Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Monica and Bram adopted a greyhound. Her name is La Cheyenne -- a two year old, brindle colored rescue from a dog track in Tucson, Arizona. Mars and I were fortunate enough to be in Santa Fe for her arrival.

Rejected racer -

Second once, not good enough -
Has her first real place.

Love Has Its Limits

I heard the middle line of this Haiku from the female half of a bundled-up, hypothermic, dog-walking couple in Santa Fe, NM on a windy, 9 degree F afternoon.

Unhurried dog stops.
"Come on! You've peed already!"
Love has its limits.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Why would I be otherwise?

I recognized Aga before Tina. Now that is good marketing.

Granted at least part of the reason was that Mars and I were in her "Amber by Aga" shop in a mini-mall along the town plaza of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Still we hadn't seen her there, or anywhere, since our one and only meeting on the first visit to her establishment three years ago. I chronicled that day and subsequent dealing with the young Polish jewelry designer's minions in this blog as the "Aga Saga"(1).

Long story short: Monica and Bram (daughter-in-law and son) first encountered Aga at the Santa Fe Flea Market and purchased some jewelry gifts, one for Mars. It was clear from the way Bram talked about his purchase, and Monica's bemusement, that he had been impressed with much more than the quality of the work itself. Time passed. Monica and Bram migrated to Santa Fe. Aga moved to her store. And Monica and Bram brought us there when we visited them. Aga's sales skills and customer service were impressive but personally not as memorable as her perfume-and-decolletage enhanced parting comment to me that day - "I like it for men to remember me." Still, on at least eight subsequent visits there had been no Aga sightings and as a result Aga was well on her way to becoming just another outdated marketing concept.

So I was totally surprised to see her at an open space in the counter conversing with a male customer who was trying to decide on a gift necklace. When her saw the face I was about ninety percent certain. But her sweater was black and bulky, not low-cut at all -- maybe not. Then I caught a glimpse of the partially obscured skin-tight, short hot-pants and moved up to ninety-nine point nine. The departing customer's use of her name as he said good bye cinched it.

That was when I noticed the music that was playing in the background. A deep-voiced female vocalist was singing what sounded to me like a James Bond opening credit piece, but I did not recognize either the movie or the performer. This wasn't a big surprise to me since (as classical music lovers), other than at our health club, neither Mars nor I listen to popular music -- particularly contemporary stuff.

The song ended. The next one began. And Aga came out from behind the counter. Since I (uhr) happened to be looking in that direction, I noticed the strap stiletto heels, and Tina Turner's name -- and legs -- flashed into my mind. I remember listening to "The Ike and Tina Turner Review" as a teenager; recall seeing Tina's 1970's return to the entertainment world as a solo act on the Sonny and Cher television program; owned and listened frequently to her "Private Dancer" album; and watched her "Sixty Minutes" interview with Mike Wallace during her "farewell tour" at the age of sixty-six. It was a follow-up to a 1991 interview. According to "Mike Wallace was so taken by her then that he couldn't resist joining her again in 2000."

TINA TURNER: You must be good to me.
MIKE WALLACE: Why would I be otherwise?

Now she is once again doing a concert tour of North America and Europe. And her legs are evidently as good as ever -- in both senses.

Aga however was not on a comeback tour. Instead she was in the store by accident -- her younger sister, who normally would have been there, was home sick and Aga had to step in for the day. Still she didn't miss a beat.

As on our other visit Aga was incredibly helpful to Mars with her two purchases -- one of which probably would not have occurred if not for Aga's customer service. And at the same time she was extremely distracting, particularly to one dragged-along male shopper who was this close to hauling his female companion into the jewelry boutique. He didn't -- although he did do the hesitation two-step. It either was the end of a very long day or the economy really is that bad.

As we were wrapping up our sale Aga mentioned that she thought we seemed familiar, so Mars and I related the story of how we first came to her store in 2003.

Aga moved forward. "Yes. I remember you." she said looking up at me.

As we left I told Mars "That should last me for at least the rest of the day!"

Why would I be otherwise?

(1) "Aga Saga" was a name that I made up totally for its rhyming quality. In order to refresh my mind as to what I had said before while writing this piece I Googled my title and was surprised to discover multiple pages of references to another type of story with the same appelation.

The Aga Saga is a sub-genre of the family saga of literature. The genre is named for the AGA cooker, a type of stored-heat oven that came to be popular in medium to large country houses in England after its introduction in 1922. It refers primarily to fictional family sagas set amidst the economic class that might have been expected to own such cookers, but has also been applied to describe such settings within novels of other genres. The nickname "Aga Saga" is sometimes used condescendingly about this type of work. The term was incorporated into the Oxford Companion to English Literature in 2000.
While the label has been applied to settings within other genres, it is typically interpreted to refer to "a tale of illicit rumpy-pumpy in the countryside" according to a 2007 article in The Observer. (

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Size Two Haiku

Kristin Chenoweth
Could be haiku (count the sounds).
But she's just too short.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Rhythms and Rituals

Living with pets really makes you aware of the rhythms of life. Particularly when you normally don't share a residence with them, and then find yourself settling down for the night in their bedroom.

This October Mars and I house-sat for Audrey the dog and Kit the cat.

During the daylight hours Audrey never slept -- or at least we never saw her in that particular state of unconsciousness. Her job, as documented elsewhere, was to guard the house -- a responsibility that she took very, very seriously. Although she did take occasional breaks to come inside and join us in the living room.

(Picture by Mars - click to enlarge)

When she did, Audrey usually stretched out on the carpeted floor with the sunshine from the window lighting up the lower part of body. Then she struggled -- successfully but with difficulty -- to keep the lids of hers eyes from dropping shut. Frequently she would drag herself to her feet and drop onto her daytime bed located in the adjacent hallway. Still she managed to stay awake.

Come nighttime it was a different story.

Audrey has a dog nest under a bench on the floor of the master bedroom. We were not told what her normal bedtime was but her behavior indicated that she would gladly have gone there at any time after sunset.

One evening around dusk Mars went into the bedroom and Audrey followed. When Mars returned to the couch moments later Audrey remained in the other room. About 9:15 she slowly strolled out to where we were; looked accusingly at us; lied down for a while; then went back to her sleeping nest. Other nights she hung around the living room glaring at Mars and me when we turned on the television or opened a book any time after dark.

When we finally did go to bed Audrey fell asleep quickly and deeply. And stayed totally in that state until about 6:30 a.m. when she staggered out of bed, stretched with some dog yoga poses, and performed her morning ablutions loudly with her tongue. She stayed there until the two of us walked down to get the morning paper at the end of the steeply sloped driveway. After delivering the news, and wolfing down some breakfast, she headed outside to guard the house.

The cat on the other hand napped several times during the day -- normally for a few hours at a stretch. Still she managed to spend a good portion of the daylight hours, and most evenings from 7:00 to 9:00 outside in the high desert -- stalking small animals and doing other fiendish feline things.

(Picture by Mars - click to enlarge)

When we turned in for the night she joined us in the bedroom, usually crouched under the footstool. Then at some point she crawled under the covers with us.

Her first nocturnal visit came on our second night at around four in the morning. She stayed for about an hour and left. Her subsequent visitations began earlier and lasted longer.

Neither Mars nor I have ever shared our bed with a non-human, living creature. When we had our dog Nicole and Mars was at evening college getting her I.T. certificate I would sometimes fall asleep on the floor watching television with my back up against the dog's equally asleep dorsal side. I remember the feeling of living warmth, the smell of domestic animal, and the nocturnal breathing, sputtering and body movements.

The cat experience was similar but on a smaller scale. For one thing she was the one doing the positioning. Sometimes I felt her heated presence in the small of my back -- other times on my shoulders. Instead of breathing in fits and starts there was a rhythmical purring sound that seemed to come from an artificial voice box positioned deep within her chest. The sound was pitched to a basso level -- much too low for an animal of Kit's diminutive stature to generate. Most of the time she wasn't touching me at all and it was only the warmness and the vocally generated vibrations that me aware that she was even there.

We had been forewarned that the cat would probably join us in bed and I did have some apprehensions about being walked on and scratched in the middle of the night. Only once did I feel her tiptoe along my left side as she was apparently deciding whether to visit or not on our second night there. So from a fear factor perspective Kit's cohabitations were painless. I was nonetheless aware of her presence, and as a result did limit my own movements so as not to disturb her slumber -- probably with some loss of restfulness on my part.

