Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Odd Couple goes West

(DrTom and Paul Sherman could have played the parts of Oscar and Felix naturally, and did.)

Paul Sherman and I were colleagues at Cornell University.  For several years, Paul and I drove the 2,200 miles from Ithaca, NY to the OX Ranch in western Idaho to conduct research on Idaho ground squirrels. We lived there for two months a year for most of the 1990s. Have you ever spent four days in a truck with Paul Sherman, followed by two months in a bunkhouse 30 miles from the nearest town (pop., about 600), followed by another four days in the truck to get home? Of course not, because your mama didn't raise no fool. Apparently, mine did.

On the trip out, Paul enjoyed working mentally on evolutionary problems---aloud.  Why do opossums play dead?  Why do humans nearly everywhere believe in some kind of a god?  Why do humans keep pets?  Paul liked to listen to Linda Ronstadt tapes in the truck; I liked to hear Jon Secada. He drove 55 mph; I drove 65. He liked to eat at McDonald's; I hated the place. I smoked; he hated that. He is fastidious, organized and neat; I'm not so much that way. He has a Type A personality, if you know what I mean; my type is yet undefined, but it can't be higher than a C.  And Sherm worried a lot more than I did about what other people thought.

When we arrived at the bunkhouse at the OX in March of the first year, I threw my jacket on the chair near the front door as we entered the old clapboard structure. Paul asked me if I was going to do something with that. I told him I intended to leave it there until May when we packed up to go back to New York.  And so it went for the next 55 days, and for the next eight years---Sherman as Felix Unger and I as Oscar Madison of the old tv series, The Odd Couple.

When friends or biologists visited our squirrel project, they invariably asked if we bickered like this all the time. No, we've cleaned up our act quite a bit for your visit. You should have heard us yesterday arguing about whether the kitchen floor needed mopping yet. And the day before that it was whether ketchup really needs to be kept in a refrigerator. Of course not, I said. But I repeatedly found it in there getting all cold as soon as I turned my back.  And Tony Randall worried whenever I left the Crock-Pot on all day. "Paul, it is a crock-pot. That's what it does. You cook slowly with it on ALL DAY." And tomorrow, we have to decide who drives the 30 miles to town to get groceries. And whose turn is it to call the ranch foreman and invite him and his wife for dinner?  "Tom, isn't that firewood a little close to the wood stove?" I started going to bed at 8pm so I could get some peace and quiet.  "Tom, did you brush your teeth before you went to bed?"  Judas Priest!!!!

One year we decided to take a more northerly route back to Ithaca.  We went through Montana.  At the end of a long day of traveling, we were ready to stop for the night.  We were both exhausted from a day of negotiating about the best route to take, which octane gas we should buy, and who gets to read the Missoulian first while the other drove.  I detected the unmistakable smell of testosterone as we hit the city limits of Bozeman; a few minutes later we discovered why.  We noticed that there were few vacancies at motels as we proceeded down the main drag.  We stopped at the only place that did not have a "No Vacancy" sign flashing.  That was the good news.  There was a rodeo in town, and nearly every room in town was taken.  The only room they had left was the honeymoon suite, the bad news.  I kid you not!  The friggin honeymoon suite.

The middle-aged woman behind the counter snickered and told me with as straight a face as she could summon that she would give us a discount.   The lobby was full of cowboys in western shirts, huge metal belt buckles with bighorn sheep and other animal heads on them, wide-brimmed hats curved up at the edges just right, and the obligatory boots with stiletto toes.  There was probably more testosterone per cubic foot in that motel at that moment than any place on earth.  "Lady, please keep your voice down.  We're considering this because we are dead tired, but let's not let this develop into a group decision between the university profs who study squirrels and have New York license plates and all these hombres who just rode in here on wild mustangs they only roped this morning on the open range."  Agreed.  But as we were walking away from the check-in desk she shouted: "Do you want flowers sent to the room?"  

Sherman and I accepted the deal, but we took a circuitous route to get to the room, and then waited until the hall cleared before we unlocked the door and slipped inside faster than a Google search can bring up the results for "lynch mob". The room was much nicer than the room my wife and I had stayed in on our wedding night 40 years earlier; there must be some kind of moral or life lesson in that fact, but I can't begin to figure out what it is.  The Bozeman room was so feminine, so flowery, so over-the-top nuptial that I blurred the memory of the place almost as soon as we checked out.  I do remember that there was a heart-shaped bed on a raised platform in the middle of the room and a pull-out couch.  Sherman and I flipped to see who got the bed.  He won the toss, or lost the toss, depending on your point of view.  We both agreed not to discuss the incident for at least 10 years.

Back in Ithaca, Sherman and I rarely spent any social time together.  An occasional email or phone call where the words "dickhead" and "whacko" were flung about was the extent of it.  Living together for two months a year pretty much exhausted what we had to say to one another.  During those years, we discussed every topic known to man, and we pretty much solved all the world's problems.  Professors in biology are often loners, so to live and work together closely for a significant period of time, far removed from your families and routine concerns, fosters a mutual dependency.  When it was all said and done, we were both wiser for the rare opportunity that comes with two adults jointly seeking answers to questions on a daily basis.  It takes a compromising spirit, but in the end it was all good, and life-long memories were made.  I still think that ketchup should be kept at room temperature, however.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The incredible cinnamon buns of Frank the cowboy

(Frank Anderson, my favorite cowboy and pastry chef, on his favorite quarter horse, Magic.)

Frank Anderson is a cowboy.  I mean, he is a real cowboy.  Frank and his family used to run cattle in the wide open landscape of eastern Oregon.  They were out on the range for weeks at a time, ate from a chuck wagon, punched cattle from horseback---the whole nine yards.  Years later, when his kids attended a proper school for the first time in their lives in Eugene, the teacher called Frank and his wife in for a conference.  She told them that their kids were great.  So what's the problem?  Well, they tell these unbelievable stories about living on the range like the cowboys of old.  The teacher quipped: "No one has lived like that for 100 years."  But Frank snapped back: "Mam.  That is exactly how we lived."

I got to know Frank while he was working for the OX Ranch near Council, Idaho.  For many years during the 1990s, Paul Sherman and I drove from Cornell to the OX where we conducted research on Idaho ground squirrels for two months every spring.  The OX was an operating cattle ranch with only a couple of full-time cowboys; with the well-trained cattle dogs they used, you just didn't need many men to keep those cattle from misbehaving.  Frank was in his 60s then, but he still mounted a horse early in the morning and didn't get off until evening.  Sometimes he had to sleep on the ground in the early spring cold, rather than take the time to come back to the house, if the herd was far away.  In the morning after those nights, he didn't walk completely upright.

Frank is built like most men would like to be built who were 40 years his junior.  Probably about 5'10" tall, 200 pounds, not an ounce of fat.  He sports a huge handlebar moustache, bushy eyebrows that he can raise so high they knock off his cowboy hat, and a flattop haircut.  He could easily pass for a Marine Corps drill instructor at Parris Island.  He is a horse whisperer and a dog whisperer.  He owns a team of four Belgians that he used to pull a wagon.  It is no small feat to control 8,000 pounds of horse with four independent brains, but Frank used to enter competitions with his "boys" where you did just that.  His son actually "breaks" horses for a living.  Once when Frank was driving fence posts into the ground he lost the tip of his index finger to the first joint.  He politely produced the severed finger from his pocket to the doctor when he finally got to the medical office.

But on Sundays, Frank transforms into something else.  He is usually home that day, and he bakes.  He made fantastic pies when we worked on the ranch.  One Sunday, I entered Frank's kitchen to find a plate of the most delicious-looking cinnamon buns you ever saw.  They were huge, tipping the scales at about half a pound each, oozing with cinnamon-flavored gooeyness, and warm.  In my entire pastry-consuming life, I never tasted a cinnamon bun that was that good, and I consider myself a cinnamon bun aficionado.  I was astonished at Frank's accomplishment, I ranted and raved about the creation, and I praised the cowboy profusely.  He nodded with pride and modest self-satisfaction.

My son Matt, who was working with me at the time, whispered to me that we need to trap squirrels in the location of Frank's house every Sunday, especially on the side of the house where Frank can see us through a large picture window, and that we should look hungry and in need of hot coffee.  We agreed that we would rehearse the forlorn look of a hungry squirrel biologist that very night back at our bunkhouse.  After a few Sundays, Sherman began to see the pattern, and accused us of planning our research schedule around the activities of the cowboy's kitchen.

