Saturday, January 30, 2010

New Bill of Fare - Part II

In a previous posting I talked about the new anti-squirrel changes that we implemented at our al fresco animal auberge over the past holidays. You can stop worrying now -- the squirrels are doing just fine thank you. In fact there are more of them than before. And they are healthier, slimmer and livelier than ever.

Mars and I installed two new types of feeders (both Christmas gifts) - a "Squirrel-Be-Gone" squirrel proof one and three "Seed Ball Bird Feeders". And we took down our sunflower seed "Two Liter Feeder". The latter consists of a zinc metal perch that screws on to the top of a 2-liter soda bottle.

We have had several editions of this device since our son Bram gave us our first kit in the late 1980's. It was an immediate hit with the sparrows and purple finches in our area. It was an even bigger draw to the neighborhood squirrels who quickly discovered that their hanging-upside-down body length was equal to that of a similarly orientated soda bottle. And that, positioned thusly, they could stuff their cheeks with enough hard-shelled sunflower pips to (a) to outweigh the ability of their legs to hold them up and (b) keep them nourished until their next turn at the "Food ATM".

Over these years Mars and I have become F.O.S. -- Friends of Squirrels -- a meaning for F.O.S. surprisingly absent from the list at "". So, even though we were deploying apparently anti-Sciurus devices, we weren't that serious about it.

To our total surprise the "Squirrel-Be-Gone" feeder with its Rube Goldberg, spring-loaded, weight-activated, rapidly dropping perch -- actually worked. It's been several weeks now and we have not seen even one tree-rat on that feeder. In fact none have even tried it. Now I am even more impressed with these agile, tree dwelling, furry tailed rodents who seem to know, without even trying, which safes can be cracked and which ones should just be left alone.

For several days our gray yard pets were content to gather at the base of the bird-feeder-tree and dine on food that I had spread on the ground, and/or had fallen from the suspended food stations -- especially the "Seed Ball Bird Feeders".

As I mentioned in my earlier posting I ended up filling the metal cages with a mix of milo, millet and safflower due to the fact that the sunflower seeds that were recommended were bigger than the holes from which they were to be taken.

The mixture is however easily extricated. So easily in fact that the slightest movement of the sphere (whether caused by a visitor or a slight breeze) induces an avalanche of yellow kernels onto the earth below. That windfall plus the inefficient and wasteful pecking techniques of the diners at the "Squirrel-Be-Gone" cafe seemed to provide enough sustenance for not only the three squirrels who pre-resided the new feeders, but four additional ones as well.

And, perhaps because these normally gluttonous gourmands were now taking smaller portions more often, their overall vigor and svelte-ness seemed to improve.

This terrestrial feeding pattern lasted however but a few days as the squirrels quickly realized that, compared to the "Two Liter Feeder", the feeders were truly high-hanging, low-hanging fruit. Soon the Sciurus were scurrying to be the next one to sup through the metal cage and, at the same time, spread the wealth to friends and family below.

Unlike the plastic soda bottles used for the "Two Liter Feeder", the "high quality metal" in the birdseed balls seems impervious to the tree-rat's incessantly gnawing incisors. And for whatever reason the squirrels linger for but a short time at the feeding orbs thereby allowing some of our feathered yard-pets to partake in the milo, millet and safflower bounty.

Bottom line: we've got more birds, and squirrels, than ever and they all are looking pretty happy and healthy. The "Two Liter Feeder", along with several replacement bottles, is however handily on deck in the garage.

F.O.S. do not leave the fate of squirrels to chance.

Friday, January 22, 2010

New Bill of Fare

Bill of Fare

* All Natural Black Oil Sunflower seeds

* Handpicked Thistle Pips
* Organic Songbird Mix (milo, millet, safflower) (*)
* Hi-Fat, Hi-Energy Suet
* Free Range Pigeon (**)

(*) Exciting new item

(**) Crowd favorite returning after too long an absence

As a result of some Christmas presents, and the resurgence of the laws of nature, we are now offering a full menu at our front yard bird cafeteria. In addition we have added a new selection of serving utensils to heighten the dining experience for even the most discriminating avian palate.

First, the hardware.

Our personal trainer at the health club gave us three "Seed Ball Bird Feeders". The six-inch round orbs are made of "high-quality metal" and feature a "patented mesh feeding system". They come in colors - ours are red, blue and yellow - and hang from a short link chain. I thought at first they might have been medieval exercise equipment, perhaps from the Inquisition.

