more and more of them on each of our subsequent visits to the "Land of Enchantment" and to Texas, its neighbor to the south. Each one is different, and each of the differences tells you a little something about the person whose life ended at that very spot. All of them have the names, and most have crosses, usually wooden, and plastic flowers, usually red. Sometimes there are containers of the deceased's favorite beverage - mostly Budweiser beer - but we've also seen kayaking equipment and other indicators of the decedent's other interests. Occasionally there are family photos.

The overall ambience, to me, is celebratory. It is a memorial that the honoree would be proud to display in his or her living room. And if it weren't for the isolated location, and the story that you know goes along with the display, it would bring great deal of joy to the viewer

In most cases it is pretty easy to picture how the fatal accident occurred. The roads are unlit and little traveled. The locations are spots where cell phones futilely search for a tower and car radios set to "seek" endlessly cycle the dial. There rarely are any objects to crash into - definitely no manmade ones, and ninety percent of the time not even a rock or a tree close enough to do damage. Drivers just lose control, for whatever reason - too tired, too drunk, or just too careless. The vehicle flips. And no one comes across the wreckage until its too late.

We were none of the above - but still we were concerned about becoming a roadside shrine.

Obviously we didn't. Now, several years later, having successfully survived the sleet-impaired drive to El Paso and several other New England winter weather events, I can clearly see how our descanso would have been.

There'd be water bottles instead of beer cans, Birkenstock sandals rather than cowboy boots, and a Tonka Toy fleet of heavy-duty snow removal vehicles. Which would finally reveal that the real secret to being a good bad-weather driver in Connecticut is to never, ever go out onto the roadways until after they've been plowed and sanded - unless you really have to.

Descanso photos by Mars

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pot Culture

National Public Radio's Morning Edition had a short piece about Vince Guaraldi, the jazz pianist who did the music for the "Charlie Brown - Peanuts" television specials. And it brought back lots of memories - of pottery

Several years ago I practiced it at a studio in the basement level of a small retail mall in a neighboring town. The workspace was owned and run by two women: L, a freelance graphic designer in her mid to late thirties, and J, perhaps five to ten years younger. Both were married and L had a young son. Unlike L, this studio was J's only job.

They offered lessons for children and young adults, and also organized craft parties for youngsters who were celebrating various occasions - birthdays, etc. And one night a week they had a session for adults. J was the teacher.

I had previously studied pottery for several years at Wesleyan Potters - a very professional studio modeled after the crafts guilds of earlier times. This time I wasn't looking to take a class but just to use the equipment (wheels, glazes, kilns), get some coaching and advice, and make a few pots. It was a good deal for both of us. J got a really low-maintenance, paying customer and I got one night a week of unfettered time to play with the clay.

I was there for about nine months and Mars and I got, among other pieces of stoneware, a complete set of dishes that we now use as our everyday china. Each class was six weeks in duration and limited to five people, with most students taking only one session, so there was a pretty much continuous parade of new faces.

There were a couple of women about my age (late fifties at that time) who came for about two lessons. All but one of the remainder were married women and, like J, members of Generation X - "the generation born after that of the baby boomers (roughly from the early 1960s to mid 1970s), often perceived to be disaffected and directionless." as defined by my online dictionary. And, based upon what I saw at these classes, totally immersed in the popular culture that has surrounded them since birth.

Sitting invisibly in the far corner of the room, working quietly on my own private projects, I quickly realized that these evening sessions were less about increasing the revenue of the business and more about J's need for adult conversation. Conversation of the feminine Gen X variety that usually started with the previous week's episode of television's Ally McBeal and slid back and forth between her fictional dilemmas and J's real-life ones so seamlessly that sometimes I wasn't certain what the correct context was - although the main subject was always J.

I never saw the TV show. Not being of the appropriate age group, I felt I was much better off listening to the translated version - kind of a play about a play performed unknowingly for an unnoticed audience in the back of the hall.

Only once did the actors actually break through the wall and involve me in their psychodrama. J abruptly interrupted their conversation and asked how long I had been married. At that time the answer was probably thirty-five years. She and her fellow performers looked both impressed and baffled by the possibility of such longevity. I remember hearing "wow!", and "that's really great!" couched in tones of disbelief.

There was always music in the studio from whatever CDs J thought were suitable for the mood of that evening. No one seemed to listen - but music being such a constant presence in their lives I'm certain that somehow they heard every single note. Occasionally I tried to use the rhythm of some song to help control the pace of my pottery work. But mostly I just wasn't aware of it.

Then one night during the weekly re-telling and subtextualization of Ally McBeal, J began to play what she announced was "just the best" album ever. It was one of the Vince Guaraldi "Charlie Brown Christmas" CDs and the simple, clear, bittersweet piano notes immediately brought the class to silence, and kept them there for several minutes. There might have been a little nods of recognition exchanged but that was the only interpersonal communication.

