Sunday, February 24, 2008


Mars (despite her name) and I are not New Agers, and we tend to be pretty skeptical of the alleged spiritual nature of a lot of the "unexplained mysteries" in the world. We have however seen the Marfa Lights, tried to place ourselves amidst the vortexes of Sedona, and listened for, but never actually heard, the Taos Hum.

According to the Skeptics Dictionary
"The Marfa lights are lights which are visible from a viewing area about 10 miles east of the town of Marfa, Texas. They are the main tourist attraction in the area. The lights are said to appear to bounce around in the sky, vanish and re-appear, and thus are considered a mystery by some. To others, the lights are not a mystery. They are ghosts or swamp gas or radioactive bursts or ball lightning or navigational lights for space aliens or headlights and taillights of cars in the Chinati Mountains on U.S. highway 67."

Marfa is a three drive from El Paso - "just take the I-10 east and turn right at Van Horn." On our first visit we saw all of twenty-one vehicles in the ninety minutes after we left the interstate. The vast majority were pickup trucks, and every driver gave us the Texas "drive-by wave" - a two-fingered salute that is executed without the driver removing their hand from the steering wheel.

Marfa, like many other places in the world, was a simpler place when we visited it in 1998 and 2000. On both occasions we went to spend time at the Chinati Foundation - "a contemporary art museum....based upon the ideas of its founder, Donald Judd". Judd was a minimalist architect and sculptor who established the institution in an abandoned cavalry base in Marfa. Both the artist and the museum are apparently quite a big deal in Europe, and on our first visit we met a father and daughter from Germany who came to the U.S.A. exclusively to see New York City, San Francisco, Atlanta - and Marfa.

At that time the other major town attractions were Mike's Restaurant ("flautas the size of your big finger, not like those skinny big city ones"), Carmen's Restaurant (homemade donuts if you got there before nine a.m.), and the Dairy Queen - as well as the highest golf course in Texas. The only traffic light was a flashing one on the state road through town. Otherwise you were pretty much on your own.

We had heard about the Marfa Lights from Monica and Bram (daughter-in-law and son) who had been there the year prior. One night after dark we armed ourselves with DQ Blizzards and went out to see the lights.

The viewing area was an unlit pull-off with neither posted information nor facilities. And it was impenetrably dark - an open scrub-brush field with no internal or external points of reference, and no man-made illumination for miles. Fortunately there were other more experienced spectators who got us oriented in the right direction, and explained to us what it was that we were looking for.

After quite a while we saw some dots of light gently bobbing up and down on what we took to be the horizon. Since we had finished our ice cream, were not totally sure what were looking for, and had some concerns about the nocturnal habits of the poisonous snakes that hung around in that locality, we declared that we had in fact witnessed the Mystery Lights of Marfa and went back to our room.

On our second visit there we got to be the experts. Other than that it was pretty much the same - including the Blizzards. We don't know if what we saw actually qualifies as "the lights". They looked, at least to me, an awful lot like vehicle headlights - probably more than we saw on our first drive to Marfa - but what the heck.....!

In 1999, the year between our two Marfa visits, we once again found ourselves searching for the supernatural - this time in Sedona Arizona.

"In Sedona vortexes are created, not by wind or water, but from spiraling spiritual energy. The vortexes of Sedona are named because they are believed to be spiritual locations where the energy is right to facilitate prayer, mediation and healing. Vortex sites are believed to be locations having energy flow that exists on multiple dimensions. The energy of the vortexes interacts with a person's inner self. It is not easily explained. Obviously it must be experienced."

We bought a hiking book that directed us to the mystical maelstroms and hiked out to several of them - but nothing vortex-ual happened. However in one of these high energy locations we did meet a woman who told us that the day before she had been here with her cat, and the normally calm kitty totally freaked out as soon as it came to the periphery of the area. Still I didn't feel any electricity in the air, maybe because my mind was distracted pondering the possibilities of trekking tabbies and rock-climbing Russian Blues.

Several tries but no spiritually swirling successes. We did however have the best Chicken Fried Steak ever at a place called The Red Planet Diner - a quest that we found much more satisfying.

