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"

Monday, August 25, 2008

Be Like Mike

I scored my first-ever birdie last week. Because Mars and I had joked about sending postcards from every hole on the golf course to our daughter-in-law and son, we decided that I should call them to share the good news. They being in New Mexico and us being in Pennsylvania, and it being 5:30 EDT we knew they would be at work. So I shared my excitement with their answering machine.

A few days later Bram emailed me. "OK, still don't know what your message was about the other day. But I'm guessing it wasn't this impressive:" Included in his note was a link to a website with an advertisement showing Tiger Woods walking on water to hit a golf shot.

Actually to me, at the moment it happened and for some time thereafter, it was "this impressive".

Mars and I were in Pennsylvania because we were attending a Golfing Elderhostel at Penn State University. This is the third year in a row that we've come here. It's a four-day program taught by the PSU Women's Golf Coach Denise St Pierre and members of her staff and golf team. The class features lessons every morning and unlimited golf each afternoon. On the course the coaching staff shadows the students offering suggestions, answering questions, and providing encouragement.

PSU has two eighteen-hole golf courses as well as a major in Golf Management. The college also has a School of Hospitality Management that runs the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center where we lived and dined during our stay. The hotel and restaurants are four star plus, as is the golf club and course.

The instruction is probably five stars.

The first year we came to PSU I had no real expectations or goals. I just hoped that I had bought enough golf balls to survive what I anticipated could be four days spent in the high grass, woods. and waters of what the locals like to call "Happy Valley" PA. I did -- barely. But the good news was that the lost ball graph sloped downwards as the week progressed and as my mind and body absorbed the lessons of Coach Denise and her adjutants.

So much so that when we returned last August my aspirations were to learn how to hit a straight drive from the tee and to shoot par on one hole somewhere during the four days. I achieved both -- my tee shots came down in the right places more frequently as the class wore on. And on the fourth day, on the seventeenth and next-to-last hole of the week, I made a par three.

I was thrilled.

You wouldn't think being average could be that exciting -- but that's not really what "par" is. According to my online dictionary par is "the number of strokes a first-class player should normally require for a particular hole or course." So, by shooting par I was, for one brief moment in time, a "first-class player". Right?

This year my objectives were to improve the chipping and putting parts of my golf game, and to shoot par on something other than a hole on which par was three strokes.

We had watched enough Olympics during the week before class for me to learn what I needed in order to achieve my goals -- good coaching, constant practice, and lots of food. The training and eating, regimen of Michael Phelps, who was consuming something like a gazillion calories a day in his quest for eight gold medals, particularly impressed me. And his longest distance was only four hundred meters. In real, American distances that is a mere 1,312 feet or 437 yards -- barely the length of just one of the individual holes Mars and I would be playing at PSU. And he's floating. Obviously Phelps' meager caloric intake would be insufficient for REAL athletes like us who could be confronting up to eighteen times that distance daily for four consecutive days -- as well as training each and every morning.

Fortunately the Hospitality Management majors were up to the task -- providing us with more than ample breakfasts and dinners, as well as hearty box lunches and snacks throughout our arduous stay. In the interests of bettering my golf games and positioning myself to take full advantage of our instruction I devoured pretty much everything in sight.

The coaching was of equal quality. Coach Denise simplified the often-arcane techniques of this ancient sport down to being able to execute a balanced, rhythmic, swing beginning in the hips and ending in the "release" pose -- just like on a golf trophy. The club just happens to encounter a small white ball as it travels on its arc.

I knew that from the get-go I had to apply myself seriously if I were to have any chances at all to accomplish my goals. So, in addition to an above average size serving of fresh fruits I also had pancakes or French Toast and a couple of those fat breakfast sausages that we have only come across in Pennsylvania. And I paid extra close attention to the day's lessons.

My primary learning style is tactile/kinesthetic as opposed to auditory (what Mars is) or visual. I need to feel what I am learning rather than hear it described or watch it performed. We had studied putting and chipping in the morning and my execution thereof was pretty good during our afternoon of playing. I could tell that because of the results. But more importantly I was feeling the swing motions that I needed to make instead of thinking about what I should be doing.

After lunch we had about an hour introduction to "full swing" -- i.e. long shots -- including some drills to help us realize what they should feel like. Probably not coincidentally the longer shots were going well for me that afternoon. Then came the birdie on a one hundred sixty-nine yard long par three. The slope of the land was uphill undoubtedly adding enough distance to make it at least equal to Michael Phelps' longest effort.

I subtly hopped into the air after I sank my ten-foot putt. Dave, who along with his wife Karen, played with us that day said, "That's a birdie." "Yes, thank you." I replied. Mars gave me a terrorist tap -- her ungloved knuckles to my gloved ones. In golf even once in a lifetime moments are celebrated understatedly. My emotions however were reenacting the opening ceremony of the Olympics inside of me. If par is "the number of strokes a first-class player should normally require for a particular hole or course." then a birdie is.....?

