Monday, January 28, 2008

Backyard Visitor

A newcomer visited our backyard this morning.

A crow came by briefly. It's the first time this bird has landed in our yard, but that's not very exciting, and it's not why I'm telling this story.

Around 7:20, I was just about to make some coffee when I looked out the window. There were no birds on the feeders hanging from the shepherds' hooks. There were no birds along the fence where I had put out sunflower seeds earlier in the morning. There were no birds around the suet block, either. That's strange, I thought. Birds generally feed in the early morning.

I looked toward the row of hedges that separates our backyard from our neighbor's for a clue. That's where the sparrows and black-capped chickadees tend to hang out. No birds. I looked at our row of gardens, the place where the juncos hop and peck on the ground. No birds.

And then I saw why: Perched on the hedge was a sharp-shinned hawk. Its body was erect. Its head swiveled from side to side; its yellowish eyes scanned the surroundings for prey. The hawk knew breakfast was hiding in the hedges, and it regularly looked down and tried to follow the movements of the sparrows flitting within the hedge. From time to time, the hawk would take two exaggerated hops along the hedge, shaking the limbs as it tried to flush the sparrows out.

The scheme wasn't working, so the hawk moved to plan B. It would spy a sparrow within the hedge and swoop downward, crashing through the branches as it pursued the little bird. But sparrows are fast, and they can maneuver more adroitly within the tangled confines of the hedge. Time and time again, the hawk tried. But it was having no luck. The sparrows had homefield advantage.

After about ten minutes of this avian version of cat-and-mouse, the hawk perched itself again on top of the hedge. It seemed to be thinking, "If I can't get it myself, I'll have it come to me." The hawk puffed its chest, billowing its feathers to protect itself against a stiff northerly wind. It waited for its prey to arrive.

After about ten minutes, I saw a bird zoom from my left toward the feeder or the hedge. Already the hawk had lifted into flight at the bird's approach. Within seconds, the hawk had shot forward to meet the incoming bird, banked sharply to the right and appeared to smash against the side of the neighbor's garage, located at the end of the hedge row. I saw a small bird fly away from right to left.

The hawk was now on the ground. It appeared to be evaluating what went wrong. But then I noticed that it was gripping something with its three yellow talons. It had caught a bird after all, a sparrow. I never saw it happen. Either the hawk had snagged the arriving bird or had snatched another in the melee. In any event, breakfast was served. With quick, jerky pecks, the hawk began disassembling its prey. Feathers scattered in the wind as the hawk tore into the carcass. Little specks of blood wet the snow. Within moments, the victim's head had been severed, and the hawk drilled into the stump that remained. Soon, there was nothing left except a smattering of feathers and a wing on the ground. The hawk left, and Tigger, our neighbor's cat, had already come to search for leftovers.

I guess I should feel sorry for the sparrow. But I couldn't help but be fascinated at the spectacle of watching this sharp-shinned hawk hunt for food in an unlikely setting.

I haven't seen a single bird in our yard since the encounter. I hope they're not too traumatized.

I wonder if we'll see the hawk again.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Seagull Smarts

I always thought seagulls were dumb, but I may have to revise that.

Remember how they were portrayed in "Finding Nemo?" A herd of birds hypnotically chanting "mine, mine, mine..." as they pursued our favorite clown fish huddled in a pelican's bill.

They don't appear that much smarter in real life. I watch them circling fishing boats, a swirl of snapping beaks, as they jostle each other for scraps from the day's catch.

But yesterday while I was running on a bike path along the water, I watched as a seagull swooped upward before me, its arched wings catching the wind's current as it levitated higher and higher. Then the seagull dropped something on the rocks, and it made a crack. I watched as the seagull descended, landed on the rocks and inspected what it had dropped. Then, I watched it eat.

Then I figured out what had happened.

You probably already know. But if you don't, the seagull was dropping a clam on the rocks to shatter its shell, so it could eat the meat inside. How ingenuous. It makes me wonder how they learned how to do it. Is it hereditary, passed from parent to baby? Is it evolutionary, an adaptation to the environment? Or are there some genius seagulls out there?

