Monday, June 29, 2009

Ankle Deep & Hands Plunged

As I stood ankle-deep and hands-plunged in the rapidly rising water, I wondered -- did I really want to leave this life as a result of being welded to a municipal catch basin by an errant bolt of lightning?

On the other hand it would make a pretty entertaining essay.

The influx of H2O was the result of an unusually heavy rain that blew through our neighborhood at around 4:30 last Friday afternoon. Strong winds, hale, and continuous thunder and lightning accompanied the deluge, which left over three inches of rain in less than an hour.

I was inside the house having just returned from a mulch run to our local nursery to the west while Mars was east, across the river in the town of Glastonbury -- about five miles away. We knew that storms were predicted for late that afternoon and had made our plans based upon a 3:45 check of the hour-by-hour forecast at "" which told us that the bad weather would not arrive until at least two hours later. It was wrong.

I had just unloaded my eight bags of cedar bark and walked into the house when the rain began and the power went off. Then on. Then off. Then on. Then off for real.

I grabbed the crossword puzzle and picked a location near a window for natural light. Disturbingly large-sounding objects bounced off the roof and siding. After filling in about ten words I heard a car horn honking at the three-way intersection next to our property.

When I looked out I saw a large branch from one of our oak trees lying akimbo on our front lawn, and wheel-high puddles of water on the road. I donned my Gortex jacket, stepped into my ankle high Muck Boots, slipped on my rubber gardening gloves, manually opened our garage door, and stepped into the fray.

I knew what the problem was. The catch basins on all of the sewers in our immediate neighborhood were clogged with tiny branches of leaves that had been blown and floated to their final resting place.

Traffic, which usually is quite light at that hour, was bumper to bumper -- due, I later found out, to nearby street closings caused by falling trees and power lines.

I started at the drainage conduit located right in the intersection. The water was one third of the way up my calves and immediately poured into my no longer waterproof footwear. I removed my watch, pushed up my jacket sleeves, and plunged my hands into the stagnant road-pond, groping blindly for the metal grate into which the bright green oak and maple leaves had wedged themselves. I found it and began scooping out vegetative invaders and tossing them safely onto dry land. Lightning crackled and thunder boomed.

After a minute or so a small whirlpool formed in the wet space in front of me, and water began running down into the drainage system. After clearing the first sewer I moved on to four others -- each equally as deep -- and when I finally looked up from the last one I saw that the road was now completely clear of any standing water.

It was an extremely cathartic moment.

I went inside and changed into dry clothes. About forty-five minutes later Mars arrived home having missed the brunt of the storm while indoors at her meeting. Her normally ten minute ride home took one half hour due to downed trees on the route that took her back home across the Connecticut River.

The rain subsided shortly thereafter. With no electricity we dined on peanut butter sandwiches, read for a while, and then headed out for a walk to survey the destruction in the immediate area.

A broken tree blocked a part of the first major intersection south of our no longer flooded one. Around the corner and down the street a severed tree trunk lay alongside a set of senior apartments, and another one blocked the road into our neighborhood park. On the street north of our house two trees -- one uprooted and one cracked-off -- blocked the road and apparently damaged the electric transformer to our homestead.

The next day morning Mars and I went out to clean up our yard. We assumed -- correctly it turned out -- that the town would pick up tree debris from the storm if it were piled in some orderly fashion on the snow shelf. After two-and-one-half hours of pretty much continuous sawing, raking, and plain old picking up sticks our lawn was largely clear. And our snow shelf mostly buried -- albeit neatly.

We went for a short ride to do some damage voyeurism. And discovered to our considerable surprise that the town green located in the "olde" section of our village had dozens of trees -- most of considerable age if not historical significance -- lying like dead elephants across the grass and draped awkwardly over nearby power lines and front lawns.

The next day the National Weather Service officially declared that a Level One tornado had touched down in Wethersfield.

