Friday, July 31, 2015

Going, Going, Gone

The murder of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe by a Minneapolis dentist brought to mind the disappearance of seemingly lesser beings. I am assuming no dentist from the Midwest or elsewhere is responsible, but I remain concerned by the vanishings.

This summer, for example, I have seen a grand total of one firefly. It was hovering in my front yard last evening blinking frantically at first, then with less and less ardor. It finally drifted away as fireflies do, and yes, I’ll admit it, this very small event saddened me.

Why are fireflies disappearing? According to, “Most researchers blame three main factors: Increased chemical use, development and light pollution… Signs indicate that light pollution as a major factor in the disappearance of fireflies all over the world. Human light pollution is believed to interrupt firefly flash patterns. Scientists have observed that fireflies get out of synch for a few minutes after a car’s headlights pass. Light from homes, cars, stores, and street lights may all make it difficult for fireflies to signal each other during mating—meaning fewer firefly larvae are born next season.”

The bees are going, as we all know, but no one had reported on the dearth of praying mantis. I haven’t seen a single one of the big insects this summer. Two years ago I found an injured mantis in my driveway and kept it alive in a terrarium through the winter and early spring. I released it after making sure the last frost had passed, and I assume it got somewhere safely. By the way, female mantis do not eat their husband’s head after mating, so it’s safe to come back in the next life as a male mantis without fear of decapitation. You might want to fear the pesticides, though. Chemicals used in ornamental gardens are fatal to both good and bad insects. Mantis are among the victims. And so, incidentally, are ladybugs, one of the more beneficial insects any yard can have, and monarch butterflies, which went from thousands to none in the space of two years.

Turtles and snakes? Not a one in my yard. Box turtles and black snakes were once common in my part of the country; a healthy rain brought out a number of the yellow-and-black-shelled reptiles that can live forty or more years. No more. Vanishing lands and water sources, cars and lawnmowers, have spelled death for this gentle species.

A couple of years ago, two small garden snakes got into my house. They were no longer than a foot and I deposited them back outdoors. The big snakes—rat snakes and black runners—have vanished. As developers take down trees and wild shrubs, the snakes lose their home environment as well as their sources of food. Once commonly seen sunning themselves on the old stone walls that border farmers’ fields, the snakes appear to have gone the way of the turtles.

And then there are the bats. I have a bat box behind my garage that used to house a small collection of these mammals. There are sixteen different bat species in Virginia, and I never could tell what kind was flitting around my yard, but I do know they are not there anymore. A fungus that has killed millions of bats in the past few years shows no signs of abating.  

What we do have, in droves, are rabbits.  I see one or two every day, and with the hare proliferation has come an increase in foxes. There are at least two red ones with burrows within a hundred yards of my house.  They’re curious and fearless and one, in particular, has several times challenged my cat. A mistake, that. I have a long-haired Burmese of advancing age who no longer knows what fear is. The fox yips, barks, makes strange coughing sounds and capers around my front lawn. The cat stares at it without much interest. Once there was an argument over the corpse of a small rabbit one or the other had slain. The car had it, the fox wanted it. The fox did not get it and the small corpse was deposited on the deck of my neighbors.  A gift, no doubt, since my neighbors are honorary cat parents and their yard is part of the cat’s territory. Tennyson was right—nature is red of tooth and claw.  

Oh, and we now have coyotes. I was surprised to see one near my Metro station. And bear. A black bear was spotted not three miles from my house. And there are reports that bobcats are making a return. So maybe all is not lost, but I do miss the turtles and snakes.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

RIP Cedric

I’m not big on guns. I’m not big on hunting, either, so when I read a small item about a dentist killing a tame lion in Zimbabwe with a bow and arrow, I got pretty upset.
So let’s name names. The hunter—I use the term very loosely here—is Walter James Palmer, a Minneapolis dentist. The lion was a harmless 14-year-old beast named Cedric who lived in a protected habitat and was both well-known and well-loved by Zimbabweans. He was apparently drawn out of this place of safety just far enough so that Dr. Palmer could shoot it. After being informed that Cedric was essentially Zimbabwe’s totem animal, their bald eagle, so to speak. Dr. Palmer said he did not know Cedric was off-limits, which I guess makes it perfectly okay, and that he was sorry. Not sorry enough, I guess, since as of this morning, he has eluded the Zimbabwean authorities and his present whereabouts are unknown. The anti-poaching police are, pardon the expression, hunting for him. I imagine Dr. Palmer is also one of those worthies who pay a fortune to hunt and kill in game parks where animals are kept for that very purpose.