The best part was that I knew it wasn't a fluke. My swing on my tee shot felt smooth, balanced and fluid. Likewise my stroke on the putt. In other words I feel like I can do this again.

Which is probably exactly what Tiger experienced when he scored his first birdie -- back in the day when his perambulating was limited to solid ground.

With all the pancakes and sausages he must eat you'd think he would just sink like a rock. I guess that it just goes to show how much athleticism is really involved in this old person's game.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The First Time

A recent issue of our local newspaper carried a photo with the following caption.
"On his second visit this summer to the rose garden at Hartford's Elizabeth Park, Wednesday, R* plays a recorder." (Hartford Courant print edition, 8/14/08)

"The world famous rose garden is the oldest municipally operated rose garden in the country. It is a two and a half acre garden which has about 800 varieties of roses that amount to 15,000 plants. Rambling roses cover arched walkways in the garden and the beds are filled with roses of every shape and color. Along the border, fences of climbing and shrub roses provide a colorful background for the bedding plants." (

There was no reportage of his initial trip, possibly because nothing out of the ordinary occurred.

Perhaps the first time -
Adrift without a purpose -
He smelled the roses.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I am becoming concerned about Walter -- the pigeon who has been showing up, unaccompanied, in our yard for most of this year. I'm also a little nervous about my own wellbeing. And that's entirely due to the hordes of Walter's peers who make their appearances when I service the bird feeders each morning.

As I was retrieving sunflower seeds from their galvanized storage pail the other day I looked up at the roofs of the house and garage and started counting pigeons. I stopped at twenty-one but more were still arriving -- attracted either by the gathering of their species-mates, or the sound of oily, black, kernels pouring into a red plastic bird seed scoop. There were probably ten or so rock doves when I began my census.

With a little more serious analysis and study I could probably determine if this gang of ten are the "serious regulars" who show up every morning -- same time, same place, no matter what -- while the next eleven are neighborhood hoverers who fly their regular morning route looking for signs of action. The remainder, whatever that number turns out to be, would be itinerants who just happened upon the scene.

It was a little foggy on census day so the effect of more than a score of short-legged, large-bodied, small-headed, cooing silhouettes pacing back and forth was pretty unnerving. It became even more so when I approached the feeders and a subset of the mob descended onto the ground immediately behind me.

When I scattered a small amount of food onto a dead spot in the lawn they leapt upon it like sharks drawn to blood. Once there they squirmed and pushed themselves against each other to form one large, writhing, multi-pigeon feeding machine. The frenzy lasted for quite awhile after I left and, to me anyway, took much longer than the size of the entree required.

I interrupted the banquet when I returned to refresh the birdbath that hangs nearby. As I got within about two feet of the group they flew up in a panic, making little high-pitched sounds and bumping into each other in midair, then correcting themselves without falling back to earth.

They maintained that two-foot social distance by landing on nearby branches or circling back behind me onto the feeding spot. And they rapidly readjusted themselves when I turned back from the watering hole to leave the scene. I could feel the air being moved by their wings and sense the feathers floating past my face.

I am not a huge fan of pigeons. They are fine in their place, which to me is some downtown urban area far enough away to prevent accidental discoveries of my suburban bird feeders. Nor, at the other extreme, am I pigeon-phobic -- as long as I keep providing them food.

These daily feeding parties continue intermittently throughout the morning even without me adding any more sustenance to the pot. "Special events", such as discarded stale baked goods, also always draw a crowd at pretty much any time of the daylight hours. But in general the pigeons are gone by around ten a.m..

Then in mid afternoon there is Walter -- pacing back and forth nervously in the general area of the food arena, but not acting as if he is presumptuous enough to find his own seating. The other day about four p.m. it had just stopped pouring rain -- and I mean really, really pouring -- many inches in a small number of hours.

And Walter was there -- alone in the yard, wet feathers plastered to his body, eyes darting existentially -- the poster-bird for forlornness. I tossed him some sunflower seeds. He discreetly darted in to digest them.

Truthfully Walter could be among those morning masticators and I just don't notice him. He really doesn't stand out in a crowd. And this mob doesn't countenance much individuality. But I doubt it. It's just not his style.

Some of us are joiners and some are not. Some of us would rather serve a quiet meal than feed the masses.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Best Tears

In 1994 Mars and I went to the Taos, New Mexico Art Festival. We have the poster -- a print of an R.C. Gorman painting -- hanging next to the doorway of the room in which I am typing this.

