WHILE I WAS AWAY

As I got ready to leave town for 10 days, I worried about the baby hummingbirds near my porch.

I had watched them each day as they began to move around and make noise and ask their mother for food.

The day before I left, I heard a new sound.

A lizard had climbed high into the bougainvillea and was jamming its snout down into the teacup-size nest. The two baby birds were squeaking and chirping and scrambling to avoid their attacker.

I reached for the lizard. He jumped to a lower branch, then scampered to a hiding place at the base of the tree.

I went back to check the nest. The hatchlings were agitated, but unharmed.

I didn’t feel good about leaving town. The lizard knew where the nest was. There was nothing to stop him from returning the next day.

So I went and tracked him down.

It was evening. The lizard was in the leaves next to the rose bushes.

“Look, that wasn’t cool,” I said. “The thing with the nest.”

“Excuse me?”

“Up there,” I said, “you trying to eat the baby hummingbirds.”

“I wanted to see the nest,” the lizard said.

“That doesn’t feel super truthful,” I said.

“It’s my truth.”

“Oh jesus. For real?” I said.

“What?”

“‘My truth’ — all that crap. I didn’t know that’s in the garden now, too.”

“Yes,” said the lizard, “I can see that for a fascist, it might be frightening that others would see the world differently from him.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake. Fascist?” I said. “Because I didn’t want you to eat baby hummingbirds?”

“Because you’re out here trying to control everyone,” the lizard said, “deciding who’s allowed to see the nest, who isn’t.”

“You weren’t going to ‘see’ it. You were trying to eat the babies.”

“Why are you so obsessed with eating hummingbirds?” the lizard said. “It almost seems like you’re the one who wants to eat them.”

“I don’t eat any animals at all, let alone baby birds.”

“La-dee-da,” the lizard said. “Hooray for you.”

“I’m not bragging,” I said. “I’m just stating a fact. I’m vegan.”

“Cool, so is that another rule the rest of us have to follow? No one eats any animals because you don’t eat any animals?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Right. You just tried to grab me instead,” the lizard said. “For the sake of argument, what if I was trying to eat the birds? Then what? Is it your job to protect them?”

“It’s not a job,” I said. “I just care about them. I’ve watched them grow up.”

“They’re like three days old,” the lizard said.

“But I watched the mom build the nest. And sit on the eggs. And I saw the babies right after they hatched. I feel … invested.”

“Are you going to be their bodyguard forever?” the lizard said. “What happens when they leave the nest one day?”

“When they leave the nest,” I said, “they’re on their own.”

“Ahh, so there are borders to Fascist Land.”

“Look,” I said, “you can keep saying that word as much as you want. I reject it entirely. I was looking out for tiny brand-new baby birds. Which you were about to eat. And as long as we’re on the subject, I want to tell you that I’m leaving town tomorrow and I’ll be gone a couple weeks. My wife’s cousin will be staying here, and she too feels strongly about the birds. I am going to bring her up to date on all this, completely.”

“Is she grabby too?” the lizard said.

“I’m not grabby. And I’m not a fascist. You can go anywhere else in the yard, you can eat whatever you want. Just not the baby birds.”

So that was our conversation. And I didn’t feel great about it. The look on the lizard’s face didn’t give me confidence. It was sort of neutral and smug.

When I returned home 10 days later, the first thing I did was check the nest. There was just one juvenile bird. No sign of the sibling or the mom.

The next day I got to watch the young bird learning to fly.

It took short trips just above ground level from one part of the yard to the other.

Eventually I saw the mom join her child at the center of the yard. The fledgling was resting on the ground. Mom hovered in the air right beside the child, as if to say, “C’mon, it’s fun! Give it another try!”

I was entranced. I had never seen a bird learning to fly.

But I still wondered. Where was the other one?

Had it been eaten by the lizard?

Or had it already left the nest and successfully launched?

I saw the lizard the next day and asked him.

“Look who’s back,” the lizard said.

“I just want to know,” I said, “did you eat the other one?”

“Oh my god with the hummingbirds,” said the lizard. “Just admit it, you want to eat one.”

“Why was there only one bird when I got back? What happened to the other one?”

“I’m going to be honest,” said the lizard. “I don’t like your tone.”

“Did you eat it?”

“You really want to know?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, so why don’t you go over to the pool filter in your massive, stupid swimming pool and check that before running your whole fascist thing on me again.”

I felt sick to my stomach as soon as the lizard mentioned the pool filter.

I ran to the plastic plate covering the filter basket. I yanked it open.

The missing bird was floating in the leaves and branches and other debris which had gradually accumulated while I was gone.

The bird had landed in the pool during one of its own early attempts at flight, and then never gotten out.

I felt sad — and deeply ashamed. I had known the pool was a death-trap. That was why I spent so much time out there looking for bees, ladybugs, and anything else which fell in, even lizards. But I had never even thought about the young birds which would soon be learning to fly.

“I’m sorry about your friend,” the lizard said.

He had followed me to the side of the pool. He was perched on the long yellow deck chair with old metal railings. He watched me clean off the bird and then lay it on a leaf.

“Was it really awful?” I said. “Was the mother going crazy?”

“She was trying to figure out what she could do,” the lizard said. “But listen … stuff happens.”

“It’s completely my fault,” I said. “I need to get a cover for the pool.”

“It’s not your fault,” the lizard said.

“I’m sorry I accused you of eating it,” I said.

“It’s okay,” the lizard said. “The truth is, that was why I went up there that day — I was going to eat them.”

“Did you try again when I left town?”

“No.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because by then I knew they were important to someone.”

“I’m sad,” I said.

“I know,” said the lizard.

I sighed.

I thanked the lizard and said goodbye.

I stood up and took the tiny, waterlogged corpse to a secret corner of my yard where my dog is buried. I dug a hole for the hummingbird beside a lantana bush blooming orange and yellow.

I apologized to the bird for my negligence, for not covering my pool. I told the bird I was laying it to rest beside my best friend of all time, my dog Boomer. I said it was the most special place I could think of. Then I laid the tiny bird down and covered it with dirt.

I get why people bury loved ones. You want to be able to visit them and talk. And apologize.

Posted in ANIMALS, CHILD REARING, DUMB SHIT I'VE DONE, SPIRIT | 26 Comments

HUMMINGBIRDS AND BEETLES

I almost made a catastrophic error yesterday with the hummingbird nest.

As far as I could tell, the mother had vanished three days earlier. She was no longer sitting on her eggs, she wasn’t feeding any new hatchlings. She was AWOL.

I got the ladder, climbed up, and peered into the tiny nest.

Sure enough there were two babies — dark brown, less than an inch long, smushed together like two miniature sausages.

At first they didn’t seem to be moving, and I assumed the worst. But the longer I watched, I realized yes, they were still moving. Just barely, but they were alive anyway.

Having been down this road before, having found a nest with two dead hatchlings, I was eager to avoid the same ending. I went inside the house and checked online to see what rescuing the babies might entail.

People do successfully rescue them, it turns out. The process isn’t particularly complicated, though somewhat delicate and time-consuming. So I made sugar water, found a dropper, and built an artificial nest of shredded paper and dead moss. I was going to place the tiny natural nest inside the larger, fake one.

I went back outside. As I approached the nest, a hummingbird zoomed across the backyard and into the blossoming bougainvillea.

