Sunday, December 16, 2007

Think Snow...

Several years ago bumper stickers containing the phrase "Think Snow" began to appear on the vehicles of enthusiastic skiers throughout the New England area. I was not one of them. I refused to join in the collective importuning of Ullr, or any other "God of Snow" - feeling that, in a world governed by the laws of trickle-down meteorology, at least some of the white fluffy stuff that graced the ski slopes up north would inevitably also end up on my sidewalk out front. Fun sport for others (most of whom are and always will be strangers) versus hard work for me - humm, what should I choose? Others apparently agreed, for soon I saw an auto decal that began with the same annoying snow slogan but ended with the phrase "...Good, Now Think Shovel!"

These days shoveling snow is my favorite winter sport. It burns slightly less calories than cross country skiing which used to be my preferred form of snow exercise - five hundred eighteen versus six hundred ninety calories per hour according to - without the inherent danger of broken bones and hopelessly twisted limbs that the Nordic form of snow gliding offers as possible side effects. Plus you don't have to drive anywhere to do it.

When Mars and I originally took up cross country it actually used to snow a lot on free, close by, open-to-the-public places such as golf courses, public reservoirs and state parks. A morning of x-country involved thirty minutes or less of driving and two hours or more of actual skiing. As we got better at herringboning and snowplowing, the amount of ski-able local snow decreased correspondingly and the ratio of drive time to ski time reversed - then got worse.

But the white precipitation didn't stop entirely - at least at my homestead.

We live in a corner house with sidewalks along two sides of the property, a path across the front of our house, and a four-plus-car-length driveway. I have a snowblower that was purchased in 1978 as a direct result of what became known in Connecticut as "Ella's Storm" - named after our then Governor Grasso who, apparently for the first time in recorded history "shut down the state" for a couple of days in order to deal with a multi-inch dumping of snow.

This was before we skied, so all there was to do snow-wise for forty-eight hours or so was to shovel.

I don't remember how much snow there was, or how many shoveling laps around the property we did, but it was enough to convince me and a neighbor that we each needed one half interest in a machine method of snow removal. Obviously at that time I was not as entranced with the idea of manual loose-granular labor as I am now. All I was, was tired and sore - all due to my false belief that age and not physical condition should determine my ability to do things like repeatedly tossing shovelfuls of endlessly accumulating snow onto the top of a pile that, as I grew more and more tired, grew concomitantly taller, and taller.

Over the years I have had many occasions to use the snow blower. But Mars and I also have had the opportunity to get ourselves into better physical condition, beginning about twenty-five years ago when we realized that our home and work activities did not provide enough activities requiring significant manual effort.

We began with running and have added, here and there over the years, weight lifting, yoga, and other cardio stuff, including our brief career as Nordic skiers. As a result the physical discomfort, exhaustion, and resentment previously associated with activities such as snow shoveling were replaced first by a sense of relief at their absence; then by an appreciation of the benefits of the act itself (time out of doors, exercise, a sense of accomplishment); and a finally a gradual understanding that if I did more stuff like this then I wouldn't have to "exercise" as much.

The last realization was the hardest of all to accept. I had never in my upbringing made the equation between physical-exertion-type-work and exercise probably because, other than two summer jobs, I had basically never performed any of that type of labor. "Exercise" was done in a gymnasium and work was done in an office - and never the twain shall meet. Fortunately I was now in good enough condition from my "exercising" to be able to continue "exercising" every day and periodically also do some of that manual labor type stuff that didn't technically count as "exercise".

So, back during my working days, I would rise at 4:45 a.m. in order to shovel the snow so that we could be at work by 7:00 a.m. (our normal start time) and also get in my regular health club training session. Although I never totally gave this routine up until retirement, I gradually began to enjoy my pre-dawn work more than my workout

The sky was cloudless and the early morning stars were visible. The air was clean and cold - and the neighborhood around me was absolutely still. I had an (admittedly self imposed) time constraint of twenty minutes, thirty maximum, so I moved quickly. This resulted in enough generated body heat to cause my turtleneck shirt to absorb perspiration, and my stocking-hatted hair to matt down with moisture. The few cool-down stretches that I allowed myself after, and the warm shower that followed were like whipped cream and cherries on top.

On weekends I traded the solitude of early morning for the warm sunlight of the midday - and with it the opportunity to strip off my sweater and allow the natural light to supplement my man-made heat with an equal dose of externally generated warmness.

Although I actually miss them, in retirement I'm not planning on any more pre-sunrise snow shovel fests. Instead I'll have breakfast, read the comics, and wait for the sun to light the way to my exercise d'jour - right here in my own front yard.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mulch Ado....About Mulching

I have been mulching the leaves that fall onto my lawn, into my lawn every autumn since 1977 when Mars and I first bought this property. In all of that time I have never met anyone else who disposes of his or her dead foliage that way.

I've told lots of people what I do. And all of my neighbors have seen me raking the leaves back up onto my lawn from my curbside collection point in the road. Just about everyone says things that lead me to believe they approve of and maybe even admire my practice - but not a one of them ever said that they tried it.

The most enthusiastic endorsement that I can remember came from a sales person at the Organic Lawn Care Company that feeds and nourishes my lawn. (I cut it myself - likewise returning the mown blades of grass unto the place from whence they came. Another act that seems to draw verbal kudos but no imitative action.) "Ooh that's good." She cooed throatily when I told her of my leaf recycling efforts. I felt really special until I recalled what I was once told by a consultant trying to sell something to my former employer - "Always remember - marketing people say marketing things."

I began this recycling regimen by accident. After we bought my first ever house with the first ever lawn that I was responsible for, I went to my friendly Sears store to purchase my first ever lawn mower. I was advised by the salesman to purchase a mulching one - "puts that grass right back into the ground!" It also probably provided the biggest sales commission - what did I know? He did promise however that it would eliminate the entire cleanup process from mowing. And it did - "That", I thought, "is a good thing."

It became a part of my yard maintenance routine so when the leaves fell that first autumn I just kept mulching. The next spring my lawn seemed fine so I repeated the process, etc., etc., etc., uninterrupted for the next thirty years.

Even at the beginning I felt somewhat ambivalent about the ecological holiness of my undertaking. We didn't talk about "carbon footprints" in 1979. But we had just recently gone through the great Jimmy Carter gasoline shortage and were at lest dimly aware that pumping excess amounts of petro-chemical smoke into the air was not only wasteful but probably not the healthiest thing to do. Still there was that laziness factor - something that always has figured heavily in my ethical calculations and probably plays a bigger part in most moral decision-making than people recognize or are willing to acknowledge. Plus there was that positive feedback that I seemed to be getting from my non-followers. So I just kept mulching away.

Recently I decided to Google the information base of the world and see if in fact there were any other leaf mulchers out there. The answer is yes - at least on the academic front. For one, Michael Goatley, Jr., Extension Turfgrass Specialist, Virginia Tech writes: "While we enjoy the beautiful colors associated with fall foliage, we also realize that most of those leaves will soon be on the ground. At this time of year, many turf managers quit managing grass and shift their focus instead to managing leaves...Are there reasonable alternatives in leaf management?...there is also a technique that can be less labor intensive...- mulching the leaves directly into the turf."

Good news in the sense that I am apparently not doing the lawn any harm and, at least in pedagogical circles, might be doing it some good. Disappointing in that, unlike virtually every other cause in the world, there is no bevy of blogs broadcasting its benefits -no grassroots "grassroots" movement as it were.

Research, experience, and reasoned arguments can only go so far - well not that far actually. What you really need to start a mulching movement is some ill-informed, one-sided opinions expressed in a sarcastic, belligerent, incite-ful manner, and tailored to appeal to an audience of likewise lethargic landscapers. (Like I said - never underestimate that laziness factor).

