The Birds

Picture this idyllic scene of early spring in southeastern New Mexico: The western sky is streaked with the orange, gold, and pink of a glorious sunset. We are standing in a residential neighborhood on a calm evening, watching a flock of birds as they come in to settle in the treetops for the night. As they circle above us, the last rays of the sun touch the tips of their outspread wings with bronze.

Amid all this loveliness and serenity, why am I fidgeting so uneasily, wishing the garage beside me had broader eaves so I could move closer under its shelter?

Because the birds soaring over our heads are vultures. Dozens and dozens of them, circling in a holding pattern and then swooping down to land in a row of trees along the edge of a well-kept back yard.

The vultures settle onto the very tops of the trees, even though it would seem the branches there would be too slender to hold them. There are so many that the treetops are edged in black like an old-fashioned letter announcing bad news.

Each time a few new birds land, a ripple of grumbling goes through the flock. The ones already perching either resist the arrival of the newcomers, shift position to make room for them, or take off to rejoin the circle above the trees. Meanwhile, more birds keep coming, and coming, and coming. They seem to be auditioning for a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. All that’s missing is the ominous background music.

And I’m getting increasingly nervous. We’re just standing there watching, for Pete’s sake. The obvious risk of hanging out underneath a large number of large birds is bad enough. But these are vultures. While we’re gaping at them, we are not moving. Staying that still, in this case, seems like a really, really bad idea. There are more than enough buzzards above us to carry off our carcasses like the winged monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

(Which unfortunately reminds me of the joke about the buzzard who checks in at the airport, carrying a dead armadillo under each wing. “Sorry, sir,” the ticket agent tells him, “Only one carrion item per passenger.”)


But these buzzards are no joke. We were told that they aren’t permanent residents, but are only passing through. Their visits last two or three months, though, so they have become a serious nuisance. Not only are the birds big, bold, and plentiful; they are also protected by law. This makes getting rid of them a challenge.

Still, I can’t help but wonder. What would “chile con vulture” taste like? And would it be better with red or green?

Categories: Travel, Wild Things | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Paying Attention to What’s Behind the Curtain

In the interest of furthering the study of human behavior, here’s a scientific survey question for you:

Suppose you were traveling and had stopped in a small town for lunch. The restaurant was a pizza place/coffee shop/sandwich shop with knickknacks for sale in one corner, obviously doing its best to stay in business. Its home was an old building that had clearly seen various enterprises come and go in its lifetime.

Suppose, in this old building, the restroom was in the back. Way in the back. To use the facilities, you walked down a dim hallway, reassured that you were on the right track by a paper sign with a hand-drawn arrow. You turned right, crossed a corner of the kitchen, and found your destination.

It certainly didn’t look like a public facility, except for the “Restroom” sign on the door. Inside, it was much like the bathroom in someone’s home, with not only the basics of stool and sink but also a bathtub covered with a shower curtain.

With that necessary background, here’s the survey question:

Did you look behind the shower curtain?

I did. Of course. How could anyone not peek?

I was surprised then, when my traveling companion’s response to this query was, “What shower curtain?” In defense of his lack of curiosity—a failure to observe that was really quite shocking in a man who has devoted his career to science—he said, “I was a man on a mission.”

Obviously more research was and is required. So far I’ve asked one other person, who happens to be female. She said, “Of course I’d look.” She didn’t think her husband would look, though he wasn’t available to ask.

So all this did was raise another question: Is peeking or not peeking gender-related?

If it is, then is that due to psychological factors? Maybe women are more hyper-vigilant in unfamiliar surroundings and hence more likely to check potential hiding places. Maybe women are more observant, or more curious.

Or maybe the difference—if there is one—is physical. A man who is “on a mission” might be preoccupied with necessary details like aiming and accuracy. A woman who is sitting may have more chance to observe her surroundings and more time to look behind any curtains that happen to be at hand.

It’s also possible, I suppose, that a writer is just inherently nosier than a geologist.

But these are merely suppositions and can’t possibly be validated or disproven without much more data. So I need some input. Would you have looked behind the curtain?