According to USA Today, Palmer paid more than $50,000 for the right to kill Cecil, a big cat well-known at the Hwange National Park, and that wore a GPS collar so his movements could be studied. Palmer and his guides strapped a dead gazelle to their Jeep and lured the lion out of the park’s boundaries. Palmer then shot him with a compound bow but failed to kill the animal. Eventually, Cedric was finished off with a gunshot, then skinned and beheaded. There have been allegations that the hunter and his guides attempted to destroy the animal’s GTPS collar.

The Minnesota dentist has a somewhat unsavory history. In 2006, he killed a black bear outside of a permitted area, then transported the carcass to a registration station where he claimed the bear had been killed legally. That little adventure led to a $3,000 fine. That same year, Dr. Palmer was accused of sexual harassment by his receptionist. A settlement of $127,000 followed, though the doctor admitted no wrongdoing.  Hunting of a different type, I guess. Palmer has also killed leopards, bighorn sheep, and at least one rhinoceros.

I have friends who hunt, and to maintain the friendship, this is a subject we no longer broach. Their opinions are as heartfelt as mine, and they truly believe they are conservationists, as well as sportsmen. I don’t. In fact, the last time I spoke about this blood sport with a hunting acquaintance, I suggested a real sportsman would challenge his prey on an even playing field, that is to say not from a tree stand, a moving vehicle—airplane or truck—or lurking behind a bush. To me, this is simply cowardly and lazy. I also proposed that instead of sophisticated hunting weapons, be they bows, rifles, shotguns or traps, the hunter be armed with a sharp stick of his own making, and large stones that he could hurl at the prey charged.

Take down a large animal that way and my opinion of your courage and sportsmanship might change.



Sunday, July 26, 2015

The W & OD

I wanted to go to a softball game---men, women, kids, it didn’t really matter. There was no tangible reason, just a desire to see balls hit, people run, someone win and someone lose, all the while knowing it made no difference whatsoever.  At the end of the season, losers and winners alike will get trophies.

I took the W&OD trail, a nicely paved path that starts near the Potomac River and wanders 45 miles through Northern Virginia. I chose to walk from Falls Church where I live to Vienna, the next small town four miles away. I took five silver mints, a bottle of water, a small pack of salted almonds and two peaches. I tried to find someone to go with me but there were no takers. True, it was in the mi-80s and pretty humid, but the fact is that, with a few exceptions, my friends are wusses.

On weekends, the W&OD is normally crowded with joggers, walkers and cyclists. One of the things I noticed almost immediately is that nine out of ten people had earbuds on, and I wondered why these folks felt it necessary to isolate themselves from the sounds around them.  The trail generally runs through walls of bushes, and there’s a constant hum of cicadas and birdsongs, and the rustlings of small creatures—not an unpleasant susurration (I’ve been wanting to use that words for years.)

I saw an extremely well-fed groundhog that vanished into a burrow in the wink of an eye. Overhead, crows belabored a hawk and frogs croaked where a small stream ran.

It wasn’t busy.  Families on bicycles, with Mom and Dad bookending their flocks; younger, childless couples; and a majority of solitary walkers and riders. I wondered if the latter were fleeing crowded homes or empty ones.

A lot of riders wore the panoply of the full-fledged bicycle road-racer, which may have been à propos since the Tour de France ended today. Some actually looked like the stick-figure athletes who defy fatigue and good sense and ride hundreds of miles at a clip, but the majority of the expensively and colorfully-garbed men and women were, well, plump. I felt for them. The seats of racing bikes are simply not very comfortable, and none of the rotund riders were smiling as they passed me. Rather, many wore airs of aching resignation as they pedaled at a steady, mindless pace.

There were some real would-be racers, young men and women who sped by with shouts of “On your left!” and, two or three times, came perilously close to running me off the trail. One tanned young millennial almost did hit me, but then gave me the pleasure of having a flat a hundred yards down the road. I walked by and smiled indulgently as he wrestled the front wheel off his 87-speed bike.

