Saturday, December 30, 2006

In with the Old

Every year, we attend a Christmas party at the gorgeous Victorian home of our silky-smooth ex-drummer and his fabulous, hilarious wife. Mike and Rosanne Buell put on a feast and gathering every year. I don't for the life of me understand how they pull it off on December 23, but they do. This year, they remodeled their attic (where do you put all your useless krap when you remodel your attic??). In contrast to the respectful Mission Oak treatment given the downstairs, the upstairs is sleek and modern, complete with pool table and plasma TV. On the house tour, I was riveted by a lamp, clearly a vintage piece, on display in the corner. A dancing lady turned slowly, wobbling slightly as she described a circle beneath the glow of the bulb. I sat and stared, transfixed, at this objet de art for the better part of a half-hour. Even though all the Christmas cookies were downstairs, I had to know the story. Any lamp with a revolving flamenco dancer has to have a story.
Rosanne's parents bought this lamp the year they were married: 1952. Their color scheme: Pink and black. "Everything had to be modern," Rosanne's mom told me. They went furniture shopping and saw this lamp. "I had to have that lamp!" Mr. Blazosky told me. It cost the newlyweds $25.00. Wonder what that translates to 54 years later?

Sorry about the blur. I wasn't exactly drunk, but it was dark, and I didn't want to blast these lovely folks with a flash.
In my initial examination of the lamp, I was puzzled by the white shade. Something about it didn't look right. I could tell it was early Fiberglas, the off-white, translucent kind with great big fibers visible in it. (You can make out a piece of it behind the dancer). Rosanne said that she'd tried to clean it, failed, and decided to paint it white. Oh. I get it. There had apparently been black rick-rack around the rim of the lamp, and she took that off, since it was kind of beat.
There are heirlooms and there are heirlooms. Waterford crystal, homemade checkerboards, or flamenco lamps. Our generation has a wider array of heirlooms to choose from. My dad used to say, "A weed is but a plant out of place." And an heirloom is in the eye of the beholder.

Speaking of heirlooms, here's the original drumhead from our band, circa mid-90's. Sorry about the blur. It was really dark, and there was just a tiny light inside the drum. I'm proud to say it was on display near the dancing lady lamp. I just finished painting a sleek new one for Steve McCarthy's drum, with our zippy new green logo (see Bill of the Birds' newsy post for that). Steve insisted on a shiny black drumhead, a decision which condemned me to lay down three coats of acrylic on the lettering, repeatedly curse our band for having such a bloody long name with so many @#$@#$ letters in it, and give over six straight hours of my life to making it look at all professional. I was too done in to photograph it when the paint dried--minutes before our last marathon rehearsal began-- but I will try to get a picture of it at the New Year's gig.

We are really looking forward to this gig. We spent almost all day relocating, Googling, and organizing the lyrics. Over the past couple of months, we've worked up probably 5 straight hours' worth of music. There's no way we're going to play it all, but knowing us our breaks will be short and we'll chew through quite a few tunes. We start at 9 pm and end around 1 (we think). We've been told that we can play as long as we want; anybody who checks into a hotel expecting to get to sleep by 10 pm on New Year's Eve is in for a shock. I think I'm most thankful that we're all healthy. Nobody has a fever, a cold, or a sore throat (I know, I'm tempting Fate here). The kids are coming with us; we've got a room. I checked it out and the Blennerhassett Hotel is pet-friendly. Sort of. They allow dogs. For $50.00. Come again??
"Fif-tee, or fif-teen?" I asked.
"Is that a deposit?" I croaked. "No, it's a non-refundable fee," the receptionist replied.

Oh. That's kind of a sneaky way to be pet-friendly, don't you think?

So I guess Baker's staying home. He hasn't peed on a carpet for a year and a half, but I suppose they have to charge for the dogs who do. He'll have doggie friends over on New Year's Day, though, so don't cry for him. I think we'll have enough going on that evening without Baker jumping up on every Tom, Dick and Harry and kissing them on the lips. No self-respecting Boston terrier would wait until the ball drops, that's for sure.

So put on your party hats and get down tonight!

Unrelated topic: The sun finally came out today and I had a ball shooting suet dough customers from Phoebe's bedroom window. Borrowed Bill's howitzer 300 mm. lens with doubler for this shot.
Redbelly: Nice hat.
Cardinal: Right back at ya.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

On Parrots

It's interesting to see the differing reactions of Chet Baker and Charlie the chestnut-fronted macaw when confronted with a large remote-controlled tarantula. Charlie, like Chet, is one smart cookie, and in his 20 years he's been faced with a lot of unusual stimuli. I found KatDoc's comment a typically insightful one. Faced with this amusing but spooky thing, Chet is full of conflict. Kathi points out that he doesn't know whether to play with it, run away, or stay and protect his little boy. Such heartwarming motives generally escape macaws; they're more self-centered than dogs.
Charles barely batted an eye when the tarantula crawled up to him.I found Charlie's nonchalance about a lifelike crawling spider as big as he is to be quite interesting. I'm going out on a limb here, but I think he can tell, better than Chet, whether or not an animated toy is actually alive. Birds, having a weak sense of smell, are more visually oriented than dogs, and he may well be able to see the wheels that propel it and draw conclusions from that and other clues mere dogs would miss. He isn't giving it the same reaction he gives to live insects, especially spiders and wasps. Watching one, he makes a characteristic rapid head shake, and he draws his nictitating membranes across his eyes as he does it. He was stung on the cheek by a yellowjacket about a decade ago, and the behavior may hearken back to that. (He was fine, but half his face swelled up like a walnut).

No head shaking for the mechanical tarantula. Just mild curiosity. He followed it, tasted it, felt it, straddled it (Hmmm. About the right size for a partner!), thought about regurgitating a little breakfast for it, and then ended up grabbing it by the leg and throwing it a couple of times. At that point, we removed the tarantula.

One thing was sure: he didn't want the darn thing in his grotto, which is a recess behind a well-chewed piece of cardboard where he hides and plays with Chet. I originally set up the cardboard to keep him from chewing the cabinet door. His goal in chewing the door is to get inside the under-sink cabinet and set up housekeeping.Baker plays hide-and-seek with Charlie, who mutters and laughs from his cave. Charlie? You in there? Boo! Mwoo ha ha ha! (He actually SAYS Mwoo ha ha ha!)

It is the lot of captive parrots to be continually frustrated, which is part of what makes them challenging companions. They try their best to live out their biological imperative. This is a creature that mates for life, and spends all its time in the company of that mate. A captive parrot selects the only mate it can find find (in this case, me), but that mate, being inappropriately human, refuses to cooperate. I share my affections with another of my species, even when Charles viciously bites me to prevent my infidelity. I won't eat Charlie's regurgitated breakfast, no matter how tenderly proffered. Occasional furtive copulations with my sock-clad foot net him nothing but a temporary release. Despite his alluring displays of manly courage in pointing out and protecting his grotto, I won't crawl under the sink and lay two round white eggs that Charlie can incubate and protect.Come on in, baby. You know you're ovulating.

But that doesn't keep him from trying to court me and carve out a nest hole, and he'll probably still be trying when he's 50. I had to get a dog to truly understand the difference between keeping a wild animal and calling it a pet, and having an animal around that is domesticated, truly selected to be a pet. If only we could breed a parrot's longevity into the otherwise perfect pet package of the dog. Forget putting glowing sea anemone genes into zebra danios, or carrot genes into cauliflower. Parrot longevity genes in Boston terriers: That's a bit of genetic manipulation I could get behind.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


The highest use of a remote-controlled tarantula has to be torturing a Boston terrier. Leave it to Liam to figure that out. I could buy these things and repackage them as the ultimate Boston terrier plaything, with a photo of Chet Baker rolling his eyes at it, and make a fortune. Of course if the dog gets ahold of it, it's all over. But Chet isn't about to touch this creepy thing.I wish I were hep enough to post video and a soundtrack of Baker's interactions with this toy. He gives his low, rolling wooo wooo wooo call (it can't really be called a howl) and some short, muffled little groans and barks. There's much skittering of toenails on linoleum and scrabbling backward whenever the spider heads his way.

