Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Unseen

I seem to have entered into a period of days in which my urban deer are invisible.

That sentence, of course, contains a couple of falsehoods: Not only are the mule deer not "mine," but they aren't invisible, but simply are showing up at times I am not watching.

But, because of recent snowfalls, their tracks tell their stories.

For instance, there is the highly disrupted patch of snow that reveals snouting for grass, or at least grass roots. There are hoof-prints, together with the long, gliding marks that indicate a leisurely stroll across my yard. Then, there are the tracks that lead directly up to my back fence - and then disappear.

Of course, there also are the little piles of dark-brown pellets, chocolate sprinkles on a white landscape.

Those signs aside, the deer have been out of sight. It's a condition that I've been thinking about a lot recently. First, I watched a movie about Bengali immigrants in England called "Brick Lane." Then, today, I watched a yarn about immigrants to America from India (and their offspring) called "The Namesake." In each case, the humanity of those newcomers went unnoticed - uncared about - discarded like trash - by all those patriotic Brits and all those true-blue Americans of Italian, Irish, German, Scandinavian, and English descent. I'll stop now.

No sense in busting a gasket. Those long, gliding tracks of the mule deer need another look.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

cool movie

As kids, we always really get off on certain movies. For instance, take "Rebel Without A Cause" starring James Dean .(How many kids started smoking because of it? That cigarette pack stuck up the tee-shirt sleeve - hey, who could resist?) Skip a generation or so, and we're talking Jedi light swords. Today, I watched a movie called "Brick Road," and I was blown away.

Blown away, because, after the fall of the twin towers, a real Muslim story is so important.

"Brick Lane" is such a story. It is about a young Muslim girl from Bangladesh sent to England for an arranged marriage. Some twenty years later, with two daughters, (and a deceased boy), unhappy and lost, she has an affair with a younger guy. The movie is about her life - growing to love her husband for the first time, yet needing to make her own way in a new world for herself and her (nearly grown) children. One of the better movies I've had the pleasure of watching recently.

James Dean has become sort of ... history. And Jedis have become sort of, well, chiched. But I'm not sure a movie like "Brick Lane" is going to get old anytime soon. (But wouldn't it be cool if it did?)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Goodbye, stars

For me, reading a book on a scientific subject is not only an intellectual process, but an almost visceral one as well. At some gut level, I really, really want to get it. In the end, I think that's what makes it so much fun.

A case in point is the current book I'm reading - I'm about a third through the one about an ultimate theory of time, "From Eternity to Here" by Sean Carroll - which is light on equations (thankfully) but quite a bit deeper than many a popular-science effort. It is well-written, smart, clever and lucid about some really important mysteries that today's scientists are struggling to understand. It is slow-going for me, but only because most of its hundreds of end-notes are just as interesting as the text. Lots of paging back the forth.

But, for this reader, a lack of mathematical savvy still can bewilder. For instance, we all know that science has pretty much pinpointed the age of the (observable) universe at about 13.7 billion years. So that means that with even the perfect telescope, the farthest we could see is 13.7 billion light years. Turning the telescope around 180 degrees, we could see 13.7 billion light years in the opposite direction. So - the book uses the shorthand of 14 billion years - the greatest extent of the universe we will ever be able to see of the observable universe should be 28 billion light years across.

But, darn it, the universe is expanding. Particularly, Carroll notes (literally, in an end-note), it is being accelerated by dark energy. (Which apparently is really hard to talk about without recourse to mathematical equations.) (Metaphors involving rubber bands really don't cut it.) Anyway, according to this same end-note, "the farthest point that was ever within our observational patch of universe is now 46 billion light years distant."

OK. But what about some galaxy that sometime in the past - say 4.5 billion years ago, when our sun and planets formed - was just about to move out of our sight - irrevocably and forever beyond light's ability to reach us? Presumably that last light has been traveling toward us ever since, and will reach us, when it does, whenever it does. And then, it will wink out.