Sleep is annoying -- something that you involuntarily end up doing everyday because your eyes can longer focus on the words you are attempting to read -- an unwanted interruption to the business of living -- eight hours of your life that you will never get back. For Audrey and Kit it seems to be an integral part of who they are.

Being a superior being, I was of course easily able to adapt and accommodate those that are slaves to their own particular behavioral patterns. After all it was their territory.

So every night at exactly ten o'clock I circled the bed seven times in a clockwise direction, flipped my pillow over four times, cracked the knuckle of each little finger once, and released myself into the arms of Morpheus. I certainly wasn't going to lose any sleep over their silly, obsessive, little rituals.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Privet Moment

We had our first snow and sleet of the season on Sunday. It was a minor event with no accumulation. But while it was happening our neighbor was having her privet hedge chain sawed to the ground by a large man wearing a sweatshirt and sunglasses. It's a shame -- they deserve better than that.

The hedgerow is just your basic common privet, and has fallen into disrepair over the years. The green growth is pretty much clustered near the top of the bush nowadays -- with bare stems below. Various other, more combative, forms of vegetation have insinuated themselves in at the base and their branches and leaves poke out at odd angles forming a frenetic, threatening looking fence. Periodically our neighbor would make a facile effort to restore the barrier to its more pristine condition but she only worked on the very top of the hedge and usually lost interest about half way through the job. Sunday's full-scale onslaught is actually the first wholehearted effort I have seen in regard to the privet since Ernest was the resident landscaper.

"The formal hedge says 'privacy, please' in a manner far more civilized than a stockade fence. A fixture of the suburban landscape 50 years ago, fast-growing privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium and L. amurense) remains a fine choice where conditions are right: To thrive, this deciduous shrub requires a temperate climate and a homeowner willing to wield sharp shears as often as needed." (

(Not my privet)

I grew to adulthood without ever personally experiencing either the benefits or the responsibilities of a privet hedge. I occasionally saw them protecting the borders of properties that, at the time, I didn't feel I could ever aspire to. Even the word itself bespoke an elegant, English attitude of seclusion, solitude, isolation, freedom from disturbance, and freedom from interference. Perhaps that is why I came into home ownership with a somewhat worshipful view of this semi evergreen barrier

Then we bought our first house. And I had my first hedge.

Unfortunately the previous owner did not share this feeling of awe and respect for the barrier shrub on the western border of his property. Nor did he develop, during his two-year ownership, even the slightest desire to maintain this or any of the other horticulture that quickly began to overrun the landscape shortly after we took possession in April of 1979.

By the time I noticed the condition of the hedgerow it had reached a grossly uneven height of over eight feet in places; was dotted with several supple offspring of its neighboring maple tree; and enwrapped throughout with various vines. My father-in-law, who was guiding me through the first growing season in which I actually had to pay attention to growing things, brought over his electric hedge trimmers and stepladder -- and led me through my first privet adventure. It was not fun.

Shortly thereafter I noticed Ernest trimming the hedges across the street. (Ernest was not his real name. I dubbed him that based on his strong facial resemblance to late American novelist with his thick white beard and habitual long billed baseball hat. And his no frills approach to yard work.) He pruned the privet pretty much every week, by hand, with wood handled hedge shears. It was a workmanlike ballet.

Ernest stood behind the floral barrier like a maestro keyboardist -- his mind focused on the final result; his eyes riveted on each out-of-place twig; his body squared up to the target, tensed for action; and his hands hovering within striking distance then swooping down rapidly to put the cutters into action. With only seven days growth the surface of the bush was, at worst, only modestly uneven. And the undergrowth intruders were barely visible. Still, as he moved along the line of battle from right to left the privet became noticeably smoother and more proportionally shaped. When he finished he lit a cigarette and surveyed his work, snipping away any lingering imperfections and inhaling deeply.

Several years later the couple that employed Ernest passed away, and shortly thereafter he stopped coming. Over time I gained control of my own privet and switched to regular hand pruning rather than a semiannual all out electric assault. During that same period the appearance and health of the privet across the street spiraled downward. And now on the last day of November, in swirling snow and sleet, a total stranger took it down to the ground.

I did the same thing to my own hedges a few annums ago -- albeit with a hand pruning saw and some lopping shears on a warm autumn afternoon. And they grew back thicker and stronger than they were before.

The privet across the street should also. Plants don't really care which tools we use, or how well we know them. The artistry, if there is any, exists in the head and hands of the gardener.

And in the imagination of those who watch them work.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Have They Been Eating?

When we went away for our three week trip to New Mexico in the latter half of October Mars and I jokingly worried that our resident squirrels -- whose supply of sunflower seeds and corn was shut off for the duration -- would suffer the pangs of hunger or, even worse, the pains of starvation during our absence.


We expected to return to lethargic, emaciated shells of their former sleek, athletic selves. Instead we were greeted by a flotilla of "Hinden-squirrels" -- fur covered zeppelins who looked more like candidates for gastric bypass surgery and Jazzy Power Wheelchairs than acrobatic performers in our front yard cirque de seed-bottle.

It was like we had gone to a concert of the rock group Heart hoping to see Nancy Wilson but could not because she was hidden behind her "big sister" Ann.

As if we stumbled into a "Subway Jared" diet commercial being played backwards.

Like we ordered "Body Heat" from Netflix and were sent "Body Fat" instead.

When we left them, our yard pets looked like Michael Phelps in a skin-tight squirrel suit. Now they more closely resembled all 12,000 calories of his daily diet, stuffed directly into a way-to-small fur duffle bag.

Most mammals put on "winter weight" -- storing up fat reserves in anticipation of the colder weather and concurrent shortage of food. Squirrels gain about twelve percent of their body weight -- about one tenth of what our guys have accomplished. Twelve percent is more in keeping with my memory of squirrel expansion in years past. So what about the other one hundred and eight percent? How did this obesity epidemic happen?

The obvious answer is exercise and diet. Without our labyrinth of high altitude eating aeries to work out on, and with no other health club or gymnasium within which to burn off calories, the squirrels became just another bunch of drey potatoes -- lounging around and lazily devouring the supply of acorns that they had been setting aside since the first oak fruit had fallen.

But lack of exercise and a diet of acorns are not enough to fully explain our yard pets' devolution from fit to fat. According to, one serving of acorns contains 142 calories of which 74 are fat. Compare that to 384 calories with 184 fat in McDonalds French fries and it is clear that our newly porcine pets had some unnatural help with their overeating orgy.

I suspect our neighbor B. She recently acquired a cat that is, she proudly told me, a great hunter-and-gatherer of chipmunks. And probably would do the same to the squirrels if they just weren't so darned agile and quick. What better way to provide food and entertainment for her feline predator than to hinder its prey by adding a few pounds and inches to them?

But truth be told, the squirrels additional girth and weight does not seem to have slowed them down at all. They still acquit themselves admirably on the jungle-gym-seed-cafeteria that hangs from our Flowering Crab -- performing pretty much all of their original moves, albeit casting a much larger shadow than before. And they scurry across the yard in pursuit of each other with pretty much the same reckless abandon and breakneck speed as in their thinner days -- although their silhouettes now more closely resemble a Low Rider car than an Aston Martin.

What we are witnessing in our front yard is similar to the unexpected terpsichorean tour de forces of football behemoths such as Warren Sapp on the television program "Dancing With The Stars" -- the triumph of natural athletic ability over the forces of gravity and inertia.

Or perhaps the overriding power of an intense and selfish desire for something -- especially food.

Thanks to their new on-board supply of cellulite, the stress of seasonal starvation is no longer an issue. Now the squirrels can devote themselves totally to the joys of recreational eating and gamboling in and above the yard -- their high fat content provides a golden parachute that allows them to take gustatory (and other) risks without any fear of failing or falling.

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good.

Cat Hiking

The following was written in Santa, New Mexico on our third day of dog/cat/house sitting.

Vacations give you the chance to experience things that you might not have an opportunity to do at home. This week Mars and I went hiking with a cat.

