Monday, February 25, 2013

Still Not Tuna

A pecan orchard -- don't let the Beacon Hill HOA near it!
I had only just started to open the can with the manual opener when they appeared, almost instantaneously.  Since it was early evening the cats had been in their favorite places, curled up and comatose, just two seconds before.  Now they're at the kitchen doorway, waiting together patiently but quite intent.  Because as all felines know, the sound of a can opener working means the possibility of tuna.  And that's worth interrupting any nap for.

I showed them it was only diced tomatoes, and they wandered off.  Then I opened a small can of mandarin oranges and turned around to see if they were going to be fooled twice.  Of course they were.  Once again I demonstrated that there was nothing of interest to their refined tastes, so they took a tour of the kitchen to make sure there were no treats just out of sight, then after a leg rub to show no hard feelings, they wandered off again.

These long weeks in the short month are like that.  The thermometer teases us with temperatures just a degree or so over 40 in the middle of the day, only to let loose with winds and cover it all up with clouds again.  Yesterday I felt warm sun through the south-facing bedroom window, so I opened it up for my waiting friends, who in one leap achieved the window sill and a little taste of the good spring days to come.  Despite careful scouting there were no birds to watch, so they carefully sniffed the air for signs of life and stretched out to enjoy the moment, not fretting that it may be only a short preview.

Having no secret dreams of catching a bird, I find my thoughts of an early spring (didn't Phil the prognosticating groundhog promise us one this year?) emerging when I spy the racks and stacks of planting pots in the garage, cleaned up and ready for a new year.  Life must be dull if you don't have plans; this year's include a hoped-for repeat of last year's successes (basil, onions, carrots and tomatoes were the standouts) plus the addition of some of those new miniature berry bushes, which are supposedly being stocked by one large local garden shop in 2013.  Fresh blueberries to go with a cool limoncello on the deck this summer.  Oh yeah.

The view won't be impeded by any trees, courtesy of our industrious HOA Landscaping Committee.  The removal of all the big ones is complete and they're raking and levelling the bare front yards.  Verizon will have its hands full replacing all the fiber optic cable runs that the contractor, Good's Tree Care, ripped apart (just a bonus).  The vanished trees had been ill-chosen and badly placed by the builders, it's true.  The gums were far too close to the houses even when small, and the silver maples had serious above-ground root problems.  I could maybe understand the loss of all our shade and bird perches if they planned to replace them with better species correctly sited, but the sad squares of front yard will be grassed over.  Guess we'll have to go to a park for some shade and bird song.

In the vain hope they ever learn anything, here's a list of trees for builders not to use:

Silver maple -- too big, weak wood, surface roots, destroyer of sewer lines
Ash -- the emerald ash borer is going to kill it anyway
Quaking aspen -- sends out suckers and spreads; there's one colony in Colorado that is now 6600 tons big
Hybrid poplar -- (I have planted these) short life, prone to disease
Willow -- the root systems have been called "a terror," short lived, weak wood
Eucalyptus -- drops heavy branches and copious amounts of shed bark.  Also a fire risk.
Bradford pear --  despite nice shape, lovely flowers and colorful fall leaves, this widely used landscape tree can't stand up to wind or snow
Mountain cedar -- lets loose cascades of pollen late in the year
Mulberry -- (also planted those) surface roots, pollen, messy fruit
Black walnut -- pollen, green nut pods that rot, roots release toxins harming other plants
Leyland cypress -- at every garden center, provides quick privacy, but uproots in storms and is a fire hazard
Mimosa -- lovely, but plentiful seed pods must be picked up; also spreads actively by seed
Siberian elm -- weak wood and millions of seeds
Black locust -- The 1 1/2" thorns regularly pierced the tires of my old riding mower.  They'll do a number on your skin, too.  Drops a lot of twigs and branches.

No more walks in the wood:
The trees have all been cut
Down, and where once they stood
Not even a wagon rut
Appears along the path
Low brush is taking over...

We and the trees and the way
Back from the fields of play
Lasted as long as we could.
No more walks in the wood.

                     -- John Hollander

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Are You Smarter Than A Jellyfish?

Way ahead of Homo Sapiens
The story of Feldheim should be in everyone's newspaper, but it won't be
Consider this:  Turritopsis, the "immortal jellyfish", pictured above.  This simple denizen of warm ocean waters, which has no brain, no stomach and no respiratory or central nervous system, has developed a way of surviving potentially fatal threats by transforming its adult self (called the medusa stage) back into its baby form (polyp) -- like the fictional Benjamin Button.  When faced with dangerous stress like injury or starvation, it attaches to a surface and reverts to a blob of cells which can then change into different types.  Muscle cells can become eggs; others can become new muscle cells.  Eventually a colony of polyps develops -- a nursery of future adults.  Now most individual Turritopsis do, in fact, die like any creature, but some just devolve and recover, defying age and death.  No  one, of course, knows how.

