Thursday, January 31, 2008

And for Dessert: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

I have been waiting for this day. If there is an American bird of paradise, I believe it is the scissor-tailed flycatcher. Perched on a wire or fencepost by a dusty hot Texas road, it may not look all that unusual, until it takes wing. And there is an explosion of carmine and salmon and a fluttering of tail streamers that always takes the breath and the words right out of my mouth. I love this bird.
For one thing, it's gray, and I love working in grays. For another, it's impossibly ectomorphic and graceful and zippy and just perfect in every proportion. Even its wings are tapered and beautiful. I've painted everything. It's time for the carmine pink. Ready?
BOOM! There it is. That's the other reason I decided not to paint a rose-breasted grosbeak. I didn't want them to fight over who had the prettier pink. So here's most of the top half of the painting, and below that is the bottom half.
And I guess it's done. Time to box it up (now there's a project) and send it off to Washington...

Fast forwarding, it's back safely in my studio, having been scanned in record time. I had it up leaning against the wall (can't really afford to frame it) but every stray drop of water seemed to gravitate right to it, so I stuck it in a drawer until I decide what to do with it. That's the thing about working so big: you'll break the bank trying to ship it and frame it, and once it's framed, it practically commands a whole wall. Which is great if your house looks like a Restoration Hardware catalogue shoot, which mine...doesn't.

When the image becomes a trade show booth, I'll post a picture of the finished product. For now, it's got its own page on the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center site, with links back to the blog posts! Coool! SMBC's site is a terrific place to learn about Neotropical migrants, threatened and not. It's got profiles of especially endangered birds, and in-depth discussion about why they're in such trouble. It's got information on shade-grown coffee and all the things you can do to help our vanishing migrants. I'm more than proud, with this painting, to help give the Migratory Bird Center a slightly higher and prettier profile wherever it goes.

The overall view. Please click on it for a big version!

I like it, non-directional lighting and all. But then I am a bird. And I helped!**

**anyone remember those awful Shake-n-Bake TV commercials, where the little girl yelps, "An' Ah Hayulped!"

Here ends the Fantasy Flock painting blog. Next week, we'll take some walks in the woods.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Days Three and Four

I've started a male bay-breasted warbler, boreal forest breeder and champion long-distance migrant. These little guys may breed in the Yukon and winter in Venezuela. Imagine flying that long and far every spring and fall with only your own two wings to power you. And much of that flight is over open ocean! Egad. We make a big deal about driving for a day or two, and we're just sitting there, burning fossil fuel. These tiny guys are doing it on fat and muscle, and a bay-breasted warbler weighs less than a first-class letter. If you stop and think about it, birds can make you feel like a total slug.

Here's a nice closeup of the paper, to show the quiet but present tooth that it has. I work on Winsor & Newton cold press 140 lb. watercolor paper. Sometimes I stray to other papers but I always come home to it. I've long since shaken my addiction to W&N's overpriced watercolor paints and brushes in favor of Daniel Smith's wonderful paint and synthetic blend brushes. But Winsor & Newton's paper is consistently great and worth the price.

I love working in grays. They're fun to mix and go on smooth as butter. He's a snap to paint, and the best part is tricking in the little black streaks and spots. I chose the bay-breasted warbler as an ambassador from the threatened boreal forests.
The ruddy turnstone was my emblem of a bird with a vulnerable spot in its migratory route--the horseshoe crab beaches of New Jersey and Delaware.
The bobolink stood for vanishing native grasslands, and the hooded warbler for habitat fragmentation and cowbird nest parasitism. (You can see all that in the painting, right?) No? Hmm. You must not be looking at the clouds hard enough.

Once again, the peach is strategically located to pick up this warbler's fabulous designer color scheme.

Whoops, where did that black-headed grosbeak come from? What can I say? It was a day of fast painting. I wanted at least one exclusively Western bird in the painting, so it couldn't be said to have an Eastern bias. I also like their flash. Considered a rose-breasted grosbeak, but decided on a black-headed because it would speak to Western birders. Ooh, it's starting to look like a painting now.

Little Charles is dying to peel the masking film off the nighthawk now. Those mischievous eyes! What if I just...peeled this off...just starting at the corner...dum de dum dum dum, la la la...

Soon enough, dearest tatty bird. But you don't get to do it. You might get carried away.

Part of the reason I started working at the bottom of the sheet is that it gets harder and harder to reach my work as I paint up. I know, I should use an easel so I can stand in front of it. But old habits die hard. I like to work flat, and wreck my back as I crouch over my work, sometimes on my elbows and knees. Maybe I'll try an easel for the next big painting. I can hear Debby Kaspari, who built an easel on her dining room wall for crying out loud, groaning. Zick! Just do it!

Instead, I turn the thing sideways and twist my body around so I can see what I'm doing. I have reference photos torn from magazines all over the painting, and my laptop, with reference photos cued up, is on the drawing table along with the palette and HUGE painting and patter-footed macaw. Note that I have my painting water (normally in a big plastic jar) in a small, heavy tumbler to reduce the chance that I'll tip it on the painting or laptop.
The nighthawk's wings. When painting a bird with lots of bars and stripes, I try to make them a bit messy so the bird doesn't look fake. Too messy, and you lose the sense of the pattern. Too neat, and the bird looks like a carving or paint-by-number model.
And he's done. A bit of an all-day sucker, that one, between the contortions and the size of the image, and all those little stars and bars. I chose a nighthawk because they are just about my favorite fall migrants. I always drop everything and stare at them until they're dots on the horizon. They're so vulnerable, too, because the gravel-topped flat roofs they prefer to nest on are being replaced by cheaper asphalt, which isn't a suitable nesting substrate at all. And it appears they are quite susceptible to West Nile virus, how awful. It seems that everything beautiful is in peril in some way.

But I'm still having loads of fun painting, even as I mull over why each bird has earned its place in my flock, and looking forward to my dessert. Hint: It'll be strawberry gelato. Definitely saving the best for last.
So glad you're enjoying this. It's really fun for me, too. Sometimes I sit back and think about how much more fun life is with a camera. I still can't think of myself as a photographer, but I take a whole lot of pictures, and my camera makes it possible to share moments in time with you. Anybody see the lady in the clouds?
Happy birthday, R, wherever you may be.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Three Birds Done, Macaw Supervising

With the turnstone done, it's time to peel off some masking compound. I just roll it off with a clean finger, like rubber cement. Ideally, I've sealed the edges of the lightly tacky masking film well enough so no paint has crept under the edge. It's Day Two of painting now. I forget how many days I put into composing the thing before I could start painting. Let's just say many. That's the most time-consuming part, because that's where all the heavy thinking has to happen. Painting is something that either goes well or doesn't, but either way, it goes fast. Not to worry: this painting went well. So well, in fact, that I had up and painted the whole darn hooded warbler before remembering that I was supposed to be taking progress pictures. Well, heck, who wants to stop painting a hooded warbler to take pictures? I have to say, hooded warblers are pretty fast paints. I did his wings and tail first, then painted his yellow. The black hood went on right over the yellow and boom! he was done. I made it sound like the cloud painting went really fast, and it did, but the whole time I was thinking about where the lightest parts of the birds would be, and I was toning the clouds so the darkest parts of the clouds would be where the lightest parts of the birds were. This makes them pop out against the background. See how the warbler's white tail spots stand out against the dark blue cloud top? Elsewhere, I let the bird kind of fade in, as on the upraised wing. You don't want it to look like a cutout. As you can see in the photo above, I had already started on a male bobolink before I stopped to shoot a photo. I'm painting all his pale parts first; his silvery back and cornsilk-yellow nape. That's the proper order in watercolor. Paint light to dark.The black is blocked in, but the bird's far from done. Most of the magic in painting watercolor happens in the last few minutes, when you put little highlights of Chinese white on cheeks and bill and eye, and stroke a thin wash of it over the back to show light falling on it.

A word about light: When I showed this to my group of artist friends (in jpegs, via email), Mike asked about the light source. Where's it coming from? I scratched my head. Good question. The birds are evenly lit overall, and there is no strong directional source of light. The overall effect of the painting is of diffuse light, a kind of weird, pre-storm light. And to be truthful, I wasn't really thinking that much about where the light was coming from. I had a lot of balls to juggle with this piece. I was most concerned with the local colors of the birds, with making a graphic statement with their markings. I wanted to show their colors as vividly as I could, without worrying too much about cast shadows or the direction of the light source.

So I said, "Well, it's kind of a fantasy flock, and I'm thinking about the lighting as being sort of like the lighting in a Celestial Seasonings tea box picture. Too good to be true. You know, pretty...OK, I didn't really think about the lighting very much."

And my friends all said, "That's OK. It works for us."

They're nice that way. But the funny thing is, I think in the end it did work out OK.

And the male bobolink joins his friends in the fantasy flock. I'm so happy with the way the peach flush in the cloud is working with the bobolink's colors.

Charlie moves in to preen the bobolink's wing feathers. He loves to watch me paint, and seems to know that the image depicts a bird. And he gets a huge kick out of climbing down off my shoulder and walking around on the art, checking out each new bird as it's painted.

He's always most curious about the eyes. A macaw's tongue is very dry and rubbery, so there's little chance he'll smear anything once the paint dries, and it dries almost instantly in the dry air of winter. I have to spray down my palette every few minutes to keep the paint from hardening as I work.More birds tomorrow!

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Monday, January 28, 2008

A Thunderhead in Watercolor

Although I took these pictures a couple of months ago and stored them in my ant-ry, I'm writing the commentary now, which should be interesting. So I can give you a grasshopper update. Bill got back from Florida today. Yay. About time. He's completely exhausted and horizontal at the moment. He has a lot of nice Florida pictures, but needs to sleep for about 12 hours before anything much can happen. Hang in there.

