Saturday, April 26, 2008

Earth Dazed

We had Earth Day in our town this weekend.

As I've written before, I pick up trash when I walk Hviezda. I'm especially on the lookout for plastic and bottles, because they can be recycled, and metal objects, because I perceive them as being more toxic to nature than, say, a discarded napkin.

Today, though, I participated in a town-wide cleanup. I arrived at the fire station at 9 o'clock sharp, was given a pair of gloves and two trash bags, and my marching orders to pick up trash along the perimeter of the East Burial Grounds. No problem. The grounds are not expansive, extending maybe 3-4 blocks one way and 3 blocks the other. Shouldn't take long, I thought.

Think again, Tex.

You just never realize how much trash is hidden along the roads, jammed up against the curb, peeking out from the weeds, trapped in the chain-link fence, half-buried in the ground. It's here, there, everywhere. And it takes a while to pick it all up.

By the time I finished, I had accummulated an impressive variety of garbage. Most of what I scooped up was the usual suspects – plastic bottles, cups, straws, candy wrappers, cigarette cartons – things you can easily envision being jettisoned from a passing car. There was also a lot of broken glass for some reason. Beer bottles shattered to smithereens, dashed against the granite rocks that had escaped the cemetery fence. It took me a long time to clean those messes.

But I would have gladly picked up glass over cigarette butts. It is truly mind blowing how many cigarette butts line our town's streets. I have noticed them, but it wasn't until I started really looking that I realized just how many butts there are. They're ubiquitous – so much so, I dare add, that they almost become part of the scenery. We don't even notice how commonplace they are. They're wedged in every crack and divot in the pavement, so snugly, in fact, that I had to pry them out. They're in the gardens. They're mixed in with the pebbles, stuck under car tires.

They're a scourge. They're an affront. And they made me mad.

I'm no self-righteous crusader. I used to smoke, socially, when I was out at a bar. Thankfully, I ridded myself of the habit, overcome by guilt that I couldn't be nearly as accomplished athletically as I wanted to be by having a social smoke every now and then. Training and running a marathon was my final breaking of the chain.

So, all I'm trying to say is I have nothing against those who smoke. I'd be a hypocrite if I did. But I do give a merry damn about people who don't dispose properly of their butts. The people who flick them, watching them rotate in the air like it's some game; the people who slam them to the ground, as if they're disgusted they can't rid themselves of the habit; the people who launch them out of their car windows, oblivious to where they may go and what damage they could cause. These people make no sense to me. They treat the Earth like a garbage dump. They don't think. They don't think this is the only planet we've got, and if they only thought about the Earth as if it were the inside of their home, maybe they'd give more of a damn about it. Or, maybe they wouldn't.

Most people aren't animals. Most people take pride in their surroundings, at least their immediate surroundings. But venture outside of that personal space, into public space, and it seems as if the rules change, as if they don't apply anymore. I don't understand this kind of change in thinking.

And the trash is just the beginning of it. We're inflicting so much more pain on our planet, a topic I will return to in a later post.

But on this Earth Day, I feel a little sorry for our planet. Sometimes we treat it so badly.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A New England-style reward

One great reward of living in New England is a day like today.

Actually, we've had a four-day stretch of gorgeous weather. The mornings have been cool, in the 40s. I wear a light coat as I wait at the bus stop. Activity has picked up. People, like hibernating bears, have emerged from their wintertime cubbyholes and are embracing the weather. They stroll the streets, looking inside store windows. A group of older men mill outside the Dunkin' Donuts on the corner, sipping iced coffee (a sure sign of spring right there) and watching the pedestrians and cars go by. Suddenly, you feel as if you have a moment to pause, slow down, and take a look around.

On my walk home, I pass the town green. Children are out in droves, swinging, jumping, hurdling, climbing, falling. Teenage boys in baggy shorts and sleeveless undershirts shoot baskets on the court as a flock of girls standing courtside eye them. The breeze is soft and soothing. The large American flag waves lazily in the gentle breeze. The door to the corner bakery is open, and I can smell the beginnings of what will be tomorrow's bread. An older woman is picking at her garden at one house. Wood is burning in a pit a few houses down. Yesterday evening, I smelled meat on a grill as I was running, and I nearly drooled on myself.