As I pondered this, I realized I was making a lot of crunching sounds on the concrete path. I looked down and saw shell fragments all over the place. Clearly, the seagulls were dropping the shells on to the bike path as well as on the rocks. I didn't see any shells in the surrounding grass, so I can only guess that the gulls had figured out they could accomplish the same thing dropping the shells on the path as they could on the rocky shore.

And that made me wonder even more whether genetics or evolution was coming into play here. Did some seagull drop a shell on the path and make the connection that the path would yield the same result as the rocks? Did other seagulls notice and imitate what they had seen? Are the "smarter" seagulls surviving better as a result? Or is it all just happenstance?

I don't know the answer, but it sure makes me wonder.

But I know now that seagulls are smarter than I thought. At least some of them.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In The Tank

I think a lot of people are hurting nowadays.

I've been thinking about the economy lately. I've wondered whether the downturn has been a self-fulfilling prophecy, a correction of an unrealistically bloated housing market and ridiculously low interest rates, a comeuppance for those who have mired themselves in debt they never could afford or some combination of the above.

If I were to hazard a guess, I would say it's a blend of all those things.

The hair stylist I go to has been cutting hair for more than 20 years. She's built a fairly solid business, which she now operates out of her home. I walked in today for my $15 cut, and she tells me she's looking for a part-time job to supplement her income. She asked about delivering papers. She may wait tables. She already offers dog sitting and dog walking services. She's a single woman who lives pretty frugally as best as I can judge. Yet she's living month-to-month. And for now at least, she has little to retire on.

There are five homes within a block of our house that are for sale. At least two are owner-occupied. They haven't moved for months. There are dozens more around our picturesque town on the bay. I walk by these houses day after day, and the For Sale signs remain, as if they've become lawn adornments. Nobody can sell, because apparently nobody is able, or willing, to buy.

A police officer three houses down sold his Toyota Tundra for a Nissan Something because it was killing him to fill up the truck.

People are feeling it in ways big and small.

We are, too. We've turned down the thermostat, keeping it really cool at night and during the day. We watch TV under blankets. I'm writing this now wearing long underwear.

I know people who have bought into the apocalyptic news that the economy is like a rowboat that blows a new hole every other day. I know people who bought homes they realistically couldn't afford but pulled it off through sub-prime loans and the rosy belief that their home's value would continue to rise at the pace that it had been. I know people who are overloaded in debt, owing thousands of dollars in credit card bills and able to pay only the interest.

It matters less how people got themselves in their respective predicaments than how or whether they can get themselves out.

I wonder whether the stimulus plan bandied about the president and the Congress will help much. Don't get me wrong: I'd welcome $1600. We'll either stash it away or use it to pay bills. I know economists want us to spend it on goods, but I guess if we pay bills with it, we're spending, too.

Still, it just doesn't seem like it'll do that much. It won't help my hairstylist much. It won't help our neighbors sell their homes. And I doubt the policeman will use it as a down payment on a new truck.

The tank needs more water than that. Is it up to the government to fill it?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Holiday Meaning

I didn't do anything special for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

I feel guilty about that.

I knew about the holiday, of course, and I know about King.

But knowing about King and taking a few moments to remember why there's a day named after him are two separate matters.

I think many of us are in the same boat about our holidays in general. Veterans Day, Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, Independence Day (and Victory over Japan Day for those of us in Rhode Island, the only state that still marks it as a holiday). These holidays kind of pass us by in the blur of our lives. We know they're there, but we've forgotten why.

We know why there's Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Yom Kippur, Ramadan and other religious days. We know why there's Thanksgiving. Most of us pause for momentary reflection on these days (depending on religious persuasion and nationality, of course). We remember why they're special, even sacred.

But not the other holidays. Can anyone name the presidents for which Presidents' Day is named? I would say Washington and Lincoln, and I'd be guessing after that. Maybe Jefferson? Teddy Roosevelt? I'm just not sure.

But I'm sure that most of you don't know the answer either. (It is below.)

I'm not casting blame. These holidays come, and they go, and sometimes I scarcely notice. I spent nearly the entire King Day holed up working on the syllabus for my college class and some lesson plans. I spent Independence Day watching the annual parade in our town and grilling with my wife, father and stepmom. I couldn't tell you what I did for Veterans Day.

