Wednesday, January 30, 2013

News from Home

My mother just mailed another obituary to me—the second this week. Death has become an expected topic in her letters and in our weekly phone conversations.

At first, the deceased were the age of my grandparents and parents. Now they’re my age, too.

It’s sobering news. Reminds me to take nothing for granted. And reminds me of these lines from Billy Collins’ poem, “Obituaries”:
And all the survivors huddle at the end
under the roof of a paragraph
as if they had sidestepped the flame of death.

[Death in the Sickroom by Edvard Munch.]

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

BOOKreMARKS: The Workout that Wouldn’t End

I opened my new reading year with Grayson—a sweet, short memoir by competitive open-water swimmer Lynne Cox. In it, she details a single morning of her daily three-hour training in the Pacific Ocean—a morning that began like any other until…the water shuddered. This occurs in the sixth paragraph; then the morning (and every subsequent graf) gets stranger.

Cox is only 17 and has already broken numerous long-distance swimming records at this point in her life. She’s schooled in visualization techniques, resilience, and discipline. Where others cower from fear (like me, whom you’d never find in a dark, 55-degree ocean at 5 a.m.), Cox confronts and controls. Better still, especially for those of us who are armchair travelers, she remains aware and in awe of the marine life she encounters. She introduces readers to aloof sea turtles, chatty dolphins, a manic stingray colony, and flying tuna. We learn tidbits about each of these creatures and how oddly they’re behaving that morning. We get drawn in to Cox’s fear-induced urge to finish her workout ASAP and high-tail it home until…we meet “old” Steve near shore.

Steve owns a bait shop and has long been a source of wisdom and friendship to Cox. Today he’s not in his usual spot and Cox worries. She heads closer inland yet he waves her away. He explains that a baby gray whale has been following her like a puppy for about a mile. She can’t go closer to shore—it’ll beach the little guy—and she can’t stop swimming now. She must help the infant find his mother, his only food source at his tender age (baby grays drink about 50 gallons of milk per day), or he’ll die.

An already exhausted Cox rallies to save the 18-foot youngster. She takes her mission quite selflessly and compassionately, in spite of how the cold is affecting her, in spite of having no idea how to find one particular female whale in the Pacific. Though the baby—whom she dubs Grayson (a gray’s son)—acts healthy and playful, Cox knows every minute counts to reunite him with his mother. Especially considering the 5,000+-mile migration to the Arctic the whales have ahead of them.

As Grayson’s rescue grows longer and more complicated, Cox takes the advice of another old seaman who keeps an eye on her during her morning workouts. “Sometimes answers come out of time and struggle, and learning. Sometimes you just have to try again in a different way.”

Cox experiments with new dives, new ways of holding her breath longer, new ideas about what little Grayson is thinking and how he might have slipped away from his mother. And in all of this, Cox continues sending positive thoughts/energy into the Universe, hoping it will help the cause, and Grayson continues following her around the Pacific.

Don’t let Grayson’s slim dimensions fool you. At first glance, it’s a stirring rescue tale. But at closer read, it’s a love song to the ocean—and an instruction manual on what’s possible when we open our hearts and minds to the unknown.

[Gray whale mother and calf: photographer unknown.]

Too Easily Foiled by Size and Gender

When I was asked which instrument I wanted to play in my grade school’s newly formed band, I said, “Drums!”

“Girls don’t play drums,” snapped the teacher.

So I turned my musical aspirations to the orchestra, for which I saw myself playing string bass.

“Your hands are too small,” another teacher told me.

“Then how about cello?” I chirped.

“Same thing. Why don’t you play the violin?”

Because I didn’t want to play a high-pitched instrument, nor did I want to play an instrument that gobs of other kids were already struggling with. But somehow I got roped into the flute. And all the years I played it, I harbored aspirations to push the instrument into unusual territories—new genres, new sounds—rather than conforming to the Mozart and Debussy available to me. But I never mustered the confidence required to improvise and branch away from the norm.

