Monday, July 30, 2007

Another Mouth To Feed...And Another...

There were a few extra mouths to feed around the Meehan homestead this week.

Our son Bram was visiting from his home in Santa Fe, NM for a few days. Mars and I wanted to treat him to some things here in the "Land of Steady Habits" that we knew he couldn't find in "The City Different" - or perhaps anywhere else for that matter. We started off by introducing him to the grocery world of Stew Leonard at the newly opened store in the town adjacent to our own. Ostensibly we went to pick up French Toast bagels and milk from the "award-winning dairy", and for the free samples (clam chowder, orange juice, bialys, meatballs served on stick pretzels, hot dogs, etc.). In reality it was the surrealistically silly singing and dancing animatronic farm animals, milk cartons, and bejeweled blocks of cheese that welcome you to and entertain you within "the world's largest dairy store".

We learned two days later by looking at a state map that the original version of this store is a featured stop on the official Zippy tour of Connecticut, along with the Muffler Man, Giant Bowling Pin, and other phantasmagorical in-state kitsch icons that appear periodically in this Bill Griffith comic strip. This new location is just as entertainingly outre.

On his first night here we went with his grandmother to her favorite Polish restaurant. In spite of the large Polish population in this general area there are only a couple of such eating establishments around. There are however zero of them in Santa Fe. Bram had Bigos - a stew of sauerkraut, cabbage and kielbasa - his usual choice.

Among the rest of the items on his menu this week were: New England Clam Chowder, "Kellys" (miniature Kielbasa locally produced), and self-picked blueberries.

He was easy - just give him here what he can't get there.

The difficult ones are the summer crop of pre and barely post fledglings that are making their annoyingly shrill little voices heard around our suddenly overwhelmed bird feeders.

A family of three grackles commandeers our bird feeder and the adjacent area several times a day. The trio is all of the same size and color so it is impossible to tell their relative family positions until the actual feeding begins. Who are the feed-ers and who is the feed-ee becomes obvious when one of the three hops onto the wrought iron plant holder near our bird feeder and sits quietly with plaintive eyes and open mouth. One of the other two then attempts to contort its larger-than-the-feeder-body torso onto the much-smaller-than-their-feet perch located at the base. After several inglorious slips and falls the food gatherer finally succeeds in hanging on long enough to get a mouthful of nourishment and flies over to transfer it from their tightly closed bill to junior's wide open one. Curiously no words are spoken during the entire process.

The other mouths however are much more vocal.

The loudest are a trio of House Sparrow beaks that thrust themselves out of the tiny hole at the end of the tree branch within which they reside and yip repeatedly as mom and dad circulate to and from the feeders attempting to quell the appetite of their offspring.

On a quiet morning if you stand near the tree you can hear the tiny sounds of the young birds reverberating within the thick dead Flowering Crab branch. The hole was originally created by a male Downey Woodpecker who inexplicably disappeared after completing his extreme makeover, so we were expecting that a family of birds would be our guests this summer. We just didn't know what kind. Now we are concerned that the little guys are going to become too fat to leave. Or that one or more of the tots will fall out of the "nest" and either Mars or I will have use our bamboo toast tongs to stuff them back into their penthouse residence.

In addition to this family drama another set of sparrow parents are busy tending to a young gray bird that seems to be about twice the size of either one of them. Mars thinks that the young'un is just fluffing himself up while I am convinced that he is in fact of different ethnicity than his parents and is ultimately not only going to totally dwarf them (perhaps by a factor of eighteen or twenty to one), but also increase his demands to include not only non-stop deliveries but a more varied diet including possibly sushi and other nouvelle cuisine entrees.

Screw Stew's! Fans of Zippy should make their pilgrimage to our front-yard instead. The free samples are nonexistent but the performers are, in our opinion, more entertaining - and, best of all, live.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Whatever Gets You Through The Night

Sometimes lately, when I am trying to return to sleep in the middle of the night I imagine myself executing a perfect golf swing. For several years before that it was an equally ideal tennis stroke. And previous to that a basketball jump shot. I don't see myself performing these acts - instead I feel as if I am actually doing them. Somehow it relaxes me.