Liam is incredibly good at directing the spider so it seems to have intent and purpose, and that spooks Chet. Liam gets such a kick out of poor Baker's befuddledness, and the other part of the soundtrack is the music of his and Phoebe's giggles.

When we laugh, Chet gets tickled and bounces around like a hobby horse, rolling those eyes. Note position of his little tail--straight out. It takes a lot of excitement to get Chet's tail to stick straight out. It's a pathetic excuse for a tail, crooked and naturally stumpy, barely waggable. It earned him the unfortunate but persistent moniker "Tennessee Turd-Tail," abbreviated to TTT in polite company. If you wonder why Chet's face is so expressive, you have only to look at his tail. Robbed of a normal dog's waving social flag, he compensates the best way he can.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas All Around

It's over. I'm basking in the luxury of getting back to work. Energized by having made it through another hectic Christmas, with all its demands and joys and energy drains, I sat down at the drafting board today and did five drawings for my book project. 39 more to go. It wasn't long ago I had 125 left, then 75...I'm making progress, slow as it sometimes seems. Work feels like a vacation after pulling Christmas off. Moms and Dads, you know what I mean.
Liam believes. He hears the jingle. This is probably his last Christmas, believing. And we made the most of it, reading The Night Before Christmas, cuddled in bed with Phoebe and Chet, while Daddy ho-ho-ho-ed, threw whiffle balls on the roof, rang sleigh bells in the deep darkness outside, and wolfed down cookies by the fireplace. Chet barked his head off and tore to the foyer window to bust Bill, but Liam was rooted to the spot, pure belief. His eyes were bugging out of his head. He was silent, mouth agape. And then he breathed, "Saint Nick!" Poor Bill never gets to see that; he's too busy being Santa outside. It is pure magic. Phoebe knows, but delights nonetheless. We exchange looks over Liam's head.
'Twas the night before Christmas, the children all tucked in their beds, and Bill and I sat before the tree and the fire and drank the beauty in. One guess who the giant red stocking, the one bulging with chew toys, belongs to.Chet's toys were wrapped in kraft paper. Phoebe helped him a little. He reduced a $15 "chew-resistant" Booda dog Frisbee to tatters in about twenty minutes. It won't wobble, much less fly, now. A Doggie Hoots skunk was demolished, headless, in ten minutes. This is getting expensive. What do we give him now, cast iron chew bones?

When we were all done unwrapping at our house, I suddenly remembered the birds. They were waiting for their suet dough. I put out a double measure as a Christmas present to them. This pretty male redbelly must have stood under the mistletoe last night; he has lipstick all over his cheeks.

Jeez, have some suet dough, Mr. Reddy! Leave a little for your blue neighbors, how about?
More Christmas revels to come. Hope yours was merry and bright, as ours was. This is as close to a Christmas card as we're going to come!Best wishes from Zick and Bill of the Birds!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Merry Christmas!!!

Christmas Elves, human and canine.

I'm feeling festive today. I'm really looking forward to seeing the kids' faces on Christmas morning, and that vision is getting me through the mountain of things I need to do before that magic moment. I spent the morning doing laundry and cleaning a bit (it's always at least a two-day job, but I feel the need for an orderly house before I can truly feel ready for Christmas.) The reward system is: Clean, and then you can wrap presents (always fun) and if you get them all wrapped before the kids get home (a solid three-hour slog) you can have a glass er two of wine when Bill comes home. So with that vision in my brain, I cleaned the downstairs bathroom, which has lots of tile and glass, did the laundry and put it away, and began wrapping at noon. I burned soy candles, one that smelled of evergreen and berries, and one that smelled like sugar cookies. Evergreen, sugar cookies. Ahhh. I never cease to be amazed by the power of aroma to put me in a good mood. Soy candles are just fabulous. They lack the obnoxious hydrocarbons that paraffin candles pump into the air. So the fragrance that emerges is pure and strong. They burn at such a low temperature that you can't hurt yourself on the hot wax. What's not to like? Well, they're still pretty expensive, and hard to find, but I snap them up wherever I find them. I am an inveterate label reader where candles are concerned.
I managed to get all the gifts wrapped before the kids got home. It sure beats subterfuge, trying to scuttle by them with gifts under my clothes, or locking them out of the studio or, perish the thought, being nasty to them to keep my secrets intact. With all the book shipping that's been going on out of the studio, I've been able to hide presents in plain sight this year, in plain cardboard boxes right under their noses. Dad always said the best place to hide something is in plain sight. Tee hee.
Bill came home early with armloads of groceries and Cooked Dinner!!! Life is good. He is good. While the chili was simmering, sending delicious scents up the stairwell, we repaired to the tower room and killed off a small bottle of Pinot Noir, a candle guttering between us, Baker curled on my lap. How much more does a girl need? Nothin'. We talked about books and commentaries and work and kids, about sweat lodges and contracts and go-karts and parties and music and Baker's patellae.
Because I rarely post on Friday nights, I wanted to give you Baker fans a little bitty surprise Christmas present. I took this series of photos the other night while trying out the brand-new 70-135 mm. lens Bill got me for Christmas.
We all start off with the highest intentions not to give our slender, athletic new puppies people food, right? And it's easy enough at the start, before they have the concept of "ice cream" and "cookie" and "biscotti" and "cheese" and "nuts" in their brains.
But when your dog puts on a special beg just for ice cream, and he KNOWS it's ice cream you're eating, and he loves it SO MUCH, it gets complicated, and hard to adhere to your principles. Those googly eyes are good for much more than making me laugh. They are begging bombs.

Chet stakes Phoebe out. She's got Breyer's Raspberry Chocolate Chunk in that mug, and he knows it.

Oh, Phoebe, I just love you So Much. You are So Beautiful. Let me kiss your ice creamy lips. Yes. Breyer's Raspberry Chocolate Chunk. I may need to go into overdrive.
While I am at it, (kissing you because you are So Beautiful), I may try to get just a little taste of your raspberry chocolate chunk ice cream. I will not be greedy.
Merry Christmas, Chet fans. We hope you find everything under the tree that you wanted. In lieu of gifts, here's your laugh.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

OK 1902

My father said a tree
Is fifty years growing,
Fifty years living
Fifty years dying.

OK 1902 it said, and it must have been big enough then
to carve on
Big enough to rest the heel of a hand long gone.
These hundred and four years it has been OK

Until today. It lies in pieces in the duff
Broken beneath the lowest living branch.
This is how you find things in the forest.

Is it dead now?
Will its roots go on?
The top came down, snapped the trunk of the tree beside it
A healthy tree, no heartrot there
but dead now, too.
Or: alive at the root.

Where trees are concerned
The exact time of death
is hard to figure.
It is perhaps the point
at which they can't grow back.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

JZ, Dog Photog

Another lovely clear day, and another two drawings finished: a loggerhead shrike carrying a vole, and an eastern wood-pewee on her licheny nest. I watch the sun creep across the southern sky, low enough to shine in the studio window all day long, hitting the side of my face. I work and work, pushing until 3, when I allow myself to go outside for an hour. The reward system is in play.
Chet goes into transports of joy when he wanders into the studio at about 2:50, and is met with a smile and the question, "Shall we go for a walk?" He grabs the nearest toy and cavorts around the yard with it. This is a good time to set the camera on Sports setting, which fires off a rapid series of shots when the shutter is depressed. Oh, fun. I love freezing my doggie and his crazy google-eyed grin. He reminds me of a carousel animal in this one. Wouldn't that be a cool carousel, with all different dog breeds carved of wood?
The red ball thrower in his jaws was used for its intended purpose only when it was new; Chet kept grabbing it in preference to the tennis ball, and it has been a good toy for him just as something to haul around and chew. Just like a Boston, to redefine the function of a toy. What is not to love about these little dogs?