Everyone, including me, just kind of stopped and stared - some wistfully, others with small smiles.

Popular culture is like the water that's used to soften and shape the clay on a potter's wheel. Most of it is superfluous and is spun off immediately. Some is absorbed and temporarily retained as the object is taking shape. And a very, very small amount, just what is really necessary in order for the pot to actually become a pot, survives the final firing and remains a part of the objet d'art forever.

Like other essential relationships - some of which even last for thirty-five years, or more.

Monday, November 27, 2006

More Than Just A Tree

Our front yard Flowering Crab ceased being a tree several years ago. That's why it is still standing. And why it will continue to stand for at least as long as we live here.

What it has become is one of the principal meeting and eating spots for the birds and squirrels of our neighborhood. And this year it is being made into a permanent residence by one of the smaller of our avian guests.

The twenty foot tall woody perennial plant was in its present location, right outside of our family room in the prime viewing area from Marsha's and my favorite seats, when we bought this house in 1977. At that time it was just a tree. A tree that, quietly and without any fanfare, did its little tree things - growing its tiny year-around pomes, flashing its umbel racemes in all their pale pink glory near Mother's Day, showing its dark green above/pale green below leaves until October, and standing naked against the cold winter climate until its annual spring rebirth.

Then, sometime back, we added a bird feeder. I think it was one of the Droll Yankee plastic cylinders with several stories of perches. Birds came. We watched them. Squirrels came. We watched them also. Squirrels decimated the feeder. We replaced it. More birds came - finches, cardinals, jays and titmouse. As well as squirrels. And a seemingly endless series of replacement feeders.

And the tree never complained - not even once.

We added another food container - this one made of pottery. Birds that preferred to dine in small private rooms began showing up - like chickadees. Along with more squirrels equipped with different gymnastic skills than their predecessors.

At night we could hear our elm tree creaking and groaning. And listen to our oaks snapping their branches in anger at the squirrels that resided therein. But only total silence, perhaps stoic (who knows), from our faithful Malus hybrid.

Wind chimes were added. Plus a wooden helix decoration that spun at dizzying speeds given to us by our son. This temporarily distracted the tree rodents who felt that this new carnival ride had been added solely for their amusement. We also had the tree discretely trimmed, diagnosed, and injected by expert arborists. Nevertheless, year after year we continued to notice more and more branches drying and dying, and sparser spring floral displays - while our visitor population became larger and more varied.

Word must have gotten out about this welcoming set of branches that provide good food, a little shelter, a comfortable setting, and a place to meet old and new friends.

But not all of the visitors had fellowship in mind. The higher branches of the crab became a frequent resting spot for our neighborhood hawk that periodically would ravage and savage the pigeons that dined at the foot of the tree - although never within our sight. And just a couple of weeks ago did the same to one of the squirrels that supped at both the higher altitude and basement level banquet facilities.

But this time, thanks to the timely notification of our neighbor Becky on whose front apron the dismemberment was occurring, we were able to totally witness our own neighborhood Nova moment.

And now, largely thanks to the decaying state of the tree, it looks as if we will be having our first permanent tenant. A male Downy Woodpecker, initially drawn to our place by a suet feeder we added last winter and maintained throughout the warmer weather, has been busily burrowing his way into the largest and deadest of the branches and defiantly defending his penthouse from Nuthatches and other interested tourists.

At the moment he looks to be setting up a bachelor pad. But I suspect that a good looking bird like him, with a nice condo in a prime location such as this one, will pretty much have his pick of the chicks when breeding season arrives. Until then we'll probably have to put up with the normal noises you would expect from any other single guy castle.

But whatever hubbub this tiny member of the Family Picidae makes will be one hundred times more pleasant than the sound of the winter wind whistling through the empty space if our favorite horticultural hangout wasn't there anymore.
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Heaven is a place on earth

Millwoods Park is about one quarter mile from our house. It is not a large area but somehow it contains, among other things: two walking trails, a swimming pool, a wildlife pond, woods, a skateboard park, tennis courts, a play area with swings and other equipment, a picnic area, and a basketball court.

It also has (at last count) four hundred and seventy five softball fields, and two thousand eight hundred and four soccer fields - actually not that many, it just seems like it.

And, its newest addition, a Dog Park.

At ten-thirty last Sunday morning the only action at Millwoods was outside at the canine recreation area and inside at the Methodist Church that sits alongside the front entrance to the park - worshippers of each of the only two English language words that can be formed from those three letters of the alphabet.

Even though we currently are houndless we went for a walk over to the pooch playground to take in some of the action. Not being churchgoers we would have been spectators at either place so we picked the one that offered entertainment, exercise and fresh air. It was our second time at the facility having wandered over for similar reasons the previous weekend.