I hung in all week, single-momming it. Both kids had fever, sore throat and coughing for most of the last ten days. Once the fever and gurgly cough subsided, the upchucking started. Liam woke me on Saturday in the wee hours with a couple of strangled "Mommy?'s" Never something you want to hear at 1:30 AM. But what you really don't want to hear is the sound of his dinner hitting the Berber carpet right outside your bedroom door. In my struggling-to-awaken mode, I imagined he had just dropped a box of crayons outside my door. No such luck.
Poor little guy was so sick, he didn't think to go, oh, about six inches to his left into the bathroom, which has nice receptacles for catching one's dinner. Sink, toilet, tub, please, any one will do. No, the carpet caught it. He must have taken lessons from his little black-and-white brother, who likes to urp on absorbent, soft surfaces.

By the time Phoebe got to that stage, we were READY and had done a couple of upchuck drills. OK, kids. Look at me. If you feel queasy, head for the bathroom. Got that? Mommy doesn't like using a spatula for anything other than cooking in the kitchen.

All right. We're done with that. Both kids were able to go to school today and they're eating like horses again, no sore throat, no fever, no nausea, no coughing. Life is good. Daddy's home (well, his corporeal body is here.) Down to painting!

The first thing I did, after transferring the drawing onto the full sheet of watercolor paper, was to stretch the paper. I sprayed the back of the paper with water, and put it on a rigid sheet of white foamcore (Miracle Board). It's super lightweight but strong enough to hold against buckling paper. I stuck the paper to the board with white gummed paper tape around the edges and waited for it to stop buckling and stretch taut before doing anything else.

Now it was time to mask the birds. I use a combination of masking film and liquid masking compound. I cut the bird's shape out of film, and use liquid compound to mask all around the edge of the masking film so paint can't creep under the film and ruin the nice white spot I've left for the bird. In this picture, you can see the ghostly shapes of the masked birds. I've started painting my thunderhead at the bottom. I can paint right over the masked birds and not worry about leaving a space for them. When I peel the masking film off, I'll have clean paper to work with.Everything happens really fast now, because the clouds are all painted wet on wet. I move up the page. I'm trying for that peachy glow some thunderheads get when they look as if they're lit from within. I also want that hard-edged look they get when they stack up against a blue sky. So I lay in the blue sky, making random cloud edge shapes as I go. Yikes, this is a big piece of paper. I decide as I'm manipulating this enormous blue wash--remember, the nighthawk is almost life-size, a foot across--that I don't want the whole cloud edge to look hard. So I decide to drop a load of clear water on the white cloud shape, and streak it into the blue, and I scrub out a bit of the blue to suggest filmy high clouds behind the thunderhead. That's better. I like the smeary edges that wind makes when it blows over the top of big clouds. Now the cloud looks like it's communicating with the sky, instead of just standing in front of it.

I have to leave the blue sky alone now, and let it dry. I step back and study the painting. I think I've gone too far on the dark clouds at the bottom. They're too dark to look believable. So I take a wash of Chinese white and cobalt violet over the darkest ones, underneath the turnstone's wing. Yeah, that's better.

Charlie approves. Yes, he walks on my big paintings. And no, I'm not worried that he'll poop on them, because parrots like to poop into space, and only poop on a surface they're standing on if they can't hold it any longer. Budgies, on the other hand, will poop anywhere, so when I had a free-flying budgie, I had to put paper down over my paintings as I worked. I do make sure that he hasn't recently eaten pomegranate or cherries, and sometimes I wash his feet before I let him stomp across my paintings. But that's one awfully nice thing about watercolor--it isn't messy or toxic and it dries fast.
Time to paint the turnstone. Oh, now the fun starts. Painting the clouds is fun, but it's also kind of nervewracking because I had to do it so fast--within an hour or two. I want the cloudscape to look like watercolor, and I don't want to noodle away at it making it perfect. I want this to look like a painting in the end.

In transparent watercolor, you leave white paper for the whites. I shade them a bit to model the form, but there's no white paint on this turnstone. So I tint the white shadows, and move on to the rusty back. Black is the last color to go in. I chose a turnstone for the bottom of the page because his bold colors and black wings will help add weight to the bottom of the painting.Within about an hour, the turnstone is finished. Well, it's been a good first day; sky and clouds done, and the first bird in my fantasy flock done. See that violet wash on the too-dark cloud? I wanted a color that would complement the turnstone's red. That and the slate-blue seem to work well with his colors.
I take it outside, prop it against the house, and shoot it. What fun to see it evolve! With one bird in, I can imagine what it will look like with each bird I add.
Mo' birdies tomorrow, and, I hope, no mo' Technicolor mommybloggin'.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

An Offer I Couldn't Refuse

I've been saying for awhile that I wouldn't do any more illustration work. That I'd just work on my next book. But a statement like that needs to be qualified. Is it still illustration when you're given completely free rein to do whatever you want? Or is that a commissioned painting? I don't know. I just know that that's my kind of illustration job, baby!

Russ Greenberg is Director (and founder) of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, whose mission is to help imperiled migratory birds through study, education and activism. At least that's how I'd describe their mission. From their web site:

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center bridges the academic, policy-making, and public worlds to coordinate efforts to protect migratory birds and their habitats. We bring public and policy issues to bear on our research--looking both at the way human-made changes affect bird populations and the way bird habitat preservation will affect human populations--and we translate our research findings into recommendations for public and policy action.

From the start, Russ has asked me to illustrate SMBC materials, from pamphlets to books to posters to Auk covers to booth displays. I've done pencil drawings, scratchboards, and paintings, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. Russ is ridiculously easy to work with and very appreciative of my efforts.

Here's how some of my watercolors were used for a booth display promoting shade-grown coffee:
The original oriole painting is a half-sheet of watercolor paper, maybe 11 x 16". I couldn't have imagined that, blown up to 8 FEET tall, it would look this good. I have to give due credit to designer Clayton Tompkins here. It's an inspired design. I would like Clayton to design my next kitchen, or house. I love everything about this booth. Russ says people just flock to it, because it's so visually appealing. And what a good cause--promoting shade-grown fair-trade coffee, which is good for coffee workers, coffee drinkers, and migratory birds, who love the habitat shade-grown plantations provide.

So when Russ e-mailed to ask if I'd be interested in doing a painting for SMBC's trade show booth, I listened. Here were the guidelines he laid out:

SMBC is doing a fancy new booth for all of the events and festivals we perform at. I know this is a total long shot. But is there any chance we can commission you for a painting for this? We want something that is face-melting in its beauty and captures the essence of what we are about. You are the one to do this, if you aren't totally booked...

He had me from "face-melting." Wait. Is this really work? To be asked to create something beautiful depicting birds, with no strictures on which birds or what the setting will be?

So I started thinking about migratory birds. It seemed only natural that the birds would be in flight. Up in the sky. So, having been completely enthralled with the skyscapes this autumn, I decided to put the birds against some really cool-looking clouds--my favorite--thunderheads against a blue sky. Yaaahh! Watercolor is just the medium to do that. Nothing like it for cirrus and billowing cloudbits, active sky washes and crisp edges.

I started taking pictures of every arresting cloudscape I saw. There were some doozies on the way to Ashland in September 07. You just can't get clouds like that in the winter. What a treat, to be able to paint something I love looking at so much.What birds to paint? It was wide open. I decided on a suite of birds which are imperiled, for many different reasons. Whether it be habitat loss on the wintering ground, habitat loss on the breeding ground, pesticide spraying in the boreal forests, clearcutting, destruction of food base, or loss of nesting sites, these birds are all in some kind of trouble. Bobolink seemed an emblematic grassland species, losing habitat faster than almost any species. Bay-breasted warblers are being hammered on the breeding grounds by pesticide spraying of spruce forests. Ruddy turnstones are having their migration food base (the eggs of horseshoe crabs) "harvested" right out from under them. And so it goes.

And then there was beauty. And the thrill of painting a hooded warbler next to a ruddy turnstone, a bobolink next to a scissor-tailed flycatcher. It didn't have to make any real sense; it's an allegory for beauty and courage in the face of peril. Such a delight to compose. I spent several days in the composition phase, always the most time-consuming. I had to draw the birds, make sure they were in scale to each other, and arrange them in a pleasing composition. Here's the first draft, just a bunch of paper birds taped together, shot on my sidewalk.One of the problems that arises when you're painting birds of widely disparate sizes next to each other is that of scale. If you've got a warbler next to a nighthawk, you've got to make sure the nighthawk isn't too big to paint comfortably, and the warbler isn't too small to paint comfortably. So, to get the warbler big enough so that I can see the detail, I've got to paint it about life size. And the nighthawk gets proportionately bigger. And before you know it, I've got a painting that's 21 x 30", a full sheet of watercolor paper, and that's a BIG watercolor.

Watercolors tend to be small because it's hard to control runny washes. Painting a full-sheet watercolor is like climbing atop an Irish thoroughbred, 17 hands tall, and taking it over a six-foot jump. It's not for the faint of heart.

I had the whole thing laid out before I left for my New England trip in October. I transferred the birds onto the blank paper, and left it to fly to Boston. There, I saw my family and my artist friends, for a whole delightful weekend. And there, I got the courage and inspiration to come home and paint this big old painting.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chet's Party

Chet Baker does not usually have a place at the kitchen table. Well, not a place with a dinner setting. He does like to sit in an empty chair and watch us eat. On his birthday, however, he gets to eat with us. These pictures are from his birthday party. Our friend Jeff Gordon was visiting from Delaware, so it was extra festive. It was a modest birthday party, with a nice meal and presents wrapped in newsprint. It was a dog birthday party. Chet Baker turned three on December 12, 2007.Are you sure it is all right for me to get up in this chair? There is some turkey burger on that plate there.
Oh, thank you, Sister. Turkey burger, squash and lima beans is quite a nice meal for me.Mmm, mmm.
I am saving the butternut squash for last. I love it when Mether makes it with vanilla, cinnamon and almond extract, with a touch of fresh ground nutmeg. And I appreciate the Portmeirion.