(Picture by Mars - click to enlarge)

We both consider ourselves "dog people". Each of us had family canines in our youth, and during our marriage we provided room and board to Nicole Marie, a Labrador Retriever / Irish Setter cross, for about twelve years. After her passing we decided not to get another because with both of us working it just wouldn't fair to a new dog -- and it was confining on us.

Neither Mars nor I have any cats in our history. In fact over the past several years we each had instantaneous congested-head, itchy-eyed allergic reactions to the furry felines. Now we are house-sitting for one of them in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Actually the cat was added to J and J's family after we had accepted their house-sitting gig so I prefer to think of it as a throw in -- not really a part of the reason we were there but rather a tiny divertimento from our real responsibility, the previously mentioned Audrey the dog.

She is a tiny cat -- tiger with some calico (Mars' guess). J and J call her "KitKat" although as our son Bram says it is a mystery why people bother to name their cats, "It's not like they come when they're called anyway."

Like Audrey the dog, KitKat requires very little attention. She is a "self-regulating" eater who is allowed outside on her own throughout the day and (if she chooses) at night. We were asked to keep her and Audrey inside when the coyotes are prowling in the immediate area, but she has apparently spent several outdoor all-nighters in the high desert by herself.

Mars crocheted some toys for her but, after an initial display of interest, she has largely ignored them. And us. She did however crawl into bed with us briefly around five o'clock last night (our second sleeping night there). And about four hours later went for her second hike with us.

J and J said that she might do that, and not to worry -- although she is normally kept inside on their own high desert treks because she becomes "bothersome". We hadn't really planned on her accompanying us but she scurried out the front door as Audrey and we were exiting -- so there she was.

We walked down to the arroyo and hiked up one of its side tributaries -- a distance of about two miles. Audrey, as is her wont, led the way -- running ahead in search of long eared rabbits to chase through the low underbrush on the hills and banks alongside the dried-out waterway. The cat stayed an equal distance behind us -- walking about a third of the time in our footprints and the remainder in the same part of the landscape as the dog, but presumably looking for smaller prey. She would be gone from sight for several minutes then suddenly sprint past us at breakneck speed and quickly drop back to her rear guard position -- as if she forgot then suddenly remembered that she was not really a part of our trekking team. (Kind of like the oh-so-bored "tween" girl in the Royal Carribean Cruise commercial that gets caught smiling during her jet-ski lesson then quickly realizes that she is on her mom's video camera.)

We hiked up the bone-dry side stream until we came to one of the metal inlet pipes that conduct the overflowing mountain pour-offs into the stream bed. There being no real alternative we turned and headed back. KitKat decided to explore the outer edges of the corrugated conduit. Being unsure of her loyalty to us, or her ability to find her own way home, Mars and I paced back and forth for a few minutes before convincing ourselves to leave the area.

We walked for about five minutes with no signs of the cat when she darted past us and fell back into her self-designated spot in our slowly moving parade. Moments later we lost sight of her again until we left the arroyo and found her laying down in the shade by the side of the dirt road that leads at a forty-five degree incline back up to the house.

Evidently as long as she knows where she is, or where she is going, she will ignore us. When she is uncertain as to what is going on, she keeps in touch. But not enough to make us feel needed or even wanted. Her body language, unlike that of Audrey, never betrays any recognition of our presence.

Last night, around 1:15 a.m., movement awakened me on the outside of our bed up around my head. KitKat was standing next to me, her silhouette barely visible in the dark.

In spite of the complete novelty, and overall freakiness, of the situation I fell asleep. Three hours later I awoke again and was told by Mars that the cat was lying between us, sleeping. I woke up again at 6:15 and detected a definite animal smell next to me and when I rearranged my body I could feel her paws pressing against it.

A little later, when I got up to go to the bathroom, she left the bed. Mars said that she had taken up residence there at four o'clock -- apparently her earlier visit being just exploratory.

Then this morning we all went for another hike.

I have no idea what other "firsts" the cat has in store for us. Maybe tomorrow she would like to join us for a visit to the museums and lunch in town. She could pretend that she was by herself and had no idea who we were. Apparently all it takes to make her comfortable is for us to be around -- and act as if we aren't.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Just Doing My Job

Our son Bram says, "Every dog needs a job." Audrey's is guarding the house in which she lives with J and J in the high desert hills of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Mars and my job was to stay with Audrey for three weeks recently while her housemates were away on vacation.

Every day when we left we would let Audrey outside and tell her "Guard the house. Good girl!" She would immediately turn around and trot eagerly to her post at the front of the house.

As we drove away we could see her looking down at us -- her haunches firmly rooted in the dry, desert earth; her body tense with total attention; and her head turning slowly and deliberately to scan the surrounding topography.

When we returned hours later she was still there. And, as we drove around to the backyard, she ran to greet us -- with a super-sized yawn and a well-executed downward dog yoga stretch. This made me suspicious that she might have been taking an unauthorized break from her sentry duties. So I would check the wetness and warmth of her nose looking for the telltale signs of canine goldbricking. I never found any.

Still I found it really hard to believe that she stayed steadfastly sitting at her station for the entire duration of our absence. Hopefully she at least took a moment or two to hydrate at one of her two outdoor water bowls. Or to divert her laser-like attention, if only for the briefest nanosecond, to one of the white meat bones that she was given to amuse her on her longer tours of duty.

On the other hand, when you really love your job...

Now I myself have enjoyed certain aspects of certain jobs that I have held in my pre-retirement lifetime. In that same span of time however there were only two workers that I have seen with the same attitude and work ethic as Audrey -- another dog, and a hooker that I met early one morning in New York City.

The dog was a member of the Hartford, Connecticut Police Department. One day, as I was begrudgingly trudging across that city's Main Street, on my way to my former job, I heard the sound of emergency sirens approaching and two police cars passed quickly through the intersection.

The first held just the driver. But the second had a police canine in the back passenger seat. The window was down, and the dog's body up to its shoulders stuck out into the warm morning air. He mostly looked ahead toward where he was being driven. But he did glance around a few times as if to check out his audience. His ears flapped in the breeze, and his face had the open-mouthed smile of a dog in ecstasy.

As the car passed beyond the intersection, the driver hit the siren and the dog barked a deep-voiced duet. In my mind he was saying, "This is as good as it gets!" -- riding with his best friend, flying through the air with total abandon, on his way to do the thing that he, and only he, did best.

I thought how I would like to be that happy for just five minutes. And he was going to work.

I met the call girl when I was out for a pre-dawn exercise jog while on a business trip to the "Big Apple." It was around thirty-two degrees but, due to bad planning, I was wearing just shorts and a tee shirt as I ran up 57th Street approaching 7th Avenue. On the corner I saw an incredibly attractive woman wearing an incredibly short miniskirt, incredibly high stiletto heels, and (what looked like to me anyway) an incredibly expensive, waist length fur jacket.

As I arrived at the intersection she looked me in the eyes and said, "Ain't you'ze cold in that outfit?" "Aren't you?" I replied. She smiled and said with a sense of pride, "Yeh, but I won't be out here for long." as she turned and walked into the shiny black limousine that just then pulled up at the curb.

Like Audrey, both the hound in blue and the harlot in heels seemed to revel in the anticipation of doing their respective jobs. And, again like Audrey, each of them was really good at what they did.

At least I assume that they were. I mean how would I know? I never know...

Besides, there are some things that just cannot be faked -- two out of three anyway.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Southwestern Gothic

(Picture by Mars - click to enlarge)

(Santa Fe, NM) Mars and I were relaxing in the hot tub when she spotted J & J's cat looking down at us from one of the canals ("canales") that carry the water from the rooftop of their adobe house. Mars rushed inside for her camera but by the time she returned "Kitkat" had moved. The fast moving feline was not however quick enough to avoid being captured in Haiku.

Gargoyle guardian,
The cat on the canale --
Soutwestern Gothic.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Good Walks Improved

Playing golf with someone on his home course, and hiking with an off-the-leash dog on its native turf, are very much alike. In both instances you feel as if you are more "in the vicinity of" rather than "with" your partner -- but still that you are both very much in it together.

We first learned about the canine part of the equation two years ago when we house-sat for J & J and Audrey the dog at their home in the high desert hills surrounding Santa Fe, NM. We recently reprised that performance with another three-week stint at the same address. Every morning we took our canine charge for her daily constitutional along the high desert trails of her neighbor less neighborhood. And every day the protocol was the same.