Oh, you want to know what was back there? Sorry, no naked lady. No lurking criminal. No dead body. Just a bunch of paint cans and cleaning supplies.

But if I hadn’t looked, I would have never known.

Categories: Just For Fun, Travel | 4 Comments

Ernest, Black Beauty, and Louisa May

The other evening I was browsing through books at the library. In my robe and slippers.

No, I haven’t grown so sloppy in my work-at-home environment that I go trotting off to the public library in my jammies. I do realize that in some circles pajama pants are the latest in casual wear. Still, even college kids who think nothing of heading to class in flannel pants with little green aliens on them might raise their eyebrows at my cozy fleece bathrobe and ugly knitted slipper boots.

The library I was meandering through, of course, was online. I was sitting at my own computer in the privacy of my own home, looking for books to download to my e-reader.

Things have changed just a bit from the first library I remember browsing through. It wasn’t really a “library” at all, just a single bookshelf in a one-room school house. The school was the same one my mother and my aunts and uncles had attended, and most of the books had been there since before their time. Our teacher regularly got books from the “real” library, but in the dry spells when I had read all of those and was waiting for the next batch, I read and re-read the ones from the school bookshelf.

Some of the books had probably been castoffs donated to the school years earlier, and they had been wasting shelf space in well-deserved obscurity ever since. I remember wading through an Elsie Dinsmore book, one of a preachy Christian series from the late 1800s featuring a heroine so perfect that just reading about her made you want to go do something really naughty. It was so bad I only managed to read it a couple of times in eight years.

Fortunately, there were some classics, as well. I discovered Black Beauty there, reading it in first grade for the first time and at least once every year after that till I finished eighth grade. I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men long before I knew she had written an earlier book about those same characters, called Little Women. Books by naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton taught me about migrating bats, the terrible power of the wolverine, and the story of Lobo, the famous New Mexico wolf who outsmarted so many human trappers before he was finally captured.

I also remember a book full of true stories about the circus. One of them described an elephant, the well-behaved and intelligent star of a German circus, who had a terrible time after she was sold to an American circus. It took much too long, in my opinion, for the new owners to figure out that the elephant didn’t understand English. Once she learned it, she became a star in her new home. And, despite the belief that elephants never forget, she eventually lost all her German.

Years later, when I read another circus book called Water For Elephants, I knew why the Polish-speaking elephant was refusing to obey orders well before any of the books’ characters caught on.

Remembering odd stuff that you read years ago is part of the magic of a library. It doesn’t matter whether it’s one bookshelf at an old country school or the latest in electronic browsing. I still love browsing through actual library shelves. I also love the fact that now, if I want to look up Black Beauty or Ernest Thompson Seton, I can easily find them online. Elsie Dinsmore is probably there, too, but I don’t want to know. Not even the latest technology could make her anything but awful.

Categories: Remembering When | 2 Comments

Going for the Goal

For those of you who care about the significant international issues of the day, here is an update from my source in Istanbul and Amsterdam. Today’s report concerns an issue of great importance to the traveling public—the latest in sanitation technology.

In other words, they’ve been upgrading the urinals at the airports again.

We reported previously on the “imbedded fly” strategy that, by providing a target for precision aiming, supposedly increased the cleanliness of men’s rooms at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport by 80%.

Now, according to my source, flies are being replaced by golf holes. Not literal holes, just strategically placed images in the porcelain. The picture of the golf cup, complete with little flag, provides what presumably is a more appealing target than a fly. At least for certain users. It seems to me that the younger ones—from about age eight to, say, 35—might find the fly more fun.

In Turkey, however, the technology has been taken one step further. My source did not experience this personally. However, he saw it on Turkish television, where it was a featured news story for several days.

It’s the “soccer goal” strategy. This features a moving target—a little red soccer ball that a precisely-directed stream of, er, ammunition can actually push toward a fixed image of a goal so the shooter scores a point. Presumably the real goal is improved restroom sanitation. This could backfire, I suppose, if the scoring player throws both arms into the air and shouts “Goal!”

Not only is this a major technological breakthrough, but it could be a hit all over the world, especially in bars. “I need another beer—I haven’t scored a goal yet, and I’m out of ammunition.” Just imagine the impact on beer sales. There are even possibilities for competitions to supplement games of darts and pool. A reality show is just waiting to happen here, folks.