When we returned to Ithaca, I told everyone about the cowboy's buns.  I bragged to my wife, I exclaimed to my department chairman, and I repeated the story of the Most Excellent Cinnamon Buns to my students and to anyone who would listen.  The following year we went back to the OX to study the wily ground squirrel.  On Sundays, I trapped near Frank's house.  I was hoping to score again.  Apple pie was good, but those buns.................  Had it all been just a wonderful dream?

And then one Sunday it happened.  Frank had cinnamon buns!  But wait.  They were good, but not great.  Was Frank slipping?  Had he lost the original recipe?  Had he changed ovens or mixers?  Was he using a metal spoon now instead of a wooden one?  And the following year, it was the same.  Good buns, but not great buns.

A few years after this, when our squirrel project was over, Frank visited my wife and I in Ithaca.  And then the truth came out.  The old cowboy confessed.  The wonderful cinnamon buns that I remembered were not Frank's.  He had purchased them at a local church bake sale a few days before.  When Matt and I went bonkers over how good they were, and how amazed we were that the cattle-puncher could produce such a thing, Frank took the credit.  The whole story took on a life of its own.  Frank heard us tell his foreman what great buns his employee made.  His culinary reputation throughout western Idaho was growing far and wide, as well as through the halls of the Ivy League back East.  Frank let the acclaim get the better of him, his head swelled to the size of a 10-gallon hat.  After that inaugural bun year, Frank knew that we would be expecting those pastries, so he learned how to make cinnamon buns in an attempt to create a seamless bun history.  The "good" buns were his.  The "great" buns came from the bake sale.  And he hoped we would not know the difference.  OMG!

After his confession, I thought I would never trust any cowboy I met again.  To be honest, I have not met another cowboy in the 15 years since this incident, but if I ever meet one, he will have to prove himself to me.  But then, I cogitated the facts of this case a bit longer and I realized something.  Frank knew we were counting on having cinnamon buns at his house on Sunday.  So he took the time to learn how to make them.  He realized he now had a bun reputation to uphold, and a man's reputation was worth fighting over.  In fact, where Frank comes from, men used to shoot each other over such things not so long ago.  So in the end, I thought--bravo Frank.  Well done.  May the memory of your buns live forever.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tanya, the Cujo of Rice Avenue

(Cujo, of Stephen King fame.  We lived with a dog about like this one.)

I have had dogs all my life.  I would estimate that I am currently on number 9 or 10.  My first dog was some black mutt named Tag, which we had when I was four or five years old.  My parents had to get rid of him because he refused to stop chasing Mrs. Mumaugh’s chickens.  Mumaugh was a neighbor lady who was a Native American.  We have taken enough away from them over the past three centuries, so the dog went.  My first and only poem (circa 1952) was written about this dog:
I once had a dog named Tag,
And when I would call him his tail would wag.

If any of you proceed to publish that poem, please send me the royalties when they start pouring in.

The most memorable dog we had was a Border Collie mix named Tanya.  My mother acquired this one when we lived on Rice Avenue sometime after my father died, and we had the dog through my high school and college days.  Everything went smoothly for the first few years.  Tanya wagged her tail; we petted her, fed her, and watered her.  We tossed a ball; she fetched it.  She slept, she ate, she urinated and defecated, and she occasionally barked.  We provided food and shelter; she provided some company.  How complicated a contract do we need to devise? 

But then the problem started.  My mother always fed Gaines-Burgers to Tanya, which was a dog food that looked like a raw hamburger and came wrapped in individual plastic packages.  The production of this dog food ceased in the 1990s.  At first, Tanya would gobble up the burger as soon as she was given one.  But as she got older, she carried the meaty disc to a corner of the living room where she laid down with the prize like it was her baby, and she would threaten anyone who entered her personal space.  She actually bared her teeth and growled menacingly, and if you got even closer, she would snap at you.  I never wrote a poem about this dog, so maybe that omission planted some seed of insecurity in that puny Collie brain.

One day we hit a tipping point.  You see, Tanya would guard her burger for a couple of hours and look around the room to see if anyone was even watching her.  If you were, she bared her fangs.  (It was similar to my younger brother Jack, who hated it if you looked at him over the breakfast table in the morning while he ate his cereal.  He actually uttered a sort of a growl and bared his teeth, before he developed the habit of lining up all the cereal boxes in a semi-circle in front of him so he could not be seen at all.  Recently, Jack told me he was simply lining up those boxes so he could read the nutritional information.  Right!  I'm sure he couldn't even pronounce "riboflavin" at that age.)

But on one occasion, I got so angry about Tanya hoarding her food and holding the family hostage until she finished, that I got right in her face, pointed my finger at her, and screamed “Tanya, eat it!”  She snapped.  Tanya sprang to her feet and came at me with jaws and saliva flying and a growl that gives me cold sweats to this day.  I thought she was going to rip my JC Penney’s Towncraft briefs right off my body.  (It must have been a Saturday, because my brothers and I always spent the morning watching tv in our underwear.  In the weeks that followed this incident, we actually sat on the couch under a heavy blanket to protect us in case Tanya decided to attack.  We refused to give up the Saturday underwear thingie.)

Tanya’s weirdness provided my brothers and I with entertainment, however.  Whenever a new friend came over to the house, and they asked about the dog, we would tell them what Tanya liked the best.  “Just point your finger at her and say eat it.”  The reaction of the dog and the guest were quite amazing.  Many of these friends never returned.

I hated coming home to visit after I went off to Ohio State, because my mother would beg me to take Tanya to the vet for one thing or another.  No one else could even get her in the car without being attacked.  I think I may have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) years later, and it wasn't from my military service. One time, I took her to a husband and wife vet office in a nearby town to get Tanya’s nails clipped.  I think we had become persona non grata with all the local vets.  Somehow I got her into the office on her leash, and explained to the naïve vets what we needed.  I told them to be really careful with this dog; they would probably have to put her to sleep to do anything with her, I advised.  Advice not taken, apparently.  The next day when I returned to fetch the dog, the husband vet had his right arm wrapped in a fresh bandage, and his wife had her left arm wrapped in a matching arrangement.  “Yep, she got us both”, he volunteered.

There was one other personality in the mix---my blind grandmother.  My grandma had lived with us for years, and she was totally without sight.  The interesting thing was that Tanya often lay at her feet with one of those damn burgers, unbeknown to my grandmother.  When she moved her feet or began to rock in the chair, Tanya would start to bare her teeth and look threatening.  But Tanya never took it any further than that with the old woman who always thought that the snarky dog was as sweet as sugar.  Sometimes, what you don’t know, or can’t see, can’t hurt you.

Why my mother kept this menace so long after the dog went quirky is a mystery to me.  Perhaps it had something to do with wanting life to remain the same as it had been.  It was changing in our house.  I had left home already, and my brothers were not far behind.  Soon, our mother would be left alone with her invalid mother.  And Tanya would at least be there to keep them company, flaws and all.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A memorable New Year’s Eve in Mexico

(Folklorico dancers in Mexico.   What a party.)

About 20 years ago, my wife and I and our 8-year old son decided to spend the holidays in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.  We did most of the usual things one does there.  We visited the Mayan ruins at Uxmal, went skin-diving in the Caribbean, sun-bathed on the beaches at Cancun, and spent a couple of days on Cozumel Island. 

But on New Year’s Eve we found ourselves in the provincial capital, Merida.  We stayed in an old hotel, the name of which has now passed into the mist like the smell of tequila after a festive occasion.  When we checked in, we realized that they were setting up for their New Year’s Eve party later that night.  We asked if we could attend, and the desk clerk uttered a chipper “seguro”.  All he needed to know was the kind of alcohol we wanted at the table, so I said tequila and my wife said rum.

When we were escorted to our table later that night, we found an entire bottle of rum and a bottle of tequila on the table, as we had apparently ordered.  Ay, caramba!  Our 8-year old might have to help us with this, because I refuse to leave food or drink behind at the end of an evening out.

