Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Real Life Haiku

(Haiku is a poetic form and a type of poetry from the Japanese culture. Themes include nature, feelings, or experiences. The most common form for Haiku is three short lines. The first line usually contains five (5) syllables, the second line seven (7) syllables, and the third line contains five (5) syllables. Haiku does not rhyme.

Mars and I were at our dentist yesterday for our semiannual tooth-cleaning and I was feeling a little annoyed at wasting part of an afternoon on such a mundane activity. I scanned the covers of the magazines lined up on the low waiting room table hoping against hope to find something to give meaning to this otherwise wasted time.

In front of the neatly arranged "Sport Illustrated", "Car & Driver", and other glossy periodicals was an askew and dog-eared "People" magazine.

"Tiger in Trouble,
Meredith Baxter 'I'm Gay'"
Just another day.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Sole Survivor

It is nearing wintertime in hardiness zone 6.

The leaves have fallen from the oak, maple and elm trees on our property. Our perennial plants have pretty much all packed it in for the year. But one lingering sunflower is still standing tall -- so to speak.

The remaining Helianthus is actually quite short (eight or so inches), with a gravity-defying anorexic stem, and a seedless head comprised entirely of small yellow outer florets. It lives in a moss pot hung from a wrought iron pole-hanger -- a home it shares with some still--green vinca that Mars planted, along with pink petunias, at the first sign of spring. I took care not to disturb the fragile looking plant when I removed the pale red dead nightshades at the beginning of autumn. I did not figure it would still be here at the end of the season.

It is a volunteer -- a plant that neither Mars nor I deliberately planted. Or if we did, not in its current location. Some squirrel, or bird, probably deposited the seed there after looting it from an adjacent bird feeder. Over time some of our best greenery have been similarly unplanned freebies -- for example.

A couple of late summers ago a pumpkin plant mysteriously appeared in the midst of our vegetable garden. We had never planted this gourd, or actually any other, anywhere on our property. Earlier in the year we had however sown some yellow squash seeds with some success. Due to a quality control error one of more of those could have been future jack-o-lanterns.

It is more likely though that they were the unplanned offspring of some pumpkins we had purchased last Halloween for our front steps. Our resident squirrels promptly decimated them. They also may have stowed away a few of the pips in our vegetable bed for future use. If so, they got their wish when the two resulting orange gourds, like their forebears, were put on display and quickly destroyed.

We've also had cherry tomatoes in that veggie plot and, at least as I remember it, we only put plants in for the first couple of years -- didn't have to after that, they just kept showing up. All that I had to do was to carefully hand-weed the area so as not to inadvertently rip up that year's crop of "Sweet 100s". Last growing season we surrendered to the lure of locally grown vegetable stands and converted our food garden into a perennial bed for rescued plants (a long story) and emigre flowers from New Mexico (yet another tale). The tiny tomatoes, if there were any, got lost in the shuffle.

For several summers we had a red tulip that grew in the middle of our front lawn in a location that neither Mars nor I would possible have selected -- even on a really, really bad gardening day. Amaranths have also grown in our yard every year since my in-laws gifted us with some over thirty years ago. They are" self-seeding" annuals, but the distances traveled from year-to-year cannot possibly be accomplished without outside help.

This year the scarlet Dutchman was gone and the Amaranths were not as far ranging as usual, but several sunflowers appeared around the base of our flowering crab/bird feeder tree. And five or six more sprouted up in our new perennial bed alongside the garage.

They are not the strongest plants. I had to prop up most of them with plastic tomato poles. But the heads were relatively large and colorful in the classic sunflower manner, and the disc floret in the center ultimately provided enough food for several finches for several days. I never saw a squirrel nibbling them, even though I suspect that they are the sowers of record.

After the seeds had been ravaged I ripped up the plants and tossed them. That happened a few weeks ago. The chrysanthemums that Mars planted at the cusp of autumn are also gone. So basically it is the remaining Helianthus and its accompanying vinca that are keeping the gardening season going.

On Sunday Mars put up our Christmas yard ornaments, including a string of silver balls that normally displace the hanging moss pot containing the solitary sunflower. However I lobbied successfully for the planter and the plant to remain -- along with the holiday trimmings -- for an undetermined period of time.

Mars and I both do volunteer work. So we know that these workers toil day-after-day, in the background, doing stuff that you couldn't possibly pay people enough to do. Decorating our hardy Helianthus for all of its labors just seemed like the right thing to do.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Fungible Shallop

I learned two new words this past week and until a few minutes ago I didn't know what to do with them.

The first one came while Mars and I were lying in bed listening to "The Marketplace Morning Report" on our local public radio station. It was during that period of time when we've woken up but are not yet willing to admit it, so we lie there with our eyes closed and our minds and ears half open.

A female reporter with an English accent was speaking. I was aware enough to remember that -- but not what she was talking about. Then, very clearly, I heard the phrase "fungible assets".

I mumbled something like "there's a word you'll only hear on NPR" and Mars responded equally unclearly that it always made her think unpleasant thoughts of mushrooms and their fungal kin.

"What does it mean anyway?" she asked.

"I'm not really sure." Then I put the thought to sleep and awoke completely.

A few days later we visited the Wadsworth Atheneum to see an exhibition of portraits by Rembrandt and to have lunch at the museum cafe. On our way out we wandered through another gallery and were confronted by J.M.W. Turner's very large nautical painting "Van Tromp's Shallop, at the Entrance of the Scheldt."

In spite of the size and placement of the artwork all that I saw was the totally unfamiliar term on the adjacent object label.

I immediately thought of the other new word I had been given, and began to wonder what I could do with the two them together.

"Fungible shallop. Fungible shallop. Fungible shallop." I repeated to myself -- in the manner of Zippy the Pinhead, who routinely manufactures meaningless mantras out of phrases like "Quilted Crystal Jelly Jars" or "Diflucan Fluconazole". But, even though I am a daily -- albeit frequently puzzled -- reader of the comic strip, I figured there had to be more.

When we got home I looked in my online dictionary:

fungible (adjective) (of goods contracted for without an individual specimen being specified) able to replace or be replaced by another identical item; mutually interchangeable : money is fungible -- money that is raised for one purpose can easily be used for another.

shallop (noun) chiefly historical: a light sailboat used mainly for coastal fishing or as a tender; a large heavy boat with one or more masts and carrying fore-and-aft or lug sails and sometimes equipped with guns.

Two words with nothing in common other than their persistent presence in my thoughts -- where I feared they would stay, like an earworm, until I found a better use for them.

The number of syllables is right -- perhaps a haiku was possible.

Fungible shallop --
Olden words but new to me,
Senseless consonance.

Or not.

Lately I have become critical of television programs that seem to be nothing more than a twenty-minute story dragged out for an hour. Sometimes you just cannot force things to be more than what they are.

It's really kind of scary when having a "Zippy Moment" turns out to be the most sensible thing to do.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Really Tough Nut To Crack

It was a sixty-degree morning in an abnormally warm autumn. As I walked towards her house I noticed that my up-the-street neighbor was intently pushing something around with her red plastic snow shovel. I spoke softly in advance of my arrival so as not to startle her.

"Hi B***. Practicing for the winter?"

By then I could see that the targets of her seemingly non-seasonal labor were actually acorns -- initially on her driveway and now, as I stood next to her in conversation, along the front apron of her yard."They took all of the leaves", she said, referring to our municipality's removal earlier that week of the neighborhood's piles of dead tree foliage. "But they left all of these."

B*** pointed my attention to her blue recycling bin, the bottom of which was covered with at least two layers of the fruits of her oak trees.

"The worst it's been in forty years.

"And yet there's only one squirrel. He sits on my deck in the morning just looking up at me. I usually have whole bunch of them."

"We do too." I replied. I was talking about squirrels. In the past month our population has also dwindled from its normal level of eight down to a single tree rodent -- with occasional second and third ones. But, unlike B***, the acorn output in our yard has been decidedly sub-par this annum.

Mars and I have however experienced the overabundance of these oval nuts at our local golf course. A couple of tee boxes are located under some pretty substantial oak trees. And the ground there is littered with their fruit. Cascades of them have rained down upon me as I stood poised to hit my shot.