Other signs:
  • I got my first mosquito bite.
  • I sweated this evening as I washed the dishes – the first time that's happened since last summer.
  • I'm not obsessed with checking the water temperature before I take a shower.
  • I've begun sneezing
I noticed leaves on our Japanese maple. They're runts for now, limp, soft and fragile. They seem vulnerable, but they'll grow swiftly, and I won't need to worry about them. The pink flowers already have begun falling from the Japanese cherry tree, yet little green leaves have sprung in their place. The grass is green and full. I need to mow.

I guess I'm so interested in chronicling spring because it is fleeting. Every day bring a change. Maybe a little one, like a new shoot bursting from the ground. Or the budding of a row of flowers, one, two, three as they make their appearance on nature's stage. Or birds with mouthfuls of twigs flitting back and forth, building their seasonal home.

And soon, very soon, spring will yield to summer. The long, hot summer, where life is exuberant but a little bleached.

Right now, everything is fresh and new. I like it that way.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Chair chase

How hard is to get kitchen chairs? At Target, apparently harder than you think.

On March 8, Michelle and I were ambling through the store in Seekonk, Mass., and we spotted a display in the furniture area – a round, black kitchen table and matching black chairs. The table was sturdy, steadied by a vertical trunk and four thick legs arranged in an X-pattern. We knew we needed a new table; the one we had was a rickety affair barely more weight-bearing than a card table. It was time for a replacement, and this one, on sale no less at about $140 fit the bill perfectly. The chairs were sturdy themselves, with an X-shaped back that betrayed a touch of trend but not too modern as to offend the charm of our old Colonial house. Plus, the American Simplicity Cross-Back Side Chairs were on sale, $99 for a pair.

We were thrilled at the prospect of updating our kitchen furniture for less than $400 and with solid pieces at that. But there was a fly in the ointment. The chair weren't available, the representative told us. No matter, he added; here's a rain check that will get you the chairs at the sales price when they're restocked.

"When will that be?" we asked.
"Could be tomorrow," the associate replied. "We get shipments every day."

Happily, we left the store with our table and the imminent prospect of four sleek, sturdy chairs to keep it company.

From time to time for the last six weeks, we have called the Target store asking whether the chairs have arrived. Each time, the answer has been a version of "No, they're not in stock, but call back. They'll be here any day."

We have called back plenty of times. And there have been no chairs. A lot of chairs have arrived at that Target store, but not the ones we had seen at the display that March day, the ones we were told come in shipments all the time.

So, today, two days before our rain check price was due to expire, I called our trusty Target store to find out if the chairs had arrived.

No, came the reply. They're not here.
I wasn't surprised.

They've been discontinued, the associate named Scott told me.

That was a surprise.

So, not only were there no chairs at the store, but none would be coming.
Scott is a nice guy, and he trying to be helpful. The chairs were no longer listed in the store's computerized inventory system, but he did find a listing another way, and told me that two sets were available at the store in Warwick, R.I. and two sets in the store in No. Dartmouth, Mass. As of this morning, the sets were available at the stores. I can reserve them for up to 24 hours.

It took me 25 minutes to get this far, but I was happy. We would get our chairs after all. I dialed the No. Dartmouth store. After being disconnected the first time, I got someone in the furniture department. I gave her the identity number for the chair and explained how the representative at the Seekonk store had told me there were two sets, and, yes, we'd like to reserve them. But there were no chairs. Well, actually there was one set, but it was the display, and they couldn't be sold. Someone must have typed that set in as inventory and then compounded that error by inadvertently adding an extra set.

Sorry, no chairs for sale in No. Dartmouth.

I dialed Warwick. The associate there took the information and went to look. Sorry, she said, there aren't any chairs of the type you're seeking. Don't you know they've been discontinued?

"Yes," I said as patiently as I could. "I know. But the representative at the Seekonk store said two sets were available as of this morning."

"Maybe we sold them," the associate replied.

The Seekonk representative told me he'd be shocked if they had been sold," I said.

"Sorry," she said.

I had run out of options with Target stores – at least those in southern New England.

As I was eating a late dinner, Michelle called from upstairs. Come look, she said.

Indeed, she had found our Cross-Back Side Chairs. Same style, same color. They were in stock, right there on the screen. All we had to press the button and order them. The price? $129 for a pair.

Hmmmm. There didn't seem to be an option for rain check prices. Sure, we wanted the chairs, but we wanted them for $99 a pair, not for $129, which our receipt told us was 24 percent more expensive. But there was no way to get the discount price online.

I found an 800 number for customer service and called. I explained our dilemma to the representative, and she put me on hold to check with her supervisor.

After a few minutes she returned. "Sorry," she said. "We can only offer the price online."

"Why?" I asked.

