Friday, July 23, 2010

Mississippi Kites

There is a family of Mississippi Kites that has been nesting in the next-door neighbor's tree almost as long as we have lived in this house. I like these particular birds for three reasons:

1. They eat bugs.

2. The make that Northern Exposure noise.

3. They look cool sailing around the neighborhood and staring down from the treetops.

The family has been pretty successful over the years, and now we have the silly things all over the neighborhood. Yesterday, one of the juveniles was learning to swoop, dive-gliding from altitude and swooping down between the trees in the neighbor's yard. It looked like great fun. If it hadn't been 94 degrees (F) outside, and me late for work, I would have stayed longer to watch.

I've written a couple of fairly depressing posts lately, so this was going to be an upbeat post about youthful enthusiasm and the joy of learning new things. Then, yesterday I came home to this:

Yep, my neighbor cut down their tree. Seriously? This is how it's going to be this summer? Oh, well. Maybe next year they will nest in our yard.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Wasp wars

Photo from here

I was mowing the lawn yesterday when I discovered a nest of yellowjackets. And when I say "discovered," I mean I ran over their nest with the lawnmower. For those not familiar, yellowjacket wasps are small, aggressive predators that live in large colonies and like to bite the heads off of bees for fun. They also seem to really like Mountain Dew, so they are the scourge of southern parks.  Their nests are typically underground, with a couple of entrance holes about 2 cm (~3/4 in.) across.

I have played yellowjackets and lawn mower before, so I reacted pretty quickly* and only got one sting. Unfortunately, the little bitch got me right in the back of my knee. How do they know? Except for maybe my eyelids and personals, I can't think of a more tender spot.

I consider myself somewhat of a nature lover, and I value the diversity of life, even in the suburbs. We never spray insecticide around the house, and I don't use chemicals on the lawn, if I can avoid it. Heck, we even humanely trap itinerant mice and haul them off to the woods, where they can be eaten by snakes and owls as God intended. But my ancestors didn't claw their way to the top of the food chain for me to have to avoid parts of my yard. And I don't negotiate with terrorists.  So poison ivy gets the Roundup treatment when it pops up, and I keep a can or two of Wasp and Hornet spray handy for occasions like this one.

I stripped to the waist, painted myself blue, and staged a series of lightning raids, wielding my Black Flag like a flamethrower, eventually obscuring the entrance to the nest completely with insecticide foam.** Little wasps were dropping like, um, flies. Oh, the horror! We're a frightening species when the blood lust is upon us, and especially dangerous when injured, I hear. Or is it cornered? Maybe that's tigers.

This morning I went back to dig up the nest, eliminating any survivors. The last thing I need is witnesses. Also, I made the mistake once of thinking a nest was dead after an initial assault, only to have the little buggers having at me again in a few days. Much to my surprise (and relief), it looks like an armadillo beat me to the punch. I hope the little guy didn't get too much of a buzz from the spray. Then again, armadillos aren't my favorite critters, either. They carry leprosy, and dig big holes in the yard.

Fortunately, I'm not allergic. But I guess I had never been stung in a major joint before. After about two hours, my entire knee stiffened up, and it got very difficult to straighten my leg. Also, the sting burned like a lit cigar. It's a little better today, but the soreness helps me justify my killing spree yesterday. Still, if the Hindus are right about this reincarnation thing, I'm going to be in a world of hurt.

* I find the most effective strategy to be running like Jerry Lewis, flailing one's arms in a windmill pattern, and screaming like a little girl.

** Not a bad name for a band.

Morning after.

So, have you ever had friends that you really like, but you almost never see, and you can't really figure out why? We know a couple like that. She was a co-worker of mine for years, and we became friends within weeks of meeting. Her husband (boyfriend when I met them) is one of those people who bring fun wherever he goes, and he and I were pretty close friends for a time. The Wife loves them both. We have a lot in common, and never have any problem starting or carrying on a four-way conversation, no matter how long it's been since the last time.

We only manage to get together every few years. Last night we met at a restaurant for dinner. We were early and they were late, because that is the way of things. We ate appetizers, and exotic fish encrusted with things and smothered in other things. We shared enormous desserts, featuring mountains of fresh-whipped cream. We drank martinis, and wine, and more wine, and Irish coffee. We talked and laughed, and laughed and talked, and after three and a half hours wandered out of the restaurant wondering why we don't do this more often.

This morning, I think I may know the answer. Anybody remember where we keep the Alka-Seltzer?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Letting go of the rope

A dear friend of my family is dying. Inexorably, painfully, hopelessly dying. Some days are better. Some are hard to bear. But the eventual outcome is not in doubt.

Along the way, he will have spent a double-digit number of weeks in the hospital, an unknown number of days in a rehab facility, uncounted hours being shuffled between the two, and no time in his own bed. He is finished eating, walking or going to the bathroom unassisted. He has so far engaged eight or ten specialists, and not a single general practitioner.* It will -- has already -- cost a fortune.

This is a man who was a proverbial captain of industry only a few years ago. An actual son of a share-cropper, he worked tirelessly to improve his lot and provide for his family for most of the previous century. He created a thriving business, became a pillar of his church, and a force in political discourse. A generation ago, he's a man who would have died unexpectedly in his sleep, or pitched over into his dessert after a big steak dinner and a couple of martinis. Today, he is a frail, frightened shell of his former self, his body struggling to maintain the minimum requirements for continued existence.

It is the way of life, and American medicine, that many of us will live our final days undergoing every procedure, and receiving every medication, for which our insurance will reimburse the medical corporations whose representatives are working so hard to bring our vital signs back into the range where they may consider the course of treatment complete. There is no talk of cure, or even of going home. Address the current issue, get the patient stable, discharge them from your service, and hope for the best, seems to be the only strategy.