Too bad, because right now humans, with all those developed systems our wiggly friend lacks, really need to be implementing ways to survive several great threats.  And our unsustainably ever-growing numbers make that even more difficult each day as we gobble the planet's resources like a whale sucking plankton in by the millions.  If there were 7 billion whales, the plankton would become scarce, don't you think?

Just as only a minority of the Immortal Jellyfish actually do skirt their demise, only a few communities of humans are on the ball about solving one of our looming problems -- energy generation and use.  There are permaculture and "transition towns" in the United Kingdom (which have spawned imitators worldwide), there was the kibbutz movement in Israel, and in Feldheim, Germany, they have moved from hypothesizing and planning to establishing an efficient, integrated energy self-sufficiency.  This agricultural town re-uses its plant waste to generate biogas for heat and has installed 47 windmills and a solar array on the edge of town for electricity production.  The residents invested $4000 each to build their own local grid and now pay rates 30%  lower than before.  A company was hired to provide the expertise and coordination required to organize such a large infrastructure project.  In addition, they can just plug in and pay for their electric vehicles' juice at several places around town, and not at $3.95 a gallon, either.  Thirty jobs were created, too; there aren't very many areas other than security enforcement and medicine where we can see that happening as automation continues to reduce them.  I understand it wasn't all easy, as European big energy companies, like ours, do influence government to slip in rule and regulatory roadblocks.  I can't imagine what our state Public Utilities Commission would not do to stop such a project; the coal barons are still as always right behind their high-backed leather chairs, flanked by the oil and gas giants.

Knowing that it can be done provides some hope.  I'm not sure I'd give better odds on the success of humanity versus the jellyfish, though.

(Source:  This is a site well worth visiting.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dream House

The 1856 Round House in Somerville, MA
The Augusta model by Deltec, 13 sides, 876 sq. ft.
Cliff wrote about dreams recently in his blog ( and I've been thinking about what stuff they're made of ever since.  Have you mentally "written" stories, song lyrics or poems, especially in that twilight between sleep and awakening, and been pretty pleased at how freely creative you can be without the distractions and inhibitions that limit us otherwise?  Once, I'd had several dreams in a row wherein I added verses to such songs as "No Expectations" and "Knocking on Heaven's Door," and of course lost them as soon as fully conscious.  So I placed a tablet of paper and a pen bedside and resolved to write something down before fully awakening.  The plan was to save the ideas, which seemed promising, and polish them up.  The result was ridiculous, though:  it turned out that there was nothing but illegible gibberish on the paper.  I guess certain music stars' legacies are safe from my improvements.

I have never asked anyone if they have a certain type of dream that I've had for as long as I can remember (probably from fear of therapy being strongly recommended).  It's serial dreams:  the same basic scenarios revisited and either just observed or changed a little, although there's little action in what seems to be a depopulated world.  One is set in about three different school rooms, and is probably the standard working out of anxiety type.  Like the school buildings themselves, which stand for decades and become old quickly and stay that way, no progress is ever made.  I guess it sums up my feelings about education.

The type that's the most frequent and developed is about real estate.  I've always been interested in architecture, land and geography, and all types of building and shelter.  When I was first enamored of the camera while working at Richmond Public Schools' Media Services department, I would take the rare Saturday when I wasn't obligated to work for free (our supervisor delighted in this and expected a couple of us -- not her favorites -- to spend at least some of each weekend and every holiday out on some sort of promotion or project) and photograph old buildings whole and in detail.  I presented one slide show on the subject at a June Jubilee (do they still have these?) in a suitably old ornate room of the former City Hall.  Now I do it in my head (still have a slide projector, though).

The oldest serial dream finds me, always alone, in a Victorian Richmond Fan District apartment. In each episode the wallpaper and paint gain more and more gross layers, the little telephone junction boxes on the baseboards seem to multiply (none work), and the tall windows disappear.  There's never any kitchen (maybe because my friend Shelly Adams' place didn't have one and I thought it was cruel of the landlord to collect rent for such a poor arrangement).  I also remember (in real life) looking at a cheap second floor apartment on Floyd Avenue that smelled of cooked cabbage and looked a lot like the Cramdens' on The Honeymooners.  It must have left a pretty strong impression.

Another scenario is set in a early 1950s type suburb very like where we used to live in Shiremanstown (PA):  it's a little two-bedroom white house on an adequate lot.  Over the years I've improved it with a garage, a small addition on the right side, and many trees and shrubs planted in the originally bare yard.  I've even gone after weedy patches along the driveway and perimeter in dreams, noting in a subsequent one that that job's finally done.  The garden along the back fence just never seems to get going, so that's next.  You see why I fear being sent to therapy.