I still cannot believe nobody has told me to get down. I had better finish this off quickly before Daddeh comes to his senses and says something in that big voice. I do not like his big voice.

I love this kitteh they gave me. And I got all its guts out in less than an hour.

Note from Mether: The stuffed toy with the beady eye is Orangefeet, a mallard duckling puppet, Phoebe's familiar since she was two. Chet would no more chew Orangefeet than he would growl at Oona. He knows all the rules, and understands. Interestingly, he likes to use my Ugly Doll "Big Toe" as a pillow, but has never once chewed it. I do keep my alpaca teddy bears out of reach. Even the best doggeh can be tempted, and even Chet Baker falls from grace now and then. If you need a laugh about now, and who doesn't? please click here for Chet being Bad.

Happeh birthday to me, Chet Baker, luckiest dog in the world.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Oona Returns

Oona came back to stay for a day not long ago, a gray rainy yucky day when I had been planning to hole up in the tower with a warm laptop. It's nice to have fluid plans. It means you get to spend time with little people, among other things. So I changed my agenda to include picking up around the house (something that always needs to be done) and cleaning bathrooms, both activities which are compatible with following a toddler around.

Oona is now an Official Toddler. A Kid. Not a Baby Anymore. She is walking. She walks like a sailor on a shifting deck; she walks as if she's straddling two circus horses, a foot on each back. But she walks, and she gets where she wants to go. So I walk behind her. Luckily, Oona likes to be with me because there's not a whole lot else going on in the house, so sometimes I get to walk in front of her.

The weather was rainy and dark, so my shots are ugly and flash-lit, but the subject matter is as appealing as ever. Oona likes to sit on beds and couches because she can get down by herself now. Chet Baker doesn't believe this, though, and it makes him nervous that she'll fall. Here, Oo gently strokes her protector.

I will not let you fall, small baby. Chet Baker is here, and you will be safe.

Casting a hurried glance at Oona, and judging that she would stay put for a moment, Chet leapt off the bed and grabbed a NylaBone, so he'd have something to chew while watching her.This all makes me nervous. I need something to chew. This small baby might topple off the bed, and whose fault would that be? Yours. I do not think you are a trustworthy caretaker of this small baby, always behind that camera.

Oona caught sight of herself in Phoebe's bureau mirror, and flashed her ample tummy. That is the best belly bread since Phoebe was 1 1/2.Because you (Sylvan, Margaret and Zane), cannot have too much baby tummy, a living Kewpie:Chet Baker decided to check the driveway for delivery trucks, and the yard for winter bunnehs.In a perfect example of nonverbal interspecies communication, Oona followed his lead.
Soon enough, Baker returned to his post at the corner of the bed. This picture taken in natural light.I wonder what Margaret and Zane would think if they knew you left the care of this sweet small baby entirely up to me, Chet Baker. They would probably be relieved that Oona is in such capable paws. No thanks to you.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Alpacas: Sweetly Aloof

It was a surprise to this inveterate goat-hugger that alpacas don't like to be touched. At all. They don't even touch each other. I watched an alpaca bunch up and leap forward when a herd mate brushed against her. I'd describe them as sweetly aloof. Whenever I turned my back, they'd crowd in on me, trying to get a better look at my camera and sniff at my hair. But when I turned around, they'd back off, looking embarrassed and apologetic. Approached, they'd gracefully exit stage right or left. No thanks, their demeanor said. I didn't see any spitting, though alpacas will spit like llamas. It's not actually spit, but a foul-smelling grass-and-bile mixture that's regurgitated, bleh. They spit mostly at each other, and very seldom at people, though they're highly individualistic on that and every other score. I noticed that many of the males had protruding lower incisors (they have no uppers), and drooping lips, and apparently that's from spitting a lot--the bile tastes bad to them so they make that face. It's called "sour mouth." The man alpacas made this face more than the girls.Not everything you read is true, Missy. We're just trying to look tuff.

Combined with all the fiber on their topknots, which looks a bit like a bad Beatle wig, the males had a rougueish look to my eye. Annie told me they're quite...ehm...avid, and young or gelded animals need to be kept away from them. In fact, all the males were together in a separate "bullpen." But I felt perfectly safe walking amongst them as Annie and Charlie fed them.
At first I was a bit put off when my visions of hugging alpacas had to vanish in a poof, but the more I watched them, the more fascinated I became, and I began to understand their great allure. Purely from a collection aspect, they come in beautiful colors and textures, and they're quiet and gentle and odorless and graceful and funny. Here's MAROON. Ever seen a maroon animal? Maybe a deep chestnut horse. But oh, my. And she's got what breeders call a "greasy luster." They have their own way of showing affection, sometimes as simple as approaching close to a person they favor.While I talked with Annie and photographed some alpacas in front of me, this trio was quietly approaching from behind. "Look, Charlie. Look what they're doing," Annie said, her voice warm with affection. She was as tickled as I was when I slowly turned around to see this:If an alpaca can look sheepish, they did. Oh, sorry. We were just creeping up on you, but now you've busted us. How embarrassing. Again, sorry.

They're very responsive and intelligent and idiosyncratic. They're cool camelids.
So I bought three Peruvian huacaya teddies as gifts, and brought them home for a photo shoot with Baker, who would love nothing better than an alpaca teddy to "parent." Nothing doing, Bacon. Nope. In your dreams. I drooled over a gray and tan alpaca blanket, and a white one made from cria fiber that was so incredibly soft and fine and light and warm that it felt like sunlight on my arm. Alpaca fiber is up to 4 times warmer than wool. It's a luxury fiber, and alpacas are a luxury animal. I'm glad the coyotes stay away, that Riverboat's animals are housed out of sight of any roadway, and that there are apparently no alpaca rustlers in southern Ohio. You can be sure I'll be back with pictures of new crias come July!Here ends the Alpaca Adventure. For now. Thank you so much, Annie and Charlie and Riverboat Alpacas, for your patience and grace. Good luck with the cria rush.

Niche farming: what a way to go. I'll be looking for more cool assignments from my favorite little nonprofit magazine.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Defying Death in the Greenhouse

One of my chief methods of beating Old Man Winter at his depressing game is standing in my Garden Pod, breathing the oxygen created by dozens of potted plants. I just went out and took stock. Seven of them I bought, albeit years ago in some cases. All the rest I've propagated from cuttings or been given by friends. So should it be in a greenhouse. It's full of plants I love, plants that bear association with people and places in my life. For an audio musing on this topic, please listen to my NPR commentary, "Rosemary is for Remembrance."

Some of the Pod denizens are plants I just couldn't say goodbye to in November, when it finally got seriously cold. They were thriving, and I couldn't let them die. I've been pleasantly surprised by the beauty and floriferous nature of this Rebel chocolate-leaved geranium (pale pink blossoms, on the floor in the photo below). I have to admit that selective breeding does produce some real wonders, like this nearly-perfect geranium. The blossoms hold well without shattering; they're nice and full and round; the leaves are gorgeous, and this creature has not stopped blooming since May. I'm so glad I hauled it in. And I made a cutting, just in case, and it's doing well, too.
Early Saturday morning, I awoke to the sound of coughing, miserable children, as I had for the last four nights. Both Phoebe and Liam are dreadful ill with sore throats, congestion, headaches, coughs, and fevers. They're marginally better tonight (Monday), but I'm pretty sure this is a viral illness, as it's not responding to the antibiotic they were prescribed. I dose them twice a night with palliatives. I finished my rounds, blearily measuring ibuprofen and cough syrup, and realized that it was cold. Much too cold for 6 AM. I checked the thermostat, 58 degrees. It had been set to 67. I raced to the cookstove, fully awake, and turned on the gas. The ignitor clicked, but the burner didn't light. Oh, crap, oh crap, oh crap, the gas is off. Must move fast now.

We heat with  natural gas, from a well on our land. It comes through an orange plastic pipe from a welljack out at the end of the meadow. Homegrown natural gas is great when it works, and it's free. Consider that for a moment, free heat...when are you all moving to southern Ohio to be my neighbors??

When it cuts off, though, you have to act fast, and you have to know what to do. Bill hurried out to the regulator, pulled the pin, and with a prayer, listened for the hiss that would mean the gas was operative, but just off thanks to condensation in the line (a hazard when temperatures fluctuate wildly in the winter).

My greenhouse is heated with gas. It's a little plastic pod that does not hold heat in the least.

I have two variegated bougainvilleas in that greenhouse who are right below Charlie and my tankful of emperor tetras on the hierarchy of my favorite creatures. Bill gave me the first one for my birthday three years ago. They remind me of Mexico, where in 2005 we had one of the happiest vacations of our married life. They make me happy. They take me back to a frost-free place and time in my life.

I looked at the thermometer. Twenty-two degrees outside.

I put on a coat and went out to the greenhouse, strangely calm and collected, for what was going on in my poor head. Twenty-two degrees inside the Pod. Breath panting, showing in the black night air. Bougainvilleas, geraniums, basil, fuchsia, ficus, cacti, succulents, gardenias, hibiscus, abutilon, heliotrope, mandevillas. None of them hardy, all of them standing at 22 degrees.
I lit the pilot and cranked the heater up to six. I prayed. Although there was a slight scent of green leaves dying on the air, none of the leaves were crispy, and none were translucent--the kiss of frosty death. I prayed some more, stayed with them, like a priest at their dying bed. But I stayed calm. In previous greenhouse disasters, I've curled up in a fetal position and howled. Not this time. I knew somehow my friends would be all right. I felt as if someone had his hand on my shoulder, though I was alone. Dad? Old Man Winter? God? I don't know. But someone helped me and my beloved plants. It almost felt like all that love defied the frost.Red Satin mandevilla, proudly grown from a tiny cutting last winter. I let the mother plant, 15' high, die in December, clinging to the house in a freezing wind, knowing I had her children inside.I've had this Mammilaria cactus for 16 years. It blooms all year 'round. And it loves living atop the little gas heater in the greenhouse. Can't think of another plant that would appreciate furnace-like heat. Every plant has its niche. Sorry about the photo's orientation. Sumpin' happened in iPhoto. May have to do with the 13,000-plus photos I've dumped there...must delete, must delete, can't delete. Must.

