Latitude and Longitude

google_house.jpgThe house we are renting on Blueberry Lane is located at 41°39’29.20″N latitude, 72°34’45.10″W longitude. If you are curious, you can see our house on Google Maps. When I was working at NASA-Jet Propulsion Labs, I hung out with a lot of mapping people, geographers and cartographers mostly, to whom Geography mattered. In this little note I’d like to explore that notion a bit.

latitude.jpgLatitude

When I was a kid I was never able to sort out which was which until one clever friend (let’s give him credit: Jim Conolly) suggested the mnemonic “latitude is flatitude”. So, the latitude lines run horizontally, east-west, and represent how close you are to the equator (at 0 degrees), or the poles (at 90 degrees) respectively. For sailors, this was alway the easy one to figure out when you were lost at sea, because the further north you were, the lower the noontime Sun sat over the horizon. At nighttime, you could “shoot the stars” with a sextant and measure how high Orion or Polaris or some other star rose in the sky. Our current latitude is 41°39’29.20″N, the N meaning North of the equator.

That’s pretty darn far north. It puts us almost halfway between the Tropic of Cancer (below which the noontime Sun will appear straight overhead) and the Arctic circle (above which the noontime sun may not even come above the horizon). I wasn’t quite sure how North that really was though, until I got out a map and checked to see where I would be at that latitude if I were over in California. It turns out that would be around Yreka, which is about seventy miles north of Redding (where my older brother Keith and his wife Cindy reside), and just 30 minutes away from the Oregon border.

What does all this mean in daily life? Mostly, its about daylight and how much of it you get. If you were down at the equator, for example, no matter what season, the sun is up for about 12 hours a day and usually goes somewhere straight overhead. At the poles, on the other hand, during the winter the sun doesn’t come up at all, while during the summer it may stay up 24/7, and simply circle around you, just above the horizon like an hour hand. In our case, deep in November, it means when I get up at 5:45am to make coffee, I am feeling my way through pitch black. The sun finally comes up around 7, but by 3pm it is already twilight. When we lived out in Los Angeles, Gigi and I would go for a walk every day, along the beach, in bright sunlight. Up here, we still go for walks through the trails in the backwoods and farmland, but broad sunlight? Not so much. I’m thinking of taking vitamin D supplements just to make up for what my skin would otherwise produce.

Longitudelongitude.jpg

Longitude is all about clock-time. While even the ancient Greeks knew how to determine latitude, the problem of reliably finding your longitude was not solved until recently, when really accurate clocks could be made. The real problem was, unlike latitude, one longitude line (meridian) was just like any other. There was nothing you could look at in the sky to tell you your longitude. So, they had to just arbitrarily pick one (which happened to pass through an observatory in Greenwich, England), and then measure all the other ones with respect to that one, which is called the Prime Meridan.

Not everybody agreed on where “Zero” longitude should be. The French, for example, did not think that Greenwich England was a suitable location, and so they (of course) chose a place near Paris for their “Zero.” This had some serious consequences back when they began building the “Chunnel” tunnel underneath the English Channel, linking England up to France. Each side began digging their end of the tunnel from their coastline towards the other, and had agreed beforehand where (in latitude/longitude) they would meet in the middle of the channel. A few years past, and as the two digging projects began to approach they realized that they were off by about 5 feet in the east-west direction. Apparently the French used the Paris-based longitude system, which they only now discovered did not agree with the British one. Fortunately, they were able to “jog” their tunnels a bit at the end so they joined up.

Our longitude is 72°34’45.10″W, the W meaning West of Greenwich. Our old house in Long Beach was at 118°W, three time zones away. This means that when I come downstairs and sit t my computer at 8am, it is still 5am in California. And that in turn means I have about two hours when I can work on my writing, noodle around on Yahoo or Google, and have breakfast before anyone even thinks about showing up at the L.A. Office. Typically, I start work at 10am EST (Eastern Time), and work until 6pm EST, which is around 3pm on the west coast. Of course, due to the effect of latitude, the sun has already been down for over an hour, and so I end my work day with pitch blackness outside my window. To get some walking done, Gigi and I usually try to get out around 3pm, which works out well for the L.A folks, because it is lunchtime there.

Latitude and Longitude. Just numbers. Numbers that pin your life down on the fragile surface of a blue marble spinning in an elliptical orbit at 18 miles a second around a small yellow star in the minor arm of a barred spiral galaxy that completes just one rotation every 250,000 years around a black hole with a mass of a hundred thousand suns, the whole nebulous pinwheel hurtling towards an unavoidable collision in two billion years with the Andromeda galaxy. Numbers that tell you when to get up in the morning, when you should go out for a walk with your wife through the backwoods, and how much snow will be on the ground when you look through the frosted windows of a New England house as you sip on spiced apple cider on Christmas morning.

The Greatest Gift

Here is a Riddle:

Question: What is the one thing that even the gods fear?
Answer: To be forgotten.


Journal Entry, Saturday November 8, 2008

Cloudy, 59 degrees, more rain expected later

12:45pm: Gigi and I were getting ready to go for a walk when I went out to the garage and noticed a mouse, clinging to the automatic garage door that rolls up into the top of the garage. At first I thought it was just climbing, but when I got closer saw that it was actually caught, its left arm crushed between the folding panels of the garage door. It must have gotten caught the night before, when we came back from dinner.