Fortunately they were not.

According to the Internet the feeder holds seven cups of black oil sunflower seeds. That seemed wrong to me - not the volume, something for which my estimating skills are basically zero - but the content. You could probably load three and one half pints of the oversized Helianthus kernels into the round feeder. But there was no way in hell that your even the most voracious bird could get them out through the undersized apertures - even if it grasped the food firmly in its tiny little beak and pushed its skinny little legs with all its might.

I filled one feeder with sunflower seeds and two of them with a mix of milo, millet and safflower that our brother-in-law had given us. The one is still hopelessly filled, while the contents of the others are dwindling slowly - although I have only seen one small finch dining thereon.

My b-in-l also gave us a new "Squirrel-Be-Gone" squirrel-proof feeder . Now I know you are thinking that "squirrel-proof feeder" is a true oxymoron - like Army Intelligence, government worker, or creation science - but wait.

Outwardly this device looks like any other plastic-tube-with-perches-and-seed-windows one. Inwardly it has a spring-activated, seed-lockdown mechanism.

"Puussez sur le perchoir pour voir comment - Squirrel-Be-Gone - utilize le poids de l'ecureuil pour bloquer l'acces aux graines"

Sorry, those were the French instructions. What I meant to say was,

"Push down on the perch to see how Squirrel-Be-Gone uses the squirrel's own weight to block access to the seed."

J'ai fait, [I did] and it worked [cela a fonctionne].

This feeder accommodates the large sunflower seeds. I filled it, hung it up, and the contents quickly went down by fifty percent. Mars and I have seen sparrows and finches eating at it - but no squirrels. Someday soon I expect to look out and see either (a) one of the tree rodents desperately thrashing to remove its nearly severed head from within the dropdown windows, or (b) the entire apparatus lying in pieces on the ground while the squirrels dance triumphantly among the ruins.

Speaking of decapitation brings me to the last item on our list of entrees.

The other day, as we were returning from our morning workout, Mars noticed a flash of movement and what looked to be - and turned out to be - a bloody, beheaded pigeon lying on our front yard paver path.

The "flash of movement" quickly reappeared in the form of a crow-sized, white-breasted hawk that landed atop the corpse and commenced to rip and devour it while the two of us nibbled uncomfortably at our own luncheon plates.

Several crows gathered around but the raptor with the red dripping beak tended to its chores with the single-minded dedication of a football fan during the NFL playoffs.

When we checked back later all of the evidence other than a few stray feathers was gone. We were surprised and pleased. The next day when we returned home again the carcass was back in the same spot - but this time in the form of leftovers for a crow.

The body stayed there overnight and the next morning I threw it into the trash. Based upon the final remains it looks as if hawks and crows are definitely "breast guys", in case you are interested.

Mars and I feel certain that our new bill of fare offers something to satisfy any appetite, from the most pacifistic Vegan to the bloodthirstiest carnivore. And the possibilities of sparrows getting hernias from the feeding balls, and squirrels losing their heads over the new spring-loaded feeder promise hours of inexpensive home-entertainment for the two of us - as well as for that flock of falcons now continuously circling over our house.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Marketing 101

The other day I overheard something at my haircutter's that once again reminded me of one of the most important things I ever learned in my thirty-eight year professional career.

I worked in Information Technology -- or Data Processing as it was called in the late sixties when I started. One of my jobs was to select, purchase and install a vendor-written payroll system to replace the out of date, homegrown one that existed at the time. I was a manger on a project team composed of technical and business people.

The software supplier whom we ultimately selected was represented by two women -- a Marketing Representative, whose name I no longer remember, and Belinda, the Tech Rep. Both of them were attractive, early-thirty year olds, and smart.

"Nameless: spent most of her time with the business people explaining what the new system would do, how easy it was to use, and how little (in reality) it would cost. Us geeks would see maybe once a month when she would drop by unannounced and hang out with us for an hour or so. She also pointedly paid the bills at the restaurants at which we were feted during our trip to the vendor's User Conference.

"Nameless" was a Harvard graduate -- something she managed to mention at least once in every conversation. She also had a habit of unhooking at least two additional buttons on her blouse before every meeting with the male portion of our project team. This was pointed out to me, with some sense of bemusement, by one of the three female programmers in my group. To a woman they hated "Nameless".