She said something about the online price being a separate offer from that offered at Target stores.

I explained our situation, this time in more detail. I told the representative that we had purchased the table on March 8, and we purchased it in part because the table was part of a set – all of which we were getting at a discount. Now, we had a table but no chairs. We had an agreement from Target that there had been chairs, that there would be chairs, and that we would get them at the sales price when they arrived. But they hadn't arrived, and now they've been discontinued and were no longer available in the stores. Through no fault of our own, we could not get the chairs at a Target store. But now we see they are available online. We'd just like Target to extend the same discount it had extended to us when we purchased the table, spelled out in the Price Rain Check receipt I was holding in my hand.

"Let me check with my supervisor," the representative said.

I figured this ploy had worked. After all, we weren't asking Target for anything special. We weren't asking it for something that hadn't been offered. All we were asking was for it to honor an agreement it had made when we purchased the table, with the chairs I was looking at online.

After several minutes, the representative came back on the line.

"You know, the shipping is for free. You save $43," she told me.

I knew this already. The shipping fee was waived whether the chairs were $129, $99 or $599. I kept my mouth shut and listened.

"My supervisor said we would waive the tax. But we can't change the price."

I was temporarily stunned. Waive the tax? That would knock off $17. Big deal, I thought to myself. But it didn't address the core issue: Why won't Target honor an agreement it had made with us previously?

She told me something about how the online price is treated as distinct from the price offered at the store.

"But that's like one hand not knowing what the other is doing," I said. "You have one price, an online price, and another price, the store price. But you all online and they in the store all work for the same company, Target. And all we're asking is that the company, Target, honor an agreement it had made with us, to sell the chairs at the price it had promised to us."

"Sorry," she said.

"Thanks," I said.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A garden blooms again

You know it's spring when the garden blooms again.

It's become an annual rite of passage for Michelle. The first whiff of warmth, when the winds shift from prevailing northwest to prevailing southwest, and she's out in the gardens.

When we moved into our house four years ago, there were no gardens. The base around the foundation on the sides and in the back of the house was bare as a baby's bottom, naked. Tired stone meeting the grass. A boring pastel of gray and a little green. Boring.

So, that first year, full of vim and vigor, Michelle and I attacked. We dug and dug, creating a ribbon-like perimeter around the house, and in there we planted flowers and plants. I'm not good at remembering the names, but we planted quite a few varieties. We uprooted the hedges in the front and planted two trees on one side of the house. We had the makings of a newly landscaped yard.

Our biggest task was left to a part of the back yard we simply called the jungle. When we first looked at this house, we saw the back yard and were somewhat impressed that it had size – not expansive, mind you, but more than your typical New England town postage-stamp size. That was to the fence line. The realtor was only too proud to tell us that the property extended beyond the fence line. Then the realtor realized that what she was telling us was that the extra property was an impermeable thicket of saplings, tall grasses, shrubs and whatever other vegetation had taken root. It was a tangle of roots and shoots, all competing to see which could soak up the most sunlight and grab the most nutrients from the soil. It was a hot, festering mass of respiration and photosynthesis.

Armed with a couple of hand-held saws, we attacked the green. After felling a few useless saplings with bamboo-like trunks, we had the unpleasant revelation that our back yard for years had been used an ad hoc dump for the neighborhood. Numerous beer cans, broken bottles, bags of garbage had been heaved over the fences into our yard. I found a toilet seat, shards of ceramic, a pile of floppy diskettes, and a homemade bong. There was also the tattered remains of a blue tarp that the previous owners had thrown over the area years ago to keep stuff from growing. Nature had laughed at that effort, and the threaded remains of the tarp were proof of the toxic folly of that effort. We dug out all the old tree stumps and chain link fence line with posts buried in concrete.

You may think we were wrong to transform a wild setting (albeit one fouled by garbage) and turn into a typical urban landscape. That would be tempting. But the area was overgrown and was serving no particularly good function – even in an ecological sense. It was a cesspool and a mosquito breeding area. Most of the trees in there were throwaways, and none of them were maturing broadly, as they were stacked in there. I like to leave nature as is, but I could see that we could make something better of this.

We left one tree, a sugar maple. It's a fine upright specimen, and it has thrived now that it has the sunlight and the soil to itself. Its girth has expanded rapidly during its four years of feasting. We've planted a row of arbor vita in part to create some privacy from our neighbors and habitat for ground-foraging birds. We planted a vegetable garden our second year after overturning the soil a few times and removing more glass shards, toy soldiers and other things that I care to contemplate. Last year, we ringed a garden around the sugar maple and tacked a birdhouse on the trunk. This year, we hung a birdfeeder and a finch sock from its branches.