Mom was back!

Maybe she had seen me approaching the nest. Or maybe it was just feeding time. But there she was again, poking her long thin beak into the nest, tending to the newborns.

I had been seconds away from intervening, which probably would have been disastrous for the hummingbirds and definitely would have broken my general rule — when in doubt, do nothing. As Gen. Allenby says in Lawrence of Arabia, “It’s usually best.”

I was still puzzled, though, by how often the mom was away from the nest. Yes, adult hummingbirds need to eat frequently, especially when they’re eating for three. But I had figured the trips for food would be bracketed by lots of time at the nest.

I went back to the computer, this time to find out how often new hummingbirds eat.

There were conflicting reports. Some writers said hatchlings need to be fed every half-hour or so. Others said a mother feeds her young “several times a day,” which eased my worries Maybe everything really was on track.

Then I saw a statistic which put the whole thing in context. Apparently the success rate for any given hummingbird to hatch, be cared for, and then one day launch is about 20%.

And that’s not just hummingbirds. Supposedly it’s true for most other songbirds, too.

Somehow this grim statistic calmed me. It was a reminder about the overall state of affairs. Most baby birds don’t make it. It’s a bummer, but it’s how the world works.

Coincidentally, I got a similar message on Monday when I bumped into a black beetle which I’d seen several times the previous week.

“Oh, hey,” I said.

“What’s up.”

After a long silence, I tried to draw the beetle out.

“The whole garden is pretty serene and chill,” I said, “but you strike me as maybe the most serene and chill of all the species here. You have a Buddha-type vibe.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“I wasn’t meaning to.”

“This place is utter mayhem every single second of every single day.”

“Really?”

“It’s basically the Roman Coliseum all day and all night. And I’m always in the ring.”

“But you don’t seem to scurry around or panic,” I said. “You move at a very deliberate pace. When you move at all.”

“Strategy, brother.”

“You don’t want to draw attention?” I said.

“Partly. It also conserves energy and allows me to dial in. I try to be aware of every single thing around me.”

“That makes sense.”

“Situations change in an instant. Can you imagine in your Back-and-Forth World if you were suddenly –“

“Wait, what’s the Back-and-Forth World?”

“That’s you.”

“You mean humans?” I said.

“Whatever word you want to use. It just seems like that’s how you spend most of your time. You go to that corner of the yard. Then you go to the garage. Then you go back to that corner of the yard. Then back to the garage.”

“I go other places,” I said.

“Don’t get me wrong,” the beetle said, “I’m sure there’s a purpose to it.”

“Sort of,” I said.

“My point is, imagine in the Back-and-Forth World if a creature three hundred times your size could suddenly appear from the sky, land next to you, and then start randomly jerking its head around, looking this way and that, and then — if it feels like it! — eat you.”

“We’re talking about birds?” I said.

“We are.”

“I know what you mean about how they move their heads,” I said. “It’s so random and twitchy.”

“And then there are lizards,” the beetle said.

“Oof. I forgot about lizards.”

“So disgusting. It’s like your worst anxiety dream come to life,” the beetle said. “And they’re the opposite of birds. They take it all in. They’re aware of everything, patient as hell. If one’s near you, then it becomes this excruciating, endless, slow-motion waiting game. At least with a bird, it’s quick. You get eaten or you don’t.”

“I’m realizing how far off-base I was with the ‘serene’ thing.”

“No worries.”

“Is there any way I can help?” I said. “Maybe bring you some food? Put you in a different part of the yard?”

“It would be the same deal wherever you put me. Like they say, it’s a beetle’s life.”

“I haven’t heard that expression.”

“Actually there is one thing. Next time you see me, if I’m still alive, do what you did today. Stop and hang out for a second.”

“Really?”

“It helps a lot.”

“Do beetles get lonely?”

“Haha, no. When you’re here, the birds and lizards stay away.”

For a really nice account of hummingbird nesting and mothering, see Eileen Stark’s essay and photos.

ready for future use, if necessary
Posted in ANIMALS, SPIRIT | 21 Comments

OKAY I LIED ABOUT THE HERMIT THING

There’s an old Buddhist story about monks raking up leaves at their monastery before a visit from a revered guru.

When the guru arrives, he looks out at the beautiful grounds with an appreciative smile, then raises his hand as if to say, Hold on, just one more thing.

He walks behind a nearby shed, finds the pile of raked leaves, and gathers an armful. He walks back out front and dumps the leaves.

“Yes,” he says, now satisfied.

There are other versions of the story. Sometimes it’s an old Zen master in the neighborhood, not the visiting guru, who dumps the leaves. Other times the story is just an exchange between student and master. As the two of them walk along, the master stops to pick up a single leaf. He puts it in his pocket.

The student says, “Master, that’s just one leaf. Let me go get the rake, I’ll do a proper clean-up.”

The master stops him. “Leaves don’t fall only on the ground,” he says. “They fall in the mind. I am picking up the leaf that was in my mind. Eventually I’ll get the others too.”

In the first version, the message is basically, ‘Don’t try to be perfect.’

In the second, the lesson is about patience and emptying the mind.

Personally I like the first story. I can get obsessive about stuff, so leaves being dumped on a lawn is a nice visual reminder that ‘good enough’ is often better — and more in tune with the flow of daily life — than ‘pristine’ or ‘perfect.’

There are similar cautions against perfectionism in other religions and cultures, as the writer Kaushik Patowary explains in this essay.

Sometimes introducing intentional imperfection into art or architecture comes from a dour, moralistic, ‘Only God can be perfect’ kind of place. In other cases, the motivation is quirkier and less obvious, as with the so-called ‘spirit line’ in Navajo rugs.

Supposedly Navajo weavers believed that part of their spirit went into the rug itself, so there needed to be a little stray line which deviated from the overall pattern. This was the pathway which allowed the spirit to leave the rug and re-enter the weaver once the rug was finished.

I was laughing the other day when I thought of my recent posts on seclusion and wanting to be a hermit.

The truth is, for a so-called hermit, I’m quite the iPhone user. I listen to an ungodly number of podcasts, I trade hundreds of texts with my nephews about either professional ice hockey or our respective Wordle results, or — in a diverting, but admittedly niche mash-up — our results playing Gordle. It’s a daily puzzle in which the answer is an active or former player in the National Hockey League whose last name is five letters long.

When I’m not playing wordgames or sending texts about wordgames, when I’m not listening to a podcast about the Northern Pacific rattlesnake or the Iberian lynx or the arrival of wolverines in Mount Rainier National Park, then I’m often listening to music on Spotify, or sending out animal-rights emails which PETA asks me to send, or watching a TEDTalk on YouTube, or spamming friends and family with whatever goddamn thing I just read, watched, or thought about.

Hey Bob, I think you might really like this story about two guys building a hiking trail in Iraqi Kurdistan!

Really I’m less of a hermit, more of a compulsive content-consumer and sharer.

I’d last about a day and a half without hi-speed internet.

Even when I put down my iPhone, then I’m often watching a hockey game on TV or reading a book about jnana yoga or the Troubles in Northern Ireland or weird cults or songbirds. Or I am boring the hell out of my wife describing one of these books.