Then the other morning the Today television program had a segment on the "Taos Hum" - "a persistent low-frequency sound, often described as being comparable to that of a distant diesel engine idling, or to some similar low-pitched sound for which obvious sources (e.g., household appliances, traffic noise, etc.) have been ruled out."

According to the Today reporter about two percent of the people in the New Mexican town of Taos have heard the hum. Which also means, as he pointed out, that ninety-eight percent had not. He spoke to locals believers, scientists who have tested unsuccessfully for it, and a town educator/historian who said tongue-in-cheek that it was probably just be the collective sigh of awed tourists. The current scientific hypothesis is that the sound might be the result of an auditory condition.

Mars and I have been to Taos many, many times. It is a quiet place, even with all of the wonderstruck visitors schlepping around, stopping suddenly, and cupping their hands to their ears in search of the sound. We ourselves may have even made an explicit effort or two to hear the audible undercurrents - with no success.

Apparently our psyches are not as much in sync with the metaphysical nuances of Sedona and Taos as they are with those in Marfa. Maybe it has something to do with past life regressions or some other supernatural connections to the modest West Texas town. Or maybe our chakras were out of alignment.

More likely it was the brain freeze caused by the Blizzards.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Wild Wolf Management

A story today on National Public Radio's Morning Edition reported that " The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced plans to take the gray wolf off the endangered species list, allowing them to be killed by hunters and ranchers. Wolf advocates argue delisting puts that population at risk." Supporters for "delisting" suggest that wolves could be better managed at the State level in the same way that elk and black bears have been.

Perhaps the following approach, expressed in Haiku, might be acceptable to both sides:

Wildlife Management
Controls elk population,
One per wolf per week.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What's In A Name?

We had two trees taken down on our property over this past winter.

One was a Spruce that I misidentified to the arborist as a Hemlock. He told me what it really was when he dropped by to estimate the job - and I promptly forgot. Fortunately he also wrote it out on the proposal so I was able to get it right for this essay. In general I try not to know too much about my perennial shrubs for the same reason that cattle ranchers don't name their livestock - too much familiarity makes it more difficult to part with them when the time comes to do so.

I didn't have enough of a clue about the other tree's lineage to even hazard a guess - so I just pointed. He didn't know either. On the proposal it is identified as an "ornamental" so when the hired hands came to actually cut it down I asked them. "Idunno" I was told.

The Spruce had reached a point where all of the living branches were at a height greater than what I could reach even with my telescoping "extended reach" pruning saw. When I cut off last year's crop of dead limbs the fully-extended pole oscillated like a sine wave as I stood on my toes trying not to look up at the shower of wood sawdust cascading down into my eyes and mouth.

The 2008 version of trimming this tree would have involved a stepladder on uneven earth - an unacceptable risk to preserve the appearance of something that: (a) no longer provided border privacy below the height of twenty feet, (b) looked pretty scrawny from twenty feet one inch upwards and (c) still shaded a good portion of the woodland garden bed at its base. We decided that more sunlight might perk up the assortment of groundcovers that grow, but do not flourish, in that part of our yard. Once again I elected not to memorize the names of these plants knowing the life span of transplants around here.

The "ornamental Idunno" began as a privacy barrier for part of our living room then performed the same function for our upstairs den. Now it was well on its way to offering complete seclusion to a portion of our roof and total visibility into the aforementioned living areas, while at the same time filling our gutters with an annoying large supply of unidentifiable foliage.

This tree's removal would also offer a glimmer of hope for the revival of a lonely Laurel bush that was planted next to it at least thirty years ago. At that time, it probably was the primary shade provider in that corner of our yard.

So, with some degree of reluctance, because I truly do enjoy playing with my pole saw, I agreed to have them both removed.

They would be the fourth and fifth trees that we have taken off of our property.

The first one I actually felled by myself. It also was a fir, possibly a Spruce, and was located pretty close to the location of this year's victim. I came upon it serendipitously one day about twenty years ago when I was clearing deadwood in that section of my land. It certainly wasn't the first time I had worked or walked in that area. But it probably was my initial trip back there with time on my hands and a brand new Japanese pruning saw on my hip - motive plus opportunity plus weapon.