The festivities that night resulted in the most memorable New Year’s Eve we have ever experienced in 42 years of marriage.  There were choruses of dancing girls in colorful dresses performing a folklórico, there were bands of several styles, and a buffet of food the likes of which I have never seen.  And it went on and on and on.  Our son found young friends to hang out with around the swimming pool, so he was occupied, and we were happy, and getting “happier” by the hour.

Needless to say, the following morning my wife and I were moving and thinking very slowly.  The desk clerk kept asking me for “la llave” as I was checking out and, for the life of me, I could not understand what he was saying.  My wife acted embarrassed and yelled indignantly “The key.  He wants the key!”  Oh, of course.  I handed the young guy the key and sheepishly scooted out of the lobby to the waiting taxi.

As we meandered down the narrow streets in the cab, my wife perused the signs on the buildings as we passed.  My head hurt too much to look out into the bright light of day.  As we passed one respectable looking edifice, and because my Spanish was normally better than hers, she asked me what “Y—M—C—A” spelled.  I looked as superior as I could muster, stared her squarely in the face, and told her it spelled YMCA.  Touché! 

Several morals to this story, but here is the take-home message for me.  Drink bottled water, and don’t mix alcohol and the alphabet when traveling in Mexico.

 Article first published as A Memorable New Year's Eve in Mexico on Technorati.

Monday, November 29, 2010

I'm rooting for the deer hunters, again

(White-tailed deer congregated in a feeding yard.  The number of deer here suggests a high density of deer in the area.)

I am a wildlife biologist, so I like all forms of wild animals and plants.  I don’t think there is an organism that I don’t appreciate biologically, including mosquitoes and deer ticks that cause Lyme disease.  I also love white-tailed deer; after all, I conducted my Ph.D. research on this species in the 1970s. But enough is enough.

Whitetails are probably about 10 times more abundant in the Northeast now than they were before whites arrived here.  Long story, but humans have inadvertently created fantastic deer habitat by breaking up the original forest, which is not good deer habitat, into a mosaic of cropland, fields, and forests of several age classes, which is great deer habitat.

The result of the high deer density is that they exert tremendous browsing pressure on native plants in the forests. The species composition of future forests is being determined by the selective removal of certain kinds of trees by deer that is occurring today.

In addition, damage to vegetable gardens and ornamental shrubbery by deer results in a significant cost to homeowners; New York State residents in two areas of the state paid $200-$500 per year to replace lost trees and shrubs due to deer. Deer browsing is a general frustration to hobby horticulturists throughout much of the country.

I could hunt deer to help contribute to herd reduction, which I used to do. But after chasing deer around with a dart gun every day for two years during my research days, chasing them around with a rifle is simply too much like work. Besides, my wife doesn’t even like venison, so what is the point?

We live on 12 acres of mostly wooded land in upstate New York. When the deer season opens, deer tend to congregate on my little “refuge” to escape hunters. So I chase them off and into the surrounding “killing fields” in hopes of seeing a reduction in the herd overall. But, of course, this is all like spitting in the ocean.

White-tailed deer have been a part of my life for 40 years. It is truly a species I love to hate and hate to love. I guess I am just hoping we find a balance. You know, not too hot, not too cold; not too hard, not too soft; not too many, not too few.

Article first published as I'm Rooting for the Deer Hunters, Again on Technorati.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bristol Palin and the muddled American viewer

(Bristol, the dancer?  There is more going on in this competition than just dance.)

I was forced to watch Dancing With The Stars this year against my better judgment. I couldn’t stand to hear my wife screaming from the living room as Bristol Palin, who was absolutely terrible at the beginning, made it through each subsequent week. My wife has a bit of a heart condition, so I thought I needed to be by her side to keep her calm. But as I watched, I began to worry about my heart, which is perfectly fine.

Sarah Palin’s daughter displayed no rhythm, clumsy footwork, and a tendency to walk through steps that should have been danced, if you know what I mean. There is no doubt that she got better, as almost anyone would with intense training for weeks by a dance expert. But she should have been eliminated weeks ago, before Brandy and at least one other contestant were voted out. I’m no dance expert, but after having spent the past 25 years in latin dance clubs in four countries, I can see who has the moves and who doesn’t.

How do we explain this interesting result? There are only two explanations that I can imagine. First, the American public does not have the ability in general to judge dance or almost anything else critically. The plethora of really bad movies, tv shows, books, websites, and music of the past two decades would argue for this explanation. It may just be that there are too many people with too much money to spend on entertainment to allow natural selection to do its job efficiently. As my mother used to say about certain people, “their taste is all in their mouth.”

The second possible explanation is that politics was at work in the Bristol Palin case. Right wingers, or tea partyers, or whoever voted for her to show their political support indirectly for Bristol’s mother by usurping a popular tv program that is supposed to be about dance. Of course, none of this is Bristol’s fault; she is mostly just a clueless kid from Alaska.

Either explanation is disappointing to me. Come on America. Put on your crap detector and think straight. Let’s give credit where credit is due. If something is lousy, let’s call it lousy. If something is good, let’s call it good. It’s simple, really.

Article first published as Bristol Palin and the muddled American viewer on Technorati.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The milkman's son

(The milkman, a sight that most Americans have never seen.)

My father was a milkman. He drove a panel truck for Meadow Gold Dairy in northwestern Ohio to deliver dairy products to his customers, a job he held from the time he left the Navy after WWII until his death in 1961. You don’t see this kind of thing much anymore, but until the second half of the 20th century, delivery men were a common sight in America. There were men who delivered bread, tea and coffee, and ice before refrigerators were common. In addition, we had a guy who showed up regularly to pick up junk, like old metal, and another man who often stopped by to pick up old rags. There were others who sold crayons, brushes, vacuum cleaners, and encyclopedias. My dad delivered milk.

My father’s truck did not just contain one product. It was a veritable mobile dairy store. There was whole milk with the cream that settled at the top of the glass bottle in that “bubble” at the top of the container, skim milk, chocolate milk, cream, orange and grape drink, cottage cheese, butter, and even eggs. And during the summer months, he also sold ice cream, ice cream bars, fudgesicles, and drumsticks (now called nutty buddy). A couple of times a year, Meadow Gold cleaned out their freezers at the plant and my father would bring home dozens of these ice cream products. The weeks following a big score like that were full of happy days (usually after dinner) visiting our old chest freezer to see what sugary gem my brothers and I could find.

My father had a predetermined route that was his. He visited his customers several times per week, delivering whatever they ordered or needed. He knew each customer personally, by name, and he knew their families. Most of the time, he simply put what they had ordered in an insulated box on their front porch or inside their front door. At other times, the customer was home, and my father would spend several minutes talking to them about the affairs of the day, or how their children were doing in school, or about the weather. In those cases, he usually brought the product into their house and inserted it right into their refrigerator.

Our house was in town but, of course, we also had a Meadow Gold delivery man who brought our milk. His name was Elmer. Until the late 1950s, the in-town men used a horse-drawn wagon to carry the milk. The kids in my neighborhood loved to visit Elmer’s horse when we heard it clomping up our street. The horse knew exactly where each customer’s house was, and so it stopped in front of each, just as it had done thousands of times before. Elmer stepped out of the wagon with his metal cases of glass bottles while the wagon was still coming to a stop. The clacking of glass against metal and of horses’ hooves on the pavement are synchronous sounds I can still hear when I close my eyes. But even in those days, this system of horse-drawn milk delivery was considered an anachronism. Other dairy companies had long since phased this out. On occasion, our father would take us to the Meadow Gold horse barns downtown to see the entire collection of neighing relics that had no idea their working days would soon be up. I always loved that trip.

In those days, my grandmother, who was a severe diabetic and totally blind, lived with us. During the day, she was the only one at home. On milk delivery day, Elmer brought the milk up to the house, opened the front door, which was never locked, and put the milk in the kitchen fridge. But the verbal exchange usually went something like this: “Hi Mom”, says Elmer. “Hi Elmer, how are you?”, my grandmother would repeat, while sitting in her rocking chair in front of the radio, where she listened to Paul Harvey about this time every day. They would talk for a few minutes. “It seems cold today. Be careful out there Elmer”, she would say. “I will Mom”, and off he went. It was taken for granted by us then, but my mother relied on Elmer to be an additional check on her invalid mother during the day when my mother had to work. It takes a village to raise our seniors or, at least, it used to.