When I finally got to the playing fields, there were no ball games. Not one. Not even a father and son playing catch. The fields were completely empty, forlorn, even. Possibly Virginia has laws against softball on Sundays, I don’t know and no one at the nearby community center knew either. There’d been games yesterday, and some were scheduled for tomorrow evening. “It’s because of the churches,” said an older man whose tee-shirt told me he was a Trail Patrol. “The churches don’t want you having a good time on Sundays.” He rode off on his recumbent bicycle, a complicated vehicle that looked like a cross between a very low wheelchair and uncomfortable beach furniture.

I ate the peach and the nuts while seated on a park bench watching the parade of Lycra-clad bottoms pass by. Few were attractive, and I was reminded of the modern saying that stretch pants are a privilege and not a right. I headed home.

By Mile-7 my feet were getting pretty sore. I started walking like some of the homeless people I occasionally see on the trail, shuffling, head down, string bag dangling from one hand. By Mile-8 I seriously considered calling Uber. I began to envy the bicyclists, large-bottomed or not. I ate the other peach and finished all the water. At Mile-9 I weighed the possibility of spending the night on one of the benches.

Half an hour later, I spotted my car 500 yards away. When I was nearly there I lost the shuffling gait, stood up straight, and walked the last 100 feet with graceful determination. My Fitbit said I’d walked 10.2 miles. Imagine that.

Ten miles? Piece of cake.



Sunday, July 19, 2015

I Wanted To Write About...

Here’s what I wanted to write about today: Friends.  Real ones, assumed ones, false ones, friends of convenience and inconvenience. How sometimes it’s difficult to tell them apart, and how friendships, new and old and developing, are heartbreaking, tenuous and glass-fragile. Friends come and go, they vanish and reappear. Often, they simply vanish, or their behaviors become mysterious, an unshared and destructive secret. I spent some time thinking about two very good friends, both passed away, and how even after many, many years, I still miss them.  And the difference between friends and Facebook friends, some of whom I’ve never met.  

Also, I wanted to comment on the weather, which in my part of the country has been unseasonably wet. My yard greener than it’s ever been, with jungle-like growths of vines and creepers and odd, wild green things I’ve never seen before.

I wanted to write about the flock of turtles that resides a few minutes from my house. I’ve befriended them with kernels of corn shaved from a fresh ear. There are painted turtles, box turtles, and two snappers. One is huge, at least twenty inches across, and the people who live near the pond say he/she’s been there as long as they can remember. Snapping turtles in the wild can live up to 70 years; they have no predators and lead indolent lives. Goliath, as the neighbors call him, has recently been joined by a mate and/or buddy. The two are prehistoric and dinosaur-like. They rule the pond, which they share with a dozen-or-so goldfish. Someone got tired of cleaning the aquarium and dumped the ornamental fish there, and they’ve flourished.

I wanted to write about how my small Northern Virginia town is being eaten up by developers who erect monstrous buildings that in one sweep destroy the personality of the place. One development, half-a-mile from me, will be erected on land that recently was a nursery surrounded by small houses like mine, built in the early 1960s and designed for middle-income families. Now that land is eight acres of red dirt without a single blade of grass. Farther down my town’s main street, a family restaurant that had been there fifty years was torn down, as were a few tiny row houses where elderly couples lived. About a year ago, Hilton bought land abutting the main street, tore down old shops, and put up a cheap businessmen’s hotel with a happy hour bar and parking abutting two single-family homes.  Now, a ten-floor apartment building is going up a few hundred yards away.  There will be a Harris Teeter on the ground floor, and a variety of chi chi shops—Lululemon, an expensive florist, a place specializing in classy candies and coffees.

I wanted to write about my backyard pond which, thanks to the weather, is gloriously floral. At night, a large stag comes and drinks from it. He’s clumsy; he knocks over the lotus and water hyacinths pots. His hooves leave two-inch-deep indentation in my lawn and he deposited a mound of deer shit in my driveway.

I wanted to write about how my indoor/outdoor cat and a largish fox have reached an entente cordial of sorts. The fox makes strange noises, like an old man coughing in the night. They stare at each other and neither gives way until I or my neighbor comes out. Then the fox runs barking skittering sounds. My cat is unflustered and displays splendid feline indifference.