The woods were gorgeous today, with low golden light limning the edges of the tree trunks. It's almost the winter solstice. The days are about to get longer. The birds will begin to sing again . Can I get a YEAHHHH!!!???? We took a different route after cutting through the meadow, and headed down toward Beechy Crash. I finally got a picture of Chet's peculiar way of walking. He trots along, holding his left hind paw up for ten or more steps. The dachshund I grew up with used to do the same thing. It makes me realize why three-legged dogs do so well. The first time I noticed him doing this, I threw Chet like a miniature Angus calf and examined his left hind pawdy pad, thinking he must have a thorn in it. He looked at me like I was temporarily insane. Now I just chuckle when he does it, because it's just another of his quirks. With a hip, a hop, a hippy hippy hop...Oh Chetty you're so fine/You're so fine you blow my mind hey Chetty! hey Chetty!

We sat for awhile on a bluff, and the woods were so silent we could hear the golden-crowned kinglets, and the soft winnow of wings as a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers flew over. Chet was alert to every sound, whipping his head around. He even listened to the image-stabilizing motor in my lens. He was hoping to hear a squirrel rustling the leaf litter. Did someone say squirrel?
We came to the stream, and Chet leapt atop one of the many fallen logs that cross it. I stationed myself next to the log and shot photos as he trotted back and forth, showing off.
I'm not sure where all this dog photography is going, but I can't stop. It's good practice to shoot fast-moving subjects. Maybe someday it will translate into something. I can't tell from here. I just know that my little pied goofball and I are having fun.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Good Day (if harrowing)

My day started innocently enough. I awoke before six, saw that it would be clear and sunny, and immediately had a bad premonition that something awful was happening to my mom. Crying, for no reason other than knowing it was happening, and feeling helpless to stop it. I'd had another premonition that she would come to harm on Saturday night--bad enough that I called her to see if she was OK. She was. But sure enough, she took a bad fall on Sunday afternoon, characteristically didn't tell anyone about it, and by this morning she was hurting so badly that she asked my sister to take her to the ER where they live in Maryland.

I continue to be amazed at the mind's ability to connect to someone else's pain and suffering. I knew on Saturday that something bad was about to happen to Mom, and this morning I was sure something bad had happened, just as she was waking up and hurting, over 350 miles away. I opened my email, and one came in from my sister, saying Mom had fallen. After most of the day waiting to be seen in the packed ER, it was determined that nothing was broken, but she has a badly bruised tailbone, and a load of prescription pain medication. We're deeply thankful she dodged the bullet (mostly) this time. And I am doubly resolved to listen to my little voice even closer from now on.

On the day my father died in 1994, I was painting a big backyard feeder scene, the sun streaming in the window of my Ohio studio onto my paper. I suddenly emerged from my right-brain haze, thinking, "I need to call Mom and see how Dad is." I looked at the clock: 10:39 AM. I picked up the phone, dialed the number of his room at the nursing home in Virginia, and quickly changed my mind, hanging up just before it rang. "I'll give her a few minutes with Dad. He needs her," I thought. I waited twenty minutes, and called again. "He just passed," Mom sobbed. At 10:39 AM, April 10, 1994.

I am sure that we all have such connections and seemingly psychic abilities. Animals have them and use them all the time. We suppress premonitions and feelings of dread, and tell ourselves we're crazy when we have them. We should listen to our subconscious. It knows things we cannot know.

My sister Micky is probably the best at listening to her subconscious voice. We have a family story about her that raises the hair on my arms even today. My mother was an avid bridge player, and she met every few weeks with a bridge club in our neighborhood in Richmond. One of the ladies in the club was, shall we say, not known for her culinary contributions. We'd always ask Mom what Virginia had brought to the potluck when she got home. This time, Micky made a prediction as Mom was getting ready for her night out.

"I'll bet she brings English Pea Salad," Micky proclaimed.
" And I'll bet she drops it before she walks in the door."

We could hardly wait for Mom to get home that night. She finally came in around 11, smelling of cigarettes and stale perfume. We crowded around when she came in the door. "What did Virginia bring?" we chorused.
Mom went pale as a sheet.
"Virginia brought a big glass bowl of English Pea Salad. And she dropped it on the front stoop as she was coming in the door." We dissolved in gales of amazed laughter. Of course, Mom hadn't had the heart to tell anyone about Micky's prognostication, for fear of embarrassing Virginia, so she'd had to hold it in until she could race home to tell us Micky had been dead right.


There's got to be a way to harness power like that. For starters, I'd like to take Micky with me to Arkansas and Florida, and hunt us up some ivorybills.

From there, my day definitely improved. I got a sitter for the kids, and Bill took me to Parkersburg WV to finish up our Christmas shopping. If there's anything more fun than outfitting willowy Phoebewith a new winter wardrobe, I'm hard pressed to think what it would be. We had a blast. I called my sister's house and found out that Mom hadn't broken anything. Bill and I had a lovely dinner out to celebrate. I called home to check in and Phoebe told me that one of my commentaries had aired on NPR. It's about Christmas caroling. You can listen to it here.

Bless Mom's bones, the power of the subconscious, and the little voice within. It was a good day.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Do You Know the Biscuit Man?

He has a biskit, I know he has a biskit. And it is for me. For me. For wonderful me. Hurry please with the biskit, Gene the mailman.

Of the many things and people I am thankful for, one is our mail carrier, Gene. Gene has delivered our mail for 14 years, and the day he retires will be a happy one for him and a sad one for us. When I got mono two winters ago, and was too weak to get to the mailbox, he delivered the mail to the nightstand by the bed. (Where I was lying, editing the manuscript for Letters from Eden, and deciding what illustrations were needed, and where). But there's more. If I want to mail something and don't know what it will cost, I just stick it in the mailbox, and Gene covers it with his own money and puts an envelope with the cost scribbled on it for me to fill the next day. Same with stamps.
Chet Baker knows Gene as The Biscuit Man. He noses Gene's pockets and stands up on him, wanting that biscuit. And this dog, who will not eat a Milk-Bone for love or money, happily crunches them down as long as they're from Gene. (He's just as eager to get Milk-Bones from the drive-through window at the bank, but he usually buries them somewhere in the car. I think it's because he knows the teller can't really see whether he eats it or not). He likes the ritual, and the fact that Gene was thinking about him, and being an appreciative pooch, he eats them with evident enjoyment right on the spot.krounche krounche krounche. I think I'm looking at too much. I sent them Baker pics months ago and they haven't posted them yet. And yet we all know there is nothing cuter than Baker. Except maybe hamsters, piglets, bunnehs, kittehs and Cats N'Racks.

On this day, Gene and I had a lot to talk about. Gene spends all day every day driving the country roads, and he knows a lot about wildlife. On the day after Thanksgiving 2006, though, he saw something in his backyard in Reno, Ohio, that gave him pause. It was larger than his border collies, tawny tan in color, moved with a fluid motion, and had a long tail that brushed the ground, then curved back up. It was a mountain lion.
He keeps a pair of binoculars in his truck, and he trained them on the cat for a good long look. When it disappeared in the brush, heading downhill, he drove to the end of the street and quietly waited. Sure enough, it emerged, and he got to watch it again. He said it was not the least bit concerned about him. But he was concerned for his dogs. He's going to be watching for it. We discussed the possibilities of its being truly wild or released, and given the venue (a thickly settled neighborhood backed by woods) and the fact that his neighbor had seen it tussling with her dogs, we decided it was of suspect origin. I tried to imagine what I would do if I saw Chet with a mountain lion. I would probably leap on its back and get all torn to pieces. People keep the damnedest things, and when they're tired of them, sometimes they let them loose. But then again, maybe mountain lions are around, like ivory-billed woodpeckers are around. I wouldn't be too surprised if they are. Cats are good at hiding. You never know what's out there, or what might have taken a notion to walk a few hundred miles east.

While we were talking, Baker wheedled three Milk-Bones from Gene, and ate them all. He gives Baker a hard time for being a girlydog.

