Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hummingbird Moths

There are Hummingbirds where we live, and earlier this month my wife and I thought we saw one in the roses. It had the long beak, the whirring wings, but was really close to us, and lingered more than any Hummingbird I'd ever seen. We had time to really look at it, and it was not a bird at all, but a moth. About a week later, we saw another one in a different bed of flowers. In the meantime, I looked it up. There are at least 3 varieties of hummingbird moths, but in the wild when they are feeding, except for the antennas, they look and act just like them. Look them up. Interesting creature.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ceiling fan robins

This spring was cold and wet, and windy. And in early May when we looked on our porch in the mornings we saw long strands of weeds both on the deck and hanging from the ceiling fan. A robin was trying to make a nest. Its problem was that the wind would blow the fan and then the grass would blow away. The bird would just start again.
We wondered if having a nest in our fan was a good idea; even the building of it was so messy. That lead to visions of a nest with chicks, parents keeping them warm, and the many feeding trips they'd make until the chicks became fledglings. How much guano would we have to clean, and what would the fan look like when the birds were gone? After all, all we had to do was turn on the fan, and all their work would be scattered.
But one day there was an almost complete nest, and we decided to just see what would happen. A nest on a ceiling fan keeps everything dry, but strong winds from the right direction would make it rotate, so maybe it'd just blow off. Let nature take its course, we thought.

Soon, we surmised, there were eggs, and one of the robins was always on the nest. When we came out the back door, the one on the nest would fly off in a rush. We tried to be careful about coming and going, and the bad weather helped--there were few days of weather that invited us to use the porch, and when the weather stormed, the birds were more likely to tolerate us walking by. Apparently, they disliked the rain more than they feared us..

By chance, I heard on a call in show that from hatching to fledgling is only about 2 weeks for robins, and the caller was right. At first, when a bird came with some morsel for a chick, we could barely see the 3 wide open beaks above the rim of the nest, but think about how fast they'd need to grow. A lot of work for the parents. Early on, a parent would come back with, say, a huge worm, and just stuff it down the throat of a chick who seemed smaller than the meal. They had to grow from thumb size to fist sized in 2 weeks? Wow.

Our worry about mess was way over blown. When a parent left after a feeding, it would police the nest, and fly away with with what ever guano had accumulated. The chicks did seem to grow as we watched; the caller was right. One morning, there was only one bird left, and we hadn't seen the others leave.

And, it seems, once the first 2 had left, the parents did not come back to the nest, though it is likely that they stayed around the yard, watching over their brood, but one robin looks very much like another. So if, next spring, a robin makes a nest in what looks like an inconvenient spot, just enjoy the experience.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

No pain no gain?

I wrote earlier about my arthritis and my failed attempt at an MRI. Since that time, I have gone through a bout of physical therapy and been pretty regular about going to the gym, and my shoulder is getting better and better. Last summer, I went with my son and his family to a circus, and between acts, clowns would come out and work the crowd. One of their techniques was to shoot those long thin balloons into the crowd, and they shot one near me, and I reached out instinctively with my left arm to grab one, and man it hurt.
Most of what I learned to do do in the formal PT sessions was stretching, not heavy weight lifting. The therapist would have me pull against light resistance elastic bands, or rotate my shoulders with very light weights, and I thought it wouldn't work. No pain no gain, and I felt no pain. But in the 2 weeks I had formal training, I got more and more movement from my shoulder. As best I could, I replicated at the gym what I did in PT, and things got better. Because I duplicate with my right side what I do with my left, (as per instructions from the therapist) my right shoulder is much better too. I hadn't been able to throw over hand for a couple of years. Anyone for a game of catch?
I'll bet now if I were at a circus and a balloon came whizzing by, I'd reach out thoughtlessly with no regrets at all.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Inside Knowlege