I played basketball from elementary school age up through the early years of marriage. I wasn't incredibly good but I was okay enough to be chosen in the first few groups for pick up games and to make my high school team albeit, as an end-of-the-bencher. My only real coaching in terms of individual skills and fundamentals came from my father at the basket in our back yard. On my high school team I spent most of my practice time playing the part of the tall guy on the next team we were going to go up against.

I did have one session with the college coach of pro basketball legend Elgin Baylor whose parents happened to live next door to co-worker of my mother. For about an hour in his ancestral driveway he attempted to show me how the then Laker star executed his signature shot, elevating himself above the basket and rolling the ball from the palm of his hand, across his fingertips and down into the hoop. The maneuver didn't work nearly as well when it was performed from considerably below the height of the rim by someone whose hands were too small to comfortably cradle the orange leather orb.

But it was my jump shot that I replayed in my bed at night trying to fall asleep. In the real world this stroke was inhibited by the same lack of leaping ability and an inconsistency extending my shooting arm enough to prohibit defenders from blocking the ball. In the bedroom at night there were no such impediments. Interestingly I do not remember imagining the ball going into the basket or even caring if it did. It was the feeling of the taking the shot that mattered. Pretty Zen - huh!

I dabbled in tennis in my early youth also - again with some coaching from my parents but mostly self-taught. I remember playing several times in high school, both informal matches and cheap dates. My local courts at that time were surfaced with clay and I recall with pride the look and feel of the red dust that accumulated on my sneakers, socks, and lower legs - and the joy of a standing-up, sliding drop shot. I also recollect a girl with whom I was playing who (as was the practice at the time) decided to jump the net and congratulate me after our match was completed. I can still clearly picture one ankle, then the other hitting the tape on the top of the meshwork, her long black hair cascading forward, and her totally out of control, face-first fall into the sticky, fine-grained earth. We remained friends but I don't believe we ever dated, either on or off the tennis court, again.

I played a little during college but did not really return to the game until after marriage when an apartment neighbor and I began a twice-weekly series of matches. As our son Bram grew older I played some with him but not until several years into my work career did I again play regularly - first as a part of an inter-departmental "tournament" and later as a series of regular matches with various co-workers.

Somewhere during that time my forehand displaced the jump shot as my sleep inducer. It really was quite an impressive stroke with perfectly balanced feet, legs, and hips and a movement that started from the hips and core area and extended its power up and into my right arm and racket - a Platonic ideal of my somewhat less consistent on-court efforts. All of my workplace opponents moved on, and the effort to replace them became too great, so I stopped playing. But not dreaming

Six or so years ago Mars suggested that we take up golf as a part of our preparation for retirement. It would be something to do together and a way to meet new people. Other than putting through windmills and such neither of us had tried it before. We began with a group lesson at a local golf course and then an individual lesson at a nearby driving range - and a little playing. We are fortunate to live within three miles of a public course nine holes of which are referred to as the "flat nine" - no hills, no water, no sand, not much and (most importantly) no pressure from hotshot experienced golfers all of whom are over at either the "real" holes or the nineteenth one.

A former co-worker turned us on to a teacher from whom she learned the game and we gave him a try. His lessons were indoors, and videotaped with equipment and software that allowed him to draw vectors and lines onto our movements to indicate what we should be doing. He was an Englishman and a former golf club maker on the professional circuit whose walls were filled with testimonials from former pro golfers, sports announcers, hockey players, and pro wrestlers. Our paradigm was the swing of Ben Hogan. As we focused on the form of our swing our playing improved - more of that Zen stuff. Then after about a year and a half he died unexpectedly. His son, a good college golfer and similar in teaching style - but without all of the great old stories - took over.

Still, even after six or more years of non-tennis and five plus of golf, my dream shot didn't change until sometime late this spring - or at least that was when I became aware of it. It's a long club (probably a three iron or three wood), hit from a sun-baked, bright green location and executed with perfect fluidity and tempo from setup to follow through - at the end of which my right foot turn turns over so that my shoelaces almost meet the ground and my club head comes to rest in front of my face. Of my three perfect shot imaginings it is the only one that comes with an awareness of place and color. But other than that, like the other two, there is no sense of anything other than the feeling of the movement itself.