I was able to free the mouse from the door, but its arm was completely useless. It squeaked a couple of times when I lowered it to the ground and it tried to hobble off slowly towards some leaves, but I didn’t think that it would live long and it was obviously suffering. A rain-storm was coming this afternoon and I couldn’t bear the thought of it going through its last hours in the downpour.

I don’t know what to do.

Gigi and I talked about it. I couldn’t stand seeing it suffer, and thought about putting it out of its misery quickly, with a hoe or a shovel, but Gigi thought that would be cruel and suggested drowning it — which from what I’ve heard is an unpleasant way to die and seemed even more cruel. As I speak, we have put the mouse on a rag-blanket, in a small cardboard box, with some bits of cheese nearby for him to nibble on. But I am still at a loss. Are we doing the mouse any favors by giving it food, which could only serve to prolong its life and therefore its suffering? Which is the greater kindness?

No doubt if I were a farmer or a hunter I would have no qualms about dispatching the mouse and wouldn’t think twice about it again. Until today, the mouse and I had separate destinies, but now I have no choice but to think about what future the mouse will have. Either we

  1. somehow take it to a vet and then nurse it back to health, minus one arm, and keep it warm and safe and fed in a cage with water and cheese and peanut butter.
  2. take it out to the forest and set it free to find its own destiny — which we will then never know and always wonder about
  3. keep it comfortable for whatever time it has left, or
  4. kill it, mercifully

What would the mouse want?

3:00pm, same day: The mouse was still alive as of two hours ago. At that time I put the box with the mouse in it in the garage. I started the engine of our car, left the engine running, then closed the garage door. Carbon Monoxide is supposed to make you fall asleep, and then never wake up. A half hour later I came back out and turned off the engine, but left the door closed with all the exhaust in it. Will check on the mouse later.

4:06pm, same day: The mouse is still alive. When I opened the door and looked in the box, he stirred. Oh God, little mouse, why do you cling to your life so fiercely? Feeling remorse. He was already victimized once by the modern machinery of civilization, and now here I’ve gone and subjected him to toxic fumes, and yet he still lives. I was trying to be merciful, but was too stupid to have read about how modern automobiles, with their catalytic converters, produce almost no Carbon Monoxide anymore. So all I succeeded in doing was the make the air around him a bit more unpleasant. I let the air clear out, closed the garage door, and went back inside.

Tried without success to not think about him, the rest of the evening.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sunny, cool 52 degrees. Sunny all day.

Eating oatmeal for breakfast. Have not gone out yet to check on the little mouse. We have done our best to keep him comfortable. The rain fell hard last night and I consoled myself that at least he was in a warm dry place. I don’t want him to suffer. How is it possible that such a tiny little thing could bring my entire world to a standstill?

10:06am, same day: I went out to the garage after breakfast. The mouse must have passed away some time during the night. His eyes were closed and he appeared to be at peace. I said a few buddhist prayers for the repose of his life, wishing him all the best for the next, and thanking him for this lesson in life.

Strange all the things you think about. To get through life, it seems, you must be able to hold seemingly contradictory facts about the world in your heart as true, in spite of the contradiction. They always seem to come in pairs, one of which is

  1. Nobody should ever die alone, and
  2. In this world, we all die alone.

mouse_rock.jpg11:00am, same day: I took the mouse, still on his rag blanket in the box, down to the river in the forest next to the farm. I found a sunny spot near where the water cascades over the rocks. A peaceful place. I buried him near an oak tree by the cascade and put a rock marker on the grave. And so, life goes on. And Fall turns to Winter, which never fails to turn into Spring.

But this little mouse: he will be remembered.

Leaf Storm

ginkgo_picnic_table.jpgThe owners of our house had pointed out to us that the Ginkgo tree in the backyard will drop all its leaves in a single day, and to keep our eye out for the first sign of leaf-fall (and to have a video camera ready).

ginkgo_leaves.jpgLast Friday morning Gigi called me down to the sunroom, because the leaves were starting to fall. There had been a cold snap the night before (below freezing) and this morning the bi-lobed leaves of the Ginkgo tree were all curled up and drooping. Within minutes the leaves had started to fall, and just a few minutes later it turned into what could only be called a Leaf Storm.

sound_icon1.pngThe sound heard while standing under the tree was like a hard, driving rainstorm. The leaves are shaped very much like the tail of a bird, and with their stems attached they are very aerodynamic. Most of the leaves come straight down, fast, with the stems pointing down and the triangular leaf acting like a rudder that makes them twirl like a helicopter. On occasion, however, a leaf will turn horizontal and glide, sometimes tracing out long graceful arcs far away from the tree.

Two hours later, and well before noon, the leaves had all completely dropped, carpeting the ground and the picnic table that sat beneath it in a green and yellow layer of leaves several inches thick. The little youtube video below really fails to capture the intensity of the event, but it will have to do for now.

