Monday, January 31, 2011

Things That Mean More The Older That You Get - #1

It's not good shoveling
when the inches of snow are
greater than your age.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I think I have lost my cloche.

I think I have lost my cloche.

The last time I saw it -- well part of it anyway -- was a few days after Christmas when Mars and I returned from a week-plus visit with Monica and Bram (daughter-in-law and son) in Santa Fe, New Mexico . The weather out there was beautiful - high forties, low fifties, sunny, no precipitation. The state of the atmosphere in our hometown of Wethersfield Connecticut, and the rest of the northeast region, was apparently not so nice.

We followed that meteorological mess on the national media -- drivers stranded, roads and highways impassable, flights canceled, windblown reporters ranting, four riders on white, red, black and pale horses.... It was, technically and practically, a blizzard. The snow was six to eight inches in depth if left undisturbed. But the wind, we were told, was blowing the falling and fallen precipitation sideways, creating drifts of a much greater magnitude.

Fortunately we had arranged to have someone plow our driveway and shovel our sidewalks, so we were able to easily get into our residence when we returned home. We did not however request that our perennial garden on the south side of our garage be returned to its pristine, pre-storm condition. And that unfortunately was where the cloche was located -- laid out in an east west direction in an open part of the garden in which we had planted tomatoes this past summer.

The cloche is winter home for some "plugged" baby hosta plants that are to be shared among the members of my men's garden club and sold at our annual plant sale. I had received the "plugs" -- several newbies in each thumbnail-sized plastic compartment -- from another club member who started the whole process. As the tiny plants grew into recognizability I moved them into larger growing pots -- one per -- and kept them watered and otherwise happy until early November when I constructed their winter chalet and tucked them in for the duration.

The structure of the cloche is pre-Quonset hut primitive. The materials are four short wooden sticks with a groove cut into one end of each; some chicken wire to be shaped into a semicircular dome which rests in the aforementioned grooves; a plastic drop-cloth to lay over the aforementioned roof; and some heavy objects (in my case excess paving bricks from our front pathway) to weigh down the edges of the aforementioned polymer sheets and thus create a relatively hermetically sealed structure.

The plan was to thoroughly moisten the plants and the surrounding ground and then place the little suckers into their cold weather hothouse and hope for the best.

Throughout November and the pre-snow part of December all indications were that things were going well. That is to say that moisture was appearing on the inside of the opaque plastic cover and faint shadows of life could be glimpsed inside -- if you looked really, really hard and used your imagination.

Now, several snowstorms later, the white stuff is piled up at least fourfold on the lonely cloche and all hope is, if not lost, then at least doubtful. The goal was to provide an artificial source of light, warmth, and moisture (the "golden trio" of vegetative care) until Mother Nature could take over the nurturing process. Instead I fear the little fellows are getting an overdose of the dark side of life.

I probably should have thought ahead and installed some of those six foot tall orange bicycle flags at each of the four corners of the cloche. Then I could have dug down to the captive little greenhouse and liberated its involuntary occupants from the perpetual shade of their murky cave. But I didn't. So I can't. And shoveling blindly into the pile of precipitation is probably just going to make matters worse.

I fear that the hosta are doomed, and that there will not be any celebratory stogies and beer party in my garden this spring - cloche but no cigar.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Snow Plus

We had a record-breaking snowstorm in our neck of the woods a few days ago - 22" at our homestead.

With the snow, birds come
in search of food – black on white
plus a splash of red.

Silhouette Theatre

Our family room faces due west providing us with a perfect view of our bird feeders -- and also, at this time of year, of the mid-afternoon setting sun.

As a result of the latter we normally lower our window coverings -– obscuring the former -- but only somewhat.

Shadows descending
across half-shut sunlit shades
evolve into crows.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What Are The Odds?

In "The World According to Garp", Garp is being shown a dwelling that he is considering purchasing when a single-engine prop plane, presumably suffering catastrophic mechanical failure, plows right into the side of the house. He takes this as an auspicious sign -- "The odds of another plane hitting this house are astronomical!" - and agrees then and there to buy it.

Mathematicians would tell us that the chances of a second airplane mishap are the same as they are for one. But some of us are not math-centric thinkers.

In another example of Garpian Logic: within minutes of the fatal hawk attack on one of the two pigeons who were ground-feeding underneath our bird feeders, a flock of six or eight of them were shoulder-to-shoulder, jostling each other in a frantic search for more sunflower seeds in that very same space.

Mars and I had decided that 2010 at our homestead was the year of the hawk. The raptors didn't dominate our news but they did provide us with enough gory vignettes over the past twelve months to earn the recognition. It's a determination we make annually when we pick out our latest carved Zuni stone animal fetish from Keshi in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We also select one of these magical inanimate objects for Monica and Bram (daughter-in-law and son).