The "park" consists of two adjacent fenced in areas (small and large dogs) with a double-gated transition area that covers about one acre of the tree dotted land between the wildlife pond and some of the softball diamonds. When we arrived there were about twenty canines of various sizes, all within the large dog enclosure, and three others on leashes outside alongside the fence.

By eavesdropping I concluded that the outcasts were either unlicensed or, if they were, failed to bring their permits along with them and thus were excluded by the establishment's rules and regulations from the much coveted doggy inner sanctum.

We did not attempt to enter inside the compound but I suspect we too would have been turned away - not having a member in good standing with us to escort us in. The church probably would have been less restrictive. Copies of Baptismal Certificates are most likely not required and even strangers traveling without a practicing Methodist on their leash would, I'm certain, be readily granted entrance.

It was quiet - but not silent like in a place of worship because the people were chatting quietly among themselves. The dogs however, although busily interacting and cavorting, were absolutely, totally noiseless. Mars observed that humans talk to each other when they get together but that canines only converse when they are at a distance - either to get each other's attention or to threaten. When they are in close proximity like this they really have no reason to verbalize their thoughts and their other communication methods take over.

So while the owners and caretakers stood around in a loosely formed circle sipping coffee and puffing cigarettes, those for whom the park was intended ran and sniffed and nipped and nuzzled - pairing off and separating, and then pairing up again with a different partner. They twisted their bodies around and about each other in a spontaneously choreographed ballet of unleashed energy and canine agility - partaking in all, yes all, of the pas de deux that two dogs together can perform. Then suddenly they would break away from their pack to check in briefly with those who brought them. And just as abruptly return to the action.

Meanwhile up the street and inside the red brick edifice the Methodists partook of their bread, sipped their grape juice, and sang their hymns of praise. And shared the incorporeal joy that is brought to them by their otherworldly beliefs.

But even they couldn't possibly be as happy as the dogs of Wethersfield romping and rollicking in their own private Garden of Eden - also free of all their earthly cares and yet at the same time fully immersed in the aromas of the world and the affinity of their recreational family. And unlike the only two residents of that short-lived biblical paradise - if they get expelled for some transgression it will be only temporary (as it should be).

For earthbound hounds, and their similarly tethered viewers, it just doesn't get any better than that.

(Editorial Cartoon by Dave Rustad, Dog Park photos by Mars)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bene vixut, bene qui latuit*

I've always liked bumper stickers - reading them, not displaying them. I am pretty much of an introvert when it comes to sharing my opinions. Or having the viewpoints of other people pushed upon me.

But when those same beliefs are pitched with a pithy slogan on a piece of paper affixed to the rear of a motor vehicle, then I willingly and lovingly read what they have to say - sometimes even violating the laws of the road to do it. Unfortunately there don't seem to a lot that are worth taking those chances for anymore.

I checked the internet for the history of bumper stickers and didn't find much at all. According to

Evidently, the first bumper stickers came about before WWII and were attached with metal wire wrapped around the bumper. After WWII, bumper stickers became useful in political campaigns. Once it caught on as a popular way to "get the message out", advertisers grasped the concept for commercial purposes and then came the broad appeal to use them for all kinds of slogans, often just for a laugh.

The true "king of the bumper sticker" is Forest P. Gill, a silk screen printer from Kansas City. Gill founded 'Gill-line' in 1934 from his basement, and later realized the possibilities of replacing the bumper wire attachment method by experimenting with pressure sensitive stock, hence inventing the modern bumper sticker which is in use today. Gill-line has developed into a multi-million dollar corporation with modern production facilities adding up to 240,000 square feet of operational space. Today, bumper stickers are big business, with millions of bumper stickers being produced and sold every year.

The last statement is probably true, based on the number of sites listed in Google that sell them. But judging by what I see in my neck of the woods about ninety percent of them refer to the academic or social achievements of "My Child". Or are variations on that theme such as "My Rottweiler is Smarter Than Your Honor Student."

I conducted an unofficial survey of bumper stickers during my two auto trips today. Of the hundred or so vehicles that I saw only two had auto decals of any kind - a pickup truck that said "Dirt, Snow, Rocks for Dinner - US Army" and a 1990's compact car advertising the public alternative radio station at which Mars and at I happen to volunteer. (I didn't know the driver.) Maybe people today are more concerned with preserving the resale value of their cars than in using them as a billboard for their beliefs - especially with the ubiquitous availability of other venues such as talk radio, blogs, and chat rooms to convey their thoughts.

My own recollection is that bumper tickers were much more prevalent in the "good" old days, like the Vietnam War era - and much more clever. But forced to give actual examples all that I can remember is "War is Not Healthy For Children and Other Living Things" which I'm not certain that I actually ever saw on a moving vehicle (it is kind of wordy) and "What If They Gave A War and Nobody Came".

I'm sure there were more.