There is even a benefit here for women. For years we’ve been complaining about the inequities in public restrooms. Women always have to wait longer. At a concert, for example, when the lights come up for intermission she’d better be out of her seat and making a mad dash or she’s going to spend the whole interval waiting in line. Meanwhile, he has ample time to stroll about the lobby, get a drink, chat to friends, or lounge in his seat reading the fine print in the program.

If the whole soccer-ball thing catches on, that could be reversed. She might be the one waiting for him. “Sorry to take so long, honey. I just had to finish the game.”


Categories: Just For Fun, Travel | 1 Comment

It’s Another Peach Sunrise

A few observations at the end of a busy week:

A carpenter who shows up when he says he will, finishes on time, charges reasonable rates, and is a craftsman who takes pride in his work is a gift from God.

Painting a room is a meditative, stay-in-the-moment activity that, done in moderation, is satisfying to the soul. Painting the insides of kitchen cupboards is an activity that is a pain in the neck—not to mention the back, the wrists, and the knees. The only meditation involved is contemplating just why the original builders ever thought a kitchen needed so many cupboards.

Could it be considered overkill to spend half an hour scraping and peeling 40-year-old contact paper off the bottom of a shelf no one can even see, instead of merely painting over it? (In this case, no. The stuff was ragged, had bubbled loose in places, and had collected several decades worth of crud along the edges. It was gross.)

When old wallpaper has been painted over three or four times, don’t expect one more layer to hide the seams.

They may call a paint color “Peach Sunrise.” The little rectangle of it on the color sample sheet may look like very pale gold tinged with rose. Its darker cousin on the same sample sheet may match the copper trim in the kitchen perfectly. But after you spend three hours applying it to your kitchen walls, painting carefully around cupboards and doorways and the brand new countertops, and after it dries, it turns out to be—there is no other way to put this—pink.

After finishing the painting last night and taking my aching muscles to bed early, I woke up at 2:00 a.m. after my sleep was disturbed by a horrible thought. Did I subconsciously pick the Peach Sunrise color out of hidden guilt over getting rid of the old built-in oven? The original oven installed when the house was built in the 1950’s. The very same oven which was still the manufacturer’s original pink. Was it heartless of me to throw it out, instead of helping it apply for Social Security and taking tender care of it in its old age? After all, as a woman of a certain age myself, I could have been more sympathetic to the fluctuations of its temperature and the unreliability of its thermostat. Maybe my subconscious mind chose a pinkish color for the walls in homage to a poor old appliance that had been discarded without a second thought.

Nah. I feel no guilt, subconscious or otherwise. Our kitchen has new countertops and realigned cupboard doors. The place that housed the old cooktop with its two remaining working burners is now a lighted countertop area perfect for kneading bread. The space where the old pink oven lived is a well- crafted cabinet. The new stove not only has five burners that actually work, but it boasts a convection oven. The freshly painted cupboard interiors gleam as they wait for their rearranged contents. Even the Peach Sunrise walls, in the morning light, look more peach than pink.

It’s all so appealing, I just might have to cook something.

Categories: Odds and Ends | 3 Comments

Saving the Planet, One Pound at a Time

Ladies and gentlemen, you saw it here first! This is the beginning of a movement that just might save our planet.

There are a few long words involved, and even some numbers, so please bear with me while I explain.

First, the numbers. According to the March 2013 issue of National Geographic, some British scientists have calculated that the world’s overweight people add 3.9 million tons of weight to the planet. With her human population at 7 billion plus, the last thing poor old Mother Earth needs is millions of us, selfishly slurping our supersized sodas, adding weight to the load she already carries.

After all, she’s facing enough challenges. Global warming, for example. Some people believe that melting ice is going to raise sea levels and flood low-lying coastal areas all around the world.

Those two pieces of information may seem disheartening. Put them together, though, and what they add up to is not a crisis, but a wonderful opportunity.