The tree was probably ten feet tall but because of its tightly confined growing area and lack of sunlight it was basically limbless. I remember having my then teenage son hold tight to a rope I had attached to the trunk and pull on it as I cut away at the base with my trusty new blade. It took much longer than I expected and my right arm was pretty much quivering for the remainder of the day but I did get the thrill of yelling "timber!" And no one was injured - so it was worth it.

The second and third shrubs were a (sort of) matched pair of Flowering Crabs that grew along one side of my house. Every few autumns each one would become hopelessly self-entangled, and I would cut them both down pretty much to the ground. The next year they would grow back to their former size, the following spring they would flower, and the third one the would re-entwine. And the cycle would continue - but with a continually diminishing display of blossoms every third year.

Truthfully I enjoyed these triannual tree razings - particularly the stunned looks on my neighbor's faces and my opportunity to smugly assure them that, come spring, all would be well again. Except it was becoming less and less well each time that I did it.

So a couple of years ago as a part of having some new perennial beds landscaped into our yard we had the two flowering crabs removed.

It took quite a while to get used to the new open spaces look. Like Scylla (the rock) and Charybdis (the whirlpool) protecting Italy's Strait of Messina, the twin trees had stood sentry on our yard for as long as we had been here - and for many years before.

Of course we didn't give them those, or any other names. It was hard enough getting rid of them just knowing what they were. Knowing who would have made it impossible.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hitchcock Vision Come to Roost

Two Haiku Prompted By One newspaper article.

No Really - It's An Ornithological Experiment

Two large potatoes
Wrapped with black furry fabric
Placed on snowy ground.

Who Knew We Were A Winter Getaway Destination?

Crows come to be warm.
"Snowbirds" flee the sleet and cold.
Balance of nature.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Everybody Talks About It

Mark Twain famously said, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."

T. Foster Lindley, my old Philosophy teacher, used to tell us, "Everybody talks about the weather precisely because nobody can do anything about it."

A friend, Peter, has offered the opinion that "the only purpose of local news is to keep you entertained and interested until the weather comes on."

I agree with all of them - particularly Professor Lindley - which is why I believe that the following story could actually be true.

On a bright, sunny summer day at about twelve noon Karl looked out his office window and noticed that (1) there were considerably fewer people out-and-about than you would normally see on such a beautiful day, and (2) most of the foot traffic was carrying umbrellas.

Karl had been the only local TV meteorologist that morning to forecast rain - a source of much embarrassment to him. So his first reaction was to feel pride at the amount of faith that his viewers apparently still had in his weather reporting ability. Followed by a feeling of "I won! I won!" as exemplified by the small percentage of weather-appropriate pedestrians in the crowd. But then he began to wonder about the common sense and sanity of the parasol-packing populace. It had been at least six hours since he had put out his unintentionally false prognostication - four hours for the late sleepers.

Didn't they notice that there had not been a single cloud of any kind in the light blue sky - not just cumulonimbus or nimbostratus, as he like to call them, - but nada, nil, zippo, zilch. No freaking clouds at all! Don't these people look up at the sky? Don't they have windows at work?

And what if they did, and decided, "You know it doesn't look like rain" and were wrong - what was the worst that was going to happen to them anyway? They're in the damn downtown anyway - five seconds away from shelter in any direction."

"What is wrong with these people?" Karl wondered. "Don't they think for themselves?"

So he tried an experiment. About two weeks later, on a similarly promising beautiful weather day, he deliberately mis-forecasted the very high likelihood of extremely severe thunderstorms, fifty mile per hour winds, and downpours of rain. It was a Saturday and there were several outdoor events scheduled - town picnics, antique shows, art exhibits, etc. In spite of the fact that these activities mostly did not begin until afternoon, by which time everyone who was planning on going to them could have seen how wrong his forecast was, attendance universally dropped by over two-thirds from years past.