The best part of my father’s job for me was the day he would let me go with him on his appointed rounds. This did not happen very often, and in later years the company forbade this practice. But on certain summer mornings when I was 7 or 8, my father returned to our house in his truck after having loaded it at 4am while I slept. It was exciting to check out the inventory in the back of the truck before we embarked. Then, my mother sent me off, and for the rest of the day I was Bob Gavin’s boy, the milkman’s son.

I remember speeding from house to house down country roads traveling 50 mph. I stood in the passenger-side doorway, which was completely open, and my father either stood or sat in a swivel chair as he drove. Seat belts did not exist then. Sounds crazy dangerous, but I remember how exciting it was to watch the ground fly by as I stood in that open door, holding on for dear life. When we got to a house, I went with my father and helped carry a quart or two, unless he warned me to stay in the truck because of an unfriendly dog. He had a variety of techniques for fending off the meanies. On occasion, we raced each other back to the truck. How can it be that these races always ended in a tie?

In general, I felt useful, and I got to see first-hand how much people genuinely liked my father. I believe this is an extremely important attribute of parenting. When a child sees that other adults like and respect their parents, the child is even more likely to believe that the parental instructions they receive daily are sound.

And then we had lunch. My mother packed her artery-clogging bologna sandwich (we now know); I always had mayo but my father only used mustard. I got to pick any drink I wanted from the back of the truck. Orange or grape drink or chocolate milk. What kind of a mood am I in? My father and I drank straight from the same bottle. We were working men, and real men don’t need cups. But the very best of all, and that which I remember to this day, was the way the cottage cheese tasted. It came in cardboard cartons with a pull-top cardboard lid. I never seemed to have a spoon, so my father showed me how to fold the lid into a scoop and to dip out the goodness with that homemade implement. Once again, I don’t know if this is a romantic memory, or a fading memory, or actual fact, but cottage cheese has never tasted as good to me to this day.

By mid-afternoon, we had finished the route and my father dropped me off at home. He returned to the plant to empty the truck and turn it in, then to do paperwork. My father worked about 14 hours a day, six days a week. I have never been able to comprehend how he was able to do that, week after week. I do remember how common it was to watch him napping on the living room couch in the evening.

Years later when my wife and I were living in Tucson, Arizona, I came home from the university to what my wife thought would be a pleasant surprise. She had flagged down the local milkman and signed us up for home delivery. I got a huge smile on my face until she showed me the bill. It was much more expensive than what we could buy dairy products for from the store, so I made her cancel the arrangement. All across America, people were making this same decision, which led to the extinction of delivery men of nearly every stripe. I was being practical, and I felt sick about it.

I was always proud of my father and the work that he did. I didn’t learn until I was a teenager that he held a job that most would consider to be low-status. When I was young, it seemed important and it was a job the value of which anyone could understand. My father promptly delivered a commodity that you needed, to your house, with a smile and with good humor. And what could be more genuine than that? At any rate, for me, the memory of it all will always remain as pure as the sight of cold, white milk in a clear, glass bottle.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Biodiversity trade-offs

(A large Chinook salmon found dead after spawning in a stream in California.)

Sometimes the decisions we have to make to conserve biodiversity are not pleasant.  I remember a news article that came to my attention last year titled “Appeals court stays execution of sea lions: Killing was set to start Thursday to save salmon in Columbia River”.  The title pretty much sums up the dilemma.  Salmon in the Pacific Northwest have been in trouble for years, due primarily to overharvesting by humans and the dams on rivers that “frustrate” their upstream migration to spawn.  In the case at hand, it is the spring run of the Chinook salmon that is imperiled, which is made worse by hungry sea lions that are camped out at the base of the Bonneville Dam.

The necessity to control one species of native plant or animal to help out another is much less common than controlling a non-native species to benefit one that is indigenous.  But there are many examples of this unpleasant trade-off when attempting to conserve native biodiversity.  Predators are sometimes controlled in an area where biologists are attempting to reestablish a species that could be taken as prey by the predators.  Snow geese are having a decimating effect through their grazing on areas of the Arctic tundra ecosystem and white-tailed deer suppress many species of woody and herbaceous plants in the eastern U.S.  Although there are not control programs for these two species as far as I know, agencies rely on the public hunting season to reduce populations of these popular game species in the hopes that the legal “take” will alleviate the problem.  Those harvests barely make a dent in the problem, however.  So the damage continues, while the public is clueless and the ecologists lament.

Good people are usually trying to do the right thing, but it is often a lose-lose situation in the eyes of the public.  “Don’t let the salmon run be extirpated, but don’t harm the sea lions.”  The public often replies that wildlife managers should just move the offending or overabundant animals.  Trapping and moving the sea lions, or any large mammal, is time-consuming, dangerous to the animal being trapped, and sometimes dangerous for the trapper.  It is expensive and it seldom seems cost-effective to me, given that conservation dollars are always scarce.  Money spent trapping and transferring animals that are neither rare nor threatened is money that could be spent to buy habitat or protection for a suite of species that is in greater need. 

As I see it, the problem is really a paradox.  Biologists are willing to sacrifice some, even many, individuals of abundant species A to help out endangered species B.  Most biologists care about individual animals just as much as animal lovers do.  But biologists are even more concerned about the genetic and demographic viability of the populations of which those individuals are a part.  Without that viability, the population goes extinct and there are no individuals to worry about.  So sacrificing individuals in a common species is a relative no-brainer if that sacrifice helps ensure the survival of another population or species that is in real trouble.  As I see it, biologists and the public are usually talking past one another on this issue.  Perhaps the public understands the trade-off perfectly, but their emotions demand that we not harm some individuals in one species now in the hope of saving all the individuals of another species later.

In the seal-salmon example at hand, the Humane Society brought the case to court, which ruled that no sea lions can be killed now, but a few can be trapped and removed.  Once again, the concern for some “individuals” by the Humane Society puts an entire “population” of another species at risk.  Any real solution will have to wait until next year’s run, so Nero continues to fiddle.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The stress that university students endure

(University students are under stress that is more or less constant, but so much of it is self-imposed.)

The pattern was the same nearly every year that I taught.  Classes started in late August, students were full of vim and vigor, and mostly tan.  The honeymoon lasted about two weeks, and then the work load began to take its toll.  My field biology course was not difficult, but it included a hell of a lot of material, weekend field trips, tons of memorization, an outside research project, and keeping a field notebook of every walk in the outdoor environment the student took.   By late September, students were noticeably fatigued, as they stayed up later and later to do the work from all their courses.  Less sleep, colder and rainier weather, more stress from getting behind, even less sleep to try to catch up, and then the viruses.  By mid-October, my class looked and sounded like a tuberculosis ward of the 1920s---sneezing, coughing, hacking, tissues everywhere.  I could almost see the germs in the air.  Most years, at least one student contracted mononucleosis at this time, missed two weeks of class, and found themselves in one heck of a hole.  Some missed so much school that they had to drop out and lose the entire semester.

This process is probably repeated across the country at universities and colleges everywhere.  Generally, students inherently want to do well, and there is often tremendous social pressure, real or imagined, on them to succeed.  Their families are paying a huge sum of money to send them to the school and they have worked hard to get there.  Students believe that their entire future depends on their academic accomplishments; in short, they believe that life will be miserable if success is not attained in the hallowed classrooms of America's institutions of higher learning.

The following paragraph is an email message, reproduced here verbatim, sent to one of my Teaching Assistants near the end of the fall semester a few years ago.   The student was taking my field biology course, and the Monday deadline was due for handing in their field notebook, which was worth 15% of their entire grade for the course.  To get the full effect and tone of the message, you have to read it as though you were this student: female, slight Puerto Rican accent, high-pitched voice, and read extremely rapidly:

"Hi Viviana,
I recently emailed Emily and Florian about this but didn't get a reply.  I'm really freaking out right now because I woke up at 10pm tonight....I got back to Ithaca around 4am Monday and started doing work the minute I got back because I have a lot due this week, and then I decided to take a quick nap before field bio.  I don't know how I did this but I must have been so tired that I turned the alarm off in my sleep and just woke up at 10pm Monday night.  Needless to say, I am freaking out about the field notebook.  I've been trying to get in touch with a TA to see if I can hand it to one of you tomorrow morning/tomorrow sometime.  I will seriously walk over to your place tomorrow anytime or whatever it takes even if you live in the boonies---I'm just freaking out and Gavin's going to kill me.   And I worked so hard on this thing--it took so long to put together.  I don't have the species accounts from the project since those were collected with out project but I think you graded my project, so perhaps you have them already.  I understand if I lose points on the journal because it's technically late by several hours, but I don't want to lose 150 points!  Omg, let me know what I should do...Thanks so much."