[youtube]j0kX1kQn0MQ[/youtube]

The Rake’s Progress

rake_autumn.jpgHere we are surrounded with color. The Sugar Maple leaves fill the spectrum between deep magenta, vermillion and dark orange, while the Beech are now lemon yellow. The Oak leaves are only now starting to turn dark red. For someone who did not grow up in this climate, it is surreal, but in a pleasant sort of way, to find 100 foot tall trees in day-glow pumpkin orange, sitting next to a tree the color of red vine liquorice. The colors are now so brilliant that even at night, when your color vision fades and you are driving through near total darkness, all it takes is a single street lamp to bring out the blood-red of a Maple tree.

The downside: the leaves fall, and you have to rake them.

Every single day.

Where the hell do they all come from? Gigi says they were all up in the trees, but I think they are like a fungus, coming out of the ground and spreading leaf spores over the asphalt.

front_driveway.jpgOur neighbors, Mary and Wes, loaned us a leaf-basket so that I could haul the leaves I had raked up from the front circular driveway to a mulch pile out back. “The Maples and Beech are the first to go,” Wes informed us, “then the Oak leaves drop later.” I was kind of hoping that this one weekend of raking would do the trick, but Wes in true laconic Yankee style just looked up at the trees in our front yard, still full of yellow and red foliage and announced in an accent just this side of Maine, “Be a while yet.”

True to form, the next morning I came out to inspect the front driveway. Just the night before I hauled five large baskets full of leaves out to mulch pile from there. Now I couldn’t see the asphalt for all the leaves that had fallen overnight.

An Afternoon Walk

rose_berry_farm_october.jpgNow that Gigi has gotten some climate-appropriate waterproof Gore-Text hiking boots, we’ve been trying to get out and walk around the roads and trails of the neighborhood in the afternoons. Our most recent trips have taken us around the Rose Berry farm adjacent to our backyard. The trails go quite a ways back, and pass through long rows of blueberry and raspberry bushes, pumpkin patches, various kinds of squash and corn, as well as pear and apple orchards. The corn field has already been carved up into a corn-maze, and one of the soon-to-be-seasonal Christmas Trees is decorated in pumpkin and skull ornaments.

witch_pig.jpgAlmost all of the blueberries of the summer are gone, and the bushes now serve as backdrops for an odd assortment of scarecrow witches and ghouls and such-like in preparation for Halloween events on the farm. Not entirely sure why this disturbingly pink witch has a piglet holstered to her side, as I was not aware they could be brandished like a weapon. At any rate, the pig seems to be more or less content with its situation.

chestnuts.jpgWe have at last confirmed that the “tribble” like balls we’ve seen squirrels running around with are in fact chestnuts. As we were walking along Matson Hill Road in front of the farm we spotted a few trees surrounded by the little hedgehog-like objects, some of which were still attached to the tree. They had already ripened, if that is the appropriate term, and the nut had fallen out. A neighbor drove past in her car and, noticing that we were inspecting the things, pulled over to the side and stopped to chat. She positively identified them as chestnuts, and said that you can pick and roast them (presumably on an open fire) until the shells pop. I’ve heard reports from my Mom that she was unimpressed by their flavor when roasted. We might try deep frying them instead. Can’t hurt…

Trees

Sugar MapleAbout a month ago I dropped in to the Glastonbury town hall to register to vote, and while there picked up a little booklet that was a self-guided walking tour of the the trees in the historic district of the town. Gigi and I took advantage of good weather on a recent Sunday to do a part of the walk that goes around the Hubbard Green, including an old cemetery that predates the Revolutionary War.

As our guide book indicated, there are indeed many trees around the area of various stripes, including the Sugar Maple (pictured at left), Eastern Redbud, Norway Spruce and Maple, White Fir, Pin Oak, and the Thornless Honeylocust, which is a very pretty tree that turns bright yellow in early autumn.

memorial.jpgWe also took a side trip to the old Green Cemetery along the way, and inspected the grave markers and memorials. This one in particular (at right) was interesting. Erected in 1777, it memorializes one fellow, a Thomas Kimberly who was at the powder mill here when it “took fire and blew up”.

Armed with this new body of knowledge, our hope is to go back to our house and try to identify the various trees and shrubs around the yard. Other than the maples, the only other tree I had positively identified was the Ginkgo Biloba tree.

The Squirrels Join In the Cause
Just yesterday I was working at my desk when I spotted one of the squirrels out back, carrying in its mouth a large round object, larger than its head. I was sure it had just stolen one of our tomatoes, and so got up to follow its progress across the yard. It seemed to be in a great hurry, and must have known somehow that it had struck pay-dirt and was now making its getaway. When I went into the sunroom, Gigi (who has claimed the room as her office) noted that she saw the squirrel taking off like a bat out of hell (or at least a squirrel out of hell) and that it went around to the side of the house. We finally spotted it off by the well-pump and saw that in fact it did not have a tomato, but a large spiny ball about two inches in diameter. There was a hole in one side, and half the squirrel’s head was buried in that hole, furiously gnawing away on something.

chestnut.jpgOur best guess is that this spiny “tribble” like object is a chestnut. The last time we saw things that looked like this was during our hiking trip through Spain, where these things were ubiquitous in the forests of the foothills of Garrotxa; our friends Steve and Esther were quick to identify them as European chestnuts. After walking around the backyard for a while this morning I was able to capture one of these tribbles intact and get a picture of it. From my tree-spotting guides online, the best guess I have so far is that this is from a Chinese Chestnut tree. There are still some American Chestnuts around, but they are mostly seedlings, that only live long enough to produce fruit before they die from its eponymous blight.