In the movie "Bagger Vance", the eponymous hero, talks about how inside each and everyone of us, there is one, true authentic swing... it is something we are born with and is ours alone... something we cannot be taught, but we must remember... over time, the world can rob us of that swing... buried underneath our wouldas and couldas and shouldas... there is a perfect shot out there trying to find each and every one of us... and all we have to do is get out of the way and let it choose us.

Perhaps I am lucky enough to have more than one. Unfortunately it is still one area where I wish my performance were better out of the bedroom. But hey, whatever gets you through the night 'salright, 'salright.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Having a bad tail day.

The squirrels are having a bad tail day.

Mars pointed this out to me when I was trying to figure out which one of our resident tree rodents, four of whom were gathered around, had been waiting patiently but patently for me to perform my morning bird bath / bird feeder ritual. (Feel free to substitute the word "squirrel" for the word "bird" throughout this essay.) It was, I thought, the same one who has been on deck every forenoon for the past few weeks, ever since our major bird feeder went on sabbatical due to a household shortage of two liter soda bottles - those containers forming the holding tank for the sunflower seeds on which all of our yard pets (feathered and furred) dine.

The dearth of two thousand cc plastic containers was caused directly by the violence done to these canteens (in their roles as seed holders) by some of the very animals that depend upon them to supply a significant portion of their daily diet. I suspect you know which ones. Go figure!

We have tried to use each episode of feeder-absence as a life lesson to these quick-learning rodents - but apparently to no avail.

The most recent enforced rationing lasted two weeks until we purchased and consumed several bottles of flavored seltzer. (We deliberately took our time hoping that the message would somehow sink in.) During that time I continued, each morning to replenish the seeds in our other two smaller feeders and to refresh the water in the birdbath. I am told the latter act is a good thing to do even though in nature, which is where the bathers live, this does not happen to the natural soaking sites - ever.

About the third morning that I was doing this I noticed one particular squirrel creeping towards the tree that houses these three objects. And a few days later he actually paced on one of the branches during the time between liquid and solid refills. This behavior continued throughout the great bottle famine and continues today.

He was identifiable to me by his ratty, i.e. relatively hairless, tail. And this morning as we left for our health club I went to point him out to Mars only to discover that because of the ongoing rainfall all of the rodent yard pets were similarly coiffed. Then Mars made her observation about "bad tail days".

If the local meteorologists are correct there are several more days like this to come. I hope that the resultant hindquarters humiliation doesn't set off the squirrels in the same way that some humans are moved to act by similar follicle failures. We only have five bottles to spare at the moment.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Mars and I were cruising The Berlin Turnpike on our way to a foot-long Chili Dog at "Doogie's" a couple of Saturdays ago. As we drove by our local gun-shop ("Guns For The Good Guys") I was surprised and actually disappointed to see it wasn't open. I always thought that when it came to pistols Saturday night was special.

I am actually not much of a fan of firearms. I have in fact only handled them twice in my life - not including marching with unloaded and probably inoperable M16 rifles during what was at that time compulsory ROTC training in my first two years of college.

A while back when our son Bram was much younger we were friends with a couple the husband of which was an amateur target shooter, albeit with real bullets, and one weekend he offered to take Bram and me to the rifle range and let us take a shot at it (so to speak). He being a relatively sane and trustworthy person, and me feeling that exposing Bram to lots of different experiences would be good for him, we accepted his offer. I don't remember much of the event at all except that no one was injured. I think that both Bram and I had enough success to maybe want to try it again but apparently not enough enjoyment to actually do it. I still have the unused bullets - Remington High Velocity 22 Long Rifle. And I have no idea why.

My only other firearm experience occurred when I was probably about the same age as Bram was for his. And it involved my bachelor uncle Bill.

My father's brother was the dictionary definition of morose.