Throughout the morning, I kept checking on my plant friends. One abutilon wilted completely, but by 4 pm it was fine. I lost a couple of leaves on a young Vancouver Centennial geranium; a couple of shoots on a Frank Headley fancy geranium. That, my friends was it. How these tropical plants survived 22 degrees, I will never know, but I trust my thermometer and my eyes and the condensed fog of breath that I saw hanging before my face in that frigid greenhouse in the predawn dark. Tonight, it's supposed to plunge back down to 8 degrees. On just such a night about five years ago, before I converted the Pod to gas heat, I lost everything, including 28 varieties of miniature geraniums, when the electricity cut off. You can be sure I'll wake a few more times tonight, to smooth a brow and give medicine, to arrange covers, and to listen for the whirr of the furnace, doing its job. I look like holy hell these days, hair sticking up like Clay Aiken's, huge dark circles under my eyes, but my poor sick coughing kids are on the mend, and my greenhouse is still growing and thriving, and that's something to keep a hopeful old girl going.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Thanks for the Marathon

Finished, with medals!

Not long ago, I posted about my two nieces, Christy and Courtney, who were to run P.F. Chang's Rock and Roll Marathon in Phoenix, Arizona, to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. 26.2 miles. I'm trying to imagine doing that. I walk three, maybe four miles at a time, up and down hills, clambering around through the woods. Just got back from a brisk 2-hour hike. Baker's in a puddle on the floor. But twenty-six miles?? It takes training and dedication. Having a twenty-something body doesn't hurt, either.

My sister Nancy, (their mom) and sister Micky (aunt) both went out to Arizona watch them run. How I would have loved to see that.

Both Chris and Courtney finished the marathon. And I am so proud, I could bust. Pretty darn good time, too! Five hours, 24 minutes and 30 seconds. Together they raised $8,100 to help fund the fight against blood cancers.

And, my good blog readers, $600 of that considerable sum came  from YOU.  We're all blown away by your kindness and generosity. This is a powerful thing, this connection we have, and I feel it every minute of every day.

Thank you.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Getting Your Kicks

All this talk of alpaca value and speculative bubbles made me, the pragmatic naturalist, think about coyotes. I asked Annie if they've had any problems with predators, as they live right on the border of a large nature preserve. There are coyotes aplenty around here, and the fencing is no more substantial (though a bit higher) than one would use for sheep. No problems, to my surprise. Part of the answer revealed itself to me when I reached out to stroke just the outer halo of fleece on a caramel-colored female. She instantly kicked out sideways with one hind leg, like a cow. I'm glad to report that she didn't even come close to connecting; she was just warning me. But I looked at her cloven toes, horny and hard, and thought, "I would not want to be on the receiving end of a lightning fast kick from that." Coyotes aren't dumb, and alpacas can be dangerous if they want to be. They're highly individualistic in their behavior, and the one I happened to touch doesn't like to be touched. Annie told me that one of their alpacas will let you hug her, as long as she's not caring for a cria. Overall, they'd much prefer you look but not touch. With the selective breeding going on, perhaps breeders will create a huggable alpaca before too long? This would be my thrust in selective breeding of alpacas. To heck with the fiber. But then, I'd breed chickens for pettability too, forget the eggs. This is why I am an artist and not a farmer.

Here's the other part of the "no coyote problem" answer: Allie, an English pointer, who runs circles around the fields and immediately came to check me out when I leaned across the fence.Good girl!! I love a dog with a job.

Despite the gray light, I was finding plenty of cool photo-ops. When Allie got in the car, I tried to take her picture and flipped out over the reflections instead. Look carefully and you can see me self-actualizing in this portrait of Allie, a huge sycamore, and your blogger. Ahh, happy accidents. Noticing them is the soul of good photography.
Another photo-op: an alpaca peeks into the barn to see if everyone's being fed in there.I've been writing and thinking about alpacas for days, downloading dozens of photos, researching online. About every hour or so I click on the link in the last post so I can hear the alpaca orgling. It makes me chuckle. It makes me glad I work at home, SARA. I will say that it's the perfect sound background for doing your taxes. I make a similar sound as I add up stacks of itty-bitty receipts.

E-mails have been flying back and forth between Annie and me, as I invited her to correct me when I got something wrong. I got more wrong than I got right, it turns out, but if you got everything right you wouldn't learn much, would you? Occasionally, I like writing about things I know nothing about. It gives me a fresh take on a subject, and it challenges me to learn as I go. But publishing such writing, even in this modest way, is another story. I feel a great responsibility to get it right, or as right as I can get it, from my basis of zero knowledge of the subject.

In a private exchange with some other bloggrrls, we were marveling at the fact that we are in contact, and the way that contact enriches our lives. I wrote to them: "Blogging is like having a fantastic job at a little nonprofit magazine. It doesn't pay, but they'll send you on any assignment you wish."

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Makin' Fiber

Alpacas are bred each year because their fiber is finer when they're pregnant or nursing.
The other reason the females are bred each year is because they're so darned valuable. That was a big eye-opener for me. There  is an alpaca stud named Cantano of Peru who is valued at $250,000.00. Ann told me that prices for alpacas have come down in recent years, and a pregnant female of high quality can be bought for around $20,000.00, down from perhaps $25,000.00 a year ago. It's all about the fiber, folks. Cantano is the winningest alpaca in America, for the luster, fineness, and density of his fleece. Although a research paper published by the Agricultural Issues Center of the University of California in 2005 examined the US alpaca industry and concluded thus: Current prices for alpaca stock are not supportable by market fundamentals; the industry represents the latest in the rich history of speculative bubbles.

I hope not to be around to hear the alpaca crash. The dot-com crash was deafening enough. And that's their opinion, those Californians. We're in Ohio.

Alpaca breeding, ideally, is carefully controlled, to give crias with the finest fiber. A female cria can be bought for about $5,000. The price goes up as the cria gets older. Ann told me that people can buy alpacas affordably if they have the patience to mature them, but it's anything but a "get rich quick" proposition. And an alpaca's value changes every month as it matures or puts progeny on the ground. Understandably, there is a lot of bartering and trading going on the in alpaca world, which probably helps explain why it's such a close-knit (pun intended) community. 

 Last summer, one of the Riverboat studs opened a gate--actually dismantled it--and all the males got in with all the females.We helped, didn't we, girls?

From this one saturnalia, four alpacas came away with unplanned pregnancies; fifteen of the females are pregnant right now. Oh, I'm wiggling with delight at the prospect of having 15 new crias to photograph! They're like liquid-eyed fawns from outer space, wearing tiny toe shoes. Since alpacas gestate for 11.5 months,  most of the crias are due in June (the orgling orgy took place in July 2007).
Crias nurse for about six months on average, though Annie and Charlie like to let the female alpaca decide when to wean her cria. This overgrown cria wasn't quite getting the message from its increasingly irritated mama.
Alpacas don't have a heat period like most animals; ovulation is stimulated by the act of mating, as it is in birds. They tend not to mature until age 2-3. Online, I found details about the male alpaca's wedding tackle that I noted with interest. It's extremely long, thin and prehensile. Ooo. Gotta navigate all that fluffy stuff, I reckon.White alpaca: Did your readers really need to know that?
Zick: PreHENsile??
Alpaca: So I expect we'll be seeing you in July.
Zick: Bet on it. I wanna learn how to orgle.

THIS JUST IN! Click here to hear an alpaca orgling!

If you listen to it for awhile, it is kind of sexy, in a Bogartesque way. Well, maybe a little more Peter Lorre than Bogart. Agggh!

How gorgeous is this gal, with her lustrous dreadlocks? The alpacas in these shots have been shorn at different times, so some of them look all grown in, while others have shorter fleece. They're shorn once a year, but obviously, not all at the same time. More alpacas tomorrow. But no more prattle about speculative bubbles.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

It's All About the Fiber

Other arcane camelid facts: Alpacas have a communal dung pile, and they like to evacuate together. That, I didn't see, but I brought a whole lot of it home on my new Keen Chamonix boots (which were a Christmas present to myself, and which I loooove. Buy a whole size up; they run small.)
But Enough! about me and my boots. As a blogger, I pride myself on my dogged focus, even in the face of withering brain cells...Click around and buy Keens if you must; I'm back to alpacas.

Alpacas hum and moan, and the males orgle (sing) when they are courting a female. There is an album called Alpacas Orgling, by L.E.O, a tribute to the Electric Light Orchestra. Pretty darn good album, but it has diddly to do with alpacas. Orgling is what horny alpacas do. Just the word makes my every cell vibrate. Orgle. I cannot wait to hear an alpaca orgle. I heard them hum and moan a little bit, Ruthie, but I want a full-Monty orgle. Guess where I'm going to be come June, when the 14 crias are born and the males will be trying to get the females interested in mating again? Yep, hangin' over the fence down at Riverboat Alpaca Ranch.Annie told me that there are now about 100,000 alpacas in the U.S. The breeders know each other, help each other, and form little coalitions to help market their fleece together. It's cool. Annie told me that there need to be 600,000 alpacas producing to supply enough fleece to have a mill run around the clock to spin their fleece into yarn. The fiber sells for $5-$8/oz. So the incentive is high to get more people into alpaca ranching. Believe me, I am thinking about it. As well as goat farming, and running a greenhouse, and writing a ridiculous Chetbook, and learning how to play the guitar. Only one of those things is likely to happen. But Enough! About Me! Fiber! It's Fiber we're talking about here!There. There's your fiber. Five to eight dollars an OUNCE. That's more expensive than dried wild mushrooms, or premium yellowfin sushituna, or almost anything else I can think of. Ann and Charlie have a cria due this summer who was sired by a stud valued at $250,000. Eek! I want to see it, and see if it looks any different from oh, say, the cria sired by the $10,000 stud. I'd have to take my electron microscope and analyze its fiber to really judge its quality.