The Peabody Museum at Yale

We went down to New Haven a few weekends ago to explore a bit of Yale University, and to check out the train schedules into New York. As an incidental bonus, we also caught sight of the Amtrak “56 Vermonter” train, which is the very train on which the opening scenes of my novel “The Pythagorean Concerto” takes place.

While we were on campus, we visited the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural Sciences. The museum was founded in 1866 by George Peabody, the philantropist uncle of O.C. Marsh, the great paleontologist. Marsh used the museum to house the fossil dinosaur bones he discovered on his excavations in the Western United States in the 1870’s, and from which he mounted his scientific and personal battle with his long-time rival, fellow paleontology Edward Drinker Cope. Their already poor relationship went on a sharp downturn after Cope published a description of Elasmosaurus (a giant aquatic dinosaur) — and Marsh pointed out that Cope had placed the skull on the wrong end of the skeleton. Oops.

red_cloud3.jpgIt was on one of his later “Yale College Scientific Expeditions” that Marsh befriended the great chief Red Cloud, head of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. Red Cloud had earlier been at war with the U.S Army and had signed a treaty with the U.S in 1868, but his tribe had the misfortune of residing in gold-rich land, resulting in their forced relocation to the Badlands. Red Cloud only allowed Marsh onto their reservation, in exchange for his promise to communicate the rampant corruption and food problems back to U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. The chief was pleasantly surprised when Marsh kept his word to Red Cloud, and they remained friends thereafter.

These facts tie in tangentially to my novel. One of the characters, Lilith Cohen-Ptesanwi, is a Jewish-Lakota paleontologist at Hammersmith university, who spent much of her youth out on the Lakota reservations and at many of the digs, and who continues to go out to the Dakotas, Wyoming and Utah each year. This plays a role in a later part of the story.

torosaurus.jpgWe were greeted out front of the museum by a lifesize statue of a Torosaurus, which looks very much like a Triceratops. Inside on the ground floor was a good sampling of the original Marsh collection, including his famous almost-complete Apatosaurus (aka “brontosaurus”). There were also some temporary exhibits, including one called “The Tree of Life”, which was an heroic attempt to explain the current evolutionary theory of life in a way that would appeal to the common sense of evolution-doubters. I’m not sure how well they succeeded in this effort. Some concepts are intrinsically difficult, and require an investment of mental energy that, quite frankly, many people do not (or cannot) bring to the discussion. For those people to whom complex, nuanced chains of thought are simply too much trouble, “God did it” makes a much more satisfying story, and there’s not much you can say in answer to that. You might as well be speaking Swahili.

In the “Tree of Life” exhibit, there was a display of live Elephant Shrews, muddling about with their long noses. Contrary to the impression given by this little video, an elephant shrew cannot be identified by its signature call “Momeee! Wook at dat!”
[youtube]4CQKlkEYRfk[/youtube]

After wandering around the first floor for a bit we decided to take a free guided tour by one of the volunteer docents at the museum, a very interesting fellow named Gene Scalise. Gene is a semi-retired finance attorney, who amuses himself by taking on jobs such as grocery clerk, just to find out what that life must be like. We spent almost as much time after the tour just talking the fellow, as we did on the tour itself. He has met a lot of interesting people in his adventures, and is hoping to write a book about it.

Astonished

Gone are the seventy one boxes
of books that filled up half of
the storage Pod, her historical
biographies, my old textbooks on
Pseudodifferential operators and microphysics,
all the Pogo books

Gone are the arcane kitchen utensils,
the high-carbon cleaver I’ve
had since ’78, the
apple corers and lime squeezers I’d
used to make Cosmos on Thursdays
sipped on the balcony watching the container
ships come in from Shanhai

Gone are the strings of Christmas lights in the shapes
of pigs, and all the other pig items
people gave Gigi because they thought
she liked pigs because of all the pigs
she had

Gone are the mattresses, tables, flashlights,
food processors, crescent wrenches,
clothes, framed pictures of grandmothers,
turkey smokers, halogen reading
lamps, geometric models of archimedean
solids that used to hang from
the ceiling of my office

Gone and Gone are all the
things that kept the wood-floored
rooms of this apartment from
the echoes of footsteps

Now there is only me, and Gigi,
a couple of rosemary plants
whose branches have seen so
many roasted chickens, a philodendron,
and a bonsai juniper tree that
mom just sent, with instructions that
it needed daily watering

Now in this house
there is only air, a solid
floor on which to walk, and
we the living, we the mortal
transient things to whom existence
is a fragile thing, and not a
permanent state of being.

And Now, Only Now, is it so
clear: These things, these
foolish solid things, are of no weight.
We the living, and those that
we love in this one, wild life,
are all that have ever mattered,
and all that ever will.

–Niles Ritter (With eternal thanks to Cathy & her Writing Class)
July 2, 2008

Mark Twain House

“Travel is fatal to prejudice” –Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

twain_house.jpgTwo week ago on Labor Day we took advantage of the sunny weather and went on our first literary pilgrimage, this time up to Hartford to see the Mark Twain House. This was the house where Samuel L. Clemens and his family lived during eighteen of the most productive years in his career, and where under the pen name of “Mark Twain” he wrote Huck Finn, Connecticut Yankee, and almost all of his other famous works.