The secret behind this opportunity is the little-known principle of isostasy. This term describes the way the Earth’s crust stays in equilibrium. When an area has a lot of weight on it, it sinks, just like your foam mattress pad or seat cushion does when you sit down on it. When that weight is removed, the area rises, the same way the foam cushion rises back to its former shape when you get up.

Isostasy explains what happens at the end of an Ice Age. All those heavy glaciers melt, and the ground where they used to be rises—no doubt with a great sigh of relief.

Here’s how this could save the planet. Just suppose all the obese people in the world went on diets and lost all those excess pounds. According to the principle of isostasy, the ground they inhabit would rise. This just might lift the coasts enough to keep them above the rising sea levels and save them from being flooded. Losing weight, then, wouldn’t just be good for each of us as individuals. It would also benefit our poor old overloaded planet.

As an added bonus, being slender would allow us not just to cope with global warming, but to even enjoy it. Just think how much better we would look in short shorts and bikinis.

The geologist who shares my life and my living space (which is safely in the middle of the country far about sea level, thank you) was unkind enough to point out that this plan isn’t supported by science. According to him, the theory doesn’t quite hold up.

To which I say, let’s not allow inconvenient facts to stand in the way of progress. When has the lack of scientific validity ever stopped a popular movement? We have slogans to create, websites to build, videos to make, and followers to tweet to. Above all, we have grants to apply for.

To start things off, here is my personal pledge: Starting today, I promise to lose the 8 extra pounds that make up my share of humanity’s 3.9 million tons of excess poundage.

Every great movement has to start somewhere.

Categories: Just For Fun | 2 Comments

One Lump or Two?

Cleaning out the tea cupboard. It sounds so domestic. So tidy. So British, even. What the process actually resembled was an archeological dig. The only difference was that the layers by which I could date my discoveries went from front to back rather than top to bottom. I didn’t really find anything that could be considered treasure, but there were definitely some significant artifacts.

Like several lumps of stuff formerly known as cocoa mix that had hardened into free-form sculptures. These relics indicated that the inhabitants of this site liked chocolate and had access to it, but tended to forget about it once it was shoved toward the back of the cupboard. This theory was further supported by the discovery of two faded boxes containing a few desiccated blocks of Mexican chocolate.

Then there was the ancient container made from plastic tentatively dated to the mid-1980’s. Its label was long gone, but its size and shape indicated that it may once have held citrus-based powdered drink mix. This hypothesis was supported by the fact that the concrete-textured residue in the bottom of the container, when flooded with hot water, still smelled slightly of lemon.

Scattered throughout the cupboard were little plastic bags containing unknown herbaceous substances. Assuming these were tea, I had no qualms about considering them fully legal. Beyond legal, in fact. Most of them were clearly old enough to vote.

One of the most significant artifacts in this cache was an intact, unopened can of coffee. The Turkish lettering on the can was a strong indication that the inhabitants of this site had either traveled to Turkey or at least traded for Turkish goods. While the precise age of the container couldn’t be determined, it was clearly one of the oldest artifacts at the site. Not only was it made of metal rather than plastic, but it was designed to be opened with a T-shaped metal key. This was used to pull off a narrow strip of metal that circled the can just below the top.

The key was still attached to the top of the can. I couldn’t resist. In violation of all the accepted protocols for archeological sites, I decided to open the can. The little metal tab on the side didn’t come loose until I pried it up with the tip of a butter knife. Then I slid the tab through the slot in the key and started turning it.

I remember opening cans this way when I was a kid—not just coffee, but also ham. It came in flat cans, oval with one end wider than the other, that were vaguely ham-shaped. Opening the cans, which in today’s world would no doubt be considered child endangerment, was then a privilege and a challenge.

The biggest risk with this system was cutting your fingers. As the metal strip pulled loose and wound around the key, it ended up as a circle more than half an inch in diameter with lethally sharp edges.

The other difficulty was making sure to wind the metal strip around the key tightly and precisely enough. Otherwise, you would end up with a wobbly spiral rather than a tight circle. This not only increased the likelihood of getting blood in the coffee, but it sometimes meant needing to abandon the key and finish pulling the strip loose with a pair of pliers.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to resort to that with the Turkish coffee. The key worked just the way it was designed to, and I pulled the lid off without any risk to my fingers. The inside of the can was mottled in a way suggestive of way too much time in the cupboard. The contents had settled into unappetizing clods and clumps.