So maybe the second Buddhist fable is actually the one I ought to be thinking about — the instruction on leaves which ‘fall in the mind.’ My mind is crowded with ideas, information, and stories. I don’t need to rake up and remove every last leaf, but a few bags worth would be a good start. At very least I could stop cramming my mind with so much new stuff all the time.

But hey, as long as I’m consuming all this content, I might as well pass along a few recommendations. Why should my poor family and friends be the only ones who get spammed?

  • The Norwegian movie The Worst Person in the World. It’s in the general neighborhood of romantic comedy, but touches on deeper, more existential topics and in a totally original way.
  • An interview of author Michael Lewis on the Smartless podcast. (Thanks to my friend Lara Wozniak for tipping me to it). Whether discussing the untimely death of his daughter, the genesis for his bestseller Moneyball, or a man who did early research on marine drift patterns, Lewis is a smart, curious person and a fantastic storyteller.
  • The book On Animals by Susan Orlean. Usually I prefer animal-related reading with a more ideological, ethical, or spiritual bent. Instead this book is a journalistic look at animals which humans have interacted with for thousands of years, whether chickens, carrier pigeons, mules, donkeys, or dogs. Orlean, who is best known for her book The Orchid Thief, is especially entertaining describing her own farm. It’s less a farm and more a fractious menagerie of species which Orlean just enjoys being around. I laughed out loud at her account.
  • The recent essay by Jonathan Haidt about social media in The Atlantic, and his subsequent interview on the same topic by host Andrew Sullivan on The Dishcast podcast. Yes, Haidt covers some of the same stuff we already know — viral sharing creates problems — but Haidt places the phenomenon in a wider context, and he isn’t entirely pessimistic. He has ideas for mitigating some of the worst side-effects of new platforms. He also has a nice way, I thought, of analyzing and contrasting conservatism and liberalism.
  • The Oregon singer-songwriter Margo Cilker. Her music is sort of a folk-country hybrid, with a lyrical tilt toward melancholy themes and situations. I especially like the song “Flood Plain” on her album Pohorylle.
  • The book Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. It has the true-crime element of trying to figure out who killed single mother-of-ten Jean McConville in Belfast in 1972, but it also gives a broader look at sectarian violence and interesting public figures like IRA bomber Dolours Price, politician Gerry Adams, hunger striker Brendan Hughes, and actor Stephen Rea. An extremely readable book.
  • The song “Everything’s Fucked” by the band Dirty Three. Old tune, but new to me. A haunting instrumental piece with lovely violin and electric guitar. Thanks to Lynne Englert for sending it my way.

I also liked all the other stuff which I linked to earlier in this post. So if any of that sounded interesting — trailbuilding in Iraqi Kurdistan! — then by all means check it out.

That’s all for now. Back to the ‘hermit’ life.

Posted in SAYINGS, SELF HELP, SPIRIT | 15 Comments

WHEN THINGS GO SOUTH

There’s a song by Lori McKenna called “God Never Made One of Us to Be Alone.”

On the one hand, she’s probably right. Humans are social animals after all.

On the other hand, as a lifelong introvert with a deep appreciation for solitude, well, I wonder.

An excellent essay in the New Yorker this week examines the eternal tug-of-war between isolation and integration. In the context of three years of pandemic, the writer Ian Frazier surveys cabin fever both as a psychological phenomenon and as a genre of literature, film, and journalism. He also recounts his own long-ago Walden Pond experiment at a cabin in Montana. And he makes the case that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine stemmed at least partly from personal isolation during Covid lockdown.

For my own part, I’ve always preferred my own company. True, my all-time happiest moments were with — and because of — others. But for all the mundane everyday stuff, I generally select One Player.

I’m sure there are various reasons, including difficulty in setting personal boundaries, fear of intimacy, issues around control. There is also a lifelong habit of self-consciousness around others, which can be tiring.

But even with a strong default preference for solitude, I have a special carve-out for a certain type of conversation — talking with someone in actual crisis.

Usually it’s a person I know well. Other times it’s an acquaintance or even a stranger.

This is not to say that I’m particularly generous (I’m not) or that I greatly help the person in distress (I don’t). It’s more to observe that this particular type of conversation doesn’t leave me feeling drained. It brings out the best in me actually.

Maybe I picked up good listening skills as a young newspaper reporter or later on as a criminal defense attorney. But I think I was probably drawn to those jobs in the first place because I was already good at listening.

One day I was talking to an older, more experienced colleague at a newspaper in Maine. He said he was dreading his next phone call. He was about to call the mother of a man who had died in a confrontation with police. The call was to get the mom’s reaction to a toxicology report showing high levels of, well, whatever it was — alcohol, drugs, maybe both.

I offered to make the phone call myself.

My colleague was taken aback. He was in his early 50s. He had already worked at bigger and better newspapers than I ever would. I was only 22.

I quickly clarified that I didn’t want a byline or anything like that. I would just feed him a paragraph or two.

He didn’t take me up on the offer, but he was curious. How would I handle the call?

For starters, I said the mother might actually appreciate the call. Police likely weren’t communicating with her due to the contentiousness of the death. At bare minimum, better for her know in advance what the toxicology report said before seeing it in the next day’s paper.

Basically I just reframed the phone call. And I said something to the effect of, ‘The worst thing in her life already happened. You calling a couple weeks later, giving her this info, seeing whether she wants to comment … it might be annoying, she might get angry or sad. But compared to her son dying, it doesn’t rate.’

This reporter was a genuinely nice man, not competitive by nature. He and I got along well. He got along with everybody actually. He made the call. It went pretty much just like we’d talked about. The woman thanked him for calling. And then he came over and thanked me.

Maybe my suggestions helped. But really when I offered to place the call, I think I already just knew I was good at this one particular thing — talking to a person in difficult circumstances.

Even at the beginning of my news career, I found I could do that type of interview in a calm, respectful, sort of dispassionate way. I didn’t beat around the bush or pretend everything was okay. I didn’t give advice or try to console. I just let the other person lead the conversation. If I was curious about something, I went ahead and asked it. In those interviews I was older than my years.

I found that I was less judgmental with strangers than with friends, loved ones, or myself. Just by temperament, it was easy for me to see other points of view. No matter how complicated or gnarly a mess the person had landed in, I could always sort of imagine myself having done the same thing.

After the posting in Maine, I moved to a newspaper in central Florida. One Sunday morning I went to the county jail to try to interview a man who’d been locked up overnight for murder. He was accused of shooting a man to death at a roadside barbecue restaurant.

Usually an effort to interview an accused killer went nowhere. But on this day the man not only agreed to talk to me, he told me the whole story and admitted to the killing.

Not that there had been much doubt of his guilt. There were plenty of witnesses to the shooting. And I tell the story here not to brag. In fact in this particular case, I feel the opposite; I feel embarrassed and ashamed.

Today I recognize that there was a big power differential between the two of us that day. The accused was an elderly, low-income African-American man with little formal education. He lived in a rural area and likely had little experience with reporters. He was probably fighting the mother of all hangovers that morning. In a frank, rueful way he told me the whole story. He regretted the shooting, he said. He wished he could go back in time.

I listened quietly and took it all down. I put it in the next day’s newspaper. The article wasn’t sensational. It sought to lay out events as accurately and objectively as possible, taking into account not only the man’s version but those of witnesses and the victim’s loved ones. Still, I realized that my skilled listening at the jail had produced an article which unquestionably worsened the man’s legal exposure. If nothing else, the article weakened his position in future plea negotiations.