He definitely felt that he was on to something - so he decided to ratchet it up a notch. On another weekend day when he was scheduled to do the weather morning, noon and night he decided to not only give a fearful forecast in the morning, but to stick with that forewarning at noon, and in the evening to act as if it had actually happened the way he said it would. He supported his after-the-fact forecast with made up temperature and precipitation numbers, and he reprogrammed the radar images to support his hoax.

Not one viewer complained. Instead everyone basically accepted his heartfelt explanation that "a few fortunate localities just dodged the bullet", and stayed tuned in for the "five day forecast later in the broadcast".

The news director Karen was however apoplectic - not about the inaccuracy, but instead about the fact that she hadn't been forewarned and therefore was not able to get reporters out on the roads to provide satellite coverage of the weather events that were in fact happening only in her weatherman's imagination.

If Karen had known about it the day before then she could have scheduled all of the journalists' locations and stories at that time, and she and they could have slept in the next day.

The fact that each correspondent would be narrating exactly the same view of the same news - that the particular area from which they were reporting had indeed been blest not to be blasted by the bogus bad weather was not a problem. It would, after all, be backed up by several people on the street interviews. Viewers just loved these stories - in fact the news ratings had gone up fifteen percentage points for the five days immediately following each of Karl's previous fibbed forecasts.

And the reporters loved reporting them. They got to wear cool baseball caps, and the stories, always being basically the same, were pretty much a cinch to write - basically one of the "off the rack - fill in the blanks" story templates they had learned in journalism school. And best of all because they too "just dodged the bullet", they never got wet.

Win - Win!

So first once, then twice and finally three times a week the station ran an impending weather disaster story package - complete with warnings several days in advance that were broadcast on the screen-bottom message crawl and via program interruptions.

The stations ratings continued to soar - and attendance by people at outside events plummeted. So much so that most retail businesses decided that it just wasn't worth it to even open on "storm days", especially since their sales on the day immediately preceding the impending disaster more than made up for it. And since employees didn't get paid for not being there - the business's profits went up.

And the viewers themselves were never happier. Even though they outwardly complained more than ever, it turned out it was more enjoyable to not be able to do things because of circumstances beyond their control, than it was to do them and run the risk of less than complete satisfaction.

Win! Win! Win! Win!

Everybody was feeling happy, except for the meteorologist who masterminded the whole megillah.

Not having studied with Doctor Lindley, Karl thought that most people wanted the information from the weather forecasts in order to enable and empower themselves. Apparently not. To add to Karl's angst and confusion, because he had brought so much happiness to so many people, he was actually being hailed as an authentic hero. And his methodology of misleading meteorology, which in other circumstances would have been reviled and criticized, was instead being publicly praised and widely emulated.

"Of course the end justifies the means," my old professor would have said. "That's what ends are for."

Here is one of the forecasting tools that Karl might have used.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Crow's-feet in the snow,
Crackled glaze on porcelain,
Life lived leaves its lines.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Bad Dog!

No one looks guiltier or more repentant than a misbehaving dog.

As we drove up the hill it was raining just hard enough to keep the wipers from squeaking at their lowest speed. And it was still daylight -- albeit cloudy --so it was easy to see the crime scene unfolding before us.

To our left a police car was stopped in a driveway angled in a way that suggested rapid rather than careful parking. The roof lights were unlit but the engine was still running.

"COPS" - In Wethersfield.

Since there were no cars behind us I slowed down so that we could rubberneck -- but remained alert in order to rapidly flee the scene in case of danger.

As we looked down the short private path we could clearly see all the involved participants, and easily tell by their respective body languages what each one's role was in the unfolding story.

The policeman had assumed the neutral but poised attitude of the investigating officer -- head up and alert, right hand hovering near his weapon, knees slightly flexed, body balanced and ready to move in any direction. He had aligned himself so that all of the antagonists were within his normal range of vision.

The apparent complainant stood to the officer's left at a forty-five degree angle and was looking at him while pointing at the two suspected malfeasants who completed the triangle to the right. A second woman stood towards the back and to the left of the scene.