Although this is a somewhat humorous message, you can hear the panic in this student's voice.  She must have been exhausted, because the "quick nap" turned out to be 10-12 hours long.  Needless to say, I was reasonably lenient on her missed deadline, and this student is now in vet school at Cornell.

I have told the following anecdote many times before, but it is worth repeating, in brief, because it is relevant to this blog  I was an undergrad at Ohio State University in the 1960s during the Vietnam War.  If you were not in college, you were almost certainly drafted into the military by Uncle Sam, barring some kind of serious physical affliction.  In those years, the probability was very high that you would be sent to Vietnam, where there was risk of death or serious injury.  Also, state universities like OSU actually flunked out students who did not maintain the published minimum GPA.  I believe that nearly 1/3 of all freshmen left the university due to poor grades in those days.  I can distinctly remember going into a final exam with males whose GPA was on the borderline.  If they got a D on the final exam of that particular course, their GPA would fall below the minimum needed to stay in school, they would be drafted into the Army, sent to the war, and possibly killed.  In other words, for some students, their performance on a test was literally a matter of life or death.  Can you even imagine that kind of pressure?

I used to repeat this story to my field bio class every year, about the time I thought the stress was getting thick.  I asked them what is the worst thing that could happen to you IF you were not successful at this place?  You would be embarrassed?  Your parents would be disappointed? You would be physically separated from your boy friend or girl friend?  You would no longer get to play on the basketball team?  Or, you would never get a good-paying job and, therefore, not live happily ever after?  All of those things may be true, but compare that to having your arm or leg blown off, or being a parapalegic, or having mental trauma that lasts the rest of your life. I'm not a psychologist or a guidance counselor, although I often played one at the university.  But it is apparent that each of us tends to let our current fears and concerns become as large as all outdoors.  They can consume us as though we were the only human on earth who was feeling stressed.  But it is all relative, and a modicum of stress is probably adaptive.  Stress keeps us somewhat sharp, alert, and ready.  It is just a matter of balance, I suppose.

So, if you are a university student reading this, and you tend to let the work and the expectations get you down, ask yourself this question.  What is the worst that could happen?  An even more interesting question is this.  What is the best that could happen, even if I left school?  Remember that Steve Jobs dropped out of college during his freshman year, and he seems to know a thing or two about success.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

On mowing the lawn

(I doubt these guys are saving any gas.)

I've been mowing lawns since I was about 7 years old.  We would never let our young kids use dangerous power equipment like that today, but that was a different time.  The yard had to be mowed, my father worked long hours away from home, and my mother was busy with two younger siblings.  I've mowed lawns of houses in which I have lived in Ohio, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Oklahoma, and New York, so I have given the activity a great deal of thought.  In fact, thinking is mostly what one does while mowing the lawn.

I mow about a half acre here in Ithaca.  Until 5 years ago, I used a walk-behind mower and it took 3-3 1/2 hours to complete the job; after I got a riding mower, the job was reduced to a third the time, so it gave me less time to think than doing it the old way.  Now I feel rushed.  I have to cover a lot of mental ground in only an hour or so.  I used to have time to outline my classroom lectures in my head while on the mower.  Now, I can barely enumerate the names of my kids and grandkids before I am finished.  When we rented a farm in Monteverde, Costa Rica years ago, the peon who worked the place mowed our lawn by hand, with a machete.  Wow!  He must have gotten a lot of thinking done.  He always seemed like he had life pretty well figured out, and the abundant time he had cutting grass probably contributed to that.  We modern North Americans can cut the grass lickety-split with our fancy machines, and we are clueless about almost everything.  See the correlation?

One of the first issues in mowing is exactly how you are going to do the cutting.  What pattern will you adopt?  Most of us mowers probably go around in a square, shooting the cut grass to the outside of the mowed area.  That means you are going counter-clockwise, because the outlet on the mower is on the right side.  I have seen some mowers simply go back and forth, first shooting the grass to the outside, and then shooting it to the inside of the mowed area.  That seems bipolar to me.  Some of the vegetation gets cut once, some gets cut twice.  Some aficionados have recommended that I mow my lawn using swaths that are diagonal within the yard, rather than horizontal or vertical.  Pretty fancy, so it would look good from a Google Earth photo.  But I stick with the counter-clockwise square, so I can easily determine that the geometric shape remaining to cut is diminishing in size as I go.  I need that positive reinforcement.

I have learned a great deal of ecology while mowing lawns for five decades in half a dozen states.  I apply no chemical spray to my lawn, so it is a bit rough with all sorts of herbaceous biodiversity that tell me something about what is under my feet.  One learns where the wet areas and the dry areas in the yard are located.  This often comes in handy later if you want to plant flowers or trees in the yard.  I learn where the yellow jackets have their hole in the ground, after they find me first.  I know where the pickerel frogs, which like wet meadows, live in my yard.  I enjoy the beautiful orange hawkweed blooms, just before I whack their little heads off, and I have followed the health of the same patch of buttercups for years.  I am aware of when crickets hatch in August, and I then anticipate the female turkeys that bring their brood through the yard to feed on the abundant insects.  I see deer droppings, and dog poop, and the occasional raccoon pile.  I know where moles like to dig their tunnels, and I know where they never dare to try.  And I see the non-sentient seedlings of white ash trees that are forever trying to find a home in a yard that is cut to the ground repeatedly.

So I think and I examine and I reduce the height of the vegetation. I accomplish mental work, I learn some ecology, and I make the yard look better simultaneously.  It's multi-tasking, the manly way.  When the mower is put away in October for the winter, I feel like I have closed up my mobile office or my lab for the season, and I truly look forward to all the mental stimulation that next May will bring.  Next time you have this chore to do, focus on nature's classroom that is all around you, and try to enjoy the relative solitude the job provides.  And remember, don't drink and drive, or try to send text messages as you negotiate that counter-clockwise square.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Move to the city--please!

(A large city, somewhere on earth.  I don't see why they can't add a few floors to that tall building on the right.)

I want everyone, all of you and all your friends and relatives, to move to the city nearest you.  If you already live in a city, please stay there!

After all, isn't the city where all the excitement is, and the movies, and the restaurants, and the museums, and the libraries, and the schools.  You are more likely to have sex if you move to a metropolitan area where there are lots of other people.  In fact, most young people move to a city so they can increase their probability of getting laid.  I'm sure this wisdom applies to people of all ages.  Your churches are in the city, for the most part, so your god must spend more time there than in a sparsely populated rural area where there are few converts to service.  Drinking water and chlorine are in abundance there, so you won't go thirsty.  You won't be bothered by tobacco smoke either, because it is illegal to smoke everywhere.  There are many examples of interesting architecture in the city; there are no examples of cathedrals built in the Italian Renaissance design out here in the boonies.  Out here, we have great examples of "early-dilapidated".

In contrast, here in the country we have Lyme disease, which can cripple your children, lots of mosquitoes, coyotes that eat your babies, and letter carriers who have to drive a car to get to your mail box.  If their car broke down or they ran out of gas, you might have to wait an extra day to get that credit card offer you were expecting.  Out here, people let their dogs and cats run free, and they defecate and urinate everywhere.  The stench of domestic pet waste products, which is accented with the delightful droppings of deer, possum, and raccoon, permeates the air for miles around my home.  The pollen count out here is atrocious; there are times when my wife needs to help me open the door because of the density of pollen on the other side.  We have more deer mice inside the house than there are outside, so I just leave the door open so they can run out.  We have no Starbucks.  We have no high-speed internet.  If we want to order a pizza, we call on Monday so the delivery boy can get here in time for our dinner on Wednesday.

We have to deal with those drivers from the city who come out here on a Sunday afternoon just to see how the country folk live.  When I hear their Audi's coming, I don my straw hat and slap a twig in my mouth as I wave to them passing by.  And the chances of getting laid out here, well, let's not even go there.  Soon, hunting season begins, so there will be men and women walking the hills and fields and shooting at deer with lethal weapons.  Thank God you don't have to worry about that in the city.