Year before last, I did do something on Veterans Day. I went to a memorial ceremony at the old town cemetery. I walked there, about two miles from where we live. I wanted to pay my respects. I was also curious. The ceremony was held on a hill, just off an overlook of Narragansett Bay. It was early morning, and the air was crisp. There was dew on the graves, and the miniature flags planted in the ground flapped in the breeze.

Dozens of veterans, young and old, dressed in their uniforms, were there. They snapped to attention when the national anthem was played. They stood in silent salute when the names were read of veterans who died that year. They even applauded some of the politicians who spoke.

I was happy I had gone. I felt like I had taken the time to remember the importance of Veterans Day. I saw how important remembering is in the eyes of those who had served our country. But I felt guilty I had never shown my face at a ceremony like this before.

I had forgotten what the holiday was about.

Today, I forgot what the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is about.

I'm not the only one.

Let's remember next time.

(Presidents' Day – Honors all presidents, but originally made a holiday to honor two iconic presidents, Lincoln and Washington, whose birthdays were in February.)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Trash Hound

I think it's high time we investigate our dog.

You see, Hviezda is a trash hound. She is an inveterate raider of garbage. And we want to know why. Just tonight, as I was heading upstairs to write a magazine article, she passed me on her way downstairs with something in her mouth. She nary gave me a glimpse as she proceeded into the living room, lay down, and began gnawing on whatever it was she had pilfered. It was a tube of toothpaste. Crest Vanilla.

At least she cares about oral hygiene.

But that's not the point. Just a few minutes after we had gotten home from a walk, Hviezda had sauntered upstairs, stuck her snout in the trash can in the bathroom and snatched the toothpaste tube. All while she knew I was downstairs.

Now that is brazen. And it needs to stop.

Trouble is, this behavior has been going on for a while, and we're not sure how to put an end to it. It started a few years ago, if memory serves. Sporadic swoops into the kitchen garbage, usually because a tasty morsel of chicken or some other salivating food had been thrown away. (For the record, we waste almost no food, so we're talking minuscule scraps.) Understandable, we supposed. After all, a chicken tender sure is tempting.

Then the naughtiness escalated. The year I was at Columbia getting my master's degree, my wife would come home nearly every day to find the kitchen garbage can knocked over and its contents strewn about. Orange peels, banana peels, coffee grounds, tuna fish cans ... you get the picture. Pretty messy. Some days, Hviezda would up the ante, ferrying each item of trash into the living room and arranging them in a pile, as if she were creating a work of art. Damn if she didn't seem proud of her work.

So, during these years, we've gotten sort of a bead of Hviezda's favorite trash treats. Here's a sample:

1. Paper towels with turkey bacon grease.
2. Soap boxes
3. Any kind of chocolate
4. Broccoli stubs
5. Green bean tips
6. Any meat product

At least Hviezda's choices of garbage snacks are relatively innocuous. I remember one poor girl whose dog, Jackson, loved to snack on other dogs' poo. This was in Providence, and we'd take our dogs in the winter to a fenced-in softball field, so they could romp around. This girl would let Jackson off the leash, and Vroom! he was off in search of the nearest, freshest pile of droppings. Not a pretty sight. Or smell, I'd imagine.

So, back to our problem. At times, we've thought about setting up a video camera to catch her in the act. But what would that do? Prove something we already know? Showcase her technique? Doesn't make much sense, now does it? Reprimanding, as you might guess, doesn't work either.

There's a school of thought that says dogs are incapable of associating a past act with a present punishment; in other words, you must catch them in the act to have them understand why you're mad at them. I'm not so sure I buy into that. All I know is that often when we come home and see the trash has been emptied, Hviezda is nowhere to be found. Then, minutes later, she'll appear, simultaneously wagging her tail and with her head bowed in remorse. It's apparent she can't decide whether to be overjoyed to see us or she's bracing herself for the scolding she thinks she'll receive.

That all brings me back to the fact that we've run out of options, short of producing no garbage.

Or buy a better dog-proof garbage can.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Policy Paradox

Let me see if I can get this straight.

Our president has been in office for seven years – nearly two terms in all. Our president's Middle East policy is centered on establishing peace and stability in that region.

Yet our president this week made his first visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Israel is our staunchest ally in the very region in which our president wants to foster democracy. It's also a flash point for the one cause that continually foils overarching peace and stability in the Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian question.