It still smelled like coffee, though, even when I dumped it onto the compost pile. Combined with the lumps of old cocoa mix, it provided a sort of backyard mocha latte experience for the browsing deer. I hope they enjoyed it; there was enough old sugar and caffeine to keep all of them awake for a week.

Categories: Food and Drink | 1 Comment

How About a Little Whine With Your Meal?

“Oh, and this one is my husband’s absolute favorite! I don’t even try to make it at home any more. It’s so much better here, so I tell him he’s welcome to have it any time he wants—all he has to do is show up here.”

The waitress was in full spate. With the menu in front of her so we could see it, she was gushing over one featured entrée after another. It was like a preschool teacher with a little too much drama training reading a picture book to a group of four-year-olds who already knew it by heart.

I wanted to grab the menu out of her hands and snarl, “I can read, thank you very much. And I don’t care what your husband likes. Just go away for a few minutes and leave me in peace to decide what I want to order.”

We had been in the restaurant for less than ten minutes and had already been reminded why we don’t go there very often. This is a well-known seafood chain. It has quite good food, a pleasant dining room, and reasonable prices. It would be a perfect place for a slightly-special-occasion evening out.

Except for the staff. Not that the service is bad. Quite the opposite. Everyone is obviously trained to be friendly and make light, breezy conversation with the customers. They take this training much too seriously.

It starts with the host or hostess: “Welcome! And what brings you out this evening?”

Um—this is a restaurant. Probably it’s because we’re, you know, hungry?

“Are you celebrating a special occasion tonight? Or off to the movies?”

Um—if I thought that was any of your business, I would tell you.

This chitchat gets us to a table, where the conversational baton is passed to the server. Usually they introduce themselves, ask about our plans for the evening, and enthuse over the menu. On this particular evening, our waitress went far above and beyond her training. She flooded us with conversation like a nervous hostess giving her first big dinner party who had fortified herself by over-sampling the wine before the guests arrived.

Every time she stopped at our table, she was chattier. By her third visit, my partner, who was sitting with his back to the room, had his shoulders hunched in a defensive posture and had begun to flinch whenever a shadow fell across his plate. I at least had the advantage of being able to see her coming. I tried to keep her from interrupting our conversation by avoiding eye contact. It didn’t work.

Trapped by good manners, we tolerated her chatty interruptions and ate as fast as we could. By the time we had refused dessert, paid our tab, and made our escape, we had learned far more than we cared to know about our server’s husband, her previous job, her food preferences and those of half the members of her extended family, and her opinions of several current movies.

We didn’t care. We didn’t want to know. We had gone out on a date. Our plan was to enjoy a nice dinner, a quiet conversation, and each other’s company. It wasn’t our intention to share the evening with a server whose goal was to become our new BFF. If we had wanted to include a third party, we would have invited one of the friends we already had.

Categories: Food and Drink | Tags: | 2 Comments

The Flies Are Falling! The Flies Are Falling!

First of all, a brief follow-up to last week’s column. Just in case anyone may have been concerned, I do not sort my M&M’s by color if I happen to be driving while I’m eating them. Such behavior would definitely go beyond quirky and might even be considered a teensy bit obsessive.

That’s why, when I was traveling this afternoon, I didn’t check the color of my M&M’s.

By the way, a regular sized package of M&M’s, eaten two at a time with sips of coffee in between, lasts for approximately 35 miles along I-90 in western South Dakota when one is driving the speed limit.

But on to other things. As all politicians and their advisors know, one of the crucial factors in being a good spin doctor is getting your version of the story out first, loudest, and most often. In that spirit, I just want to share the following:

First, I categorically deny that there was any deliberate intent or malice involved when I showered my mother with dead flies. I was merely trying to help. In fact, I was only following orders—her orders.

But when you are standing on a rickety wooden stepladder, removing the flimsy plastic cover from the fluorescent light fixture in your parents’ kitchen, accidents can happen. I had snapped off one side of the cover without disturbing the dead flies that littered it. The whole purpose of the exercise, you see, was to get rid of the bodies.