In short, hundreds of millions of people live in cities around the world instead of in the country, and for good reason.  In fact, China is forcing millions of their people to move to one of their 160 cities that already contain over a million residents. The leaders of China are smart guys, so I'm sure they know what they are doing.  Life can be tough out there in the countryside.  Who wants to grow rice or wheat when you can just buy it at the corner store?  Everything you need is close at hand, convenient, economical, tidy.  I mean, Management and I have to drive almost 30 minutes to get to a mall to find a falafel or a gyro served in one of those fancy food courts.  As a result, we don't get to eat much of that Mexican food.

Live in highly dense aggregations of humans.  The denser, the better.  The more people there are, the denser it is, and the more fun you can have.  There are traffic jams so crowded now in places that you can text everyone you know two or three times before you get home at night.  Now that is efficiency.  Why just sit there when you can catch up on your correspondence?  Here in the country, we have no excuse while driving but to keep moving in our vehicles, so we get way behind on letter writing and the like.  We only see our neighbors a couple of times a year, so we forget their names.

I spent a few days in Chicago last week. There would seem to be plenty of room for more people there. There are streets there where the sun still reaches the ground, so there is vertical space for expansion. And those green areas or parks are a waste; they are just a depository for pigeon poop. Fill those up with habitable dwellings; there is no reason why Chicago could not house 4 million residents instead of 3.  There is even a river running through that city where you can go fishing and, I am told, those fish are almost safe to eat.

But let me be perfectly honest for a moment. The real reason I want you all to move to the city is because if you don't, you build new houses near me.  The footprint of each new house eliminates a little more natural habitat, and contributes to the ongoing sterilization of nature that is ubiquitous.  Every time a new house goes up within a mile of my place, I am sick to my stomach for a week. And it is just no fun sipping scotch with an upset stomach.  I realize that this is egocentric and selfish, but I don't care.  So order up that caramel macchiato, text a friend or two in this morning's rush hour traffic, and go to a nightclub this weekend where you can strut your stuff.  And enjoy!  After all, it is easier not to be depressed about the natural world when you live where there is nothing more to lose.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

DrTom gets an official warning from Facebook

(I thought the fine print on this warning would thank me for my contributions to Facebook, but no such luck.)

Today I opened my email to find the following warning from the administrators of Facebook:

Hello,

You made one or more wall posts that violated our Terms of Use. Among other things, posts that are hateful, threatening, or obscene are not allowed. We also take down posts that attack an individual or group, or advertise a product or service. Continued misuse of Facebook's features could result in your account being disabled.

If you have any questions or concerns, you can visit our FAQ page at http://www.facebook.com/help/?topic=wposts.

The Facebook Team


I admit that I have been pushing the envelope on FB lately.  I found over 200 Fan Pages that I thought were relevant to items I am trying to sell on this site, so I placed blurbs about my stuff on those sites incessantly for the past few weeks: airline pages, travel pages, sites about dogs and hotels and cruise lines, etc.  I couldn't resist the tens of thousands of eyeballs on those pages (to get the number of people, divide by two).  I joined Fan Pages like "I Love Hugs", "Life With Dogs", " i love you. you love me. then why can't we be together?", and "Once you live in NEW DELHI u cannot live anywhere else in the world !!".  I  spammed the Fan Pages of Ellen deGeneres, The Mentalist, The Colbert Report, and other tv shows.  I placed "ads" on the Walls of The Ohio State University, Oregon State University, and Cornell.  I invaded various food channels and the Walls of many cities and countries found around the world.  In short, I was an aggressive advertiser, ambitious, assertive, and confident in my product.

Alas, I can report that all of that effort on my part has resulted in a big fat nothing.  Zilch.  No sales.  Nada.  No profits.  I accomplished very little with all that spamming, except the receipt of a warning from FB that they might disable my account.  I guess that was a blessing, because now I will have more time for direct contact with all my FB friends---to convince them to buy flowers (see cheery ad below) or designer cookies for your mother or wife.  But what does an aspiring capitalist have to do to make a buck in this world?

I realize fully that I was not trained to make money in this life.  I was educated as a scientist, a biologist, an ecologist, a conservationist.  Those people don't make money; they give of their life to try to understand and save the world and to teach others about all that.  But no one really listens to that message, because they are all out there making money.  In fact, the public thinks that conservationists don't need money because they know how to live off the land--to find wild edibles for food, to erect primitive shelters from hemlock boughs to get out of the rain and snow, to kill and skin wild animals to make clothing.  So you see, when we want to buy a new toaster oven or pay our electric bill, all we have are some beaver pelts or deer livers or hallucinogenic shrooms for those products or services.  Most of us have only seen a $100 bill when we visited the money collection at the Smithsonian Institution .  When we renegotiate our university contracts, we end up settling for an extra pound of acorns per month instead of a real salary increase.  We are so naive.

Given my friendly notice from the management at FB, I spent the past couple of hours hitting the "Unlike" button on about 150 Fan Pages where I was pumping my wares.  After all, what could I possibly have to say on the "Memphis" page if I weren't trying to get readers there to buy Cafe Britt coffee (see tiny micro bar ad above) or cigars from my site?  "Hey, anyone here seen Elvis lately?"  What could I contribute on the "Copenhagen" site other than wanting those Danes to come to my blog?  "Hvordan har De det?"  And what do I have in common with readers of the "Princess Cruises" site, unless I can get them to book their cruise on DrTom's Travel Shoppe?  (To be honest, I am really prone to motion sickness, so the thought of taking a cruise (see simple blue and orange ad below) with 5,000 strangers wearing plaid shorts makes me vomit for a couple of reasons. But I would gladly sell a cruise to anyone else.)

So, I am left with using my own Profile page on FB to entice potential customers to this site.  Just watch over the next month how clever I can be in getting my FB friends here.  Expect to see the following messages on my Wall soon.  "Would you like to be admitted to Cornell University and receive reduced tuition?  Then come to Life at DrTom's."  "Are you lonely and in need of a free companion dog?  .......DrTom's."  "Like to get rich quick?  Come to DrTom's for a list of FB Fan Pages that you can spam.  Results guaranteed!"  I am only limited by my own imagination.  And because people really do want to get rich quick, or they need a dog, they will be like putty in my hands.  Yea, that's the ticket.  I will just lie outright and promise the moon.  Then, after I make a big pile of money, maybe I'll take a cruise.  BLECK!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

DrTom goes shopping for wedding clothes

(This is where I spent yesterday.  It sounds French, but it must be an American store because they readily take your dollars.)

This week Management dragged me to the mall to buy clothes--for me. You have to understand that I HATE shopping of any kind: for cars, for houses, for food, for gifts, for tools or music or whatever.  But shopping for clothes is absolutely the worst of them all.  I suppose that is why I haven't been clothes' shopping for 7-8 years.  I usually get a shirt or two and a pair of slacks as a gift from some female in my family at Xmas or on my birthday, and that pretty much does it.  I never need to go.

My closet contains shirts and sports coats that I bought 20 years ago.  I'm comfortable with how they look and how they feel, and they are happy to be worn once in a while.  When I adorn myself with that old gray button-down, long-sleeve Gant, it is like taking a buddy out for a beer.  We have grown old together and when my wife makes me turn a shirt over to the Salvation Army receiving center, it is like the death of an old friend.  I mourn for a couple of days and then stand in front of my closet trying to explain to the clothes gang I have in there how badly I feel, and that they are not going to be next if I have anything to say about it.  I tell them, "Just remain inconspicuous in here and she will never notice you.  But when I decide to wear you, you need to look fresh and new, or else." 

Well, push came to shove this month.  Next week, there is a big family wedding in Chicago.  The daughter of my wife's sister is getting married into a large Irish Chicago family.  We have a small family.  So there will be about 400 of them and about 13 of us, so the ratio of their eyes on us to our eyes on them is overwhelming.  My sister-in-law has been shopping for dresses for months, and the social pressure of this wedding has been transmitted to my wife and, in turn, to me.  "You will look sharp at this wedding!"  (Realize there is not enough ink in this computer to put all the exclamation points inherent in my wife's voice at the end of that last sentence.)  So yesterday, we went to the Bon-Ton.