And that is after all exactly what the Internet was made for. Just imagine sites like,,, or

I could set up and blather on any or all of them - if it weren't just so darn much work.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Functional Tai Chi

First snow, first shoveling
One inch, one pass, one movement
Winter's labor's dance.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Squirrel Update

I haven't written about our yard squirrels for a while so I thought that I should.

They are fine.

Currently we have seven of them. They only appear as an entire group around 8:30 a.m., just about the time we head out to the health club. Prior to that they come in groups of two or three for what seems to be turning into a morning ritual.

Around 8:00 a.m., depending on what is on the "Today" show in regard to the missing woman d'jour, I go out to fill the two "day feeders" and re-supply the corn holder. Normally the tree-rats scatter when I open the door but sometimes one of them is so intent on breaking his fast that I come within inches of him as I move past the soda bottle feeder to the other ones.

Suddenly he senses my presence and, after making panicked eye contact, he leaps to the ground and runs away. Invariably at that point one of the other two squirrels will run immediately to the oak tree that houses the corn holder and wait, either at the empty station itself or on the bark on the opposite side of the trunk. Then mysteriously he wanders off somewhere without paying even a perfunctory visit to the newly placed food.

They also come to the feeders in groups of two or three at other times of the day. Until recently they usually arrived singly. Then, with the weather getting colder we hung up our suet feeder.

The fat holder is a square green wire cage specifically made to accommodate the "Hi Energy" version of the hard white blocks that we buy from a local nursery. Not surprisingly the additional feeder has attracted additional eaters - particularly of the bushy tailed rodent variety. It is now not uncommon to look out the family room windows and see one squirrel clinging to the suet basket, another inside the cylindrical pottery fish seed holder, and a third draped along the length of our soda bottle feeder. There also is an increased number and variety of birds - juncos, Downey woodpeckers, and nuthatches. But judging by the rapidly increasing size of the squirrels they are getting more than their fair share of the fabulously fattening food.

Probably because of the impenetrability of the metal wire, even to the sharp rodentia of the tree-rats, they have done little if any damage to that particular food station. Likewise the pottery fish, which has stood up to at least twenty years of, squirrel invasions. Not so the soda bottle feeder - which of course is the reason that we have a soda bottle feeder.

One of the squirrels, we have not definitively fingered which (although it is for sure one of the fatter ones), has every week or so taken to chewing head-sized holes in the bottom of the bottle (top of the feeder). This allows easy access to the seeds when the feeder is full-up, but requires continual modification as the food level diminishes - resulting after a few days in a visible-from-the-street fissure, and replacement of the bottle.

Not being soda drinkers we have only those few containers that we can grub from friends and relatives. Therefore, at the first sign of squirrel destruction we take action to prolong the useful life of the plastic container.

Normally Mars spots them first. "Bad squirrel!" she shouts as she leaps from her chair and opens the door to better communicate her message. This usually causes the squirrel to cease and desist its destructive activities - temporarily. Moments later Mars is outside. She is looking up at the recidivistic rodent and drawing her words out more slowly and forcefully to really get his attention. After, at most, one more verbal thrashing and perhaps a follow-up visit from me ("good cop - bad cop"), the squirrel withdraws from the scene and allows one of its more etiquette-inclined partners to dine, in the proper non-destructive manner, at the damaged decanter.

A few days later I replace the bottle and in a couple of weeks the saga is replayed.

You know - I really think that finally we are getting them trained.

"Good squirrel!"

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Breathless Hype from Local TV Anchor

"School bus driver suspended for improperly touching a student.
Find out where, ahead at five!"

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Existential Autumn

Mulching frozen leaves.
Unaccepting, hard'ning earth.
Sisyphus mowing.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

What To Wear?

On the NBC Nightly News the other evening anchor Brian Williams was bemoaning the lack of autumn here in the northeast.

Au contraire!

Autumn is here. It hass been here for almost two months. And from the looks of things will be still with us several weeks from now. In fact we may never get rid of this friggin' season. Beware - the other effects of global warming will be nothing compared to those of the Endless Autumn.

Or maybe it just seems that way. They (whoever they may be) apparently don't keep records of such things. I searched on Google for "latest new england autumn" and got a bunch of travel planning and photographic web sites - but no log of start and end dates of the season. The closest that I found was a statement on the "" home page that said "Color may begin to appear in isolated spots in far northern New England the first week in September. Typically, the color change begins at the higher elevations and in the northern part of the region mid-September and moves southward through mid-to-late October, ending in southern New England coastal areas at the end of October."

It is now the last week of November with high temperatures projected in the mid forties (on the warm days) and right out my window I am looking at an oak tree that, while its leaves have turned golden brown, evinces zero interest in dropping any of them any time soon. This morning we saw a bright yellow multi-story maple with about fifty percent of its leaves covering a lawn and the remainder calmly hanging on. Other maples are still summer-green and full to the brim. Burning Bushes are pretty much intact and all ablaze with color.

Meanwhile all of the trees in our yard - elm, maple and oaks - have denuded themselves, and last weekend I took my magic-mulching-mower and ground the last of their output into my lawn. Now all I have to dispose of are the late-dropping, wind-blown fronds from my various neighbors that have found their way into our yard at a rate roughly twice that of what my own trees did.

Wethersfield is located probably two thirds of the way between far northern isolated and coastal which, by the "" paradigm, would make our season from early to latish October.

I would say that seems just about right - at least the way I remember - which seems to be by what I wore rather than what the date was. I cannot for example recall needing to dress as warmly for leaf wrangling, as I undoubtably will for my next round of it. "They" evidently don't keep detailed statistics equating clothes-worn to weather-warmness either, so I am probably not one hundred percent certain. And I know that it has to get really cold for leaf-dropping to begin. I recall several years ago going out for any early morning run at the end of a below freezing night and being startled by the sound of shimmering yellow Gingko leaves cascading down from the two Maidenhair trees on our street. By the end of my run however the sun had warmed my bare legs and tee-shirted torso to a state of over-heatedness.

I think of the appropriate leaf wrangler outfit as corduroy slacks with a flannel shirt over a tee shirt - with the upper body outer layer coming off about midway through the sunlit exertions. That's definitely not going to happen in the next couple of weeks.

Which is really a shame. It was one of the few clothing outfits that I had down pat. The weight and warmth were just right, and the bright colors of the soft-woven cotton melded aesthetically with the equally striking hues of the landscape - the perfect autumn camouflage.

First it was "dress down days" followed by "fulltime business casual". Now it’s "global warming enduced endless autumn". No wonder even the trees can't figure out what is the right thing to wear.

Prevailing Winds

The prevailing winds

Blow crossways into our yard -

A pen for neighbor's leaves.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

History Does Not Repeat Itself...

The truth can be found in many places. For example I recently found it on a "Coffee Games" insert in a newspaper that seems to have some connection to the Foxwoods Casino here in Connecticut.

I found the tabloid abandoned on a table at our local Chinese takeout place. The one page tan colored amusement section was stuck in the centerfold. Among its contents were several quotations - some amusing, some not. Most were too wordy to fit into the fortune cookies that normally dispense wisdom in this establishment. So I read through them hoping to find a deeper truth than could be contained in a thinly folded piece of dough - and came upon:

"History does not repeat itself, - historians merely repeat each other."

A few months ago I would have blown right by this notion without giving it a second thought. History was not and had never really been an interest of mine. Mars and I did join the Wethersfield Historical Society when we retired. But we were more in search of some engaging volunteer opportunities and a chance to socialize with interesting people, than in increasing our knowledge of bygone events.

Then our good friend John, a history buff and member of the society's Board of Directors, told me about some research that a now deceased previous volunteer (Wes Christensen) had done on our town's role in the Civil War.

Long story short - the work was in need of some organization and a means of presentation and now, through the efforts of Mars and myself, it has become the first article in a newly created "Member Articles" section on the society's website.

This project got Mars interested in learning a little more about the Civil War. So we attended an Elderhostel at Gettysburg and added a photo of the Connecticut monument to the website. And that was the extent of our immersion in history until another Elderhostel - this time a golfing one at Penn State University.