Except for our yard, it seems that acorns are pretty much overrunning everything.

But in many parts of the region this time of year, particularly this year, the sky is falling -- or at least it feels that way. Hard-shelled orbs are cracking windshields, thwacking gardeners, and tripping up joggers on their daily slog. (boston.com)

Meanwhile at home, Mars and I are buried in pinecones.

In fact, until I picked them up, the area around our lone evergreen was so overrun that you literally could not put your foot down without touching one of more pieces of the dry coniferous fruit -- not just my size thirteens but even Mars' more miniscule ones.

We filled one of those barge-shaped, cardboard, "pick-your-own berries" trays with some, and gave the collection to A***, our next-door neighbor. She had been unable to find any for her holiday decoration plans and had just returned from looking for them at Walmart. Mars then filled a bushel basket with more cones as the basis for our own winter yard ornament. And there are still scores on the ground.

Acorn feasts and acorn famines within a quarter mile of each other. Pinecone population explosions, and a depleting squirrel census -- sounds like apocalyptic auguries to me.

Not to go too "Charlie Eppes" (who explains them in the "Sabotage" episode of the TV crime drama "NUMB3RS") -- but I think the ultimate answer lies in Fibonacci Numbers. And their connection to the Mayan Calendar, which ends on December 31, 2012 when the world as we know it will purportedly be totally destroyed.

"Fibonacci numbers and the Fibonacci sequence are prime examples of how mathematics is connected to seemingly unrelated things."

Fibonacci was a 13th century mathematician who developed his eponymous sequence of numbers in order to solve a problem about the birth rate of rabbits. The sequence begins: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144...

"Each term in the Fibonacci sequence is called a Fibonacci number... each Fibonacci number is obtained by adding the two previous Fibonacci numbers together. For example, the next Fibonacci number can be obtained by adding 144 and 89. Thus, the next Fibonacci number is 233.

"One of the most fascinating things about the Fibonacci numbers is their connection to nature. Some items in nature that are connected to the Fibonacci numbers are: the growth of buds on trees, the pinecone's rows, the sandollar, the starfish, the petals on various flowers such as the cosmo, iris, buttercup, daisy, and the sunflower, the appendages and chambers on many fruits and vegetables such as the lemon, apple, chile, and the artichoke." (Fibonacci numbers)

And perhaps acorns?

But wait -- there is more.

"Solar systems are designed by nature in Fibonacci spirals...

"Spectacular patterns are found by applying the Fibonacci spiral to key numbers of the Mayan calendar: 20, 13 and 18. The sacred calendar (Tzolkin) uses 20 and 13 The civil calendar (Haab) uses 20 and 18. The common denominator of both is 20. If you apply the Fibonacci sequence to the number 20 and carry the sequence out to 26 places, then multiply each number of the sequence by 13, then divided it by 18 you will discover that the results of these factors shifts and starts new internal sequencing at the 13th place in each sequence. The 12th place [completes] a sequence and the 13th starts a new sequence internally." (lost-civilizations.net)

Could it be any clearer?

Everyplace in the universe is awash in acorns except for our estate. And no one is reporting a surfeit of pinecones save for us. Plus we are faithful viewers of "NUMB3RS", and I think we may have learned something about the Mayans in an Anthropology class back in the sixties.

Clearly Mars and I are special people in a special place.

Our street number is 284.
The Fibonacci numbers surrounding that arithmetic value are 233 and 377.
284 minus 233 = 51.
377 minus 284 = 93.
51 plus 93 = 144
144 is the Fibonacci number immediately preceding 233!!!
2 times 144 = 288
288 minus 284 = 4!!!
The aforementioned Mayan calendar comes to an end in 3 years.
4 is greater than 3!!!

Ergo: a Fibonacci loophole -- our property will survive the apocalypse.

Good thing that the acorn conundrum didn't happen last year.

So my plan for the final day of 2012 is to stay at home admiring our pinecone collection, eating apples and artichokes, and watching DVD episodes 1, 2, 5, 8 and 13 of "NUMB3RS". We'll probably invite B*** and A*** over to thank them for their role in helping me crack this nut.

(click to enlarge)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Avant Gardening

This year I've decided to do nothing to prepare our perennial gardens for the upcoming winter -- not a thing, zilch, zip, nada, diddly-squat, squat -- or something pretty close to that anyway. And once again my seeming act of lassitude can be rationalized as being out ahead of the gardening curve.

For example:

Thirty years ago when I first began my horticultural hobby we bought some blueberry bushes. My only previous experience in the planting biz was two months earlier when, under the guidance of my father-in-law (an inveterate plantsman), I put in my first-ever vegetable garden. So I simply repeated what I did then -- what else could I possibly need to know? I turned the earth, separated out the dirt from the sod, mixed in a bunch of peat moss (to which I had already become addicted), stuck the shrubbery in the ground, and occasionally watered.

The next year there were sweet, edible fruits some of which I converted into a Blueberry Teacake for a celebration at my workplace. I proffered a piece to my colleague Kwame who declined it saying he was unwilling to eat any of the fresh fruits of our area because of the pesticides, etc. that came with them.

"I don't use any of those things," I said, in a tone that implied moral superiority rather than apathy, laziness and a total ignorance of proper plant care.

"Oh", Kwame replied, sounding impressed as he gobbled down the pastry, "I didn't know that you were an ORGANIC GARDENER."

Neither did I. But I definitely went along with it.

Exemplar 2:

For years I have ground up the vast majority of my yard's autumn leaves and spread them back onto the lawn with a mulching lawn mower. It was, I quickly found out, way easier than raking hundreds of thousands of crispy pieces of dried vegetation into temporary piles and then herding the resultant wind-blown mounds into non-compliant, wind-blown plastic bags.

This, it turns out, is also actually good for the grass. Not that I knew that at the time.

But my newfound lack of attention to my winter garden doesn't stem from unwillingness to do the work. It's just a matter of when.

In years previous I would have by now chopped down just about any perennial that had turned even the slightest bit brownish, and consigned its remains to either the winter compost pile or the big green trash bin. The decimation would occur on the first warm sunny day after the initial rush of plant-deadening cold weather.

I gloried in the feeling of sunlight heating the back of my red flannel shirt, and cool air brushing my cheeks. And I deluded myself into thinking that this act of destruction in some way prolonged the gardening season -- when in fact it ended it prematurely and on a negative note.

The next day I would survey the barren wasteland I had created and complain to myself that the fun part of the year had ended -- only perking up when I espied some hidden hostas or undercover rudbeckia whose stalks and leaves I had missed, and whose eradication I could use as an lame excuse to prolong my time in the garden.

Then, several months later, with the advent of the growing season I would desperately search the landscape looking for any chore that would get my hands back into contact with the living things of the earth. Finally it occurred to me to defer all of that lopping and chopping until spring.

So this year I decided to convert the symbols of termination into emblems of emergence.
So far it's going great. I am seeing a lot of orange and yellow garden foliage in what would have previously been barren areas. And I'm looking forward to the winter snow and enjoying the three-dimensional patterns and shadow designs that will be created by my still-standing stalks.

And sure enough, that part of the garden writing community that actually knows what it is talking about is espousing the values of hands off autumn landscaping.

Tracy DiSabato-Aust, in her book "The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting & Pruning Techniques", says that many plants benefit from the layer of protection provided by their dead tops during the winter. And any leftover seeds provide food for the birds.

Stephen Orr writes "Think of yourself as the curator of your own winter sculpture garden." (New York Times: "Time to Tidy Up the Garden, or Is It?")

Who knew it was this easy to be an avant gardener?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

She Who Bats Last...

Even the most dedicated gardener can grow weary of all those colors and fragrances that constantly surround him and of the omnipresent green aura that encircles his world. Especially when he is constantly working his buns off to make it that way.

Sometimes you just need to get away from it all, and go to the desert.

