Thursday, May 29, 2014


Bragging -

I just had a short piece published in New Mexico Magazine in their "One of Our 50 is Found" section.  (Explanation - N.M. Mag also has a long-running "One of Our 50 is Missing " section in which people recount their stories about having to convince someone that New Mexico is actually a state and not a foreign country.  The newly added "Found" stories are about people discovering N.M. - their "aha!" moment")

Here it is.

My wife Marsha and I wanted to go someplace special for our 25th anniversary in 1992.  We had just seen a Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective in New York City and were totally taken by the fantastical colors and forms that we assumed she had fabricated onto the bland, lifeless landscape of the desert southwest.  In O’Keeffe’s words, “what is my experience if it is not the color?”

So we decided to go to New Mexico to see the places that inspired her inventiveness – and quickly realized that we needed to keep coming back to get the full picture.  Two years later at the Taos Art Festival we saw another artist’s work of a sierra lighted by an equally impossible combination of abstractly shaped purples, oranges, maroons and reds. 

The next morning before daybreak Marsha and I drove to the bridge at the Rio Grande Gorge outside of Taos. Now, in the darkness, as the sun rose we saw that very-same multi-color medley wash over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

What is our experience if it is not the color?


Thursday, May 22, 2014

And So It Goes

Marsha and I had three Baltimore Orioles at our Japanese quince bush. 
This is a really big deal to us.  We hang feeders all year round; fill our perennial beds with various seed-toting and berry-bearing bushes (including three blueberry shrubs whose output we cede 100% to any interested avian); and provide several shrubbery shelters hoping to attract the very best in feathered entertainment.    

Nonetheless, as a rule, we are instead rewarded with a large number of a very small variety of birds – the usual Connecticut suburban suspects – plus a constantly turning over population of gray squirrels, the current crop inexplicably brandishing scraggly, russet colored tails.
The deciduous, spiny plant in the family Rosaceae however was not one of our bird-seducing efforts.  Its existence predated our occupancy by at least as many years as it took to get to its full height and – thanks to the non-horticulturally inclined former owner – pretty out of control.
Some of my first substantial battle scars as a plantsman were earned attempting to bring order and a sense of symmetry to this well-armed, crisscrossing tangle of branches that were too thick to snip and too intertwined to saw.  Several times I backed into it while learning the pattern for mowing my lawn.  Ultimately I reached a state of peace with it where with one or two modest pruning frenzies each year I am able to keep it under control and largely out of my way.
And last year, for the first time ever, the quince bore enough fruit to actually create quince jam – although we didn’t do it.  The Director of the historical society of which we are members is a Revolutionary War re-enactor cook and she made the fruit spread, of which we got several jars, using an 18th century recipe.  It was, we understand, quite an effort and quite good.  We greatly appreciated it
It is however our second visit from the orange-and-black, east coast, uber-finches in the thirty-six years we have lived at this address.  The first one came, as we recall, several years ago and lasted just about long enough for the two of us, who were sitting at our dining room table having lunch, to sense the violent movement within the delicate salmon-reddish flowers (close enough in color to the bird’s feathers to provide camouflage) and to look up in time to see the flashy interloper’s rapid departure.
This time I was alone working out in the yard when I glanced up to see one orange and black bird flitting out of our yard in that up-and-down flying style that birds such as goldfinches favor.  Marsha was volunteering down at the society and I told her about it when she returned home.   

Shortly thereafter we were having lunch – this time in the family room with a slightly different view of the quince – when she noticed movement amidst the flowers.  We crept slowly to the window and were able to see portions of three Baltimore Orioles apparently satisfying their sweet tooth while skillfully avoiding impalement.  After five of so minutes they flew off one at a time – the last one alighting on the taller, bushier quince of our neighbor across the street.  They have not been back since.
Our guess is that they were migrating though.  All three looked to be males and based on the influx of robins, cardinals and sparrows over the preceding weeks we suspect that most of the good rental space is taken.
In unrelated news: the other day Marsha saw a hawk checking out our property.  Hopefully the predator pair who resided in our corner oak tree last year is looking to return for another season.  Their old room has not been redecorated and is available.
And while the orioles were scavenging in the quince, a male catbird was rummaging through the leaves and twigs beneath the bush presumably looking for building materials.  We have had a catbird couple around our premises for as many years back as we can remember.  A couple of times I’ve stumbled across their nest atop one of our taller, thicker shrubbery, but most of the time we have no idea where they actually hang out.
We do know however that these slate-gray mockingbirds love to dine at our berry buffet and to scold us loudly when we interrupt their mealtime.  It’s all part of the cycle of nature in our backyard. 
The next evening one of the orioles returned to the quince.  They have not been seen since then.
And so it goes.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