"I noticed on your nametag that you're from Wethersfield Connecticut. Do you know about Thomas Hickey?" The speaker's ID said "Sol Henner" and he said that he was a "retired Revolutionary War Historian".

"No I don't. What should I know about him?"

"Well he was a well known Revolutionary War traitor who lived for a short while in Wethersfield."

"I guess then that we wouldn't have any streets named after him."

"No, I would think not. Actually he was a traitor twice - once from the British to the Americans and later on, when he became convinced that the English were going to take back the country he went back to the British. He was a member of General Washington's Guard in New York and was involved in a plot to assassinate him. There is a book called "Traitors, Turncoats and Heroes" [by John Bakeless] that tells about him. You might find it interesting."

"Thank you. Actually we volunteer at the Wethersfield Historical Society so I will check this out when we get back home."

Sol spoke as if, in historical circles at least, this was a familiar story. So I figured after I got a little background info I would stop in at the Historical Society where I assumed this story was equally well known, although possibly consigned to the "Dirty Little Towne Secrets" part of the research library. Then perhaps I would write it up in some relatively entertaining way and post it on the society's website.

I quickly found the story on the Internet in a website devoted to New York history. The outline was pretty much what Sol had told me. Hickey was a member of the Commander-in-Chief Guard who "was himself jailed by American authorities for attempting to pass counterfeit notes, and he unwisely talked of the plot with a cellmate, another counterfeiter named Isaac Ketcham,...[who] seeing an opportunity to be set free, squealed on Hickey. The ex-guard was court-martialed and found guilty of mutiny and sedition. On orders of Washington, and with 20,000 Continental soldiers as spectators, Hickey was hanged on June 28 in a field near Bowery Lane."

The article also mentioned that Hickey was a former British deserter but said nothing about his Wethersfield origins. This was not totally surprising since the focus of this particular site was New Yorkers. What was surprising was when I Googled "Thomas Hickey Wethersfield" and got no hits.

Still I figured everything is not yet on the 'net so no big deal. But when I went to the Wethersfield Historical Society, (a) there was no "D L T S" section, and (b) instead of a huge folder of property deeds, birth announcements, etc. relating to Thomas Hickey (or any of that surname) all that I found was:

(1) One entry in the accounts of a Wethersfield merchant of that time
"February 25 1775
The settled all just accounts with Mister Thomas Hickey as written our hand
Thomas Hickey
Samuel Hanmer"

(2) An article published in a local newspaper in 1967 about "Thomas Hickey - listed in the old histories as a resident of Wethersfield [who] almost succeeded in assassinating George Washington."

(3) A letter of inquiry to the Wethersfield Historical Society dated May 9, 1958 from John Bakeless (the author of the book to which I was referred by Sol Henner) seeking "any local records that might list him, tax lists, lists of householders, or anything of the sort".

The newspaper piece however talked about a different treasonous crime - an attempt by Hickey to poison Washington using tainted peas (apparently a favorite dish of the General) as the reason for Hickey's execution. As source material it referenced Hickey's account-book signature at the historical society, and a work by Benson J. Lossing called "History of the American Revolution".

The Bakeless inquiry did not have any response on file and, when I later researched his book, I found that it had no references at all to Hickey's Wethersfield connection. The book also calls into question, without disproving, Lossing's poisoned pea story - the facts of which Bakeless says Lossing got "from one W.J. Davis, who had them from Peter Embury, of New York, who knew [The housekeeper who Hickey allegedly attempted to involve in the plot] Phoebe Fraunces."

Longer story shorter.

I got the Lossing book and there are no sources cited for any part of the Hickey story, Wethersfield included, other than the above-mentioned W.J.Davis.

I also looked at a number of other historical works that mention Hickey's Wethersfield connection - none with any sources other than Lossing, most with none. I also determined that at least one of Lossing's Hickey facts - that he was transferred from Knowlton's Rangers (a Connecticut regiment) to Washington's Guard - is incorrect since the Rangers did not exist as a unit until three months after Hickey's execution.

John Bakeless died in 1978 so I can't ask him - but I'm thinking that his omission of any mention of Wethersfield in his Hickey story indicates that he could not find enough direct proof to convince him of its truth.

Me neither!

But I am still going to write my piece for the Member Articles section of the website. It will relate the frequently told and widely accepted story of Wethersfield's most notorious traitor. And will talk about the fits and starts, and successes and frustrations of my research. My conclusion will be that it is possible that Thomas Hickey, the convicted attempted kidnapper of our nation's first President, was (however briefly) a resident of Wethersfield Connecticut - but extremely unlikely.

One of my pet peeves with the Internet and email is the speed with which false information can be distributed. The cause of this problem is not however the technology, but instead the eagerness of the disseminators to be a part of the story by passing on unverified information. As a result I've assigned myself the role of fact-checker before Mars or I forward on such electronic epistles.

The truth can be found in many places - but not if "historians merely repeat each other."

P.S. Fittingly enough the truth-shedding quote that I found is a slight distortion of one by Phillip Guedalla - an English barrister, author & popular historian. His actual statement was "History repeats itself; historians repeat each other."

Photo by Mars

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Stare Decisis*

Well I dodged the metaphorical bullet. When I called in to find out "whether the court still requires your services as a juror" I was told by a recorded voice that I did not need to appear. I hung up and called back. Same story. And I didn't even have to show up at the courthouse wearing my Birkenstock sandals, "Nuke A Gay Baby Whale For Jesus" Tee-Shirt, and the logo jacket from the wacko-leftwing alternative public radio station at which we volunteer.

This would have been my second time as a member of a jury. The first was an attempted murder case - and it was "attempted" only because the part of the victim's brain into which the bullet was fired was not a death-inducing area.

The crime actually happened in my hometown, less than two miles from my house, on one of our normal work commuting routes. The victim was a local insurance executive and the defendant was an eighteen-year old black man. Apparently it was "in all the papers" or at least in our local town weekly and daily Hartford Courant.

Still, as I sat in the group voir dire listening to the judge explain the crime and asking any of us if we were too familiar with the victim, the defendant, the lawyers or the crime to render a "fair and impartial verdict", I honestly could not recall being aware of any of the details that we were being told. Nor were there any other reasons that I could come up during my individual questioning to make me eligible for disqualification.

There was one other town resident in the pool who claimed he remembered the crime perfectly. In spite of his protestations that he also knew most of the police and EMTs involved he was still picked - so short of being the injured party's wife, such knowledge seemed not to make a difference to the presiding magistrate.

Most of the evidence presented was forensic - the boots and pants of the defendant contained the victim's blood and his gun was shown to have fired the bullets found at the crime scene. There was also the testimony of a pawnbroker who identified the accused as being one of two men who tried to hock the victim's laptop, with his business card still attached.

The victim testified and although he could not definitively identify the face of his assailant he did describe the hooded jacket, pants, and boots that were found with the defendant.

Oh, and the accused confessed that he was present during the crime but contended that he had nothing to do with it.

Our jury deliberation took less than two hours. There were eleven different charges of varying degrees of severity - attempted murder being the most serious. First we voted (secretly) on that and we all said "guilty". Then we went through the remaining charges one-by-one and came to the same decision on each of them. Because it went so quickly we wanted to sleep on our decisions. So we gave ourselves the rest of the afternoon off, took a quick check for any second thoughts the next morning, and then told the bailiff that we were ready.

All of which is to say that it was an easy verdict. Good thing!

For one, going into the trial, I have probably felt convinced "beyond a reasonable doubt" about only one thing in my entire life - and that had more than a slight romantic component to it. I'm not incredibly skeptical, but on the other hand I have a really hard time being a true believer in anything. So I wasn't certain, in the absence of amorous attraction, that my mind could get itself to the level of certainty required to decide a criminal case. And if it did, whether I would recognize that I had achieved that level of certitude.