Marsha and I have been going to New Mexico for more than fifteen years. We love to immerse ourselves in the infertile, dry, tan-colored dirt and sands. It's the all-natural opposite of our manmade quest for horticultural perfection.
This was our first early September visit. And this time the dry, unfruitful land was virtually overrun with a large variety of totally unplanned, fully blooming, floral vegetation. Nature had arranged its flowerbeds more sparsely than an over-eager eastern gardener with equally over-eager plants might have done. But the lack of green competition such as grass and deciduous trees allowed these widely dispersed floral pockets to stand up and shout more loudly than even the most overstuffed New England perennial garden ever could.

Who knew?
Some plants looked vaguely familiar, like attempted wild replicas of favorite domestic standards -- which is of course the exact opposite of the real story. Cleomies were spindlier, with smaller flowers, than their cultivated cousins. Asters were singular rather than bushy. Sunflowers appeared as delicate sun drops on anorexic stems.

But mostly there was chamisa.
This desert-loving, narrow-leaved, four foot tall, deciduous shrub with pungent, yellow flowers totally dominated the landscape. It grew unabated -- on undeveloped land, in private yards, and up against the roads with its branches drooping down onto the traffic. Homeowners posted "DO NOT MOW!" signs on their mailboxes in an organized effort to thwart the municipality's gas powered grim reapers from eradicating it. The updrafts caused by passing cars dispersed flaxen pollen onto the nearby ground -- a twenty-first century improvement on wind dispersal plant propagation. And visiting New England gardeners restrained their basic pruning instincts in deference to the "if it grows at all, let it be" ethos of the Santa Fe horticultural community.

Meanwhile back home in Wethersfield our own flora-culture had already begun its annual end of the season dance of death.

In order to survive from year to year the perennial plants in our neck of the woods "harden off" by either (a) dropping their foliage, halting photosynthesis, and reducing moisture loss, or (b) dying down to ground level and sheltering new buds in the earth until spring arrives.

The results, while momentarily colorful and flashy, ultimately leave the New England topography looking as ugly as sin and as ashen as death -- stripped of its flowers and its emerald ambience.

And what can we plantsmen extraordinaire, who have poured our blood, sweat, time, and tears (plus more than a few dollars) into the creation and maintenance of this Eden-like landscape do, to prevent this wanton usurpation of our agricultural authority?

Not a thing, not anything, nil, zero, naught, zilch, zip, nada, diddly-squat, squat.

Environmentalist Rob Watson says, "Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats a thousand."

If you don't believe it, go to the desert. Or just wait a few weeks and look out your window.

(Photos by Mars)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

A Theory of Mind

It is my favorite New Yorker magazine cartoon. Peter Steiner's drawing portrays two canines. The talking one is a black hound sitting in front of a computer with one paw resting on the keyboard. The listener is a black-spotted white pooch seated on the floor, staring up.

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

Now I don't think that dogs can really think -- not like that anyway. But sometimes they do things that make you stop and rethink what actually might be going on in their little -- brain to body weight 1/125 versus 1/40 in humans -- minds.

"Theory-of-Mind" is the belief that other humans and animals think in the exact same, conscious, self-aware way that we ourselves do

"There's no convincing evidence...that suggests dogs can replicate human thought processes: use language, think in narrative and sequential terms, understand human minds, or share humans' range of emotions.

"Yet that remains a powerful, pervasive view of dogs...It's almost impossible not to lapse into theory-of-mind reasoning when it comes to our dogs. After all, most of us have no other way in which to grasp another creature's behavior. How can one even begin to imagine what's going on inside a dog's head?" (Jon Katz in Slate.com)

"'I take the view that dogs have their own unique way of thinking,' Dr. Wynne [associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida] said. 'It's a happy accident that doggie thinking and human thinking overlap enough that we can have these relationships with dogs, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that dogs are viewing the world the way we do.'" (Good Dog, Smart Dog By SARAH KERSHAW)

Then there's what happened the other day between Mars and Emma.

For those unfamiliar -- Mars is my wife, and Emma is the Pit Bull /Dalmatian cross that lives two houses down the street.

Several times each day J takes Emma for a walk. The route never varies. It is a small loop that passes in front of our residence, crosses the street, goes back down the other side, and then home.

Emma has two stops along that trip that she earnestly attempts to make each time. One is at our domicile to visit with Mars, and the other is across the street to visit with B, the female resident of that abode.

As she passes each property Emma strains her neck to search for Mars or B. If no one is outside at our place she looks into our family room. When she spots Mars she lowers her center of gravity and hauls J up the driveway until she makes contact. If I am available she will give me a perfunctory sniff, but clearly my only significance to Emma is an indicator that Mars is probably around.

Periodically Mars gives Emma a squeaky dog toy. Emma immediately drags J back home where she sequesters her present and, over time, meticulously rips it apart. Mars gifted Emma several days ago but because of conflicting schedules had not seen her since.

A night ago I was in the yard barbecuing when I looked up and saw Emma towing J up the driveway towards me. In her mouth Emma had the remnants of her latest present. I called for Mars.

"She just grabbed it and brought with her." J said.

Emma swiveled her body up to Mars and proudly held up the torn-apart bunny rabbit for her to see. As soon as Mars acknowledged the dilapidated plaything Emma turned and dragged J back down the car path and home.

I suppose that she could have sent an ECard "thank you" instead -- but it probably wouldn't have been as impressive.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Where The Air Is Sweet

Last week Snuffleupagus made the first of his two annual appearances at our house. As usual he moved slowly down the street alongside the curb accompanied by his attendants, stopping for no one, and leaving nothing in his wake.

His general schedule is published on our town's website -- the Monday through Friday during which he will visit -- but the exact day and time is never pre-announced. As a result, frenzied preparations for his arrival usually begin on the weekend immediately before the ordained workweek.

Landscape crews brandishing high-powered leaf blowers with a wind-force and decibel count reminiscent of our village's mid-summer tornado descend on the neighborhood. Maelstroms of reds, yellows, oranges, and browns are swirled up in the air, and then arrange themselves into Quonset shaped piles along the outer edges of the snow-shelves.

On other properties, residents (us included) manually operate wooden poles with affixed plastic tines in a repetitive effort to coax their own dead foliage into similar configurations on their own lawn aprons.

By Sunday evening the neighborhood is a picture of pristine lawns bordered by neatly arranged, autumnal colored mounds of oak, maple and elm droppings.

Snuffleupagus does not appear on Monday. Instead the intermittent rains begin. And the swirling winds, which have been mysteriously absent when nobody cared where the leaves were, suddenly come alive. By Monday afternoon over fifty percent of the previously assembled foliage has been redistributed back onto the lawn areas from whence it came; twenty-five percent additional leaves have received their golden parachutes; and the entire mess has become too sodden to do a damn thing about it.

Tuesday: more precipitation, heavier breezes, and dead leafage from unknown trees in nearby towns all appear on the scene. Snuffleupagus does not.

On Wednesday the sun is out and the winds are calm. No sign of "The Big S". Mars and I decide to give it one more day to dry out.

Thursday we return from our mid-morning health club trip to the sight of our neighbor up the street, home from work, hurriedly blower wrangling her modest collection of maple leaves onto her snow shelf. Further up the street, heading in her direction, we hear, and then actually see, Snuffleupagus.

Figuring that we have enough time before he goes up that side of street and then comes back down our own, we decide to have lunch in order to fuel our upcoming efforts. We wolf down our sandwiches and then get right to work.

Mars and I live at at a three-way intersection. While raking the leaves onto our east-west apron we hear, and then actually see, a second Snuffleupagus at the far end of our north-south road -- slogging slowly towards our shambolic snow shelf.

Under pressure it is possible for two relatively robust, rake-wielding people -- even people whose introduction to the "real" Snuffleupagus occurred well into adulthood -- to arrange their leaves faster and neater than any monetarily-motivated posse of hired leaf-blower guns ever could. This is known in folklore as the "John Henry Effect". We finish the job just as the last leaf is sucked from our next door neighbor's collection.

On Friday, one day after "The Snuffster's" visit, landscapers for the house immediately across from ours blow hundreds of thousands of oak leaves from their lawn out onto their side of the road. At least fifty thousand of these leaves are now on our property -- with more arriving by the minute. Snuffleupagus is not scheduled again for several weeks.