Here's what they make out of alpaca fiber in Peru. (The hat is made from skins from an alpaca that died of natural causes). But the scarves and throws are made from sustainably-gathered fiber. This is dyed, of course; they haven't got a green alpaca yet. Annie's favorite throw, made from undyed, natural suri fleece:Her prices are amazingly low, considering the value of the fleece. This big throw was $85. Egad, I've been thinking about it ever since I saw it. I can't imagine a warmer, softer blanket. It's like cashmere. I'm tickled pink to know where to get things like this, from good people who are making a go of niche farming. It makes shopping ever so much more fun, to be able to go to an alpaca ranch to get your goodies, talk to nice folks, and listen for the orgle of a horny alpaca.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

All About Alpacas

Alpacas (Vicugna pacos) are domesticated animals descended from (or more correctly, developed from) vicunas, which are gracile, delicate wild camelids. For those Spanish speakers, I apologize; I cannot figure out how to get the little squiggly line to float over the n in vicuna. I'm going to try again. Vicu&ntilde. Vicu˜na. Vicu˜a.Vicun˜a.Vicu˜n˜a. Argggh. Know that I mean to... This smallest of the camelids was hunted nearly to extinction for its valuable fleece. Incas rounded up wild vicunas and sheared them, then released them, but in modern times people found it more convenient to shoot them, and reduced their numbers to 6,000 in the wild by 1960. Peru and Chile moved to protect them by establishing parks, and today there are about 125,000 vicunas in the wild. They are classified as threatened. And, in my book, adorable. ~Vicuna, northwest Argentina. Photo by Nick Athanas,

This alpaca looks a lot like a wild vicuna in coloration. I'd love to have her waistline.

Though they're sometimes confused with llamas, alpacas are much smaller (about 3' at the shoulder) and lighter of build. There are no wild alpacas; they have been bred as domestic animals for thousands of years. Their fiber is much finer than that of llamas or sheep, for that matter. Ann, proprietress of Riverboat Alpacas, explained to me that all alpaca and sheep fiber has little scales that stick up off of it. It's those scales that give us the perception of scratchiness. The scale height (the amount it sticks up off the fiber shaft) determines its scratchiness. Wool scales stick up .08 microns off the shaft. Alpaca scales stick up only .04 microns. And a micron is 1/25,000 of an inch.

The higher those scales stick up off the fiber, the scratchier the fiber. But the more closely those scales are packed, the smoother the fiber feels. Mohair wool has 6-8 scales per 100-micron length, while alpaca fiber has more than 9 scales per 100-micron length.

Another determining factor in the fineness of the fiber is the mean diameter of a sample of fibers. Again, this diameter is measured in microns. Let's start with human hair, which is between 40-80 microns in diameter, sometimes as high as 100 microns. Strong fiber, as is found in Navajo wool rugs, is 30 or more microns in diameter. You do not want to wear a fiber that coarse. Hair shirt, and all that. A medium fiber is from 25-29.9 microns in diameter. Fine fiber is 10-24.9 microns. Superfine/Baby alpaca fiber is 18-20 microns. And Royal fiber is less than 18 microns in diameter. So really good alpaca fiber is very thin, and has lots of very low-profile scales sticking up off it. It's also strangely and delightfully lustrous, even shiny.

And I'm sorry, but I don't want wool against my skin at all. But, that's another story. Alpaca fleece, besides being light and floaty and incredibly warm (3-4 times warmer than wool!) is virtually lanolin-free, which means it's hypoallergenic. The first thing I did while shopping was bury my nose in the fabulous alpaca teddy bear's fur and wait to see if it bothered me. Nope. I can't say the same about wool or rabbit fur.

The alpacas on Riverboat Ranch are almost all suri's. This is a variety of alpaca with long, silky hair with a high sheen. They have one gelded male who is of the huacaya variety. Their fleece is crimped, like a sheep's, and stands up in a thick, lush pile.

Because suri fiber is of higher quality, alpaca breeders don't intentionally breed suris and huacayas together. (Which is why Riverboat's lone huacaya male is gelded.) Suris are rare in Peru, and it's thought that they might suffer more from the cold there, because their silky hair does not offer as good insulation as does the fluffier huacayas'. They are rapidly gaining popularity in the US, however, and breeders are concentrating on expanding the range of colors in the suri line. In Peru, breeders prefer white animals, because they dye most of their fleece. In the States, people favor natural-colored blankets, hats, scarves and sweaters, so there's heavier selection for beautiful natural fleece colors. Check out this incredible autumn auburn. Look at the sheen on that hair! I don't think Annie uses Pantene "Liso y Sedoso" conditioner on her alpacas, but you'd think so. I'd like to get a shot of my Phoebe standing next to this beauty. Alpaca fanciers refer to this kind of fleece as "greasy." Gotta love it.

Desperado, one of Ann and Charlie's first-acquired alpacas, is a black herd sire. They have a gorgeous maroon female, some caramel colored ones, mahogany, and, through breeding to a gray sire called Gunsmoke, they're shooting for a gray this coming spring.

Ann and Charlie's best alpaca is Sir Wilfred, an Accoyo suri, named for a Peruvian ranch where line breeding (breeding granddaughters to grandfathers and the like) developed animals with exceptionally fine fiber and what alpaca ranchers refer to as "good coverage," meaning lots of fiber all over the body, even the legs. There's deeply wrinkled skin under that hair, which means, I'm guessing, that there's more surface area for fleece to grow on. I saw one alpaca whose legs had been shorn, and was amazed at its deeply corrugated skin. I didn't photograph it, thinking it might have been a problem, but further reading told me alpaca breeders want them wrinkly! I'll have to go back and try to get a shot of that.This is Sir Wilfred, the Accoyo suri stud. (There are also Accoyo huacayas). If I'm not mistaken, that chestnut animal in the background is a huacaya. See how wooly he looks, in comparison to the silky suri in the foreground? Want to breed your female alpaca to noble Sir Wilfred? Got $1500 lying around?

One really interesting aspect of alpaca biology is that their fleece gets thicker in diameter each year, as they age. Thinner fleece: better, softer. Thicker, not as desirable. Alpacas can live to 20; the oldest known, Vomiting Violet, died at 29 on her ranch in New Zealand. Pregnant females have finer fiber than ones which aren't pregnant, so alpacas are bred each year. I remember my best hair days happened when I was pregnant, too.
Wonder how many ounces of fiber this gal is carrying? Hope she's got a cria (baby alpaca) in there, too! So: Are you in love with alpacas yet? I am!

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Alpaca Ranch

What makes a person up and decide they want to start an alpaca ranch? I'd always wondered. I wonder about people who buy emus and llamas and miniature horses and ostriches, miniature Watusi cattle and Highland beasties and belted Galloway cattle. All those things. I know I shouldn't lump all those animals together, because some of them produce saleable products, and some don't. When an animal is rare enough, all you do is breed them and sell the animals, I guess. When an animal makes a valuable product, you breed them, sell the animals, and sell the product.Charlie Thomas feeds part of the herd of 29.

Alpacas fall into that select group last described: an exotic animal with a product. I never realized how valuable alpaca fleece was, or why. Ergo, I never realized how highly valued the animals themselves are. I know a little more about them, after visiting the Riverboat Alpaca Ranch near Marietta, Ohio.

Two years ago, I bought a teddy bear made of alpaca skin at an art fair in town. Riverboat Alpaca Ranch imports these and other alpaca products from Peru, where, I understand, it's illegal to kill an alpaca. But there are winter kills, especially of the young ones (called crias), and when that happens, or when one dies of old age, they make wonderful things from the skins. This is the coolest teddy bear anyone's ever seen, and, being made of real hair, it's especially fun and preternaturally comforting to hug. When I need a hug, and nobody's around, not even Baker, I grab my alpaca teddy--it's the one on the far right. These bears show a good range of the possible alpaca colors. They're all made from the wooly variety of alpaca called the huacaya, which I'll talk about below. Chet Baker wants one of his own. Mether, I promise not to open a seam or kiss its eye out. I am a better dog now. Yeah, right. Real Boston Terrier Babeh # 2, which you unwrapped on Christmas morning, is blind, noseless and hemorrhaging Hollofil.

I left Chet Baker home for my foray to the ranch. I can just imagine him rounding up alpacas.This year, their bear shipment didn't arrive in time for Riverboat Alpacas to sell them at the crafts fair where I usually get them, so I was delighted to (tough work, but somebody's gotta do it) have to go to the ranch to pick some up. Took the camera, and a little notebook. Ann and Charlie invited me to climb right in amongst the alpaca herd, something I wouldn't have thought I'd be able to do. They are wonderful to be around. I asked Ann and Charlie a bunch of questions, and scribbled down answers, and then did a little self-edification after I got home. Here's Annie, modeling an alpaca hat in her little stone farm store building.She's great, bubbling over with enthusiasm for her alpacas. Here's how she and Charlie describe themselves on their Web site:

Charlie T., an IBM retiree,and Annie A., a retired special ed teacher with a farm background, are raising alpacas as a retirement "financial venture adventure". We like to try new ideas and come up with some of our own! The Alpaca Lifestyle keeps us physically/intellectually fit as we sing and the alpacas hum along!

Sure enough, when I visited, there was classical music playing in the alpaca barn, and Charlie and Annie were calling back and forth to each other while the animals milled around them. It was a happy scene.

