Monday, May 31, 2010

Our grown children are having all the fun

(Would you rather go birding at DrTom's, or go dancing with Paris Hilton?)

I thought I was enjoying my life in retirement until earlier today when I talked to my son who lives in Las Vegas.  I mean, I have my gardening, and my forest, a great wife, a good dog (about which Mark Twain said each man deserves one of in his life), some aging friends, and the internet.  But my son was describing to me how he went to what is probably the most beautiful swimming pool in the world this week, how he goes to after-parties that are even after the usual after-parties, and that he is so busy chumming with celebs that he barely has time to sleep.  For example, last night he walked into a Japanese restaurant, saw one of his bosses across the room, and went up to the guy to say hello.  Only then did he realize that the man was having dinner with Paris Hilton, who he is dating.  (Of course, the two of them are not having such a good week now, given their arrest due to that "stuff" Paris had in her purse.)  In contrast, this morning I met with some students who were graduating from Cornell.  We met at the annual breakfast under a tent on the lawn in front of a decaying 100-year old building, where I ate half a bagel slathered with cream cheese.  Something is wrong with this picture.

Until today, I thought that hearing a Tufted Titmouse singing in my woods was pretty exciting.  I thought that anticipating the first bloom of a day lily behind the house was stupendous.  I thought that going to Punk's Place in Candor, NY on a Saturday night to get a reuben sandwich was rewarding.  I thought that eating a radish I grew in my garden was miraculous.   But when I think about my party-going, snowboarding, cave-exploring, topless-pool spectating, Texas Hold-em playing sons living under the clear Western sky I'm not so sure.  What the heck was I doing when I was young?  I was married with children, in debt, in the Army or in school trying to educate myself for the good life that was to come.  And what do I have now?  A pithy radish and bird poop all over the place.

So just now, this very minute, I made a commitment to myself.  DrTom will do something at least once a week that can stand up against the social reports of his kids.  For example, this fall we can attend the Candor Senior High School football games.  That marching band of theirs is supposed to put on a pretty entertaining half-time show.  Instead of just listening for birds on my place, I will start turning rocks over for salamanders.  There must be a whole world I am missing by always looking up.  I'm not going to just grow radishes in my vegetable garden; I'm going to try some pak choi.  And that Kama Sutra book that has been sitting in the drawer next to our bed needs to be dusted off.  We use it to press flowers between the pages.  But there are actually some interesting pictures in there.  Management and I need to study those.

So kids, just wait until you call us next time.  Ryan, I won't just be killing tent caterpillars on my fruit trees by squishing them between my fingers like I was when you called today.  I'll be doing stuff.  Lots of neat stuff.  Stuff so neat that you'll want to spend every vacation here at home instead of hiking the high peaks of Colorado or dancing at fancy clubs with those girls who star in Cirque du Soleil or going to comedy clubs with Jarvis Green (the Broncos' new defensive linesman) or going to Cancun for tequila tastings. You might even start bringing people like Paris Hilton, or Alex Rodriguez, or Leonardo diCaprio with you because they have all heard that Danby is now the place to be seen, not Vegas.  And Danbyites are discreet about what celebs do here.  Cause you know what everyone is saying these days: "What happens in Danby, stays in Danby."

Monday, May 17, 2010

On Roger Maris, baseball, and heroes

(There are lots of memories associated with this baseball card.)

I was absolutely consumed by baseball until I was about 13.  I played on a Little League team, I practiced pitching in front of a full-length mirror in my home, I watched games on tv incessantly, and I collected baseball cards.  At the end, I had 3,333 baseball cards, mostly from the 1950s, which my mother overlooked in the basement when she moved from my childhood house.  I never saw them again.  Oh Mom!  Because of this addiction and the data on the back of the baseball cards I had memorized, I knew nearly every stat about every player on nearly every team.  In 1958, one set of stats I committed to memory was the following: right fielder, batted left, threw right, born in Hibbing, MN, rookie year with Cleveland Indians.

Roger Maris only played for the Indians during 1957-58, the first year of his famous career.  He was traded to Kansas City in 1958, and then to the Yankees in 1960, where he played with Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra.  But even in his first year as a pro, there were high hopes for Maris, who later hit 61 homers in the 1961 season, breaking Babe Ruth's record that had stood for 34 years.  So Maris was already one of our heroes among my baseball-loving comrades on the northwest side of Lima, Ohio.  His Rookie Year baseball card of 1958 was hot within trading circles, one of those prizes where you instantly threw away the gum inside the package as soon as you saw the "Roger" and the Indians' uniform.