I wish I had told the man, ‘Look, I’m supposed to ask for an interview, but you really shouldn’t talk to anyone till you get a lawyer.’

It wasn’t my job to give him legal advice or walk away from a scoop. But on a human level, as a question of basic decency, I wish I had.

I also wish I’d stopped right then and thought, ‘Hold on, maybe I should be going to law school.’ I didn’t end up doing that until 10 years later. By then I really saw the world as a reporter, not as an advocate. There’s a big difference.

One notable exception to my alleged listening skills was in relation to my children. Especially when they were younger, if they were in distress, it was hard for me not to slide into fear, judgment, or fix-it mode.

A final anecdote, from my very first newspaper job.

When I was 19, I worked as a summer intern at the Cheboygan Daily Tribune in northern Michigan. At the end of the internship, I got a visit at my desk from the newspaper’s legendary longtime reporter Gordon ‘Scoop’ Turner, who was still filing stories daily at age 82.

He said that in his opinion my best story of the summer was my interview with a woman whose baby had been born with the intestines outside the body.

I had written so much other stuff that summer. I’d written about city government, local sports, a Bob Dylan concert, scuba divers exploring a shipwreck in the Great Lakes. I was more proud of those stories. But Turner singled out the one about the mother and child. He said the article had a lot of heart.

I remember my afternoon with the woman and her baby. The apartment was hot and stuffy. Back then I thought reporters needed to dress up for work. So I was overdressed and just physically uncomfortable after the photographer left and the interview went on longer and longer. But even in my discomfort, I was curious about this medical condition I’d never heard of, about the surgery to try to correct it.

Sitting in my sweaty clothes, filling up the pages of my notepad, I was astonished by the composure of the woman. She patiently answered all my questions even as she tended to the post-operative infant.

She was a single mom. She wasn’t much older than I was. But in life experience, in terms of setbacks, she was a lot older. On top of that, she was dealing with this highly inexperienced, sweaty mess of a reporter who meant well but was brand-new to the job. She’d probably been expecting an old pro. She’d probably expected the 82-year-old Turner.

Sometimes I wonder what the ideal situation is for me nowadays, a middle-aged hermit who in a pinch — in a legitimate crisis — can be a good listener.

A friend suggested I go back to school yet again, this time to become a therapist. But as a general matter I feel drained by social interaction, by everyday conversation. I can rise to the occasion in an actual crisis. but all the typical day-to-day bullshit, I’d be no good at it. I’d be distracted and easily annoyed by repetition or complaining.

Plus, I’d have to learn a whole new set of professional rules, buy insurance, work in an office. I prefer to be outdoors as much as possible nowadays.

It reminds me of Lucy’s therapy booth in the old Peanuts cartoons. Maybe if I changed those trees to pine trees and put the booth way up in the mountains somewhere.

I’m not sure what the hours would be or how people would find me. But I wouldn’t charge a penny. Nor would I slap the conversations on the front of the next day’s newspaper. One thing I did learn from being a lawyer was strict adherence to confidentiality.

A conversation goes better when you can honestly say, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to help you, but I’ll keep to myself anything you tell me.”

At my booth way up in the mountains, I think the doctor would be OUT most of the time. But in cases of real emergency? He’d be totally in.

In other news, here are garden updates from the last couple weeks

  • I rescued an alarmingly long Southern alligator lizard which had fallen in the pool. It recovered fine and scooted back to the dead leaves beneath the bushes.
  • I rescued a bunch of bees and flies from the pool, plus two ladybugs.
  • I found an abadoned egg which appeared to have fallen from a nest in the pine tree out front. I decided against trying to incubate it myself using a heat lamp. It was depressing to realize this one would never hatch. But at least it will provide food for some other animal, whether rat, raccoon, or eventually just ants and flies.
RIP
  • A new hummingbird dive-bomber materialized in the backyard. But this time I realized exactly what was going on, that there must be a nest nearby. Indeed there was. As I write, the mother is sitting on eggs in her tiny teacup of a nest just off the back porch. I’m not posting a photo, though. The nest is in a darkened recess of leaves and flowers, and the camera on my iPhone8 sucks. I don’t want to disturb the mom by trying to get closer. She already watches me closely even at a distance.
  • Some more pictures:
Posted in UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 22 Comments

BACKYARD MYSTERY

One springtime years ago, when my children were young and life was hectic, a small domestic mystery nagged at me for two or three weeks.

Sometimes when I entered my backyard through a side gate, I would hear a sudden loud buzzing to my left.

It wasn’t just a noise, but a sensation. It was the feeling of having nearly been hit.

My first thought was of the aerial drone my son had received as a gift. The mystery noise sounded a bit like that. It had the same buzzing vibration, only louder and closer to my head.

Each of the two or three times it happened, I ducked to avoid impact, and then having not been hit, looked around for the culprit. What the hell was that?

I wondered about our electrical system. The spot was directly beneath our power line. Maybe the noise was related to that?

But the distance between me and the wire was too great. The buzzing had seemed inches from my ear.

Then one morning in early June, the mystery was solved.

I was trimming bushes and tree branches when I came upon an exquisite little bird-nest. I went and got a ladder so that I could get a better look. I figured I was about to see several fragile, pale-blue eggs on a tidy bed of twigs and feather.

Or maybe the eggs would be a speckled cream color, I thought.

When I was high enough on the ladder, I peered down and was shocked. Staring back at me were the small, motionless heads of two dead hatchlings, frozen in time, waiting for a parent who would never return.

The birds were in the exact pose you think of when imagining babies waiting for their mother. The scene looked like a school project, ‘Two Birds, Waiting to Be Fed.’

The awful surprise did more than sadden me. It explained the weird, whirring noise. A protective hummingbird had been dive-bombing me whenever I opened the gate and walked past this nest.

You might wonder how in the world a grown man mistakes a hummingbird for an aerial drone or electrical malfunction. Well first of all, I’m not handy. I don’t know from electrical.

Second, as I said at the beginning, the events occurred at a certain moment in my life. I had moved into the house with my wife and children only a few years earlier. And I didn’t really have the time to sit around and study the yard or its creatures. I was always picking up my kids from school or driving them to ice hockey or rushing home to give our dog a walk before leaving again for grocery shopping.

Today I know about hummingbirds. I know what they look and sound like, where they tend to hover and feed. But back then they were less familiar to me.

Even now I wonder what happened to the mother. Was she killed by a cat? By a hawk? Was she hit by a car?

The sight of the dead hatchlings hit me harder than I would have expected. In hindsight, I think maybe the nest reminded me of my own situation. I too was trying to raise two young children, trying to feed and protect them. I imagined how awful it would be if my wife or I died unexpectedly.

I was an enthusiastic stay-at-home dad. I volunteered at the kids’ schools, I was a team manager at the hockey rink. I read bedtime stories aloud. I wrote notes to the kids from the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.

I worried a lot, too. I wanted my kids never to feel scared or left out or to have their hearts broken, even though I now understand those are unavoidable experiences which help us grow.

My sadness over the dead hummingbirds was more than momentary. It stayed with me a few days and reminded me, randomly enough, of the old TV show The Sopranos.

Tony, the mob boss, would occasionally get sidetracked by intense concern for an animal, whether a horse that died in a stable fire or ducks which stopped overnight in his swimming pool.