Presumably, stars and their galaxies are winking out all the time. We just can't see them pass beyond our view because we can't see far enough. But shouldn't a stream of light from a soon-to-disappear star, much like a finite rope, come to an end in our view as well? Or does the light not make it here, the distance being too far to go past the gas and black holes and whatever in between? Or what?

If I could handle the math, maybe I could handle a star's passing better. Or, at least, sort of understand it. (Hey, just a gut feeling.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Arrow of Time

What fun! That nice Mr. Amazon sent me a cool new book called "From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time." (I'm not sure what that does to the 1953 movie of the inverted name - put Deborah Kerr on top of Burt Lancaster in that beach scene?)

Anyway, I was eager to get into the book, written by Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, but first I paced around the house a little, thinking about stuff. Like entropy, which of course would have to be a big part of the story. I started pondering how best to explain it to someone - what do you do with a term that not only freaked out 19th Century scientists with the idea of the "heat death" of the universe but also is all-too-well understood by poker players demanding a thorough card shuffle?

I came up with an idea that has to work, at least for oldsters: Think of yourself: low entropy as a baby, quickly growing entropy as you get older and older. (And, of course, when you die, the entropy of your corpse really takes off!)

Imagine my satisfaction when I began reading the prologue and found Carroll explaining entropy not only in terms of the egg-omelet and the cream in the coffee ideas, but also "people are born, grow older, and die."

The author mentioned that as part of his research he would ask people randomly to define "time." He got answers like: "Time is what moves us through life," "Time is what separates the past from the future," etc. Had he asked me, I'd have said that "time is what is necessary to make the other three dimensions work."

OK, so I'll never be a physicist. Hey, I still think it's probably turtles all the way down! You can dispense with a lot of equations that way.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I am watching the long Ken Burns film on jazz - specifically the part about one of America's absolutely top musicians: Louis Armstrong. The narrator mentioned that Armstrong, back in the 1920s, used to blow his audience away by hitting as many as 50 high Cs in a row.

Yikes. I paused the DVD. Fifty trumpet screeches in a row? What Am I Missing?

As though circling down a drain, my memory descended back to the mid-1950s in Eau Claire, when the choral director of that town's Congregational Church, a rather large and imposing man with a deep bass voice, was browbeaten by my mother into auditioning my 8- or 9-year-old self for the youth choir. The imposing fellow took out his little harmonica-shaped pitch-finder, blew a middle C, and followed up by singing that note. Hearing it, a bass note so low it seemed to come from the very depths of the earth, I responded with a squawk as low as my young voice box could produce.

"Middle C" it was not. More like the distressed moo of a cow. I flunked the audition, big time. I sensed my failure then, but my reprieve was only confirmed for sure when my mother never brought up the issue again.

So why do I like music so much? Call me bewitched, bothered and befuddled.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Falling down

This early evening in Montana, while the Saints and Vikings have fought to a 14-14 tie by halftime, I am enjoying a blissful silence. It's called a "mute." Hey, I can sit in the bleachers and watch a football game without some idiot announcers blaring. Not to mention the commercials blaring between plays. Sheesh: Do I need commercials? Don't think so.

I should like the Vikings to win - I grew up 80 miles west of them in Eau Claire - but in Wisconsin in my youth the Packers floated over the state like the perfect piece of cheese. But then, there's the Viking QB - a cheese-head who in Wisconsin cannot remove his crown of chedder!

But then again, there is New Orleans - if ever a city needed a Superball - or bowl, or something - this city needs it.

So I'm ambivalent, and ready to watch the second half, silently. Always thinking, unable not to, of my "maiden aunt" - people called unmarried middle-age woman that "slur" back in my youth - who once when I was a kid described football as "they huddle, they line up, and they all fall down. Big deal."

Out of the mouths of maiden aunts, perhaps, comes something to think about. Whatever, I'm going down to watch the second half. Silently. Silence is a beautiful thing. Although maybe a little jazz to accompany the football might be cool.


But I thought I'd wait until the end of the game to post this. So I did.