Enter my husband, who introduced me to PROJECT Trio this week—a combo of two instruments I always longed to play and the one I ended up with. The trio explores the territories I had hoped to pioneer decades ago—even holds a camp to teach young people how to play their instruments “in any musical situation and in multiple different styles.” What a dream! (Do you think I’m too old to go to camp?)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

My Bluebird of UNHappiness

I wrote to the Nevada Mining Association this week. I’d never even heard of the Nevada Mining Association until I read my new issue of Audubon magazine.

On my ever-growing list of things I never knew (I’ve a friend who sends me news stories nearly every day to which I reply, too frequently and embarrassingly, “I had no idea!”), I can now add “mining markers”—hollow PVC pipes used to indicate a mining claim and operation on public lands in the West.

Sounds innocuous, right? Perhaps an aesthetic blight to some, but otherwise not a problem.

But this is not the case. Birds and lizards are drawn to these markers as potential nesting and roosting sites—or simply places to rest and conserve energy/heat for a bit. Trouble is that once they go in, they can’t get back out. The markers become the animals’ final resting place: death by dehydration or starvation.

Environmentalists have been trying to fix this since 1983. Finally, several years ago, miners were given two years to change the materials they used for these markers; now, after 30 years, it’s legal for anyone to remove the markers. Nevada state wildlife officials jumped into action with conservation groups and started pulling the markers in November 2012, when the new legislation permitted them to do so. Audubon magazine was celebratory over the change and reported that 8,000+ markers have already been pulled. Only 2,992,000+ to go.
“Once, with binoculars, I watched a male American kestrel perched on a post, staring down inside over and over. I avoided him for a while and came back to the post about a half hour later. The male was gone and his recently deceased mate was in the bottom of the post. Given how long it takes for a bird to die of dehydration, I imagine this male had kept vigil for some days, if not weeks.”
—Pete Bradley, Bristlecone Audubon Society conservation chairman
Not every pulled pipe held a dead bird, but some revealed as many as 15—my adopted Mountain Bluebird’s kin among them (this was part of the outcry—the Mountain Bluebird is Nevada’s state bird). With 2,992,000+ more markers to remove, that’s a lot of birds.

Hence my letter to the Nevada Mining Association, whose members include 3M and Halliburton. Obviously, the new legislation isn’t requiring the mining companies to remove their own markers. So I wondered which companies were assuming social responsibility and sending their own crews out to remove markers. Seems like a great PR opportunity, doesn’t it?

I haven’t heard squat from the NMA, but I’ll let you know if I do.

[Photo of marker by Christy Klinger; photo of Kestrel by James Ownby.]

Friday, January 25, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Dear One

“The older I get, the less time I want to spend with the part of the human race that didn’t marry me.”
—Robert Brault

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Black Bears and Bad Dogs

“Will it bite?”

The folks had stopped their International Scout along the road out of curiosity. They’d spotted the bear in a field, where it had just been released by wildlife manager Mary McConnell. The bear had been drugged in order to transport her to this habitat and she was still a bit groggy.

“Will it bite?” asked one of the International Scout folks.

“If you corner her,” McConnell replied. She paused, and added, “A mouse will bite if you corner it. Of course, the bear has a bigger bite.”

This little scene is from John McPhee’s “A Textbook Place for Bears” and it makes me want to hug Mary McConnell. “Will it bite?” is the most frequent question I hear when I’m accompanying an animal of any kind. It’s exasperating. Could there be a more foolish question? I will bite you if I think it’s the only way to get you to leave me alone!

Any animal (humans included) with teeth may bite. Even animals without teeth (like geese) may clamp down on you hard enough to hurt. Does that make the animal “bad”?

Yes, if we’re to believe Kevin Renfro, a local personal-injury lawyer.

I’ve nothing against personal-injury lawyers—we all have to make a living. However, I do have a problem when said p-i lawyer goes on television while holding his two adorable dachshunds (they’re GOOD, he says) and tries to reel in new customers: “If you’ve been bitten by a BAD dog, you may need help getting your fair compensation from the insurance company…”

A bite is not a character flaw, Mr. Renfro. A bite is a SIGN—an indication of a health problem, a misinterpretation of circumstances, a territorial act of protection. A bite doesn’t make an animal bad. I would hope that you (and those lawyers who specialize in dog-bite litigation) have some basic knowledge of canine behavior so you’re not perpetuating myths and disseminating misinformation on television and in courts.