Yet our president, despite the glaring importance of pushing for talks and a possible resolution to Israeli-Palestinian strife, never found the time to visit until now.

Saudi Arabia is arguably our closest Arab ally, a friendship built on economic (read: oil) and strategic (read: American military bases) planks. Yet our president, despite record high oil prices and growing military threats in the region, never found the time to visit until now.

Our president led America and a few other countries in an invasion of Iraq. The purpose has shifted over time, but let's go with his administration's current justification: To establish a democratic model for the region.

Saudi Arabia is not a democracy. It is an oligarchy.
Egypt is not a democracy. It is an autocracy.
Syria is not a democracy. It, too, is an autocracy.
Iran is not a democracy. It is a theocracy.
Jordan is not a democracy. It bars some parties from participating in elections.
Lebanon is not a democracy. It is a mess.
Turkey is a democracy. But it was before our president entered office.

Five years and 3,000 American bodies later, even Iraq is not a democracy. Its government, writes Kenneth
Katzman, a Middle East specialist for the Congressional Research Service, "is the product of a U.S.-supported election process designed to produce a democracy, although many now believe it produced a sectarian government."

The returns are in. Our president's foreign policy is a joke.

And I'm not laughing.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Winter Returns

Winter returned with gusto today. I am very happy.

It is January. And this is New England. It's supposed to be winter, and it's supposed to be cold.

But you'd never have known it around here last week, when the thermometer broke into the 50s and took a siesta. Pasty arms and legs revealed themselves about five months early. I even saw landscaping trucks making the rounds.

Then the storm came overnight and dumped heavy, wet snow on us. Temperatures fell back to freezing, and order had been restored.

We'll see how long it lasts.

Have you all noticed the extreme vacillations? It's happening nationwide. Hurricane force winds from a storm in the Pacific Northwest that plops 10 feet of snow on the Sierra Nevadas
in a single day. Tornadoes in January in parts of the Midwest. The weather is like a yo-yo across America, except maybe in the Southwest, where it's got two settings: hot and hotter.

Yes, yes, weather is always extreme. Climate is random. The dynamics shaping the oceans and atmosphere (by far the two main components of climate) are complex. And you can't look at a snapshot of the weather and draw some broad, general conclusion.

Yes, but there is little doubt in my mind that what we are seeing are manifestations of global warming. Maybe small, early signals, but signals nonetheless.

A story last month said 2007 was on pace to be the seventh hottest year since record keeping began in 1850. If that holds, 11 of the hottest years on record will have occurred in the past 13 years. That, my friends, is a sign.

The Arctic ice cap set a new low this summer since NASA satellite mapping began in 1979. That, my friends, is another sign.

The Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than before. That, my friends, is yet another sign. (The cause is less certain, however.)

And I hope we all know that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (the main contributor to global warming) continue to rise. That, my friends, is a very bad sign. We know this because hundreds of thousands of years of climatic data tell us that when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere go up, temperature rises are sure to follow.

It's like we're driving down a road with sign after sign telling us the bridge ahead is out, with each sign bigger than the last. But we, the driver, cannot see that far, so we're reluctant to believe we have a plunge ahead.

Our climate, in my mind, is telling us the same thing.

Will we take note?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

One Pricey Lunch

I got a bill from my wife today.

I was working away in my home office when Michelle walked in and presented me with a delicious lunch.

Then she slipped a note on the desk. It read:

Pork sandwich w/pickle, toasted bun: $4.95
Side of chips: $1.25
Half apple: $1.50
Tax: $0.54
200% gratuity: $15.40
TOTAL: 1 back rub

I should have immediately protested, but the sandwich, chips and apple looked too good, and I was too hungry. So, I ate.

I tried to forget about the bill.

Maybe Michelle would forget about it, too, I thought.

Maybe it was a joke, I hoped.

I should know by now that she would forget about it, nor would she have done it as a joke. Michelle loves her back rubs.

Over the course of the day, she asked me when she would receive her "payment."

She was being playful about it, and, really, it's not like she's going to hang it over my head. But I knew she would not forget. Why would she? She had provided a service, and I had gratefully accepted. As it is, Michelle does most of the cooking, and her dishes span a range of cuisines. I love to eat, so I am very thankful. I owe her hundreds of back rubs for the wonderful meals she has made.