To start Mars, Audrey, and I would walk out from the house as a unit. Audrey would bounce in anticipation as she watched to see which of the four compass points we were heading toward. As soon as we took enough steps to indicate the path, Audrey would dart off into the underbrush in that general direction with a look of intensity on her face that indicated the earth-shattering importance of her mission.

(photo by Mars - click photo to enlarge)

Audrey's rapid and seemingly random departure was quite disconcerting to me on our very first trek. Not thinking that she was the trained trail professional and I was the territorial tyro I quickly became worried that I had succeeded in losing the poor dog on my very first attempt to do anything with her. Not knowing what else to do I continued walking.

Fortunately a few minutes later she popped out of the bushes about one hundred feet ahead of me. She assessed the direction in which I was heading, decided it was okay, and headed back to do her undercover work. This little vignette repeated itself every few minutes during the course of every hike with Audrey. We actually spent very little time by her side. Yet, she always got there before we did, continually checked up on us to ensure everything was okay, and, when the walk was over, expressed what a great time she had being out with us.

Our recent golf experience was opposite yet identical.

We played for the first time recently with J, who along with his non-golfing wife MJ have been friends for many years. J is a longtime linksman, retired like us, who normally plays at the Simsbury Farms Golf Course -- a municipal course built on the former site of the Orkel Apple Orchard and Farm. As a child Mars went there on fruit and vegetable buying trips with her family. The layout is still populated with maple trees (at that time in varying degrees of autumn reds and yellows); apple trees with the odors of decomposing fruit at their bases; fading red storage barns; and at one artistically placed boulder right alongside a fairway. The weather was clear and sunny with temperatures in the low seventies. The day would have been good even if the golf were not.

Unlike our Santa Fe dog walking experience I was the one wandering off into the underbrush -- in this case tall, healthy, shot-blocking forestry rather than dried waist high juniper bushes. While J -- after pointing out the vagaries of the hole we were about to play, and after we all had hit our drives -- would walk purposefully down the close-cropped fairway with Mars pretty much following along in his path.

As a result I did not have much contact with the rest of my group unless they joined me on the sidelines to search for one of my errant drives. J showed an uncanny ability to track my mis-hit white orbs and locate them in the midst of dried, fallen leaves, broken twigs, low growing bushes, and New England stone walls. Thanks to his efforts and in spite of mine I lost only one ball during our afternoon on the links.

So the protocol here became: (1) we all gathered to hit our drives; (2) went our separate ways; (3) occasionally commingled to search for a missing ball or for me to get a club from the back of the cart that Mars was driving; (4) shouted "nice shot" from a distance; (5) regrouped on the green to finish the hole; and (6) followed J to the next one.

Like hiking, and unlike every other sport that I am familiar with, golf is a solitary activity -- perhaps the only game that you play entirely by yourself, regardless of the size of your group.

Madeleine L'Engle has written, "Every so often I need out -- away from all these people I love most in the world -- in order to regain a sense of proportion. My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings."

And for some of us it is negotiating our way through unfamiliar territory under the watchful but unobtrusive eye of a good, untethered guide.


Mars closed her 2008 golf season by getting a par on the 18th and last hole of the day -- an uphill par 3. First she hit a good drive that mysteriously disappeared into an invisible soft mud hole right in the middle of the fairway. J extricated the ball. Mars then chipped up over the hilltop onto the green, and "drained" her twenty-foot putt. If not in her own "Circle of Quiet" she was definitely in "the zone".

Monday, November 10, 2008

Dog and Butterfly

On desert purple
Tiger Post-its hold their place.
Windblown weightless wings.

"If you want the butterflies, then you have to take the bees."

Kwame told me that. He is a former co-worker and tennis opponent who has since returned to his native land of Ghana. He spoke with the deep voice and musical rhythm of a wise African adage architect. And although he was at the time speaking specifically about my own homegrown butterfly garden, he clearly had his subtext mojo working.

On a non-allegorical level my backyard flowerbed never really attracted enough customers of either kind to prove or disprove Kwame's point. The purple bush that I am sitting next to right now, in northern New Mexico, however affirms its truth with a vengeance.

Mars and I are house/dog/cat-sitting during the latter half of October in Santa Fe. The house sits amidst ten acres of property in the partially developed high desert hills along the northern edge of town. The purple groundcover occupies the altar position on a flat-stone deck alongside the adobe building.

(photo by Mars)

Arranged along the top of the bush are dozens of pairs of whisper-thin black and orange wings that open and close randomly and repeatedly -- pointless movements, except perhaps as expressions of pleasure.

Surrounding and interspersed among these silent nectar sippers are scores of squirming and staggering bees. The smaller insects collectively create an ebb and flow of buzzing. A rising and falling hum like toy airplanes circling the field, that drowns out what little competitive sounds there are in this rarified atmosphere.

No bug bothers any other nor do any of them pay the slightest bit of attention to Mars and me. They are almost as steadfast in their devotion to their jobs as is Audrey the dog -- for whom we are sitting and who, in return, provides around-the-clock security services to us as she does for her actual keepers.

Her preferred guard post is twenty or so paces beyond the purple bush, at the precipice of a steep slope that descends to the dirt road that provides the house its address.

She sits there erectly, like an Egyptian dog statue, constantly turning her head to scan for intruders that blip onto to her internal radar screen. Moments ago she growled and stood on all four with her hackles raised. Then slowly she trotted down the hill to investigate the situation further.

There have been no further noises -- no "Get the f*** out of here" or "Hey, I could use a little help!" barks, and she still hasn't returned to her sentry spot. So, based on prior experiences and advice from her normal human co-habitants, Mars and I assume that the perimeter is safe and all is well on the western front.

Yesterday around 4:30 p.m. MDT the coyotes began calling to each other in their whiny, high-pitched, call-and-answer style. Audrey reacted in kind with a deeper, intentionally threatening response. The wild canines were hidden in the low growing juniper and pinon bushes that dot the downhill, flatland area surrounding the neighborhood arroyo. Audrey was at her usual aerie-watch location so her persistent barks echoed across the landscape -- effectively drowning out (at least from our perspective) the semi-threats from the lowlands.

After ten minutes of back and forth challenges and warnings the troubling concert came to an end. During that time Audrey migrated over to my position and stood next to me as I peered down towards the arroyo unsuccessfully searching for her tormentors.

This morning (as we did everyday) Mars, Audrey, and I went for a walk along the arroyo. Surprisingly we did not see any canine tracks or scat other than what Audrey created. Audrey walks without a leash and roams freely through the brush and high land alongside the water passage -- checking in with us periodically to ensure that she and we are heading in the same direction. She didn't act any differently when we went by what I perceived as last night's coyote concert venue.

(Later in our three week visit Mars would see a coyote passing nearby the house during breakfast. Audrey was inside at the time and immediately reacted with a chorus of barks that lasted for several minutes until she and I went outside to ensure that she had driven the intruder away. On our next to last day another "brush wolf" ran across the arroyo in front of us. Audrey ran after it and again the feral dog fled the scene.)

Audrey loves her job -- and the autonomy that it, and her location, affords her to explore the world around her. Coyotes are just part of the deal.

As Kwame would say...

Friday, November 07, 2008

Etz Hayyim (Tree of Life)

"Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat the fruit of them." (Jeremiah 29:5)

Conventional wisdom says that it is really hard for anything to grow in the high desert of New Mexico. It ain't necessarily so.

Stacy and Jim invited us to a tree planting party at their house in Santa Fe, while Mars and I were out there house-sitting. They became friends of our daughter-in-law and son after Monica and Bram moved to that city three years ago. Stacy is also an east-coaster (Brooklyn), and is a caterer and on-air host of "Mouth of Wonder" (a food program on KSFR, a local public radio station). Monica ("the web goddess") created and maintains the website for "MOW". Jim is a furniture maker who designed and built shelving for Monica and Bram in exchange for Monica's Internet labors.

The tree planting was in commemoration of Stacy's father Ben who had died one year ago. Her mother, Bernice who moved from Long Island to Santa Fe after her husband's death, and her brother Randy from California was there along with many of Stacy and Jim's friends who have now become Bernice's amigos as well. Monica and Bram were among the original guests and when they mentioned that we would be visiting Santa Fe we also were asked to come.