The House
fachwerk.jpgThe house, which both Twain and his family loved and to which Twain felt a spiritual kinship, has been described as Gothic Revival, but also has some stick work features on its otherwise brick exterior that some say was influenced by the “Victorian Stick Style”, but which make me think more of the criss-cross “Fachwerk” wood patterns on traditional German / Bavarian houses. In any case, the recently restored house was beautiful, and had many touches (including glass and interior work by Tiffany himself) that anticipated the “Arts and Crafts” movement that produced many of the most appealing houses that I have ever entered.

The house was a gift from Twain’s father in law, who was a wealthy and successful businessman. The same could not be said for Twain himself: few of his business ventures ever paid off. After a particularly poor investment rendered them unable to afford the upkeep on their beloved house they were forced to move to Europe, where they lived for a number of years, and where Mark Twain embarked on a worldwide tour, in hopes of earning enough money to return to the states and the house.

“My axiom is: to succeed in business, avoid my example”
— Mark Twain

Writing Room
Twain wrote late at night in the top floor of the house, which was a low-ceiling room in which there was a pool table and his desk, and where, our tour guide claimed, he would entertain male visitors with cigars and liquor. To highlight this, both the ceiling and the south-facing windows were decorated with pool cues and cigars. The windows were notable for being very thin translucent sheets of rock, etched by the architect with a coat-of-arms of billiard ball-and-cue, as well as the date of construction. Other than the occasional guests, the writing room was off limits to all but the cleaning staff. (Alas, I was not able to get a photo of the translucent windows, as all interior photography was forbidden — but you can see a grainy video capture of the room here).

Technology
twain_tesla.jpgMark Twain was always fascinated by science and technology (the picture here taken in 1894 in Nicola Tesla’s laboratory), and the house, though constructed in the 1880’s, already had some very advanced gadgets, such as an acoustic intercom (based I believe on the same principle as the tin-can-and-string phone), as well as a bleeding-edge device known as a telephone. The telephone had of course no end of technical problems, and our tour guide produced some interesting sheets of notation that Twain had used each month to complain to the Bell telephone company. One squiggle mark, for example, apparently indicated “the sound of artillery was heard on the line”, while another mark meant that “no combination of switches on the phone would connect us to anybody.”

The Book Store
The museum book store was filled with books by and about Mark Twain. It is perhaps a testimonial to the interest and popularity of Twain that not only were there dozens of books in the store about Mark Twain, there was even one novel-length book whose title and subject was “How to Write About Mark Twain.” I wondered at the time how that author knew how to go about writing that book, and whether he expected to write yet another book on that topic (and so on…).

How To Tell a Story
I was sufficiently intimidated by the sheer volume of writings by and about Twain that I may well be permanently incapable of bringing myself to the level of arrogance of ego to think I could add anything new to the discussion. If you read more and beyond just the Disney versions of Huck, you begin to see the dark shadows on the edge of the primary colors, and the satirical rage at the follies of the foolish animal called man.

“The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. It is a pathetic thing to see[…] To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct.” –Mark Twain, “How to Tell a Story”

uppercase.jpgUppercase and Lowercase
In the museum adjacent to the house was displayed the Pierce automatic typesetting machine which was Twain’s financial downfall. Besides being a riverboat captain on the Mississippi, a prospector in the motherlode country, and an editor, Twain had also been a type-setter. The Pierce machine failed because they were never able to get all the bugs out of it. For comparison there was also on display an old-fashioned typesetting machine, with its trays of letters used to put together a page of a newspaper. As an interesting bit of trivia, the big letters were kept in the upper tray (case), while all the little letters were in the lower case. And hence, so the theory goes, the origin of “uppercase” and “lowercase” letters.

Cats
One surprising feature, ubiquitous in the bookstore, were paintings and pictures of cats. Mark Twain loved cats, which distinguishes him from another of Connecticut’s resident authors, James Thurber. Thurber was a dog man to the core, and had been known to refer to someone in print as “a notorious cat man”. Thurber did not live in Connecticut until long after Twain had died, however, and even then lived nowhere near Hartford, but up in West Cornwall.

But that is another story, and a literary pilgrimage for another day…

“Always obey your parents when they are present.”
— Mark Twain, “Advice to Youth”

The Day After the Storm

conn_river_afterstorm.jpgThe day after the thunder-laden steambath called Hurricane Hanna passed through, we went out to survey the aftermath. The air was cool and crisp, with an almost cerulean sky. We drove through the hills around town, entertaining one of Gigi’s favorite pasttimes which was to check out the local housing market. We later went down to the river at the Rocky Hill ferry landing, where there was a little park and nature trail that skirted the river. The river was still light brown, muddied from the churn of the storm yesterday, but overall it was still a good postcard view.

tobacco_barn_2.jpgJust down from the ferry were a couple of picturesque red barns. We had seen them before, and they had an unusual set of openings that Gigi realized were for drying tobacco — still a cash crop in these parts, though much less so now since the housing boom caused so many farms of all types to sell their land to developers.

tobacco_barn.jpgThe loss of farmland to subdivisions is one of the big issues in this area, with the usual battle lines drawn, and strong feelings on many sides. The local farmstands sell a DVD documentary of Connecticut agriculture called “Working the Land” (narrated by Connecticut’s own Sam Waterston) whose proceeds go to the preservation of local farms, as intact operations. There are also several farmland festivals held in the area each year that promote the cause.