But me being me, I conveniently forgot about all that. So, I played a little hardball: I challenged her on her pricing.

"You know," I said, "that was an expensive meal – especially the gratuity."
"It's a transaction," she said, grinning. "You ate it, so you've got to pay up.

Well, that sure worked.

I was fast running out of options. "Well, you should quit nagging me about it then."
"I wouldn't nag you if you'd just honor the transaction," she said, perhaps annoyed that I was getting all accusatory on her.

She added: "If you don't want to give the back rub, I'll accept cash instead."

I'll give the back rub tonight.

But I'll make it a short one.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Litterati

I'm a trash man.

About every time I take a stroll with Hviezda, the Irish Setter with the Slovak name, I pick up some trash. I don't mind it, really, so long as some foreign substance doesn't run down my arm or a pathogen worms itself into my body. Mostly I pick up glass bottles of soda and beer or plastic bottles of water, take them home, and deposit them in our blue recycling bin.

Call it my modest execution of civic duty – other than paying property taxes.

Don't get me wrong: We live in a pretty clean town. Well, parts of it anyway. The area around the waterfront is generally clean. One block away, the downtown district of mostly mom n' pop businesses is litter-free. And the common, a quintessential New England urban, rectangular schemata framed by churches, the old town hall and schools, is mostly rid of trash. That's good, because that's where the tourists – and we do get them in the summer – tend to go.

But venture away from visitor central, and you'll see garbage. Our working-class neighborhood is a good example. It's an assembly of streets with mostly neat, well-tended homes. Lots of Portuguese descendants live around here, and they're pretty meticulous about the appearance of their homes and their yards. A favored landscaping touch is to plop a statuette of the Virgin Mary and Christ child on a mat of pink granite-looking stones. It's not exactly natural, but it's a display that just may punch their ticket to heaven.

We opted for the natural look. It's not the Garden of Eden, but it looks pretty nice.

Anyway, the public areas don't get the same treatment as the private ones. I know this, because I pick up all sorts of stuff on my street. Cigarette packs (Marlboro Reds appear the smoke of choice), loose paper, envelopes, small car parts. Today, I picked up a Wendy's meal. There it was, in the middle of the street. I know exactly what this litterbug had for dinner. Classic hamburger, fries and a Coke. The remains were still in the bag. I also picked up a flattened Bud Light can. And some wadded paper. I wanted to pick up a pink slipper, but it was lodged under the right front tire of a pickup truck. I've given up trying to pick up cigarette butts.

I just don't understand what possesses people to jettison their trash on the streets. Do they think there's some trash fairy to pick it all up? Do they not understand it gets washed into storm sewers and gushed into our waterways, the places where we fish for food, draw water to drink and swim? Do they not understand it gets stuck in bushes and hedges, clotted against fences, wrapped around trees? I just don't get it.

I remember standing on the sidewalk in New York City and watching trash swirl in circles, as if the pieces of garbage were playing a very speedy version of duck-duck-goose. I know littering is an issue that plays out everywhere.

I just don't understand why it has to happen.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Traffic Travails

I just remembered how much I despise traffic.

I had completed some paperwork this afternoon for the Communications class I'm teaching at Rhode Island College and was on my way home. Rhode Island, as you know, is a small state. In fact, it's the nation's smallest. It doesn't advertise this, but then again, neither does Delaware. Would you?

Anyway, Lil' Rhody also is the nation's second most densely populated state after New Jersey. Let's make a comparison: There are one million people living in Rhode Island. There are 1.8 million people in Nebraska. Yet you can fit 76 Rhode Islands in Nebraska. No wonder the roads seem so expansive and vacant in the Cornhusker State and so clogged in the Ocean State.

My point is you add a lot of people with their cars and cram them into a small space with limited room for roads and voila, you get congestion. Providence is a pretty small city compared to typical American metropolises, but I can see now how a transportation group rated it as one of the worst bottlenecks. in the country.

And it was in that bottleneck that I sat for some time, grimacing and groaning.

The good news is I rarely get caught in these traffic jams. My commute is nil as a freelance writer, and my classes have been early afternoon affairs, so driving to the schools has barely registered on the Frustration Index.

