Wednesday, April 25, 2007


The normal tone of my essays is humorous (whether that's apparent or not) - but it is hard to find anything amusing to say about the Civil War battle of Gettysburg.

Mars and I just spent a week studying the conflict at an Elderhostel held at that Central Pennsylvania site. It was also the week during which thirty-two Virginia Tech students and faculty were killed on a day in which there were also seventy-five fatalities in Iraq (according to a fellow Elderhosteler who was staying in touch with one of his favorite political Blogs). The battle of Gettysburg, conducted over the first three days of July 1863, generated about 7,600 deaths and 38,000 other casualties. Ed, Gary and Chuck, our three instructors, justifiably reminded us again and again of that human cost. All in all a pretty somber overtone for an early spring vacation.

We are not Civil War enthusiasts. Mars and I came here to learn a little more about the deadliest conflict in our country's history because we had set up a website for our local historical society on the role of our town in that struggle. It is based upon the research and writing of a now-deceased member. In going through the materials we realized how little we knew about that nineteenth century clash. When our Elderhostel Catalog mentioned a week of study in a location that should be a few weeks ahead of ours in terms of warmth and Spring-ness we signed up, with me at least picturing warm afternoon rambles among the monuments and perhaps a sun-drenched reenactment of Pickett's Charge across the bright green farmland fields of Penn's country.

Then the Nor'easter of Spring 2007 arrived on the scene chilling the air and darkening the skies - along with a constant and then more constant wind that seemed intent on unfastening the various flags that tried to stand at half-staff. (It is some form of sad commentary, perhaps on myself, that I've become so used to seeing the American banner partially lowered that it took a day or two to realize why it was so configured.)

We had been to Gettysburg twice before (1981 and 1982) with our son Bram, who was twelve and then thirteen years of age at the time. On both years we visited the battlefield in early July on daytrips from a Mennonite Farm in nearby Mount Joy, at which we were vacationing. On our current trip Mars and I, having seen a write-up on the now farm/bed and breakfast in the New York Times a few years so ago, decided to revisit it for a few days after the Elderhostel was over.

I don't remember a lot about Gettysburg from the two earlier visits - but I do recall: (a) the intense heat (90) and humidity (90) - ten to fifteen degrees warmer than on the days of the battle, (b) walking on the path of Pickett's Charge led by a young Park Ranger who gesticulated loudly about the "arms and legs flying" as the Northern artillery shells fell onto the advancing Confederates, and (c) "One-legged Sickles".

(a) The weather, as mentioned above, was much colder this time - grossly atypical for this time of year in central PA as evidenced by the dried and shriveled magnolia blossoms that had come to fruition on schedule only to be bushwhacked by winter's guerilla backlash.

(b) We did not replicate Pickett's disastrous parade - although as we stood bundled in our jackets, hats and gloves at the "Copse of Trees" (the popularly touted target of the charge, the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy", and turning point of the battle) we were marched upon by a school group of pre-teens complete with flags, enthusiasm, and rebel yells. Our small group was not able to repulse them, even though we did hold the higher ground. At the Elderhostel we learned that about fifty percent of modern historians now believe that this might not have been the actual goal of the assault but rather a byproduct of several events that pushed the Confederate troops in that direction. The Battle of Gettysburg, due in part to its lack of concrete, conclusive descriptions of what actually happened and partially to our "talk-radio mentality" of arguing-to-death the smallest detail of disagreement, has apparently become something like a board game of alternate theories and strategies providing fodder for endless discussions and dissections of the events - many if not most of them with legitimate historical evidence.

Suffice it to say that once again in 2007, as in the 1860's - the North won the war, there were many instances of everyday courage and extraordinary heroism, and way too many people died in the process.

(c) "One legged Sickles", who had his lower appendage blown off at the battle after apparently deploying his unit in a foolhardy manner, was one of the major luminaries of our five day study, just as he was at our previous Gettysburg trips, and evidently for our son well beyond that time.

Shortly after he graduated from college and moved to Washington DC Bram called to tell us excitedly that he had actually seen the legendary limb at a museum in our nation's capitol. Immediatly after its publication in 2002 he gifted us with a hard copy of "American Scoundrel - The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles". Fortunately, while maintaining an abiding interest in this former Tammany Hall insider, our son shows none of his less than honorable traits.

Sickles seems to be one of those larger-than-life individuals who are so outrageous that if they didn't really exist you would want to invent them. Prior to the war, when he was a congressman from New York, Sickles shot and killed the son of Francis Scott key who was having an affair with his wife - an apparent tit for tat by Mrs. Sickles for her husband's widespread philandering. He was acquitted. Several years after his controversial maneuver at Gettysburg he basically nominated himself for and received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his part in winning the battle.