But when the cover came loose on the second side, it twisted sideways and slipped out of my hands. It crashed to the floor in a cascade of dead flies, bouncing off my mother as it fell. True, she was standing right underneath the light fixture at the time in order to hold the wobbly ladder. OSHA would not have approved of her being so close to an overhead maintenance project when she wasn’t wearing a hard hat or any other protective gear. Come to think of it, OSHA wouldn’t have approved of the ladder, either.

But at least a flimsy plastic cover weighing approximately five ounces is not a dangerous object, so she wasn’t hurt. More surprisingly, the light fixture cover wasn’t hurt, either. Even better, by the time I picked it up off the floor it no longer had any dead flies in it. So I gave it a cursory swipe with a dust rag and snapped it back into place.

The rest of the project took a bit longer. It required cleaning fly bodies off of the table, the counter, and the window sill, sweeping the floor, and combing several corpses out of my mother’s hair. I’d never had occasion to practice that particular form of primate grooming before.

Among the pleasures of visiting my parents is hearing them tell and retell family stories. One of the things we talked about during this visit was how accurate some of those stories are, especially the older ones. Different family members remember things differently, and memories fade over the years. Maybe, sometimes, what we remember is more about what the “official version” of the story says happened than it is about what actually happened.

The incident of the falling flies is one very small family story that will probably only be told a couple of times. But just in case it grows or changes in the telling, here is my version. In writing. Spread all over the Internet.

When it comes to getting there first with the spin on a story, there are no flies on me.

Categories: Family | 1 Comment

The Curious Case of the Sorted M&M’s

Is sorting M&M’s by color before you eat them an endearing little quirk, a sign of artistic awareness, or just a teeny bit compulsive?

I don’t know. It’s just the way I eat my M&M’s. I never stopped to think about it until recently, when we were traveling and listened to the audio version of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

The narrator of the story is 15-year-old Christopher Boone, who has what is presumably a form of autism. His favorite author is Sherlock Holmes, so when he finds the body of his neighbor’s murdered dog, he decides to investigate. His detective work uncovers much more about his own life than it does about the dog.

The book was a fascinating glimpse of life from the perspective of someone who thinks very differently from what most of us probably consider “normal.” One of the side effects of it, though, was to make me start wondering about some of my own behavior.

Like taking eggs out of the carton so as to leave a symmetrical pattern, rather than just grabbing a couple. I might start, for example, by taking the eggs out of the top left and bottom right corners. Then maybe I’ll take the next two from the right side of the second row and the left side of the next to the last row. This, by the way, is much easier to do with a carton of 18 than a carton of 12. I prefer to think of it as artistic rather than autistic. You may have your own opinion.

Or sorting M&M’s by color. Of course it’s silly. They all taste the same. But I don’t care for green, so I always eat the green ones first in order to get rid of them. Next to go is usually orange, followed in order by blue and brown. I save either yellow or red for last, depending on which color most appeals to me that day and also the assortment of colors in a particular handful. (Not every bag of M&M’s has the same number of each color. People who don’t sort their M&M’s by color may not know this.)

Then there is that thing I sometimes do when I’m walking on a sidewalk, counting steps and noticing the pattern of how often I step on a crack with my right foot and then my left. One might think of it as obsessive, I suppose. Or one might think of it as a way of exercising one’s brain as well as one’s body. Or maybe it’s merely marching to the beat of a different drummer.

I also keep the stuff in my purse in specific places—my cell phone is this pocket, my wallet in that section, my keys in that little pocket with the zipper. This, I maintain, is simple utility. It’s much easier to find my keys or my sunglasses when I know which pocket to reach for. And, in my defense, I have never lost a set of keys or my wallet. Though I do occasionally misplace my purse.

Worrying about whether your behaviors are compulsive is probably a bit, well, compulsive. Thinking about the different ways our brains work, on the other hand, is merely fascinating.

But I dare you to tell me that, the next time you get eggs out of the carton, you don’t at least think about the pattern you’ve just made. And the next time you have a handful of M&M’s, I bet you’ll pay more attention to the colors.

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | Tags: | 6 Comments

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