With humans Tony was everything you expect from a mob boss — calculating, violent, deceitful. With animals he was patient and generous, even tender.

The contrast was evident during an intervention for his drug-addicted nephew Christopher. Important matters were being discussed, crucial dynamics were being laid bare. But Tony got completely stuck on a tangential revelation that his nephew had killed a dog.

Tony kept circling back to the topic, confused, angry, wanting to know exactly what happened.

Others have discussed why this was, what elements of Tony’s personality and backstory explained his tendency to connect more with animals than humans. But I wonder, is the trait unusual? Animals bring out something in us which we can’t fully explain or describe. The bond isn’t just intense, it’s qualitatively different.

A few years ago, several unrelated events caused me to slow down and really consider animals in the imaginative, empathetic way which children naturally have but which we seem gradually conditioned to leave behind.

One factor was living outdoors with my dog Boomer the last few months of his life. Another was reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and the ‘Trapped Bee’ chapter of Laura Lynne Jackson’s The Light Between Us.

Still other causes were: the Oscars acceptance speech by actor Joaquin Phoenix (it seemed nuts to me at the time, now I find it beautiful); two years of pandemic lockdown; and my first-ever experience with a psychedelic drug.

The combined effect of these disparate influences felt less like a brand-new set of animal-friendly beliefs, more like a return to an old, rediscovered faith. I stopped eating meat, dairy, and honey. I started rescuing bees from my pool. I got curious about rats. I imagined what I would discuss with spiders and clover mites if I could talk with them.

One day as I worked in the garden, I stopped to watch an ant cross the top of my shoe. I thought, I’m not any better or more important than that ant. He has a life just like I do.

The idea may seem absurd, or just patently obvious. But for me it felt important. It had implications about what I should eat, how I should act toward even tiny creatures.

My sadness over the hummingbirds wasn’t just from imagining their final hours waiting for their mother, nor from identifying with a parent who died before she could get back home. I think there was sadness too about how disconnected from nature I had become, how far I had drifted from a more patient, mindful mode of living, one which would have made it obvious in the moment that yes, I was being dive-bombed by a hummingbird.

Not that my knowing would have helped the birds. Just to say that I was chronically rushed and distracted, absorbed in trivial matters. For these reasons I had missed the whole story — the saga, really — of a beautiful, miniature household erected, defended, and then one day tragically abandoned just steps from my backdoor.

Posted in ANIMALS, CHILD REARING, SPIRIT | 22 Comments

CLOVER MITES

The following conversation was edited for clarity.

KIT: Thank you so much for reaching out.

CLOVER MITE: Yeah the ‘red microspider’ thing was unfortunate. We were kind of shaking our heads about that one.

KIT: I’m so sorry. But I didn’t know what species you were!

CLOVER MITE: You also said that maybe we move so fast because we’re ‘constantly terrified.’ I think that rubbed some of us the wrong way. I mean, I know it did.

KIT: You move incredibly fast for creatures your size. It was meant as a compliment.

CLOVER MITE: (Exhaling loudly) Okay, one of the best ways to piss off a mite — like to the point of ‘Fight me dude’ — is that phrase you just used. I’m not going to repeat it. You know the one I mean. It’s a total no-fly zone for mites.

KIT: ‘For a creature your size?’

CLOVER MITE: Bro, for real? Are you trying to be rude?

KIT: Not at all! There’s just such an obvious difference in scale between mites and humans.

CLOVER MITE: And humans are smaller than trees, and trees are smaller than mountains, and mountains are smaller than the ocean, blah blah blah. Who cares?

KIT: My usual audience is humans. I describe things from their point of view.Much smaller than humans’ was all I meant to convey.

CLOVER MITE: But it’s just an incredibly loaded phrase, right? ‘Smaller than’ is basically synonymous with “less important than,” or “less evolved,” or “less complicated.”

KIT: Well, I certainly don’t agree about ‘complicated.’ Even a small, newborn human is on some level quite complicated.

CLOVER MITE: Look, I want to help you. I can see you’re trying to do something good here. At least I think you are.

KIT: Can we talk about your color?

CLOVER MITE: We’re red.

KIT: It’s quite a vivid red, isn’t it?

CLOVER MITE: Thank you.

KIT: But I mean, doesn’t it attract predators?

CLOVER MITE: Some of our predators believe the color red connotes ‘poison.’

KIT: Why would they think that?

CLOVER MITE: It’s just a very common assumption.

KIT: But it’s erroneous, right? You aren’t poisonous.

CLOVER MITE: We don’t comment on that.

KIT: But you were the one who brought it up.

CLOVER MITE: I would have to go back and look at the transcript.

KIT: It was like five seconds ago. You brought it up.

CLOVER MITE: You’re starting to do it again.

KIT: In my defense, you said I made errors in my previous article. I just don’t want to make more of them now. Especially on something like poison, which seems fundamental.

CLOVER MITE: Are you worried we’ll poison humans?

KIT: Not really. But it speaks to the essence of a creature, doesn’t it? It’s like describing whether someone is ‘loving and generous,’ or ‘prickly and difficult.’ I mean, ‘poisonous’ is an important thing to know.

CLOVER MITE: We don’t think so.

KIT: You don’t think you’re poisonous?

CLOVER MITE: We don’t think the question of toxicity is one we need to answer, publicly.

KIT: So just like, ‘No comment?’

CLOVER MITE: If you don’t mind.

KIT: Some humans think you guys bite. I know it’s not true because I looked it up online. I think maybe the confusion stems from, if you see a mite on your arm and you rub it out, there’s a sort of red smear, which some people mistake for their own blood.

CLOVER MITE: Jesus. Christ.

KIT: It can’t be news to you that mites sometimes die when they come in contact with humans.

CLOVER MITE: Trigger warning much? What the fuck.

KIT: But you don’t bite, right? That was my point.

CLOVER MITE: Can you imagine if you were being interviewed by someone and in the middle of the interview — apropros of literally nothing — the person just started talking about acts of horrifying violence, about humans being smeared to death and reduced to bloody stains?

KIT: I didn’t think —

CLOVER MITE: Exactly! You didn’t think!

KIT: Hold on, let me finish. I didn’t think the stain was blood. I thought it was from your body’s coloring.

CLOVER MITE: We’re getting toward the end of anything productive, I think.

KIT: You don’t bite, is all I was saying.

CLOVER MITE: I want to make one final statement. It’s about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

KIT: Seriously?

CLOVER MITE: This is an incredibly hard time for clover mites in Ukraine.

KIT: I didn’t know there were clover mites in Ukraine.

CLOVER MITE: We’re all over the world, just like humans.

KIT: Huh.

CLOVER MITES: Unlike humans, though, we don’t drop bombs on each other or set fire to fuel depots.

KIT: How on earth do you know about the fuel depot?

CLOVER MITE: We don’t roll tanks across fields, killing millions of insects. We don’t ignite fires which destroy thousands of acres of forest.

KIT: Ukraine is a total disaster right now. We can agree on that.

CLOVER MITES: We clover mites stand with our fellow mites in Kyiv and Kharkiv.

KIT: Got it. Well, I really want to thank you for contacting me. This was super helpful.

CLOVER MITE: When will the article come out?

KIT: I don’t know. Now?