Secondly, when I watch police dramas on television I'm always hoping that underdog, frequently the poor black kid, didn't do it - you know, bleeding heart liberal and all that. This was never an issue because of...

...three. I've also seen enough trial movies and TV programs to be familiar with the "threatened juror" plot. This accused spent most of his time either gazing down at the floor or looking fixedly and coldly at the jury box, like a boxer staring down his opponent before a fight. I decided early on not to look away whenever I noticed him doing this. After awhile he would go back to checking out his feet.

Finally, again probably due to too many movies, I didn't want to have pull off a Henry Fonda "Twelve Angry Men" performance. I suppose that one of the many points of that fine film was that in certain circumstances even the most ordinary man can rise to extraordinary heights. But still...

After the foreman announced our verdicts the Public Defender asked that the jury be polled. Three of us had individually stood up and said "guilty" when the defendant indicated that he wanted the process to be stopped. Then he went back to looking at the floor.

Later in the Jury Room the judge told us "In case any of you had even the slightest doubt - don't. You did absolutely the right thing." This defendant had already been convicted of a kidnapping; robbery, and murder that took place in a neighboring town four days prior to this crime. For those actions he was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. (Now he would get an additional one hundred plus years added on.). We jurors congratulated each other on a good job and went off on our separate ways. Probably because the deliberations were so cut-and-dried we never really reached the farewell hug or even handshake level of groupiness.

For two weeks I had said nothing to Mars about the case. I even altered our work commute so as not to drive by the crime scene. On the first weekend I saw the victim at my health club - he turned out to be a member. I carefully avoided him and told the judge who, with the concurrence of the two attorneys, let me stay on the case.

Now that it was over I could finally talk. I got as far as "It was an attempted murder case and it actually happened in Wethersfield..." She interrupted "oh the one with the insurance agent..." Later her mother also had the same response. I wondered if I had been the only person in the whole statewide jury pool who didn't know anything about it.

All in all that first trial turned out to be a very good experience. The case was important - not "interview the jury on '60 Minutes' important" but “permanently affecting the rest of someone's life” important. The evidence was straightforward, clear, and logically presented. Something that appealed to the Information Technology professional part of my psyche. And my fellow jurors were neither contentious, nor grand-standish, nor half=hearted.

This time I probably would have been selected in spite of the unfit outfit I was wearing. I have a proven track record as a jurist and my preconceived knowledge of local criminal activity is still acceptably abysmal - due in part to the radio source for my news. I'm not disappointed however. I don't mean to say, "been there done that" - but it'd be really hard to live up to that first one. But then again, who am I to judge?

* stare decisis - the legal principle of determining points in litigation according to precedent.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wicked Good Haiku

Mars was in Freeport Maine last night on a SKI Trip (Spending Kid's Inheritance). Since the UConn Women's basketball game wasn't turning out to be much of a contest I decided to watch ABC's "Pushing Daisies" and check back on the score during commercials.

After about ten minutes I wished that I had a TIVO so I could also skip the parts of that story that weren't interesting, and just focus on what turned out to be - much to my surprise - the only thing that drew me away from my crossword puzzle.

Apparently I was counting syllables to help me fall asleep because when I woke up today this was in my head.

Old guy fantasies
Oft times unusual, but
Kristin Chenoweth?

Monday, November 12, 2007

George Michael Evica

Truthfully I have never listened to any of George Michael Evica's "Assassination Journal" radio programs in their entirety. I'm not conspiracy oriented and I always felt that I was dropping in on the middle of a long running conversation whose previous path and future destination were too intricately woven together for me to grasp - particularly while at the same time driving my car. However I invariably got caught up in the rhythm of the piece and the ease with which George Michael wove the names and events - some familiar, some not - into a tight fabric of authoritarian mistrust.

I did meet him once in person. Mars and I were answering telephones at radio station WWUH's Fall Fundraiser, an organization we had joined as volunteers about six months previously. The phones were set up on a table tightly packed inside of the classical music library where we were eating lunch with Eugene, one of the afternoon musical hosts, and awaiting our first call. George Michael had just completed his live broadcast and a syndicated public affairs program was now filling the airways.

Station manager John Ramsey was explaining to us that a camera crew was on the premises that day filming George Michael for a possible documentary about him and his radio program and immediately thereafter Evica swept into the room followed by a woman holding a clip board and a man carrying a video camera.

George Michael was talking. He slumped down into one of the available desk chairs at the phone table and instantly shifted to talking about all of us people in the back room "who made all of this" - sweeping right arm gesture - "work." Tall and angularly faced with a full gray beard and longish, nicely cut hair of the same color, he seemed like the actor you would cast for the part of the charismatic anarchist in a politico-historical drama.

We were videotaped and asked to sign releases while George Michael continued his conversation about the wonderful assortment of music that Eugene played, most of which the Russian emigrant had discovered since coming to the U.S. George Michael and Eugene then had a short one-on-one conversation that seemed to consist almost entirely of Russian names and three letter organization abbreviations, none of which were familiar to Mars or me, but made perfect sense to both of them and, like Evica's program, seemed to be just another paragraph in a long-running dialog.

The crew left and George Michael continued what now had become largely a monologue punctuated by comments from us that indicated we wanted him to continue. He told us with pride and amusement in his voice about his wife's overhearing FBI tapsters on their phone line. And of an unplanned meeting at the Hartford Stage Company between the Evicas and an apparently well-known U.S. government official. The Evicas had been given a fellow church member's season tickets for the night and upon arriving introduced themselves to their seatmates. "So you're Evica." The other man harrumphed just before he and his wife got up and left.

Then, being late for some appointment, he packed up some of the luncheon sandwiches and left. About thirty minutes later the phone rang and his wife called to see if George Michael had left his WWUH jacket at the studio. He had and we set it aside for them to pick up later.

At that time George Michael was battling among other things brain cancer, but nonetheless continued to do his radio program and take part in the fund drive.

Yesterday, about one year later, he died.

I remember something that I saw in downtown Hartford a few years ago as I was waiting to cross Main Street in the morning on my way to work. A police cruiser was rushing along, blowing its siren at intersections to make its way through. A large German Shepherd held his head out the open back window barking joyfully as he rode into battle. Some people looked and listened. Most didn't. But the size of the audience didn't make any difference to the Shepherd. He clearly loved what he did, was extremely good at it, and he continued to pursue it with the fervor of a true and honest believer.

After George Michael left the studio that day Mars and I kidded that when we were taking pledges from any of his listeners we should tell them that we already had their credit card numbers in our records. I had thought of sharing the joke with George Michael, but this being our first meeting I decided not to.

Actually I bet he would have rather enjoyed it.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

noun: a sharp division; a split

On a recent "Today" program there was a segment on "Cleavage In The Workplace". Evidently this is quite an important issue - otherwise a serious news program such as this wouldn't be giving it any airtime. The guest squabble-heads were Donny Deutsch (apparently a successful advertising guy and host of an MSNBC program) and Karen Salmansohn (author of twenty-nine books including "How To Succeed In Business Without A Penis").

Although it seemed that there should be a sharp division between them, both Donny and Karen agreed that standards for appropriate office attire varied with the type of job - e.g. financiers and creative advertising types should not be dressing the same way.

Donny however felt that "too much" cleavage was not a distraction to professional workers while Karen felt that there was such a thing as "cleavage power" that women should embrace and use to their advantage.

Donny then unbuttoned his shirt and the conversation, which had started in a chasm, went rapidly even further downhill.

I admit to being one who appreciates cleavage but my professional experience with the subject is minimal. I spent thirty plus years in information technology - a field filled with creative types, albeit "geeky" ones - and actually can only recall one instance. A female co-worker pointed out to me that a sales representative attempting to sell us some software always unbuttoned the top three buttons of her blouse before giving a presentation. I felt obliged to pay attention and in fact she did. Ultimately we bought the product. It worked well but did not totally live up to the promises that her sales-glimpse implied.