The Wheelbarrow

I’ve been asked about the wheelbarrow in which we put the weeds in a previous post. It came with the house, is painted red, and appears to be of recent vintage. The weeds are what give it that rustic look. I had forgotten to remark then that the wheelbarrow reminded me of piece written by one of Enrico’s favorite poets, William Carlos Williams:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

As we speak, our wheelbarrow is now empty of weeds and glazed with rain water from the tropical remains of Hurricane Hanna. No white chickens on the grass, alas. The nearest white chicken is a block and a half down from our house, and if outside is itself most likely glazed with rain.

But I doubt that anywhere near so much depends upon it.

Weeds, and The Squirrels at High Noon

Thurber once wrote about an odd fellow with some annoying habits, who used to haunt the halls of his literary cocktail parties . One of his more annoying habits was to pick up some common-place object, such as a light bulb, and present it to the group with dramatic flourish, announcing that he had just invented this thing called a “light bulb”. He would pronounce those two words slowly, as if no one had ever heard of them before. After having the audience repeat the words “light bulb” in unison several times he would continue on to demonstrate — see? — how you could screw the thing into another device he invented called a “light socket”, and when you throw a switch, the room is filled with light. “Just a little something I’ve been playing around with,” the fellow would claim, “I think it might sell. What do you think?”.

I sometimes wonder if these online notes from my Connecticut Journal are cut from a similar cloth. “Look,” I will say, “I have discovered these things I call trees. And over here is a long-eared thing I call a rabbit.” Readers who hail from a less urban landscape than is seen in Southern California might roll their eyes at each other, amused at the stop-the-presses discoveries of this brave pioneer into the demi-wilds of semi-suburban New England. Whether or not this is the case, the fact remains that it is all new to me.

It is in that spirit that I report to you now about some things called weeds.

weeds.jpg Apparently, if you surround a house in the woods with a flower bed, plant flowers in that flower bed, and then let a summer’s worth of rainstorms come and go, all sorts of other plants begin to appear that you had not planted, which they call weeds. The owners of the house were going to be coming by this weekend to pick up their mail, and so we took it upon ourselves to go out and try to clear out some of the weeds before they arrived. After three hours digging around on a warm and muggy afternoon we were able to make some progress. We were drenched in sweat and filled an entire wheel barrow with weeds We had to stop though when it got to the point that we could no longer tell what was a weed and what was a flower.

Gigi called a gardener who came out and weeded the place yesterday. By the end of the day the house was bordered by what looked like a garden, with identifiable plants each in their own spot, the rest of the ground nearby clean and bare. When he had finished, Paul the Gardener showed me around, describing what he had cleared away, and pointed to some little plants he uncovered which turned out to be strawberry. He said he had to stop because he got to the point where he couldn’t tell what was a weed and what wasn’t. Guess it happens to everybody.

“Don’t know if you want to mulch or not,” he said. “Not much time left before winter comes.” I nodded my head as if I had some clue what mulching was and how one did it, leaving aside for the moment the issue of how one would know whether one wanted to do it or not before the winter came.

It seems like I often find myself in the situation of nodding my head in response to someone speaking about some facet of life about which I am completely ignorant but which they assume as a matter of course that I am intimately familiar. At long last I have come to terms with this by concluding that, early in my grade school years, there was some absolutely essential class, possibly called “How The World Works,” in which the teacher sat all the kids down and explained everything they were going to need to know to get through life in an ordered, systematic way, find a purpose in life, avoid catastrophic relationships, and in the end how to be happy — but that I was out sick that week and missed the class.

Squirrels
I was not aware of the ferocity of the turf wars that went on between squirrels. Gigi had noted that there were a lot of squirrels running around lately, which reminded me that while she was out in Texas I was witness one day to a small event of high drama in our backyard. There were two squirrels chasing each other around with a bit more energy than I was used to associating with squirrels. It seemed to be some sort of land dispute, centered on the picnic table under one of the larger trees. One of the squirrels was sitting in the middle of the bench seat of the table, staring down another squirrel which was clinging to the tree. If the bench squirrel had been a lizard he would have been doing push-ups (the way lizards do), but as it was he was just staring at the other one. I assume that they were both males; it didn’t seem like a mating dance at any rate.

At some point the squirrel on the tree decided to throw down the gauntlet, and ran over to the picnic table to challenge his foe. But before he got up onto the bench the other squirrel had already leapt off of the bench and laid claim to the spot on the tree where the other one had just been. And so this dance went for a while, to the point that it was not clear who was chasing whom. At long last one of squirrels decided (by whatever mental capacity squirrel brains have to make choices) to hold their ground on the picnic table bench, so that when the other one ran over and hopped up onto the bench, the two squirrels were now face to face, waiting to see who would blink first. If you wanted to add some additional drama to the event, I seem to recall that this was around lunchtime, and so it could very well have been High Noon. Neither squirrel looked much like Ian Macdonald, but one of them had a bit of Gary Cooper’s squint (or was that Clint Eastwood?). They stared at each other for a long time.