I don't know how folks do a long, daily commute. I guess they grind their way through it, and, in time, get used to it. Maybe some like it; after all, it is alone time. You can sing as if you're in the shower, call a few friends, or plan your life for the next week.

But, me, I'd rather be somewhere else than stuck on a piece of asphalt.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Gut of Goo

This is not a New Year's resolution, but my tummy sure could use a little tucking.

A strange ring of flab cameoed around my midsection sometime during the time I was eating, sitting, reading, opening gifts and otherwise barely moving around my in law family's house in Iowa during the holidays.

My excuse was that it was dang cold, and I couldn't run outside. You see, I'm a regular runner, and I enjoy it. I like it so much, in fact, that I'll run outside in shorts even when it's below freezing. Then again, I run in shorts, because I left my running tights (is that the right description? It sounds like something from "Flashdance.") on a train last spring, and I'm too stubborn (or cheap) to buy another. But the weather in Iowa wasn't being sympathetic to my plight. For the first week I was there, Mother Nature dumped two snowstorms on us and locked the thermostat well into the teens. I can deal with numbing cold and sloshing through snow, but even that was too cold to chance leaving a good part of me bare in the name of exercise.

So, I plumped a little.

I'm a thin guy (some would say skinny) who has always been able to eat what I want. And I tell you that means a lot of sour cream (yum). I consider that biological blessing akin to a divine right. But alas, the gods have revoked the all-you-can-eat charter, it seems, because that rounded area in my gut is no illusion.

I noticed it the first time when I looked into the mirror after a particularly rich and delicious meal. There was the bulge, and I for a moment I thought I was peering into a mirror at a carnival. But the rest of my proportions seemed about right, so I had to junk that theory. No, it was a ball, alright, and it was not bouncing. I kind of just stood there and looked at it, torn between amusement and disgust.

I had almost the exact experience last April as I was finishing up a master of arts degree in science journalism at Columbia University. I was in the midst of a grueling stretch, with my thesis due and finals in my science classes looming. I was getting little sleep and no exercise. My brain was working hard, which, for me, meant I was eating like mad. That's when I saw the flab, and it was shocking.

I have been blessed with a kinetic personality, a high metabolism, and a dog who's very demanding about her walks. So, before that revelation at school, I had never had a brush with fat. I greatly empathize with those who do. I also realize how difficult and demanding it is to lose weight, a notion driven home to me even more when I wrote a story about obesity in Rhode Island and a doctor's attempt to help people who are battling the disease.

My heart goes out to them, and I wish them well.

Maybe I should get those running tights after all -- and soon.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Back to Work

The holidays are over.

Likely you have had that sinking feeling already. But I just got mine.

My wife and I returned last night from a two-week trip to Iowa to see her family and a few old friends from our time at The Tribune newspaper in Ames, Iowa. So, now comes the task of reestablishing order in our lives.

The first order of business, for some reason, was sifting through a pile of mail on the kitchen table. Michelle, in a spasm of activity around midnight, made the initial pass, resulting in about three pounds of junk mail, including a multitude of catalogs mostly from companies I've never heard of. She also sorted out mail addressed to me. I'll attend to that later today, I guess, but I can tell you I am not excited. I mean, is there anything fun about mail nowadays?

We also need to get busy stowing gifts, food and other prizes from Michelle's generous family. My haul included all sorts of stuff for birds. A feeder, a cage designed especially for finches, bird socks (for finches, black-capped chickadees and other birds that can cling to them and feed), sunflower seeds for cardinals and fruit and nut bars for cardinals and other birds.

I'm no ornithologist, but I really like looking at birds. Even grackles, who congregate on the eave of our garage, peer inside the open door, and raid Hviezda's dog food from the bowl while she's sleeping. We've been trying to drum up more bird species to visit our yard – with mixed success. This fall, the Lewis buffet was patronized by house finches, American goldfinches, mourning doves, more sparrows than I can count, a family of cardinals, a few blue jays, grackles, juncos, one or two tufted titmouses and one passing oriole. Not bad diversity for an urban yard, but I'm hopeful that some advance work and planning will yield a more diverse bounty this spring.