As we entered the largish department store with the French-sounding name, my knees got a little weak as I uttered a French-sounding phrase (SACRE BLEU!) under my breath.  I'm sure there is a more appropriate exclamation in French, but I don't carry a cell phone with that kind of app.  The Bon-Ton tries to be helpful in that it was constructed with a set of marble stones embedded in the floor as you enter that you can follow, like the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz.  I even found myself whistling that tune from the movie as I stepped onto the path and skipped past the perfume section.  After that, the path winds around through women's shoes, women's dresses, and finally (my whistling stopped abruptly), at the men's clothing department.  The path even forks a couple of times along the way, taking you to other delightful departments with kitchen appliances and children's toys.  But we were having none of that fun this day.  We headed straight for the clothing area, a direction with which my wife seemed all too familiar.  "Hi Evelyn, hello Beverly", she spoke to various clerks as we strode past their various stations.   She was on a first-name basis with those who take those plastic cards and swipe them through those dangerous devices they have behind their counter.  I swear, I felt the wallet in my back pocket almost jump out of my pants when I realized how comfortable Management was in this foreign land.

We immediately looked for new jeans for me.  Mine are pretty worn, or don't fit my butt right, or are considered out of style, or whatever, according to HER.  What size, she asks.  I usually take 34x32, but in some styles I can wear a 33x32, but if they come short I need 34 or 33 x 33.  I'll show her just how technical shopping for men's clothes can be.  She'll never want to bring me here again, I thought.  So I lugged four pair to the changing room, modeled them all, and bought three.  Fifteen minutes tops, and I knocked off three items.  Then we examined the shirt racks.  I need a shirt for a sports coat I have in my closet (one of the old friends), I need a new shirt to go with my suit, and I need a couple to wear during the four days we will be out and about in Chicago.  What size, she asks?  Now I can really lay it on her.  Well, last time I bought one of these my neck was 15 1/2 and sleeve length was 33.  So I tried one of those, after removing a dozen pins, a piece of plastic wrap, and a cardboard stave around the neck of the garment.  Oops.  My neck is larger now and the sleeves seem short.  So I need to try a 16 neck with a 34 sleeve, but she can't find the same color in that size.  But I try that size in the wrong color and realize I need a 16 1/2 neck anyway.  So we really need a 16 1/2 neck with a 33-34 sleeve, but you need to try every shirt on because different brands fit differently.  Geesh I hate this.  Stick a pin in my eye please.  More pins to remove, more staves to discard, plastic and cardboard everywhere.  Who cleans up this mess?  I find three shirts eventually, some black socks, a new belt, two new ties, and a partridge in a pear tree.  Completely done in under an hour.

And matching the colors of shirts, with ties, and with sports coats or suits is totally beyond this color-blind guy.  It is like playing a game without rules.  Here is how it goes:

Wife: "I think the green stripe in this shirt goes well with that tie."
Me: "OK."
Wife: "But maybe there is too much blue in that tie for your sports coat."
Me: "OK."
Wife: "I really like the way this shirt picks up the brown tint in the coat and matches the tie."
Me: "OK."
At this point, I am no longer even listening.
Wife: "Are you paying attention to my suggestions?"
Me: "OK."

When it came time to pay the bill, I saw a little red sign by the cash register that said "20% OFF ON NEARLY EVERYTHING".  Wow!  That will take some of the pain out of this uninspiring hour.  But when I read the fine print on that placard, it said you get 20% off if you apply for a Bon-Ton credit card today.  Damn!  We already have a Bon-Ton card.  So you don't get 20% off after they have already sucked you in; they only give you 20% off during the sucking-in process.  And by the way, the "20% OFF" must have been in 36 font, while the "if you apply today" must have been in 4 font.  At this point, I have invested significant time out of my retirement trying on these clothes, and we are standing there with a pile of garments that Management is sure will make me look sharp, and I know that the moment we get home she will call her sister to enumerate the items that will contribute to my potential sharpness.  In other words, there is no turning back now, even if the placard had read we will charge you 20% MORE because you hate shopping and you look like a senior citizen.  If I backed out now, the pressure from the female side of my family would have crushed me like a cheap glass under a leather shoe at a Jewish wedding.

So I'm ready.  I have the clothes, a great-looking wife, and by next week I'll have an attitude appropriate for the big city event.  There may be 800 eyeballs looking us up and down next week, but let them look.  And when they ask me how it is I look so nice, I will say in my best Al Capone voice, "The Bon-Ton.  Evelyn sent me."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Exploring outdoors with a young child: the walk without "no-no's"

(Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is good for young children.)

This past week I spent considerable time with my 2-year old grandson walking around in the forest on our property.  I keep a system of paths mowed through the woods, so it is easy to stroll around the place, even for a toddler.  After a couple of walks, I developed the following rules for myself:

1.  spend as much time as he wants walking around, which usually lasts about an hour
2.  let him choose the direction we walk
3.  let him throw all the sticks and rocks he finds on the path that he wants; 150 seemed to be about the desired number
4.  make the walk as much fun as you can, and nothing but fun
5.  never, and I mean, never say "no" to the kid while on this walk

I call this walkabout "the walk without no-no's".  This must be liberating, maybe even empowering, for the youngster.  If you go when the weather is decent and biting insects are not bad, there is little that can hurt him.  So let him do whatever he wants the entire time.  This is such a different experience than being in the house, where there are sharp, pointed objects ("no-no"), household chemicals and cleaning supplies ("no-no"), basement stairs ("no-no"), and valuable, fragile personal possessions ("no-no-no!").  There is none of that in the woods.

My grandson and I made a game out of it.  He saw me picking up rocks from the path and tossing them into the woods.  I do this so the mower does not hit them, but he loves to throw, so it looked like fun.  He chose sticks instead of rocks, but close enough.  I called these objects we were throwing "funky dogs".  I don't know why; the term just came to me.  "Brayden, here is another funky dog.  Grandpa just threw a funky dog into the woods."  Pretty soon, he was tossing and saying "funky dawg", or something close enough for government work.  I let him lead and I followed him.  Every time we came to a fork in the path, he stuck his little index finger in the air and said questioningly, "this way?".  I immediately said OK.  And he always looked at me with an expression of amazement, like "Can we really go the way that I said?  I'm too young to know the right way, or am I?"  The thing is, there is no right way or wrong way.  We spent much of our time going around in a big circle.  But who cares.  The circuit was new to my grandson, even though it was old and familiar to me.  But that was fine, because I was there for HIM, not for ME.  I wanted him to have so much fun that he would go again the next day if I asked him.

And we learned some natural history during our walk.  Two days ago we found a single, perfectly ripe black raspberry perched on the end of a spiny branch.  Brayden recognized it immediately as a raspberry, because his mother buys those exact fruits for him in the grocery store.  I told him he could eat it and, after popping it in his mouth, uttered the technical word, "umm".  But then I got a bit worried.  Maybe he will think that all fruit he sees growing on plants outside is edible.  Near the raspberry bush was a patch of gray dogwood, loaded with its white berries.  I pointed these out and used the word "yucky".  Yesterday, we took the same walk, saw some dogwood fruits, and HE told me these were yucky.  He remembered.  On this same walk, I heard and then saw a Hairy Woodpecker pecking on a dead white pine directly above us.  I pointed it out to Brayden, who stopped tossing sticks long enough to look.  I told him what it was and that it was pecking for insects on the tree.  He used the word "banging", but close enough.  He knows that word inside the house, as in "Brayden, don't bang on the table.  Brayden, don't bang on the wall." I never lectured the kid.  I just put some words, phrases, and ideas out there that I thought would have impact on him.  ("Are you pickin up what I'm layin down?").

Whenever we returned to the house and to his mother or grandmother, I encouraged him to retell the story of our walk.  On this occasion, he said something about a woodpecker banging.  I think a debriefing, or summary, at the end of the walk is good practice.  It must result in some sort of consolidation of ideas or facts in that little brain.  These young children are like a factoid sponge.  They can remember and retain a tremendous amount of information.  Remember, these are the young things who learn a foreign language in about three years.  If you are over 30, start today trying to learn a foreign language and then report back to me in three years.  You will be very disappointed with yourself.  But young humans can do it, and in some places in the world they learn 2-3 such languages.  So don't worry; their little head is not going to explode due to an overload of information.  Just ain't gonna happen.