It was a great game. Some team won. Trust me on this.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Learning stuff

I really like to open a good dictionary to almost any page and find a cool word. This time, it took me all the way to the end of the page to find it: "feculent." From now on, we must not tell fools that they are "full of #%$@." Oh, no. We are way tool cool for that. Now, enlightened as we are, we shall just suggest that such fools are "feculent."

Heh. Don't you love Middle English via the Latin "faeculentus" and the French "faec-" or "faex?" (Feculent, if you haven't figured it out, means "foul with impurities: Fecal.")

Warning, kids: Don't open a dictionary or your parents might freak. I can remember when one of my grade-school classmates found "ain't" in a dictionary. Shocked, but giggling a whole lot, we spread the news across the playground like wildfire through a California drought. Were we misbehaving? Ain't no way. We were learning stuff.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bare skin

I think it is cool that human beings are pretty much nude when it comes to hair. And not just because it keeps us cool.

Sure, losing the fur coat that all our primate relatives possess helped us stay cool near the Equator in Africa at a time when we had to roam the savanna. Just as a lot of melanin was protective in Africa but unnecessary up north in Scandinavia, or long limbs (to improve the ratio of mass-surface area) no longer was exclusively selected for up there in northern Europe. But bare skin did a lot more than that.

According to scientist Nina G. Jablonski in the latest Scientific American, bare skin (plus evolutionary improvements to our ability to sweat - up to 12 liters a day!) helped create a huge enlargement of a certain organ - the extremely heat-sensitive organ called the brain. After humans lost their fur, our brains evolved from 400 cubic centimeters in size to 1,200 cubic centimeters. And without fur, which among other primates signals information such as status, anger (raised hackles), and so on to other members of their species, humans had to evolve other signals, including, ultimately, speech.

(Not to mention cosmetics and tattoos.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A novel you want to read

This evening I had a little thrill. I was standing in my kitchen when I realized I was about two weeks late for watering my plants. I went into my pantry to grab my two-gallon watering pitcher, when suddenly my phone rang. I grabbed the thing, only to read: "check batteries." Shit. I took the few steps to my old - 40-year-old - wall phone to pick up the call. After all, it could be important! At the same time, my kitchen light bulb quit. Standing there in the dark, I listened to the caller. Or tried to. The old phone had no volume enhancement. No yelling, so to speak. And my poor ears need phone yelling. And there was no caller ID. (40 years ago, you know.) The caller, a woman, I could tell, was mumbling about something. Maybe a scam, maybe something legitimate. I couldn't tell, so I hung up.

Drat. I climbed onto a chair and changed the light bulb, bringing light into the kitchen again, and put three new AAA batteries into the phone. And thought of Joe Haldeman's latest novel.

Haldeman is the Vietnam War vet who wrote the seminal "Forever War." It was a science fictional story about future people fighting alien "bugs" but it really was about humans' foibles. Haldeman, a really super writer, has a new book out titled "Starbound," and it is very cool. And I'm not going to spoil the plot for you. Except for what I've already said.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Conservative ideology

What do you think of this statement: "Ronald Reagan was the first "conservative" president of the United States?"

What Professor Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College meant by this is that earlier Republicans (save Lincoln) had no real ideology. McKinley, Taft, Hoover, Coolidge ... even Ike, despite that "military/industrial complex" thing, were basically on the side of the status quo, and the commercial interests that funded them. Lacking was a real ideology.

That came from Austrian émigrés like Fredrick Hayek, who had suffered their fill of European authoritarianism, and were convinced that only disaster could follow the stupidities of well-meaning idealism. Sorry, said fellow Austrian intellectual Leo Strauss, but with freedom comes inequality. And with attempts to temper inequality comes a loss of freedom.

Their ideology, in my opinion, suffered from an inability to understand that "freedom" entailed, and is informed by, economic freedom as well cultural freedom. But when it joined (and pandered to) a sort of "theo-conservativatism" that many Protestant working-class voters felt was more about religious culture than their own economic well-being, the combination boosted Reagan into power. Neo-conservatives - disciples of Hayek, et. al. - latched on to religious conservatism and the old status quo "paleo-conservatives" to create a force that elected most of our recent presidents. (And certainly tempered the politics of Bill Clinton, the lone Democratic exception.)