It won't be anything like what Michelle's mother and sister have going on in their yard. It's like a 24-hour truck stop at their place. All kinds of birds coming and going. They've got all the species we have but in far greater abundance. And they have some great diversity. There were red-tailed hawks, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, nuthatches, purple finches and other types we could only dream of. They live near the Cedar River, which helps, but they've really set up an enticing locale. If I were a bird, I'd call it Club Med. They've got different feeders, including a drawer mounted on a pole and filled with bird food. Cardinals love eating from this flat, open area. They've got evergreens near the feeders, where the birds can hang out and hide. They've got bird baths, and this Christmas, Michelle's mother got an electric water heater for one.

Well, we can't compete with that kind of setup. But we'll make the best of it. Advertise for us.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Iowa Caucus

I’m sitting at a VW dealership this morning in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I’m getting the car checked out before we return to Rhode Island, a two day-drive that begins tomorrow morning.

That’s not very interesting, and I know that. But last night sure was.

You see, the Iowa caucuses took place last night, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Not even in Slovakia, where demonstrators pelted the prime minister’s residence with eggs after he unilaterally voided a referendum to join NATO. Not even the protests that accompanied the abduction of the Slovak president’s son (He was stuffed into a car allegedly by goons affiliated with the prime minister, forced to down a fifth of vodka and was found days later in Austria. I’m not kidding.)

I don’t want to get weepy-eyed or go 2000 Bush-Gore on you, but this story is how about one vote did count.

Being from Rhode Island and generally law-abiding citizens, my wife, Michelle, and I couldn’t vote. So, we joined a couple of friends who were voting in the Democratic caucus. They live in Bertram, a tiny settlement outside Cedar Rapids. It’s a hilly, woody area, with no stoplight and no stores. The downtown, if you can call it that, consists of one church and two white clapboard buildings – one is the old city hall, called Township Hall, and the other is the new city hall.

Michelle’s friend, Laura, gave us directions. “You get into town and there’s a stop sign. The railroad tracks are in front of you. Don’t cross the railroad tracks. Follow the street and it takes a turn, but don’t cross the tracks. It turns again, and you’ll see a playground on the right. Yeah, and don’t cross the railroad tracks. There’s another stop sign, and, uh, I think you go straight. Keep the railroad tracks on your right. Don’t cross them. You’ll take a left and we’re up the hill on the right.”

She paused. “Did I tell you not to cross the railroad tracks?”

We arrived about 6:30, a half-hour before the caucus was to begin. Already, a line had formed outside the door. I peered inside, and the place was jammed. The mood was festive. All you needed were some balloons, horns and booze, and it could have been a New Year’s Eve party.

“Wow! Way to go Iowa!” a woman yelled as she stuck her neck out the door and scanned us shivering in line.

Laura and her husband, Dave, were waiting to enter. Their son, Davey, was with them. Davey is a very involved 9-year-old. For weeks, he liked Chris Dodd, mostly because he had gotten his picture with him. But his allegiance now wavered between Joe Biden, who had posed for a picture with Davey the other day, and John Edwards, whom he had seen recently – alas, with no picture. None of this would matter except that Davey’s father was following his son’s orders – and it could all boil down to who had the best photo.

We inched closer to the entrance. An Obama supporter turned to Dave and said, “Guess you guys will get pretty neighborly tonight.”

“Yeah,” Dave said, “maybe a bit too neighborly.”

Township Hall is a one-room affair with cream-colored walls and a hardwood floor. The only decorations were 8” X 11” pieces of paper taped to the walls with the candidates’ names printed in black. It’s very crowded and stuffy inside.

Michelle and I waded through the crowd to the observer area, a raised platform that looks like a long coat rack that’s been turned on its side. From this corner of the room, we have a great view of the scene unfolding before us. The Obama supporters are massed in a corner near the entrance. Edward’s supporters clog another corner, blocking any possible access to a hall leading to the restrooms. Clinton’s supporters are mostly in the kitchen, but they spill out in the main room, overwhelming the space reserved for Biden and Dodd. Richardson’s group is wedged between the observer platform and registration for new voters, which is doing great business this evening. It’s a madhouse, and if there were fewer white-haired folks, you’d think you were in the midst of a mosh pit at a rock concert.

There’s one exit, so far as I can see. My wife leans over to me. “The Rhode Island fire marshal would be shitting bricks,” she says.

