Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Seen At The Mall, Heard On The News.

Build-A-Bear is empty,
Dubai's building cranes idle -
Fifth and sixth horsemen?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Surfeit of Information

The crows are migrating through our neck of the woods. According to the local newspaper "a colony of crows that sometimes numbers 15,000 or more birds has moved east, spending some nights in trees on the grounds of the State Capitol and of the Supreme Court and State Library complex across the street."

That's just where they roost. During the day, like many visitors to our state, they explore the surrounding suburbs -- such as mine, Wethersfield, the town immediately south of our capitol city. Based upon the relative populations of all the surrounding towns, our village's proportional per capita share of crows should be about 2,500. Of that number, my yard's portion, there being but two of us at home, would be .2 birds. A wing maybe. Or a beak and a claw. Perhaps a pile of tail feathers.

That is not what is happening. All of them, all fifteen thou have been on my lawn in the past several days. And the tide shows no sign of abating.

A collection of crows is known as a "murder".

According to James Lipton in his book "An Exaltation of Larks" there are six families of such terms of venery (as Lipton calls them).
5. Comment (pro or con), reflecting the observer's point of view): A RICHNESS OF MARTENS, A COWARDICE OF CURS
6. Error (resulting from an incorrect transcription by a scribe or printer faithfully preserved in the corrupted for by subsequent compilers): A SCHOOL OF FISH, originally a 'shoal'."

Lipton leaves it "to the reader whether a MURDER OF CROWS belongs in the second of fifth family." It is a really difficult choice.

"An Exaltation of Larks" gives the etymology of "murder" as follows.

"The term appears in the oldest of the manuscripts [of veneries], Egerton, as a Mursher of Crowys. By 1476 it had become the more easily recognizable Murther of Crowes in the Hors, Shepe & the Ghoos."

What is happening on our lawn is clearly "mass murder" (or perhaps "mash mursher").

The birds descend on my property like a gigantic, glossy black, storm cloud turning my lawn, which at this time of year should be struggling to convert from winter-white to spring-green, into an ocean of ebony. The entire murder seems to touch ground simultaneously and immediately begin their gangland wiseguy strut around our property.

Being scavengers they peck their way through whatever sunflower or thistle seeds might have fallen from our feeders and any kernels of corn inadvertently leftover from the squirrel's "critter mix" -- picking and discarding randomly as if to indicate their utter disdain for this inadequate banquet. (Not enough protein perhaps?)

I assume it is this predatory swagger, coupled with their dismal coloring, that has earned these animals their unpleasant venery. Yet, in spite of their tough guy reputation the gang that hangs out at my place really are just a bunch of scaredy-cats.

Unlike the squirrels and finches who, very often, will blithely hang on to their feeders, chowing down on carbs when Mars and I leave and enter the house, the purportedly malevolent big black birds spook, as a group, at the slightest movement. Even the act of me rising from my seat inside the nearby family room leads to an instantaneous mass evacuation. They return shortly thereafter but one or two more moves on my part are enough to send them away for the rest of the day.

It is really hard to believe that this group appellation earned over five hundred years ago is so totally false. So what are the strange circumstances that could turn this Murder into a Milquetoast?

On the same day that the newspaper reported on the temporary crow infestation it also told three other pertinent local stories. In one, a household pet chimpanzee attacked and seriously wounded a friend of its owner and, in the second news item a man held a significant portion of an interstate highway at gunpoint for several hours. The journal also ran part two of a weeklong series about a hometown Mafia-backed hustler who is alive and well and heading into his apparently well-heeled dotage.

It is enough to cause me, who has a lifetime of roots in Connecticut, to wonder why anyone would want to live here. And it just has to make any group of our state's transitory tourists at least a little skittish -- even those that would ordinarily be a Murder most fowl.


Here, at no extra charge, are some of the bird veneries identified by James Lipton.
A covey of partridges
A murder of crows
A rafter of turkeys
A brood of hens
A fall of woodcocks
A dule of doves
A wedge of swans
A party of jays
A company of parrots
A colony of penguins
A cover of coots
A sord of mallards
A dissimulation of birds
A peep of chickens
A pitying of turtledoves
A paddling of ducks [on the water]
A siege of herons
A charm of finches
A skein of geese [in flight]
a tidings of magpies
A cast of hawks
A deceit of lapwings
An ostentation of peacocks
A bouquet of pheasants
A congregation of plovers
An unkindness of ravens
A building of rooks
A host of sparrows
A descent of woodpeckers
A mustering of storks
A flight of swallows
A watch of nightingales
A murmuration of starlings
A spring of teal
A parliament of owls
An exaltation of larks

Friday, February 20, 2009

Piles of Dirty Snow

Piles of dirty snow,
Christmas trees by the roadside -
Winter just won't leave.