I had one of those odd experiences with recorded messages about a week ago. I got call from Visa fraud detection department, and as soon as I heard that, I took out my wallet and dumped it on the hassock in front of me. My Visa card was not there. The woman with the cheerful Indian lilt on the other end of the line was detailing some charges made the day before in a place about 20 miles west of where I live, and of course, wanted to know it I or my wife had made them. We hadn't, and she needed to talk to my wife too, then me again as primary card holder, and then I had to listen to a recorded message and agree that I understood that I was getting a new card, that I would destroy my old one (which my wife as doing as I listened). After I agreed to all of this, I closed the phone.
My wife and I talked for a while, and decided that I had likely separated myself from my Visa card the day before at Sam's Club, when I fumbled around exchanging it for my Discover card. Then my phone gave its voice mail chirp, and I had another message from Visa again, and I deleted it without listening, assuming the last call had finished my business.
The next morning just after 8 am, I got another call from Visa, and this recorded voice told me that there had been a request made to issue another card for me, and that the contract I had with Visa required me to affirm that I wanted a new card. I was to choose between 1 or 2, but the question the voiced asked, as far as I could tell, was whether I wanted to maintain this service. I couldn't tell whether pushing one would issue me a new card or not. Ditto for number two. The voice calmly repeated itself, and after a while suggested that I call the 800 number on my card. But of course, the card was in shreds.
I called back the number on the phone and was asked, by another recorded voice, to enter the last 4 digits of my Visa number, the shredded one. I closed the phone in frustration, but then tried again, this time entering random numbers, until I was again hearing the cheerful lilt of an Indian woman, eager to help me. Every thing now is apparently fine. We got new cards, a statement came and there are no fraudulent charges on it. But I could not get clarification of why the call I got about whether I wanted to get new cards was so indirect.
This same sort of thing has happened to me before--the institution I am dealing with assumes I have some sort of inside knowledge. Years ago registering for a conference for work, the non recorded voice on the other end asked me what hotel I was booking, and I said the name. And she asked the same question again, and this went on for 30 seconds. She wanted the name of the city the hotel was in, it turned out, and she had no answer when I asked her why then didn't she just ask for the name of the city. At work one time, responding to a memo about getting a work study student, I got a call from a clerk asking me whether I was requesting a federal or state worker. When I said "How do I know. That's not my job" she got upset. Much later when I decided to have my hair cut radically short, the young lady asked me what number of clipper insert did I want. I asked, how would I know what any number meant, if 1 was the shortest or the longest, and she'd never been asked that before.
So, is this problem universal? Have others had similar experiences,or am I alone?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Half Pint

Half Pint

Maybe because she was nearest my age, for some years growing up, Karen and I were pretty tight. When we lived in the neighborhood of the house that burned down I remember playing a wedding game based on the wedding of aunt Sally to Duncan. We called it Sally and Duncan. She and I would walk slowly side by side while we sang

Here comes the bride

Fair fat and wide.
Where is the groom?
In a saloon on forty second street.

as loud as we could. Sometimes others joined as a singer or a bride, and we all thought it was funny every time.

Craft projects were Karen's main activity, even when she was really young. I can still see her bending over her work, her tongue out a bit, her page boy haircut flopping down almost touching her work. She always had the craftsman's interest in fit and finish.

Mopsy was a feature in the Chicago Daily News, and on Saturdays, included paper dolls. Karen would not only cut out the clothes, she would get a shirt cardboard from dad's drawer and cut around the Mopsy model making it a properly stiff paper doll.

I think she saved them for a while. The house we lived in had a picture window that faced the south, looking over a field that was slowly growing into a kind of forest. I can still see her and Lois playing with paper dolls in the heat and warmth that streamed in from that window on a cold winter's day.

Later, she was the seamstress of the family. There were fewer ready made pants sold in those days. Dress pants came with legs that were not finished. I wasn't more than about 14 when I began to buy most of my own clothes, and I would almost almost always buy a new outfit for church at Easter time. I would stand on a chair, and Karen with pins in her mouth, would mark and pin were the cuff would be. The pants would come back to me perfect.

Our first family vacation was in, I think, 1947,seven of us in an old prewar Plymouth (which was not as nice looking as the picture,

but we traveled all those hours, 7 in the car, six of us and Dad). We ended up near Hayward, Wisconsin on Blueberry Lake, but Karen did not come all the way with us. We had stopped off in Rockford, where Dad had relatives or old friends, and somehow, Karen stayed there and one of the sons of the family came with us. And I missed her.