From that same era, one of my neighbors up the street was displaying a Kennedy/Johnson political sticker during the recent mid-term elections. Since there were no candidates by that name it was, I suspect, a not so subtle dig at the perceived quality of the current stable of office seekers.

Or at the utter unoriginality of their campaign stickers. Other than the "Stick With Joe" (Lieberman) decal - which I actually liked quite a bit because of its self-referential message - the rest were duller than the non-chrome bumpers to which they adhered.

All of which is a long way of explaining that when Mars and I do see particularly worthwhile or unusual bumper stickers we try to digitally capture them.

Such as the first picture above - decals for sale at a Classic Car Show in coastal North Carolina. As I was taking the picture the purveyor of these messages asked if I was with the FBI. I assume he was joking. I was going to ask him if you had to own a pickup truck with a gun-rack in order to display one of these signs but I decided against it - not being sure if he would realize that I also was kidding.

And the two different sets of opinions that we found displayed in northern New Mexico last autumn - one on the back of a Sports Utility Vehicle in downtown Santa Fe, and the other mounted on a motorcycle parked at the square in the Old Town part of Albuquerque. Although philosophically I agree more with the SUV billboard I think the chopper display wins hands down for its simple, direct message. And, like the Lieberman sticker, for the fact that its message and its display case just go so perfectly well together.

As for us - we have no true bumper stickers on either of our vehicles - just a blue "Save The Manatees" magnetic ribbon on our Jeep. If I did have one it would probably say: "My beliefs are too private to be expressed publicly - except one."

* "He lives well who is well hidden" - Rene Descartes

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Blood Bath and Beyond

On a recent Sunday morning at around nine, while we were relaxing with the morning newspaper, our across-the-street neighbor Becky knocked at the door. Mars answered, and a quick conversation ensued of which all I heard was "hawk is killing a squirrel in our front yard."

With a pounding heart and rapidly pumping adrenaline I was already in the process off getting up when Mars said excitedly "Jim, let's go!" And, as I reached full verticality, "Get the camera!"

By the time I came back down from our upstairs den both women were outside in the middle of the street looking intently at the nature drama unfolding on the nearby sidewalk apron. Apparently during that time Becky had said, "I thought that you guys would like this."

We do. In fact it is fair to say that we have been waiting to see something exactly like this - and more importantly get close enough to photograph it - ever since we saw the first hawk circling over our house several years ago.

Mars and I both grew up in the non-rural Greater Hartford area of Connecticut. At that time there just weren't any hawks around here, largely due to the extensive use of pesticides such as DDT. I myself did not see any wild hawks until I spotted one circling over the cornfields on a summer vacation that we took in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country around 1980.

In fact I think that my only previous sighting of any member of the Accipiter genus was at a falconry demonstration during half-time of an Army versus Air Force football game at Yankee Stadium in the late 1950's. It was also probably the first viewing experience for the terrified pigeons that normally ruled the skyways of the ballpark. Fortunately for them these performing peregrines only attacked the straw targets held by their handlers. I remember thinking briefly, and totally impracticality, that the sport of hunting with these birds would be really, really cool. And, in the illogical mind of a teenage boy, a perfectly sensible reason to join the U.S. Air Force - a motivation that did not stand up to the dovish beliefs of my early twenties, among other things.

We began visiting northern New Mexico in 1992 with, as far as I can recall, no additional raptor recordings and have seen hawks on pretty much every one of our hikes out into the high desert mountains. In some unforgettable instances we were able to look down at them as they floated below us on the updrafts created by the valley beneath them.

They seemed the ultimate image of freedom, the type of thought that occurs to someone who would have been sitting behind a desk almost any other week. Now that we are retired I realize they were probably just out trolling for food - just another day at the office for them.

And finally, hawks began appearing on our home front.

The tower building of our former employer Travelers Insurance (now St. Paul Travelers) became the nesting site for a pair of peregrine falcons in 1997. And they, or their offspring, have returned to this location every year since. Although we were disappointed never to see the heart-stopping sight of an absent minded actuary being carried away by a rapidly rising raptor. Nor to find the pinstriped remnants of any unwary underwriters. We did frequently witness "Amelia" and her mate circling the tall narrow building and faithfully followed the egg-laying and hatching activities of the pair on the internet-based "falcon cam" that was placed next to their nest for our entertainment (lunch times only of course).

At about the same time we began to notice hawks perched occasionally atop a highway light or roadside tree on our early morning drive into work. And even more infrequently, but nonetheless periodically, a raptor silhouette soaring over our very own house.

We also started to see evidence of the hawks' success at finding food in our own neighborhood - and sometimes within our yard. Dismembered pigeon parts appeared periodically on our front lawn when we returned home from work or were left on the community sidewalks on which we walked.