Belinda, on the other hand was all business. You asked a question, she got the answer. Something didn't work, she got it fixed. And she stayed buttoned down. Techies of both genders loved her.

We signed the contract and became unalterably committed to the new system. As we tested it the business people began to discover that certain parts of the software did not perform in the manner that "Nameless" had told them it would.

"Nameless" had not been in town since the ink dried. So Belinda (who was still hanging around doing her job) was dragged before the tribunal to explain.

The business folks listed item after item of impropriety -- after each of which Belinda would gently explain that "No, the system doesn't really do that."

"What's the answer?" management demanded to know.

"Marketing people say marketing things." Belinda calmly told them.

So years later there I was in our hair stylist's shop waiting for Mars. The television, which I had positioned myself not to see, was tuned to some cable television reality show about people buying a house.

The potential purchasers in this episode were an about-to-be-married couple and her preteen daughter who were looking in Staten Island, New York. They, and the female real estate agent, spoke with stereotypical Noo Yawk accents -- "WHADSA madda wid da way Noo Yawkers tawk? Nuttin', brudda, 'cept dat dey wud be da foist to tell you dat dey tawk wid a unique accent."

I was trying to read a book so I had pretty much tuned out the TV noise. But somehow I heard the heard the agent saying, "Shoor you hafta share da bathroom. But just look at dat CHANDELIER!"

No matter how you say it, Belinda was still right.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

No One Told Me It Was Like This!

Mars and I first came to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1992 to celebrate our twenty-fifth of marriage. We have returned just about every year since.

That spring the two of us had seen a retrospective of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We were blown away by the non-representative earth toned shapes, the idealized azure backgrounds, and the fictitiously flushed flora and firmament with which she conveyed her otherworldly impressions of the desert southwest.

It seemed to exemplify the dictionary definition of abstract art: "art that does not attempt to represent external, recognizable reality but seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, forms, colors, and textures."

Shortly thereafter we were trying to decide on a special spot in which to celebrate our upcoming silver anniversary. Simultaneously we both said "New Mexico" -- so we could see what gave O'Keeffe her wildly unrealistic ideas.

Months later, outside the plane window as we approached Albuquerque Airport, we saw not the gremlin from "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" but something equally implausible -- a near-perfect replica of O'Keeffe's "The Sky Above the Clouds."

"Nothing is less real than realism...Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things."

We learned two things very quickly when we got there (in addition to the fact that hydration is doubly important at high altitudes yet, unfairly, alcohol is twice as potent):

1) The non-pictorial forms and figures are really there -- really! --in the configuration of the high desert land, and the architecture of the adobe buildings. It’s just a matter of how you look at them.

2) The colors are equally as true. While watching sunrise at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge we saw the sky slowly fill with the same impossible combination of hues we had seen in O'Keeffe and, the day before, on other canvases at the Taos Arts Festival

"Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something."

We began taking photos as soon as our feet hit the ground. The 1990's being the pre-digital age, Mars and I were more abstemious in our photo snapping -- and took much more care in choosing our subject matter and setting up the shot. Nowadays, with our point-shoot-browse-delete cameras, no film developing costs to care about, and home computer photo editing we each can easily blow off a couple of hundred images in a week. Nonetheless, even with a smaller set to choose from, we noticed several snapshots that seemed to meet O'Keeffe's criteria for "abstract objectivity" -- or at least our interpretation thereof.

Over time it became easier to visualize these "lines and colors" in the midst of the real thing -- and eventually, for me anyway, more difficult not to.

Maybe it was the newness of a place so geographically and architecturally opposite from what was familiar that caused us to see things in a new way. Perhaps it was a result of the thinness of the high-altitude air and the resultant shortage of oxygen to our brains. Or the aforementioned increased potency of wine and beer at these greater heights.

Or it just could be that "The City Different" (as Santa Fe is known) and northern New Mexico in general is exactly what it says it is -- not the same as another; unlike in nature, form, and quality; distinct; separate.

It is easier to see differently when what there is to see is so different.

"Well! Well! Well!... This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!"