Sometimes a flood, even with the added frisson of a potential electrocution, is just a side story.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Justifiable Herbicide

What is it about Dandelions and Lily of the Valley that inspires such venomous hatred?
Mars and I recently attempted to give some of the latter to a family member who is landscaping a newly acquired house. "Thanks for the offer, I like it but the dh hates it, at the other house he hacked it out with an ax."

I have gotten this kind of response before. One time I donated some LotV to my garden club's annual plant sale. It was unanimously and derisively banished from the "for sale" section and relegated to the "please, please take one for free" table where it was totally ignored -- except for some Master Gardeners who visibly recoiled at the plant's proximity. At least no one took a sharp steel wood-chopping tool to them.

Dandelion detestation is even more dramatic. I often feel it myself.

Every day I stalk my lawn looking for the slightest glimpse of lion-toothed leaf to root out with my well-seasoned, fork-tongued weeding tool -- "The Herbinator". I actually find this mano-a-mano style of horticultural combat to be quite relaxing.

But gentlemanly dislike often escalates into rabid detestation. Particularly after I've just duck-walked the lawn, dug up that last broadleaf weed and, as I am stretching the muscle spasms out of my back, spot one more insidious yellow-headed outlier. Suddenly blind anger obliterates my pain and, weeding tool in hand, I rush forth in a Norman Bates-like frenzy, stabbing wildly at the missed miscreant -- and vowing not to look for any others as I return my weapon to its storage bucket.

All because of golf, public parks, and Levittown.

Invented on the natural grasslands of Scotland the first golf course in the United States was built 1888 in New York. The sport rapidly developed in popularity creating a grass-roots industry all its own.

"Between 1910 and 1924, the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) helped fund and carry out research in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the best ways to cultivate grass. Reportedly the first experimental turf farm in the U.S. resided where the Pentagon sits today.

"In the mid 19th century, as cities grew and became increasingly industrialized, city beautification campaigns became common, and the 'park' was born.
"Eventually lawns migrated from the civic center into North Americans' backyards. A key figure in this movement was Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903), a.k.a. the American father of landscape architecture, who planned New York City's Central Park in the 1850s, as well as parks in Boston, Montreal, and elsewhere. Olmstead not only popularized the use of meadows in public parks, but also designed suburbs in which each residential home sported a lawn."
Then came Levittown -- "The Ideal American Community". Built 1948-52 it was the first affordable-dwelling suburb to include established lawns "which residents were required to keep up but forbidden to fence in. The importance of a neat, weed-free, closely-shorn lawn was promoted intensely in the newsletters that went out to all homeowners in these subdivisions, along with lawn-care advice on how to reach this ideal."

Many of these occupants were returning GIs and their young families "trained in neatness and obedience, and these were the conformist fifties...

"Science and technology produced a whole train of inventions: the rotary lawn mower, effective (if not safe) pesticides, the first weed-free grass seeds, combined fertilizers and pesticides (early Weed and Feed products), and spreaders to make their application so easy it was child's play. Out of these developments came the possibility of the weed-free lawn."

There was of course some collateral damage. Clover, a beneficial nitrogen-depositing part of lawns, became the enemy because the new "2,4-D" herbicides could not distinguish that herbaceous three-lobed plant from the broad leaf weeds they were intended to eliminate.

But maybe it could have evolved differently.
A recent New Yorker magazine article told of the restoration of the Askernish golf course, in Scotland -- built in the early 1900's and designed by Old Tom Morris, the founding father of modern golf. In 2005 the course was still in use but not in its original configuration. The restorers were determined to recreate golf holes of the type that Morris and his contemporaries did, in the same way that they would have constructed them. They would not use pesticides or artificial fertilizers, or install any irrigation system. Maintenance would consist of no more than cutting the grass and filling in old rabbit burrows.

To me that seems like the way golf and landscaping were really meant to be -- playing through what nature gives you. Unless, of course, the ball happens to land in front of some Lily of the Valley or dandelion that interferes with my swing. Then, without hesitation, I will reach into my golf bag, take out my trusty Fork-Tongued Weeding Wedge, and chip that sucker right into the nearest trash pail.