CLOVER MITE: After an editor looks at it?

KIT: I mean … not really.

CLOVER MITE: You’re the editor! You’re the boss!

KIT: That’s a good way of looking at it. But no, my wife is the boss.

CLOVER MITE: Were you going to ask my name? I don’t need confidentiality or anything like that.

KIT: I didn’t know mites had names.

CLOVER MITE: Carl, with a ‘C.’ Born in your backyard. I’ve been to the other side of the fence, twice. Not a big deal.

KIT: Carl with a C … (writing)… Last name?

CLOVER MITE: Just Carl.

KIT: Thank you so much, Carl. I really appreciate you taking the time.

CLOVER MITE: I’m glad I could help out.

Posted in ANIMALS | 15 Comments

GRANDDADDY JUDGE

When I was young, I could keep track of several things at once. I could read a book while listening to the news on TV, a hockey game on the radio, or a family conversation.

Now, at 53, I’ve lost some of the multi-tasking facility. When two members of my family are asking me something at the same time, or when one member is raising two separate matters, I object.

“One thing at a time,” I say.

I said this once in the presence of my father, now in his 80s.

“That was one of Dad’s favorite sayings,” he told me, “one thing at a time.”

The recollection brought me up short. It was news to me. And to the extent it linked me in temperament or behavior to my grandfather, Robert R. Troyer, well, that was sort of a mixed bag.

My late grandfather was intelligent, productive, and well-respected. He was a longtime county judge in Omaha, Nebraska. But he could also be grumpy and severe, as is suggested by our family nickname for him — Granddaddy Judge — a term which combined the familiar and formal.

As fate would have it, Granddaddy Judge was the only grandparent I ever met. The other three were all dead by the time I was born in 1968. And I don’t think I ever saw Granddaddy Judge more than a few times. He lived in Nebraska, we lived in Maryland. He died when I was 5.

But in the little time I spent with him, he made an impression. He smelled of pipe tobacco, an exotic, earthy smell which I liked. His presence seemed to put my mother on edge, which was interesting. And he once gave me a silver dollar, a gift which thrilled me. The coin seemed old, mysterious, possibly even magic. It felt surprisingly heavy in my hand. I hid it away and kept it for years as a treasured possession.

In 1972, when my grandfather retired from the bench, he was replaced by two judges, not one. Such had been the workload he and his clerks plowed through each day. His short temper probably helped in this regard. People were a little scared of him.

Many years later, I met a man who had appeared in my grandfather’s courtroom as a young attorney. I asked the man — now old himself — his impressions of the long-ago judge. I said I had heard my grandfather could be cantankerous.

The man disagreed, but then made a comment which tended to confirm it. Judge Troyer was equable and business-like, the man said, as long as the lawyers in front of him were fully prepared and got to their point reasonably quickly.

So basically yeah, Granddaddy Judge had a temper.

There was evidence of his severity in my mother’s recollections, too. She recounted a long day of child-rearing and homemaking which was made even more stressful and tiring by the fact that my father was still at work and my grandfather was visiting from Nebraska.

Once the kids were finally asleep and the dishes were done, my weary mother set about picking up toys from the living room floor. She said something to the effect of, “Kids are a lot of work.”

Without offering to help, without looking up from his newspaper, Granddaddy Judge said, “Not if you’d raised ’em right.”

I have long associated some of Granddaddy Judge’s severity with our Swiss Mennonite heritage. It’s just one branch in our family tree, but it’s the one which gives us the last name Troyer.

The first Troyers arrived in America in the mid-18th century. Quakers and Mennonites were settling in Pennsylvania with hopes of practicing their faith openly and without punishment.

Mennonites were a certain type of Protestant, somewhat rigid on matters of doctrine and belief. Among the objections of their early Anabaptist forebears was the rejection of infant baptism under the theory that newborns were unaware of good and evil, incapable of the free will required to repent and accept Christ as their savior.

It may sound like a dry doctrinal question now. But during the Reformation, accepting a second baptism could be punished by death. Indeed one early Troyer was killed for it. In 1529, the cabinetmaker Hans Troyer (then spelled Dreier) was executed by drowning in a lake in Bern, Switzerland.

I feel bad for my martyred ancestor. For my own part, 500 years later, I highly doubt I would risk death on a point of principle. Then again I’m not religious. And I tend to be more of a ‘go along, get along’ type.

In truth, I already knew that a certain type of scolding and judging ran in my family. When I was growing up, if a parent or sibling was suddenly impatient or snippy, another of us would observe philosophically from the sidelines, “There’s a little bit of Granddaddy Judge in all of us.”

Which was true both literally — we shared his genes — and figuratively — we could get persnickety.

Small wonder perhaps that my father wound up as a lawyer, as did my middle brother and I. We three latter-day Troyers had moved on from rules about infant baptism, but were still drawn to rules as a topic of study and discourse.

There was also a cynical, political element to my grandfather’s personality. His judgeship was an elected position. When my dad was young, he watched Granddaddy Judge go out of his way to chat up farmers or merchants he encountered around Omaha.

My grandfather would speak warmly and volubly. He would ask after the man’s family as if the two were old friends.

One time my young father asked, “Dad, who was that?”

“A voter,” said my grandfather.

To this day I wonder about his tone of voice as he gave that answer. Was it a wry response delivered with a barely detectable grin as he looked down at his son? Or was it terse and businesslike?

Either way, my father was already a shrewd observer of his dad, even at the young age of 9. During WWII, my father said he assumed that Granddaddy Judge was lying when he told others that our family was of Swiss origin. My father guessed that our background was probably in fact German and that Granddaddy Judge was trying to conceal the fact.

My father turned out to be wrong on that point. But perhaps he was correct in a larger sense. He was already attuned to his father’s concern for image and electability.

In later years, when my grandmother Dorothy developed early and severe Alzheimers disease, Granddaddy Judge was not particularly kind or understanding. His wife had been very intelligent, an excellent bridge player. And then suddenly she wasn’t. These changes in her cognition were confusing and irritating to him. His impatience with her one day caused the only heated argument my dad can recall ever having with his father.

As peremptory as Granddaddy Judge could be at home or on the bench, he was not always so. Though he was a big deal in Omaha, he seemed intimidated and ill at ease when he traveled east to attend my father’s graduation at Harvard in 1955. In that unfamiliar setting, meeting people who were more sophisticated, intellectual, and widely traveled than he was, he struck my father as diffident and out of place.

He had good qualities, too, of course. He was fair to litigants. He worked hard. He had considerable common sense and a deep knowledge of his community. He was proud of my father, whose legal accomplishments wound up outstripping my grandfather’s. And if he were still alive today, he would be equally proud of my brother, also named Robert, who served as the U.S. Attorney for Colorado.

Maybe I’m just touchy on the topic of brain disease. It too appears to be a family inheritance, running down through my grandmother’s side maybe. My doctor tells me I have the APOE e4/4 genotype which predisposes one to Alzheimers. So as I grow older, not only do I note the changes in brain function — getting worse at multi-tasking! — but I admire the qualities of mercy and kindness, even if I don’t always practice them myself. The world will always need judges, but it also needs nurses, caregivers, loyal companions.