Every bite tells a story, Mr. Renfro, and without “hearing” (i.e., understanding) the dog’s point of view, you’re missing the most important element of the tale. If you don’t feel the need to delve deeper into canine behavior for your work, I urge you to do it for those cutie-pie dachshunds of yours. “Good” dogs shouldn’t have to settle for “bad” guardians.

[Photo of bear by Lil Polley; photo of Mr. Renfro from his TV ad.]

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Spider Mystery

We have a spider in our living room. Don’t know what kind. He (she?) stays in one place, yet we know s/he’s alive.

What is s/he doing? Do you know anything about spiders? Is s/he just trying to stay out of the cold (which means our usual way of dealing with spiders—taking them outside—won’t work)? Is s/he dying (in which case I need to drum up a eulogy)?

I don’t know what kind of spider we’re dealing with yet. Guess I need to get out the binoculars if I really want to solve this mystery.

What I DON’T want—as much as I like critters—is a nursery of baby spiders! But I don’t want to kill our little guest either. Any ideas from you would be much appreciated.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Understanding My Place: A Letter and Neil Gaiman

Stranger in a Strange Land – No. 26

The other day my husband brought home a glossy, four-color, eight-paged publication he’d found on the sidewalk in our neighborhood. He intended to toss it into a recycling bin, but when he realized what it was, he knew he had to share it with me first.

I pawed through it—picture after captioned picture of one senior couple’s 2012 activities: celebrating milestones with grandchildren and former exchange students; vacationing with friends and family in Italy, Monaco, and China; learning to surf in Hawaii; hosting Union Rags and the Wyeths at the Kentucky Derby; acting as professional photographers for a wedding, building custom furniture, and so on. And so on…

Was it a self-published booklet to commemorate these events?

NO! It was their Christmas Letter to friends and extended family!

It’s exactly why people have come to hate such correspondence. It was so over-the-top it could have been a parody of the genre. But it wasn’t. It was a chirpy report of all the stellar 2012 moments one family experienced. And they sent it to someone in MY neighborhood, which can only mean (or I HOPE it means) that the recipients lead similar lives and didn’t take said Christmas Letter as the disturbing show of pretentiousness I did. Once again, I felt quite removed from my neighbors.

I had just been reading about Cabal, a dog rescued from a roadside by author Neil Gaiman. I learned that Cabal suffered from the same condition my pooch did (degenerative myelopathy), that British-born Gaiman now lives in the Midwest, that his relationship with Cabal was of the unexpected and nonpareil variety… Heck! I have more in common with Neil Gaiman than I do with these Christmas Letter–sending neighbors.

Hmmm. Maybe I can work Gaiman into my own Christmas Letter this year. Maybe I, too, can incite envy and head-shaking during the holidays.

This is part of an ongoing series regarding my transition from the Land of Lincoln to the Bluegrass State. For a list of previous articles in the series, just select Stranger in a Strange Land from the right of Lull, under “Choose a topic that interests you.”

[Photo of Cabal and Neil Gaiman by Kimberly Butler and titled Unconditional Love.]

Birdbaths as Adoption Tools

Oklahoman Larry Flick was in his garden when he heard a splash. He turned to investigate and photographed this in his birdbath:

What a find! I can’t entice so much as a sparrow into my artful birdbath, much less a spotted pooch.

Turns out the dog was homeless as well as overheated. Until, of course, he paired up with a birdbath—a cute-as-a-button PR strategy that quickly got him adopted by Mr. Flick.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

83 Is the Answer, but Who’s Counting?

I received an e-mail earlier this month from GoodReads, a social network for book enthusiasts. (I became a member merely to access an interview with a favorite author.) How many books do I aim to read in 2013? GoodReads wanted to know. Don’t I want to read more? GoodReads would help me do that with a kind of Weight-Watchers community approach.