The most current doesn't involve looking back, but is aspirational:  I select a piece of land after prospecting around and build, not a dream palace, but a small energy efficient Deltec ( round house.  Actually, that beginning was quite a while ago.  Over time I've placed all the plumbing (bathroom and utility room back up to the carefully designed kitchen for simplest, shortest runs) and off-grid stuff like rainwater collection and solar apparatus, and painted the outside (twice -- changed my mind).   I raised it up high for a garage/storage basement underneath, but then went back to a gravel driveway with carport due to cost considerations.  While I find this project entertaining during the quiet nighttime hours and don't expect to give it up, I'd really like to hear that others have serial, sequential dreams like this and it's not really abnormal.  Is watching far too many HGTV programs maybe not so good for you?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Return From Nowhere

We were ready.  Trimmed, buffed and pretty as possible.  I had my new tan tropical suit perfect for Florida weather while Nancy got out her sexy shoes (not much use for them most of the time).  Packed everything that would possibly needed while carefully choosing carry-on items.  N. even had a new book to read.  I packed two pairs of glasses (one lesson learned from experience).  We could almost hear the Blues Brothers saying, "Hit it!"

Destination:  our nephew's grand wedding in Tampa and a chance to see family normally scattered over the country and meet some nice new relatives-by-marriage.  A lot of planning had obviously gone into this weekend event:  the wedding itself in a beautiful neighborhood, a fun rehearsal dinner, then a reception at the Art Museum with outdoor cocktail hour.  How could we miss all this?

Well, we did, thanks to the wonderful airline industry.  And a fatal flaw in our own planning, I'll have to admit.

We thought taking an extremely early flight out of Harrisburg with plenty of time to make the connection at Dulles Airport in Virginia would give us a whole afternoon in Tampa to relax, get ready, and meet up with family already there.  Thinking of traveling on the day of an event is just foolish.  It never works.  In this case, just as we were ready to board in the dark Harrisburg a.m., the pilot returned to tell the gate agent that he had found fuel puddled under the rear of the plane (not good, right?).  A mechanic proved hard to find at that hour, and when he was done looking around, it seemed the parts place was still not open anyway.  Finally we took off with just minutes to make our connection, which was in the same terminal, so it was doable.

Nope.  It took off just as we arrived in said Dulles terminal.  Most of our flight was bound for that one, and it would have only delayed their takeoff by minutes, but there it was.  After snaking through the predictably long line at Customer Service, we were fortunate to talk to the senior agent, who really seemed to be knowledgeable -- instead of a string of "no," she looked hard to find a way to get us to Tampa.  It was still early, so we took her advice to wait standby for an Orlando flight (plenty of overpriced rental cars there, we were certain).  With the big winter storm closing down the Midwestern north and the Northeast, we figured there would be a number of non-arrivals and thus a few empty seats.

This proved to be an illusion, for whatever reason I still cannot figure out.  Florida flights are all full this time of year, and we all know the airlines overbook routinely anyway.  To make a very long story a little shorter, we waited at four gates for flights to Tampa or Orlando over the next 12 hours, and in each case the standbys (26 of us waiting hopefully for one of these) got nowhere.  The thing that started us on a slow burn was that in each case they held the flight for late arrivals.  Every single one.  We saw the same increasingly weary faces tramp from Customer Service to gate after gate, and even commiserated together after a while.

I won't even go into airport food.  It's always expensive but not always bad (Pittsburgh, Tampa and Charlotte have a lot of good choices), but in this case it felt like carrying a brick in your stomach.  Around 9 p.m., we gave up and after Nancy negotiated a voucher for a hotel stay, we caught a shuttle bus in the cold and found ourselves at -- believe it or not -- a resort in Leesburg, VA.  It's too bad we were in no shape to enjoy it, because the place (Landsdowne) looked terrific.  Normally we would have planted ourselves in front of the giant fireplace in the Stonewall Lounge and done some martini research, but physically and mentally we had nothing left.

Next day, after communicating updates to the partiers in Tampa (all enjoying perfect weather and visits to places like craft brewpubs and Ybor City), we called Enterprise who quickly picked us up and put us in a new car.  The office was right by Route 15, so we made two right turns and headed toward Gettysburg and then home.

Story not over.  Our luggage was in Orlando (we were sure we'd get on that first standby flight).  It's a good thing we've learned to save every bit of official paper, because it took a whole lot of work on iPhone, computer and in person at United baggage offices to get them back here, nudging them step by step to Dulles and then to Harrisburg.  When they failed to ever deliver them after promising three times to do just that, we drove to Harrisburg airport and retrieved them ourselves.

Now we're unpacked, still trying to get the last of the refunds (you could balance a hippo on your hands more easily), are doing the laundry, saw no one except strangers and United employees in various states of  mental duress, and don't have tans.

There's a lesson to be learned other than not departing on the day of an event.  Don't ever take another connecting flight!  Next time (and it will be a while), we drive to that great resort in Leesburg (or similar place near Baltimore or Philly), spend the night, and take a direct flight to wherever.

By the time you learn all your life lessons, though, you'll be too old to go anywhere anyhow.