Now this is your last one, you sorry excuse for a huntin' dog.
Note Baker pawdy prints on dusty car. Wrinkled nose indicates he is woo-woo-wooing at Gene. Note scratches too. He has begged here before, and he will beg here again.
Thank you for all your kind words on my blogiversary. I'm honored, and happy to share this life.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Holding the Point

Regular readers of this blog know that I have surrounded myself with a lot of living things who depend on me, ranging in height from 6'4" to 4'8" to 18" and down to (how tall is a turtle? A tetra? A mealworm?) I love it that way. I love to take care of living things of all stripes and hues. It feeds my soul. But it does keep me hopping, and it makes it hard to get everything done in a 17-hour day. I'm experiencing a crunch right now, with a deadline for having 200 drawings done that passed today. I'm still 47 drawings short of finishing the job. In 30 years of freelancing, I haven't missed a deadline like that before. But neither have I had a book published, nor have I set up a fulfillment house in my studio, or embarked on a book tour. All new ventures, all very satisfying, all just added on to all the stuff that already filled a crowded life. Life has gotten bigger and more overwhelming, and I'm under it now, looking up at it, like that gigantic spaceship in Independence Day.

I know that the only way to get this job done is to chip away at it, and I do, every day. Is it hard to sit down at the drawing table when there's so much else needing to be done? You bet. Charlie helps. Having a bird on my shoulder calms me, and makes me want to stay put. He loves it when I'm snowed in with work--more shoulder time. I blog to the sound of him sorting through his feathers and breathing in my ear. Twenty years of shoulder perching, and we both still enjoy it. The Chet and Charlie games are a welcome diversion. Ol' Chuck is stealing Chet's Nyla-Ribs as I write...they're running circles around the flat file, AWK! Woof! ticka ticka ticka AWWWP!

To keep myself hacking away at work, I set up a system of rewards. The ultimate reward for a hard day's work (two to three drawings done from concept to finished product) is a walk. Lately those walks have only been half-hour sorties, jammed in between finishing a drawing and picking the kids up at the bus stop, but they help.

Making the walks ever so sweet is my new little buddy, the Canon Rebel XTi. Its compact, 28-135 mm image-stabilized Canon EF lens arrived today, but I didn't have time to take more than a couple of shots. I could focus from as little as 15" away, which will open the door to a lot of nice, intimate pictures.

Roger Tory Peterson painted field guide plates for most of his working life. He told me, "It's the most stultifying work I know. I sweat blood to do those paintings. I literally have to force myself to sit down at the drawing table every day. But if I get a good day's work in, I let myself go out and take some photographs."
At the time, I hadn't discovered photography. I remember thinking, "Whatever floats your boat." But RTP was right--it's the perfect antidote to hunching over a drawing table all day. To me, it feels like catching lightning in a bottle--like magic. Instead of laboriously making pictures, you're taking them. You're capturing something ephemeral and unself-conscious, and then moving on to the next thing that catches your eye.
Artists, I think, have a heightened sense of what is beautiful, and we fall in love easily--with an empty vireo nestor the impossibility, the importunity, of a solid-red grosbeak (with a pointed hat no less!)
or the sudden glance of a bluebird through birch twigs.
These are not perfect pictures; they're not even very good, but this is how birds present themselves, and I am honored to be able to show them to you.

Speaking of presenting himself:
Chet is as thrilled about the new camera as I am. When he's in the mood, there's no better model. I believe we're developing a synergy that approaches the one William Wegman has with his marvelous Weimeraners. (Minus the talent, the props, and several thousand dollars' worth of camera equipment). Chet poses, there's no doubt in my mind. He will hold a pose until he hears the camera fire, and then he'll relax and go about his business. I talk to him, the way a fashion photographer talks to Christy Brinkley, and he gets it. It must be nice to be adored. And now for the clumsiest segue possible: Monday, December 18 is my one-year blogaversary. Last week, this blog took its 100,000th hit. Which makes me feel like The Artist Formerly Known as Prince: publishing his own music, the record companies be damned.

It's been an interesting ride. I sat down last night and composed this long, sort of tortured post about blogging, but it's not fully formed yet, and I don't want to dump a fetal post at your feet.

I first want to thank Birdchick for asking me to blog-sit for a couple of weeks last December, while she froze her toes in rubber boots in an Arkansas swamp. She told I should be doing it; told me I'd be good at it. I answered something like: "Uh, what's blogging?" I truly had no idea. Clearly, Birdchick was onto something, and she opened the door for me, with a ready-made audience, and for that I'll be forever grateful.

And now I have this community of friends and ardent supporters out there who time their morning coffee or midnight snack around my efforts. For that I am thankful. For all of you who've risen up, hackles ruffled, when somebody blunders into my Comments section with a stinkbomb, thank you. For your wise words and deep caring when I'm struggling, thank you. Thank you telling your friends and co-workers to look here, and thank you for buying my book. I feel I owe you something worth reading and looking at.

I thank Phoebe, Liam, and Bill for letting me post pictures of them. I hope I haven't embarrassed you too much. I want most of all not to embarrass anyone, and that is trickier to accomplish than it might seem. (Which is why I do so durn many dog posts. He's the only family member who I haven't yet been able to embarrass). Thank you, Chet Baker, doggie extraordinaire.

I'm glad to have a place to celebrate the love that permeates our house, and the love I feel for the natural world. I feel blessed, humbled, and lucky to be here, lucky to have my family and sweet Phoebe, Liam, and Bill of the Birds to share life with. It only seems fair to try to share it with you.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Rehearsal Night

Precious little time to blog today. I worked like a maniac to get three drawings done. I have missed a Dec. 15 deadline for a 200-drawing job, by 50 drawings. Now I have until the end of January to get them done. You can imagine. The days when I can do three drawings are days that buy me time to do things like put up the Christmas tree, restock the refrigerator, clean the house, do laundry and mail out packages. And practice for our New Year's Eve gig.

Our band, The Swinging Orangutangs, has been practicing twice a week to get ready for the Gig of All Gigs. We've never played a New Year's Eve gig. That's usually reserved for the bands with matching sparkle jackets, the bands that pull down the big bucks. But somehow we've landed a sweeet gig at the Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg, and we mean to make them happy they hired us.

Baker hangs out with us through most all of practice. He loves company, and he likes to sit on my lap and supervise. He also likes to steal kisses when he can.

Sometimes he gets to play keyboard, when Vinnie can help.He haunts Marty, our bass player, watching him intently. It might have something to do with the low frequency of the bass, but sometimes Baker, who barks infrequently, finds himself barking at Marty's bass. Usually, though, he is investigating Marty's beard.Score!

Baker just loves to sit on peoples' laps. It's a good thing he's the size he is--just right for laps. Drummer Steve submits to a face-lickin'. I'm thankful that Vinnie, Marty and Steve all own dogs, and like hanging out with Baker.
Do you think they'd let us take him to the New Year's eve gig? He's already got his tuxedo on.I can assure you that I would not present a problem. I would not bark, I would not steal food and I would not pee on the palm trees.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Chet's Excellent Birthday

Oh my goodness! It is me, in mocha! Am I allowed to eat the whole thing?

Chet started his birthday with a good game of dog basketball in the mild winter weather. Dog basketball involves trying to get a good enough grip on the ball to carry it, and eventually pop it. There is a lot of slobbering, grunting, pawing and growling involved. People are used to occasionally kick the ball for a good chase, and then the slobbering and grunting starts again. There is no scoring system, but whoever pops the ball wins.

This time of year, there are not enough hours in the day, or hours of daylight. Every time I look up at the clock it seems like it's past (lunchtime, dinnertime, bedtime).'Twas a big day. The Christmas book and print orders are pouring in, and I treat them like the work they are. Fielding the emails and filling the orders is a big job for a one-man band. Sometimes I wonder if it's going to get bigger than me, which is a pretty good problem to have. But everything stops for birthdays and holidays. Chet's birthday was a small, family affair, but it did not go unmarked.

Most of what we do for our dogs we actually do for ourselves. Including making him a rump roast with gravy and a very ugly homemade portrait cake for his birthday. Brace yourself: I know, he looks like a deranged cat, but it served the purpose and amused the kids. I don't think the Quilted Giraffe is going to call up here looking for a pastry chef any time soon. The cake was mostly for the kids; Baker got a tiny slice and a few filched pieces. In a bow to Chet, I made a yellow cake with a very light mocha icing, because chocolate (the birthday cake of choice around here) is bad for dogs.No it is not bad for dogs. That is just something veterinarians say so they can eat it all themselves. Will someone please do something about this fire on my cake?