In those days, it was a common field trip for boys' groups at school to go to a professional baseball game.  Given where I lived, the trips usually went north to an Indians' game in Cleveland; on occasion, we got to travel south to a Redlegs' game in Cincinnati.  The cost of a ticket was about $2, and the stands were never even a third full back then.  (Many years later, I thought I would take my family to a Blue Jays game when we were visiting Toronto.  We walked up to the stadium at game time and were promptly told they had been sold out for weeks.  And if they had tickets, it would probably cost our family of five about $150.  I was in disbelief.  I don't remember reading that stat on the back of a baseball card.  I guess I had been out of touch with my childhood game for a long time.) 

So it was sometime in 1957 when the group of boys (it was always only boys) with which I was traveling headed to Cleveland for a game.  I can no longer remember who the Indians played that day or who won the game.  Our excitement was focused on the habit of congregating around the outside door on the back of the stadium where the players emerged after the game and their showers.  If you were lucky, and the players were in an accommodating mood, they would stand there for a few minutes and sign autographs.  After one of those games, I remember an angry Mike Garcia emerging into the light and the throngs of baseball-loving boys only to shove us aside and to stomp his way to his car, signing nothing.  He had pitched badly that game, and he was bringing his work home with him that day.

But the highlight of my baseball celebrity memories was the day that Roger Maris and Al Smith walked out among their faithful disciples.  We rushed to get their signatures.  I got Al Smith's right away, and he had hit a home run that day.  Then I jumped over to the Maris crowd, and eventually worked my way to a position right in front of the guy.  He signed my baseball program.  But the immense pressure of all those young male bodies was incredible, pushing me forward well within the personal space of the soon-to-be famous ball player.  It reminded me of the feeling I had at the Pussycat Dolls' concert I attended at Cornell last year outside on the lawn.  Students pressed so hard toward the stage that I had to get out of there.  I staggered toward the edge of the crowd as best I could, inadvertently groping students of both sexes.  I was embarrassed at the looks I got, but it was not my fault.  I wanted to scream that I have been married to the same woman for 41 years, and I'm the father of three grown children, and I have peripheral neuropathy so my balance is not so good, and I am not a pervert.  But no one would have believed me.

So to extricate myself from the crowd of autograph seekers around Roger Maris, I had to get down on my hands and knees and crawl out of there.  I swear to whomever you believe, I crawled right between his legs to escape!  It did not seem that weird to me at the time.  I was desperate, I couldn't move, and I was not big enough or strong enough to push my way out of that mess.  So I saw daylight about 18 inches above the ground and I went for it.  I was successful.  I escaped intact with the guy's autograph, which was worth significant bragging rights for many months after.

Men like Maris and Mantle were a big deal to boys like me.  We had little chance of becoming famous or of mingling with the famous, so our brief moments of encounter with them were worth a lot.  Those brief moments gave us something to talk about back home, and made watching them on tv even more magical than it would have been otherwise.  They were heroes to us in every sense of the word.  Maris' autograph, for which I was so proud, was written in pencil.  That signature later faded badly on the glossy paper of that baseball program, which disappeared along with my baseball cards.  But the memory of that day is still very fresh in my mind.

Those men informed our dreams and kindled our imaginations, in spite of any personal problems or improprieties they might have suffered off the field.  I think Bob Costas, the sports commentator par excellence, said it best.  Although he was referring to Mantle, I hope his sentiment still applies to many stars who young people emulate today:  "In the last year of his life, Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between a role model and a hero. The first, he often was not. The second, he always will be. And, in the end, people got it."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Does touching a bird's nest cause the female to abandon it?

(Male Bobolink.  The male usually helps at the nest, but the female does most of the work.)

Did you grow up with your mother telling you not to touch that robin's nest because the mother would not come back and the babies would die?  Most of us did.  This has to be one of the most frequently uttered adages in all of nature lore.  The fact is, this is mostly myth.

During the 1980s, Eric Bollinger and I studied Bobolinks in upstate New York.  Bobolinks are a polygynous (i.e., males commonly have more than one female mate) species in the blackbird family.  The males have an incredibly long, bubbly song and their appearance is described as having  a tuxedo on backwards.  They are about the size of a sparrow.  Bobolinks build their grassy nest on the ground.  The female lays one egg per day until she has completed a clutch of five, begins incubating with the laying of the penultimate egg (next to last), incubates the eggs for 10-12 days, and then feeds her nestlings for another 10-12 days until they fledge.  Males usually help feed nestlings, but they are not as attentive as females.

Eric and I and our technicians located hundreds of Bobolink nests in those years, which are built on the ground in hayfields and meadows.  Once we located a nest, we placed a bamboo stick in the ground about a meter away from the nest with some colored plastic flagging on the top of the stick so we could relocate the nest at will.  Once found, we checked the contents of the nest every day to determine its progress and success.  When the nestlings were about 7 days old, we removed each one from the nest, collected a blood sample, measured it, placed an aluminum band on one leg, and returned it to the nest.  In some years, we removed the eggs and measured them before returning them to the nest.  In other words, we disturbed the nests a great deal during their three-week life, although we were careful not to trample the concealing vegetation around the nest any more than absolutely necessary.