By the time I met Granddaddy Judge in the early 1970s and accepted his gift of a silver dollar, he had mellowed. I wasn’t scared of him at all. I was fascinated by the smell of his tobacco, his old-fashioned hat, the appearance of his aging skin, his puffy hands, his white hair, just the overall experience of an old person up close, one who was related to me. He was to my father as my father was to me. The idea seemed incredible to me. I had never met a grandparent before.

As a young man
With his children — my father (left) and my uncle
Receiving a visit at work from my father (standing) and others
From the Omaha World Herald
With his grandson Kenneth Troyer
Later in life
Posted in MY CHILDHOOD | 9 Comments

MY DESERT-ISLAND CHORE

My wife likes doing laundry. It’s a welcome break from her day job, which tends to be demanding, highly social, draining.

Doing laundry, on the other hand, is quiet and solitary, the clothes warm and fragrant when she pulls them from the dryer. She folds them carefully, along with towels. Later I take it upstairs.

My own favorite chores are doing dishes, sweeping a floor, tidying clutter, and throwing out expired food or garage junk. In our home, my wife is the accumulator, I am the thrower out.

But if I had to pick just one activity — my desert-island chore — it’s sweeping.

I know that on an actual desert island, the essential chore is procuring water and food. But after that, if I could fashion a good sturdy broom, it would get a lot of use.

Brooms are old-school and quiet, unlike a vacuum cleaner or — at the Harley Davidson end of excessive noise — a leaf blower.

I use a few different brooms. One’s got a blond wood handle, another a red metal handle. Still another is a half-size, handmade broom with colorful threading at the top. I think it’s from Armenia.

Using a broom reminds me of handling a hockey stick. The lower hand guides, the top hand stabilizes. Crusted dirt near the potted plants on the pool deck gets a good stiff brushing. If I’m reaching under furniture or sweeping lighter stuff like fallen leaves, then I tilt the broom at an angle and use a softer touch.

None of this rocket science. But it’s reliably relaxing. Sweeping opens space in my head for interesting thoughts and questions to float through.

Okay, I guess ‘interesting’ is debatable, given today’s essay topic. But if you have read my blog before, then you knew what you were getting into.

Brooms make me think of the Jainist religion in India. Followers try not to harm any living being, even insects or microbes. Some Jainists wear masks to avoid inhaling tiny flying insects. They use a broom to sweep the ground ahead of each footstep.

In contemporary Western self-help culture, we’re encouraged to move ‘lightly’ in the world and to live ‘more intentionally.’ I can’t think of a lighter, more intentional way of moving than sweeping up before oneself. Doing it all day long probably isn’t amazing for one’s back. But the activity still strikes me as meaningful and inspiring.

Imagine if a significant chunk of the global human population gave regular thought to damage they do just by walking.

I think of the Jainists whenever I see one of those impossibly tiny red spiders. Do you know the ones I mean? I don’t know their name, nor why they’re always in such a rush. Perhaps being that small is just constantly terrifying. I’m astounded how fast they move; their stride-frequency must be in humming bird wingbeat territory.

The point is, I admire a religion whose members are trying to avoid harming even microspiders. I haven’t studied Jainism any deeper than I study anything else. (Not very deep!) Nor am I planning to join the religion. But when I consider foundational rules, it’s hard to argue with Thou Shalt Not Kill One Single Thing — Even a Red Microspider — if You Can Possibly Avoid It and if Sweeping Won’t Cause Unreasonable Back Pain or Give You Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. It’s always good to build in a few exceptions.

With any task, there’s the satisfaction of a job well done. I like the sight of a freshly swept porch or kitchen floor. Apparently so does the singer Lori McKenna, who nods to the chore in her aching meditation on midlife, You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone. (“I sweep the dirt that the dogs brought in/ I let ’em out and then sweep again.”)

And then there’s the Blind Lemon Jefferson song See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, later covered by Lightning Hopkins, Mavis Staples, B.B. King, and Bob Dylan, among others.

I myself have swept graves!

I have tidied up the graves of ancestors in Lowell, Mass., and San Jose, Calif. I hope to do the same one day in St. Louis and Lincoln, Neb., or even farther afield in Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, or Denmark. My family has people on the wrong side of the dirt in all those places.

I can’t guarantee that future blog posts won’t deal with cemeteries. But if you’ve made it to the end of an essay about brooms, you’ll handle graveyards fine.

For an idea of what Jainist principles look like in practice, check out “Attending to Insects,” by Concordia College professor Anne T. Mocko.

I know, it’s time to replace the red broom
Living folks on top of a dead one

Posted in ANIMALS, SELF HELP, SPIRIT | 26 Comments

STORM-DRAIN DIRT

I looked back the other day at something I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic. The piece seems naive, ill informed, and overly optimistic. But the basic thesis remains true — there were silver linings to the Covid lockdown, even if they were outweighed by the costs and suffering.

For me, spending so much time at home and in the yard caused me to appreciate both places in a deeper way than before.

Whether it was the spiders inside the house or the bees and rats outside it, I paid closer attention to minutiae, the small comings and goings in my immediate environment. I was entertained, even fascinated sometimes.

Which flowers attracted the most bees?

Which plants were easiest to grow?

Exactly what type of hawk lived at the top of the pine tree?

How long would it take for someone to cart away an old bike I left on the curb?

When I slowed down enough, everything became interesting, even stuff others might consider crushingly boring or trivial.

A friend once told me, regarding my somewhat ascetic nature, ‘You’d be good in prison.’

I think I would!

Not in relation to violence and assault. I’d be bad at that. But down time? Being alone in my cell? No problem.

There’s an excellent episode of the Ear Hustle podcast. It’s about a San Quentin prisoner known among inmates for his interest in animals. Any insect or small creature which is found indoors or on the yard is brought to him, especially if the creature is injured. The guy keeps it, cares for it, feeds it, rehabilitates it.

This prisoner has developed very deep knowledge about small animals. And he has found a way to make his own life bearable, even in difficult circumstances. Caring for grasshoppers, beetles, cockroaches, birds, mice — it gives his life meaning.

But back to me!

It wasn’t just the pandemic which caused my new appreciation for home and yard. There were other factors. My kids left for college, so I had more time on my hands. And in the last few months of my dog’s life, he and I slept outside each night in the backyard. During that time, I got to know the yard in a way I hadn’t before. I learned which animals come out at night and at what time; how temperature and humidity vary from late night to early morning; what sorts of noises float over the fence at 3am from the sidewalk and street. I learned there are owls in the neighborhood.

The reason I tell you all this: I was on the other side of my fence yesterday raking leaves. I looked down the curb to the corner, where the storm drain is always blocked with leaves, dirt, and trash. Being a ‘hands dirty’ type, I thought, No problem, I’ll do it myself.

I kneeled down and started clearing the blockage. The closer I looked, I realized the drain was packed with dirt.

Black, wet, foul-smelling dirt, and some monster-size earthworms.

Now when I said I’m a hands-dirty type, I should have specified — I’m on the extreme end.

Unclogging a toilet, for instance, doesn’t bother me in the least, even if it’s someone else’s … you know, mess. Indeed, if the practice weren’t frowned upon by spouse, neighbors, civic authorities, and basically all sane people, I would consider transporting that clogged mess right to the backyard to use as fertilizer.

True, I am less enthusiastic about the idea now that I’ve read about a parasite-riddled soldier who defected from North Korea to South Korea. His parasites were attributed to the increased use of ‘night soil’ as fertilizer in impoverished North Korea. (I didn’t know what it was either.)