He lived with his sister Ann and her husband George on the first floor of a three-story house. My parents and I lived on the third. In between were two unmarried sisters in their mid fifties and their seventy-something year old mother. We had moved to this house from another third floor rental about four blocks away when I was in third or fourth grade. Prior to the relocation I don't recall either my Uncle Bill or my Aunt Ann being on earth. A family dispute over ownership had estranged my father from these two siblings (he also had two other brothers). Then one day it was announced that they existed and we were to live in their residence.

My Uncle Bill was a beer salesman and a hunter. That was it. When he came home each evening he would change from his business suit, shirt and tie (yes even beer salesman dressed that way in the fifties) into his hunting gear (red plaid wool shirts, etc.) and either care for his collection of hunting beagles that were kenneled in the backyard or clean and oil his hunting rifles that sat in the gun rack in his bedroom. We never ate dinner with them but I suspect he took his meals in that room also. It was a large area with a good sized wooden desk in addition to his armory.

Occasionally he would invite us back into one of the stalls in the four-car backyard garage to share some rabbit stew that he had cooked or venison that he had killed and butchered. I also helped him feed the beagles sometimes and once or twice we went with him to the woods to "let the dogs run".

One day I was told that he and my father were taking me shooting. I am picturing an abandoned quarry area with no one else around and a bunch of empty glass Coca Cola bottles that were set up at a challenging but doable distance as well as a pile of glass shards that clearly indicated we were not the first shooters to use this place. I am also seeing a large bird flying directly overhead and my Uncle suddenly firing his rifle upwards towards that moving target. I don't remember either the bird or the bullets falling to earth. I am certain that somewhere in there I also fired off a few rounds - at the Coke containers - but I don't really remember. I think I was still waiting for the airborne ammo to come down. We never went back for another session.

So most of my growing-up experience with guns comes from watching the television cowboy heroes of that time - The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Hopalong Cassidy - who never shot to kill but only to disarm the bad guys by shooting the weapon out of their hands. They actually made it look so easy that you wonder why it isn't a part of standard law enforcement procedures - both televised and real - today.

There sure are times when it would be handy to be that handy with a gun. In my fantasy world I frequently find myself shooting cell phones out of the hands of jerks that cut me off on the highway. There are no unavenged slights or Saturday nights in the land of make-believe.

Berlin Turnpike Neon photos from

No pun intended but the html used in this piece intentionally includes the target="_blank" command.

Monday, July 09, 2007


Mars and I have joined a Co-op.

Not the kind headed by someone named Sri (whose real name is Bob). Nor the kind that requires us to surrender all of our worldly possessions - we're finding lots of other ways to SKI (Spend Kid's Inheritance). Lots! And definitely not the kind that requires us to proselytize in public places, or even private ones.

This is a co-op for centrist folks like us who grew up sympathetic to the hippy culture and values, but from a reasonably safe distance (Joan Baez on vinyl but not as a cellmate, Wavy Gravy the ice cream flavor rather than the role model, Woodstock the movie) - and now have retired from the "rat race" with our homes, asset portfolios, and trusts. (People who now sing "If I had a Hummer...".)

It is the kind of "shared community" we actually might have joined back in the sixties - if they had existed and we had the cash. Think of it as more of a mutual fund with organic/free range investments. And all it requires of us is a one-time act of monetary funding and a weekly trip to the mother church in order to collect our profits.

We had heard about such organizations, but not until a month or so ago when a piece appeared in our local newspaper did we know who, what, why, when and where about the ones in our immediate area. The article gave us an email address to contact and we did.

It's not really called a co-op (or commune, or cult) but rather Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). According to the response that we received a CSA "allows the farmer to get income for seed and other purchases at a time when there are no sales being made and it allows the farmer the ability to predict volumes needed by the number of shares subscribed. The member gets a bell curve of fresh produce - light to heavy to light - and usually gets a very good value."

And there are two ways to join.
* You can receive a weekly allotment (regular CSA member). A share is our estimate of 70% of the vegetable consumption of a family of 2 adults and 2 young children. I have never heard any complaints of "not enough". I usually get a "STOP".
* You can obtain a prepaid credit to allow you to set your own weekly draw and to pick up produce at your convenience at our self service "stand" (which is actually an area of our packing and grading barn). We refer to theses CSA members as prepaid credit CSA members.