The next vacation, when Dad had a new car,

Karen came along the whole way, and she and I started a a game we played for all of the vacations our family took. It was based, I am sure on counting horses. Each of us would buy what came next on our side of the car, and then could lose what we had bought if something bad came around the next bend. I have no idea anymore of how we calculated the worth of our purchases, nor what it was that triggered losses, but we played the game even on our last trip together in Dad's 1956 Ford when we were both teenagers, and, as the tallest of my sisters, Dad could not legitimately call her half pint anymore.

Karen was the only one of the 6 of us who had musical talent, as far as I know. But what I remember most was her lightheartedness. On weekends when we all did some household chores (she and Lois much more than I), she'd sing “Up in the air, Jr. Birdman,” making an O with her thumb and forefinger, and holding them to her eyes with her palms inward and the other three fingers spread on her cheeks, which made her elbows stick out.

Up in the air, Jr. Birdman,
Up in the air upside down.

One Saturday night, when Dad came in the living room and seeing Karen in this mode, he tried and tried to get his hands like hers, and laughed with us for a half hour. Another favorite was

Why'd you go away and leave me in Big Wamu.
You left me for another, alone and so blue...

and there are more words that I can't remember . She sang this country and western style, loud and brassy. Another, was “Some day my prince will come” sung with both a wistful expression and intonation. All for fun.

As we got older, we saw each other less. I began to run the neighborhood with guys, riding my bike to creeks and vacant spaces, or playing sports, and at a young age, working summers for my father. But on many Saturday nights, Karen was still the snack maker--fudge, Rice Krispy Treats, pop corn balls, were all in her repertoire, and one memorable night when just she and I were home, a pizza made with cheddar cheese and breakfast sausage.

After my father died and his will was settled, we saw less of each other as a family. There was no central place to come. But she and two male friends came to my place for a holiday meal (I remember it as Easter, my wife remembers it as Christmas), and one of them was Hal, her future husband. I gave her away at her wedding, and her marriage began her years of traveling and living overseas. She always remembered our children at Christmas and on birthdays, and when we did see each other, it was as if time had not passed. We could be back to that time when she was a half pint, and I was her little brother hanging out with her on a Saturday night.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Political Relfection

The late 80'' and early 90's were, for me, exciting times at work. We were moving to computerized classrooms, and the Post Secondary Enrollment Option Program was bringing to my classes many more bright, motivated students. In these first years, it seems to me, many were home schooled (principally, I think, to not have to study evolution).

Early on, I was in the library with a class which was being helped with research. Some could be done, or supplemented with computers, and some still needed to be done on the in the library. I happened to be by a computer that had a disk in it with a comprehensive list of all the names and addresses in the U.S. I started typing in names of childhood friends (with no idea where they were living) and getting, as I remember it, way too many options. Then I typed in Al's last name, and there were only 2, a Jr. and Sr. in Colorado.

I called Al Sr. the next day and left a message: “If you lived on School Street in Lombard, Illinois, call this phone number. This is Dave...”

He called on his Watts line later, and we talked for probably an hour. Among other things, he told me th at when he was going over his father's papers when he died, he discovered that the subdivision we lived in was covenanted. To buy a lot, one had to be a member of the caucasian race.

And then, sort of bang bang, Time Magazine had a two page article about how, when lynching was practiced in the south, it was memorialized by post cards of the often times mutilated body hanging from a tree. The article showed samples of them. A local entrepreneur, like a druggist, would take the pictures, have them developed into postcard sized pictures, and sell them. There were old post cards showing that the sender had circled his position by the body, proud to have been part of the action.

At about the same time, PBS had a program on Levittown, the Long Island housing development that started just after WW II, offering housing for veterans for no money down, and modest monthly payments—unless the prospective veteran was black. Then one could not buy (or rent) at all.

I began to use this information to challenge some of my more conservative students about what America was and is. And I thought of it in terms of my own family.