Sometimes people or events are just so appalling that all you can do is laugh.

During a couple of the nights at the Elderhostel I awoke wondering what the soldiers attempting to sleep the night before the third day of battle would have been thinking. And if they were able to get their minds to dwell upon something that gave them a moment of peace and maybe even a smile - like I was able to do with my thoughts and memories of "One-legged Sickles".

I hope so.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Travel Involved...But No Heavy Lifting

I just heard about the perfect volunteer job to help me pass the time during my retirement. It's got pretty much everything I could ask for: an exotic location, beautiful surroundings, a creative environment, and pleasant and appreciative co-workers. Plus it will allow me to utilize two of the talents that I've worked on since retirement - strength training and yoga.

In fact I was on my way to the health club when I heard about it. As usual I was listening to our favorite morning classical music station, ("Classical Music Without The Attitude"), and their host at that time Nicole Marie. Since it was a Tuesday Mars was not with me. Instead she was en route to her once-a-week absence from the health club to attend her Gentle Yoga class. With no one to talk to I was actually paying attention when Nicole Marie started reading her 8:55 a.m. Classical Gossip segment - at least that's what I call it.

Today she was talking about the Sydney Australia Opera House. The management of that thirty-four year old performance centeris looking to do a good amount of redesign and reconstruction in order to resolve some apparently quite serious acoustic shortcomings. I was beginning to lose interest in the piece when she mentioned a serious non-sound issue that the architects were also hoping to address in this refurbishment effort - the problem of the crashing ballerinas.

It seems that in addition to a series of structural problems that reduce the audible quality of the musical performances, the stage exit through which the female dancers exit, often at high speeds, leads much too quickly to a cement wall into which the dancing divas frequently crash. (Picture for a moment the tutu-clad chorus of Swan Lake, en pointe and perfectly postured, careening like metal pinballs in the backstage of one the world's preeminent musical arts venues.)

But, unlike the acoustical situations, this dilemma does have a temporary fix - ballerina catchers.

Nicole Marie didn't say, but I assume that paid employees are currently performing the job. Now here in the United States most performing arts organizations rely on volunteers to do things like take tickets, show people to their seats, etc. Retired people, looking for an opportunity to "give back" to the community and, at the same time, minimize their entertainment expenses frequently fill these positions. Based on my observations, most of the time these volunteers are women. In my opinion this is not because the female gender are necessarily that much more appreciative of the arts, but simply because the organizations have not come up with job openings that require the skills that we guys want to use and which we still think that we have.

Now I admit that I'm not the biggest ballet fan. But, under the right circumstances, I could become one. As a former female coworker of mine who was an enthusiast used to tell me, "Lots of skin and lots of jumping. What's not to like?"

I do however kind of jealously admire the ability of the male dancers to lift and hold aloft the ballerinas. But, although Mars and I did do a Partners Yoga class wherein she was able to "fly" as I held her aloft with my legs and feet, at my age and with my musculature, no matter how much weight training I do, I am never going to be able to float anyone through a Pas de Deux, on stage or even in my dreams.

But ballerina catching I could probably handle, at least when its defined as acting as a buffer to prevent one of those out-of-control dancers from crashing into a wall. I am in relatively good physical shape. And at my age I really don't have that many lithe, young women throwing themselves at me. The least I could do would be to hold my ground if it did happen.

Monday, April 09, 2007


I hope that it's not the very first thing he does when he wakes up - although it probably is at least as effective as coffee for shaking the cobwebs out of your early morning brain.

It has been happening every day at about six fifteen a.m. for the past month or so - a fusillade of ferocious tapping followed by a few moments of silence, then another quick series of shots, then nothing, and so on. The noise is far enough away not to be my problem, and yet close enough to be my annoyance.

Lying in bed, trying to wake up my own brain without disturbing my body too much, I try unsuccessfully to count the number of taps, then failing at that to reckon the duration of each round and the down-time between them. I decide there is no consistency to that day's pattern and being unable to remember even vaguely what yesterday's was (I am after all trying to do this while not waking myself up) I give up and attempt to let my mind drift off into the state of somnambulance from which it only recently emerged. Then the doves "coo" from the roof outside my window, and the cardinals call back and forth to each other from trees at either side of the house, and my night is officially over.

According to Wildlife International "There are three main reasons why woodpeckers peck. The first is to find and capture food, such as insects, or to create access to tree sap. A second reason woodpeckers peck is to attract a mate and defend territory. In this case the bird will peck quickly and loudly - which is called 'drumming' - then pause, and then repeat the procedure many times. And, finally, woodpeckers peck in order to enlarge an existing hole and create a nest cavity."