Not being inclined to extremism, even in the area of healthy vegetables, we opted for the second plan and sent in our check. We got an email welcoming us with an attached Word document on which we were to keep track of our purchases. Shortly thereafter we got an electronic message telling us that free-range chickens were available, although not included in the "prepaid credit" plan. We chose not to partake. A couple of days later came the invite to begin picking up produce (but not what) and last Sunday morning we drove out to the farm for the first time.

It is located in the town of Glastonbury (like our burg of Wethersfield, a Hartford suburb on the banks of the Connecticut River) in an area once known mostly for tobacco farming. We realized that is no longer the case as soon as we turned onto the road housing the farm and noticed the recently developed mega-houses with tree-less, bush-less landscapes that stretched for most of the three miles to our destination. (There was also a newly built school. And a patch of farmland equaling about four house lots with what seemed to be incipient nicotine plants which I assume was for real, although it could be part of the planned ambience of the area.)

The farm itself, in spite of now being the minority housing in the area, was definitely the one place that looked like it belonged here. We drove down a dirt driveway past the housing in which the chickens that were foraging the area apparently lived voluntarily and parked in front of the open barn. No one was inside, but about one hundred yards away alongside another farm building were three Hispanic looking workers. Out back two other young guys were setting up the superstructure of what appeared to be a greenhouse. Our instructions told us "To shop, just take what you want, total it up using the calculator on the table and record it on the sheet for the day."

There was a white board with a list of vegetables and prices. From the contents, "winter squash" for example, it was clear that this was an index of posibilities rather than what was available at the moment. There was a glass-door refrigerator along one wall within which we noticed several types of squash - summer, zucchini and a yellow, round, scallop edged variety that we figured out from the product roster was probably Pattypan. The summer squash was almost Crayola yellow, the zucchini deep green, and all three were delightfully irregular in shape and size. There also were two heads of lettuce and one something that we decided was bok choy. I roamed out back to see if that was all that was available and what if anything else we needed to know.

The greenhouse builders pointed me to the vegetable fields where the owner's son was spraying something onto the tomato plants. I hiked out there and after removing his ipod earphones he told me to that the squash in the 'frig was all of that that they had but if we wanted herbs or lettuce we were welcome to just wander out into the fields and pick it. I walked back to the barn and we decided to get three really fresh heads of lettuce. So we went out into the fields and cut off three large curly leaf (two green and one red) using a meager knife tool that Mars carries in her handbag. One was for Mars' mother but we quickly realized we had over extended our ability to absorb salads and later gave some away more to our friend Sandy.

Back in the barn we were weighing squash on the scale and tallying up our expenses when a rush of cigar smoke floated in followed by a slightly chubby guy wearing a tee shirt, shorts, and Teva sandals. It was George the owner. After introductions and small talk - he also supplies the local Whole Foods stores, was "certified organic in 1999", and just relocated to this location ("saved it from the developer") - he offered us some Swiss chard ("just take what you want!"). We did. Then we tallied up, packed up, and left just as a late-twenties couple arrived on the scene looking as confused as we did initially.

As we drove away I wondered. Are George's cigars organic? Are the workers migrant and if so are they free-range? Do the folks up the street from the farm shop at Whole Foods?

I didn't think at all about whether this would turn out to be a good investment.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Sir Winnower

A knight-errant (plural knights-errant) is a figure of medieval chivalric romance literature. "Errant" meaning wandering or roving, indicates how the knight-errant would typically wander the land in search of adventures to prove himself as a knight, such as in a pas d'Armes. (Wikipedia)

That is what I will become.

Like Paladin, a cowboy television hero of my youth. "Have Gun Will Travel reads the card of a man. A knight without armor in a savage land..."

There is a definite need and I have the talent. Not gun or sword fighting talent. Real world talent - for real world problems:
- Issues of uninvited immigrant incursions and takeovers.
- Difficulties with overcrowding and unfair competition for limited water, air and sunlight.
- Aesthetic ailments of ugliness impinging on the grace and elegance of carefully planted beds of beauty.
- Carefully cultivated but minimally managed horticultural havens overrun by unwanted competitors.