If Only

A few weeks ago I reseated a landscape rock that had been displaced over the winter and was laying on a portion of one of the sixteen hosta situated alongside our driveway.  About a third of the little sprouts looked crushed.  The other day I noticed that all parts of that plant, including the previously stunted ones, were robust and flourishing.
I put in the flowers on April 10, 2002 – the afternoon of my second to last day of jury duty. The trial was for attempted murder. The plants are “dwarf” varieties, purchased from an online nursery and had arrived at our house earlier in the afternoon while Mars was at work and I was still at the courthouse. 
Closing arguments were completed the previous afternoon, so the agenda for the twelve-plus-two of us that day was to receive the judge’s instructions and begin deliberations.  The evidence had been presented over five days and consisted of an increasingly incriminating crescendo of forensic data  – DNA, blood, fingerprints, bullet-gun matching – plus eyewitness accounts by the injured party and a pawnbroker to whom the accused attempted to hock the victim’s laptop computer.
Part one took about an hour.   The defendant J.C., a man in his early twenties, was charged with 15 offenses ranging downwards in severity from the shooting, to theft of the weapon.  “Judge Carmen”, as we came to call her, explained each accusation and told us that the allegations were not intertwined – that is we could find him guilty (or not) for all or some of them.   

We began with a secret ballot on the most serious.  The results were 12 votes for guilty.  Then we worked our way on-by-one through the remaining charges with the same result every time. Somewhere in there I think we had lunch but I really don’t remember when or what.
The foreman was a cigarette smoker, so after the voting we all adjourned to the secured outdoor smoking area so that he could light up and we all could take a deep breath.  While we were out there the group decided to go home and “sleep on our decisions” –  then reconvene the next morning to see if anyone had a change of heart.  We all were, I am certain, acutely aware that we were effectively ending J.C.’s life in “civilized society”.  We also all agreed, without hesitation, that he had committed every one of the 15 offenses – and we each needed time for that certainty to permanently implant itself into our emotional psyches.
For at least twenty years gardening had become a way for me to focus my conscious mind on something meaningful and pleasurable, while letting whatever work or personal issues were troubling me sort themselves out in the quieter background recesses of my understanding.  So I was happy and relieved to discover that the box of hosta had been delivered, and that the time and weather was perfect for putting them into the earth.
I rushed to create my favorite planting mixture of sphagnum peat moss, topsoil, and homemade compost and to blend it with the soil of the sixteen holes I eagerly created to receive these new horticultural habitants.  That part of the job had been done so many times before that I apparently was flying on autopilot – not needing any input from my brain – allowing me to endlessly replay the thought processes of my earlier decisions.      

When it came time to place the hosta into the earth however my lack of experience with and mental absentmindedness from the work at hand resulted in the inverted insertion of some of the fledgling flowers.  A fact that Mars quickly called to my attention when she arrived home and I was proudly showing her my afternoon’s achievements.
Fortunately with the newly softened soil readjusting the newbies to their proper attitude was easily accomplished.  And by this time I had psychologically reconciled myself to the guilty verdicts.
On the next morning the jury reconvened and we all validated to each other the accuracy of the day before’s decisions.  After announcing our findings in the open court we were ushered back to the jury room where Judge Carmen thanked us for our good work and told us that in a separate case J.C. had already been convicted of murder for an incident that occurred the night before the one we were adjudicating.  “He’s a really bad guy,” she told us.  And someone who now will never see the outside world again – he received 71 years with no chance for parole plus life in the other case.
I have no idea what kind of upbringing brought J.C. to that point in his life – his Public Defender never sought to mitigate his guilt with that kind of background information, and no one who knew him (family or friend) ever appeared at the trial.  But I suspect he may not have been raised in the best situation for growing.  That however was not the issue we were asked to decide.
The hosta meanwhile grow bigger and thicker every year – long ago filling in the deliberately significant gaps between them, and crowding into each other in some spots.  Other than the occasional rock realignment they’ve really required no special attention since they were first set into their germinating environment and had their roots reoriented to partake of that naturally nurturing nourishment.
If only everything were that simple.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

So what do retired people do?