Matthew 5:21-22 says "whosoever is angry...without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment."

I plead justifiable herbicide.

(quoted information taken from

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On The Trail

It has rained every daily for the last seven days. On a trek along our town's bicycle path Mars and I came upon the following scene and haiku. Line 2 by Mars, lines 1 & 3 by jim.

Three frogs on the trail,

In a normally dry spot -
Someone likes the rain.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Two Pictures - No Camera

(1) The setting is the campus of the University of Hartford near the entrance to the Hartt School of Music Building. Spring semester is over, so the campus is devoid of college students. But classes continue on for those enrolled in the Community Division programs.

It is four in the afternoon in the middle of June. The weather is sunny with a temperature in the low seventies -- a little cool for this time of the year, but a perfect day for baseball.

A blonde teenage boy is standing at the back of a late-model, gray sports utility vehicle. He is dressed like a baseball player -- white shirt with blue pinstripes, solid white pants that stop just the knee, blue stockings with no white cut-outs at the ankles, and polished black baseball shoes. He has the solid muscularity of a power hitter. The uniform is absolutely clean.

I never see the front of the jersey so I attempt to surmise the team that he plays for. The local high school tournaments are still going on, so he could be a member of one of the local area nines that has made it into the final rounds.

While I am striving to figure this out he swings open the rear gate of the vehicle, removes a pretty severely scuffed violin case, and heads briskly towards the music school entrance.

(2) The scene is a city street on the outskirts of Harford, Connecticut ten minutes later. The after-work commute, both vehicular and pedestrian, is beginning. I am driving slowly in the traffic while at the same time trying to observe the life on the street without running into any of it.

About midway down the block, on the sidewalk to my right, a woman is sitting by herself on top of what could be a mid-sized cooler chest. I would guess her height at around five and one half feet and her weight somewhere north of two hundred pounds. Her beige-colored jacket lies across her lap and hangs down along the sides of the light tan object on which she sits. Her pants are also of the same hue making it difficult to distinguish where she ends and the seat begins.

There is no bus stop near the spot at which she is waiting. And her posture -- elbows on thighs, upper body slumped forward, eyes straight ahead -- suggests that she is not really expecting a ride anytime soon.

Her left hand cradles the bottom of a large bag of chips and, as we pass by, her right mitt transports several of them slowly towards her equally slowly opening mouth.

Every picture tells a story don't it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


"You know, shooting baskets is very satisfying", said my neighbor M.

"When you're making them", I responded as my one-handed jump shot clanged against the left outside of the basket rim, bounced off an unoccupied baby stroller, and rolled into the empty garage.

Mars and I were at a neighborhood picnic for the walkers and sponsors of one of the teams participating in a local "Autism Speaks" fundraising walk. The hosts are parents of an autistic daughter, A.

Even though I probably hear or read the word every day in the mass media I realized while at the party that I really knew very little about autism.

My IMac supplied dictionary defines it as "a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts."

I also remember reading that autistic people think in pictures rather than words. As a result they have difficulty understanding what is happening when a situation doesn’t look exactly the way they expected it to.

A is, I believe, the only autistic person that I know personally. She is a really sweet little eight year old who often looks like she is trying to put together her first jigsaw puzzle -- with too many pieces, and no idea what the finished product is supposed to look like.

Other than its raison d'etre this was a normal, everyday outdoor outing with the thirty or so participants dividing themselves into their usual demographic cliques. Ours was the fifty-years-and-over neighbor group, with the guys standing around the appetizer table near the beer keg and the women seated in a circle nearby.

After thirty minutes of guy-chat M, J (another neighbor), and I wandered out to the driveway/basketball court to join one of the pre-teen guests who was intently shooting baskets by himself. We played a game of P I G, a contest in which each person has to exactly emulate a shot made by one of the others or be assigned a letter for missing ("P", then "I" then "G"). Spell the word and you are out.