When I came face to face yesterday with all the black, wet, nasty-smelling storm-drain dirt, I thought, Hmm. Night soil?

Kidding.

I thought, The garden!

Because that’s the other place I came to love during the pandemic. I grow vegetables, flowers, even a cannabis plant or two. Regarding cannabis, my thinking was, It’s legal now. I’m a grown-up, sort of. Let’s see if it really does grow like a weed.

It does!

Anyway, I was stunned how much dirt I was able to shovel out of the storm drain. I filled two of the large containers which I usually use for leaves.

Yes, the dirt contained branches, leaves, and bits of trash, but not much. And that stuff was easy to separate.

The dirt was on the wet, gooey side at first, but I solved that by mixing in some of the dry, lifeless, powdery dirt which had been underserving my backyard plants for months. The resulting mix of sewer dirt and dried out, anemic backyard dirt came out just perfect.

The weirdly appealing smell reminded me of the scene in Ozark this season when a hipster from Chicago visits a poppy farm in Missouri. He kneels down and takes a big, deep whiff of the dirt. His appreciation is nuanced and intense, that of a connoisseur.

I felt something like that while looking at all the soil I’d recovered, remixed, and repurposed. And all while doing a civic service! Cleaning out a storm drain!

Point of clarification, mainly for my wife — this was a stormwater drain, not a sewage line. This was garden-variety dirt and debris, not actual shit.

Digging out a storm drain wouldn’t have occurred to me before the pandemic. But in two years of lockdown I learned that even mundane things can be engrossing, just as the nursing of tiny, wounded animals is for the San Quentin prisoner. I realized I don’t have to go to Yosemite or a national park to enjoy nature. Indeed, until the pandemic I don’t think I realized how much I enjoy nature. I mean, previously I enjoyed nature when I was supposed to. I enjoyed it at the beach or in the mountains. But I didn’t appreciate it just walking around, going about my day, sitting outside.

It goes without saying that the above thoughts betray a ton of privilege. I’m lucky not to have to work a stressful or low-paying job, or indeed any job at all. So, for those readers thinking, ‘Sure, dude, I’d be happy too. If I didn’t have to work,’ I hear you. I don’t like you, but I hear you.

Okay, I still like you. And you have a valid point (though it may also be pointed out that some people don’t actually enjoy retirement).

I find that my unemployed self — which was already unemployed before the pandemic, by the way — is actually happier now due to staying at home, caring for bees, relocating spiders, working in the garden, digging out a storm drain, attempting house repairs myself.

I prefer this to the old life of driving around town, running errands, making plans with people, eating out, shopping for groceries, going to the hardware store for stuff I didn’t need, sitting in traffic, going to the doctor or dentist, sitting in more traffic.

Speaking of doctors, I took better care of my body during the pandemic. I thought, let’s see if I can push the next visit to the doctor or dentist two or three years out, instead of one. Let’s see if I can take extra good care of my teeth and not break my foot or — as I did while playing ice hockey a few years ago — tear a bicep.

Ice hockey. That was a Covid casualty. I don’t think I’ll go back to it now, especially since I’m still trying to eke out another six months before any medical appointments. Hockey increases the risk of doctor visits.

Not playing the sport anymore is a bummer, I guess. But I don’t miss the 40 minutes driving across town. Nor do I miss the late-night times for games, nor how bad I sucked at the sport.

I do count hockey as a loss. But I count all the other stuff as a big win, especially the pleasant realization that I’m capable of being happy doing almost nothing at all. In fact, I kind of prefer it.

I remember taking a personality test when I was still in grade school, just for the fun of it. The results showed ‘forestry’ as a good career for me.

I scoffed at that.

Forestry! Shows how much this test knows. I’m gonna do something a hell of a lot fancier and more important than forestry!

But today forestry strikes me as more important and likely more rewarding than most of the jobs I did take.

Not that I’m putting in an application for forestry jobs. Home life suits me fine.

Posted in DUMB SHIT I'VE DONE, ICE HOCKEY, SELF HELP, SPIRIT | 24 Comments

CONVERSATION WITH A SPIDER

I always feel pretty good about myself when I relocate a spider from the house to the garden. But the experience probably feels different for the spider.

If the two of us could talk, the conversation might go like this:

“What the hell? What’s happening?”

“I’m taking you outside.”

“HELP!”

“I’m not going to hurt you. I’m taking you to the garden.”

“No! Please! No, no, no –“

“Listen, if my wife sees you in the house, she’ll kill you. The garden will be much safer.”

“No, no, no, please –“

“You’ll be fine.”

“Oh god, it feels like I’m going to pass out.”

“I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. Can you try sitting with the discomfort for a second?”

“What?”

“In the human world, we sometimes say that if you — “

“NOT OUTSIDE, I’M BEGGING YOU –“

“Oh Jesus Christ, all right.”

“What just happened? You stopped walking.”

“I stopped so you’d stop screaming.”

“Was I screaming? I didn’t even hear it. It was like I went outside my body …. Are we really doing this? ARE WE STAYING INSIDE THE HOUSE?”

“Just this one time. But stay away from my wife and kids. They won’t be as nice as I was.”

“I AM SO HAPPY! I HAVE NEVER BEEN THIS HAPPY IN MY ENTIRE LIFE!”

“All right, all right. Just stay out of sight, okay?”

Anyway, this is the conversation I imagine. And in its own absurd way, it feels plausible enough. What appears heroic to one party — I’m saving you! — may feel unwelcome, disorienting, or just plain terrifying to the other, especially when there’s a big difference in size, status, or power. And while there’s always the risk of anthropomorphizing animals and projecting onto them human feelings or behaviors, I think there’s an equal, if not greater risk in the other direction — that is, the under-imagining of an animal’s experience, or the outright ignoring of its plain goals and wishes.

As the writer Melanie Challenger points out in How to Be Animal, we humans have largely forgotten that we’re animals ourselves and that all creatures — regardless of species — want some of the same basic things, including the avoidance of pain, injury, captivity, or premature death.

If you ever stop and watch a spider spin a web, it makes you think twice about sweeping away the next web you see. So much patience and precision go into a web! And where the hell is all that silk coming from? Up close, it looks like a magic trick.

Spider webs can also be used to stop bleeding if you’re in the outdoors and don’t have better options. Webs have been used this purpose since ancient times. I don’t know how it works exactly. You can look it up at the same time you’re googling ‘night soil.’

Symbolically, spiders are associated with creativity, especially storytelling (‘weaving a web’). So as a writer maybe I appreciate that aspect, too. Maybe I see them as kindred spirits.

Now it’s true that a spider likely lives more in the moment than humans do. Once I plop him down in the garden, that’s his new reality. He’s not looking back in time or bemoaning his fate. But also there are more predators outside the house. In my attempt at mercy I may not have helped him much.

For now, I’ll look the other way and pretend I don’t see the next spider which crosses my path in the house. But generally, if I’m relocating one, it’s because someone in my family has become aware of its presence and is pretty focused on its prompt removal. My family has less patience for ethical dithering. (My specialty!)

I’ll continue to study the problem and report back. All things being equal, I prefer not to cause panic — for my family or the spider.

Posted in ANIMALS | 32 Comments