A few times the (or at least "a") hawk actually landed in the flowering crab tree right in front of our family room - and the site of our bird feeders. He twisted his head around in that disconcertingly hyper flexible manner that gets my head spinning whenever I see it, but never seemed to lock in on any potential playmates. Even though on at least one occasion a frightened furry food-gatherer hid close by in one of our cylindrical pottery feeders.

The most recent incident of carnage was splashed across the stone paver walk just outside of our family room door and was documented at that time (September 2006) in an earlier blog entry entitled "blood on the pavers.

And a few winters ago we did get a phone call from another neighbor alerting us to a hawk versus pigeon confrontation on the snow in their back yard. We could see the action from our kitchen window and maybe even, we convinced ourselves, actually see some of the exsanguination on the white stuff. But we were still tens of yards away and, for various reasons, not inclined to attempt to get closer. In any event, the hawk left with its victim a very short time after we received the tip leaving us still feeling excluded from the hawk's real world state of nature.

This time we didn't. (click to see photos)

For one thing the ravaging raptor seemed totally oblivious to us - that is to say he was not watching us like a hawk. When I arrived on the scene, Mars and Becky were watching the hawk from a distance of probably about fifteen feet. I took my first photos from that spot using the meager telephoto lens on Mars' camera. Sensing the big bird's lack of interest and encouraged by the two women (one of whom has a considerable insurance investment in me) I moved closer, and pointed and clicked, and closer, and pointed and clicked, and closer..... Until I was about one foot from the curb - at which point he finally looked up, and stared (I'm certain) directly at me.

As our eyes locked I waited eagerly for that moment of spiritual connection - the intense instantaneous bonding that occurs between the hunter and the hunted (even though my weapon was a camera). That magical empathetic event where the prey acknowledges his role in the cycle of life, accepts his fate, and gives permission to his brother-in-the-hunt to perform the ultimate act that one living creature can do to another. (Or in my case to take a close-up of the feeding frenzy).

Not a thing, not anything, nil, zero, naught/nought, zilch, zip, nada, diddly-squat, squat - although I did get the feeling that if I got any closer he would probably rip my head off and then go right back to eviscerating his Sunday brunch.

I backed up a step or two and took a few more pictures. And then suddenly the hawk lifted his victim and flew to a low branch on a tree in the immediately neighboring yard. Becky, who had now joined in the photography frenzy, and I followed him. The raptor sat quietly within the shelter of leaves, with his breakfast draped languidly across his nesting branch. After determining that good photos were near impossible, and unwilling to attempt to move our subject matter to a more photographable location, we both returned to Mars and Becky's husband Mike who were standing back at ground zero.

"I think it's the same one that we saw this summer." said Mike, referring to an similar incident he had told us about that occurred in their back yard. "He's much bigger now."

"It's amazing what a pure protein diet can do." I suggested.

"Just keep fattening up those squirrels" Mike replied while looking over at to our corn cob feeder and frequently raided bird feeders.

With no hawk to watch we all suddenly became aware of the cold October morning, and decided to head to the warmth of our respective houses to check out our digital results.

And ponder our future relationship with hawks - which seems to be becoming less and less distant. There is an exhibition of falconry portraits by Michelle Elzay at one of our local art museums. I want to see them.

It's much too late in life to join the Air Force, even if I wanted to. But Mars and I will be moving to New Mexico some day. And retirement is supposed to be about doing things that you always wanted to do, but never had the time. Or better yet trying activities that you never thought you possibly could.

How totally cool would it be to look down from the top of one of those high desert mesas and see our own favorite raptor wearing his own little hawk uniform with the Meehan family colors circling below?

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Sense of Place. Or Not.

When I'm on vacation I spend a lot of time looking at wherever we are through my camera's LCD Monitor (or viewfinder in the not too distant analog past). Mostly I am looking for pictures that have a "sense of place", that portray something that is unique to the locale and tells the viewer something about what it is like to be in that particular setting.

I do not necessarily go to a location with any pre-planned themes in mind. And sometimes when I do, they just don't work out like I had hoped.

In Florence Italy I had expected to photograph lots of well-known works of art: Michelango's David, or Botticelli's Birth of Venus for example. Or perhaps several highly decorated church interiors. But most of these subject matters were either off-limits to photography, or overrun with tourists, or in too dark a setting to do them justice.

Meanwhile out of the corner of my eye I saw other subject matters - the ultra-fashionable footwear, the terra cotta tiles, and the less-mainstream public art (all documented in other blog entries) - that caused me to aim my camera lens off in different directions.

And then, as always happens, there were the quick little one-shot images that don't fit at all into any of the above categories. And actually they have no connection with their locale other than they happen to be there as opposed to a hundred and one other places where they could just as logically exist. In fact what makes these pictures interesting to me is that they don't even have any connection to themselves.

For example.

This one came upon me too rapidly - like sometimes at home when the words AMBULANCE, or TOYOTA, suddenly appear in my car's rear view mirror. For a brief moment I forget that I'm looking at a backward image, and become temporarily dyslexically disoriented.