Just call me Oscar the Grouch.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Why Do I Have To think of Everything?

It's so obvious.
To catch drug peddlers, arrest
Cars with "Dealer" plates.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

First You Lose Grammatical Control

Real-life Haiku from our neighborhood grocery store.

Harried store clerk to
Dithered cereal shopper:
"Look, all oats is good!"

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nevermore, Or Not.

I am surprised that I didn't have symbolism on my mind. A couple of nights previous Mars and I had attended an evening with an Edgar Allan Poe recreator at our local library. Along with telling tales of the author's life, the actor recited "The Telltale Heart" and "The Raven".
"What does the raven symbolize?" asked one of the many high school students in attendance.

Poe dissembled but princetonol.com says, "Birds are usually used to represent prophetic knowledge, bloodshed, and skill."

So perhaps I should have been more disquieted by the flesh-gorging hawk in the left rough along the first fairway on the North Golf Course at Goodwin Park. After all, had Julius Caesar paid more attention to the portent of "the bird of night [that] did sit even at noon-day upon the market-place, hooting and shrieking" he might still be alive today. Well probably not actually.

But birds, being birds, do not think of themselves as meaningfully metaphorical. It was, after all, just doing what predators do -- predating. Most likely it was hungry and just needed a quiet spot to stop and have a quick bite to eat -- taking advantage of the same surprisingly warm October weather that inspired Mars and I to recant our previous decision to halt our 2009 golf season and return to the sunny, warm New England links for a few more swings. (Never say nevermore.) And, immersed in the rapidly warming nine a.m. sun, golden tall grasses, red sumac bushes, and orange-turning maple trees, I wasn't in a mindset to be spooked by the frightening foreshadowing of a ferociously feeding gray and white falcon.

We couldn't see exactly what he was dining on -- even as close as twenty yards all entrails look pretty much alike -- but given the plethora of potential prey on the golf links and its surrounding park there are certainly enough easy-to-acquire entrees. One might even suspect that this particular raptor never had a reason to eat away from home or even to do take-out.

We normally see one or two of these large birds of prey sitting atop the course's taller trees every time we play there. They are Red Tailed Hawks -- the scarlet hind feathers are plainly obvious -- and very likely a couple.
"Red-tailed hawk pairs remain together for years in the same territory. These birds are very territorial, and defend territories that range in size from 0.85 to 3.9 square kilometers, depending on the amount of food, perches, and nest sites in the territory."

That converts to about 2.4 miles square, which easily covers the entire park including the golf course.

The hawk finished its snack and flew away just as Mars was hitting her second shot from a spot immediately to its right. It didn't seem to be carrying anything, and I did not go over to see what it might have left behind -- the grass in the rough can be unpleasant enough by itself. It landed in a nearby brightly foliated maple tree and appeared to be settling in for a post-prandial siesta.

We moved on.

The course was empty enough to allow Mars and I to double back and replay several holes. And with no one right behind us we frequently played two and even three balls at a time.

The sun became stronger and warmer. We walked through piles of acorns under oak trees with leaves colored half green and half rust. Fleece sweaters were removed. Pockets of Canada goose feathers and droppings surrounded our golf balls on several fairways. A chocolate Labrador puppy stumbled alongside its "mom" next to the fourth green. By noontime, when we decided to stop playing, the course was beginning to fill with scores of spontaneous half-day vacationers.

At home later that afternoon the pure white finch that we had seen on the prior Sunday reappeared at our bird feeders.

A good omen no doubt -- but on this day unnecessary.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

...How Can That Be?

"It was a misty moisty morning, when cloudy was the weather." The first nor'easter of the year was (so to speak) heating up. Outdoor activities were just not to be. Mars and I were nestled in the family room reading more of Sunday paper than we usually would "when out on the lawn there arose such a clatter."

"Jim, there's a hawk in the tree!"

"The tree" is our floriculturally faltering flowering crab that we maintain in our front yard as the repository of our bird feeding stations. It is located ten feet in front of our window, and the branch on which our visitor sat is around seven feet off the ground.

The bird of prey sat perfectly still with its gray and white speckled back to us, turning its head around slowly -- more like an athlete gently working out the kinks than a raptor searching for second breakfast.

Later I looked in our bird identifying book and determined that, based on the illustrations therein, it could be a juvenile member of any number of hawk clans -- including several that have no right being in our part of the country. Still later the folks across the street identified it as a Cooper's hawk. So, because they know what they are talking about and since there is a neighbor with that name for whom it could have been looking, I will go with that.

Because of the dismal weather the feeders had been unusually inactive all morning. I was hypothesizing that the same unpleasant conditions might have driven this raptor to the more sheltered lower elevations when I noticed two of our three resident squirrels climbing up the tree towards the large, frighteningly obvious predator.

These tree-rodents, whom Mars has taken to calling "The Heathers", are hardly what you would call "streetwise". Born and home-schooled on our property their only experience with animals larger than themselves is basically us -- sources of food for them rather than vice-versa.

The first Heather to notice the hawk stopped in her tracks about three feet from the large bird. Her eyes got almost cartoonishly large and she crouched low with every muscle in her body tensed. Then she began to hop back and forth on the tree branch while staying totally in that taut, scrunched down position -- neither bending any body part nor lifting her feet in the process. She looked like a hand operated toy that might appear on the Antiques Roadshow. The hawk never acknowledged her presence.

Then Heather(2) approached on an adjacent tree limb. Where H(1) appeared nonplussed, H(2) was antagonistic and pugnacious -- the courage of ignorance. She assumed an about-to-spring, attack position and began to talk smack to the still oblivious hawk.

I figured it was just a matter of time before our visiting predator snapped out of its Zen state and turned our unassuming crab tree into a nature documentary crime scene. I decided to intervene.

I stepped out the front door into the gently falling rain. The hawk, which had now turned partially in my direction, appeared not to notice my arrival. Heather(1) stopped spinning, turned tail, and left the tree. With my eyes focused on Cooper, I saw her running across the yard in my peripheral vision. Heather(2) continued her rant.

Meanwhile Mars ran upstairs to get her camera and I stood motionless just outside the door hoping against hope that I didn't end up throwing myself bodily between onrushing predator and cowering predatee.

I needn't have worried. As soon as Mars handed me the camera and I began to compose my first photo of the two tree occupants, Cooper flew away and Heather(2) also left the scene.

Two hours later Mars was bemoaning our lack of photographic evidence when she once again spotted Cooper landing back on the same branch. ("How d' you do and how d' you do and how d' you do again.")

This time there were no squirrels in sight and the camera was at the ready. I stepped out again into the precipitation and was able to take this tree photo before the hawk flew out of our yard onto a nearby street sign.

(Please click photo to enlarge.)

Camera in hand I followed him.

(Please click photo to enlarge.)

Within an hour Mars was calling again for me to "look out the window, quick."

No hawk this time, but eating sunflower seeds on the ground beneath the tree, along with other several other small birds, was a pure white, similarly sized bird.

"Could it be an escaped parakeet?"

It flew up on to our quince bush where we were able to get a better look. We saw that the bird did not have the pink-colored eyes of an albino but did have a thin black stripe at the spot where each wing joined its torso. The size, head/body shape, and tail configuration were identical to those of the gold finches and purple finches that surrounded this severely bleached bird atop the thorny shrub. Then the whole flock left the scene before we could digitally document our sighting.

A thorough check of the bird book once again turned up nothing -- no Cooper's finch, no ivory hued juveniles. Several years ago Mars and I saw a white grackle in our yard. Later an Audubon person told me that such lack-of-pigment aberrations do happen occasionally in the avian world -- sometimes the colors just don't take. Unlike the Cooper's Hawk the white finch did not return for its photo shoot.

Earlier in the day I was going to ask Mars if she wanted to see "Where The Wild Things Are" that afternoon. Obviously we didn't have to.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

If I Were A Carpenter

If I had known that the ninth hole of the Goodwin Park North Course was going to be our last one of the year I would have stopped at the eighth. Whatever it is you are doing, you always want to end on a good note.