Instead of chow, Baker got rump roast and green beans (he loves green beans). And he finished it off with birthday cake. He was only too happy to sit at the table, and to try to wheedle a little more cake out of his girl.

Presents included a barbecue bacon-flavored giant corn Nylabone (he LOVES this new line, which also includes a rack of nylon ribs). He has been working on his corn most of the day. Charlie also enjoys these Nylabones, as we have seen.

Another big hit was the six-foot Boodabone, which is likely to turn up in cotton threads all over the house for years to come.The appeal of this toy seems to derive from the joy ancestral dingoes and jackals (possible dog progenitors) take in dragging ungulate entrails around. I'm glad it's only cotton rope, if it's going to be dragged around the living room. I'm sure Baker would be happy to drag deer intestines around the living room if he could only find some.

It was a fun party. Baker knew he was the star, and he probably knows what "birthday" means now. Presents, rump roast, green beans, cake, and many kisses. Thus ends Chet Baker's second birthday.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Money Can Buy Love

The first photo with the new camera. Can I have a Rebel XTi yell?

Christmas is a time for gifts, right? To celebrate my one-year blogaversary, coming up Dec. 16, I decided to get a real camera. (Here follows an uncharacteristically techno-geeky post). Not that my little pocket Olympus C-750 wasn't real, but I had explored about all I could do with it. And that was a lot. Witness the endless dawg and nature photos heretofore published, all save the New Mexico series taken with it. Taking Shila's Panasonic digital, with its barrel telephoto lens, to New Mexico was a turning point for me. Gripping the knurled ring on the lens, and deciding how much magnification I wanted, took me back to my SLR (single lens reflex) film camera days. I cut my teeth on a Canon AE-1, purchased in harrrummmph 1978. Having the camera take the picture when I asked it to, instead of five or ten seconds later, was another blast from the past. I got used to it, hooked on it, and when I came home my little point-and-shoot with its automatic (and painfully slow) telephoto, and its endless delay between shutterpress and shutter close, would never look or feel the same to me. It was like the movie Indecent Proposal. I had had a two-week affair with a camera of means and substance, and my old boyfriend just didn't move me any more.
Skyscape with pines, at the end of our meadow. God, the clouds have been beautiful lately.

There was also the question of megapixels. Having shot at 4 mpxl for the past year, my images suffered upon cropping and blowup. Publishers ask that publishable photos be taken with an 8 mpxl camera (or greater). Publishers. Yes, I'm thinking about books, moreso since Letters from Edenappears to be taking wing. It's gotten some nice national exposure, and it's selling well. Oddly enough, the only measure I have is my own sales (now past 360 copies out of this little industrial cottage) and the Amazon sales rank, which has climbed from the 20,000 range to the 2-3,000 range. I compare it to the sales ranks of other bird and nature books, and I'm happy with its performance. If, indeed, the Amazon sales rank means anything at all. I grab the only data I can get. I try not to be obsessive about it, but as you are well aware, I am by nature obsessive. Otherwise, you wouldn't have a blog to read five mornings a week, would you?

Ahhh. Nice cup o' tea in the morning. Let's check the sales rank.
Well, that was an energetic bout of vacuuming. How's that sales rank?
Hi, kids! How was school! Want to hear about Mommy's sales rank? Let's check, shall we?

I do ramble. But I am thinking that some of this snapshotting I do every day might need to be publishable at some point. I spent about a week trolling the Web for camera and lens reviews, and, like a self-guided missile, I gravitated from thinking I wanted the Canon Powershot S3 IS with 12x zoom (a super-nice little 6 mpxl camera) to deciding I really and truly wanted a digital SLR. I was on the point of ordering the Powershot, then I went to Wal-Mart, which has just started stocking it, and fooled around with one. I knew from the moment I took it out of the box that it wasn't right for me. You read all this stuff about balance and feel in the hand, and it sounds pretty esoteric, but you do need to get your hands on the camera you're considering and see if it feels right to you. It's an instinctual thing. The Powershot felt like an upgrade, but not enough of one. With fixed lens and automatic zoom, and startlingly small and light plastic body, it just didn't feel right for me. Too durn many little buttons all crowded together, and where was that big comforting barrel lens?

My mentor in all this has been nature writer and photographer Lillian Stokes, who took a great deal of time to explain the difference between a point-and-shoot with fixed lens (which the Olympus and the Canon Powershots are) and a digital SLR (which can accept any Canon lens you wish to put on it). She made suggestions, gently steering me toward a higher mpxl camera with interchangeable lenses. I have always been impressed, nay, blown away, by the photography on her blog. So it wasn't hard to take her advice.

It was unmitigated envy of the images Lillian captures that led Bill to purchase his Canon EOS 30D, with fixed, image-stabilized 400 mm. lens. I knew I couldn't handle a camera that large, with a honkin' long lens I'd need a llama to carry. I wanted a compromise: portability with big megapixels and zoom capability, plus image stabilization because all my shots would be handheld. Finally, I settled on the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi, a medium-sized 10.1 mpxl beast. I ordered the body only, because the reviews all said that the little "kit" lens the camera comes with (and is pictured with above) isn't worth the powder to blow it up. I then purchased a Canon image-stabilized 70-300 telephoto zoom lens. Big chunk of glass, with a spinning glass gyroscope inside that somehow halts hand tremor and fixes a sharp image. How could I live without it? I'm in deep. I reasoned that Bill and I could trade lenses if we both had Canon digital SLR's. So if I felt a sudden urge to shoot bird pictures at 600 mm magnification, I could hijack his lens (with extender, the 400mm achieves 600 mm magnification) and tripod and fire away. And he could take my smaller lens for a ramble. It seemed to make sense. Neither of us shows any sign of stopping our snowballing photography habit. Just another thing the blogs have given us.A pair of horses wonders why I'm clicking at them. This telephoto is an absolutely terrific lens for semi-distant animals and birds.

I got the camera yesterday. I've been firing away. The first thing I noticed was that I couldn't focus on anything closer than five feet away with the telephoto zoomed down to its lowest setting at 70 mm. Whoops. That's still a whole lot of magnification, and it rules out anything resembling macro shots. What about all those piles of dung and butterflies and orchids and dead leaves and mushrooms I like to shoot? This is as close as I can get to my orchids, waaah! My sweet little blue Vanda, blooming for the second time this year. Fragrant, too! A very nice picture, but I long to get closer.
What about those crazy wide-angle Chet tableaux with him and the treed cat in the same frame? Can't get those at 70 mm. So today I was back on, trolling for a lens that would act a bit more like the all-purpose, handy-dandy point and shoot wide angle lens I was used to. Settled on the Canon EF image-stabilized EF 28-135 mm. lens, which will let me focus at 15", and is recommended for landscapes and closeups. Would you believe this little unit weighs two pounds?Ch-ching. I do love the 70-300 zoom, though; I took some bitchin' photos of Chet racing around the yard today. Froze him in his tracks, I did, smile intact. (Susan: Note the Heave-a-Beaver in the grass. He keeps taking it along on our walks).

And if I could bear to leave the little brindle darling home, I could probably get some really nice deer and turkey photos. Haven't even begun to hammer away at the tame birds around the feeders. Bluebirds? Oh yeah. I'll be shooting bluebirds. This camera and lens combo is Sweet and Hot.

The woods was so still this afternoon that I could smell my new camera, hanging from my shoulder. I could hear its little internal focusing motor; I could hear the image stabilizers canceling out my hand tremor. Sharp as a tack, responsive, lightning-fast, and it smells good too. I can't believe the pictures I'm getting, as new as I am at it. What a cool machine. It feels good to have it, and I get a little heart flip every time I pick it up. It must be love.

Image stabilization or no, I got a much sharper picture when I rested my elbows on the tower wall. Sunset last night, from towertop at Indigo Hill.