But this one was not a reflection. So I quickly composed, pointed, and clicked - and was relieved to find when I later looked at the photograph that in fact, while most of the letters are correct, at least some others are skewed one hundred eighty degrees. Or at least I think they are.

And I still don't understand the connection between the two marquees, both of which seemed to be directing me into the same doorway.

Then there are some things that even though they really do belong together, my immediate reaction is feel like somehow they don't - like the price-tagged crucifixes that caught my attention in an Oltarno storefront window.

I definitely am not one of the top ten most religious people in the world. And I know everything has a price - and that craftspeople can't just give all of their work away. But crosses that are both cost-bearing and Christ-bearing? Dozens of individually hand-written, white, Euro-value announcements dangling weightlessly on a mob of images showing mankind's messiah suffocating to death under his own body's pressure was more juxtaposition than I could handle without capturing and reproducing it for others.

I once heard the author William Least Heat-Moon talking about how a writer strives to create the perfect sentence - "one that starts off in a single direction and then just goes.." He stopped talking and moved his clenched fists side by side - then turned his wrists outward rapidly as if snapping something in two.

Sometimes you can get the same effect by just noticing what's already there...

...but maybe shouldn't be.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

89% of 90% =

"Ninety percent of all the great art in the world is in Italy. And eighty-nine percent of that is in Florence." we were told by Laura, our Art Historian lecturer, on the first night of our Elderhostel in that city.

No one asked what percentage of the art currently in Florence fell into this category, and Laura didn't volunteer that information. But to my non-expert eye pretty much everything looked like it did - the Renaissance is after all, THE RENAISSANCE! . And it seemed to be present on very inch of every wall in every museum and every church that we went to every morning and every afternoon.

For several days I felt like I was walking inside the complete and definitive anthology of art history published as a life-sized pop-up book. Unfortunately there was so much of it that at times it merged into one enormous throbbing montage of biblical, mythological, and early Christian luminaries crushed together like a crowd of Maurice Sendak's child-grabbing monsters - all intertwined and pushing and shoving each other for position, and the viewer's attention. My art sensibilities needed some outside air.

So naturally when I spotted a piece of sculpture standing quietly by itself I was curious.

"What is this called?", I asked Laura as we walked at the head of our group across the Piazza Repubblica on our way to The Accademia and our appointment with Michelangelo's David.

"This" was a piece of apparently modern sculpture - four white abstract organic shapes on a black base. We had walked past it at least four other times on our excursions to and from the museums and churches of this city but up until today it hadn't really jumped out at me as being an objet d'art worthy of attention. It was the first, and to that point only, piece of clearly contemporary artwork that I had seen on our study-tour.

There was a statue of what appeared to be large animals fighting in the small square in front of the Weston Hotel near the Arno River that probably was also "modern", but its overall look was renaissance muscularity - something that in another time and place I would have rushed over to see and photograph. But not here and not now.

Today however the white, nonrepresentational piece definitely attracted my interest - much more than it would have in the real world. Maybe my aesthetic sense was becoming more eclectic. Or maybe I just was suffering from ROPMDD or Renaissance Overload Post Modern Deficit Disorder.

"I don't really know what this one is called." she answered. "They put them out for the tourists. What is this now, October? They'll be putting them away next month until around next May when the tourist season starts up again. I actually kind of like them - the juxtapositions...excuse me Jim, we need to cross the street here."

There is outdoor art in Florence - but you do kind of have to look for it. And compared to the indoor museum and church presentation the outside ones are mostly differences of degree rather than of kind.

In the nearby Piazza della Signoria, Florence's main civic square and home of the Palazzo Vecchio or town hall, in a small area known as Loggia dei Lanziis there are bronze statues of Perseus holding Medusa's severed head by Benvenuto Cellini, and Giambologna's The Rape of the Sabine Woman. In the center of the piazza is the equestrian statue of Cosimo I, next to Neptune's fountain.

In that same Piazza, in front of the town hall, is the copy of Michelangelo's David that replaced the original when it became apparent that the damaging effects of the alfresco environment outweighed the benefits of public accessibility. Apparently in an effort to prevent some of the same fate befalling the faux slayer of Goliath, electric wires were placed on the statue with the intention of shocking the pigeons off of the the artwork - presumably without scaring anything out of them. (Ken-Tuscan Fried Chicken?).

(photos of Living Statue and Sidewalk Art by Mars)
Next door to the piazza, in front of the adjacent Uffize Galleries, there were also several "living statues" posing for Euros - but from what I saw that was just about it in that immediate area. I actually like the sentient statuary - especially when you catch them on a smoke-break, or during the touching up of their makeup. They add a creepy humanity to the world of public art that somehow makes it both more accessible and more disturbing at the same time.