I scored par on that second to last green -- unusual for me, an above average golfer in the bad sense of the term. But it wasn't the number of strokes that made that hole worth stopping for. It was my second shot -- a one hundred and thirty yarder from a downhill lie in the short rough.

It stunned me. In fact it's been over a week since it happened and I am still trying to figure it out.

Here is what I have concluded. This year I've been working hard to make sure that all of my golf shots actually have a target. This may seem obvious but frequently in the past I would sort-of visually pick out a desired endpoint, then sort-of align my body to that goal, then hit the ball.

One reason was my impatience to just swing the club. But the principal cause was a feeling that, at my level of golfing ability, the target was a general area rather than a specific spot.

This whole approach also affected the way that I watched my golf shots. Normally I picked up the flight of the ball by briefly glancing at the mid-air spot at which I was trying to aim. Apparently I didn't expect to find it there because I immediately began scanning the surrounding ether in ever-increasing sweeps. Then I asked Mars where it went

This time I picked an actual target -- a maple tree behind the eighth hole. This time I envisioned the path to that tree. And this time, when I looked up, the ball was actually there, en route to the tree -- just the way I had planned it. And it continued on that aerial path until it landed on the green in exactly the spot I had hoped it would. This whole thing was a first for me.

As a twelve year old I watched my Uncle Al, a carpenter by trade, install a door that he had built into my parent's home.

I recall little if anything of the actual woodworking process. But I do clearly remember my uncle, cigarette in hand -- for a good thirty minutes -- simply sitting, smoking, and admiring his finished product. I have ever seen anyone happier or more proud.

But I didn't have either a chair, or a pack of Lucky Strikes in my golf bag. And Mars was now on the green, so it was my turn to putt.

We finished the hole and, following the protocol of the sport, I walked quickly to the ninth tee. Without thinking I picked out a very general target area and drove the ball to a spot within it -- barely

Maybe I should take up carpentry.

Monday, October 05, 2009


When Mars and I came back from our three week September sabbatical to New Mexico all of the wildlife to whom we provided sustenance had disappeared. Some of them have come back. But the two biggest eaters have either reappeared in severely diminished numbers or completely flown the coop.

We maintain two large feeders -- one of sunflower seeds and one of thistle -- plus two small "walk-inside-of" pottery feeders for those birds such as chickadees that seem to prefer dining in a more intimate setting. With them we attracted a pretty constant variety of birds as well as, by pre-vacation count, eight squirrels and seventeen pigeons. At that time I was refilling both of the big feeders, at the least, every other day. And feeling pretty heroic about my obviously successful charitable efforts to end bird hunger.

The large seed feeder is plastic so, based upon previous unpleasant angry-squirrel experiences, I took it down and stored it safely in the garage while we were out of town. The thistle feeder is made of gnaw-proof metal and thus largely ignored by the destructive tree-rodents. I filled it, not expecting it to last for the duration, but assuming it would satisfy its regular visitors for a good part of that time since most of them had switched over to the end-of-season seed-bearing flowers in our perennial beds for most of their nourishment.

We arrived back in town around eleven p.m. so it wasn't until the next morning that I took stock of the bird feeding situation. I retrieved the plastic feeder, filled it with sunflowers, and hung it. To my surprise the thistle holder was not empty, so I topped it off. Then I replenished the pottery ones, threw some more sunflower seeds on the ground, and waited.

No one -- nobody, not a soul, not anyone, not a single visitor, never a one, none.

Day two, ditto.

On the third day we spotted a finch on the thistle tube. It wasn't gold. It wasn't green. It wasn't purple. It was basically colorless with a body seemingly lacking in feathers -- as desperate looking as I was feeling.

The next morning a small squirrel hung upside down from the sunflower feeder. It ate quietly and slowly, and then disappeared.

Over the next few days the level of the food dropped slowly even though neither Mars nor I saw what we thought was enough activity to explain why this was happening -- a goldfinch here or there, an occasional nuthatch or titmouse, purple finches, a few sparrows, a cardinal, one Downy woodpecker. A relatively steady stream, but definitely not rush hour at the diners.And still, there was only a single squirrel, and no pigeons at all.

This was a few weeks ago. Our squirrel population is now up to two, with an occasional third. There are still not any pigeons. I have refilled the feeders once, when they each got to be about one-half empty.

In spite of our reduced bird-food usage I decided to stock up on both thistle and sunflower seeds when we went to our favorite garden center to purchase our fall supply of chrysanthemums.

I mentioned to the proprietor that the number of avian diners had dropped off since before we went away.

"Grackles." he said.


"It's been the same for me all summer." he further explained. "I've been using barely any seeds. The grackles came and scared away all of the other birds. And they are still around."

We did have one member of that shiny-black feathered genus who was a regular customer at our sunflower station before we left. He was a juvenile who became attached to this feeder, and stayed behind after his parents shut down their nest and moved on to warmer climes. Now he too was gone.

Although we are using considerably less food I suspect that what we now have is considered normal volume for a successful bird-feeding operation. And the apparent busyness earlier in the year was distorted by the presence of two atypical, high-powered, gourmand machines.

That doesn't explain of course the non-reappearance of the pigeons, or the reduced number of squirrels. And there probably isn't an answer to be found anyway.

So Mars and I will just have to learn to live with it. We certainly aren't going to get any sympathy for losing something that most other people wouldn't have wanted in the first place.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Air It Out

Someone aerated our lawn while Mars and I were away in New Mexico.

"Aeration is the removal of small cores of soil to allow air, moisture and applied compost down to the root zone. The core aerator will take a one to two inch plug of soil and grass, and replace it on the surface of the lawn."

It's a good thing.

"* Oxygen gets to the roots and the soil allowing it to 'breathe'
* Organic fertilizers and nutrients get access to the root system
* Water is able to better soak the soil and reach the root system
* Tight, compacted soil is loosened up allowing the root system to grow."

This was not a random act of landscaping kindness. Earlier this year I had contracted with our organic lawn care company to perform this service at a time to be determined by them.

The morning after we got back we checked our answering machine messages. There were three aeration related ones from the landscaper -- all of them asking the same questions, and each one requesting the answers before they could proceed.

"Do you have an in-ground irrigation system? Do you have an electrical dog confinement system?"

If we did, we were to clearly mark these areas so that the core aerating equipment did not take a one to two inch plug out of either of them, and/or electrocute the operator in the process.

We have neither.

Apparently they concluded that our yard was safe because when we went through our accumulated mail we discovered a bill for the service. Later that morning we walked through our yard and noticed several holes and a number of soil and grass plugs -- although not enough to indicate deliberate lawn maintenance as opposed to seasonal squirrel acorn stashing.

Truthfully I had pretty much forgotten about the whole hole-poking exercise. And even if I hadn't, increasing the air circulation for my fescue would have been the furthest thing from my mind as we wandered the high desert landscape of northern New Mexico -- just as it was the furthest thing from my sight.

You just don't realize how omnipresent the color green is in our New England neck of the woods until you spend time in a space with considerably less water and considerably less of a lawn fetish.

The Phoenix/Scottsdale part of Arizona, which we visited several years ago, seems determined to recreate that familiar verdant ambience for its ever increasing number of eastern transplants.

New Mexico is not.

There are however areas of grass in the Land of Enchantment.

At the newly opened New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe I learned that this state had the greatest geographical diversity of any territory in the United States.

"The eastern third of New Mexico is covered by the Great Plains. The Great Plains run from a high plateau in the north south to the Pecos River. Rivers in the high plateau have cut deep canyons into the landscape. This area is used for sheep and cattle ranches.'

"To the south, dry farming and irrigated agriculture is possible. South of the Canadian River, along the eastern edge of New Mexico, the land is referred to as the High Plains or Staked Plains (Llano Estacado). These High Plains run along the Texas border in New Mexico.'