Now We are Two

Lots and lots of dog posts lately. Chet is an anodyne to my life, which seems to be on fast-forward. He's much more fun to write about than the constant Brownian motion in which I find myself lately. I spent a second day today chipping away at the Herculean job of getting the house back in some kind of hygeinic order. The last time I did a deep clean was the week before we left for New Mexico, eeep! Granted, it was empty for two weeks, but that just lets the ladybugs pile up. I swear most of what I vacuum and sweep and wash away is ladybug parts. Tonight when I was serving a nice stew, I asked the kids if they preferred it with or without ladybugs in the bowl.
So, if you'll suffer one more, here is a post about Chet Baker, because today is his second birthday! I thought you might like to see Chet as a puppy (who wouldn't?). For those who haven't delved into the archives, or hung on every Chet Baker entry for the past year, I bought Chet online, sight unseen, on the strength of a single phone conversation with his breeder, Jane Streett (who has since become a treasured friend). We had second pick of a litter, yet to be born, that turned out to be comprised of only two puppies. Fate smiled on us, and we got this little apple-headed butterball who, as Jane put it, "has more personality in one toe than most puppies have in their whole bodies."
We named Chet Baker for the legendary jazz trumpet player and singer, who spearheaded the cool West Coast sound of the 60's, 70's and 80's. We were tossing names around, me pushing a few Irish names that I'd wanted to use on Liam, when Bill said, "I dunno, I've always wanted to name a dog Chet Baker." And that was it. Bill has a gift.Like all babies, Chet slept a lot, and the kids were only too happy to provide tummy heat. I don't know a dog that's had more attention than he has. My father used to say, "Attention makes the pup." He usually used it to refer to children. Which is interesting, because I remember following him around trying to get more of his attention, and fitting myself into his hobbies just so we could talk. I wasn't the only kid who did that; he had a Pied-Piper effect on several neighborhood kids. I think it was because he DID things, fixed things, collected things, worked on things, built things. Someday I'll collect his sayings in a little book.
muttering, rambling...where was I?
He makes us smile. He makes us laugh out loud. And man, he was one charismatic puppy. Yes, that is a tube sock--he was that small. We called them sausage casings. This evening I told Bill that I had had a hormonal morning (I think he may have noticed without my telling him). Who are you, and what have you done with my wife? But I confessed that there was nothing wrong with me that gnawing on Chet's muzzlepuffs wouldn't fix. Seriously. I get down on the floor and chew on my dog. We roll around growling and gnawing on each other and whatever was bothering me goes away for awhile, banished by pure animal energy. I love the way he smells. I know all his little looks and sounds, and what each one means. Even a sneeze, a tilt of the head, has social signaling value for a dog. I once bonded with a Yorkshire terrier I'd just met simply by tilting my head and sneezing at him. He got the joke and I would have walked out with that dog if his owners hadn't intervened. More important, Chet knows all my moods. Wherever he is in the house, if I need him, he appears. Not long ago I was reading a book that ended badly, and I stopped reading and silently put my head in my hands. From away down the hall I heard the miniature thunder of paws on carpet, and Baker burst into the bedroom and took a flying leap into my lap. He set about washing my face as only a Satchmo-mouthed Boston can. Message sent, message received. Thank you, Chet Baker, for two years of unalloyed joy in your presence. Live long and well, sweet dog, thoughtful guardian of my heart.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Further Adventures in Treeing

My dad used to say that every dog needs a job. Some more than others, but I think it's true. And if we just stop and think about it, we can harness a dog's natural energy and eagerness to please and turn it to our advantage. I'm not talking about parlor tricks, but about Useful Work.

When you're trying to create and maintain a bird sanctuary, one part of the picture that doesn't fit is free-roaming cats. They're almost always unneutered toms who saunter into our yard, spray where the last tom sprayed (on the outside wall, right under the master bedroom window), then set about killing the birds that we work so hard to attract to our feeders. Around here, we rarely say the word "cat" without an expletive in front of it. Not the cat's fault: he's just being a cat. And cats in their place are wonderful, whimsical, loving creatures. But the only place cats truly belong, in my opinion, is sitting on the inside of a windowsill, looking out.

And so Chet has a Real Job. His job is to make sure these tomcats know they are not welcome on his property. He is Very Good at his job. Whereas before, spotting a cat in the yard made me swear and go get a can of tuna to put in the livetrap so I could trap the dratted animal and take it to the Humane Society, losing a $20 donation in the process, now I smile and go get Chet. Today, when a big black and white tom came strutting under the feeders, I tiptoed into the living room and whispered in Chet's ear, "There's a CAT in the yard." With that simple phrase, he transformed from a semi-liquid blob, lying in a puddle of sun, into a tense, trembling vigilante. He raced into the studio, took note of the cat's position, then tore to the back patio door with me. Exiting there, he could race up to the cat silently, without alerting it.
And race he did--he was going so fast he overshot it and had to double back. The cat fuzzed out to twice its size and lit out for the woods, Chet hard on its tail.
When Chet didn't come back after about fifteen minutes, I called him. He still didn't come. But there was a very large black fuzzball treed in a small sassafras, and I knew Baker was at its base. He let loose a few excited barks. This is Big Game for Baker. The Ultimate Quarry.
The cat was not amused. When I drew near, it scrabbled back down the tree, thinking that Baker was probably a lesser evil than I. Baker was delighted, and gave chase once again. This time, the cat chose a huge double tulip tree, and gained an amazing height in a single rush.
Chet circled the base, gazing up. So photogenic.
The temperature never got out of the 20's today. It was COLD. Baker had been out almost a half-hour. "Baker, aren't you getting cold?" He looked at me and his hind legs trembled violently. The cat was much better equipped for temperatures like these. And we hadn't had time to don a fashion sweater.
"Come on, Bake. Let's go back inside."
And Chet cast two final glances at the cat, and trotted a straight line home.
Good boy, Baker. Good job. Trader Joe's Chicken Strip for you. When you're done, PICK UP YOUR TOYS.
Better check. It might come back.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Chet Baker, Sweater Model

Just as nature can be an implacable force of destruction, so can it be a comfort. I was thinking about this yesterday as I tramped through the woods with Chet. Our woods is hardly threatening. And yet, I could probably get myself into deep trouble by slipping down a rocky slope, or, as almost happened to Shila and me last year, getting crunked by a giant falling icicle. I'm not getting any younger, and as I scramble up and down the slopes, sometimes on hands and knees, I wonder if I'm crazy to be doing this all alone. I don't know if Chet would be able to jump in the open kitchen window, Lassie-style, and fetch me the crescent wrench to open the bear trap on my foot. He'd probably bring back a cheddar benneh, or a rubber stegosaur. One thing I'd have going for me: If I'm not in the house, and my car's in the garage, Bill knows where to look. The woods.

The woods is my resort, when everything in the civilized world gets oppressive. I go when I just need to get my blood circulating and my bones moving, and when my brain has congealed and doesn't work well anymore. Chet Baker sleeps all day, swaddled in blankets and pillows, unless we walk, and that's reason enough to get out.

Since our neighbor Gary passed away, there's been a mini-renaissance of squirrels on our land. Gary ate them all, but that's the stuff of another story (I'm working on that). The squirrels retain an essential wildness that is something to see, for someone who's been raised in the suburbs, where squirrels sit around the bird feeder like furry Schmoo's, stuffing themselves with high-quality food. Squirrels here in Appalachia git goin' when they see a human. I mean, full fuzz power on the tail, scrambling, falling all over themselves, racing across the forest floor, leaping from tiny twig to tiny twig to put as much real estate between themselves and the predator as possible. It's refreshing. And it means you can feed birds without feeding squirrels.