Bernice and Stacy are Jewish and said that it was traditional to put up a memorial one year after the burial. Since the interment was in New York and all of the family is out west and therefore unlikely to visit an east coast gravestone it was decided to plant a tree in Santa Fe instead.

Bernice said that Ben was a lover of pears, "eating pears and poaching pears", so two local varieties were chosen and two large holes prepared for their new homes.

The yard is typical New Mexico soil -- rock hard, bone dry, nutrient free, and pretty much unable to support any form of life other than tumbleweeds which Stacy and Jim had in abundance when they moved in. And in even more abundance shortly thereafter. Contrary to their name tumbleweeds are quite adamant about holding their ground and even more insistent on spreading themselves around.

At first Stacy and Jim thought "hey, it's green" but after several warnings about the invasiveness of the plant, and after watching their arid landscape being turned into a tumbleweed terrace, they decided to take action. There is a considerable slope to the backyard (about 720 degrees) and the builder had installed mesh wiring to prevent erosion. The tumbleweed attached itself to the mesh, the mesh was attached to the ground, yada, yada. After much blood, sweat, and tears the yard was tumbleweed free.

Now they are attempting to landscape the yard with less pushy, more gentile (that's gen-teeel) local plants -- and hopefully two productive pear trees.

But first there were appetizers and drinks while all of the guests arrived. Not knowing most of the people at the party Mars and I migrated to what were familiar with -- the food -- and settled in around the kitchen island which was covered with hors d'oeuvres and surrounded by like-minded people with whom we chatted in between bites.

After a while we moved to the outdoors with Monica and Bram where we were joined by Bernice who talked about her migration from the noise of New York to the "too quiet" of Santa Fe. Bernice's "New Yawk" accented voice has now become a regular part of Stacy's radio program. She also volunteers at a local museum, plays grandmother to the kids in her apartment building, and is one of the small number of riders on the Santa Fe buses where she is on a first-name basis with the drivers. She also changed her hair color, clothes and makeup, because she thought that she was blending in too much with the totally tan landscape and architecture of "The City Different".

Then it was time for the planting.

Stacy said a few words explaining why they had chosen to do this. Several guests who knew Ben spoke. And it was time to go to work.

Many of the folks in attendance were New Mexican gardeners. I am a Connecticut one. The main difference seems to be that I spend the majority of my horticultural time pruning back and transplanting plants to keep them from overcrowding each other, and the southwestern ones expend even more hours just trying to get them to appear above ground in a somewhat green condition. Removing tumbleweed I would have been good at, starting trees probably not so good.

I do however hope someday to become a New Mexico gardener. Because of that and, since I am a member of a Connecticut men's garden club and familiar with what happens when a group of us plant experts get together to commit horticulture, I decided to keep my mouth shut, pick up a shovel, and do what I was told.

Jim had already dug two large square holes, each one slightly deeper than the height of the ball at the base of the pear trees. Next to each opening were its future occupant, a pile of dirt, and several bags of some soil amendment stuff. All had been purchased and brought into the backyard to replace the infertile lumps of hard clay that had been removed and were now scattered nearby. As one of my club members says "Dirt is what you find on your kitchen floor. What you need is soil!"

I quickly realized the first and most basic step of New Mexican gardening -- throw away the earth that you've got and replace it with something from someplace else -- something that might actually sustain life. I pictured the entire landscape of the "Land of Enchantment" as dotted with secret little plant-sized pockets of imported and enhanced soil and told Bram to expect several packages of backyard earth from Connecticut in the near future.

It was decided that the holes were slightly too deep and that the roots of the pears needed something soft and welcoming surrounding them, so a few of us began shoveling in the imported stuff. Then we added some of the soil builder which certainly smelled as if it had to be doing something good. We alternated layers of soil and soil helper until the hole was filled and the fertile dirt pile was depleted.

The history of the desert southwest is the history of water -- where it comes from, how much is available, who owns it, and who has access to it -- and has been told in novels and films such as the "Milagro Beanfield War". (The movie was filmed in Truchas, N.M., the home of the pear trees that we were planting today.) The key to bringing life to the various forms of vegetation that have been planted in the standalone soil pods is to connect them to some form of hydration, initially via irrigation canals and nowadays with black, rubber drip irrigation tubing -- thousands of independent local area networks snaking across the arid, high desert land.

The hose was turned on and adjusted to a low rate of flow, and we finished the job by building little dirt and stone dams along the downhill side of the tree holes to keep in as much water as possible. Then it was time eat some more, and absorb the lessons learned.

1) re NM gardening -- buy local and BYO soil and water
2) the best way to plant anything is with good friends and great food.
3) transplants flourish if they have a desire to grow, are able to adapt to their surroundings, and have a strong local network to support them.

Pearl Tree Planting photos @ going2nm

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Not So Secret Life of Bees

I keep thinking that all of the hornets must be gone by now. Then I find a dead body lying feet up on the carpet or next to the latch on top of the lower window. Yesterday Mars found another one -- but only one. That is however way better than the body count that was piling up in our living room just one week ago.

This is the second major infestation of our house by members of the order Hymenoptera -- the third if you count the nest of ground hornets that took up residence just outside our family room door back when Nicole Marie, our beloved Labrador Retriever/Irish Setter, cohabited with us.

She of course discovered where they lived. Fortunately, with a spray can of the appropriate insecticide and a long handled shovel, I was able to eliminate them before they figured out where her dwelling was.

Because of our abundance of butterfly-seducing perennial plants we normally have quite a good supply of yellow and black nectar-suckers buzzing around our property -- only one of which has actually ever bothered either one of us. And to be accurate I bothered him by reaching barehanded into a tousle of ground ivy, within which the little buzzer was probably taking an unauthorized siesta, and coming up with a hand full of stinger.

I saw my assailant briefly as I angrily flicked his body, minus his stinger and attached stomach, onto the surrounding area of ground cover. Then, being home alone, I rushed into the house to ice my rapidly swelling palm. Fearing in the back of my mind the unknown dangers of anaphylactic shock I tried to page through my mind for other handy home remedies that I should apply before potentially losing consciousness. I vaguely recalled that certain kitchen spices could be used to, I guess, remove whatever poison there was -- but had no idea which ones. I thought perhaps MSG, but that might have been because I had a craving for Chinese stir-fry.

Anyway the swelling subsided, the pain never came, I had something else for lunch, and soon returned to the job of thinning my ground ivy, without further incident.

Several years ago, also in early autumn, we had our first real wasp invasion. We were having our kitchen remodeled so workers were traipsing around our house throughout the day when, since we were at work, the house would normally have been closed up tight. Nicole Marie was no longer with us. Towards the end of the week, around sunset when we came home, we noticed a few black and yellow wasps in our kitchen but didn't think much of it, attributing it to the comings and going of the carpenters, etc.

On Friday evening when we arrived we found a note from one of the men who had been working in the cellar saying something like there seemed to be "quite a few bees around here." There were in fact a few dead bodies around the kitchen area but we went downstairs to the basement where the work had been performed that day and were kind of stunned to find possibly one hundred or so corpses (all bees, no carpenters) -- but no live activity.

Then on Saturday afternoon we began to notice a steady influx of buzzing insects coming up our cellar stairs and heading directly for the nearest kitchen window. And there seemed to be a noticeable drone coming from the lower regions of our house. Clearly we had a problem that required outside help.

We looked in the yellow pages for Orkin or Terminex (or possibly both) -- nationally advertised "pest control experts" and the only names in that field that we were familiar with. We discovered that even in a situation such as ours (which I attempted to portray as being similar to the playground scene from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" but indoors with hornets) the big guys only work on weekdays. "Would you like to schedule an appointment for Tuesday?"

We went back to the yellow pages and called the first nearby name that we found --"A A Bon". A woman answered and said that she would get hold of someone who was "out on the truck". After I hung up I rushed off to our neighborhood Tru-Value Hardware to get enough ammo to hopefully enable us to hold our ground until the Cavalry arrived while Mars waited nervously for a return call. By the time I returned (probably fifteen minutes) the Insecticide Samurai guy had arrived, assessed the situation, shown Mars the point of entry, pointed out the "sentry" wasp that was aggressively guarding it, and now was in the process of donning his big white exterminator's costume. As he swaggered back from his truck I am certain that I heard him say to Mars (in what turned out to be a Tennessee accent), "Now don't you worry none, little lady."