First of all, as my mother would attest, no one needs to encourage me to read more. (As a child, I was encouraged to play more.) Second, if you’re a member of GoodReads, aren’t you already an avid reader? This goal-setting activity seems a sham to me—seems participants are really just showing off the number of books they’ve read. Third, and most important, quantity shouldn’t matter to people who read with ease (reminds me of Adler’s observation about reading). As long as your nose is stuck in some kind of printed/digital matter, why be concerned about the tally?

In reviewing my blog list, I counted 83 books read last year plus magazine articles, short works, and blogs. The number means nothing. Some books were slim and full of poetry; a few were written for a young audience, while others were of a how-to nature. Most were animal- or nature-related.

Why do I keep the list?
1. It helps me choose the next read and prevents me from rereading books.
2. It’s a kind of diary for me. I can gauge from the list my emotional temperature and mindset over the course of the year. And you can, too, if you’ve read any of these books.
3. If I want to direct someone to specific animal-welfare information, the list helps jog my memory as to which book to recommend.

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
—Oscar Wilde

It’s not a contest. I’m not trying to read more books than some other schmo. I can’t/won’t compete: The field is FULL of folks who read at least a book a day. I need more time to ponder what I read. Sometimes one book prompts me to read another book at the same time because they complement one another or they reference one another. I once read an article profiling different kinds of readers based on…well, I can’t remember now. All I recall is being hopping mad that I fell into the “Promiscuous” category simply because I read several books at the same time. Promiscuous readers apparently are unable or unwilling to commit.

At any rate, I will continue my list-keeping—without the aid of GoodReads—of books I’ve read and books I want to read and think about next. (I maintain this second, much longer list in a journal.)

Call me promiscuous if you want, but I’m opening my mind, learning new things, considering and developing new ideas, shaping and solidifying my beliefs, and seeing the world differently. That’s what books do for me—what I wish they could do for everyone.

[Art by Albert Joseph Moore.]

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Huzzah for Guns?

The first headline I read this morning announced a new target-practice app for four-year-olds from the NRA. Then my husband shared a Stephen Colbert video, “Double Barrel Blam-O-Rama,” with me (which I can’t embed here for some reason—you’ll have to follow the link above).

Colbert notes that the first-ever national Gun Appreciation Day is coming up this Saturday, sharing the week with another holiday, Martin Luther King Day. The originator of Gun Appreciation Day believes MLK would have been pro-gun (the same way Jesus would have been pro-nail, quips Colbert).

Tsk. My dream of a nation instilled with kindness and compassion is quickly being dashed by a fear that there’s not even hope for sanity and common sense.

Today is MLK’s birthday. I’ll leave you with a bit of his wisdom:

“A nation or a civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”
—from A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by James M. Washington

[Creator of flower gun unknown.]

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mouth Wide Open

Upon leaving my dentist appointment the other day, I could not get a break to access the frontage road that would lead me home.

So I tried a workaround: I took a back path behind a strip mall to reach a side street that would intersect my return route. And what did I spy?

Between the strip mall and the backside of a 1940s neighborhood development stood a small patch of grassy field and one bush. Foraging beneath the bush ambled three chickens—much like the one pictured, although sans accessories.

I stopped the car to fully experience the Wow moment—the juxtaposition of strip mall, manicured homes, and farm animals all within a few yards of one another.

Obviously another reminder for me that the workarounds of our lives often work out better than the plans.

[Art by Miss Mavis Stevens.]

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Eat. Sleep. Read.

Pictured is my neighbor’s cat, who fervently follows the first two commands of the slogan on the bag. “Eat Sleep Read” is pretty much what I’m doing today, though not necessarily in that order. I’m thinking of making Eat Sleep Read my goals list for 2013. Doable, right? Like breathing…

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Extremely Large and Incredibly Close

As a child I enjoyed reading The Happy Little Whale, a Golden Book starring a sperm whale, and I’ve harbored a soft spot for the ocean giants ever since.

Not surprisingly, when news hit the mainstream press last year of an underwater whale rescue, I paid close attention. Turns out it wasn’t a whale, but a whale shark. No matter, the creature was in trouble.