The precinct leader yells to get our attention. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

It feels strange to recite the Pledge. I’m pretty sure I haven’t said the words “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all,” since grade school. Yet as we ramble along, speaking in a clear, unified voice, I feel a surge of pride and patriotism. Pride in being part of the first official stab at nominating the person who may be the next president. Patriotism in the zeal by which we’re reciting this oath to nationhood. America’s founders would have been proud.

There are 270 people in attendance, a figure arrived at as each person yells a number sequentially, like playing tag. “We just had 75 people in 04,” a Hillary supporter says.

The attendance number is important, because it determines whether a candidate will be “viable.” What that means is a candidate must receive 15 percent of the total present to move into the next round. In Bertram, the magic number is 41. If a candidate doesn’t have that number, there is no way he or she can grab any of the precinct’s eight delegates.

This is where the caucus gets complicated, yet exciting.

The counting begins. It’s clear the Clinton, Edwards and Obama camps have met the threshold. It’s also obvious that Obama has the most of the three, because the group has to go outside to do a headcount. The others are murkier. A woman heading the Richardson camp is counting heads in front of us, and she’s stopped at 19, less than half needed to move into the next round. There are some puzzled expressions from some in the group, as if they’re thinking, “What now?”

“If we’re not viable, you don’t have to join anyone else,” Richardson’s group’s leader tells them.

What she means is that anyone allied with candidates who didn’t meet the viability number (41 in this precinct) can be wooed to join those candidates who did meet the threshold. Or they can remain uncommitted. They are now free agents in a sense. They can elect to join up with another candidate or go home.

Like stuffed animals at a carnival, they are the prize of the moment. You see, the candidates still in contention now want to add as many of these free agents they can, to augment their total and thus to give them a better shot at obtaining more of those eight delegates.

Confused? You’ll see.

The Biden and Richardson supporters are now the most popular folks in the room. Dave, wearing a Biden sticker, is one of them. The courtship begins.

A cry of “Hillary, Hillary!” erupts in the room. The Obama supporters react quickly, drowning the Hillary chant with shouts of their own candidate’s name. Not to be outdone, the Edwards supporters begin yelling. It is bedlam.

As the chanting continues, a white-haired lady with an Edwards sticker on her red sweater has snuck in among the Biden/Richardson supporters. “Go to Edwards, go to Edwards,” she says in her best sweet-old lady impression.

Meanwhile, a Hillary supporter with a rounded face and wearing a Green Bay Packers coat is yelling at the top of her lungs, and for just a moment the place falls quiet.

“Don’t you realize ¬– you’re going to give it Obama if you don’t join one of the two other groups!” she screams, desperation in her voice.

“Better than giving it to Clinton!” a Biden man fires back.

The persuasive arsenal exhausted, the group acts. Dave and about nine of the other newly undecideds shuffle over to Edwards, to roaring applause from his camp and dejected looks from Clinton’s side of the room.

It’s time for the final count. The announced tally is Clinton, 66; Edwards, 85; Obama 112.

If this were a popular vote, Obama would have won decisively. But since the eight delegates are calculated on a percentage basis, he gets three. Clinton gets two delegates, even though she had 46 fewer supporters than Obama.

Edwards is the big winner this night in Bertram. His total works out to 2.51 of the eight available delegates. The number gets rounded up, and he nets three delegates.

So, in other words, if Dave or one of the other undecideds, just one of them had gone to Obama or Clinton, or had remained uncommitted, Edwards’ percentage would have slipped below 2.5, and he would’ve gotten two delegates, same as Clinton. Instead, he got three, same as Obama.

Dave’s vote really did count.

So It Begins

Well, it all starts here.

My first blog. Unlike some professional swimmer, this is an ungainly dive into writing about things that I hope will be interesting to some and not boring to all.

I guess we’ll have to see about that.

I had thought for some time whether to start a blog. As a journalist who specializes in science and environmental writing, my craft is confined to stories, with well-defined and specific sources. There is a start, and there is an end. There is an inherent structure to this kind of writing. Blogging is more like a stream-of-consciousness diary, a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks variety.

Well, maybe not that unstructured but a venture nonetheless.

So, come along for a stroll, and we’ll see where we end up.