"In the central part of New Mexico, the Rocky Mountains extend into New Mexico from Colorado to the north. The Rio Grande River cuts through the Rocky Mountains from north to south. East of the Rio Grande, is the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountain range. Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico is found in this range. To the west of the Rio Grande are the Nacimiento and Jemez Mountain ranges. The fertile Rio Grande Valley provides suitable farmland using modern irrigation techniques.

"The Basin and Range Region covers about 1/3 of the state and lies at to the south of the Rocky Mountain Region. This region extends south from around Santa Fe to Mexico and west to Arizona. This area is marked by rugged mountain ranges, such as the Guadalupe, Mogollon, Organ, Sacramento, and San Andres mountain ranges, separated by desert basins. The Rio Grande River flows north to south through the Basin and Range Region and exits New Mexico in the south to form the border between Texas and Mexico."

We drove along the edge of the Great Plains when we visited Las Vegas, New Mexico. There was grass, but the predominant color was still plain old tan.

There are however occasional pockets of manmade green sod.

Monica and Bram (daughter-in-law and son) have a pre-existing small lawn in the backyard of their Santa Fe house. But their front property is xeriscaped with native plants and a minimal drip irrigation system. As is the vast majority of their neighborhood.

Many of the small municipal parks in town are covered with it. The one near the B & B where we spent two nights was watered heavily each morning for at least one hour.

There are golf courses.

I found a website entry entitled "Lawn Aerating Tips Santa Fe NM" that advocates for the use of plug aerators.

Still, unlike Connecticut, the overwhelming geographic aura in New Mexico is sand-colored panoramic vistas.

No wonder, on return, that our home base seemed viridescently claustrophobic and threatening. Emerald colored objects impinged into our social space -- constricting our view, absorbing our oxygen, demanding our attention, and requiring our continual care.

No wonder that we regularly go to New Mexico for our own personal core aeration.

Monday, September 21, 2009


It was six a.m. on September 7 in Santa Fe New Mexico. Mars and I were in bed, eyes closed but ears open, trying not to hear the high-pitched chorus of coyotes that seemingly surrounded our temporary abode in the hills just north of the "City Different".

Audrey the dog, whose care was the raison d'etre for our southwestern vacation and whose own raison d'etre is to "Guard the house -- good girl!" slumbered silently on the floor beneath us.

The castrato sounding yelps came randomly and stacked themselves one upon the other -- sometimes overlapping, sometimes freestanding -- like the man-made stone cairns that decoratively demark the hiking trails in the nearby wilderness areas. Or the way unexpected and unrelated events are stacked together to create a vacation

This sabbatical began at Acoma Sky City, the nine hundred year old pueblo village located atop a 370-foot tall sandstone bluff one hour west of Albuquerque. It was Mars and my second visit there -- the prior one several years ago. As one might expect in a deliberately isolated area -- insurmountable heights discourage walk-in traffic -- little has changed since 2005. Or from the middle of the Twelfth Century.

The oral heritage of the pueblo says that the Acoma people came to the high rock in search of HaK'u -- "a place ready to occupy", or "the right place". They called out "HaK'u!" as they wandered, and when this land echoed the word back they stayed -- adapting their farming habits to the climatological vagaries of the area, and their religious beliefs to the "forced conversion" by Catholic missionaries.

Later that afternoon we visited the "Bubonicon" sci-fi convention at an Albuquerque hotel to see Monica and Bram (our daughter-in-law and son) who were there selling comic books/graphic novels produced by their "indy" publishing company. It was our first such experience although we had seen similar gatherings satirized or at best presented with tongue-in-cheek seriousness by the mass media.

There were strangely costumed people -- from Goth characters to large furry animals to less heavily attired wenches -- as well as those more conventionally dressed. The artwork was aptly described by an eight-year old attendee as "disturbing". However the convention-goers, some of whom might not have seemed sociable in another setting, were clearly comfortable with each other and their surrounding milieu.

The next day in Santa Fe we visited with Aga, my favorite New Mexican jewelry maker

As described previously Aga is a thirty-something Polish emigre who creates necklaces, earrings, and bracelets made of amber and turquoise. Her designs and craftsmanship are very good. But her marketing is excellent. She remembers all of her customers, or very convincingly pretends to. She tells her female customers, in this case Mars who happened to have on an Aga creation, "You make the necklace look beautiful." And she toys with the guys, "I like it for men to remember me", she told me one time.

Bram, who was equally impressed by her "marketing", introduced us to Aga several years ago and Mars and I regularly visit her shop on the town plaza. This encounter was unexpected. We came upon her selling from one of a set of tables at a market in a small park in the downtown area.

"Do you still have your store?" I asked.

"Oh yes. Thank you very much for asking. My sister is there today. I like it out here. I am a geeep-sy." she replied -- tilting her head and drawing every ounce of romantic Romany possible from that normally pejorative appellation.

Mars bought some necklaces and earrings as gifts. Another return customer purchased a $450 piece. I watched in amazement.

Every day in Santa Fe we went for a hike with Audrey the dog in the arroyo near her house. Audrey runs unfettered outside. She stands guard all day and vigorously protects the property from any interlopers, whether long eared rabbits or coyotes. On walks she wanders off-road into the underbrush and climbs up the surrounding hills while simultaneously keeping tracking of her companions whereabouts in order to join up with them periodically -- a good free-range example of what canine trainer Barbara Woodhouse calls "following up front".

Her tan and white coloring blends in with the high desert land over which she roams, as does her personality and lifestyle. A fortunate life for a former rescue dog.

We spent less time with our Greyhound "grand-dog" Cheyenne, with whom unfortunately Audrey does not get along. (Add dogs to Audrey's list of unwelcome intruders).

Cheyenne is also a "rescue dog" -- in her case from a dog-racing track near Tucson, Arizona. She has lived with Monica and Bram since last Christmas.

We were able to go for one hike with the three of them. Bred, born and trained to run, Cheyenne can never be off-leash in an unfenced area lest she spot some small, fast-moving, furry thing, take off after it, and keep going.

However, on a tether and on a hiking trail she is a heads-down, serious trekker. At least until the roll of thunder is heard. Then she is equally dedicated to leaving the immediate area.

The two-legged ones of us also went for a second walk in the woods at the "no dogs allowed" Audubon Nature Center in Santa Fe. The trail was well marked and easy at the start, then converted to an uneven, less clear-cut path as we climbed higher. This portion of the hike was delineated by small hand-built rock cairns. Most were simple piles of stones designed to look manmade so as to be distinguishable as trail markers. Some were more ornate than necessary having been added on to by previous art-minded travelers. Monica, Bram and Mars contributed additional rocks.

At what would become our turning around point, we came upon a virtual gallery of purely decorative stone structures located off to the side of the passageway -- an exemplar of the main reasons that people are attracted to Santa Fe: art and the outdoors. We went off trail and wandered among them.

There were six or seven constructs -- none with less than ten rocks, several with more than I could count. The exhibition was located down a small hill alongside what appeared to be one of the perpetually dry riverbeds that exist in this part of the country -- a safe location and a space that would be enhanced by the primitive works of sculpture without losing its identity to them. (Disturbing nature to make it look better is allowed out here.)

Mars decided to construct a similar mound of stones at the starting point of our daily arroyo walk with Audrey. Over several days we selected the building blocks from various places along the arid steep-sided gully and carried them back to the construction site, halfway up one of the surrounding walls. It seems like a good location to us -- away from the minimal amount traffic that passes through. Time will tell, but many things do last.

Mars and I initially vacationed in New Mexico seventeen years ago to celebrate twenty-five years of marriage. We knew not much about the area other than (what we thought at the time were) the abstract paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe. The colors, lighting, and scenery turned out to be more realistic than not. And we both felt totally at home in these totally unfamiliar surroundings. We have returned just about every year since then.

This time we marked our forty-second anniversary with Monica and Bram at a quiet dinner of Vietnamese food and pieces of dark chocolate that they brought over to Audrey's house.

Mars and I will be back again -- ultimately to stay. HaK'u.