(All quotations by Georgia O'Keeffe)

Monday, January 04, 2010

Walk In Beauty

"Santa Fe Style represents a state of mind held by those who live in Santa Fe either as full-time or part-time residents. Santa Fe style influenced fashion and design worldwide. It is not just jewelry and clothing but a feeling inside, a sense of place and that total belief in the Navajo saying, 'Walk in beauty.'
"[it is], is the exuberant self expression of the individual. Perhaps other people of the world can bring this look into being, but I doubt that any city on earth does it as distinctively as do the residents of Santa Fe, New Mexico. We Santa Feans not only fill our homes and gardens with art, but we make ourselves a moving canvas, blending artist-driven clothing, jewelry and accessories to make a statement of who we are."
(Native Couture: A History of Santa Fe Style)

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them)

When the cold winter freeze

Drives squash blossoms and conchos under cover --

Style saunters on

In the footwear of fashionistas.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Finding Faith The Best That We Are Able

Not being what former neighbors call "churchy people" it is not that easy for Mars and me to tap in to the spiritual side of the Christmas holiday. That plus a lack of any definitive idea of what it is we are actually looking for.

My early-life experience of the spu-RIT-ual (as Sister Agnes Louise pronounced it) was limited to those few hours of blissful peace between Saturday 4:00 p.m. confession and Sunday 9 a.m. communion when I wasn't frighteningly worried that I was going to die and go directly to hell.

Somewhere along the way I (largely) lost that fear -- and its concomitant pleasurable release. I've also experienced many things -- while, for example, doing yoga to music, or making pottery, or gardening -- that effected my inner being, but nothing with that same intensity such that I really would call it Spiritual (with a capitol S).

However, as I get older, I think that my threshold test is becoming less stringent.

Mars and I spent Christmas in Santa Fe, New Mexico visiting with our son, daughter-in-law, and rescued greyhound grand-dog (Bram, Monica and Cheyenne), and partaking in some of the December activities in that part of northern New Mexico.

On our second afternoon there we went to listen the chanting of the monks at The Monks' Corner Gift Shop. The store supports the work of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert; a Benedictine community of more than thirty members located in Abiquiu, New Mexico -- about one hour away. Among its merchandise are religious themed items such as: a pictorial calendar of Russian church icon and fruitcake baked in Trappist abbeys; useful theological objects like rosary beads and liturgical stoles; and plain old secular jewelry.

(Mars said that its goods aren't that different from other gift shops in Santa Fe that also feature Virgin of Guadalupe and other saintly images. To which Bram responded, "But here they aren't ironic.")

There were three singers -- all from the Abiquiu abbey. The apparent leader was about six feet tall with short graying hair and a full beard. The others were younger (early twenties) -- about five and one-half feet tall and very slight. They all wore black robes with black, thick leather, lug-soled shoes instead of the sandals I had expected. One of them also sported a blue waist length jacket with the words Tommy Hilfiger written in yellow on the back.

In high school I myself had pondered, although probably not as seriously as I thought at the time, the possibility of life as a monastic. I read Thomas Merton. Now I suspect that I was just looking for a safe way to extend those confession-to-communion hours. In any event nothing became of it -- although I still can understand the appeal.

When Mars and I arrived the trio was mingling with some customers. The shop is small -- maybe thirty by thirty --with not much open space. We found a chair and footstool in a corner, sat, and waited. Our view was blocked by a display case, but after about five minutes we heard the sound of a pitch pipe followed shortly by the sound of closely pitched male voices singing church music in Latin.

A week earlier Mars and I had been to a holiday concert with several friends at a large Congregational Church in Connecticut. These choristers -- a coed vocal ensemble of twenty -- sang similar music. "There is something about Christian sacred music that goes right to your heart", said one member of our party. His face showed the strain of genuine emotion.

On that day, and today at The Monks Corner, I had some of the same feelings -- although not as intensely. We did however buy a compact disk of music performed by all of the Monks at the abbey so we could give it another try.

The next day Mars and I walked the labyrinth.

It was not my first time strolling on one of those irregular paths. I had tried it several years ago while taking a writing class at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. And in Santa Fe both Mars and I sampled one on the property of J and J for whom we were dog/house sitting earlier this annum.

Those were informal, unsupervised ambles along trails delineated by similarly sized stones placed by hand in the dirt. This time it was an official perambulation under the watchful eye of the Labyrinth Resource Group -- "a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging the creation and use of labyrinths as a path of healing, inspiration, peace, and community." It was held on Museum Hill in a professionally laid, brick walkway with a complicated route spelled out in muted red pavers against a subdued teal background.

We checked in with one of the members at a set of folding tables along the entryway to the maze and carefully read the information that was fluttering gently under the rock paperweights.