It's turned really cold, and I put a sweater on Chet for our walk. One thing Wal-mart's good for is cheap dog sweaters, acrylic things that sell for under $6, that help keep your Boston warm while he tears through brambles. The same item might sell for over $25 at the average chain pet store (bastion of outrageous overpricing). If he rips it, well, you just get out the yellow argyle, or the blue chainstitch. The hand-knit red one from Sue Robbins, with his name on it, is strictly a Sunday go-to-meeting sweater. Although I've been known to dress Chet Baker for fashion, let me say he really does need a sweater when the temperature drops below freezing. His close, silky coat has a negative R-value, and he shivers uncontrollably. This winter, he's started making a certain noise when he's cold, a gutteral ennnhhhhhhhhh that seems to issue from his very core. Poor little guy. He's not a girlydog; he's just ill-equipped for cold. He gratefully stands to have his sweater applied, lifting each front paw to put them through the armholes, then frisks around happily once it's on. I particularly like the way this one fits over his turd-tail.

Being wild, our squirrels provide a huge amount of amusement for Chet. He is a dog who looks up, and he's taken to checking the treetops for squirrels. He can cover tremendous ground when he spots one. His eyesight is excellent. Those googly orbs are good for something!

And so he lit out after a frantic squirrel that was so afraid I'd shoot him that he shot up to the top of the tallest oak, realized he couldn't leap to another tree from there, scrabbled back down, dashed across the ground to the next tree, and repeated the exercise until both he and Chet were way over the hill. I skibbled along trying to keep up, and found Chet half out of his cheap sweater, thanks to a clump of catbrier. No girlydog he.
I freed him of the encumbrance so he could be a natural dog.

We left the squirrel in peace and turned toward home.

Still coming out of my funk over James Kim. I fell in love with that family, identifying with them completely, and I guess I hoped so hard that it left a hole in my heart when things went south. I watched a video tribute to him today, and it only confirmed and intensified my feelings. Watch at your own risk. He was full of spirit, life, and love. Your thoughts are a balm. Thank you.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

These Things Happen

James Kim never made it to help. His quest ended in a cold mountain creek. In the last stages of hypothermia and delerium, people feel as if they're burning up. A trail of his clothing led to the water. This resourceful, brilliant, soulful and loving young man tried to save his girls, but the mountain got him in the end.

What to conclude? That sometimes prayers work and sometimes they don't? Which leads me to wonder: How does any of this work? Is there anything to conclude? Is it all just random?

Mountains and canyons don't care what goes on among the tiny life forms scrambling along their flanks. Cold fronts and snow squalls simply are. It is left to us to wait and worry, hope for the best and fear the worst. It's left to us to love and weep and ache. The sun rises and sets and bathes the snowy peaks in light. Human anguish leaves the cliffs and canyons unmoved, just as beautiful as before, just as impassionate, just as dangerous. There is no remorse in nature.

Are these the mysterious ways of God? When a tornado hits an elementary school, is there a plan, something to be learned or gained? Was the tsunami his work?

Have we been moved to invent this benevolent power to help us grapple with our own crushing insignificance?
Sabine asks for her daddy now, but she will not remember him. Penelope and Kati are forever changed. They will have to find a way to go on without James. I am heartbroken tonight, a part of me forever changed, too.
And now they are three.

Treasure your babies, your husband, your wife, your friends. Love them now, with all the passion you can muster. Never assume they will always be with you. We never know when they may wander away, or be taken from us.

Don't Give Up

As much as I would like to make a merry post about Chet Baker today, I can't. My thoughts are in a snowy ravine in western Oregon with a little family I never knew existed. Unless you've been living under a rock, you have probably heard about James Kim, 35, his wife Kati, 30, and their little daughters Penelope Firefly, 4, and Sabine Phyllis, 7 months. They wanted a scenic route to the Oregon coast, and took a mountain road that turned treacherous. You can read about it here. Having crossed the Cascades with Bill on just such a quest in November 1991, I know exactly how that feels. Down below in the valley, there were green grass and flowers still blooming. In the mountain passes, there were walls of snow eight feet high. It was like driving through white halls, and it was frightening as hell. We couldn't wait to get out of those mountains and back to the coast. We drove as if the devil were chasing us, knowing we were asking for it if we lingered so much as an hour too long up there. Mountain weather is not to be taken lightly.
The Kim's journey ended in a snowbank 11 days ago. No one knew where they were; their cellphones were turned off. On Sunday night, we got an email from our dear friend Liz (who opens the chapter in my book called "Calling Kali,") informing us that Kati Kim is her niece. Oh, no. A picture popped into my head of the family in a car, deep in snow in a ravine. And they were safe. I wrote back, telling Liz about the picture in my head. On Monday afternoon, Kati was found, with her girls next to the car, unharmed, and in good condition save for some frostbite. She had nursed both girls those nine long days and nights, drawing on her body's own reserves to save their lives. The beauty of that simple, elemental act floors me. Would Sabine be alive today if her mother had opted to feed her formula? No. Would Penelope? Perhaps. Kati saved her babies with her own body.
Both my babies were breastfed. Phoebe was roaring hungry all the time. I usually felt as if she were taking my life's blood with every meal. She wanted to nurse every 40 minutes by the clock, and since she took about 2o minutes with each session, she and I were basically on constant hookup for seven months. I was always behind the lactation eightball with Phoebe, just barely able to make enough to satisfy her. That child had an agenda, and it was to grow up to be a six-foot redhead. (Bill says that will be the name of her rock band). By the time she was Sabine's age, she was reaching out and grabbing food off our forks, and the transition to solid food was swift.
Liam, on the other hand, nursed steadily for 21 months, seemingly getting all he needed. His transition to solid food was pleasantly gradual. I loved, loved, loved putting that baby to sleep each night. I've had mothers tell me they had lots of time to read while nursing their babies. I never read. I just gazed down at them, at the perfect curve of a cheek, at the impossibly long eyelashes, the little shell ears. And they would roll an eye up to look at me, and smile as they nursed, making a little ticking sound. There is nothing else on earth as fulfilling as feeding your baby with food you make, mysteriously, all by yourself. Turning Wheaties and roast chicken and almonds and mozarella into milk. And sitting down eight or ten times a day just to drink in their beauty.
James Kim is missing. On Saturday he left the car, after burning all five tires to stay warm, after running out of food and gas, to try to find help for his girls. Crews are scouring a five-mile stretch of ravine, finding footprints, and yesterday, a pair of pants he'd had on over his jeans. He's all I can think about today. If only he could know, wherever he is, that his wife and babies are safe and warm and well-fed. The picture I'm getting of James Kim is curled up under brush, sleeping. I'm praying that he'll be found today. I'm packing and sending books out at long last, having finally received a shipment I've been waiting for for over a month. I'm listening to The Loft. The song playing right now? Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up."
It's getting light in Oregon.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Parrot Games

Either Chet is preternaturally smart, or he got bitten on the schnozz as a puppy. All I know is that he was intensely curious about Charlie, always standing up on his hinders to take a closer sniff, and then all of a sudden he wasn't curious about Charlie any more. And, like most dogs in parrot-ruled households, he lets Charlie do whatever Charlie wants. Which includes chasing him at low speed in circles around the flat file, Chet play-bowing and yodeling and scuttling backward, Charles pigeon-toeing ticka ticka ticka as fast as he can go (which isn't very fast).

Charles is my 20-year-old chestnut-fronted macaw.

It's counterintuitive, really, for a 14-oz macaw to hold sway over a 22-lb. Boston terrier. It's all about the psi of Charlie's bite, which needs to be felt but once to make a permanent impression. Macaws are all attitude, with the bite to back it up. Don't get me wrong. I love Charles, and he loves me, and there's something really nice about having a bird on your shoulder while you're drawing birds all day. But they are, to put it kindly, insular, territorial, loud, and incredibly sloppy creatures. They throw what they eat; they shred paper and anything else they can get their beaks on. When properly fed, they strew fruit, vegetables, cheese, nuts, seed, pellets and occasional bits of meat and bone over a startlingly wide area. Charles starts each morning with 10 hours' worth of poop splatting onto newspapers beneath his perch. Think about a tureen of pea soup dropped from 8' up and you have the mess that greets me every morning.