(joint composition with Mars,
photo by Mars)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sunflower Schemes

I am not normally a suspicious person but these are troubled times what with Bernie Madoff's billion-dollar investment scheme, Nigerian e-mail scams, and deteriorating personal financial solvencies -- so you can't be too careful.

Which is why I spent a sleepless night pondering the possible dangers associated with the seemingly innocent gift we received recently from B & M, our neighbors across the street.

They, along with several other friends, were over at our house for an annual Sunday Brunch party we have hosted for the past several years. And, along with several other friends, they brought a hostess gift -- in their case a five-pound bag of "Squirrel & Critter Mix - Specially formulated for backyard animals."

Because of the configuration of our property we basically have no yard behind our house so all of our outdoor action takes place out in front of most of the neighborhood, including B & M. This time of year the vast majority of that action is provided by the various birds that visit our four tree-hung feeders, and the squirrels that reside on our property and frequent the same food stations as well as a corn holder designed specially for them.

We ensure that the feeding stations are well stocked every day and as a result both our feathered and our furry regular customers have developed quite "healthy" (i.e. unhealthy) body contours. The birds seem to be expanding right before our eyes as they scarf the black, oily sunflowers down their tiny, little gullets. Then they fly away and burn it all off within minutes.

The squirrels on the other hand just keep growing, and growing, and growing -- kind of like the Energizer Glutton. This detracts not at all from their entertainment value -- but does seem to slow them down a bit and makes their movements less ballet-like and more akin to those of a Japanese Sumo wrestler.

B & M have a cat. It was originally a walk-on but has now endeared itself to the family it adopted by instituting a reign of terror -- and death and destruction -- on the chipmunks and other rodents that caused crop damage and other turmoil on their property. But not any more. There is a new sheriff in town!

Perhaps however this law officer has been just a little too efficient.

Hence the "Trojan Critter Mix."

According to the packaging this combination of corn, sunflowers and nuts "Attracts squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons and other small animals." "Critters", or as a foraging feline would call it, "a four course meal with a surprise for dessert."

I have not priced the five-pound bag of the Squirrel & Critter Mix -- although I am certain I will have to buy another, and another... But I will bet it is less than one would have to pay for a top-quality, high-protein, free-range food for a free-range feline.

It's a classic "Inverted Ponzi" scheme.

Unlike the more widely known investment scam that pays returns to investors from their own money, or money paid by subsequent investors, rather than from profits, the more sophisticated transposed variation involves spreading the wealth to the shareholders upfront. This initial distribution is in the form of consumable goods and is of such a nature as to generate a sense of obligation on the part of the recipients to continue replacing that commodity as it is used up.

The benefit to the con artist is however not in the increased demand generated for the used up materials, but in the effect these items have on others not initially involved in the scheme. These third parties are the consumers of the disposable item and the actual target of the duplicitous conspiracy. The goal of the scheme is to induce these end users into a state of self-satisfaction and laziness that renders them helplessly susceptible to the predatory practices of the Inverted Ponzi-ist.

For example, the end game here is to reduce the squirrels that live on my property to such a state of torpor, indolence, sloth and (most importantly) obesity that they become foolproof, top-quality, high-protein, free-range targets for the always-hungry free-range cat that resides across the street.

And, since Mars and I really have no idea exactly how many tree-rodents we are responsible for, we will just keep buying more food and feeding them.

But this whole subterfuge is not really B & M's fault -- or even their idea. After all we do call those powerful and successful operators at the top "fat cats" for a reason.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Oh Nothing, How About You?

It is believed that animals think pictorially -- specific pictures of concrete objects or actual places that they have experienced. This is also the way that some autistic people say that they think, Temple Grandin Ph.D. at Colorado State University for example. So, for those of us who cannot understand what that means without a verbal explanation, it is possible to get one.

"I have no language-based thoughts at all. My thoughts are in pictures, like videotapes in my mind. When I recall something from my memory, I see only pictures. I used to think that everybody thought this way until I started talking to people on how they thought. I learned that there is a whole continuum of thinking styles, from totally visual thinkers like me, to the totally verbal thinkers. Artists, engineers, and good animal trainers are often highly visual thinkers, and accountants, bankers, and people who trade in the futures market tend to be highly verbal thinkers with few pictures in their minds.

'Most people use a combination of both verbal and visual skills. Several years ago I devised a little test to find out what style of thinking people use: Access your memory on church steeples. Most people will see a picture in their mind of a generic 'generalized' steeple. I only see specific steeples; there is no generalized one. Images of steeples flash through my mind like clicking quickly through a series of slides or pictures on a computer screen. On the other hand, highly verbal thinkers may 'see' the words 'church steeple,' or will 'see' just a simple stick-figure steeple.