(Please click on photo to enlarge)

The theme for their gift was easy. It was a skunk. The previous year it was a greyhound, a living example of which they had adopted over the '08 Christmas holiday. During the most recent warm weather part seasons Cheyenne fell victim to two separate odoriferous incidents with these black and white striped members of the weasel family - both in her own backyard. (One could be an aberration, but two is definitely a trend.) As of today however she has gone over 130 days without a skunking. Still, the greyhound fetish looked lonely on their shelf without its combative companion. Now it doesn't.
It had been only about half of that time since the most recent hawk-versus-pigeon massacre at our suburban Connecticut homestead. And during that time the raptors had frequently been spotted ogling the diners at our and our neighbor's bird feeders. Although we witnessed more of that early November attack than we did of this one, we never did photograph any of it for fear that our intrusive camera might induce performance anxiety in the assailant.

This time we were able to at least capture a few poorly framed shots.

The incident occurred on the currently snow-walled paved pathway that crosses in front of our house. As I wandered into our family room I spotted the black-speckled head of the attacker (who by then had turned into the devourer) bobbing above the packed white precipitation that enclosed the sides of the walkway. I immediately called Mars who just as quickly came downstairs to witness our latest "life in the wild" moment.

We stayed on the edge of our den and peered out that room's windows - totally aware from the movements of the hawk's head and eyes that he was totally aware of us. Unwilling to venture any further for fear of spooking the raptor - and then being forced to clean up what it left behind - we stayed in the main house and snapped the best pictures that we could while standing on our toes, leaning sideways, and aiming awkwardly through the panes of glass. Then the predator lifted off, fortunately with the majority of its victim in its clutches, and flew out of our yard.
Shortly thereafter I went out to photograph the forensic evidence.
Clearly the flock of feeding frenzy fowls, that I chased away when I came outside, was undeterred by the grisly debris and what it symbolized. And overall I was quite pleased with the small amount of crime scene cleanup that was required. The next snowfall and the process of decomposition will take care of the rest. Then the stage will be clear for the next bloodbath drama.

The British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that life in a state of nature is "nasty, brutish and short." How would you like those odds on a daily basis?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Confusing Fiction and Fiction

One of my son's friends gave me a book for Christmas. It is called "Outwitting Squirrels - 101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed from Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels" by Bill Adler Jr. While presented as fact, this work, as its title clearly indicates, is pure fiction - perhaps even science fiction.

I have been sitting in our family room, leafing through this work of fantasy, and watching our resident Sciurus Sciuridae destroy my latest attempt at squirrel-proof bird feeding. At the same time I am also reading "The Girl Who Played With Fire" by Stieg Larsson.
One of these two tomes (according to Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times)

"boasts an intricate, puzzlelike story line... gory, harrowing and operatically over the top... [with characters who] insinuate themselves in the reader's mind through their oddball individuality, their professional competence and, surprisingly, their emotional vulnerability."

The other one is a best-selling Swedish mystery.

Sometimes my mind looses track of who's who and what's what, and the story lines bleed into each other. Right now, for example, in one of the books the small, gray, furry heroine is under suspicion for the execution style murder of a couple that were investigating illegal trafficking in rodent-thwarting computer software.

The similarities between Lisbeth Salander ("The Girl") and the tree rats described in Adler's writings and witnessed by me in our front yard are frightening.

Both are "endowed with Mr. Spock's intense braininess and Scarlett O'Hara's spunky instinct for survival".

Both, in their own way, are cute.

Both have sex like rabbits. (Something that just seems natural in the squirrel's case, and helps to keep the plot moving in Lisbeth's)

But most importantly, both exhibit the amazing ability to focus like a laser beam on the problem at hand - food or criminals - even when they are in the most precarious situation - hanging by one leg from an icy tree branch or bound to a bed by leather straps.

"Outwitting Squirrels" is an updated second edition of a work that originally went to press in 1987.

"The Girl Who Played With Fire" is the middle book of a trilogy. Stieg Larsson died shortly after handing the trio of novels into his publisher. There are rumors of a partially written fourth book with detailed instructions for its completion that may be on the laptop of his former girlfriend.

Other gossip, that starts right here, says that Bill Adler Jr. has been called in to finish the story. It will be called "The Squirrel With The Sunflower Seed Tattoo."

Sunday, January 02, 2011

More Than One Way

Kasi, from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center Museum, enthusiastically told us that the Turtle Dances at Ohkay Owingeh started right after morning mass, which began at 8:30 a.m.

She said it totally without irony. And I heard it the same way. The seamless overlapping of incongruous theological beliefs with each other (some pueblo residents say that they practice both the Tewa and Catholic religions) -- and even more so with totally contrasting secular ways of thinking (images of the Virgin of Guadalupe on gourmet restaurant tee-shirts among other things), is an integral part of the Santa Fe way of life.

Until recently Ohkay Owingeh had been called San Juan Pueblo in the Anglo world-- a name applied to it in 1598 by Juan de Onate. At that time native Tewa were also "introduced" to Catholicism. (At the Taos Pueblo, another of the Northern New Mexico Pueblos and also Tewa, I have heard this referred to as the forced conversion.) The Tewa, who always called it Ohkay Owingeh, recently went through the formality of changing the name back.

The current day pueblo is the site of Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, originally constructed from 1888-90 on the approximate site of what had been the third San Juan parish Catholic church - - built in 1645 and destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Shrine is one of only nineteen buildings in the United States built entirely out of lava rock and is one of America's top "family friendly shrines" according to Catholic Digest magazine.