Nearly 1,000 nests endured this harassment, and Eric and I learned a great deal about the behavior of  females because of it.  If we found a nest while the female was constructing it, she usually abandoned the nest.  If we found the nest when she had laid only 1-2 eggs, she often abandoned the nest.  Once the female had laid her full clutch of eggs and began incubating, she almost never abandoned, and if the nest contained nestlings, she would absolutely never abandon her brood.  The same seems to be true of most other birds as well.

Think of it this way: the more the female had invested in time and energy in the whole operation, the less likely she was to give it up.  Remember also, most birds have only a limited seasonal window during which they can successfully complete the nesting cycle.  In the case of Bobolinks, it takes a total of about 30 days from initiation of nest-building to fledging of their young.  In addition, they continue to feed their fledglings after they leave the nest for some period of time.  Bobolinks do not return from South America until early May and they start moving south again in August.  If they had to start over with the nesting cycle part-way through, they would barely have enough time to get those babies to a size and age where they could endure a long migration at the end of the summer.

Realize that the patterns I have described above probably apply to most songbirds in North America.  They may not apply equally well to tropical birds, which live in an area with many predators, and which always seemed to me to be extremely wary of predation threats.  Those species might abandon their nests more readily than temperate species.

So when your mother or grandmother tells you not to touch that nest because the female will not come back to it, you can say: "Well Mom, it goes like this".  There is a danger of attracting predators to a nest that you have disturbed, and where you have presumably left your scent.  Raccoons are very good at following these clues.  But as far as the female of the nest is concerned, she has invested too much for too long to walk (well, or fly) away easily.

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Motivation: what you need to learn Korean

(Bored soldiers.  I knew that feeling so well.)

By the fall of 1969 I had completed my training in Military Intelligence in the U.S. Army at Ft. Holabird, MD and was awaiting orders for my first duty station after graduation.  We were all nervous because this was during the heaviest years of fighting in Vietnam and most soldiers were sent there, regardless of their specialty in the military.  The Tet Offensives in 1968 and 1969 were massive and bloody, and they were on the mind of every GI.  So my wife and I were on pins and needles waiting for the orders that would determine the next direction of our lives.

On the day in question in late August, I was about to play a tennis match after duty-hours for the Ft. Holabird team against another military base. One of my friends on the court yelled at me about whether I had gotten my orders today.  We had, in fact, gotten them, but I had not had a chance to talk to Robin about them.  But Robin heard the question, jumped to her feet and marched across the tennis court directly over to me, balls flying past her head in both directions, and demanded to know if I had received orders.  I told her not to worry; I was assigned to go to language school in Virginia.  How bad could that be?

So in September, I began Korean language training in Arlington, VA at a new complex of high-rise buildings called Crystal City.  That area is so developed now that I couldn't even find the building where I spent so much time when I visited a couple of years ago.  The Defense Language Institute was contracted by the military to teach languages to military personnel in this place as well as on the west coast at Monterrey; they taught over 50 languages there.  There were three Korean classes to begin that month, and I was assigned to the class of Mr. Cho.  All instructors were native speakers of the language they taught.  Each class contained 10 GIs, where we sat in a straight line in school-like chairs with a desk top in a very small room with our instructor.  Our instruction lasted 7 hours per day, 5 days per week, for 50 weeks.  I can hear the audible groans from the peanut gallery now.

The class was tedious, and we had to do some studying at night to memorize the dialogue for the next day.  We learned to speak, read, and write the language.  There was a great deal of oral work during each day's class, as we were randomly called upon by Mr. Cho to answer his questions in Korean, or to translate what he had said.  We learned about Korean culture, history, food, music, and geography.  We received a pretty good education in all things Korean.  But, the room was small and sterile, you looked at the same nine guys every day, all day, and the educational routine was just that-a monotonous routine.  In short, it was the most boring year I ever spent in my life.

But the alternative was scary and so most, but not all, of us stuck it out.  Every Friday we had an exam on that week's work.  If you failed the test three weeks in a row, you flunked out of language school and you were reassigned.  Reassignment almost certainly meant going to Vietnam.  In fact, when Mr. Cho got totally frustrated with us, which he did often, he would say in his broken English: "You study hard, or you go other place".  And that "other place" in Southeast Asia was a place none of us wanted to go.  So we plodded along, week after boring week, hating the boredom, but hating the idea of what lay ahead if we faltered even more.