I shall become "Sir Winnower - The Maintainer of Public Gardens"!

It's not a role that I would have even remotely foreseen for myself - little if any interest in things of the plant world as a child; raised not to tread in the underbrush for fear of the mere possibility of poison ivy; even today (after thirty years of planting and pruning and twenty-five years of membership in a Men's Garden Club) unable to identify by even their English names the therefore anonymous perennials populating our property.

But it is the office for which I am best suited by inclination and ability. And one that, based upon what I see around me, others are less than willing to undertake for themselves - the job of destructive gardening.

It probably started with the first gardener to whom I ever actually paid attention - Ernest Hemingway. Not the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner author but rather his white-haired and white-bearded doppelganger that tended to the landscaping needs of the elderly couple across the street. Unaware of his name and so totally in awe of the stoicism, economy of style, understated technique, and apparent "grace under pressure" of his weekly groundskeeper ritual as to be unwilling to approach him for it I simply referred to him as "Ernest" - and learned to appreciate the elegance of the most rudimentary acts of horticultural maintenance.

He always arrived on a blue one-speed bicycle, always wearing clean, unpressed tan chinos, brown work boots, a yellowing Irish knit sweater (on cool mornings) and a tan chino baseball hat. The hat was planted firmly on his head, at a slight angle, with the left side up. A thin stream of white hair flowed out of the sides of the hat and continued down his cheeks, merging with a short-trimmed beard and moustache. His neck was unshaven. When he removed his hat, I could see that the hair on his head was military short.

Ernest didn't wear sunglasses. He squinted (even in the shade provided by the long peak of his cap). As he toiled he removed layers. First he took off his sweater to show a clean plain white tee shirt. Then the tee shirt came off to show an upper body, tanned and largely free of fat - but not muscular.

He worked continuously, pausing only for three things: to remove a layer of clothing, to take off his hat and wipe his forehead, or to smoke a cigarette. He sat and smoked between jobs. Between grass cutting and grass raking. Between hedge trimming and hedge raking. And before leaving.

The tools Ernest used were basic: a small, generic brand push power mower, hand operated pruning shears, and a metal rake with several teeth missing - all provided by his employers. His cigarettes, I surmised from the size of the pack, were either unfiltered "regular size" Camels (my father's brand) or Lucky Strikes (my former one). The right hand that held the cigarette was always cupped. He rested that hand on his left wrist and rested the left wrist on a crossed right leg. He was very still when he smoked, except for his cupped hand floating slowly up to his mouth and back.

When he was done the lawn was uniformly short and clean, and the hedges were perfectly squared-off and flat. He put his tools away and rode off away on his bicycle, with his Irish knit sweater stuffed into a rusty handlebar basket.

I practiced the art of destructive gardening on my own property for many years - for several of them imitating the actions that I observed across the road and then, after Ernest stopped coming, emulating the activities that were by then firmly etched in both my longterm and muscle memories. And I expanded the breadth of eradication to include (among other things) the removal of unwanted plants and the forceful resolution of boundary disputes between competing bushes, trees and flowers.

Back when I was employed my own yard-work took all of the time I could give it. But now, retired, I have more available hours in the bank and either an altruistic desire to "give back" or a selfish craving to do more of what I want to do.

Either way I have decided to take my show on the road to the public gardens of the world. Under the auspices of my town's Beautification Trust I have ripped all of the salvageable perennials from an unfortunately located plot and am currently bushwhacking my way into another area at the beginning of our town's main bicycle path in order to expose whatever "keepers" that I find to the eyes of the passing path-travelers and light of day.

My work career experience has taught me, and my volunteer efforts have confirmed, that no one really likes to do the mundane back-office work that keeps things running. Fortunately I do.

Ernest and I would agree that even the most basic acts when done with style and a modicum of grace can become mini works of art. And now that I don't have a job to go to daily, maybe they can also become something that I do knightly.