Guelzo wrote this stuff before the election of Barack Obama. But his final observation remains valid: Especially because the various varieties of conservatism remain often at odds with each other, the future of conservative ideology is still to be determined.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ever heard of this guy? (5)

Studying history becomes a bit weird when it enters a period that one actually remembers. Having a historian of today sort out the meaning of events you knew as a young person can be disconcerting. But it also is rather welcome - you don't have to try to get into those alien heads of Jonathan Edwards or Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson or so many others from an age irretrievably lost to time, but just your own head ... as foggy as it may have been at the time.

Such has been the case with Reinhold Niebuhr, at the time of his death often called the greatest theologian of his time. Niebuhr died in 1971 - the year I graduated from college - but my reactions to his thinking, both for and against, had a lot to do with that college education.

Newburgh became a pastor in Detroit in 1915, and was appalled by Henry Ford. Niebuhr concluded that despite Ford's hypocrisy, modern industry had no Christian basis, and industrialists' piety masked only a desire for power and money. Indeed, he wrote, Christian ethics cannot be realized on this ever-changing Earthly society, and Christianity's main social mission was to show this. Ethics, he believed, like any absolute, exists outside our reality, not in it; to Niebuhr it is a goal, but perfection remains unobtainable.

Niebuhr had joined the socialist party in 1929, but (after Stalin's non-aggression pack with Hitler) resigned in 1940. He protested dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, but was unstinting in his belief that the West must defeat Stalin's Communism. America may not be perfect - hardly! - but its defensive aspirations were just - despite the fact that God's aspirations are far more important, and despite the fact that God laughs at the pretensions of the self-righteous, such as us.

Niebuhr has had little impact on American thought in the 40 years since his death. His pessimism fit neither the rose-colored glasses of Republicans nor Democrats. But his thought still has things to say.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Political parties, and growing up

I've been thinking about the Democratic Party, and it's change from its opposition to Whigs and then Republicans (the "liberals" of the day), to the embrace of pro-Jim Crow southern types, to the Wilson (sort-of progressive) and FDR ("New Deal") folks of the earlier part of the 20th Century. And, since Reagan, the people who don't seem to know what the hell is going on. (Never mind that their opponents obviously know less.)

To be sure, people on both political sides are a sorry lot, but since when have people from the past been any dumber (or smarter) than people of today?

As examples, one could expound forever on U.S. presidents, or Congressmen. From "I am not a crook," to "What 'is' means:" From Ike's inability to deal with the "military-industrial complex" to Obama's current inability to do much of anything. From people in Congress from McCarthy to Proxmire to Thurmond to Lott. The list does not end.

So why should the past be any different? I'm currently thinking about the "New South," and the reaction to it, and about Democrats coming off smelling rather rank. Not just Strom, whom I sat beside at a breakfast at Carroll College in Helena in the 1970s, or any of the other Democratic segregationists, but to LBJ, Carter, Clinton, and all the other Democrats unable or unwilling to react to the GOP's racist "southern strategy."

Back in Jim Crow time, before the Civil Rights Movement, southerners liked to think that an agrarian resistance to northern industrialism, not a defense of slavery, was what the Civil War was all about. But we've seen the photos, the hatred on the faces of whites toward black children. And the Democratic Party was in charge.

Just as the Republican Party needs to ascend back to the party of Lincoln, the Democratic Party needs to keep climbing out of the mire of its Jacksonian, Reconstructionist, southern-racist past. It's come a long a way. But it needs the courage to continue the climb. Somebody (like, maybe, the president?) needs to lead the way.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ice Melt

This afternoon, as I was sprinkling Ice Melt on the path between my back door and the garage, so as not to die an untimely death from a fractured hip, thinking about environmental troubles caused by Ice Melt, I spotted my little red squirrel neighbor out in the alley. It reminded me of the other day, when yet another female engaged in yet another mating chase near my back yard. You have to admire the diminutive rodent - apparently the Brad Pitt of small animals. But, of course, even a diminutive rodent only breeds among its own kind.