I can't wait to show you more alpacas, and tell you some of what I learned in my visit to Riverboat Alpacas. It's going to be Alpaca Week at the Zickblog.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Alpha Bird

There can be no doubt who rules the roost in my studio. It's the one who bites the hardest. Mr. Vise Face. 390 grams of pure attitude, barely contained by a tatty bunch of feathers.

Charlie's great joy in life is to horn in on whatever Chet Baker happens to be doing. If Chet's chewing a Nylabone, Charlie wants that bone. If Chet's on my lap, Charlie needs to be there, too. If Bacon's sleeping peacefully in one of his four beds, Charlie wants that bed. Here's a typical interaction. I'm usually alerted to such behavior by the scuffling sound of Chet's toenails as he play-bows and backs away from Charlie. Sometimes there are Roo's.Here's a dog, peacefully chewing a toy in his comfy bed. I think I shall overturn the apple cart. It is what macaws do best.

This is a nice soft bed you have here, Chet Baker. Very cushy. I'd like to have a bed like this one. But I have an ol' knotty Booda Perch. Tell you what. I'll take it.

You would do well to keep an eye on me. For while I feign interest in your Nylabone, I might just decide to nip your Tennessee Turd-Tail. Not right now, but sometime.

What are you looking at, batface? I'm not going to bite you, just yet. But you might want to keep it tucked in. As if you could do anything else with it.

You are correct. It is time for you to vacate. For while I have not used my beak on you since that one famous nose-nip when you were a puppy, I still could. And I fancy your bed.

Yes, rescue your toys if you must. I'm taking over.

Very nice. Very nice. I think I'll keep it. Mether!!! He is in my BED!!

Ark ark ark ark ark.

Mostly, I have a good life. But sometimes I think Mether goes too far for a laugh at my expense. And she kisses that icky bird right on the beak, and he does not even have soft muzzlepuffs. She is stinky and mean and I am going to call a Boston terrier rescue group and see if I can get a home where I will be truly appreciated. Because this has gone too far.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Owl Kill

Bill and I were returning from a walk the other day when he stopped short. "Whoa. Somebody bit the dust here." There was a neat fan of wing feathers from a female northern cardinal on the path that leads through the honeysuckle tangles in our orchard. It was all so fresh and fluffy; hadn't been rained on the night before. I knelt down and started looking for evidence of who the killer had been, but Bill was right on it--he'd found the carving block, and right beneath it a fresh puddle of whitewash from what could only be a small owl.
While hawks shoot their droppings out in a horizontal streak, owls drop them straight down, not being as well set up for muscles in the sphincter zone. I muse on why this might be sometimes; it beats wondering what Jamie Lynn Spears is going to name her baby or why Tom and Katie seem so MISERABLE or why Jennifer's calling Brad and she's all I can't get over you! and he's all You're my only true love and Angie's all I'm gonna kill 'em both. Can you tell I've just returned from the grocery store where I got my weekly tabloid fix? I'm the woman who's got her nose so deep in the Star she can't even load her flippin' groceries on the belt. One reason I like Ohio is that nobody gets nasty when I do that. They just wait for me to come to, just like they do at red lights. If anyone honked I'd faint. Any wonder I don't miss Connecticut?

This is tabloid stuff, too, but it's the kind of news that nobody much reads any more. So there it is, the telltale dropping of a screech-owl (or maybe even a saw-whet owl; we've had two records on our property and it is a big invasion year for them). But wait! there's more. Half-hidden in the grass beneath the carving log was a big ol' pellet full of meadow vole fur and bones. That's the mandible on the right; I think the bone on the upper left of the pellet is a humerus or a femur. Or: I don't know what it is. Leg bone. Yeah! Better choke yer pellet up first if you're going to eat a whole cardinal for breakfast.

And the bill of the cardinal, neatly carved off. Wouldn't want to have to swallow that and then bring it back up in a pellet. Garrggh!

And here's the whole crime scene, every clue intact:
My best-ever find in an owl pellet was the entire skull of a belted kingfisher, beneath the carving perch of a great-horned owl behind the chicken shed where I lived for a couple of years in Hadlyme, Connecticut. I try to imagine swallowing a kingfisher's head whole and just cannot. This is why I would make a lousy owl.

Offisa Pupp was all over the crime scene.Something evil this way came. fuh fuh fuh fuh snorf

On the alert for more attacks. Nothing escapes Offisa Pupp, cruisin' around in his black-and-white. He's got his crime-scene latex glove on.

Think I'll write the Star and the Enquirer with this breaking news. Think they'll bite?

To everyone who contributed to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in memory of my dad, whom you didn't even know: Our hearts are full. Thank you, wonderful people.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Tale of Two Granddaughters

The Zickefooses, circa 1976. Dad is looking pretty pleased with his brood, there on the far right. That's your blogger as a college freshman, right next to Dale. Now, I look more like my mom (plaid jacket) than I do me!

If you like the stories I tell on this blog, I would like you to know that I am only partly responsible for them. I owe whatever storytelling chops I have to my father, Dale Zickefoose. Dad grew up along the Skunk River in southeast Iowa. He was born in 1912. He could tell stories from pioneer days as if he'd been there, so keen was his love of the language and his joy in passing them along. They run through my head sometimes at night. The Cemetery on Pansy Hill. Diphtheria Wallpaper. The Murdering Benders. Ol' Cinnamon the Kicking Cow. Looking for Owl Gizzards. And of course, The Pittard Series. When Dad was a kid, their neighbors in Iowa were an... unusual family with their own language, which Dad's family managed to decode, and then incorporated into their legend and lexicon. You can imagine how much we loved stories about the Pittards, and begged Dad to tell them in Pittard-speak.

My dad enjoyed tinkering with antique gasoline engines, and he loved growing things. He also loved chocolate, nuts, dried figs and buttermilk. (Hey, me too!) But he really, really loved his grandchildren. The two who got to see the most of him when they were little were my sister Nancy's girls, Courtney and Christy. Nancy and her family lived outside Charlottesville, Virginia when the girls were little, and they came into Richmond frequently enough so that my folks got to watch them grow up. Oh, how Dad loved those little girls.
Courtney is the blonde. Christy is wearing a scowl, perhaps related to the two band-aids on her knees, or the Rice Krispie treat she's palming.

Those little girls are all grown up now. Courtney works as an editor for Norton. She just got married in August '07. You may remember her luminosity from a previous post.
Chris is a world traveler, linguist, and perhaps one of the most socially conscious people I've known.
How I wish Dad could have lived to see them grow and flower, but Dad died in 1994 from lymphoma, a bad, bad case of it. He made it to our wedding here in Ohio in September, 1993; got to see our new place in the country, returned to Virginia, went straight into the hospital, and died seven months later. He never knew Phoebe or Liam, missed them clean. But he knew Courtney and Christy.

These two beautiful young people decided to do something to honor my dad, their grandfather. First Chris, and then Courtney started training to run marathons a number of months ago. (Christy dared Courtney to join her.) On January 13, 2008, they'll be running a full marathon in Phoenix, Arizona, to raise money for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In order to train for the 26.2 mile-trek, they're running four days a week and cross-training one to two days a week. Courtney's averaging a ten-minute mile on the longer runs, and her goal is to finish the race in 5 hours or less. She's pledged to raise $3,800 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

As you know, I don't often--read: never--use my blog as a platform for causes, worthy or otherwise, and I don't solicit from my gentle readers. But this thing moves me. These young women have essentially turned over all their free time and the strength of their bodies to making the world a better place for leukemia and lymphoma patients, and I have to honor and salute them. If you'd like to add a little to the cause (100% tax-deductible, I'd add), click here.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Magpie Antics

Corvids (the crows and jays)... They are the bomb. Smart, pretty, bold, cagey. Black-billed magpies have to take the prize for flashiest North American corvid. They're all over the place in Taos and Arroyo Seco. They love those foothills, sagey flats, cottonwood-lined rivercourses, cow pastures. They write haikus across the landscape with their white wings.On our last morning in our nice adobe house in Arroyo Seco, Bill got the idea to feed the neighborhood magpies. We broke out some whole-grain bread, Cheezits and almonds. He put the food out on a rock and I scurried to get my camera. The magpies were on it before I could focus. They're always watching for handouts, for people doing something food-related.

No dummies, the first magpies to arrive took the almonds. Given a choice, a corvid will always choose protein over carbs. Maybe that's why you don't see magpies riding around in electric scooters at Wal-Mart. They're all fit and trim. But inclined to be gluttons.

These birds were convinced that if they just tried hard enough, they could get three almonds in their bill at once.Two was nice, but three would be so much better. This one is contemplating Almond # 3, and trying to decide whether to drop #1 and #2 to rearrange and stuff #3 in.

They practically lay down on the rock, knowing that picking the nuts up sideways was their best hope. Look at the rainbow in this bird's tail.
Beaks filled, they'd adjourn to the neighboring lawn and cow pasture to cache the treasure. Corvids don't often stop to eat when they find abundant food. They carry it off in expandable gular (throat) pouches and hide it in a bunch of different places, hedging against a lean day. This bird stared at me incredulously when I went and dug up his cache. We were running low on almonds, and I figured I'd recycle them and get a few more shots. I could feel the outrage in his glare. Humans aren't supposed to notice when and where magpies cache their food. Ah, but I am no ordinary human, Grasshoppa.Whole -grain bread's OK in a pinch, but we prefer almonds. Or hamburger. Got any hamburger?