So what do retired people do?  Well I just completed researching and writing an article on a man with three legs who used to live down the street from our house.  And immediately before sitting down to type the following essay I was removing some invading dandelions from the lawn on Mars and my property.
Second things first.  Digging out dandelions was a favorite hobby of mine long before voluntarily leaving the workforce.   This worthy adversary’s long, tenacious root and promiscuous propagation practices can easily turn someone with even the mildest case of obsessive compulsive gardening disorder into a rampaging Rambo of eradication bent on the wholesale destruction of what is actually a not totally unattractive plant.
 For some reason my preferred form of combat is hand-to-hand – or more accurately forked-tongued weeding tool to infinitely long taproot.  It is early spring here in Connecticut.  We have just come off three days of pretty much continuous rain registering 4 plus inches in our measurement gauge, and creating a tidal pool effect on our landscape.  But the good news is that the precipitation took a break – the sun emerged for a bit – and the earth within which the yellow “flower” seeks anchorage now held a loose, slippery attachment to its embedded invaders.
Garbed at my pedal and digital extremities with muck boots and rubber gardening gloves I slogged across my lawn seeking out and rooting up these early seasonal adaptors – some in flower, some lying low, and one roughly the size of an Outback restaurant Blooming Onion Ring.  The walk from plant to plant was more effort than the work to dig up my unwelcome visitors – but the result was still difficult enough to be satisfying.  And the sucking sound from the soil as it willingly gave up its low-lying lodgers provided the perfect soundtrack.


I began writing essays at about the same time that I began manually uprooting dandelions.  I always felt that the two avocations were somehow related but I have never been able to fully understand or articulate the connection  A few years into my new literary hobby I took a writing course at a local university.  We were assigned a short composition that told something about ourselves, and our interest in writing.  I no longer have a copy, but the thesis was the coincident timing of these two activities – with no attempt to explain why or how they were related.  As I remember, my write-up was considered quite profound.  (I should mention that “show not tell” was the workshop’s modus operandi – so in some sense ignorance of the reason something happened was perceived as a somewhat of a virtue.)
For several years I drafted mostly what I would call semi-humorous, semi-philosophical, semi-gardening essays for my garden club newsletter and our local newspaper.  Then after retirement Mars and I became involved in Wethersfield Historical Society and I began penning non-academic history articles for the organization’s website – “tell not show” storytelling where the narrative is driven by facts of the case rather than the free form, stream of conscious ramblings of the author.  Which is how I became involved with Francesco Lentini – The Human Tripod.
It began with a letter received by the society in which a former town resident recalled “playing touch football in an empty field near the Brimfield Rd. home of the Lentini family, when the three legged Frank Lentini kicked the football with his third leg.”  With the note was a Xerox copy of an article on the life and career of the tripodal punter.
That enclosure, plus a quick check of Wikipedia, told the basics of the story.  Francesco Lentini was born May 18, 1881 in Rosolino Italy with a third full-sized leg extending from the right side of his body.  At the age of eight he was moved to the United States where he subsequently performed as “The Great Lentini” in various circus and carnival “sideshows” including P.T. Barnum, Ringling Brothers and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  He married Theresa S. Murray of Massachusetts, and they had four bipedal children.  And he died on September 22, 1966.   

But, most importantly for our purposes, from 1926 to 1938 Frank Lentini and his family resided on the same street where Mars and I now live in Wethersfield. 
I wasn’t explicitly asked by either the society’s Director or Collections Manager – but I left the office thinking that it was my task to create an historic account of Wethersfield Connecticut’s most famous circus freak.  I also had a slightly uneasy feeling about delving into the world of performing mutants, even under the guise of historical research.
Frank Lentini was known as “The King” of circus sideshow freaks.  And there is no shortage of information about him on the Internet – most of it basically repeated verbatim across websites created by zealous aficionados of that part of the entertainment world.  And of course on the aforementioned Wikipedia.  
There are public records of Lentini’s time in Wethersfield, but nothing about anything noteworthy that he had done while living in town.   I had read that “A historical person or event can acquire significance if we, the historians, can link it to larger trends and stories that reveal something important for us today.”   So I decided to tell about his life in relation to the story of the Italian immigration to America, and the history of circus “freak shows”
 I found one newspaper article on Frank Lentini’s childhood journey from Italy to the States that I used – but nothing that could be even loosely be  considered academic sources.  The closest thing to serious scholarship was a page in "The People's Almanac – Footnote People in American History" by David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace. 
Wallace was an American best-selling author and screenwriter – according to Wikipedia “known for his heavily researched novels".  David Wallechinsky is his son who reverted back to the original family name.  Their piece on Frank Lentini was the only one that had any information disagreeing with the lockstep recitation of facts elsewhere on the ‘net – most notably the location of his death.  Was it Florida (the majority position) or Tennessee (as Wallace & Wallechinsky alleged)?
Presented with the possibility of actual, factual research I contacted the offices of Vital Statistics in both states and discovered that Frank Lentini’s place of death was indeed Jackson Tennessee.  Evidently Wallace’s investigative curiosity applied to non-fiction as well as novels.
 I reported my fact-finding results in the historical society article.  Now I get to become a “Wikipedian” and correct the posting on that website.  No one will probably notice or care. But that’s okay.  Sometimes just getting to the root of something is a reward in itself.