I've had Charlie since he was 4 1/2 months old, a hand-fed child of captive-raised birds. He came into this world plucking his feathers, and will doubtless go out plucking. I'm just glad he leaves most of them. I sometimes confess that I bought this bird the first time my biological clock rang, in 1986. I didn't know it was going off, of course, I just knew I wanted a baby to take care of. I'm just as glad things have worked out the way they did. I'm glad I waited to meet Bill and have these particular human babies, the best ones I can imagine. But all these years later, I'm still fixing a hot breakfast for Charlie every morning.

A macaw's idea of a good time is to lord it over somebody else. That, and to hide under blankets, chuckle, regurgitate your breakfast, chew somebody else's possessions, and terrorize that somebody. Most of the time, peace reigns in the studio. Chet snores gently on his cushy bed, and Charlie preens and whispers in my ear from his station on my right shoulder. They're good enough friends that I can hold Chet on my lap while Charlie's on my shoulder. But every once in awhile, Charlie takes a notion to kick Chet out of his bed and steal his toys.

Baker, he of the expressive mug, tells the whole story with his eyes. And his posture, which is frankly horrible in these pictures.
There he goes again. Messing around with my blankets, in my bed. Rrrrrrr.

And you! You just laugh, and take your dopey old pictures. Do something, dammit! He's in my BED.

He is chewing my new Nylabone corn on the cob. Mother. He is shredding my very favorite toy. This situation is becoming intolerable. MOTHER!

One of these days, Charlie, you tatty old rotter. To the MOON!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Change in the Weather

Friday saw a front come through with gusts of wind that had to be 60 mph. The sunrise that morning portended something big. If you were a sailor, would you stay in port today? Me, too. By early afternoon, the lawn grass was lying flat; our platform bird feeder was blown apart, the nails ripped right out of the base. Liam's willow, which had only just turned gold, danced wildly in the wind, losing hundreds of leaves with each gust. It turned from silver back to gold, its fronds whipping the light into a fine froth.
I knew it would be naked before the week was out. You have to love weeping willows, growing into the size of a barn in eight years. Leafing out in the spring before any tree with a crumb of sense even thinks about it. And then, hanging onto their leaves, defiantly green, until December. Turning gold all in a rush, and holding their leaves as we shop for Christmas trees. Yes. This is a tree what am a tree.
The cold came down, and it seemed right this time, more appropriate than 68-degree balm. Time for turtlenecks and indoor projects, mugs of hot chai and a fire in the fireplace. Today, Liam worked alongside me for much of the day, reveling in the newfound power of tracing paper. You can see his willow through the window, minus several hundred thousand leaves. It was planted the summer I was carrying him, in 1999, and it was barely big enough then to hold up a warbler.
He laboriously traced an image of Lightning McQueen from a boot box, then began coloring it with the markers Anne MacArthur (Mrs. Rondeau Ric) brought him from Canada. How many times I have sent silent thanks to Anne for this simple but perfect gift. This little marker rack is the only one our kids have ever actually used. They enjoy replacing the colors as they use them, and being able to see all the colors right there in front of them. It's a bit of genius. Organization, to my mind, is a strong foundation for creativity. To that end, I clear Liam's workspace every morning, and neaten up his materials, and that's all it takes to inspire him to spend hours on his drawings. How I love having my boy work with me, chatting, then falling silent as he concentrates. Like me, he usually has a tag sticking the wrong way out the back of his shirt. Focus. He's got it. He's saying he wants to be an artist now, and when a seven-year-old says he wants to be something, you'd better listen. I knew I was going to be an artist by age seven, and I knew I was going to study birds. Liam's chosen professions have mostly centered around trains until now. The one he hung onto longest was "cook in a dining car." He wanted to fix food for people in the dining car of a train. Phoebe used to want to sell popcorn in a movie theater lobby for a living. I think she wants to be a writer now.
The imminent arrival of my blogiversary has me in a reflective mood. I went back in the archives today to see when I made the first real post on this site: December 18, 2005. I started to look at past posts and found I couldn't. The only direction I can face now is forward.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Our last New Mexico sunset. Oh, how I miss it already. I wish there were a way to be two places at once.
My sweetheart, gathering light in the afternoon.

I found this dipper by spotting his chalky-pink legs all the way across the river. A 12x zoom brought him closer.

Here's what's really cool about blogging. Have you ever taken a bunch of pictures on a trip, and filed them away, and never looked at them again? Me, too. Blogging is a way of reliving the trip. Sometimes it takes until later for me to figure out the best moments of a trip. Then, they get magnified and grow, and I savor them that much more in the retelling.

Of course, writing about anything is a way of distilling it down to its essence, of defining it for yourself as you define it for your readers. And when Blogger works, and downloads the photos I ask it to, it's a pure joy. So I'm going back to New Mexico in my mind, this time in the comfort of my studio, with a noisy macaw on my shoulder, a glass of merlot at hand. The macaw keeps dipping into the merlot. This bird LOVES wine. Just like his momma. His pupils are pinning down to little dots and he's flinging drops of wine with each sip. I know. Wine's supposed to be bad for macaws. He's probably taken in all of a teaspoon. At 20, I think he's earned some merlot. I don't think you could kill this bird with a rock.
So I keep going back to the conflluence of the Red and Rio Grande Rivers in my mind. It was a magic place. The hike was moderately strenuous and really fun; the distances were vast and it was great to look down and see the trail we'd hike thousands of feet below us. Liam announced at the trailhead, "Taking this trail was MY idea." And that was the magic key to his contentment. He set the pace and led everyone else, at only 7 years old, and my main concern was that he took it too darn fast. I hustled along beside him, holding his hot little hand (and I did save him from four or five nasty spills). Though it wouldn't be my preferred way to hike, I was preternaturally conscious of protecting our considerable investment in this little bundle of DNA. Something about having your youngest tripping along next to a sheer cliff face awakens the cavewoman in you. He only pooped out near the top of our climb back up, and then it was for effect. A little dried mango and a glug of water, and he was on his merry way again.
Here are Caroline and Douglas. Caroline's a very talented graphic designer with her own firm in Boulder. She's also a musician, bass and guitar player and bewitching singer. Douglas is a professional rock climber. If you see a movie with a rock-climbing scene in it, or a cliff-hanging scene, or any scene that involves mountains and danger and falling, chances are Douglas was the technical advisor. Vertical Limit was his latest. He's also worked on a Rocky movie. The outtakes we saw from his films make my palms wet. Obviously, Liam was in the best possible hands as he considered his route down from the mini-ascent he attempted. People pay big bucks to get advice like this. Caroline and Douglas, and their two daughters Hazel and Pearl, were ideal company. Caroline knocked herself out to bring plenty of food from Boulder so we wouldn't be at the mercy of restaurants for every meal, and Douglas was always navigating and planning our next adventure.
So we hiked all the way down this amazing trail, which you can see shining on the peninsula waaay below the woman in the red coat, who I photographed for scale. And then we were at the confluence of the Red (left river ) and Rio Grande. I was staring down into the rushing teal blue water, digging the sound and power, when a dipper flew right across my line of vision. The river was roaring so loudly I couldn't shout to Bill, so I just took the little bird in. So round, so firm, so fully packed.
Seeing this little tennis-ball sized bird do a few deep knee-bends and then dive right into the cataract is quite humbling. I know that if I fell in I'd last about five minutes and then give up the ghost. But there he is, swimming underwater, popping up with a larva in his bill, and blinking at me with his weird white nictitating membranes. I'm sure they serve some social purpose, as little flashing semaphors to signal to other dippers. You can just see the white "third eyelid" in this shot of the dipper in its element.
I love this picture. It sums up bird and element. Oh, New Mexico. How we miss you.
William made chicken pot pie and brownies tonight. He did all the hard stuff and I made the sauce gloop that makes it into a pie. I can smell it all cooking. Perfect for a night with a howling gale. We'll fire up the gas logs and stare into the caveman TV after dinner. Poor B. had to make the brownies because he dropped the eggs not once, but twice. So he scraped them off the kitchen floor and added them to brownie mix. I can tell you that when someone is making you chicken pot pie and brownies, dropped eggs are no big deal. Especially when he cleans them up, too. He may be the perfect man. Ladies, can I have a HAYULL YEAH?