And that's what reminded me of the folly, of the ignorance, of the ill will, of people who for so long assumed that the "mixing" of human races must be so unnatural. To a recent blog of mine, dealing with miscegenation, I got a response that expressed gladness at having to look up the word. At first, for a second or two, I thought, what? Glad not to know a word? But I quickly understood what he meant: Glad not to live in a world in which one has to know that word. And he's right.

Squirrels instinctively know their "kind," and so do people. And human "races" have absolutely nothing to do with such a biological distinction. Except for bigots, for whom I prescribe a liberal dose of Ice Melt.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gramp's library

If I have one happy thought about my paternal grandfather, a Congregation minister in Wisconsin, it is that I gave him a little joy in his latest years. He and his wife were shocked - yes, shocked! - when it turned out that too soon after our marriage my wife and I had a son. This grandfather, I assume, was a product of New England Calvinism - Congregational style - and he must have sputtered greatly.

But soon after the birth, I started writing to him. (I knew the guy was smart: he graduated from a seminary, wrote sermons every week, and had a huge library at the back of his house.) I talked about my dad's smile when holding the kid, my interests in philosophy courses, my hopes for life.

When my grandfather, growing really old, needed to move to New Mexico to live near his eldest son, a banker, he shocked me with an offer. Would I come to his house (300 miles away) and take what I wanted from his library?

Would I! Holy shit! I remember sitting on the floor of his library, stacks of books everywhere, a big grin on my face, trying to figure out in my young, callow way what books to take with me. (My grandfather walked in, grinned his elderly grin, and left. I soon learned he had given me his car. A Rambler, but hey.)

Among those books were a couple of volumes by Josiah Royce, which is the point of this blog.

Royce, like the sons of so many failed 49ers in California, grew up poor. He also, in my opinion, was the last important United States philosopher. (Since his time - the late 1800s, early 1900s - philosophers have messed with pragmatism, or wondered what it is like to be a bat. Nothing really matters, or only language matters. Huh?)

Royce is way out of current academic thought, but his "pragmatic idealism" - I'm not going to give a philosophy lecture here but think Kant - provided the last time a "real" philosopher caught the popular imagination. Since his time, American thought turned largely to politics. Hi there, Sarah Palin.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I was sitting in my chair this evening listening to music. It was Rosanne Cash's "The List," based on the list of important songs Johnny Cash wrote out for his daughter when she was 18 and revealed to him that her interest in the latest rock 'n' roll and pop had left her ignorant of the songs he revered. Rosanne Cash isn't a knock-out singer. She's good, though, and the songs are great.

But as I sometimes do, while listening to music, I reached down and grabbed the dictionary I keep on the floor and opened it at random to see what cool word I might find. And there it was - a word I've never heard of - "morganatic."

I've been learning a lot about American history lately, and this word struck a chord. It has to do with a marriage between a noble and a person of inferior rank. In such a marriage, the person of lesser rank stays at that lower status, and the offspring of the marriage do not get to inherit the estate, titles, fiefs, etc.

America never needed such a word. It did, however, need a word like "miscegenation." What an interesting little combination of words.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Calvin and Hobbes

I'm watching a new 36-lecture series called "The American Mind," taught by Professor Allen C. Guelzo, that raises the importance of religion in American thinking to, for me, a new level. Right up there with the Enlightenment, Locke, Hobbes, Hume, etc. We still haven't reached the Civil War in the course, but still.

At this time, the period covering the first decades of the 1800s, revivals and awakenings were as common as chicken soup. And often as transitory. Easy in as the passions dictate under the tent, easy out as boredom sets in. Or, if you are serious, you retreat from normal society completely, thereby not altering it. Not important either way.

But philosophers - the "moral" philosophers mostly relying on thinkers out of Scotland rather than Jonathan Edwards-type theologians and well before the pragmatists - figured that what religion might not prove, common sense could. To make a (very) long story short, what you see is what is real, and thus your moral judgments are just as real. (After all, they are based on what you see!)