Photos by Mars
For photo-essays of our latest trip to New Mexico and other things please visit http://www.viewmars.blogspot.com/
For more on the adventures of Cheyenne the Greyhound and other things please visit http://www.going2nm.blogspot.com/

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Others Are Coming

Haiku is a poetic form and a type of poetry from the Japanese culture. Themes include nature, feelings, or experiences. The most common form for Haiku is three short lines. The first line usually contains five (5) syllables, the second line seven (7) syllables, and the third line contains five (5) syllables. Haiku does not rhyme.

On our recent vacation Mars and I were hiking every day in an arroyo in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As we walked I was trying to compose a haiku about the experience.

Over a two-plus week period ours, and those of the dog with which we walked, were basically the only footprints visible on the dry, dusty earth. So I was trying to conjure up something about "leaving our mark on nature" or "the permanence of man's imprint on the natural world".

But all I was able to think about was the indentations that flying golf balls make when they flop down onto the green, and the golf etiquette that asks those of us who play the game to leave the course in a better condition than we found it.

The Most Basic Rule of Golf

Repair your ball mark.
Bend down. Gently move the grass.
Others are coming.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Play It As It Lays

Golf is often touted as being an invaluable teacher of life's lessons. It is. Just the other day it taught me what a "French Drain" is -- and is not.

The previous afternoon, on the ninth hole of the Blue Course at the Penn State University Golf Course, I had driven my ball into the center of the uphill fairway. It came to rest in a long, perfectly mown, grass ditch.

Initially I was elated over the length and accuracy of my shot. It was almost exactly equidistant from the long-grass rough on each side, and had traveled about as far as my body is capable of propelling a golf sphere.

Then I saw what my "lie" was. "Lies" are either good or bad. A "good lie" would be one on the fairway with good grass under the ball. A "bad lie" would be one in the rough, for instance -- or at the bottom of a trench.

Influenced largely by anger at the disappointing disposition of the golf ball, but at least somewhat motivated by a sense that I was upholding the integrity of the game, I decided to "play it as it lays" -- (a) the most basic rule of golf, (b) a very good title for a novel, and (c) a really bad strategy for a golf swing if you do not know how to adapt to the lie.

I took out my three-wood, positioned myself as if I were hitting from the perfectly flat plastic mats at the driving range, swung, and topped the ball at about a thirty degree angle along the ground into the adjacent two inch high rough.

Without checking my newest ball situation I changed my club to a five-iron and tromped into the thick underbrush convinced that I would hit the ball from there to the same fairway spot that my previously failed shot had unsuccessfully targeted. Three swings and hundreds of blades of grass later I made it near to that location, albeit still in the long, fat, fescue.

Mars and I were at the PSU facility attending a golf school Elderhostel. The next morning I asked how I should have played the out-of-the-gulley shot that started it all.

"A French Drain", replied Steve, one of the assistant teachers.

Our son Bram feels that in taking up golf Mars and I have joined a mysterious cult. We prefer to think that we are independent operatives who mingle with the secret society just enough to allow us to enjoyably participate in our own variation of the ancient Scottish sport. We play by ourselves, without keeping score, on our favorite very-public golf course.

But still, you cannot be too careful. I know that one of the ways these secretive sects suck you in is by making you privy to their private internal language -- thereby encouraging you to feel like a chosen person with special insider knowledge rather than just someone who happens to speak in a bizarre, non-standard vocabulary.

Golf does have its own language. And I have consciously resisted learning that argot lest its hypnotic power seduce me into a place from which I could only emerge wearing lime green pants and an Izod shirt, while mumbling phrases like "Get in the hole!" and "You the man!"

Given the disrespect into which all things Gallic have fallen (e.g. "freedom fries") I thought Steve was giving me the golf lingo for the type of bad stroke that I had hit -- similar to a "duck hook" or a "fat shot".

While I was trying to quietly penetrate the meaning of this latest piece of arcane golf vernacular Denise, the head instructor said, "You could have taken relief from the French Drain, just like Mars' 'casual Water' ball yesterday". On the previous afternoon Mars had landed her ball in a deep puddle created by recent rain. Since this water did not belong there, she was allowed to move her ball to a spot where the H2O did not affect her shot.

"But, if you do decide to play it from the ditch you need a club with a higher loft."


"A French drain, drain tile, or land drain is a ditch covered with gravel or rock that redirects surface and ground water away from an area." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_drain)

"All French drains are immovable obstructions under Rule 24-2 and relief is allowed in both fairway and rough for interference with both lie and/or stance The ball may be dropped within one club-length of the nearest point of relief not nearer the hole without penalty." (www.rgconline.org/LocalRules.htm)

On the next day, at the same hole, I hit almost exactly the same drive, and this time ended up with the ball midway up the side of the French Drain, requiring my feet to stand on the bottom of the conduit in order to hit it.

I opted once again to play it as it lays -- but this time using a club with more loft, my 3-Iron Hybrid. I relaxed and struck the ball in a relatively straight line about one hundred twenty yards or so. As I was walking away Sarah (another instructor), who was on the course observing and coaching us, pulled up in her cart.

"How should I have played this?" I asked as I placed a second ball on the spot from which I had just hit.

"Choke up on the club and take a three quarters swing", she told me. I did, and the ball went higher, straighter, and further than my previous one.

"Damn, you're right!" I said.

"Always am." Sarah replied.

I never asked her for the name the of shot. Too much information could jeopardize my status as a stealth golfer.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's Hard to be A Hermit in the 'Burbs

Our suburban property has become, through no intention on our part, the daytime "place to be" for a small band of pigeons -- as far as we have seen the only such spot in town. We do not know where they came from or where they sleep at night. They are said to be urban animals, yet they spend the vast majority of their waking hours right here in our faux-rural front yard.

It started last year with Walter. He (more likely "she" based on size) arrived one day and just kind of stayed. According to The Compassionate Action Institute (pleasebekind.com), "Pigeons are gregarious and tend to be found in small flocks of around twenty to thirty birds." Walter was always alone.

At first this seemed odd and almost a little bit creepy. Theodore Kaczynski, "The Unabomber" was a solitary individual -- as were many serial killers. But then again, so were many saints. We have found no evidence of dismembered victims, or of tiny, little graves hidden on our land. Nor any miracles. So I decided that perhaps Walter was just a hermitic pigeon who happened upon our quiet bird-friendly oasis, and liked what he found.

This solo performance continued throughout the winter and into this spring. Then as I was filling up the bird feeders one morning I felt the glare of twelve reddish-orange eyes carefully tracking my movements. I looked up on our roof and saw the silhouettes of six domestic Rock Doves, each one’s body language shouting, "Feed me! Feed me!" I put out the food, and down they came.

The next day there were ten. On the day after, twelve came. Then sixteen. Their daily arrival precedes my feeding schedule. And they no longer await the completion of my activities before swooping in to fill their crops. Then they spend the next eight hours just hanging around and pecking at the ground.

But I can't figure out what it is they find to eat that keeps them here all day.

As a part of my feeding ritual I scatter a small handful of black oily sunflower seeds onto the ground -- the same amount that I left out for Walter when he was our only pigeon guest. Then there are the uneaten sunflower kernels that get tossed aside during the titmouse/sparrow/squirrel/etc. feeding that goes on throughout the day. And a small amount of thistle seeds that slip through the mesh siding of our finch feeder. But that's it.

Still, throughout the daylight hours, this uninvited horde of urban dove-wannabes pecks at our yard like a flock of chickens perched in a trough overflowing with chickenfeed. Except when they are spooked -- by almost any noise -- and flush like game birds to the safety of our overhanging tree branches or, more commonly, to the familiarity of our roof.

When we have company they also gather atop our house and look threateningly down at them. Our niece-by-marriage said to me the other day "Didn't you used to have little decorative pigeon statues on your rooftop?" When I told her "No, they were real" her body rapidly contracted as if she had a sudden chill, and her face began to take on that Janet Leigh "Psycho" shower look. "Oh!" she said.

Although Mars and I do not really want them, we have come grudgingly to tolerate their presence. Some are actually nice looking: an all-black, a white with inky stripes, and a rust and white pinto. Plus the cascading sound of their collective little pigeon feet running across our family room roof is kind of soothing, in an Alfred Hitchcock kind of way.