And then I wanted to write about writing, and I how recently found myself in the company of a young man who had done everything to make his first book successful, except write it. He had a plot, and knew how the characters would interact. He had already established their personalities, their traits, their assets and their shortcomings. They would be handsome, and engaging, and smart, and witty, and full of winning dialogues. “My book,” the young man said, “is going to be great!”

I was proud of myself for keeping mostly silent. I said I’d be interested in seeing the book when it was finished. The young man seemed surprised at first, and then alarmed.

I wanted to write about the Tour de France which, this year, failed to interest me.

I wanted to write about the month of July, which is always lonely.

And lastly, I wanted to write about life and keeping cancer at bay for almost six months now, and how some have been less fortunate and lost that cruel battle.

That’s the good thing about writing: There’s always a wealth of stuff to write about, great and meaningless, lasting and temporary.

Thank heavens for words.    

Monday, July 13, 2015

Gun, Again

And so it turns out the National Rifle Association was right—guns don’t kill people. It’s flags that kill people.

If a half-wit South Carolinian who under no circumstances should get near a firearm is able to purchase a gun because there’s a glitch in the control system; if said racist half-wit murders nine churchgoers; and if a Confederate flag is found on the half-wit’s web page, then let’s ban the flag!  Makes perfect sense.  

The “Guns don’t kill people” rationale used by the NRA was ridiculous from the start and that it endures and continues to be quoted proves a sad fact: That people will believe something—anything—if it is repeated over and over again. This is called advertising, and it is what persuades you to buy corn flakes rather than sugar pops. In the case of guns and the concomitant violence, this is also commonly referred to as the elephant in the room: An extremely large beast that takes up a lot of space, poops on the floor, bellows, trumpets, destroys the furniture and the home entertainment system but, we all like to pretend, doesn’t really exist.

Let’s belabor the obvious. In 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and crime, 67 percent of all homicides in the U.S. were conducted using a firearm. According to the FBI, in 2012, there were 8,855 total firearm-related homicides in the US, with 6,371 of those attributed to handguns. The weapon used by Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, was a Glock 41 .45 caliber handgun that he purchased in spite of being convicted of a narcotic offense. The latter should have prevented him from buying anything more powerful than a Daisy air rifle. But there was an administrative error in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and so, to misquote Dalton Trumbo, Dylan got his gun.

The NRA, in one of those truly amazing turn-arounds, blamed the shooting on one of Roof’s victims. According to the International Business Times, Charles Cotton, an NRA board member, said that Clementa Pinckney, the pastor killed during the shooting, caused his own death because of his stance on state gun laws.  Pinckney was a state senator who pushed for tougher gun regulations in South Carolina.  

The outrage caused by the shooting led the usual great diversion. Much to the NRA’s relief the Confederate flag took a hit for the team. The gun lobby dodged a bullet—pardon the expression—as across the nation, the flag was lowered. I wonder though, with the flag gone, what will be blamed next?

Personally, I’m vastly relieved. Ridding ourselves of the Confederate flag is sure to solve the problems engendered by racism, white supremacy, gun violence, crazy people buying firearms, druggies buying firearms, drug dealers buying firearms, and avowed racists buying firearms.


Really, I feel so much better now!



Monday, July 6, 2015


Collectives are wonderfully named and never fail to bring a smile.

My friend Alex Tolstoy (yes, that is her name; yes, she is a distant relative of Tolstoy, and she’s a wondrous painter whose works have been shown nationally and can be seen at ) sent me this. I couldn’t help but add a few. 