Unfortunately, the moral philosophy didn't hold up. Not only logically, but the different Protestant denominations couldn't get together because of all the different stuff they had to swallow, and it all fell apart. But Puritan Calvinism, the hunger for revivals, didn't go away. It still hasn't. It lingers under that nearby steeple. The question is: George W. Bush aside, what that means for the rest of us.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fairy tales

The "Chicago School" of economics has always stuck in my craw. It basically believes in the fairy tale that markets always will do the right thing - if left unfettered by the nasty government - and Adam Smith's invisible hand will protect us all. This despite the fact that recent history is strewn with panics, a big-time Depression, and numerous recessions. Bubbles, from tulips in Holland to mortgages in the U.S., appear with clock-like regularity. Yet Republicans and their simplistic laissez-faire, no-regulation ideas prefer ideology over the obvious. (Just like it's OK to have a whole bunch of federal agencies working to protect agriculture, say, but God forbid the same type of system might protect the health of you and me and our kids.)

Anyway, spleen vented for the moment, I'm glad to report that, according to a recent New Yorker article, one of the honchos of the Chicago School, Richard A. Posner, has joined a Keynesian (say Kane-sian) revival that suggests that well, duh, the government should not only handle checks on inflation, but also check the greed and stupidity of bankers and other financial whizzes by means of a few sensible regulations.

The last couple of years obviously have shown that the notion that huge banks and other corporations are perfectly rational is delusional. Institutions screw up just as much as the rest of us. Trouble is, the screw-ups of large banks and other big financial organizations matter rather more. We need more Posners, and fewer Limbaughs, ad nauseam, in our fragile economy. And fewer believers in laissez-faire fairy tales.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Being rude

I just was rude a few minutes ago, and I'm not pleased to have had to be. But I picked up the phone - had a tough time focusing on the caller ID in a dark room - and heard this minutes-long spiel in English tinged with Indian about something or other. I said "Sorry, I'm not interested," and hung up. But, think:

Some woman - probably someone with a family - someone in a sari needing to make a living - was on the other end of that long, long line, depending on a commission.

I really had to think about car salesmen or insurance salesmen for a while to start feeling better.

Then the feeling-better started wearing off.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


For the past four or five years, I've been more or less in love with Norah Jones. Her first album knocked my socks off, and her next couple of albums seemed, to me, very good. I eagerly awaited her fourth.

Drat. Her ex-boyfriend-bass player was gone, replaced by drums. But worse, the melodies had turned into a kind of more simplistic rock, straining to be interesting, but failing, in my rather uninformed opinion. (But I liked it that her man of the hour was a pooch, don't get me wrong.)

But, I started looking elsewhere, and found a new singer to love: Katie Melua.

Melua was born in Kutaisi, Georgia, in September, 1984, when her country still was part of the Soviet Union. The baby was named Ketevan Melua. When she was 8, in the aftermath of the Georgian Civil War, she and her family moved to Northern Ireland, where her father, a surgeon, found a good job. When she was 14, the family, leaving the Belfast "Troubles," moved to England.

Well, after winning a British singing contest for kids, she caught the eye of a producer, and by now has made several great albums. She sings jazz, blues, and pop-folk songs, about a third of which she has written herself. I'd like to think that this multilingual, smart, talented singer likes the fact that some old guy in Montana appreciates her singing. The old guy certainly will buy her next album.

I have to post this now, because, downstairs, Willie Nelson (on "Stardust,") is about to sing "Georgia on my Mind."

Rodent sex

Two deer, one a buck with a single scrawny antler on the left side of his head, were foraging in my back yard this morning after a recent snowfall. Their muzzles were eye-deep in their search for grass. Then, suddenly, they looked up.

Puffs of fresh snow were exploding from the limbs of a nearby tree.