Off the coast of Mexico, a group of vacationers were diving and enjoying the playful antics of the indigenous sea life. However, getting up close and personal with ocean residents means seeing a dark side as well (the dark side of humans, that is). One whale shark showed scarred and grooved skin from a boat propeller; another was hampered by a tuna net that had wrapped like a rope around the shark and lodged into his/her skin and cut deeply into a fin. When professional divemaster Daniel Zapata noticed it, he knew he had to help.

With a knife, a little courage, and a lot of compassion, Zapata went to work on the net—swimming above the polka-dotted leviathan and cutting him/her free at the same time. Here’s a short version of the scene (Zapata’s company, Solmar V, offers a longer version of the dive; the whale shark appears around 4:24):

When searching for links to this rescue, I found another one—this time with a humpback whale. Michael Fishbach, cofounder of the Great Whale Conservancy, was monitoring whales in the Sea of Cortez on Valentine’s Day of 2011, accompanied by family and friends. Near their boat was a young, presumably dead humpback whale. Dead, that is, until she let go a distressed exhale.

Fishbach dove into the water for a closer look and found the whale entangled in nylon fishnets, like those used by the local fishers (doesn’t this make you think of all the plastic debris in our waters and how it affects wildlife, large or small?). Her fins were pinned to the sides of her body and her tail was weighted down about 15 feet. She was immobilized, frightened, and dying.

Fishbach radioed for help, but was told IF anyone could get there, it would be at least an hour before they arrived. Fishbach and his mates knew that would be too late, so they threw themselves into action—some worked in the water, others worked from the boat, all cut and pulled and disentangled. This rescue took a LOT of courage and the compassion of MANY people (watch to the end of the video and you’ll see the rescuers’ reward for their care), for one unexpected move from this huge patient could spell disaster for the humans:

I don’t know about you, but I am so-ooo-oo grateful there are folks like Fishbach and Zapata in the world—folks who have big hearts and the chutzpah to take action. I’m guessing that, on some level, those two ocean giants feel the same.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Where Dogs and Jewelry Converge

Need a distraction today? If you like dogs, the online Vintage & Collectible Dog Jewelry Museum is worth a visit.

The jewelry exhibited is part of the personal costume collection of Deb Schneider and spans the decades from 1900 to the present. It can be searched by dog breed, manufacturer/artist, or jewelry type. But don’t get too attached to anything you see—Schneider isn’t parting with any of it.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Feeding the Blog

Writing is slow right now and I’m way, way behind with all the information I’ve been wanting to share with you. Until I create some proper posts, please enjoy this Irish ditty about Loca, the pug who can’t run:

Loca’s running impairment is caused by a brain disorder. It’s operable yet risky. As a vet counseled, as long as Loca isn’t bothered or being hurt by his differentness, why imperil his life trying to make him “normal”? He has everything he needs—canine pals, exercise, medical care, general good health, love; why risk all that to change his gait?

And with the help of his clever humans, Loca—just as he is—provides the world with a lesson and a giggle.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Saying Goodbye, Saying Hello

It’s been puzzling to me that 2012 is already over. I’m not sure I was ready to say goodbye to it. Not that it was a particularly spectacular year for me (though I did find that four-leaf clover). On the contrary, pretty much NOTHING happened—no personal tragedy or loss, no personal monumental achievements or failures. It was a year of the Small and the Quiet. I can’t recall another year like it.

Sure, the world around me swirled with unrest and catastrophe, and it affected me emotionally. But for the first time in this millennium, I have no personal high or low points to report, no milestones, no markers that will forever chisel 2012 into memory.

Instead, I have moments with insects, trees, horses, and family to cherish. And then came this:

This is a Mountain Bluebird, “adopted” through the National Audubon Society for us as a Christmas gift. (You, too, may adopt one and become a member of Audubon.) We haven’t named him yet, but I like to think of him as our Little Bluebird of Happiness. And with the Bluebird of Happiness at my side, how can 2013 NOT be a splendid year?

May your 2013 be all you wish it to be. And if not that, may it at least be filled with the Small and the Quiet.

[Goodbye pic from V3; bird photo by David Speiser.]
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