And the criminals stood side-by-side seemingly looking at both the accuser and the enforcer simultaneously -- eight legs shaking, two bodies attempting to recede into themselves, and four eyes dolefully pleading for hands-on forgiveness.

One was a Saint Bernard like dog. The other was of unknown, or perhaps severely mixed lineage. Both were full of fear, knowing they were about to hear the ultimate canine condemnation, "Bad dog!"

Nicole Marie, the Labrador Retriever/Irish Setter mix that used to live in our house was a frequent practitioner of this penitent pose -- most famously after she removed a wall-mounted telephone from its five-foot high perch while she was home alone during a thunderstorm. Her shoulder and haunches would droop, her eyes would (I swear) fill with moisture, and she somehow lowered her head so that she looked as she was gazing up at us from beneath the earth.

People I've known have also described their own dog's attempts to sink into the floor in shame.

Sinners in the hands of an angry God, about to be cast helplessly into the pits of hell -- all because of something that seemed like such a good idea at the time.

But some dogs, while they may outwardly look as if they are experiencing the same degree of fear and trembling, seem to be actually determining their moral behavior using a process developed by Philosopher Jeremy Bentham* called the Hedonic Calculus -- sort of an ethical cost/benefit analysis.

Several years ago we were friends with a couple named Carolyn and Dick, and their dog Bone. Bone was some form of fifty-pound mongrel -- as tall and thin as his name would suggest.

One winter night Mars and I were over at Carolyn and Dick's house for dinner and between the main course and dessert Dick, an amateur astronomer, suggested that we all go outside to look at the stars. The after dinner course was to be assorted cookies which Carolyn arranged nicely on a serving tray before joining us outside. Bone was not invited out.

After a while we went inside to warm up and discovered a partially eaten plate of home baked goods being ignored by a shamefaced dog. Bone was scolded and made to stay in the corner while we sampled some of the remaining, untouched sweet goodies. After about ten minutes he was released from his "time out" and we four humans returned to the outdoors and the cold, cloudless sky.

This time we came back in to find the remainder of the cookie supply decimated, and Bone dutifully sitting in the corner with his back to us.

One minute for one cookie. They may not be able to think -- but some of them sure can calculate.


*Jeremy Bentham's will requested that his body be preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet and kept on public display in the main building of the Union College in London.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Happy Re-Anniversary

Mars and I will celebrate our fourth re-wedding anniversary on Valentine's Day. We are not inviting anyone over to join us. And, although we enjoyed having them with us in 2004, we don't expect any of the 11,564 guests who attended our celebration to remember the occasion -- except perhaps in a very general way.

It was a civil ceremony presided over by a Criminal Court judge from the State of New Mexico. And it was real -- if we weren't already married we could have legally entered that partnership -- even though it was held on the basketball court at the University of New Mexico during halftime of a Lady Lobos regular season game. Being frequent visitors to The Land of Enchantment and fans of the University of Connecticut women's team I had begun to follow the progress of the UNM women via the Internet. They turned out to be one of the leading teams in The Mountain West Conference and one of the top five distaff programs nationally in terms of attendance. Their home arena is called "The Pit" because the entire seating area and court is below ground level and entered from above. The seating capacity is fifteen thousand plus.

In early January, 2004 they had a posting on their web site that said "Get married or renew your wedding vows on Valentine's Day during halftime" of the Saturday afternoon game against the Air Force Academy. Interested people were asked to send a short essay explaining why and winners would be selected. I emailed the info to Mars who said, "Go for it!"

I wrote up something about being UConn fans and potential emigrants to New Mexico and therefore needing to prepare to transfer our allegiance to the Lady Lobos.

On January 26th Mars got a phone call at work saying that we had won. The next day we made our vacation, flight, and hotel arrangements; and procured and mailed a copy of our wedding license -- this was indeed the real thing. Then Thursday February 12th we flew to Albuquerque carrying Mars' Mother-of-the-groom dress, my suit, and "court appropriate footwear" (i.e. sneakers) for each of us to wear onto the hardwood floor.