In any case, it was a bit of an anti-climax, but I had to go back to work and never found out how the crisis was resolved. It has been a couple of weeks now and I have not seen a similar battle flare up since then. All I can assume is that the squirrels realized that they were not going to be able to settle this amicably, and so they sought out a third party for binding arbitration.

How To Be A Morning Person

If there were any place on the planet that would make a “Morning Person” out of me, it would be here. (Note the telltale subjunctives in that last sentence for future reference). There are chirping birds of all stripes and colors, there are brooks babbling, and the backyard is a verdant forest painted in shades of green that even a color blind person such as myself can see. — Which is a good thing, because this is the only time during the working day when I can get any writing done. Later on the Day Job takes over, and given my obsessive compulsive nature, that activity won’t stop until I am exhausted. And so, for two hours in the morning I sit here at my desk, write in my journal, stare out at the starlings or piping plovers (or whatever those little birds are out there at the moment) get inspired, try to write my 1500 words a day, and then move on to earn the rent money for this house. Morning is therefore the perfect and only time in which I can get anything creative done.

In spite of all this, I am not a morning person. There, I’ve said it.

Not that I have anything against Morning People. In fact, I admire them, aspire to be one of them, and hell, I even married one of them. It did not take me long to realize that Gigi, like many Morning People, has a spring-loaded waking system, in which one minute they are sound asleep, and the next moment they have sprung out of bed as if it was a toaster, now humming and flitting about the house like a song bird, and then on occasion passing by the bed to poke at my inanimate form to see if I am still breathing. I too have a spring-loaded sleep mechanism, but it appears that it only manifests itself on the entry portal to sleep, and not the exit. I can fall asleep moments after my head has hit the pillow, and this after drinking coffee or espresso, even late at night.

But I am slow to wake, and I have found that any attempt to accelerate the process to be painful at best. If for Morning People, waking up is like popping out of a toaster, then for me, the best metaphor I have found is that of swimming through an ocean of cold molasses, far out to sea, the distant shore of the Bright Eyed And Bushy Tailed just past any reachable horizon. Even when with great effort I reach dry land, some vestigial molasses still remains in my ears and brain, gumming up the entire works.

Morning People do not appear to have much sympathy for, or even understanding of the nature of the Slow Riser, to the point of considering their behavior a sign of character flaw. This is much in the same way that extraverts try to claim the high ground over the shy intraverts, and the way in which Men and Women fail to see the other’s perspective at all. This morning, when in a state of particular befuddlement — the Cobwebs in the Brain level — I ran a search on How To Become A Morning Person, and found many articles on the subject. Almost every single one of them written by a notorious morning person type, making the presumptuous assumption that of course everybody wants to be one of them, an affliction not limited solely to Americans and The Beautiful People tribes. The articles all had similar suggestions, such as “stop staying up so late”, and “try to get up the same time each day”, and “find something you like to do in the morning to motivate you to get up.” I have problems with almost all of these suggestions, which would have been obvious to anyone who was not already one of The Chosen.

Let’s take the last suggestion as an illustrative example. Only a morning person finds it self-evident that there could be something, anything, pleasant to do in the morning. Very high on my list of things I Like To Do is to eat Hot Fudge Cake with ice cream on the side. However, if it is early in the morning (which by my definition is any time before noon), my taste buds do not work, my brain feels like it is filled with cotton candy, and I find myself looking out through bleary eyes at the muddled blur of an outside world of which I am only half aware. In that physical and mental state, eating Hot Fudge Cake with ice cream on the side is a complete waste of time and energy, and even a little bit depressing, because I know full well that this is perfectly good Hot Fudge Cake and that it would taste great at about, say, ten pm in the evening with a nice cup of espresso, so why the hell am I eating now when it serves no purpose at all? For a non Morning Person such as me, there is only one pleasant thing to be doing at this hour of the morning, and that is to be back in bed, eyes closed, allowing the dreams of the night gradually fade, and hover in that pleasant semi-conscious state for a few more hours, cocooned in blankets, until the dawning awareness of the outside world begins to creep into view, and (two cups of coffee later), a feeling of being almost awake has appeared, which only becomes fully formed by around lunch time.

I think what most Morning People have not grasped is the possibility that the reason there is a genetic basis for the Slow Riser is that the species has found an evolutionary advantage to keeping on hand a certain percentage of the species with this predilection for slow rising. The morning people must have been the ones to go out and catch the fish, kill the sabre tooth tigers and march on Troy. Those are the CEO’s and the Presidents, the ones that often Do Great Things, and often cause the most trouble. The slow risers tend to be a reflective lot, and indeed many if not most scientist and philosphers get their best ideas in the hypnogogic state, the dreamlike state when ideas can most easily float free. These are your Socrates and Einsteins, the Thinkers who sometimes keep the Do-ers from getting in too much trouble. I believe that they have their uses. It is just that (like the intraverts) they usually don’t win the popularity contests.