Now I had assumed the noisy little knocker was searching for and finding breakfast - I mean the "early bird" and all that. Bugs, probably being in the same state of alertness as I am at that hour, are probably really easy targets. I remember from many years ago some friends of ours were having a similar early morning invasion of their roof and called the Audubon Society for advice. They were told to fix the top of their house and thereby eliminate the breakfast bounty that their demi-diurnal diners had discovered. They replaced the shingles and the problem and the birds both went away.

I also knew in the back of my mind about the home construction motive because a Downy Woodpecker is doing that very thing in the dying branches of the flowering crab tree outside of our family room. Apparently however this smallest and most common American woodpecker is also the only unionized one because our resident homebuilder never appears for work before eight a.m. and always leaves by five that afternoon. And if I do happen to see him before normal business hours he is only hanging out at our suet feeder having breakfast on his way to work. So I had ruled that out as a possibility.

But a bird attempting to attract a mate by beating his head against a wall was not something that I would have thought of - although there may be those out there for whom there is a meaningful analogy in there somewhere.

I mean what if, after several strenuous, ear-splitting seduction attempts, it finally works - and now you're the one with the headache.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Opening Day

We threw out the first trowel this past weekend and officially began the 2007 gardening season at our previously snowbound and then waterlogged homestead.

In previous years the opening day ceremony was the turning of the vegetable garden. This year it was the unveiling of the perennial beds.

The garden turning was at least partially gratuitous - or at least doing it on the first warm weekend in late March or early April was. I first started the activity, soon to be a ritual, during the spring of our first full year in our house. It was the second time I had tilled that earth. The first was the preceding Memorial day weekend when we created the plot with the guidance of my father-in-law - an inveterate gardener sharing his wisdom with his son-in-law of ten years who up until that time had shown not the slightest sign of interest in the subject.

I wasn't an exerciser at that time but my body was still young enough to believe that two hours of lifting dirt and sweating in the cool air was enough to make up for one hundred sixty-six hours of lethargy during the rest of the week - and in the process exorcise winter from the landscape. More importantly I enjoyed it and felt, as I looked at the hand tilled and hand raked pebbles of soil drying in the warm seasonal sun, that I had actually accomplished something good.

I continued to perform this ceremony annually for the next twenty-nine years - for about one third of that time sharing it with our now-deceased Labrador Retriever Nicole Marie who assisted by burrowing her nose into the cold soil at the start and rolling languorously in the lukewarm loam to wrap it up. I'll do it again this year before the warm weather comes. And will, as always, expect to see the imbedded outline of her muscular black back in the softened soil and feel her mud-coated snout resting in my hand.

But this spring, probably because Mars saw some new life on one of the bushes in front of our family room and decided that she wanted to trim away its dead branches, we chose to work together to cleanup the perennial beds first.

When we first moved in we had none of these plots. Now we have eight - two of them going into their third year, and just about all of them added to annually. Each of them had been left un-pruned and buried in a blanket of oak leaves over the winter. Now, in the drab days of early spring, with the snow gone and lawns and trees not yet burgeoning, the pale colored dead stalks sticking out of the partially decomposed foliage added to the picture of dormancy that was at odds with what should be the hope of the new season.

Our own landscape is too shady and our yard to wet to support the crocuses and daffodils that already decorate some of sunnier/drier yards in town. So we look for more modest signs of life. Even the most basic evidence that photosynthesis is occurring on our property is a cause for celebration - in this case a hamburger and black olive pizza for dinner.

In prior years, because they were opened up a little later in the season, there was more green to be uncovered. But most of the octet of beds were still able to provide a modest display of chlorophyll to soothe our desperately searching eyes: False Dragon stalks and sedum buds, iris tubers and fledgling ornamental grasses, daylily swellings and hosta tips, and a quintet of promising green leaves from the bulb mixture given to us several years ago by our friends the Oblaks.

It wasn't just a function of my aging that made me choose what might appear to be the easier of the two opening day tasks - although I actually had entertained in the back of my mind that I might attempt to till the garden after we had finished with the perennial beds. But two hours and thirty minutes of garden calisthenics (squatting, crouching, duck-walking, rising, raking, ripping, and mower mulching) turned out to be enough exercise to eliminate the need for an upper-body workout.

Our choice was actually the result of us now having enough of the multi-year blooming plants on our property to warrant a substantial cleanup effort on their behalf around this time of year. At this point in our horticultural life there are as many ongoing accomplishments that need nurturing as potential projects that will require the proper foundation.

Fortunately at this point in our chronological lives we have the time, energy and enthusiasm for both.