It being the middle of February we also brought along our down coats, which we definitely needed on Friday the 13th when we spent the day in Santa Fe -- first walking around town in teen-degree, wind-whipping weather; and then relaxing in an outdoor hot tub at Ten Thousand Waves Spa where the aforementioned conditions were made even more so by a significant lack of clothing. Water sprayed up onto the wooden deck and immediately turned to ice. But submerged in the one-hundred-plus degrees of warmth even the thick layer of snow and rustling pine trees on the adjacent hillside couldn't dim our body heat.

I have heard that thermal tubs, along with saunas and steam baths, generate heat internally in the body. Because of that, when Mars and I emerged from our one-hour soak we actually didn't even feel the cold while we wrapped up in our thin, cotton robes and walked back down the hill, and then inside for our massages. We did however pass on the opportunity to indulge in the nearby coldwater plunge.
On our re-wedding day the temperature in Albuquerque was in the low fifties when we headed out to The Pit around noon. Our instructions were to go to a specific entrance and look for Kelly, the event coordinator. There we were given tickets to the game and told to report back to the same spot for our pre-wedding rehearsal when the scorer's clock got to ten minutes. It was enough time to hear the prerecorded wolf howls that preceded the Lady Lobos onto the court, and to learn the official UNM hand gesture that greeted them -- thumb twisted under the palm, index and little fingers up, middle and ring fingers down and bouncing off of the thumb resulting in an emulation of a wolf biting.

Then we were off to rehearsal in the wrestling room adjacent to the main arena. There were twenty-one couples, two of which were actually getting married, dressed in everything from wedding dresses and tuxes to "Bride" and "Groom" tee shirts. We were each given a red rose and told to line up with the real to-be-newlyweds in front, and the rest of us alphabetically behind them. We were then led outside and back inside onto the ramp on which the two teams would be leaving the court at halftime.

The UNM players and coaches had been prepped to expect a long line of people dressed in various forms of wedding clothing. They enthusiastically greeted and high-fived us as they ran up to their locker room. The visiting Air Force Academy women however looked as if they had been unexpectedtly dumped onto the set of a reality television show, and shuffled by our group with perplexed and somewhat dazed looks on their faces.

Then the PA systems began to play the Pachelbel Canon in D.

My eyes became moist, and we were led onto the floor and aligned into rows in front of the officiant, and Lobo Lucy and Lobo Louie -- UNM mascots and designated bridesmaid and best man for the service. It looked to me as if the entire crowd had stayed in their seats and watched attentively as the group of us repeated our pledges of marriage -- although never having been the focus of attention to that many people I really couldn't tell. At one point Mars began to tear up. Then we "kissed the bride" (well half of us did) and left the court to the sounds of our names being read by the arena announcer and the cheers of the crowd.

Because the two teams were returning down the ramp, we made our exit up through the stadium seating where we received more high-fives from the fans and Mars received at least one compliment on her running shoes whose color matched that of the turquoise in her squash blossom necklace.

There was a brief reception in the UNM pressroom with wedding cake, champagne, and licenses for the participants -- as well as photo-ops with the lupine members of wedding party.

The next day in Albuquerque was sunny and in the low seventies. We went for a hike at Petroglyph National Monument among the estimated 20,000 images that were carved into the volcanic rocks between 1300 and 1650 by native peoples and early Spanish settlers.

Some of the drawings were, recognizable as birds, reptiles, etc. -- at least to our eyes and minds. Others were totally mystifying to us and possibly can only be fully understood by their initial creator. Just as these original artists would have stared uncomprehendingly at the small gathering of formally-dressed people in an athletic venue being cheered on by a crowd of strangers who shortly thereafter would return to manually simulating tiny, biting timber wolves.

These artisans however would recognize that what they were seeing with their eyes was not the whole story. They too had felt the internal heat of their own emotions, and would have known that exposing those feelings to the cold eyes of the outside world can actually increase their intensity. Which of course, in the end, is what it really is all about.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Under The Bird Feeder

Twenty-nine plump doves
Camo'ed on sunflower shucks.
Can you spell dinner?