My only other commercial cleavage episode involved a jeweler in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her name is Aga and she was discovered several years ago at the local Flea Market by our son Bram who shortly thereafter introduced us to her at her newly opened shop on the town plaza.

Aga is in her late twenties, attractive, and clearly a practitioner of Karen Salmansohn's "cleavage power" business model. At one point during that first meeting as she arranged herself in position for me to look down on her she said semi-privately "I like for men to remember me." She was at the same time totally attentive to Mars - suggesting items and offering to modify pieces or custom make them.

In spite of my efforts to get Mars to buy all of Aga's stock she limited herself to a couple of necklaces and some earrings. Nor has she changed her blouse selection.

In the political arena Hillary Clinton recently came under criticism for her low-cut display while speaking on the Senate Floor. Some in the house were seemingly offended by the inevitable comparisons that homophone-savvy viewers would make. Republican senators pointed out that their leading presidential candidate was much more demure and modest during his own explorations in cross-gender dressing - further evidence of his toughness and adherence to right-wing principles.

Mars and I have also noticed that certain professions on television are consistently portrayed as decolletage displaying - most notably CSI investigators. I don't personally know any forensic scientists but I am being called for jury duty next week. With any luck I will be selected for a criminal case with lots of testimony about DNA and exsanguinations and I'll be able to look more closely into the truth or falsity of this portrayal.

We continue to watch the Today program as part of our campaign to keep us abreast of the latest news, ideas, and information. Just this week for example Al Roker was in Ecuador talking about everybody's favorite bird name, the Blue Footed Sula Sulidae.

And to think that some effete, intellectual, NPR-loving, elitists call it the boob tube.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Overheard at Target...

...and modified very slightly to meet the requirements of Haiku.

Mother to 4 or 5 year old son.

"Just say 'I'm sorry'

You do not have to punch her

While you're saying it."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"A" is for Anasazi

It all started somewhere. Pretty much everybody agrees - but where?.

a) The Big Bang? Scientifically likely but ultimately unprovable.

b) Prime Mover? Philosophy, Aristotle's in fact, but still just so much intellectual speculation.

c) Eden? At best a myth designed to make a point - or many different points depending...

d) The entry point to the Fourth World from the three underworlds of the Navajo creation story?

e) Six miles from El Rito Campground on New Mexico State Road 559? Yep, that's it!

It's not like we haven't been given clues as to the importance of the land of Enchantment: The one and only guaranteed authentic (however involuntary) personal appearance by Extra Terrestrials in Roswell. What were they really looking for? The first atomic bomb explosion at the Trinity Site in White Sands. Why not pick someplace truly dispensable, like New Jersey.

The ETs and PhDs clearly were seeking "THE SOURCE" - or the humidity-free, sunny weather and largely unpopulated lands - but more likely "THE SOURCE". And now Mars and I have found it.

Not that we were looking for it. But New Mexico is the kind of place that you've just got to get out and walk around in to really know what's there. Which we did. And look for the signs - which sometimes are so obvious you have to wonder why no one noticed them before.

Next time we will start our trek at Mile Zero and hike slowly and observantly towards the freestanding mountaintop "E". With luck and good perception skills we should happen upon at least one of the first four letters of the alphabet and be that much closer to the start of it all.

We will keep you informed as events warrant.

("E" photo by Mars)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Aga Redux

In a 10/22/07 comment to my "Santa Fe Style" entry Sherry said "Jim, any more news/stories about the jewelry lady? If memory serves, Mars had bought some amber pieces. Just wondering if the shop/woman/jewelry were still functioning."

A few weeks before Mars, our friend Sandy, and I went to New Mexico a health club colleague taking his first trip out there asked us for some Santa Fe tourist suggestions.

In the shopping section of our "guide" we included "Amber by Aga" - a shop that has been one of Mars' favorites for the past several years. Some of you may remember the "Aga Saga" detailing a good portion of that history. We wanted to include links to the websites of all our recommendations. Everyone except Aga seemed to have one.

We did visit Aga's shop in the main square of Santa Fe. She of course was not there nor was her sister Angelique. Instead a woman of about our age was tending the store. Mars asked if Aga had a booth at the Santa Fe Flea Market. (The upscale bazaar is the place where our son Bram first discovered her and the site of our last personal contact with a member of the Aga conglomerate - in this case her sister who promised Sandy that they would replace, at a charge, one of a pair of Aga earrings that Sandy had lost. It didn't happen.) The sales associate seemed surprised at the question, answered "No" and went on to say that "[she the clerk] had not been to the market in at least seventeen years."

Sandy decided to make a purchase. Mars stayed to watch. I went outside to photograph the flora and fauna of downtown Santa Fe - driven into the more public marketplace by the lack of what it was that gave shopping for amber that unique frisson of excitement.

It was an obvious case of Aga-oraphobia.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

So, what's your sign?

Even though Mars, Sandy and I began every day in New Mexico with a check of our horoscopes in the Santa Fe newspaper I really don't believe in the science of astrology. I do however think that other signs are important.

New Mexico state highway signs for example. Other than a few side streets in Santa Fe and Albuquerque virtually every road in the Land of Enchantment, regardless of length or surface condition, seems to be identified by black numerals in a red-on-white Zia sun symbols. State Road 414 in Ojo Caliente, the site of the mineral spring spa at which we stayed, is a one-quarter mile, tar-covered turnoff connecting downtown Ojo (two restaurants and an herbal store) to the eponymously named resort. We walked the complete length of it several times - past its two retail shops into town for lunch and again for a photo shoot. A publicly enumerated five minute stroll seems strangely antithetical in a part of the country where a hiker can trek for miles on a barely discernable trail and see absolutely no signs of humanity other than the faint print of a lug sole in the dry dirt.

Pretty much a right-turn in place from the SR 414 sign is the Ojo Caliente cemetery. Like other small town New Mexico graveyards most interments seem to be near or on the surface of the dry, high desert hardpan and are marked mostly by single crosses (normally wood or metal) and decorated with artificial flowers and what appear to be personal items that were important to the departed person.

This somewhat lumpy bodily placement gives me, a New Englander used to burial places that ensure the deceased is totally out of sight, a slight feeling of incompleteness, a signal that the dead ones are not totally gone - which of course is the belief behind Day of the Dead ceremonies and the subject matter of many Magical Realism novels. To further confuse my sense of non-separation between these two planes of existence some of the gravesites are reserved in advance by name allowing people to visit themselves in their future home.

One of the merchants on SR 414 was talking to me about the new ownership of the Ojo Caliente Spa. "They brought in an outside manager to fire all the locals." He, a self-professed local himself, told me. "Someone tried to run her off the road one night. She quit shortly after that. That's just the way people are out here."

Two days later we took a trip to the nearby town of El Rito.

1: Start out going NORTHEAST toward US-285. 0.1 miles
2: Turn SLIGHT LEFT onto US-285. 1.5 miles
3: Turn LEFT onto NM-111. 3.0 miles
4: Turn LEFT onto NM-554. 9.1 miles
5: End at El Rito, NM US

We went there ostensibly to try and create our own "El Rito Art Tour" which was scheduled for the weekend after we left for home. Mars and I really went for the New Mexican small town ambiance. And I personally wanted to photograph the local signs which I figured would be mostly homemade since "That's the way people are out here."

The three of us walked through the town; lunched at its one restaurant; bought ice cream sandwiches at its one grocery store; and photographed its one Catholic Church. I was about to take pictures of a sign-laden pickup truck that seemed to be telling, at great length, of the overstepping of authority by the state's Child Welfare Agency in regard a family member of the vehicle owner when he arrived on the scene and began to amplify, with great emotion, on the story. After a few minutes a friend of his drove up to negotiate the delivery of a mattress and distracted his attention - which I took as a sign (and an opportunity) for us to leave.