I also have an almost scientific hypothesis about the Slow Riser / Morning Person dichotomy, and its genetic basis. In my statistically dubious sampling, I have found that the people I know who are Slow Risers, are also people who thrive in warm weather, and even stay bundled up until the thermometer goes above eighty degrees Fahrenheit. The other crowd, who can sometimes be seen wearing shorts during the winter, seem to process and retain body temperature in a different way from the others. These people I have often found are early risers. So the whole thing may boil down to energy, and how we retain or radiate away heat. If this hypothesis is true, it is easily testable with a set of experiments and interviews.

Hell, if I got up early enough I could write a research proposal for an NSF grant and do the study myself. But for the moment, it’s just started to rain and all I really want to do is to just crawl back in bed and listen to the staccato tapping of raindrops on the window.

Country Mouse

Noticed a mouse puttering about the kitchen the other evening. It was a little guy, definitely not a rat. At least it didn’t look ratty. If you can believe wikipedia, the word mouse comes from an old Sanskrit word meaning to steal, and that the word muscle derives from mouse in that muscle cells look a bit like mice. This mouse seemed to be unaware of any of these facts. It just puttered around the kitchen for a bit, did not steal anything and then was gone. There is a cat-door that leads down to the basement, but no cat — the only thing that I have had to feed in the house is a Jade plant (a gallon of water once a month). I assume that the cat, like its owners, is on sabbatical, leading one to recall the old couplet that goes:

when the cat’s away, on sabbatical,
the mouse will play, indefatigable.

Unbear-able

bears_prev.pngI am relatively happy to report that while the ten o’clock rabbit still makes its occasional appearance, there is no eleven o’clock bear. This report is for the benefit of those who may have read the news in the local papers about bear sightings in and around Connecticut. I too have read the reports and so decided to conduct a little investigation of my own.

The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection maintains a webpage on Black Bear Sightings in the state, including a table of statistics, broken down by town. As a newcomer to the state I had of course no idea where Wafflebury or East Noodleham was, and so was hoping that they also had a map. No dice. The table was also unhelpful in being sorted by name rather than number of bears spotted, so I fired up my spreadsheet program, google maps, and an image editor and produced the much more visually informative map seen here. I sorted out the table by decreasing numbers of bears, and then plotted them out on the map, with bigger circles for the larger number of bear sightings.

There are a number of take-aways from this map. The first is, that life in and around Simsbury must be very exciting (235 bear sightings last year). The second thing to notice is, none of the sightings substantial enough to plot on the map occur east of the Connecticut River. Now bears can of course swim, but they seem to have a preference for rivers shallow enough for them to be able to stand around and swat out salmon with their paws, and are otherwise land dwelling creatures. This means that all those bears who are currently raiding the bird feeders in Simsbury have only two or three options if they decide that they’d like to check out the honey farms here in South Glastonbury.

  1. One option is to get on Interstate 91 south through Hartford then cut across to the 84 East that crosses the river at the Bulkeley Bridge
  2. The other option is amble their way down to Rocky Hill and take the little ferry boat.

Now black bears, though blessed with excellent navigation skills, are notoriously bad drivers, and very few have the three dollar fare to pay for the ferry ride at Rocky Hill. So, what I get from all this is that until the economy improves, we are relatively safe here in South Glastonbury from the North American Black bear.

If the rabbit decides to go carnivore on us, however, we are in deep trouble.

Raptors Revisited

Heard from Gigi (out doing research in Texas) that my entry on Erik the Falconer got Rob and Jackson’s attention. They had read the “My Side of the Mountain” books about the boy who went off to live in the woods on his own, and who had a peregrine falcon named Frightful. I never read the book(s), but I did see the movie when I was eleven and it left a lasting impression on me. In the movie version at least, the boy was a big fan of Thoreau’s, had a racoon named Gus, and brought a microscope in his backpack so he could do experiments while living for a year in a forest, in the hollow of an old tree. Gigi tells me that the author of those books had worried about publishing them, in fear that boys would get the idea in their head to run away and try to live in the woods like the boy in the book. The thought certainly occurred to me, back then.

I never had a falcon, but back when we were living in the Warm Springs district of Fremont our family had a hawk. It wasn’t so much that we adopted a hawk, but that the hawk adopted us. We had just moved out to California and were renting a house near the General Motors plant where my step dad Jim had gotten a job. In those days the whole area around the GM plant was agricultural, and the house itself was a bit isolated, surrounded by fields of tall grass. The hawk, which we later named Henry, landed on our backyard fence one day, and seemed to trust us well enough to let us get near and feed it a piece of raw meat. At some point Henry moved on, but you never really forget your first raptor. They mean business.

Journal

journal.jpgOn the day that we arrived on Blueberry Lane, I started a journal. A real, hardbound leather clad journal, in which I make entries for each day, including weather for the day, a few notes on the events of the previous day, wildlife, etc. My working plan is to try to write for two hours each morning. On some days I have better success with this plan than other days, when the mood or weather or my day job introduce other distractions. In any case, three items in the morning ritual that are inviolate are:

  • Drink coffee
  • Refill fountain pen
  • Write in journal

For the most part, these blog entries are excerpts from the Journal, augmented with sound and pictures. In case you are wondering, almost every entry the last two weeks has begun the same way, which is to say: “August NN, 2008. Sunny in the morning, turning to thunderstorms later”.

The entry today begins in precisely that same way.

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