We have seen goldfinches and house finches dining at the sock. They cling to the nylon-fibered sock and use their tiny beaks to pluck the nyjer seeds. Some feed upside down, others at an angle. They apparently don't suffer vertigo. The other day as I was standing in the yard, a downy woodpecker suddenly alighted on our sugar maple. It scurried up the trunk, stopped, eyed a target and tat, tat, tat, tat! gave it a few pecks. It must have not liked that spot, as it moved on to a branch, sizing it up for a tap or two. It went back to the trunk, moved down, then up, a tap here and a tap there. My guess was it was looking to see if our tree had anything to eat. I guess not, because the downy, after a few minutes of surveying, flew off in search of a better host. Still, it was exciting to see that our tree had proved tempting at all.

This weekend, we turned to the vegetable garden, which had lain dormant for the winter, resting and regenerating under a sheet of compost and a blanket of leaves. We tilled the soil with rented rototiller and planted anew. Two rows of mesclun lettuce, one row of romaine and another row of red leaf lettuce. A row of beets. A pair of rows of peas. And one row of green beans.

There will be more as the season progresses. This is just a start. We learned from last year, when we planted our green beans and peas in one fell swoop, and nature returned far more than we could eat ourselves. We happily gave much away, but still the bounty was too much. We're trying to pace ourselves this year, with multiple plantings.

The Japanese cherry tree is blooming, pink flowers that have begun attracting ripe honeybees seduced by the beauty. The buds are ripening on the sugar maple, and they're about to burst on the Japanese maple tree. The daffodils are out, and we have some little purple and blue flowers.

The colors are coming out in force. The pageant of nature has been renewed. Life is blossoming again.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Home Alone

It's Friday evening, and I'm home alone.

My wife is a page designer at a local newspaper and works Friday evenings from time to time. In the past, I would hook up with my neighbor across the street and we'd sample a tavern in town. But he's been involved in a marital squabble, and he hasn't been around much over the past several months. I have been known to go out on my own every now and then – a blend of curiosity what stranger I nay run into, what stories I may hear and boredom of sitting around at home.

But even that gets old fast, and I've always felt a little uncomfortable sitting someplace by myself. So, that's been going more by the boards.

That leaves home alone, or more specifically, home with Hviezda, the Irish setter from Slovakia. Hviezda, all of 13 now, tends to sleep the hours away; she no longer fancies a good wrestle on the carpet. I may succeed in riling her up, but she'll spark to life for a few minutes, and then she'll sit or lie, her signal that playtime with daddy is over, and it's nap time again.

Old maid dog.

So, it quickly becomes me and the house. I've tried lately to keep the television off, which I'm ashamed to admit is hard to do; I really don't watch much TV, but I find myself invariably sucked into it when Michelle is gone, and my lazy, unimaginative self takes over. My only defense is I don't watch trash TV. No reality shows, no celebs in rehab, love triangles (quadrangles anyone?), or other strata of debauchery. No sitcoms or dramas, either. OK, there's sports, and I list toward watching a lot of that. Or, I'll surf the cable for a movie. Pretty innocuous stuff, I tell myself. But it could be more productive.

I could read, for example. I read a lot as it is. I read a lot of science stuff at work. Science stories in newspapers and magazines. Science in peer-reviewed publications. Professors' research papers. Etc. A lot of sense stuff. Much of it interesting, yes; educational, certainly. Yet it means a lot of reading, and sometimes when I get home, I just can't summon the intellectual energy to read.

What that means is I am way behind on reading all the newspapers and magazines we do get and feeling more and more guilty about it. We get (in no order of preference) the New Yorker, National Geographic, Runner's World, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, Orion, Rhode Island Monthly, Taste of Home, Garden Gate, Better Homes & Gardens, Vanity Fair, alumni magazines from Iowa State, Duke and Columbia and our local newspaper. Phew! That's whole lot of print material.

I have been considering subscribing to the Economist and the Washington Post weekly edition. A professor has gotten me intrigued with getting the International Herald Tribune, too.

That's just too much, isn't it?

Hence my dilemma and my guilt. I can't keep up. We have a small, square bin in the living room in which we stash our reading. It ebbs from nearly bursting with paper to overflowing. Low tide in the bin there ain't. And as the paper pile grows, so grows my angst.

I can't read this post. Get me the remote.