The insect ingress spot turned out to be a less than perfectly sealed hole for an exhaust pipe in our cement cellar wall within which the insects had then built their nest. During the day, with the weather now becoming colder, the wasps were heading into the house in search of heat and then upstairs to our kitchen in search of light. The plan was to shoot some killing agent into the hole/nest and then spray the cellar with an organic smoke that would decimate them as they attempted to escape. As "A A Bon" got near the nest his white suit was engulfed by frustrated black and yellow stinging machines that he somehow removed before he came into the house to take care of the basement.

Within one half hour the battle was over. The next day we cleaned up the carnage and, following "A A Bon's' instructions, used a sprayable substance that hardened inside the opening to seal it up against future invasions.

Now, years later, we were under attack again -- except this time in our living room.

It began with a few sightings of slow moving wasps staggering along the frames and ledges of our north facing windows. Gradually the number increased and I employed an indoor insecticide that I had on hand in the areas where the invaders had been spotted. We went outside to look for the entry point but saw nothing, although based upon our earlier experience I suspected a hole that had been added to our cellar wall to accommodate a water utility meter-reading device that could be read remotely.

The next morning there were double-digit dead things on the floor and window casings. I looked outside and saw a swarm of yellow jackets hovering around what appeared to be a small opening between our chimney and our vinyl siding. Mars and I decided to spray heavy duty insecticide into the hole for a few days to see if we could quell the situation, and if that didn't work to place another call to "A A Bon".

That evening at dusk, when the wasps had quieted down for the day, I gingerly mounted our stepladder with my biochemical weaponry in hand, placed the nozzle as close as possible to the opening, and fired away.

By noon the next day the body count was up and, in some no doubt sick and demented way, we were feeling better about the whole situation. We repeated the same drill for the next four days with the same results, causing me to wonder if depressed insects were flocking to the area to act out their own version of "suicide by cop" or if hornet nests had bigger populations than most major U.S. cities.

We are now in week two of the "spray-by-night and vacuum-by-day" offensive. There are no signs of outside life around the chimney, but we still get the daily single digit cadaver count on our carpet. We plan to keep on spraying and in a couple of days we are going to seal up the hole from the outside -- and hope for the best.

As a former neighbor told me a while ago, once you become empty nesters you only really live in two rooms of your house. Fortunately for us the living room is not one of them.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Ineluctable modality of the visible.

Falling orange leaves
Nudge resistant butterflies -
Metaphors at war.

I was unaware of the word "ineluctable" until I came upon it while I was trying to come up with a closing line for this haiku. Further "Googling" led me to the phrase that became its title. I have never read James Joyce's Ulysses, nor do I intend to -- especially now.

In James Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's character) goes for a walk on the beach, and closing his eyes as he walks along remarks "Ineluctible modality of the visible": i.e. it dominates our experience. (

Although there is probably no exact source that Joyce used for the opening words of the chapter ("Ineluctable modality of the visible"), the subject matter of the following allusions is found in Aristotle's De Anima. Aristotle taught that we are first aware of bodies through their translucence or transparency (diaphane), then through their colors. (

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Viral Vacations

I have not had a really good cold since I retired from work over three years ago. Then a few days ago I got what I thought might be one -- but it turned out not to be. Now I doubt that I will ever have one again.

By "good" you probably think that I mean "bad" -- that I am using the normally positive adjective as an antagonym (a.k.a. autantonym, contronym, Janus word, or self-antonym) -- similar to the way that the word "bad" is also used to denote its opposite. And I do mean it that way, at least partially. Because the first criterion for a really good cold, is that it has to be really, really bad.

How bad is a good cold?

(1) Bad enough to cause alternating bouts of body-shivering chills and sweat-inducing fevers.

(2) Bad enough to generate nonstop, confusing, wildly irrational, sleep-interrupting dreams that begin as soon as you close your eyes and mitigate only when you reopen them after hours of hallucinated semi-sleep to discover that the clock has inexplicably advanced a mere thirty minutes.

(3) Bad enough to wrap a fog around any thought that stumbles into your mind. A hazy curtain dense enough to prevent that concept from connecting in any logical way at all with any other idea that might haphazardly wander into the neighborhood.

(4) Bad enough -- and here is where the transition of good towards good begins -- to completely eliminate any possible consideration at all of going to work. Or doing any of those things that need to be done around the house.

(5) Bad enough so that all I was capable of doing during my daytime hours was to recoup some of the sleep that I had missed; read some of the unread books and magazines that I was always to exhausted to tackle during my healthy days; and watch movies that I knew (either intuitively or explicitly) Mars would never sit through with me.


A typical day would be:
7:00 a.m. - get up, have breakfast, read the morning paper, and watch "Today"
8:30 a.m. - return to bed to read book
9:00 a.m. - nap
10:00 a.m. - resume book reading
11:00 a.m. - resume nap
12:00 noon - lunch
1:00 p.m. - get video from Blockbuster
1:30 p.m. - nap
2:00 p.m. - begin video
3:30 p.m. - nap
4:00 p.m. - finish video

I actually do not recall any of the book titles that I read during my illness hiatuses (I suppose that its even possible that I reread the same pages over and over). I do however remember the enjoyment of being able to doze off whenever the need arose and awakening later to finish reading the sentence.

Some of the movies that I recollect viewing through fevered-eyes were "Hoosiers", "Raging Bull", "Bagger Vance" and (inexplicably to me now) "The Crying Game" -- flicks that, except for the last one, you would think would play better in an ambiance of beer, cigar smoke, and pizza rather than Kleenex, Motrin, and Halls Mentho-lyptus. I always kept the videos around that night for Mars to watch but strangely she never took me up on any of them.

So finally, along comes my first good cold in over one thousand days and instead of wallowing in the warm embrace of welcoming infirmity I squandered the opportunity by doing the "same old, same old" that I normally do.

It is really hard to enjoy a day off when your normal workweek consists of six Saturdays and a Sunday. And that is actually a good thing.

Gave my cold to Mars --
"in sickness and in health" --
Good pledge, bad present.

Thank you for the code.
It was an obnoxious gift.
I ab not habby.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Whoda thunk it?

I used to think that as gardener I was either uninformed, or lazy, or cheap -- or possibly all three. Now I find that I was just ahead of my time.

Take my lawn for example. Having lived in naught but rented apartments until Mars and I purchased our house in 1979, I was totally baffled by the plethora of green stuff that covered most of my property. It probably had more broad-leaved weeds, ground ivy, and wild violets than fescue, bentgrass or ryegrass. But damn it, IT WAS GREEN AND IT WAS MINE. To my mind it was the perfect lawn.

We bought in April and (as I remember) it rained regularly for the first few months of our new occupancy. The grass grew. And the grass stayed green. What me water?

A few dandelions appeared. But I quickly excised them with the really cool fork-tongued weed remover that was part of the starter kit my father-in-law had given me. The new neighbors talked about fertilizing but -- not having any idea what they were chattering about, and not wishing to spend money to find out -- I simply looked at them with the superior air of a Smart Car owner staring down a Hummer SUV driver, and changed the subject.

Was I a "rebel without a clue"? Perhaps at the time yes. But who knew that thirty years later having a well-kept lawn, instead of being a sign of civic responsibility, would be viewed as an ecological crime against humanity. In spite of my self-doubts I was in fact a pioneer in the "Freedom Lawn" movement.

According to that scorekeeper of style, The New Yorker magazine, "The Freedom Lawn is still mowed -- preferably with a push-mower -- but it is watered infrequently, if at all, and receives no chemical 'inputs.' If a brown spot develops, it is likely soon to be filled by what some might call weeds, but which Bormann, Balmori, and Geballe [authors of "Redesigning the American Lawn" (1993)] would rather refer to as 'low growing broad-leaved plants.'"

Damn! If I had a better P.R. rep I could have been a glamorous trendsetter instead of just a guy in dirt-stained pants duckwalking around his yard uprooting weeds with a long-bladed tool.