I think the end of life is like water-skiiing. When you feel your balance slipping, you can try to right yourself, or let go of the rope and glide to a stop, more or less under control. The trick is in knowing when to let go. Release your grip too soon, and you may miss a chance to correct and ski on. Hang on too long, and you end up dragged face first through the water, sometimes with your swimsuit floating in the water behind you. It's not exactly drowning -- assuming you let go eventually -- but no one would call it fun.

I've reached the age where I think about these things. Not because I want to, or because I think they are interesting, or significant, or cool.  I think about them because they are happening to people close to me. And because I can feel it in my future, the way we once saw graduation, or marriage, or a new car, just over the horizon. It's all the same journey, but the scenery gets darker towards the end.

Ultimately, hanging on or letting go is a personal decision. Maybe the most personal we ever make. I'm not surprised my friend chose to hang on. It is his nature to struggle, and I always assumed that he would not be one to go gentle into that good night.

For myself, I hope I can be less Dylan Thomas and a little more William Cullen Bryant. Of all the ways we can measure the quality of a life, length is not high on my list. Every story has an ending, and I hate stories that go on too long.

* Because we don't have those anymore.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Pressed ham and vanilla wafers

Every so often, normally when I'm getting tired of listening to people blame all of society's ills on the poor, I remember the summer after my first last semester in college, when I worked on a CETA-funded program to provide summer jobs for disadvantaged youth. This particular program entailed loading a couple of hundred high school kids on school buses and taking them out to clean up illegal dumpsites, or pick up trash from the side of the highway.

The day-to-day administration of this little band included myself, my older brother, his future ex-wife, a friend who would later become a preacher only to leave the ministry to work as an over-the-road trucker, and various liberal do-gooders, most of whom did not last the summer. We were called counselors, as if this were some especially shitty summer camp.  We had three or four senior* counselors who drove the buses and provided on-site supervision, and another who floated from site to site, making supply runs and relaying messages to and from the program's administrators when upper-level decisions were required.

Upper level decisions included things like what to do about the six foot wasp nest, or giant snake pit, or dead horse we occasionally ran across at the dumpsites. (That's right. Dead horse. Swear to Baby Jesus.) While we waited for decisions, supplies, or backup,** work would stop at the site and the kids would chase each other around, or braid each other's hair, or find especially disgusting bits of trash to throw at each other. You know, regular teenager stuff. I was possibly the first white boy in Arkansas to have cornrows. Fortunately, they looked really good on me.

It was obvious that some of the kids didn't really have a chance to amount to much. Those kids generally didn't last long. An eighteen year old (not in the program) walked onto a bus and shot one of our fifteen year old boys while we waited to leave one morning. Other kids would just fail to show up one day, and we wouldn't see them again. But mostly these were good kids. Just like your kids, but not as spoiled. They depended on each other, and took care of each other. You could tell that many of them were fending for themselves, or that the money they were making was feeding their family.

They even took care of me. I was really poor at this point, among other things, and rarely had any food for lunch. As far as I was concerned, there were better things for me to do with the pittance I made at that job than feed myself. A group of my kids stopped at their neighborhood grocery every morning and bought pressed ham*** and a bag of vanilla wafers to share for lunch. These weren't Nilla brand wafers. In fact, they probably weren't even vanilla. Just some sort of illa wafers.

Anyway, I digress. About a week after they noticed that I was starving to death, the kids started feeding me. What you do is, you tear a piece of meat in half, fold it once, place it between two illa wafers and eat it like some sort of Soviet-era Oreo from Hell. They're disgusting, but they are great if you are hungry enough, and it was all these kids could afford.

It was incredibly touching that these children, who had been crapped on by life from birth, and had no reason to expect any different in the future, would share with me what  might be their only meal that day. I have never forgotten their unassuming kindness, and while I know that the experience that summer affected some of them in a positive way, I don't see how they could have gotten more from it than I did.  My attitudes about work, and poverty, and facing adversity with grace, were changed forever by a handful of kids from the ghetto and a few scraps of food.

I know that most of those kids have faced an uphill battle since that summer, and too many are probably dead, or in jail, or in some other desperate strait. But I'm sure that many have met whatever situations they faced with as much faith, kindness, and humor as they could muster. Every couple of years, I will put a piece or two of Black Forest ham between Nilla wafers and remember. And hope, and be thankful.

* "Senior" in this case meant more or less 25, and able to buy beer.

** This is what life was like before cell phones. People sat around waiting a lot. And without the Internet, we had no choice but to learn things about each other. It was horrible.

*** Pressed ham is lunch meat that is sort of like SPAM, but not as snooty. And it's conveniently shaped for Wonder bread and sliced about as thick as a Hallmark card.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Home improvement

I haven't really felt bloggy much lately. For one thing, I'm writing pretty seriously for work at the moment, and it takes most of my mental focus. That is, when I'm not drinking wine and watching movies. There's also a fairly traumatic family thing going on these days. I started to write about that, but I don't think I will.

About the only creative thing I've managed to do lately is to make up a word during a most awesome movie we watched the other night. The word is "eurotard." Yeah, I was pretty proud of it, myself.* If I had any patience I would wait for a suitable situation to use it, instead of just tossing it out there like a sweaty black turtleneck. But I don't. So I did.

Things might be looking up, though. This weekend, the wife and I are planning to replace some really large, really old windows in the house. I'm thinking we may get some pictures of serious destruction, and maybe even have a story of a trip to the emergency room. Or two.

Happy Independence Day!

* I know I'm not the first person to think of it. I can google like everyone else. Better than some. But I'm pretty sure I haven't heard it before, so I'm keeping it. Also, I think it's brilliant that there is a line of dance clothing with that name.