The light is always a challenge in New Mexico. It can be pretty harsh, and we found that diffuse cloud light (rare there) was usually better for bird and landscape shots. I was pleased with how the camera was able to capture the magpies' iridescence in bright low morning sun, though.We perceive them as black-and-white, but they're anything but. Try teal-blue and white. Cozying up to a captive-raised, imprinted talking magpie in Paul Tebbel's office at The Wildlife Center in Espanola, I was astounded to see that its nictitating membranes were white, with a neon orange center. What's with that? It flashed them rapidly as it spoke to me (charming!), so I guess the wild color has social signaling value. Ooh, he liked me, and talked a blue streak, kind of a whispery hurried, muttered mess of sweet nothings come'ere, com'ere hiyahowyadoin' prettyboy and that kind of thing. I was so charmed I offered him my finger, which he bit savagely. He's a magpie, after all. Kind of tough to make an education bird out of a character like that, but they're going to try. He'd been confiscated from his captors by wildlife officials. Apparently Native cultures in New Mexico kept magpies and ravens as pets for centuries. He made Charlie look like a pushover.

It's hard to get a picture of a bird's nictitating membrane, but sometimes it happens accidentally. This enlargement barely hints at the Dreamsicle orange center of the membrane, but trust me, it's as bright as the Cheezit in his bill.Fine birdies. I wish we had them in Ohio. I would feed them meat scraps and whatever else they asked for. It's nice to see a corvid that's not afraid of people. You wouldn't be sitting in a patio chair 30 feet from American crows, shooting their pictures and laughing out loud, that's for sure. I guess we can put black-billed magpies under the heading of: Just One More Thing to Love About New Mexico.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Whatcha Doin' Up There?

Snowy gray days, up in the tower, writing. I can see the birds and they can see me. For years, they've come to see me when I'm sitting up here. They know I'm the person who fills the feeders. The suet dough feeder, in particular.

Suet dough is expensive enough to make, in both cents and elbow grease, so that I don't put a whole lot out at one time. Should a flock of starlings happen through, I don't want half a batch to disappear down their greedy throats. So I put it out a couple of handfuls at a time throughout the day, especially when I see bluebirds. The bluebirds know this. We're in tune with each other.

The downy woodpeckers know it, too. They come and sit on the top of the chimney and stare at me until they get my attention.

Hello. It's Zick, right? Yes. It's me, Downy. We've met at the feeder. Well. Ahem. The suet dough is gone. That stuff you make for us. It's gone. I'm just sayin'.
Even little Snowflake, the leucistic junco, came up to check in with me. She's hooked on suet dough. We think this is her second year with us, but she's whiter than she was last year. See Bill of the Birds' nice pictures of her both this year and last year.
Of all the birds, the bluebirds are the most shameless beggars. They line up, all eight of them, on the gutters.They clean up the dough in the dish, and then they fly up to the high ridgepole where they close in to control me with their minds.Hello. We enjoy your hospitality, and the food you serve. Now bring more of it. Please.

The fame of your Suet Dough has spread far and wide in Bluebird Land. We have brought our best friends to your fine establishment today. Please do not disappoint them. Are you almost done with that sandhill crane chapter?

Mether. I do not like it when you leave our tower fort to go put out more suet dough. I think you pay entirely too much attention to those bluebirds. You need to at least finish a paragraph before you run down the stairs again. There is someone else here with needs, too. And it is me.In the interest of full disclosure, the photographer rolled Chet Baker's cutelip out before taking the picture. Folded ears were original equipment. Actually, I used to roll his cutelip out. Now what I have to do is tuck his dangling manly jowls in.

And, because some Janie-come-lately is gonna ask, sure as death and taxes:

Zick's Suet Dough

Melt 1 cup peanut butter
with 1 cup lard

(the microwave works great).
Wal-Mart sells lard in big green and white tubs, and yellow cornmeal in big 5 lb. bags, as well as cheap quick oats and flour. Mix dry ingredients separately:

2 cups yellow cornmeal
2 cups quick oats
1 cup flour.

Stir melted lard/peanut butter mixture into dry ingredients.

Allow to cool, and serve crumbled in an open dish. Store in jars at room temperature. Nice measuring tip: A 40 oz. jar of peanut butter holds five cups. Empty out a jar, then pack it with lard to measure five cups of that. Easier than measuring individual cups, the most onerous part of making it in bulk. Don't be tempted to guesstimate amounts, or you'll get a greasy mess.
I make this recipe, sextupled, using the biggest lobster pot I own, every couple of weeks. What I get in return is a never-ending guilt trip from eight bluebirds and sundry other zillions of birds. It's a problem that only compounds.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

What's That in the Corner?

Just a quick note to let you know that one of my commentaries, about houseplants that are no longer an asset, should air this afternoon (Friday, Jan. 4, '08) on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. Should you miss it, you can find the audio file here.
I consider these an asset, but beauty's in the eye of the beholder. Tippy pots of sprawly orchids aren't to everyone's taste.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

In the Tower

When Bill and I decided to build a tower on our house, our contractor and friend Dan Harrison was bemused. Thrilled, too, because he'd never built one. But he sat us down and said he was bound to warn us that, when people are looking for a home, they don't exactly look for homes with birdwatching towers on top of them. They look for nice kitchens and nice bathrooms. He said it might not positively affect the resale value of the house. (read: it might be a foolish thing to do, expensive, not exactly a sound investment) Bill and I looked at each other and laughed. "We're not going anywhere," I said.

And it's been nine years, and we haven't gone anywhere, and we're no closer to trying to sell our house than we were then. But I do think that a house with a tower on top of it has an extraordinary value, one that can't be measured by any realtor's parameter.

On snowy days when the kids are home from school for the thirteenth consecutive day (but who's counting?), the tower is worth every penny we poured into it. It's my writer's cabin. I go up there, close the heavy trap door, and settle into Bookspace. I'm almost halfway through writing my second book. Words just tumble out of me as I sit, swaddled in Polarfleece and bathed in natural light, in a folding camp chair. A little space heater at my feet augments what's coming out of the duct. The room's 10 x 10, just big enough for two chairs and a little square table. It's got four big windows, a phone jack and an outlet and that's about it. Perfect.

I believe in having dedicated spaces in one's house, free of clutter, that are meant for one thing. I also believe in having a place where a person can get away from it all, even if it's a 10 x 10' cell. As cells go, this is a dandy. It's all glass. So I can see birds whenever I look up. Yesterday, I was tapping away, writing about prairie chickens, of all things, when I heard a blue jay yell, a surprised sort of yell. My head whipped up, just in time to see an adult male northern harrier go sailing by to the south at eye level. I grabbed the camera, which, through Murphy's Law, had the short portrait lens on it, and snapped a couple of shots. Even through glass, you can tell this is a male harrier by those ink-tipped white underwings, and that shining white rump. Here's a cropped view:Northern harrier, male, January 2, 2008, in our orchard.

This isn't harrier habitat by any stretch, but we get a handful of chance records on our land every year. He's on his way somewhere, and he cruised through the yard when he noticed all the birds at the feeder. Like all raptors, harriers are opportunists. I'll never forget seeing one go coursing through the horse pasture behind my Connecticut cabin. That was a clearing in an immense woods, and it wasn't harrier habitat either, but it was close to the coast where there was a lot of salt marsh. There was a tufted titmouse on the very end of a maple branch, scolding that harrier like crazy. And as the harrier went by, it flipped on its side, threw out an impossibly long, slender leg, and just picked that titmouse right off the branch. Yeak yeak yeak yeak and the harrier and titmouse disappeared over the trees, the little bird yelling all the way. Tough way to go, good thing to see.

We've gotten another inch of fine powder last night, atop five or so from yesterday, which almost certainly means there will be another snow day tomorrow. Laugh if you must, Trixie, but you know how it is in southern Ohio. It's all ruled by the gravel roads out here, and they can be truly horrible for days on end with just a little snow, because there's no money to do anything about it, I guess. I'm sure there are a lot of moms who'd contribute personal income to get those roads cleared by now. Phoebe and Liam are pretty darn good, and they get out to sled and play and burn off some energy without being asked. I spy on them from my tower retreat.I'm gonna get you, sucka. Liam: Squeeeeee!They like to come up and visit, and Phoebe comes up and gets me to drill her on spelling bee words, but there's nothing much they can do in a 10 x 10' room, so after we visit for awhile I don't have to ask them to leave. I've never shut myself off from my kids, even when I'm painting, because I think it just makes them insecure, which makes them need to bug you more.

There is one person who is welcome in the tower at all times. He never gets bored. In fact, he gets all excited when he sees me making tea and grabbing my laptop, binocs and camera. He dances with joy and runs up the stairs ahead of me. You get one guess who does that.It is Chet Baker, Companion Dog. Aside from taking a walk with me, Chet loves going to the tower room the best. There are always things to watch from his perch on the barstool by the window. Such a little catdog. He clears his throat and whuffs to ask me to steady it for him, then leaps up with feline grace. Note favorite stainless steel Target tea mug. Miso love my Migo mug. It keep tea hot rong time.Besides the barstool, Chet has a dedicated chair right across from me, which is draped in a sleeping bag. It can be a bit chilly up there with all that glass, so I make sure he is adequately swaddled. You can never swaddle a Boston terrier too much in January.

The perfect writer's companion--silent, sweet-smelling, softly snoring, always ready with a cuddle and a kiss, asking nothing but giving everything.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008


A mountain chickadee in Taos Ski Valley. Dig that crazy hat. We're goin' back to New Mexico, so fasten your seat belts. In the event of time-travel whiplash, neck braces will descend from the overhead compartment.

In a previous post, I gently chided Bill of the Birds for being so...goal-oriented where birds are concerned. He sets his heart on one species, and he will do anything to see that bird. It's easy for me to cast stones at that and gloat about being happy with whatever shows up. Often, though, I'm the passive recipient of bird-gifts bestowed by his near-psychic powers. Case in point: We pulled over on a road coming down from Taos Ski Valley, where we'd fruitlessly hunted rosy-finches in the dizzy dark forests near the top. We found mountain chickadees at the feeder instead. And we had seen a life mammal for all of us: bighorn sheep! Scoping the balds atop the mountains, we'd picked up distant specks which resolved at 60 power into a band of a dozen Rocky Mountain bighorns--a huge ram (far right, with full-circle horns) with 11 wives and chillun. He was butting them along, moving them over the bald. Beautiful!! Much high-fiving. We hadn't even known to look for them; we had been hoping for a very distant look at a ptarmigan, perhaps. And there they were. Serramdipity.I got this shot with my little 300 mm. telephoto zoom by propping my elbows on the car, then cropping it way down. Those sheep were a LONG way away, but brilliant sunshine helped get a reasonable image.