Like much of this New Mexican artist's work the subject matter is a Native American woman -- frequently looking as if you had just come upon them. Each pose is unique. In this instance she is standing, facing the viewer with her left hand on her left hip, and wearing a sleeved garment decorated in maroon stripes on a purple and blue background. The hues are muted and bleed off into the background in several areas. The overall effect is one of softness. And the color combination, which could be quite jarring, is instead a gentle blending of the three colors, enhancing the fact the one of the colors is formed by the mixture of the other two.

The Art Festival was not the focal point of our visit. It was just something that we decided to do while we were there. Our main purpose was to do some trekking in the high desert country alternated every other day with urban hiking amidst the southwestern architecture -- the former with frequent breaks to hydrate and/or breathe and the latter with intermittent retail rest stops.

We spent the second half of our two-week trip in the Taos area. The Arts Festival was winding down when we came upon it in the gymnasium of the local high school.

Our basic rule for art purchases is that we both have to really like it. That was clearly the case with the poster. It was quite the opposite with some landscapes by a local artist that were a part of the show. The shapes and lines perfectly emulated the soft, layered, sine waves of the neighboring Sangre de Cristo Mountains. But the colors of the light were absolutely, totally, one hundred percent wrong -- well off the reality scale and then some. The purples, blues and reds of the skies were from the same family of colors as in the festival poster but their presentation was just too unsettlingly unworldly to have any basis in the parts of existence with which we were familiar. The poster was to be our only artistic acquisition at this festival.

A day or two later both Mars and I inexplicably awoke about an hour before sunrise. And spontaneously decided to take a drive north of town to the Rio Grand Gorge Bridge to watch the sunrise. We stood uninterrupted on the crown of U.S. Route 64 with our backs to the great rift, waiting for the first sign of sunrise over the Taos Mountains.

Because of the three thousand foot difference between the mountaintops and us the sun had risen well before we were able to see it. What we saw while we were waiting were the changes in the color of the sky and of the mountainsides. They slowly morphed from total blackness, to barely visible lines on a graph, to a kaleidoscopic display of the very same colors that we had so quickly discounted at the Taos Art Festival.

We shot many pictures but none of them came even close to portraying the vibrancy and assortment of hues that we were seeing with our eyes and minds.

Lessons learned: (1) just because you don't know about something, it doesn't mean that it's not true and (2) sometimes it takes a more than a carefully aimed camera to capture reality.

I had this in the back of my mind as Mars and I headed out recently for our "Arts in the Hudson Valley" Elderhostel. One of the topics of study on this intellectual junket was the work of the Hudson River School of Painting. We both are longtime fans of this style, particularly the portrayal of the natural light therein. Having never been to the area I surmised that, although these landscapes look quite realistic, they were in fact either amalgams of various locations or spruced up replicas of the subject matter. To me the light seemed not to be believable.

On the other hand we had been to Malta in the Mediterranean and seen the play of light in that sun-drenched, limestone-structured island. And having seen real life first, if memory serves as opposed to being self-serving, that illumination pretty much tracked with that which the H.R.S. artists showed in their own works set in that region. And there was our northern New Mexico experience.

This time we didn't see the light -- at least not one with the intensity and goldenness portrayed by Thomas Cole or Frederic Church.

Part of the reason could have been the rain and accompanying clouds that overshadowed about one and one half days of our five-day trek. And we were kept pretty busy at venues that did not necessarily show off the Hudson River area in its best light -- so to speak.

But I think the main reason was that we were looking for it. We were not searching for it at that sunrise in Taos. Nor when we went to Malta. I suspect that Thomas Cole was likewise taken unawares by his first encounter with the illumination of that region. And perhaps expressed some of this sense of surprise with artistic exaggeration.

As it says on another objet d'art that Mars and I acquired in Taos, "The best tears are unrehearsed."

(Taos Sunrise Collage by Dannielle Genovese)

Monday, August 04, 2008

So Is It Not With Me As With That Muse

At our most recent "Arts in the Hudson Valley" Elderhostel we studied the sonnets of William Shakespeare. Much to my surprise they actually had a story to tell.

This breakthrough discovery in critical analysis apparently occurred in the past forty years. In the 1960's there certainly was no thoughtful content to distract us captive high school scholars from ferreting out the real meaning of these fourteen line poems -- namely, how many figures of speech did they have?

With promised rewards of ten points per metaphor, fifteen for a simile, and a whopping twenty-five if you found a personification or a metonymy, we eager young scholars charged like Bloodhounds past whatever thoughts, nuances, and sentiments the Master of Avon might have left on the trail in our quest for the certainty of countable contents.

What a pleasant shock to discover after all these years that these literary devices were merely tools to convey complex themes, meaningful thoughts, and deep emotions. Who knew?

It almost makes you want to emulate the man -- or at least write a haiku about trying to.

Not writing sonnets
Too hard! Got the beloved,
I'm just not a bard.