There certainly were other nonliving statues throughout the city (e.g. Dante Alighieri at Santa Croce) as well as a few of what Evelyn, our Architecture lecturer called "tabernacles" (small religious themed bas-relief looking pieces usually up above door level on the sides of buildings). And we did come across a couple of sidewalk chalk artworks in the process of being created.


But even these alfresco artifacts couldn't clear the renascence racket in my brain. So on our last day of the trip, in spite of the rainy weather, Mars, Sandy and I decided to go the the Boboli Gardens (click to see photos), a short walk across the Arno River and just up the street from the Ponte Vecchio and its statue of Cellini, in search of a place where the both the artworks and the viewers had a little more room to breathe.

On a cool, rainy day Boboli Gardens was all of that .

Created by Niccolo Pericoli (a.k.a Tribolo) under the auspices of the Medici family and completed in 1558 these gardens became the design model for virtually all of the great royal gardens of Europe, including Versailles. Due to the inclement weather the site was pretty much deserted. And perhaps because of the regimentation of the previous days, to which we willingly and gratefully submitted ourselves, the three of us decided to wander semi-aimlessly along the paths and trails and ultimately found ourselves at one side of a football field sized area with a couple of large sculptures along the sidelines.

Across from our entry point to the rectangular area was an incomplete human head, fifteen to twenty feet tall, with a surface that appeared to be dry, cracked clay. From our position it was impossible to tell if the object was solid or simply the facial portion of the head.

I was preparing to walk across the grass to take a closer look when from my right and on the same side as the head I spotted a man and woman in their twenties - she, long blonde haired and white booted, holding onto his arm and rocking playfully as she walked; he looking straight ahead with his multi-lensed camera poised for action in his right arm. His stance, even though he was moving and fully clothed, was almost identical to that of Michelangleo's David - eyes focused on the target, posture balanced and ready for action, and hands positioned for the task at hand and accordingly tense. (Clearly I am still at least somewhat still looking at the world through Renaissance eyes.)

Without any apparent conversation or signal the young woman broke away from her partner and ran towards the statue. Hesitating only to assess the situation she jumped up to place her hands on the base, lifted herself up onto the flat pedestal, and struck several lighthearted, girlish, supermodel poses while he, and I, pointed and clicked.


Suddenly the rain became heavier. And in her haste to remove herself from the puddle of water in which she now found herself standing, the object of our photo-attention accidentally touched one of the pigeon-preventing electrodes, thus completing the circuit and...

Just kidding!

Actually she placed herself in a couple more mock-mannequin positions and jumped back down. Then she and her boyfriend waved and bounced off into another part of the gardens.

Not surprisingly the city that contains, by my calculations, eighty percent of the planet's most outstanding pieces of art understands that in spite of their blatantly obvious sex appeal even the greatest sculptural works can still end up as pigeon perches, whereas other (shall we say) more cerebral ones just make really good chick magnets.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Real Dirt on Florence

 terra cotta (Italian: "baked earth")...a kind of object-e.g., vessel, figure, or structural form-made from fairly coarse, porous clay that when fired assumes a colour ranging from dull ochre to red and usually is left unglazed

adobe a heavy clay soil used to make sun-dried bricks. The term, Spanish-Moorish in origin, also denotes the bricks themselves.

Northern New Mexico is easily our very favorite place on earth and Mars was reminded of that area while we were standing in Florence Italy's Piazza Reppublica listening to our Elderhostel Art Historian tell us about the original "Bonfire of the Vanities".

Initiated by the newly self-empowered Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola to purge Florentines of all the "evil practices" that drew their hearts away from God, hundreds of works of art and books that were offensive to the Supreme Being (or at least to Savonarola) were burned and destroyed in a series of public conflagrations on February 7, 1497.

"At about the same time they were building the Taos Pueblo." Mars leaned towards me and whispered. Oddly enough something in Florence had me also thinking about northern New Mexico. In Mars' case it was the differences between the development patterns of the two cultures. For me it was the way they used their dirt.

As a gardener I like dirt a lot. And spend as much time in it as I can. And as an avocational potter I have some degree of understanding of what it feels like to transform that most basic of earth's substances into something generally considered higher on the aesthetic scale.

In the 1200's the municipality of Florence passed a law requiring all roofs to be made of terra cotta in order to reduce the spread of fires within the city. Apparently the Florentines are a very law abiding people because almost eight hundred years later whether you are looking up from a piazza at the dome of a church, or down from your room with a view at the housetops in your neighborhood, what you see is the same brownish-red earthenware - local mud on local roofs - possibly even the original 13th Century tiles.

As Mars had mentioned to me, at about the same historical time in northern New Mexico the Tiwa Indians were using their own sun-dried bricks of earth, water and straw to construct the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States.