These are aptly named:

a shrewdness of apes

a sounder of boars

a pounce of cats

a peep of chickens

a paddling of ducks

a memory of elephants

a bloat of hippopotamuses

a cackle of hyenas

a scold of jays

a leap of leopards

a mischief of mice

an ostentation of peacocks

an unkindness of ravens

a scurry of squirrels

a wisdom of wombats

a murder of crows

a crash or rhinoceroses


Here are some that SHOULD be real:


a muddle of confused people

a harrumph of malcontents

a galoot of idiots

a babble of acousticians

a coot of codgers

an appeal of onions

a cloud of depressives

a pocket of kleptomaniacs

a confusion of bipolars

a clutch of purse snatchers

a giggle of girls

a sack of quarterbacks

an ascent of stairs

a cloud of smokers

a howl of hounds

a riot of comedians

a stripe of tigers

an amity of friends

a taste of honeys

a roundness of pears

a delusion of addicts

a shiver of ice-cream

a dump of bad tastes

a whine of complainers

a moan of sufferers

a croak of frogs

a troop of trees

a huddle of bananas

a bloom of roses

a flight of 12-steppers

a crunch of apples

a nestle of cherries

a palette of painters

a trip of dopers

a chord of guitarists

a hoot of Annies

an orbit of eccentrics  

a sniffle of allergies


Do you have a favorite that’s not listed?


Saturday, July 4, 2015

Vive le 4th

July 4th, like a lot of long summer weekends, always makes me feel like everyone is out of town, or sort of like being stuck on campus during the Christmas holidays. So for the past couple of years, if the spirit moves me, I go and watch a parade.

Last year, I stayed  in my bedroom community in Northern Virginia. There was small town parade there, with Latin American dance groups, Shriners in those ridiculous small cars, a few karate kids in gees doing martial arts katas, and my personal favorite, the Falun Gong ladies beating on small drums and sweltering in bright yellow Dacron pants and tunics. They follow a shiny pick-up truck with giant speakers blaring strange music and their smiles never falter, and they have really good teeth. The local bicycle shop employees ride all sort of two-wheelers, our  State Congressman waves from the back of a classic convertible, and even the county trash truck gets a turn. The driver throws candy to the kids and gets a huge cheer, much greater than the local politician.

This year, a friend and I went to downtown Washington, D.C. I’d invited a couple of other people but they didn’t want to deal with the crowds, which, as it turns out, were nonexistent. A morning drizzle kept the viewers away and cleared up before the parade started.

Here’s what I saw: The Lone Ranger, mounted on his horse Silver. Tonto was not invited, apparently. I did learn something—it’s not Hi Ho Silver, Away!  It’s Hi Yo Silver, which frankly sounds a little inner city, but maybe the masked man was ahead of his time. It turn out there’s quite an online debate on this subject, which only goes to show some people have too much times on their hands.

There were a bunch of red, white and blue silvery spangly floats that had no identification at all. One had four rather aged lady singing Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy and I thought they might be channeling The Andrews Sisters, and doing a bang-up job of it, too.  There were large balloon characters floating overhead and held by dozens of people—I was particularly struck by what I thought was a giant chicken with an Uncle Sam hat, but I was told later it was an eagle.  I don’t know what the dinosaur symbolized, or the exceedingly strange 25-foot-tall Buddy Holly, whose slowly deflating Fender Strat caused a lady next to me to hum, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which I thought was brilliantly à propos. I particularly liked a decked out and lowered SUV driven by two guys I’m pretty sure were Mara Salvatrucha gang members, but it turned out they were representing the Silver Brook Elementary School.

When I was a little kid in France, my dad used to take me to the Champs Élysées on Bastille Day, and we’d see France’s military might displayed—thousands of soldier marched by; the scariest ones were the French Foreign Legion, whose members were bearded, unsmiling, and wore leather aprons. They carried no firearms but wielded axes.

The parade here was largely military-free, though there was a color guard and a truck full of Civil War Buffalo Soldiers. There were a lot of bagpipes. There were also a number of high school marching bands with high-stepping drum majors and flag twirling cuties in flesh-colored leotards. I am absolutely certain that the three front rows of a band from Kansas was playing Oh Susana  while the last four rows were playing Sweet Caroline. No one noticed except me and a woman who winced and told me she taught music in Albuquerque.

There was a contingents of turbaned Sikhs; a float of sweating Chinese (I know because they had a banner that read something-something-something Chinese-American) pounding giant drums; Irish cloggers; big wheel bikes; lots of men in kilts; a couple of women in kilts, too, handing out bottles of water to the men in kilts; and some totally charming Vietnamese women doing a dance with their conical hats.

Three out of five spectators were not looking at the parade, being too busy texting.

Lots of people were taking selfies.

I sort of missed the Shriners and their little cars and wished for an appearance by the French Foreign Legion, but no such luck.