The population seems to have leveled out in the mid-teens -- large enough to be noticeable but not so big as to be disruptive. And generic looking Walter -- whose appearance is unfortunately identical to that of most of his species -- is probably somewhere out there in the mix.

Occasionally, when the group panics and flies up, one of them lingers behind for a minute or two and wanders slowly back and forth across what used to be Walter's private stomping grounds.

I like to believe it is him. And that he, like me, has finally reconciled himself to the fact that even a quiet life in the 'burbs is not a totally safe refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Nor should it be.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Feral Chihuahua

"Feral Chihuahua", said Mars.

I had been focusing like a laser on my impending tee shot so, while I heard her words, I had no idea what she was talking about. In fairness Mars might rephrase "focusing like a laser" to "cluelessly unaware of my surroundings", but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. In any event I looked up at her and saw her gesturing towards the area behind me -- between the first tee where I stood and the ninth hole about fifty yards away.

Therein was a russet brown, sturdy, bouncing Mexican Chihuahua. As I turned, it started yipping and bobbing even more rapidly. I took a step towards the nanoscale sized canine and it retreated rapidly to the center of the adjacent short-grass putting surface.

I advanced one more stride and it began circling the number nine flagpole, barking incessantly and somehow keeping its eyes focused like a laser on me.

The golf course, as I have written elsewhere, is located within an urban, public park so Fidos on the fairway are not that unusual. Normally they are accompanied. But in the instance there was no potential Chihuahua owner in sight.

As I began to ponder what to do the small, smooth-haired dog began running back up the ninth fairway and out of our sphere of influence.

"Feral Chihuahua" I thought to my self and laughed at the silliness of the idea -- almost as foolish as the appearance of the tiny brown canine defending the Ninth green.

Or maybe not. Searching on Google.com for "feral Chihuahua" I was presented with:

Bloodlusting Chihuahuas Kill Thousands.
According to the Los Angeles Times, "A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge must decide whether feral Chihuahuas, confiscated from a ranch, are suitable for rescue or must be destroyed. That's right. Feral Chihuahuas."

And lest you doubt the veracity of an Internet blog entry that cites a real news organization, preceding this entry on my Google list was this entry:

Fate of Feral Chihuahuas Divides California Town : NPR
NPR's Scott Simon talks with Steve Padilla of the Los Angeles Times about the fate of 174 feral chihuahua dogs in a Los Angeles shelter.
Here is the link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1342375

The dogs apparently were brought to a ranch in the Greater L.A. area but not cared for. So they took matters into their own paws. They were described by one of the investigating reporters as "like Coyotes that fit in a handbag...bearing their little tiny teeth."

The interviewee pointed out that this was entirely a manmade problem. "There are no packs of Chihuahuas roaming the Great Plains."

Nor apparently at our local public golf course. Not at least that Mars and I have seen. Maybe the hawks that regularly patrol the area from their fairway-side tree-towers enjoy Mexican food too much to allow anything like that to happen. More likely all of the Chihuahuas in this neighborhood each have their own beloved human pack to run with. And our noisy intruder simply returned to his.

That was last Monday. Today we played again on the same course. There were no Chihuahuas in sight.

But, as we were unloading Mars' golf cart after finishing our round, a very feral looking dark gray squirrel hopped into the small motorized vehicle and began rooting around in the two glove compartments -- where we had carried our snacks -- looking for food.

He was completed undeterred by our presence and our activities in and around the cart, to the extent that he had to be seduced out of it by Mars using a few almonds that she had not yet eaten.

All in all he seemed a lot friendlier than the Chihuahua. In fact I am pretty sure I heard him start to say "Yo quiero..." but a small Yellow Lab pup passing by with its walker interrupted him.

Come for the golf! Stay for the wildlife!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Lydia and Plato

Mars and I were both Philosophy majors in college, and we have a small collection of Hispanic New Mexican religious folk art. Last week I wouldn't have even used those two facts in the same sentence. Now it makes perfect sense to me.

Most of the artworks are "Santos" (painted/carved images of saints) -- several of them created by one particular "Santara" (Lydia) who lives in the Taos area. All are modern. Although we collect them for the way that they look and their evocation of a culture with which we feel a strong affinity, they were created as religious objects -- not collectibles.

In that same spirit we recently attended an Elderhostel at the Museum of Russian Icons for our own secular, aesthetic reasons. The Santos and the Icons portray the same things but their styles are recognizably different. The Russian objects also appeal to me artistically but, probably because of our years of personal experience in New Mexico, do not effect me as emotionally as the Santos do.

The icon museum is located in Clinton Massachusetts -- one of the many former textile-milling towns in that section of the state. The major employer in town nowadays is Nypro, an internationally successful plastics company ("Where success takes shape"), whose Chairman of the Board, Gordon Lankton, turned his personal collection of sacred Orthodox artworks into this public museum.

He spoke to our group about how he began his collection with a $25 purchase at a Moscow flea market. Over three hundred fifty of his accumulated pieces -- most costing considerably more than his original acquisition -- are now housed in this museum, which he opened in 2007.

In addition to Mr. Lankton, David Durrant the architect who custom-converted the former mill building into a museum, Kent Russell the Curator, and Olga Litvak professor of Jewish-and-Russian Studies spoke to our class.

I knew nothing about Russian Icons other than their subject matter, so just about everything that they said was new to me. Then, as I sat down to write this account, I was brushing up on my New Mexican folk art terminology in a book called "Santos and Saints" by Thomas J. Steele, S.J. and I discovered that many of the major attributes of the Russian icons were also true of the Santos.

As mentioned above the subject matter is the same: Christ, Mary the Mother of God, individual saints, and (considerably less common in Santos) bible stories.

The technicalities are similar. Both are created on wood that has been coated with gesso. The paints are created from the minerals and vegetation of the earth. Images and backgrounds are presented as flat.

But, most importantly, their guiding principles are cut from the same cloth.

The centerpiece of the museum, and of Russian iconography, is the Image-Not-Made-By-Hands, a.k.a. The First Icon.

According to legend Jesus himself produced the first icon. King Agbar of Edessa, a leper, heard of Jesus' healing powers, and sent a messenger to bring Jesus back to heal him. Along with a letter declining the invitation because of his pressing mission, Jesus sent the MANDILION, a cloth on which the image of his face was miraculously reproduced. (udayton.edu)

The museum does not own the original face print of Christ. Unlike similar religious objects such as the Shroud of Turin the current location of the first Image-Not-Made-By-Hands is not known. The representation has however been recreated imitatively by icon artists (or "writers" as they prefer) throughout the history of the craft and is one of the most frequently used, effigies of Russian iconography.

In fact the art of Russian iconography consists entirely of exactly recreating accepted iconic images and combining them following strict rules such as the order in which colors are placed on the object, and which symbols are theologically correct for the story being told.

(Interesting aside: The icon on display in the museum is actually a three year old exact replica of a much older picture that Mr. Lankton purchased in Russia but which he is not allowed to remove from that country. Even that copy was "written" according to the rules of the craft.)

A Renaissance painter would attempt to portray a chair realistically (three dimensionally) and, if asked what the subject of the painting was would say "a chair". A Russian Icon writer would depict the same object and say it was "an image of a chair".

Mars and I learned something like this in Philosophy 101. The Greek philosopher Plato believed that even the chairs that we actually sit in are merely imperfect images of the "Idea" of a chair. I never quite comprehended this -- but it made enough sense to me that I felt I should have. Apparently others understood it better.

In the New Mexican santero tradition, a painting was judged holy if it repeated the previous painting of the same subject in its tradition, and it thereby resembles the icon of Greek Byzantium and Russia. The theory of icons in the Orthodox Churches was based on the Neoplatonic doctrine of participation, and so it interpreted the icon as a dependent entity that shared the being, holiness, power, intelligibility, beauty, life, and purpose of its model. In New Mexico, even the relatively and naively naturalistic late-nineteenth-century bultos [folk art images] developed within a folk-Platonic mentality. (Santos and Saints).

An illustrated guide to Plato right here on our family room walls. Who knew?

All my life's a circle -- or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.