My father came to the U. S in 1922 or '23 when he was 18. He died in 1958. He was here only about 35 years, and even though he was widowed with 6 children in 1942, 5 of them graduated from college (3 with Master's Degrees). It happened, at least partly, because of where we lived. We went to the excellent York High School. Put what my father was able to do, and how that benefited me in some context,

I am positive that in the Chicago area, there was a black man as bright as my father, and as successful, but that man would not have been able to live where his children would get the benefit from such a good school system. There are other possibilities. It is likely that in 1922, young black men were migrating north, maybe a young man whose father had been lynched, the extremist form of racism.* Confused, angry and ill educated, restricted to ghetto areas, what chance did that man or his kids have? How many generations of his family would be affected by this loss of opportunity?

Or maybe, he was a World War 2 vet with an honorable discharge, and could not get his family out of New York's ghetto to Long Island because loans were not even offered to him. And again, his children, and maybe even his children's children would be affected. Between about 1924 and 1930, my father sort of wandered around the upper midwest. Swedes were frequently foremen of construction crews, and he could come onto one, talk a little Swedish and get a job for a few days. He told a story of claiming to be a bricklayer, and then being found out on the second day of his tenure on the job when he got to something really complicated. But the foreman was from Smoland too, and he got another couple of day's work as a hod carrier, something he did know how to do. Such a chance for a black man at the time would have been rare to impossible.

It is fashionable among some circles to use Lincoln's words against him, to make him out as a racist, and some are not nice by today's standards. But even in his 20's when he was running for his first political office in Illinois, he thought and said that slavery was wrong because all men should be allowed to earn their own bread by the sweat of their own brows. He could never offer any great solution to the problem, but he did understand that slavery was fundamentally opposed to the standards of the republic. This position seems to me to be even more remarkable considering that Lincoln was queasy about the mixing of the races.

Even if blacks were lesser men, they were men and The Declaration of Independence should protect them, too. What I offer is not a solution, either, but at least something to think about.

None of what happened to my mythical black men was constitutional, either literally or more comprehensively in the words of the Declaration of Independence. But that it happened makes me suspicious of the notion that devolving power to the local, or smaller political movement would somehow bring more liberty. How long was the South able to prevent blacks from voting? As long as they were a permanent minority, bad things would happen to them. It was, ultimately, the federal government which changed the South. Of course we should be suspicious of the federal government. But we should be suspicious of our state legislators, town councils, and school boards, too.


*There were about 5000 lynchings between about 1870 until 1950. This is likely a conservative number because of the difficulty in counting. It is interesting, that even in fairly modern times, apologists of lynching used the claim of governmental inefficiency to condone it. If the government—generally meaning the federal government—got on the blacks for their rapes of white women, good citizens would not have to do it.

If you Google lynching numbers, you will have a lot to read and think about.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Loop from afar

I was born and raised in Du Page County, Illinois. When I lived there, there were commuter towns stretched along the rail lines that ran west from Chicago, but north and south of them were farms. The Washington Street that ran in front of my house in Lombard was said to be on the exact latitude as the one in Chicago--we were straight west of the Loop, in other words.
About once a year, I'd hear from someone who was driving east on a particularly clear morning--usually it was told to me by a kid reporting what his father had said--that they saw the tall buildings of the Loop from Lombard. I always doubted it. It is 20 or so miles, and I just thought it couldn't be true.
My wife and I went back to spend Thanksgiving with her sister, and for a night we stayed on the eighth floor in a hotel on Butterfield Road, maybe the most rural place I was able to get to as a boy, at least in bike riding distance. Maybe 3 miles, no more, south of where I grew up. It is not rural anymore. I woke up before light, and looked out the window, trying to get my bearings, wondering which way the window was facing. The beginning of the sunrise told me I was looking east. When I came out of the shower, and looked again, there on the gray horizon, it looked like I could see the Loop. I did not believe it at first, but it sure enough was. I'm pretty sure I made out the shape of Big John.
Is the eighth floor 80 feet off the ground? I still don't think anyone saw the Loop from ground level, but if the light were right.....?