"The labyrinth is not a maze with mental challenges and blind alleys. You walk a single path from the entrance to the center and back again. There is no 'right' way to walk the labyrinth; there are no 'right' thoughts to have. Let your experience be your own.

"The path of the labyrinth is like the path of life -- with twists and turns, feelings of being lost, encounters with others in your path, a thrill of pleasure as you approach the center and sometimes a flash of insight before you leave."

And maybe even spiritual.

We were then directed to report to the official starter. She pointed out the beginning of the route and told Mars to go ahead. After a short while I too was allowed on to the course. It was a sunny day in mid afternoon, so the long shadows kept me constantly aware of my fellow travelers. In a labyrinth the way in is also the way out, therefore voyagers need to accommodate each other's passing on the barely wide enough for two feet passageway.

I reached the center just as Mars was leaving it, paused for several seconds, and continued on. During the journey my mind was very earthbound, as I needed to be constantly aware of where I was walking and of those around me. Still it was relaxing in the way that things requiring your full attention can sometimes be.

The next day was the Winter Solstice and the five of us went for a hike up to the appropriately named Sun Mountain near the St. John's College campus. In two hours we passed two other people and one dog on the trail -- one of whom wished us a "Happy Winter".

Cheyenne is a dogged, trail-bound hike leader, a result of her racetrack upbringing. But after a year with Monica and Bram she has learned to periodically cast aside responsibility and frolic in the snow.

However, in spite of her efforts, our group never made it to the top of Sun Mountain -- the trail was snow packed slippery and Mars and I had not yet acclimated to the high altitude. If we had summited at the precise moment when the earth's axial tilt was farthest away from the sun, who knows what would have happened.

Still, because of whom we were with and where we were, it was pretty special.

We spent Christmas morning at Monica and Bram's house exchanging presents and snacking on pastries from a local French bakery. It was low key and relaxed in spite of a few frenetic reactions from Cheyenne to her squeaky "stuffy" gifts. In mid afternoon we all walked over to and then along the banks of the nearby, and basically waterless, Santa Fe River.

That evening the five of us had dinner at S and J's -- along with two of their friends, and S's mother B. At one point B talked about how they "used to be Jewish". S, a caterer and radio host, prepared her first home-meal ham ever.

The food was great, the conversation fun. And, like the Christians and the Pagans in the Dar Williams song, we
"sat together at the table
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able
...learning new ways from the old, and
Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold."

On previous Christmases we had gone with to the Native American dances at Cochiti Pueblo. They go on all day long an outdoor dirt plaza with rudimentary wooden seating on a small hillside at one end. There is no explanation provided, but based upon what we've seen and "Googled", it seems to be a Buffalo Dance.

The persistent drumming resonates off the surrounding houses and reverberates through the earth. J, of the above-mentioned J and J, is normally there -- wrapped in blankets with her back against the hillside, and her legs outstretched on the ground absorbing the rhythm. We sit in the bleachers and feel the beat through the soles of our feet.

But previous Christmases were sun-drenched with temperatures in the forties and fifties. This year the air was chilled to about twenty degrees -- in the warm, sunny locations. We opted out of the dances. For us spirituality requires warmer conditions.

One of Bram's gifts to Monica was a book of photos of and essays about Greyhounds, within which we discovered the story of Saint Guinefort -- a 13th Century member of that breed.

The dog had been left at home to guard an apparently otherwise unattended infant. When the father returned he found the room covered in blood, most notably surrounding the crib. Guinefort was sitting next to the child's bed with more blood on his mouth.

The father immediately shot and killed the hound with an arrow and then discovered the recently dead body of a snake -- could it be Satan? -- beneath the cradle. Guinefort had saved the infant's life, and perhaps immortal soul.

Overcome by guilt the father interred the dog and planted a grove of trees around the grave to honor it. Local villagers soon began making pilgrimages to the gravesite, miraculous events happened, and "Saint Guinefort" became an object of worship among the townspeople.

But the Catholic Church never formally canonized the Greyhound. Etienne de Bourbon, an Inquisitor, had the dog "disinterred and the sacred wood cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog." Guinefort was declared a heretic.

It didn't work. Up until the 1940's pilgrims continued to visit the site, praying for the protection of their children and nourishing their spirits.

Maybe next Christmas Mars and I should just forget about the monks and mazes, and spend more time getting to know the grand-dog.

(Photos by Mars - click on photo to enlarge)