In other parts of northern New Mexico I found some additional notices that seemed to speak for themselves - which actually is what all good signs should do.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Santa Fe Style

There was a cartoon poster on the kitchen wall of the casita in which Mars and I stayed during our recent visit to Santa Fe. It showed a woman dressed in western blouse and flowing skirt, bedecked on wrists, waist and neck with large pieces of turquoise and silver jewelry, lying supine on the floor of a southwestern decorated room, unable to get up because of the sheer weight of her adornments. At the bottom of the picture were the words "Another victim of Santa Fe Style."

I actually consider myself an aficionado of this particular southwestern look. I believe that the art of a city is not just on the walls of its museums but also in the style of its citizens. And I am an observational fan of feminine foot ware.

Therefore, as I have done on previous journeys, I spent a portion of my photographic efforts attempting to document that particular aspect of the Santa Fe fashion statement - while at the same time avoiding being arrested for stalking and, more importantly, keeping Mars convinced that my motives were entirely journalistic (something which she allows me to believe that she believes).

Several years ago Mars began purchasing southwestern Native American jewelry decorated with inanimate objects that were worshiped for their supposed magical powers. More recently we have together begun collecting similarly themed small, carved stone images.

Since Mars already has several of her own, and we have even more that we share as a couple, it seems only fair that now I should have my own New Mexico fetish.

At least until we move out here and Mars redefines my idea of Santa Fe Style - and all SHE will need are a squash blossom necklace and a concha belt.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Remember The Javelina

Mars and I saw our third New Mexican Tarantula on our most recent trip to northern part of that state. (We saw a fourth one on an Elderhostel trip to central Arizona. But that one was in a glass container and presented to us by a lecturer on "Poisonous Animals of the Southwest" who no longer included venomous snakes in his educational talk because he was almost fatally bitten by one at another Elderhostel - he showed us the resulting photos. The tarantula was now the "Big Kahuna" of the show.)

This Theraphosidae Mygalomorphae was sunning himself on a rock in the Plaza Blanca area near the town of Abiquiu. We were hiking out there with our daughter-in-law Monica, son Bram, and traveling companion Sandy. It was the first "Big T" sighting for all three of them.

"In the [Rio Chama] valley below sits the natural wonder known as Plaza Blanca, also immortalized as 'The White Place' in a 1940 painting by O'Keeffe. The sandstone cliffs, spires, and oddly shaped rocks create an otherworldly, contemplative retreat that glows golden in the late-afternoon light. Allow yourself some time to linger as the spot gently embraces you with its ineffable sense of peace and timelessness." (New Mexico Tourism Department)

The land is owned by the Dar al-Islam Mosque that allows day hiking and (with permission) overnight stays. Mars and I heard about the spot a few years back while lolling in one of the public mineral spring baths at the "nearby" Ojo Caliente resort. The mosque and the mineral springs are about fifty miles apart - nearby by New Mexican standards. What initially caught our silently drifting attentions were the words "chocolate wine" (two of the five basic food groups combined in one convenient serving) but by the time we came conscious enough to be aware of the conversation it had shifted to Plaza Blanca. (We did later find out about the candied vino and have since purchased several bottles - the first ones after our initial trip to the white place.) The directions were somewhat vague, not because of any geographic lack in either the speaker or the listeners but due to the general indefiniteness of the New Mexican landscape once you are outside of a city - and a lot of New Mexico is definitely outside of a city. It still wasn't much easier to find on this our fourth trip there.

Bram accurately describes the geology of Plaza Blanca as "lunar" and the venue as somewhere that you don't so much hike in as wander around. He and Monica spotted the hairy arachnid after the other three of us had already meandered past the stark white rock on which (when pointed out to us) the fat dark body and eight legs so obviously rested. There is an old Stephen Wright comedy routine about a spider crouching down on a white tile shower wall and being convinced of its invisibility. Apparently sometimes it works.

Suddenly there were five people and four cameras all firing away. None of us were really sure whether the stories about tarantulas jumping at their victims were merely urban legends, or sound advice that we should have been heeding. (They don't)

We did however have our snakebite kit with us, something that we purchased early on in our fifteen year history of New Mexico trips. The venom-sucking syringe might not have done anything against a deadly spider bite ("where are those damn little bite marks?") But it was at least more than the above-mentioned Arizona poisonous animal expert carried with him. Perhaps because the venomous video victim was actually enjoying its "Brittany Spears Moment" there was no untoward movement on its part.

Mars and my initial tarantula encounter took place on our first trip to the Land of Enchantment in October of 1992. We were hiking on Devisadero Peak near Taos on what looks from our photos to be a cloudy day. One of us spotted the black, hairy monster hiding under some dried brush on a rock. At that time we did not yet have our snakebite kit and had heard the jumping tarantula rumors. To compound the problem our cameras at that time, both SLR film ones, had a close-up device called a "macro lens" that required the photographer to measure the distance from the subject with a short strap that was attached to the camera. That distance turned out to be closer than either of us wanted to get - even though a good case of venom poisoning would have gotten us first boarding on our return flight home. And probably special private seating since no one would want to be placed next to an over-inflated, blue-hued fellow traveler.

Mars had me take the picture with the conventional lens getting as close as I dared - crouched down, inching in closely as I focused and darting back to what I considered a safe distance as soon as the shutter snapped. We were both quite excited about our good luck and bravery.

We came across our second desert spider in a parking lot some years later after we had completed another hike. I'm certain that we photographed this one too but I have been unable to locate that print in our archives.

Mars and I have also seen a wild Javelina - something else that Monica, Bram and Sandy have never experienced. This sighting was on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa (West) Texas. We had been told that these wild pig-like animals frequented the property in search of food and we actually laid in wait at times and places where others had observed them. But no luck.

On our last day there we went for a farewell walkabout. Having spent every waking moment since arrival looking at the area through our camera lenses we decided to leave both of them at home. At the farthest point out in the hike we turned a corner, heard some defensive snorting, and espied an eighty or so pound peccary attempting to see us - they are incredibly nearsighted. With no photographic device to be found we attempted to mentally fix the image in our brains for future telling to non-believing listeners.

Now, whenever we are about to go anywhere where a camera might be needed we "remember the Javelina".

That thought, combined with our newly acquired knowledge as to the lack of tarantula acrobatic capabilities and our ever-present snakebite kit, should guarantee even up-closer and more personal hairy spider photos

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hard Core Urban Hiking

While we were in New Mexico for the past two weeks the Santa Fe newspaper reported that Canyon Road in that city had been named as one of the "Ten Top Streets in America". Neither Mars nor I rate thoroughfares - or too many other things for that matter. We do however agree that this particular venue is one of our favorite places on which to partake in the sport of urban hiking.

We first went to northern New Mexico fifteen years ago for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. And learned that what we thought were abstract distortions of the high desert - in the works of Georgia O'Keefe for example - were instead mostly mildly exaggerated excisions of the blanched landscape or modestly enhanced snippets of the wildly refracted colors that prevail in this starkly lighted part of the country.

And we discovered for the first time the joys of hiking.

New Mexico is the type of place that you just have to get out into in order to experience. But the high altitude and unremitting sun rapidly takes its toll on shade loving, sea-level dwellers. As an antidote we developed a regimen of alternating a day of trekking in the desert or mountains with one of traipsing through the city - sometimes almost as arduous as its country cousin and just about always as satisfying in its own unique way.

But not every metropolitan walk qualifies as an urban hike. To earn this prestigious designation the trek must have certain attributes. Obviously one of these is length of time. Recently I've seen articles on personal fitness that emphasize that the important aspect of a walk is its duration - not necessarily its speed. The time span of the urban walk must be sufficient to invoke at least a minimum feeling of "hike-ie-ness".

More important than the physical aspects however are the aesthetic elements of the journey. Not every long city walk is an urban hike.