Then there are our perennial beds -- which to some more closely resemble a science exhibit demonstrating the "Survival of the Fittest" than a functionally spaced assemblage of flowers, compatibly arranged by size, color and texture, blooming in succession

But what are you supposed to do when well-meaning friends offer you their overstocks and outcasts? Or when your hometown threatens the lives of innocent plants with its bulldozers of mass destruction? You find a place for them.

Fortunately there is a fancy-schmancy name for this -- a Monet Garden.

Claude Monet was probably the most prolific of the "Impressionist" painters. And he was a planter of perennials who frequently used the gardens at his home in Giverny, France as his subject matter.

Monet's landscapes tended to be busy with color and texture -- as did his flowerbeds -- somewhat like those that can currently be seen at our house. Okay, maybe his plots were not quite as crowded. That just means he probably didn't have as many "giving" friends as we do. And perhaps the placement of his plants went from short in front to tall in back, and perfectly followed the gradations of hues on the color wheel. But that's just because he actually knew the name (and perhaps other characteristics) of the vegetation he was using.

Still, he had a lot of stuff in his perennial plots, and so do we. And that is close enough for me.

Several autumns ago Mars asked me to cut down the seasonally dead coneflowers, daisies, rudbeckia, and other summer has-beens that blighted our landscape. I was feeling tired at the time so I suggested that we "let the plants stay for the winter so the birds can eat the seeds." (I actually was hoping that the little feathered invaders would chop the plants down completely and tote the stems away for firewood. I knew that they wouldn't, but I hoped.)

To my total surprise Mars bought the idea. As a result, not doing anything about the perennial deadwood is now an integral part of my annual fall cleanup regimen. Years later I read somewhere -- probably in a belatedly published back issue of "The Procrastinator's Journal" -- that I actually was right. Not only do the finches and their colleagues actually eat the tiny pits, but the tall stems also provide protection and temporary shelters for the little guys during the cold winter months. Whoda thunk it?

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." (Shunryu Suzuki -- Zen Buddhist Priest)


(Tim Toady)

Cold above. Beneath
98.6 times 2 --
Northern comforters.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Now For Something Really Dangerous

Even though it should be, my biggest concern as a backyard feeder of birds is not the dangers to which I apparently am exposing them. It is much more personal than that.

Some bird advocates aver that home feeding causes the diminishment or loss of the ability of the feathered vertebrates to fend for themselves and the resultant creation of an entitlement mentality and/or a "dependent class" of avians. Others express alarm that these all-you-can-eat dining areas are de facto small game hunting ranches for bird predators such as cats and hawks.

There are however even more serious perils.

Backyard bird feeders and birdbaths can be sources of diseases that kill birds.

Diseases potentially spread by birdbaths and feeders include mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, aspergillosis, avian chlamydia, and trichomoniasis.

Potential dangers of feeding wildlife go beyond dangers to the birds that eat backyard seed and nectar. For one thing, those birds are often eaten by other wildlife, including raptors. Trichomoniasis, for example, is a significant problem for the Cooper's Hawks in urban Tucson. Second, in some parts of town, bird food on the ground may attract animals like javelinas, rabbits and squirrels, which in turn may attract predators such as mountain lions.
[Or in my state of Connecticut, black bears.]

I suspect that the Tucson Arizona squirrels Arizona mentioned above are of the ground variety. In Connecticut we have the more classic "tree squirrels".

(Although the term tree squirrel can refer to any arboreal member of the family Sciuridae, it is generally in reference to the common and widely distributed members of the genus Sciurus and close kin, the tribe Sciurini. These genera contain most of the common, bushy-tailed squirrels in North America, Europe, temperate Asia, and South America. The tree squirrels are close relatives of the flying squirrels.

They generally spend little time on the ground, preferring the heights of the forest canopy.)

And as a result they are attracted to the aerial birdfeeders in our yard -- and have adapted their behavior accordingly.

Most of the time, most of the squirrels are content to acrobatically array themselves on the food-tubes, gleefully defying gravity and the laws of flexibility and strength while they stuff their pouches with surfeits of sunflowers. Occasionally though they turn destructive.

One of our feeders has a plastic soda bottle as its seed holding area. It is a commercial product designed to accommodate to the very situation that I am about to tell you about. Yesterday I had to replace the bottle because it had a four-inch by three-inch hole eaten out of its side. Mars had observed the creation of this aperture over several days.

One of our regular squirrels, identifiable by the thin black band around its mouth, had been steadily working on it. Last week Mars' reading reverie was inconsiderately interrupted by the familiar sounds of tiny rodent teeth vigorously gnawing on pieces of molded polyethylene-terephthalate.

As she always does, Mars rose from her seat, opened the door, and heatedly berated the mini-marauder for its rude and destructive behavior, "Bad squirrel! BAD squirrel!" The miscreant immediately took leave of its chewing project and retreated to the branch from which the object of its dental desire descended, where it laid on its stomach, legs dangling, looking either sincerely repentant or absolutely disinterested depending on the observer's perspective.

Minutes later, the bottlewrecker was back on the job. Initially the hole was barely visible. Within days it was large enough for the squirrel to stretch the upper portion of its body inside the feeder and stuff itself amidst the climate-controlled, plastic environment. Mars suggested that we needed a new bottle.

When I went out to take it down a gray titmouse was perched on the edge of the cutout opening unsuccessfully attempting to lean forward and reach the remaining pile of seeds. Fortunately, rather than losing its balance and pitching itself beak first into the sunflowers, it righted itself and flew away.

But what if the titmouse was not unable to escape. Or worse what if the original bushy-tailed vandal had tumbled into the two-liter trap and either through panic, ignorance, or the simple laws of physics was not able to extricate itself. Once he finished eating all of the seeds left in the bottle -- first things first after all -- he would attempt to climb his way back up to the entry hole.

He would of course fail. (1) The inside wall of the feeder being slippery plastic with no imbedded footholds would be unscalable. (2) Even if he reached the hole his newly acquired girth could prevent him from fitting through. (3) There being no food involved, it would never occur to the squirrel to chew himself an outbound opening. (4) Someone (me) would have to rescue him.

It is hard to imagine that, even as frightened as the captive rodent might feel, he could be anywhere near as terrified as I would be. And all of the possible scenarios that I can imagine for resolving the imprisoned squirrel dilemma end up validating that fear. Every ending to the story that I can foresee has me lying in some form of hospital receiving some form of anti fatal disease medication through some unpleasant delivery mechanism.

Still, feeling at least partially responsible for creating the attractive nuisance that seduced the squirrel into its chamber of horrors -- even though Mars tried to warn him -- I guess that I would feel compelled to at least try and free the little guy.

Besides, compared to washing out the bird feeders and baths and coming into contact with all of the life-threatening germs that reside therein, hands-on wildlife rescue sounds positively appealing.

Friday, September 12, 2008

It's Lonely At The Top

Top is the toughest
Spot on human pyramids -
Tottering on trust.

(please click on picture to enlarge)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Marketing 101

It was an unusually warm and humid early September evening in the mid-Connecticut suburbs. We had just had finished dinner and S & D, our hosts, suggested that the four of us adjourn to the cooler confines of their front stairs to continue our post-prandial conversation.

The sun had set thirty minutes before and the street was in the early stages of darkness. Neighbors sauntered by walking their dogs. A barely visible, unlighted teenage bicyclist hurried past. Lights were being turned on in nearby houses. There was no automotive traffic to drown the sound of silence.

S and D mentioned that on the previous evening the quietude had been broken by the caterwauling of a female squirrel in heat -- attempting to drum up interest in her seasonal fecundity. Then a nearby smartass mockingbird answered the tree-rat's plaintive call. The call and response continued unabated at least until S and D lost interest and turned their attention to other matters.

At about that point in time I noticed some movement in the second floor front window of the two-story house diagonally across the street. The white colonial style abode was totally in darkness except for what appeared to be one light in the room with activity.

At first I thought it was my wishful imagination. Then I realized that it wasn't. "I think that I'm seeing a fantasy." I happily announced.

All eight eyes peered at the backlit window and we agreed that what we all were viewing was a woman, most likely fresh from the shower, wrapped in a white towel, preparing to go out for the evening -- either totally oblivious to, or absolutely aware of her public visibility.

S and D decided it was most likely the "girl" who lived there.