A couple of red squirrels were chasing up and down and around the tree trunk, back and forth on the branches, leaping from one to another, incredibly fast, scattering the newly fallen snow in all directions. This went on for three or four minutes, until, out of sight behind the fence, the race seemed to have consummated. So to speak.

At least that's what I thought was going on. (I didn't go out to look.) Instead, I went to my computer and Googled "red squirrel."

It turns out the mating chase is a normal part of squirrelly sex. The female goes into estrus for only one day at a time, and on that day she's likely to wander into the territory of nearby males. (Sure enough, most of the year, there's only a single squirrel hanging out around my part of the block.) Females tend to go from territory to territory, mating with four to 16 different guys during the day. Studies have shown that, surprisingly, the mates can include close relatives. (Don't worry: the same studies found that the offspring of such matings are as well-off as any other.)

Anyway, the two deer quickly went back to feeding. No unhealthy fixation on rodent sex for them!

As for me ... well, I've always been interested in kangaroos.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Winter wonderlands

Back in northern Wisconsin in my youth, the 1950s and 1960s, we'd sometimes get what we called a "January Thaw" - a hint of warmth that wasn't likely to occur again until spring. But more likely, we'd get yet another Arctic blast. Twenty-below, 30-below temperatures made the wisest of us open our closet doors and run a pencil-sized stream of water to keep our pipes from freezing, pile on clothes when we had to go outside, and start the car and let it run for a while in the middle of the night. (In the early-1950s, before gas furnace fuel came to town, I'd hear my Dad in the basement, at 2 in the morning, shoveling coal.)

But, or course, regardless of the temperature, we had to go to work and to school, and my Dad would drive us to school on the way to his job. What was interesting, in the time before radial tires, is that while sitting in the garage overnight, the weight of the car would make the wheels have a flat spot - and the cold would freeze that flat spot solid. So for the first few miles, the tires would go thump, thump, until the friction with the street warmed them up enough to let them be round again.

I also remember the shoveling. You didn't just clear snow - you cleared space to handle the snow to come. I remember, at age 10 or so, lifting shovel-fulls of hardened, wind-blown snow over my head to deposit them atop the huge piles away from the driveway. (How come I don't look like Arnold the Governor?)

Anyway, it has been snowing here for two days. The snow is light, but in 48 hours it adds up. This morning, as I came downstairs, I saw my young neighbor shoveling my sidewalk. But it kept snowing all day, so about 6 p.m. I went out and shoveled my sidewalk, and the walks of my neighbors to the north and south. I still know how!

Wednesday, the snow is supposed to stop. But that night, the temperature is supposed to be 14 below. But hey, I've been there. And I don't need to go outside again for a while. Life is good!

Monday, January 4, 2010

A little time travel

Watching the latest "Star Trek" movie the other day reminded me of 1979 - and the opening of "Star Trek - the Motion Picture" 30 long and somewhat misspent years ago. Remember that opening? The starship Enterprise drifting majestically - and interminably - in orbit above the Earth toward that huge space station. The special-effects guys had run amok. The show was talky, slow, and didn't exactly go where no TV Star Trek had gone before, but I didn't see it opening night.

Instead, I was working that Saturday evening - having been employed by the Helena Independent Record for eight years by then - and we'd been tipped off that "trekkies" would be in the lobby of the theater, (tipped no doubt by the Trek-suited young men themselves). They certainly were eager to be interviewed and photographed.

And there they were as I walked in before the showing, decked out in full Star Trek uniforms, hyped by the upcoming movie, flashing v-shaped Vulcan hand signs at each other, grins trying to beam them into the coming experience. (No hand-held communicators, however, as they hadn't been invented yet.)

They said the usual stuff - how much they loved Star Trek, the 1960s series was sooo cool, etc.

What I remember is that one of the Trekkies - as I recall it was Spock - asked me when the story would run. "Tomorrow morning" I said.

Spock looked surprised. "That soon?"

"Hey," I said, "we're a daily paper."

What a young snot I was back then!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Beating football

The neat thing about subscribing to Netflix is to have a pig-out of three probably-cool movies in a day. Sunday, wonder of wonders, all three were indeed cool.