Since Mars and I are both avocational photographers our hikes are as much quests for good pictures as for exercise. As we wander, rather than taking in the background in its entirety, we start to dissect our surroundings into photo-bites - trying to look at the environment as if through a camera. Thanks to the wonder of digital visual image recorders capable of holding a seemingly infinite number of photos we snap most of these scenes - deleting later those that don't quite pan out. The outdoors of the desert southwest - particularly when we first saw it and even now having still seen so little of its vast expanses and changeable lighting - makes the cadence of our best hikes more of a ten-steps-stop&point&shoot pace than a steady movement forward.

Finally the architecture and public art of the urban hike setting must be in harmony and synchrony with its distant outdoor surroundings. If you're walking in the desert southwest, wherever you are, it should feel like the desert southwest. A walk through a city that could be anywhere in the world, not matter how long or how pleasant, is definitely not an urban hike.

Encountering wildlife is a bonus.

Here are some photos from our most recent Canyon Road urban hike. Although we did encounter a tarantula in the wilds (our third), our normal domestic wildlife sighting - elk medallions on a luncheon plate - was not available this year. Maybe next time.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Second Solstice

Solo tomato
Preordained to stay unripe.
Eden garden's Fall.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Give a squirrel a seed...

I think that our yard-pet squirrels are up to something.

And it is not just another variation on these bushy tailed rodents' ability to weasel their way into any and all outdoor food venues. Or their seemingly infinite array of self-serving acrobatic stunts. Instead it is something that represents an actual quantum leap in the evolutionary development of this thirty-plus million year old species. All of the above abilities, no matter how complex appearing, are really just clever methods of a species that has always depended on the kindness of strangers. Now the squirrels are evolving to a state of total self-sufficiency.

They are becoming gardeners.

As we accomplished aces of the arcane arboriculture arts are aware a garden involves so much more than simply sticking something in the dirt and seeing what happens. It is instead, as expressed so well by an English landscape architect "an assemblage principally of vegetation, kept in a preferred state of ecological arrest by the craft of gardening". This distinction is what separates those of us with truly green thumbs from those whose hands are simply dirty - the growers from the diggers.

Squirrels it seems have always been the latter - as evidenced by the myriad of tiny acorn holes they dig into my yard with their tiny gray paws year after year after year. And which I subsequently mow down week after week after week. Undeterred by this continuing lack of success generations of rat-tailed residents have repeated this ritual with little variation on my land and other's properties since time immemorial.

Then this year Marsha noticed the little gray planters carrying sunflower seeds purloined from our bird feeders and stowing them away in the soft, fertile earth of our vegetable garden and in the empty spaces of the adjacent butterfly plot. And rather than the jump-around-like-crazy random planting patterns that we had seen with acorns these kernels were being planted in little groups of four.

(In truth Marsha told me this after the fact - not as it was happening. There was no "Jim, come quick! You've got to see this. The little tree rats are marking off sections of the yard and carefully placing quadrants of sunflower pips therein!"

Perhaps she actually saw it happening and I wasn't around or, if I was she figured that I was too busy at the computer fabricating real-life gardening stories to care about what was actually happening. In any event the resultant Helianthus annus crop, most of them arranged in quartets, seems to provide sufficient forensic evidence.)

Truth be told the squirrel-situated sunflowers are probably the most successful annual crop of the current season, providing displays of large golden-rayed flowers amidst my embarrassingly shorter tomatoes and Mars' multicolored Zinnias. You could easily make an argument that the Helianthus displays are by far the most orderly part of the landscape - neatly arranged tall islands of yellow, properly spaced within and between. And at some point the cone of seeds should provide locally grown organic sustenance for our hardworking tree-rodents - unless (ironically) the birds get there first.

Some philosophers and scientists will say that it is easy to reason backwards from a situation and to imagine a pattern of intelligent design that got you there. It could be that. Or it could be that Mars and I are among those fortunate few in history who have actually been present to see a major turning point in the evolutionary development of a new super-specie.

I prefer to believe the latter - that after generations of watching me create "an assemblage principally of vegetation, kept in a preferred state of ecological arrest by the craft of gardening" the squirrels have been moved to cast aside the shackles of human-dependency and emulate my efforts towards comestible self-sufficiency.

Give a squirrel a seed and you feed him for about a tenth of a second. Teach him to grow his own and you've fed him for life.

If this crop is successful, then next year I am going to introduce them to feeders containing tomato seeds, eggplant seeds, lettuce seeds, and several other vegetables that I would like to have flourishing on my property - as well as several more containers of sunflower kernels.

Our relationship with the squirrels is already more symbiotic than parasitic - we feed them, they entertain us. Now I think the time is ripe for our partnership to become even more mutually beneficial - as well as economically rewarding.

And the best part is that they work really cheaply and, as far as I can tell, are all here legally.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Adding A Little Mystery To Our Life

Mars and I were given an Aspidistra this weekend. It is the offspring of one that was owned by friends and former golf-partners Kyoko and Ron (now moved to Phoenix) who, upon their departure, entrusted it to mutual friends, Judy and Rob. The mother plant became ready for splitting, which Judy did, and surprised us with it.

Sensing our non-recognition of the common plant name Judy wisely told us the historic provenance - "that large plant in the Edward Gorey cartoons that people would hide behind. The Victorians liked it because it could grow in their darkened interiors" - rather than its formal name Genus Aspidistra, family Liliaceae.

Mars and I not really Victorian people. In fact coming of age in the sixties probably makes us anti-Victorians. And we don't watch Public Broadcasting's Mystery series but we have attempted to several times - really we have! Truthfully however I turned it on expecting to see it hosted by the leather-clad Mrs. Peel of the "Avengers" television program. Sadly it is not - instead there is some matronly Dame Diana somebody-or-other with a faint facial resemblance. We did however make it through the opening credits wherein Gorey's gothic line drawings appear. I think there is an aspidistra is in somewhere. Or maybe not - I was still sulking over the lack of zippers, Lotus Europas, and such things. In any event Judy's description got the idea across.

So I Googled "Victorian people" to see what the world wide web could tell me about what we are not, or possibly would become, if we let the bulbous plant with broad tapering leaves into our daily lives. I was directed to a site called which returned a "503 Service Unavailable The service is not available. Please try again later." message when I attempted to link to it - possibly some of the famous Victorian reticence.

There were also suggestions for sites with Victorian cartoons and caricatures (precursors of Gorey), lots of photos of the eponymous queen (or is it vice-versa?), and an intriguingly titled book called "Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London" (which suggested to me at least that our newest leafy family member might perk up our life a little).

I remember taking a course in Victorian literature in college. But I don't remember anything of it other than the name Matthew Arnold, and the consensus opinion of my fellow students that the class should be catalog listed as "writings of that period taught by a real life Victorian" - by which we were bitching to ourselves about our collective disappointment in the unsexiness of both the readings and the lecturer.

Ironically the day before we received the Aspidistra we came across a plant stand that Mars' father had made many years ago. He had removed the glass cigarette receptacle from an ashtray stand - a wedding gift, brass-legged with a shell decorated brass base - and replaced it with a nicely polished cross-cut from a tree trunk, absent the bark. An objet d'art from the 1930's - not Victorian in provenance but certainly close enough for our purposes.

Both the holder and the plant now stand in front of our west-facing living room window. That spot will provide the flower with pretty much all that Judy says it will need - not much light and very occasional watering.

Hopefully it will grow large enough to hide behind. And perhaps even inspire us to indulge in some clandestine spying activities - sort of a Victorian Secret Catalyst.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Not to worry...

Honeybees Vanish, Leaving Keepers in Peril
New York Times - 2/27/07

VISALIA, Calif., Feb. 23 - David Bradshaw has endured countless stings during his life as a beekeeper, but he got the shock of his career when he opened his boxes last month and found half of his 100 million bees missing.
In 24 states throughout the country, beekeepers have gone through similar shocks as their bees have been disappearing inexplicably at an alarming rate, threatening not only their livelihoods but also the production of numerous crops, including California almonds, one of the nation's most profitable.