Sometimes he tried to point out some natural history to me.  Yesterday, he raised his little index finger next to his nose, and said "Papa, listen, a bird". I admit he should have placed his little finger next to his ear, not his nose, but again this was close enough. Maybe anatomy is not his strong suit.  I listened and was able to tell him that it was not a bird, but a squirrel.  Sometimes a barking gray squirrel can sound like a bird.  And so it went, one light bulb after another going on in that young head, all positive and interesting, no restrictions, no rules, no household chemicals to worry about.
 
Now, obviously, if there are certain dangers like a grizzly bear or a cliff, you may have to invoke executive power to avoid a problem.  For example, yesterday my grandson wanted to sit on a stump that was covered with poison ivy.  Instead of saying "no, you can't sit there", I used it as an educational moment.  I explained that if you touched this plant, it will make you really itchy.  He bought my explanation, and chose another stump.  I don't like the notion that we teach that there are good plants and animals and bad plants and animals.  Some organisms have defense mechanisms that humans don't like.  No need to sugar-coat what goes on out there in the wild, but we don't need to start little ones off with a "them and us" attitude about the natural world.  You may not like the ticks that cause Lyme disease, but try to explain the fascinating biology that creature represents (if you know it) rather than simply denigrate the species in a word or two.

I was always amazed at how few questions university undergrads asked in a class that I taught.  Two-year old children may not ask that many either, but by the age of four they are non-stop questioners of everything they see or hear.  Take them on a walk in the woods, and you could be hoarse by the time you return after their Q&A session.  Never discourage this!  I have long been afraid that our school systems do discourage the asking of questions in students, so that by the time they enter college, they sit there dutifully, take notes, and keep their mouths shut.  Give me a 5-year old's curiosity over this sedateness any day.  So wake up parents and grandparents, get outside with those young ones and their questions, and their innate, unbridled wonder of the natural world, and leave those "no's" (AND CELL PHONES!!!) at home.


"In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught."  Baba Dioum.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My grandson, ants, and E.O. Wilson

(If my grandson could speak English or if E.O. Wilson could speak Estonian, they would have a great conversation about ants.)

Last night I had a pleasure that only a grandfather who is a biologist with an interest in languages could appreciate.  My daughter was reading Harry Potter to her daughters on our deck.  Our 2-year old grandson became bored with that story (as I always do also), so he led me into my den where he demanded in perfect English to have a book to read.  He made no specific request, although he was pointing in the direction of my copy of Darwin's The Origin of Species.  Assuming that content would be a bit too esoteric for the kid, I chose one of my favorites: The Ants, by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson.  It is a large format book and as I let him try to carry it to the deck, where all this reading was going on, he screamed, again in English, "It's too heaby!"  So I toted the tome to the deck, where he promptly curled up at the foot of his mother's lounge chair and opened up the book.

He turned immediately to the chapter titled "Colony Odor and Kin Recognition" and began to read aloud as children often do, slowly turning the pages when he finished absorbing the information on each.  I realized that he was reading in the language with which each baby in the world is born speaking fluently, Estonian.  (See my blog where I laid out this hypothesis several weeks ago.)  My joy was unsurpassed as I listened to my daughter reading the silly fiction about wizards and ghouls in English, while my young grandson read what I believe to be the finest bioscience book published in the past 25 years, in Estonian.  Of course, the book was written in English, so my grandson must be translating as he goes.  That kid is destined to do great things, if he can just get over his fear of real ants.

When he had finished reading, he looked at me with an expression that conveys a mutual understanding between mentor and student.  He could have told me directly what he was thinking, but because I no longer understand Estonian (as we all lose the ability to do, except for those babies actually born in Estonia), he had to convey to me through manipulations of his facial muscles what he wanted to communicate.  Apparently my grandson had thought until he read that chapter that ants identified one another strictly through the tactile sense; he had no idea that they used the olfactory system as extensively as they do.  The fact that there are differences in the proportion of hydrocarbons among colonies and not just species, allowing for colony recognition, astounded him.  My grandson had not yet read the seminal paper by Bonavita-Cougourdan et al. (1987), who advanced this idea, although I will download it for him today.  My grandson is extremely disappointed that E.O. Wilson will be too old to accept new grad students at Harvard when the toddler is old enough to apply. 

Tonight, we will read before bedtime again, and my grandson will appear in my den ready to select.  This time, I will recommend one of my favorites, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I don't want this early education of his to focus too intently on the biological sciences, when there is so much good philosophy to study.  He is already in love with trucks and tractors, so a book about motorcycles should be right up his alley.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The life of a census enumerator

(Off to work.)

"Hello.  My name is Tom Gavin and I work for the U.S. Census Bureau.  Is this 455 Elm Street?  And were you living here on April 1 of this year?"  And so it goes, day after day, week after week, all summer long.   I knock on door after door, finding that most people are not home, leaving a NV (Notice of Visit) to call me on my cell, completing Enumerator Questionnaires---all for $13.00 per hour plus $.50 per mile reimbursement for the miles I drive.

I thought this might be an interesting experience; it has had its moments, and I've met some pretty nice dogs.  But for the most part, it is pretty boring.  Most people are happy to give out the information I require about their name, age, date of birth, and so forth.  You know, the 10 questions or so that we all ask and that most of you have answered, either by writing it on the form you got in April or by telling a person like me who appeared at your door.  Some of you have gone through this three times this summer.  Don't ask me why.  I just work here.  I am only doing what the Constitution of the United States requires the government to do every 10 years: count all the people living in the U.S. on April 1, and collect some ancillary data.

For some people it seems like a major inconvenience for me to ask these questions.  It only takes about five minutes, and it is only done once per decade.  Some interviewees act as though they are the busiest humans on earth, and they could not possibly take a few minutes to talk.  Others are obviously desperate to talk to someone about anything.  One lady took 15 minutes to complain about the crack cocaine-selling neighbors she had until they were evicted.  She feared for her life much of the time.  Then, she rambled on about an event in California where the police used a TASER on a man who was already down on the ground, and how terrible that was, and what is wrong with the police.  "Mam, I work for the Census Bureau."  I had a farmer all but grab me by the shirt and tell me to tell the President that farmers are getting a raw deal in this country.  That most dairy farms have gone under because of the price of milk.  "Sir, I work for the Census Bureau, and I don't know Barack very well." 

One guy told me that he had been on the internet a lot lately and that people really hate me.  Geesh, these people have not communicated their hatred to me directly, and I check my mail every day.  He was mad, and these people were mad, because this entire census operation was costing taxpayers $450,000!  I said, "Only $450,000?"  And he repeated the amount as though it was the largest number he had ever heard.  I didn't have the heart to tell him that the grand total was more like $14.5 billion.  If they knew that, those people would really hate me.  I would have to change my name to remain safe in a world where every U.S. citizen was gunning for Tom Gavin for committing such a huge sum of taxpayers' money.  I would have to dye my hair, gain 40 pounds, and wear plaid golfing slacks to go into town without being recognized.

I thought I would sign up for this gig, in part, to sample the residents of upstate New York.  To find out what people were thinking about the government and the world and their place in it.  But I'm not getting a strong signal about people in general.  Humans come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are pissed at the world and everything in it, probably because their life is a mess.  Some seem happy to help, feel good about contributing to this operation, and offer me iced tea.  Some are just plain lonely and want to talk to anyone who shows up about anything at all.  Some appreciate that enumerating the people in the country is an important exercise and were disturbed that I had not gotten to them sooner.  And still others couldn't care if the country went to hell in a hand basket tomorrow.  One young guy was gloating over the fact that he had been working for 10 years and he had never paid a cent of income tax--ever.  "Sir, I also work for the IRS."  Just kidding.

I don't regret working for the Census Bureau one bit.  I'm just a lowly enumerator like tens of thousands of others across the country.  But the job has given me the credentials to approach my neighbors, look them in the eye, and ask them some personal questions.  And while I detest the degrading effect that large numbers of people are having on the earth, I find individuals worthy of respect.  I disagree with some, I empathize with many, and I share a common territory with all.  And tomorrow morning, I will drive onto Main Street in a nearby hamlet, and ask those living there to share a bit of their time.