Bill had a feeling there would be a dipper where he pulled over on our way down. There was a tumbling mountain stream, rock cliff faces, just the kind of place a dipper would choose. He stood patiently at streamside, bathed in golden afternoon light. There was whitewash on every emergent rock. Looked good for dippers. If it showed up, it would be sweeeet. We waited. The kids threw stones in the stream, which tumbled over the rocks. We hopped rocks, and waited. It was a good place to wait. And he came to us, a young dipper with a golden bill, voicing his peculiar ringing call, doing deep-knee-bends on the rocks.

Bill got tons of good pictures the first time he came. I was in the wrong place, and mine were distant and dark. The dipper flew downstream, and we waited. The kids threw rocks and hopped from boulder to boulder. Liam needed help getting to one boulder, so I stepped out into the stream to help him. And the dipper came, practically right to my astonished feet. LIAM! I hissed. He's here! Hold perfectly still while Mommy shoots over your shoulder! Phoebe was right next to us, and both kids were in front of me, and they held still as stones while the dipper held us in complete thrall. Oooh, he's sooo cute! Phoebe whispered. She could have been sitting in math class back in Ohio instead. I think she'd pick standing on a rock in New Mexico stream, watching a dipper.

He flashed his brightwhite nictitating membrane, which protects his eyes underwater (and which he can see through, presumably). He stuck his head underwater and swam-flew from rock to rock. He posed, wrenlike tail cocked. He called, turning from side to side. He seemed to want something.
I wanted for nothing at all. It was a moment beyond hoping or price, to have my camera ready when the dipper came, and I owe it to Mr. Goal-Oriented. Did he arrange the molten gold water, too?
Suddenly, the dipper crouched and flew on an oblique angle up into the rock cliff-face across the stream. He disappeared into a crevice, right next to this:
the nest he had probably been born in. The entrance faces down, protecting the nest's inhabitants from spray. He stayed in his rock crevice, and we adjourned to the house, feeling very lucky indeed. Serendipperty.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

That Was the Party that Was

It's 6 PM, New Year's Day. I have the gas logs going, and all the other lights are off. Baker was sleeping at my elbow and I was all cuddled down ready to post when both kids appeared and wanted to look at all last night's photos. So it became a jiggly, jostly, not-so-quiet family affair.

My first bird of the day was a junco, I think; there were titmice and juncoes and chickadees at the feeder, and I didn't think to notice which one I saw first. In among the juncoes was pretty Snowflake, the leucistic female. A good sign, I think. I slept in today until 10:30, something that never happens unless I'm knocked cold by exertion. My first artist of the day on XM Radio was Ryan Adams. Another good sign. Bill didn't get up until 2:30 PM, another record. I wasn't even sure he was still alive. I had made homemade hot and sour soup for his wakeup lunch, then sighed and put it in the refrigerator when he didn't emerge. He shuffled into the kitchen, bleary-eyed, and said, "I woke up wide awake at 8 AM..."

"And what happened between 8 and 2:30 PM?" I asked.

"I wrote War and Peace."

Life with Guitarzan.

Last night was the most fun I've ever had on New Year's Eve. It was also the most fun I've ever had playing music, and that's saying something. Lots of people came to the party, and most of them were saying it was the most fun they'd ever had, too. Everybody listened to the music and everybody danced like crazy. Margaret and Zane and Tony and Martha worked like Trojans turning the brick-walled loft into a party zone. Lighting is everything. The big green square in the picture below is one of our sheets, on which swirling iTunes shapes were projected. Here's Margaret, dancing. She looked like some kind of goddess last night. We had three digital projectors going full blast projecting abstract images onto sheets. So light and color were dancing across us as we played. It was like visual alcohol. We started playing around 9 p.m. At 11:57, Tony projected the obligatory Times Square ball drop onto a sheet, but we only gave it three minutes, just so we'd know when to raise a toast and look for someone to kiss, and then it was back to real life and live music. We played until 1:45, running through about 40 songs, almost half of them new.

The Cajuns have a term, "fais do-do." It means, literally, "Put the babies to bed." They bring their kids to their dances, and they bring pads and blankies and put them to sleep in an adjoining room. So the music seeps into the children's souls, and they stay up as late as they can, but they have a place to go when it all gets to be too much. Phoebe and Liam were in charge of keeping Sophia and Oona happy in a carpeted room on the third floor, and making sure their mothers knew if they woke up after they went to sleep. Oona loves Liam so much that he had to leave the room or she wouldn't go to sleep.Phoebe loved having a real babysitting job at last. She's going to be a terrific babysitter. She also partied down with us, and stayed up until 3:30 without a single complaint. Wow. Liam konked around 11, came down to ring in the New Year with us, and crawled back into his sleeping bag. We always have our kids with us at New Year's, no matter what.
Jess and me singing. Singing with Jess is amazing. It's like having a booster rocket behind me. Just singing backup with her is a blast. This may have been "Breakdown," by Tom Petty. We were a two-person choir behind Bill of the Birds. Baby, baby breakDOWN OOOOOwoooooOOOOOO.........

One of the most fun songs of the night was "I'll Take You There" by the Staples Singers. Jess took the lead and the rest of us got to sing backup. Oh, it was heavenly, just like her voice. I'm blown away by how fast she's learned the keyboard parts to all these songs, most of which she's never played before. She's got a terrific ear. Everybody was buzzing about our new Orang.
Shila, who has taken several photography classes and actually reads her camera manuals, took all these band pictures with my camera. I can safely say that I'd have gotten nothing in those conditions--dark, with spots of colored light. But she knew to set it to AV, open the aperture all the way to 3.5, and use the flash. This did a couple of interesting things. First, the flash captured the subject she focused on, in sharp relief. But the shutter proceeded to stay open for almost four seconds, thanks to the extremely low light, so everything but the subject at the moment of the flash was blurred with motion. The results come as close to being there as a photograph could. I LOVE these pictures. A million thank yous, Shila. What a gift to give us! Now go work on your web site so I can link to your art, for crying out loud.Perhaps the coolest picture of Clay ever taken. His solos, particularly on "Burning Down the House" and "Take Me to the River," were ossum. Man, he's fun to play with. When I called her today, attempting to describe the experience of playing in this band, my 86-year-old mom commented, "A good bass player can make a band." How true. Wish she could have been there to hear it.

William H. Thompson III played and sang like a shaggy demon last night. He's a very engaging, funny and fun-to-watch performer. There are a lot of people who play well, but many aren't particularly fun to watch. Bill's got it all going on, and he talks and jokes with the audience in a way that makes them feel like part of the fun. He traded guitar licks with Vinnie, and we even had some vaguely Bostonesque harmony guitar parts going on. Wooo! Bill makes sure all the musicians are watching him; he conducts us with his eyebrows and little nods of his head as he plays. So we all start together, we all end together, and nobody steps on anyone's solos, because everyone's keeping an eye on Bill, who's keeping track of where we are in the song, and who solos and who sings, and when. It's vital to keeping a band tight--no different from conducting an orchestra, and yet, in my experience, it's comparatively rare to have a strong leader and skilled frontman in a garage band like ours. And it makes all the difference to the audience, to have someone to watch and feel connected to. Patter matters. It was hard to pick a favorite moment, but during one of my songs ( I can't remember which), Vinnie, aided by an extra-long cord, pranced out into the dancing crowd while playing a solo on his Strat, and Bill came out to meet him, and they both did power slides, running a few steps, then falling to their knees while playing. This hurts more than you might think. See below. Oh, my goodness. Bill's laughing too hard here as Vinnie dares him to slide. He took the challenge.

Andy Hall played his butt off last night, with a tiny fedora to boot. I kept peeking back to see his Buddha-like smile behind flying sticks. I don't know how drummers do it. I can't play more than one percussion instrument at a time. Andy's doing something different with each hand and both feet. He flips me out, and he's sooo solid. Bill, Andy and Clay got a crazy arena-rock thing going during "Gold Dust Woman," a Stevie Nicks song that I love to sing. I was moved by the sheer magesty of their rawk to power-slide out on the dance floor, and bashed the crap out of the tops of my feet on the wood floor. I did slide for at least ten feet, however, and witnesses told me that I looked like I knew what I was doing. Perhaps they were being kind; friends are like that. I know one thing--I'm not gonna do that again, at least not without socks on. All this on one glass of wine. I was chugging hot rooibos tea all night, trying to keep my battered vocal cords going. Today, I couldn't hit a high note if you held a gun to my head--it's gone. I sound like Demi Moore today, and not in a nice, sexy way. More in a cronelike way. A power-sliding cronelike way. I should stick to a more sedate performance style at my age. I love Fred Rogers and am absolutely not making fun of him here. He is my hero. I just couldn't resist.

Vinnie, AKA Sparkle, was on fire last night. His version of "Boom Boom Boom" got everybody shaking. Beneath the giddy exterior is a rock-solid musician of great range and versatility. The sartorial excellence was provided by Bandleader Bill, who went on a shopping spree at Kohl's, finding matching black pinstriped wide-collared shirts, with colorful mod daisy ties--a different color for each guy. The boys looked so fine. I love the extra effort Bill puts into making us a band, and making us look like one.
Group hug at 2 AM. It felt so good to show so many people such a good time. But I'm sure nobody had more fun than we did. We were working too hard to talk to anyone, but we communicated just the same. Tonight, cracked voice, bashed feet and all, I feel like the luckiest woman in the world, to have this music and these people in my life.
All band photos by Shila Wilson, our personal Annie Liebowitz.

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