We continued to watch. She walked around a little bit and swung her shoulderlength hair back and then forward as she disappeared below the window ledge. When she came back up she was wearing a black bra that she had apparently put on when she was out of sight but which she now seemed perfectly willing to display to anyone willing to look. Which, of course, we were.

A few more hair swings and she bent forward in order to put on some of her below-the-waist clothing. Then she covered up the black bra with a white blouse, checked herself out in an out of sight mirror, turned off the light, and left the room.

A few minutes later she reappeared with a different light shining, looking out the window as if searching for her ride to wherever. But we never saw her leave.

Totally enjoying what I was seeing but still feeling a little slimy about my voyeurism I asked S and D how old the "girl" was. After some discussion they concluded that they actually didn't know but seemed to think late high school or early college. Since my view of the precedings was at least partially a phantasm constructed out of movie scenes, written descriptions, and my own imagination I decided not to feel too bad about it.

The show was over and the bugs began to bite. So we headed inside the house where we all vented about the misleading manner in which Sarah Palin was being sold to the American public, and D introduced Mars and me to the advertising concept of "the purple cow" -- that "the key to success is to find a way to stand out -- to be the purple cow in a field of monochrome Holsteins."

The randy tree rodent never reappeared. It was a little disappointing to Mars and me, but probably a good thing for her. After being mocked the preceding evening, getting totally upstaged tonight might have been more than she could handle.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Forgetting The Good Times

It is difficult to write about things that you don't remember -- difficult but not impossible.

Take the 1960's for example. It has been often said that if you remember the sixties, then you weren't really there. Yet many musical performers, as well as others whose self-described chemical usage would lead you to believe that they should have little (if any) recollection of that time, have nonetheless shared their memories of it -- in pretty significant detail.

Just for the record I have perfect recall of that decade.

Obviously the sixties-memory-loss-as-certification-of-participation is meant hyperbolically. But effective hyperbole is rooted in reality -- in this case a recognition that during intense involvement in an activity our self-awareness is oftentimes significantly diminished.

Except for Woody Allen. Yesterday Mars and I saw his latest movie "Vicky, Christina, Barcelona". And a few weeks back we had watched "Cassandra's Dream." Allen directed both but does not appear in either. But as our son Bram commented to us, "he's always there."

Some may wonder why we willingly subject ourselves to ninety minutes plus of angst-filled, Upper Eastside New York City dialog -- even if it is spoken with a charming Spanish or faux working-class English accent. In the most recent case it was truthfully the setting of the movie, which we visited in 2002. Without going into any more detail I would say "V, C, B" - four stars (five for Barcelona), "C D" - two and one half.

In both cinematic works, as in every Woody Allen film, all of the characters seem to be able at all times to perfectly, albeit somewhat psychotically, articulate their feelings and motivations. And so they do -- ad nauseam -- as if they are experiencing them and recounting them to their shrinks at the same time. Actual people -- or at least the ones that I know -- are just not like that.

In fact, much of the time in real life we are largely unaware of many of the details of the act we are performing -- never mind what motivates us to do it. Sometimes this has dire consequences, as when we nervously pour the red wine on our guests sleeve instead of into the goblet. Other times, as in deeply ingrained habits, nothing bad happens at all. And occasionally absolutely wonderful things happen because we, for whatever reason, are able to shut our minds off from outside distractions and the inessential aspects of what we are attempting, and focus in on the bare essentials of getting it done.

I myself seem to remember every excruciating detail of every bad golf shot I have ever hit -- what I was thinking of, any pains in my body, the bug that landed on the ball, the copse of trees on the right, the water in front, the preceding shot that I just topped, yada, yada, yada. Probably because at the time it was happening I was equally, if not more, aware of each of them. Yet all that I can recall about the good ones is seeing the path of the ball and the final result.

As another New Yorker, baseball legend Yogi Berra, purportedly said, "Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?"

I had two of these good swings during our recent Golfing Elderhostel at Penn State University. I like to think that I actually had more than that. And I probably did. I'm just not aware of them. But these particular ones seem to persist in my long-term memory because they were shots that I would have not even attempted just the day before.

Both of them went between two trees that were probably a couple of driver club-lengths apart -- although now in my mind the opening has shrunk to about one and one-half golf balls wide. In each instance I was probably twenty to thirty yards away from the barricades. But the truth is that I never really saw the impediments -- just the open space between them and the path that the ball would take to get to its target. I took one practice swing, aimed, and hit the shots cleanly through the trees. Each one landed where it would have if I had hit it perfectly from a totally open fairway. And that is all that I remember.

The next day, attempting similar if not simpler shots, my mind was picturing the trees even as I pretended to be focused on the target. And my thoughts were anxiously analyzing and delineating all the mechanics of the simple swing I was hoping to perform. Of course I hit the trees. And I immediately began to agonize about my golf game.

In a personality profile in our local newspaper ESPN Sports Anchor Georgie Bingham is quoted as saying "I play a lot of golf.....My skills ranges from truly terrible to wonderfully brilliant....."

At a social gathering -- or even writing this -- brilliance can come from having the observational abilities, self-perception, and verbal talents of a Woody Allen. But on the golf course you are much better off with the skills of a man who can't think at all -- at least when he is hitting.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

And Your Bird Can Sing

Despite being socially monogamous, northern cardinals frequently engage in extra-pair copulations. In one study, 9 to 35% of nestlings were the result of extra-pair copulations. (

1st Movement -- Affettuoso Saccharum -- "Sun, sun, sun, here it comes..."

To Mars and me, slightly less than mostly asleep after a solid eight-hour slumber on a cool spring morning, it is music - sweet lyrical notes honed by centuries of evolutionary refinements and anthropomorphized by audiences eager to connect with the natural world within which we find ourselves. Inches apart we both open our eyes and look at each other for the first time in this day's light.

To the male cardinal, attached steadfastly to the pink blossomed flowering crab tree adjacent to our house, it is simply his way of reconnecting with his main squeeze after each of their nightly liaisons with other members of their polyamorous social group.

"purdy purdy purdy"

The tune is hardly unique to him - I mean he didn't "compose" it, or construct it from samplings of other artists' work, or even improvise one little bit from the basic text. But although different male Emberizidae Cardinalinae have and will sing this identical melody in this identical style for all of cardinal eternity -- it is nonetheless definitely his song.

"purdy purdy purdy"

Because of the time of day, spot of origin, and lyrics, we recognize that it is "our" cardinal doing the singing. For some reason this feeling of imaginary ownership gives us comfort as our hands touch in the middle of the bed.

More importantly however, either based upon slight nuances that only a devoted fan can detect or the fact that they perform this same song and dance every day at the same time and place, she recognizes that, within the slightly tenuous cardinal definition of monogamy, this is her cardinal. Her answer-song, performed offstage left but still heard clearly, penetrates our bedroom space. And all too soon, after a few more back and forth solos escalating in speed so as to almost become a duet, they reunite (for the daylight hours anyway) and the singing, having reached its coda, comes to a stop.

2nd Movement -- Fortissimo Dissonare -- "The sun ain't gonna shine anymore"

We got to sleep late with minor headaches for which, since we were both tired, we failed to take medication. The windows are open due to the same lack of late-night energy and, as a result, the room is cooler than our bed coverings can overcome. A light drizzle is falling and the wind blows ferociously throughout the night until just before dawn. There is absolutely no hope for sunshine ever again within our lifetimes.


I roll over to my other side and pull the quilt up over my ears hoping to drown out the cacophony of cardinal cries. It doesn't work. The dissonant diatribe bypasses my aural system and penetrates my mind somewhere in the mid-forehead area -- penetrating deeper and deeper like an awl being driven in by each damn whiney, high-pitched note.

"What the hell is wrong with these birds? Can't he keep it in his feathers? Why can't they spend a quiet night at home like the rest of us? Like we should have last night!"

If it weren't even colder outside the quilt than under it I would get my gun, if I had one, and create a permanent memorial of blood-soaked red feathers on the branch from which he launches his disruptive ditty.

Instead we both lie there inharmoniously, waiting desperately for the conclusion of the songfest and hoping that they will leave us alone, in silence, for the rest of the day.

Finis -- Expectato Desperado -- "The sun will come out, tomorrow"