...they're here in our back yard carousing on the Crassulaceae.

Made drunk by nectar.
Belligerent by nature.
Sedum Gomorrah.

(photo by Mars)

Sunday, September 09, 2007


Before I went to Elderhostel Golf Camp at Penn State University, whenever I thought about how to play a particular shot or situation I would ask myself, W.W.T.D.?
Now I want to be like Phil.

For example I read that prior to last year's British Open Tiger apparently was not hitting consistently enough with his Driver. So he "left the club in his bag" and teed off instead using something called a "One Iron" - a golfing implement that evidently only existed because someone felt it was inappropriate to begin numbering the metal-headed clubs with the number "two", and which, by all accounts, had never been used on the links in either a competitive or non-competitive situation since the invention of the sport in the mid 1500's.

Tiger felt that his odds of hitting the less spectacular and shorter-distance iron into a fairway position that allowed easy access to the green would be safer than going for the longer, less accurate drive. He calculated that over the seventy-two holes of the four day tournament this more conservative approach would earn him fewer enough strokes to win. It did.

Over the Summer I also was not hitting my driver well. (Although it is perfectly obvious, it still should be mentioned that Tiger not "hitting his driver well" is definitely not the same as me having that problem. The so-called "cone of uncertainty" for a Woodsian drive, or any golf activity, is significantly smaller and more certain than mine is - or ever will be. My drives were not only not in the fairway but more often than not so far out of the playing field as to be deemed a recovery rather than a rescue as soon as I hit them.) I too put away the errant club and replaced it with my Three Wood, shaped similarly to the Driver but smaller and easier to control.

At Penn State, even though the course was longer than our usual one and therefore really necessitated a Driver on most holes to have any chance at all for par, I stuck to my "W.W.T.D?" style of play and played the percentages (and the Three Wood). I did not use the miscreant mallet until the Twelfth hole on the first day. There, for God knows what reason, I took it out and promptly hit a shot onto the four-lane roadway that runs alongside the course a good hundred yards or so to the right. Back into the bag it went forcefully. I don't remember anything else about the rest of that hole other than when I finished all of my clubs were still intact and above-water.

I returned to my Three Wood for my next tee-off. I should say here that in three days of playing on the Thirteenth hole I still never figured out its configuration. The first time I aimed for another green that was clearly visible from the Thirteenth tee - the actual Thirteenth hole it turned out could not be seen from that location.

The fairway it turns out goes straight from the tee and then "dog legs" uphill about forty-five degrees to the right. This entire canine shank, up to and including the green, is however hidden behind an undulating mini-mountain of mid-length grass and fairway bunkers. This entire pattern is clearly discernible on the scorecard hole illustration and from the Goodyear Blimp that, for obvious reasons, was not following our foursome. Intellectually I knew this. Visually however I could not get my mind to believe it. I felt instead like I was hitting into a corn maze without a recognizable entry point. I'm certain that Tiger would not have had this same problem.

The next day on the Thirteenth tee I aimed correctly - or at least not towards the wrong flag. My swing felt pretty good, the "plunk" sounded solid, and the ball totally disappeared. I never saw it nor did my three playing partners. It was simply gone. I decided not to hit another ball but rather to look for my first shot after Mars had hit her hers. And, if I did not quickly find it, to drop another ball next to wherever hers landed and hit my second shot from there.

From the tees I used it was, I'm guessing, about 180 yards to the hip of the dog leg - and another 180 more to the green from there. Mars' shot, the result of which I had decided to play from, landed to the right of the fairway, just short of the beginning of the wavy mounds of turf and sand - another location from which the green, as well as the fairway, was invisible, except by intuition.

"Hey, why not?" as the aphorism in the Dove chocolate wrapper frequently tells me. Without the slightest hesitation, doubt, or deliberate thought, I walked up to Mars' pink golf ball, dropped one of mine next to it, selected a Three Iron, swung, and hit up and over the lush wasteland onto the green. ("Cool!") Two putts later I had my slightly less than honest par.
Then I went back to "W.W.T.D?" golf.

Last weekend Mars and I were watching a golf tournament involving Tiger and Phil Miikelson. Phil had the lead. Tiger was methodically stalking him by staying within his plan and waiting for those around him to implode. On the last hole Phil had a one-stroke lead. In the same situation W.W.T.D?

Certainly not what Phil did with his second shot. "He is taking out his big club!" breathlessly shouted the announcer (actually it was probably said in a normal tone of voice, anything above a whisper sounds like yelling at a golf match). "The crowd loves it!"

Phil then hit "his big club" clear over the green into a clump of grass that I would have had trouble walking through never mind hitting a golf ball out, and from which he extricated the tiny white orb to a spot on the green, near the hole, from which he easily putted in.

But my mind was still back on the "big club" shot and the amount of fun Phil looked like he had in trying it. It was, I am imagining, the same sense of joy and freedom I felt on the Thirteenth hole when I hit that Three iron - not when it landed (I actually never saw it come down), but when I executed my swing and saw it start to take flight.

W.W.P.D? Hit the fun shot - that's what!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Projectile Dysfunction

Among the things that we learned on our Golf Elderhostel at Penn State University were: (1) white asparagus, while it may look different from conventional green does not (to us) have a discernibly different taste, and (2) our shafts were too rigid.

Neither Mars nor I had ever tasted the colorless version of Asparagus officinalis - or even seen it. That same lack of familiarity was present in the five other Elderhostelers with whom we shared dinner that night. Nor did anyone know how it was that the tender young shoots lost their color, or if they ever had it. Some opined that it was a special breed. Others thought that it was probably deprived of light at critical stages of its upbringing.

A check of Google when we got home confirmed the latter explanation. It "is grown covered in mounds of sandy soil so that it never sees the light of day until the moment it is unmercifully hewn down. Green asparagus grows freely in flat beds, and, exposed to the sunlight, develops the chlorophyll that turns it green." ( In short, the ashen asparagus is the natural result of an unnatural growing process.

The stiff stick realization had occurred that morning on the driving range. Mars asked one of the Golf-Pro instructors, Mary, to watch her hit a ball with her driver in an effort to find out why that shot perpetually angled to the right. Since I also have the same problem with the same club, (only farther to the right and more consistently - like 110% of the time) I paid close attention as the coach made her analysis.

After a couple of swings, both of them to the right and both outwardly perfect, Mary took Mars' driver, placed the head on the ground with the shaft upright and tried to bend it. "There's nothing wrong with your swing. It's your club. It's not flexible enough. Even I couldn't hit it straight with that club."

A little while later she showed the club to Steve, another instructor, who concurred. I gave him my driver to check and he diagnosed that one also as afflicted with the same fatal flaw - Projectile Dysfunction. To prove it Mars and I were, for one round of golf, each equipped respectively with a "demo" set of "Lady's Flex" and "Senior Flex" shafted clubs. Although neither of our sets were the correct length for us, and we were totally unfamiliar with them we both hit the ball better and more consistently. Point made.

This condition is the result of clubs that were sold to us eight to ten years ago when our bodies had within them enough pliability to move the club-head into the proper position, at the proper speed, during "impact". Now, aging and other things being what they are, they don't. Unfortunately the clubs weren't intelligent enough to become more resilient as we became less so.

Not being gourmet cooks (or even eaters), or devotees of television cooking shows we knew nothing about white asparagus except that it existed. Being good New Englanders we made do with what we knew and had. Now that we are more aware of it we will probably try to incorporate it into our lives.

Likewise with golf equipment. We might have heard the words "Lady's/Senior Flex" but, not being interested in "gadgets" and not caring about having "the latest" equipment we instead dedicated ourselves to conquering the course with what we currently had in our bags.

Still our best shots at the Elderhostel came with our old clubs. Like the asparagus, outside intervention can pretty much always alter the outcome - but can improve it only if the plant (or animal) already knows what it is doing. In other words no matter how white it becomes, a carefully buried weed is still just a weed.