The gringos of that area were obviously as taken with the "pueblo" architectural style as the Florentines were with Terra Cotta for they have replicated it, carefully updated it, and (in Santa Fe for example) also legislated conformity with it - although for aesthetic rather than combustible reasons. Mars and I feel totally at home in the high desert geography, climate, and (maybe because this earth-based building material is so literally connected to the land) the housing.

Florence on the other hand, which we were visiting for a single purpose (Renaissance Art) and a short finite time (six days) was feeling a little more like a display case than a living, breathing place.

The churches and museums can be - no, make that ARE - intimidating in both their vastness and the sheer volume of masterpiece-level works of art within them. I felt a little like a visitor from Bangladesh whom we hosted several years ago and took to our local museum, the Wadsworth Athenaeum. Mr. Das was in his forties and had, we came to learn, a textbook familiarity with the artists on display even though the fundamentalist government of his country had destroyed and banned such works several years before. "These are copies?" he asked. "No", we told him, "they are originals." Mr. Das then literally ran through the museum trying to get as close as possible to as many works as possible in the short time that he knew he had.

Maybe because unlike the citizens of Florence in 1497 and Mr. Das I didn't have the experience of losing great art, my reaction to seeing Giotto's "Madonna and Child Enthroned", or Botticelli's "Birth of Venus", or Caravaggio's "Head of Medusa", or Michelangelo's "David" was closer to extreme confusion followed by relieved awe. In most instances I just didn't know where to look next because there was just so much to see. Thankfully our Art Historian or another lecturer guided us through the overwhelming maze of canvases, frescoes, and statuary without any serious injuries to our art-appreciating psyches.

Which didn't leave much time for the city of Florence itself - other than as the stage on which all this "stuff" was created and where it is exhibited today.

Except for the terra cotta roofs - which, like the adobe bricks of New Mexico, documented the intimate connection of the manmade edifices to their local natural infrastructure, and the repetitive acts of day-to-day human behavior that make life, and therefore art, possible.

And, at least for me, helped to bring this city on the Arno River down to earth.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Art and Sole of Florence

The art of a city... not just on the walls of its museums...

...but also in the style of its citizens.

Mars and I went to Florence Italy on an Elderhostel to study Renaissance Art - Michelangelo, da Vinci, Caravaggio, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Fra Lippi, et al. We saw their magnificant creations but were not allowed to photograph them. So, since I had a new digital camera with a full gig's worth of empty picture space and a proven inability to appreciate what I'm seeing unless I'm looking through a camera's viewfinder, I also decided to learn about the other major aesthetic product of the Florentine culture (and something more easily photographable) - the works of that city's modern masters, Rangoni, Ugolini and (of course) Ferragamo - the shoes of Florence.

I hadn't even thought about my new pursuit until somewhere during the first full day of the trip when I noticed the footwear of our Art Historian Lecturer and Group Leader, Laura. The literature that we received about this Elderhostel had cautioned us about the considerable amount of walking on uneven surfaces, and everything else we read and everyone we talked also told us that we should wear comfortable shoes. So we did - acceptably styled walking shoes that had carried us pleasantly pain free and reasonably fashionable through our previous Elderhostels to Barcelona and Budapest. Laura had reminded us again of the walking requirements at our welcome meeting the night before and told us she herself would be wearing some of her most comfortable ones.

Which apparently she did - although in comparison to the leather that adorned the rest of our group's feet it looked, at least to me, to be downright stilletto-ish. So, without much more thought than that, I took the picture.

And semi-subconciously I began to glance at the walking utensils of the more native-looking walkers. (The ones walking individually or in pairs, rather than shuffling along en masse behind an umbrella hoisting leader. The ones without cameras dangling from their necks. The ones that were looking straight ahead as they walked - rather than up, up and away. The ones that clearly knew where they were going. Laura had told us, "You won't fit in." We didn't.) And what I saw on the feet of the women striding rapidly across the bumpy potholed pavers, or fearlessly peddling bicycles through both vehicular and human traffic, or balancing motor scooters at stop lights were designer creations that came close to making Laura's minimalist mules look as sturdy as the ankle-high boots of the most hard-core hiker.

So while the others in our group continued to look up as we strolled along the narrow streets and across the piazzas of Florence, I surreptitiously snuck some glances downward. And digitally recorded what I saw.

Now Laura did tell us that the shoe designer Salvatore Farragamo studied the architecture of feet and footwear at the University of California before launching his career. And that supposedly his shoes are so comfortable that once you put on a pair.... She also said that the newest styles are immediately available only here in the Florence area, and do not appear in other places until the next fashion season when they are then immediatly consigned to the lowly status of last year's big thing.

Things we learned in Florence:
  • For some people, e.g. Florentine Fashionistas, comfort is about a lot more than, well, just comfort.
  • Nowadays there is a lot more to being a Renaissance Man or Woman than just the Renaissance.