The Turtle Dance is performed annually at Winter Solstice and is the most important public religious ceremony of the Ohkay Owingeh calendar. This year it was done on December 26th. No explanation of the dance is provided by anyone, but presumably like other such rituals it is done either to celebrate the return of longer daytime, or to guarantee it. The turtle is believed to be the first hibernating animal to return to life after the year has turned. It is a sacred ceremony so no photography is allowed.

Mars, Monica, Bram (wife, daughter-in-law and son) and I arrived around 11:00 a.m. The entrance to the public square portion of the pueblo was blocked off by tribal police, and we were directed to park along the side of the entry road. We then followed a small band of other "Anglos" around the corner past the above-mentioned shrine and into the piazza where we stood anticipatorily with a modestly sized crowd of spectators ethnically identical to ourselves.

There were no dancers in sight, but songs of chanting could be heard coming from inside one of the nearby buildings. Someone in the crowd mentioned that the sounds were coming from the pueblo's kiva. Soon, several male residents of the pueblo wrapped in Pendleton style blankets directed the milling band of spectators back against the buildings, and costumed O'ken men and a few boys appeared out of one of the buildings and lined up single-file along one side of the plaza.

The one hundred or so men were bare-chested and barelegged with dried mud covering their skin. Some wore what could have been women's silk scarves around their neck and shoulders. All of them had a turtle shell affixed to their right knee with, what I later learned, were noise-making pig's hooves attached to them by leather thongs and a wide leather belt bedecked with either clanging bells or slightly quieter seashells. Each one carried a gourd rattle and was decorated with evergreen branches in his armbands, headpieces, and hands. As the dance progressed whenever one of the costume pieces became out-of-place one of the blanket-wrapped men spectator traffic cops stopped that dancer and straightened out the wardrobe malfunction.

Any piece of evergreen that fell to the ground was immediately picked up.

The slow-paced, hypnotically unfaltering song was sung by the middle section of the line. The perpetual one-step dance was done in place and the line, one-by-one, periodically changed the direction they were facing. After about fifteen minutes that portion of the ceremony stopped and the dancers walked slowly to another side of the plaza where they began perform the same dance to what seemed to be the same song.

Three Koshari painted in black and white bands with black circles around their mouth and eyes and their hair in arranged two vertical bound with a corn husk appeared on the scene. They joked with the dancers ("Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee.") and the audience ("I could use a hug!").

Soon two other sacred clowns, fully clothed in white leather with a pointy-nose head and face covering, and brandishing white whips joined the ritual. These tricksters wandered around the dancers cracking their whips and periodically gently lashed one of the non-dancing pueblo members in attendance on the legs and then shook their hand.

After the dance ended everyone, dancers, clowns and spectators, moved to a third side of the plaza to repeat the ritual. When that iteration was completed the ensemble marched back to the first location and the four of us left to rest up before an evening of hot-tubbing at a local spa.
Two days later, on Mars' and my last full day in Santa Fe, I realized that I had not yet taken any photos. Since Mars needed to go a on a couple of gift-shopping missions I took advantage of the time to go on a pair of brief snapshot safaris.

But in the midst of our respective undertakings we took a short break to slowly and silently walk the meditation labyrinth on Museum Hill.
The permanently inlaid irregular network of paths is the site of an annual Winter Solstice walk held by the local Labyrinth Society. Mars and I took part in last year's event.

Today the plaza was deserted except for a young mother carrying her takeout coffee cup and her five-ish year old daughter. Somehow they inserted themselves in between the two of us on the dull red pathway.

As Mars proceeded slowly into the maze the little girl carefully inched her away up to the first turn and stopped. Her mother, following closely behind, told her to turn and stay on the red trail. The same thing occurred at the next change in direction.

Now she had it figured out and trotted rapidly through the maze quickly bypassing Mars who stood aside for her to pass.

At the center, where walkers are encouraged to stop and contemplate where they are, the girl quickly ran straight across the labyrinth and exited at one of the sides. Mom followed along. Mars and I slowly finished our walk.
Maybe because Monica and Bram both are graphic designers, comic book artists, and funky photographers I have come to appreciate the art of signage, and the possibilities of creating something visually interesting by looking at the world through a slightly askew camera lens.

And Santa Fe has no shortage of signs, public works of art, and southwestern architecture for me to obliquely view. Some results of my photo-trek appear throughout this essay.

But my favorite image is that of the Indian from the Americas in Ray Martín Abeyta's painting "Indios", which is used in a poster for one of the exhibitions currently in town.
Like so many other things in and around Santa Fe, it reminds me that there is more than one way to look at most things.

See Mars' photos of Santa Fe and other places at
Click on any of the above photos to make them larger.

Changes were made to an earlier version of this essay based upon comments received from a member of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

Saturday, January 01, 2011


We recently purchased an Oneida Gourmet 12 Inch Skillet. It came with the following instructions.
(Please click on the picture to make it legible.)

Don't let canaries
watch when you fry the bacon –
they won't fly away.