The first I watched was the latest "Star Trek" - the one with a new generation of actors. I feared, as a kid who fell for the series in the early 1960s - it featured a society so far advanced over thousands of years that it actually had cell phones! - that it would be disappointing. It turns out it is not a disappointment, but a meld of the faster-paced action that modern audiences expect, together with good character studies imagining how the original U.S.S. Enterprise crew was formed. It actually had a couple of mind melds, too! Good stuff.

Second was a movie called "The Merry Gentleman," a character study about a friendship between a young wife who flees from Scotland to Chicago to escape an abusive husband and the dour guy she has no way of knowing is a hit man. Actress Kelly Macdonald's Scottish accent is very often understandable to my hearing-aid enhanced ears (unlike many an Irish or British accent), and she steals the show. Although it of course has plenty of dialogue, it's makers want you to enjoy all the visual symbolism. Which you do.

Third was a film that reportedly was rejected by the Cannes festival for being too commercial: "A History of Violence." There is indeed lots of violence - not to mention sex (between married people, thank you for asking, Mr. Swaggert) - but the film is about whether a person can make his life anew. At the end, the answer hangs, uncomfortably. Also a very good movie.

Such films may not as absorbing as a good urban deer drama, but hey. Beats football.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The good news deer

The temperature rose to 40 degrees today, which Northern Tier dwellers know is bad news. It means that once night falls, and freezing temperatures return, ice will be everywhere. So I went out to spill some ice-melt on the path between my back door and garage, walked across the alley to deposit the empty bag, and returned to my back yard to find a deer looking at me. Not with any alarm, I'd say, but with a certain amount of curiosity: "What are YOU doing here?

I said, "Hi, deer," and re-entered my kitchen, just in time to see mom's two six-month-olds leap the front fence and join her in shoving snow around, looking for grass.

But unlike other days, the mother grew restless quickly, and in a matter of minutes retraced her steps, made the simple jump over my relatively low front fence, and wandered off across the street.

What's cool is that both of her two kids had no adventures. They followed, jumping that fence with no false starts. They're learning! I last saw the family hopping the (really) low fence into the back yard of my neighbor across the street. They disappeared around a corner, doing the urban deer thing.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Young deer angst

I'm finding that watching young deer, as opposed to the more majestic and savvy grownups, is the most interesting.

For instance, a family I've come to know (consisting of a mom and two six-month-old kids) was wandering my neighborhood late New Year's Day morning, and eventually mom and one of the kids leaped the fence into my back yard and hung out for some five hours. The other young deer ended up in the fully fenced yard immediately to my north - fully fenced except for a tall Victorian wrought-iron entry gate that almost filled the gate-way space.

When mom deer suddenly jumped my back fence and started grazing across the alley, the little deer in my neighbor's yard got nervous first. It started roaming the fenced boundaries, looking for a jumping point. But, because of the lay of the land and the limbs of the trees, the leaps out would be difficult compared to the leaps in. The young deer checked out the wrought-iron gate, and the little space available to bypass it, and gave up several times. The space, a few inches, was wide enough for a cat, but not for a deer. But the little deer got desperate, and pushed itself through! (The gate may look imposing, but it is just sitting there, unanchored to the ground, able to be tipped.) The young deer stood outside the fence for a few moments, seemingly thinking, and suddenly leaped into a run. It rounded my house, rushed through the passageway between my house and that of my neighbor to the south, and joined it's mom across the alley.

Meanwhile, the young deer still in my own yard had been becoming more and more frantic. It obviously wanted to rejoin its mother, and was looking for a way out. It took a couple runs at the back fence, but gave up each time. (It apparently rejected the lower fence into the front yard, which was in the opposite direction from its mom. It seemingly couldn't visualize the way around the house.

But when it saw its sibling dash westward toward the alley and its mother beyond, the deer in my yard dropped all tentativeness. It raced toward the back fence and leaped it like a champ.

Hey, show and tell, middle-school cliques, high-school angst, are a bitch. But try being a young deer.