I started thinking about this, in words of course, because Mars and I noticed one of the squirrels that resides on our property meditating atop a small snow bank near our family room door. So I began to wonder, as he stood peacefully, his mind empty of worldly concerns -- what is he NOT thinking about?

It wasn't the first time that we have seen the tree rodents in that relaxed state of consciousness. Frequently during the warmer weather we have noticed a small gray body draped in a prone, pelt-like position on one of the thick branches of our flowering crab tree -- staring blankly. Our winter one sits upright on its haunches with its front legs bent at the knee and held out in front, with both paws hanging limply towards the ground.

The squirrels are willing to let us get within five or so feet of them -- a distance from which we can clearly see the speed and depth of their breathing and the movement of their eyes. Normally both are rapid. The contemplator's ribs barely move, and do so very slowly. And their beady little orbs are fixed in place.

My only real meditative experience has been in yoga classes during Savasana, a.k.a. "final relaxation", a.k.a. "the corpse pose." The English equivalents are, I think, meant to be a form of yogic humor because the experience is meant to be much better than it sounds in translation.
Savasana is a relaxing posture done at the end of a yoga class and is intended to rejuvenate the yogist's body, mind and spirit. It is performed, as the popular names imply, in a supine position with arms and legs spread about forty-five degrees and the eyes closed. The lighting in the yoga studio is turned off to darken the room and soothing, usually ambient music, is played. While the yoga students are in this position the teacher sneaks around the room secretly taken embarrassing pictures that later show up on the Internet. Just kidding! -- more yoga humor.

In my savasana sessions I was always told to "empty your mind" and "think of nothing". That never worked. Sometimes I found myself thinking about not thinking. Other times I wondered what the music was. Occasionally I was listening to my body -- a good thing during the active part of class, a bad thing now. Once or twice I fell asleep.

It is probably because I am a verbal thinker -- the reason why I am writing this rather than drawing it. It is really difficult for us verbalists to stop using words to describe to ourselves what we are experiencing -- even when it is nothing at all. Just ask Jerry Seinfeld!

I do not believe that either method of thinking is superior or inferior to the other. They are just different.

But it does bother the heck out of me that our dumb little meditating squirrel seems to get the picture -- and I don't. In fact it annoys me so much that I can barely put it into words.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Snap, Crackle & Pop

When I got up after an hour spent sitting on the couch reading the Sunday Hartford Courant my right knee tendon snapped -- loudly. Mars, my wife, continued her newspaper browsing as if nothing at all had happened.

We both had read the "Laurence Cohen & Gina Barreca | Irreconcilable Differences" column on "The Burdens of Woo and Whoopee".

He said, "Consider the poor male Eland antelopes. In order to keep the girls happy, the guys have to force their knee tendons to make a loud clicking noise that the girls really love. The bigger the guy, the louder the click. It works fine, except that the lions can also hear the clicking. Oops. It's hard to be a man."

She said, "Meanwhile, the females of the species are feeding the babies by regurgitating food from their own intestinal tracts while the males complain that they aren't getting enough attention and also explaining that since, hey, they are not like those weirdo swans who mate for life ('Nature didn't make me that way, darlin' and besides, when you click your knee tendons the way I do, how can one I give myself to just one Eland lady?")..."

I said, "Didn't you hear that?" as I rapidly jerked my other knee backwards in a desperate attempt to replicate the sound on that side also. It popped meekly.

Mars said -- well, nothing actually -- but she did manage a smile of bemused annoyance.

My tendons have been making noises for as long as I can remember. Similar snapping sounds also emanate from various other parts of my body -- neck, elbows, back, ankles. Often times the simple act of arising from a seated position results in a volley of clicks and cracks similar in both timbre and volume to the collective tendon calls of a hundredfold herd of hot-to-trot African antelopes

The crackling sound in my knee happens several times a day under, to me anyway, random circumstances -- mostly without any conscious effort on my part. Like the other noises, I assumed it was the natural result of sixty-five years of use, plus arthritis, plus an injury or two -- but in general not necessarily a good thing. Now I clearly see that it for what it really is.

And it gets even better because "as an eland grows [a obvious euphemism for gets older] its tendon gets longer and wider, its knee-clicks deepen." -- hence the term "whippersnapper" for a young, inexperienced buck.

This also explains why begging sometimes actually works.

It isn't really the act of obeisance that does the trick. It's the noise that your knees make when you struggle to return to an upright position. That is if she can even hear those salacious snaps above the cacophony of other concurrent crackles and pops -- and the sound of her own sardonic laughter.