I myself had not touched a basketball in at least eight years. And it showed. I played a lot as a teenager -- pretty much every day after school and during the summer -- most of the time in a neighborhood schoolyard with chain metal nets.

I was a better passer than a shooter, aware of where I and others were on the court, and a good setter of picks to free up other teammates from those guarding them -- decent enough to be able to use basketball as one of my principal means of communicating and forming relationships with other people.

For many years after my adolescent playing days I would relax myself in bed at night by picturing the feeling of my body executing a perfect jump shot. As I got older, and my sports changed, my sleep-inducer changed to a forehand tennis shot, and most recently to a well executed drive down the middle of the golf fairway.

But out on this day my shots were just not dropping. The ball felt too big and the basket looked too small. I quickly got "P" and "I", then made a basket, then missed again and was eliminated. The next game went the same way. I was not surprised that I was less than perfect. But I was puzzled by the extent of my inability.

We three male adults wandered back to join the circle of our wives where we engaged in some couples-chat and a little food-chat while we ate. Then M and I went back onto the driveway for some informal basket shooting.

Suddenly I could not miss -- jump shots, hook shots, two pointers or threes nothing but net. The ball was small and the basket was big. Athletes talk about "seeing it" when something like this is happening. I was definitely "seeing it'.

WNBA coach Mike Thibault had this to say about his team's recent poor shooting performance, "A lot of this is resolved up here [the head]. These players have been shooting the ball their entire lives."

During my earlier attempts I was aware of all the things in my surroundings -- trees, cars, fellow picnickers. Now all I sensed was the ball, the basket, and the space between them.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, 90% of life is mental -- the other half is experience.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

And The Last Shall Be First

I came across the first line of this Haiku in a book I was reading on vacation. I thought at the time it would make a perfect last line. But after mulling it over for several weeks I have not been able to make that happen - so...

Butterflies don't sing,
Or dance, or act, or tell jokes.
They have to look good.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Nothing If Not...

Mars and I got to the North Carolina beach in time to see the Prickly Pear Cactus blossoming. I was totally surprised and confused. They should not have been there. Neither should we. Cacti are, after all, creatures of the desert, just as we have come to think of ourselves.

Truth be told we are considerably newer to the joys of dry barren land than to the charms of the ocean and its adjacent sandy border. As children growing up in verdant Connecticut we vacationed at the beaches of our home state and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And as an adult couple we have sojourned to "The Cape" frequently, and, more recently to the sand and salt water of North Carolina -- most of these latter trips before we discovered our much deeper affinity to the arid land of the southwestern United States.

Ironically our first visit to the desert came shortly after Mars had been told by a Tarot Card reader in New Orleans that I was most comfortable around sand and water. It turned out that this desert was not sandy. But there were swimming pools and hot mineral springs. And hydration is extremely important when hiking in warm, dry climates. As soon as we got there we knew that it was where we belonged. That Tarot chick clearly knew her divinatory stuff.

Still we returned periodically to the southern shore. Our latest trek to the Tar Heel State had been in 2005, and before that in 2001. This year seemed like a good time to go back.

The destination was, as always, the "South Outer Banks" (the mysterious "SOBX" on oval, black-on-white bumper stickers) -- specifically Emerald Isle, 34 degrees 40' 1" N, 77 degrees 0' 49" W in your gazetteer; a 673 mile drive from our Wethersfield, Ct. abode; and 180 degrees from our culinary and cultural biases.

We stopped midway in the hamlet of Whitehaven Maryland for an overnight at the eponymous Hotel/Bed & Breakfast. On our most recent N.C. treks we had stayed in Whitehaven but at a smaller B & B that was now closed and converted back to private usage. At that time the hotel, which had been built in the mid 1800's, was being refurbished.

The town has a population of twenty-seven, about one half of whom use it as a getaway second home. The hotel sits on the banks of the Wicomico River -- a body of water that can be crossed in three minutes on a free of charge, three-boat ferry that boards from the stop sign at the intersection of Whitehaven Road (next to the hostelry) and River Street. The street numbers on River Street start at 23,836. There are seven houses. A slow walk around the one triangular block in town takes about ten minutes.

Breakfast would be at the hotel but dinner required a six mile round trip out of the residential part of town to "the original all-you-can-eat crab house", The Red Roost. The sound of wooden mallets beating on crunchy crab shells can be quite noisy, so Mars and I opted to get some takeout and sit on the quiet riverview front porch at the B & B. This was the first step in our two week long descent into unhealthy eating and we dove in as deeply as we could given the limitations of the appetizer menu -- Maryland Corn & Crab Chowder, deep-fried Crab Balls, and Seafood (Potato) Skins with Shrimp and Crabmeat. As I am sure Adam and Eve said, "This stuff is really good!"

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we boarded the ferry and headed south. Our plan was to have lunch at O'Connor's in Ahoskie North Carolina -- the eatery in which we were first introduced to that state's "Eastern Barbeque". But we missed their two o'clock closing time by five minutes and settled for hot fudge sundaes in our car, in the pouring rain, in Washington, N.C. about two hours later.

Actually other than a Bojangles or two there wasn't much to choose from, and we had decided anyway that we were going to eat only locally produced unhealthy food. So, after arriving in Emerald Isle and unpacking at our rented condo, we started on our slow food odyssey in earnest by following the ever present aroma of deep fried air to Jordans, one of our favorite E.I. deleterious dining establishments.

The food rules are real simple down here: all fish is fried and all vegetables are canned except for slaw and fries. There are exceptions. One place listed "mac and cheese" among its vegetable choices. Another served fresh okra -- fried of course. Others ostensibly offered "broiled on request" -- but we were too concerned for our safety, being Yankees and all, to be the first to try this option. I did have fish tacos for lunch one day -- made with deep fried Grouper and (surprise) coleslaw. Mars and I find this all strangely interesting since the growing conditions that produce North Carolina's burgeoning tobacco crops could presumably support other more edible produce.
In the desert on the other hand...

Full disclosure: nowadays most of our time "in the desert" is spent in Santa Fe, New Mexico -- 37.3 all-natural, organic, free-range square miles surrounded by the rest of the world. The meat that we eat there probably has a healthier diet than seventy five percent of the American population, including us. Vegetables are considered stale when they see their first sunrise off the vine. Santa Fe does however offer sopaipillas -- deep-fried pastry, typically square, eaten with honey or sugar or as a bread. We have them occasionally.

Sopaipillas are to New Mexico what Hushpuppies (cornmeal dough that has been quickly deep-fried) are to North Carolina. Except that the southern, finger-shaped carb-container is one-twentieth the size, and three hundred times the density of its desert cousin. And is an essential component of every meal. The discarded fry-oil from one week down here would be a bio-diesel industry in Santa Fe. On the third day we were comparing the relative merits of each restaurant's 'pups, fries, and popcorn shrimp. By the fifth we just stopped talking about it and floated unctuously in a cholesterol saturated meditative haze of arterial congestion.

But we thrived, just like the brightly flowering Prickly Pear Cactus that decorated the grounds of our condominium complex: the succulent plants in the face of all the humid air and excessive hydration, us despite the saturated-oil lifestyle.

We desert rats are nothing if not adaptable.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Some Beach Haiku

For the past two weeks Mars and I have been vacationing at Emerald Isle, North Carolina - more about that in a later posting and in photos on Mars' blog.

Here, for now, are some Haiku written at the beach.

Invisible Tension

Follow the white string
from the kite down to its source --
like the wind, unseen.

You Are What You Wear

Long sleeve cotton shirt;
wet, rolled up, Lee dungarees --
Bubba at the beach.

Some Thoughts on Reincarnation

I want to come back
as a big dog -- on a beach
without a leash law.