MUSINGS (just a year's worth here)

I'm one of those stunned and dismayed voters who feels compelled to act out and speak out on issues that are sure to be contentious in the 2017 incoming administration. To that end I've joined up with a group of locals advocating for people to speak, rally, march, research, discuss, and volunteer in ways that feed their hearts and create what we think is a better community. It feels good to not be members of a silent majority who disagree with the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The country has been on this roller coaster ride for a year+ and I'm pretty sure there's so much more to come. No matter your bent, let us all resolve to maintain civility, even as we stand our ground, speak animatedly, and shed our angry tears in private. Let us rise above hatred, bigotry, and poor leadership. Let us act.

Nevada voters have a gun safety measure on the ballot this November. It’s basically about closing the loopholes for gun sales, but seems to include provisions for limiting access by convicted domestic violence offenders and mentally unstable individuals. The subject has been in the local paper lately, with Nevada’s pro-regulation contingent guided by Brady bill organizers and funded with N.Y. money. It’s a response to what seems to be no end to the public slaughtering of others by disaffected, deranged, or religiously mad gunmen. I offer an anecdote based on recollections from my workplace of thirty years ago.

I once had a co-worker, a passive-aggressive sort who “collected” guns. Long guns, hand guns, and he once mentioned an automatic weapon. I thought at the time that announcing purchases of guns may have represented a type of peacock-y behavior because the men in that department seemed to respond with appreciation for the subject.  At the same time I wondered whether he thought himself more attractive to the single women who worked there. Or was talk about the newest gun purchase meant as a threat to those he didn’t like (me, for instance)? The threat seemed rather ephemeral because I never saw this person outside of work and didn’t think I deserved being targeted for whatever it was about me that seemed to sometimes set him off (was I too smart, too assertive, too single?). He may have been unhappily married or hated somen. I never figured it out and when I eventually moved on to other kinds of work I was glad not to have such a co-worker. As far as I know the man never murdered his family or neighbors or instigated a standoff at a federal institution, so maybe he was simply a collector of more guns than he could possibly fire at one time. And perhaps he worried that the Feds would send their black helicopters to take over Nevada. I don’t think, though, that the Feds are who we ought to worry about. I think it’s the folks who hold arsenals and conspiracy theories in their minds; and those who are certifiably mentally unstable; and random angry people (perhaps radicals, perhaps passive-aggressive types) who can purchase guns on short notice to take their anger or disillusioned righteousness out on the world’s innocent citizens. We need to stop arming unstable people. Nevada’s Question 1 gets my yes vote.

With all the violence taking place around our country and the world lately, it seems natural to imagine that humans are more prone to violence than other creatures. But just this last week I watched as a pair of robins chased a Cooper's hawk overhead while a small, plaintive cry came from the hawk's claws. The robins called at the tops of their voices with what I imagined were cries of despair. Did they sense they'd never catch that hawk and would fail to retrieve their youngster from a hungry someone who was larger? They themselves would live on to feed their other young and produce more eggs another time, but at that moment, nature seemed both violent and, well, natural. A hawk's gotta eat. And a week before that I witnessed a scrub jay glide on silent wings across our yard to land on something in the rocks that gave a squeak. Sure enough, a jay is a stealthy predator. It wrestled with the mouse a bit, tumbling into some nearby shrubs. Out the other end it came, mouse still in its grip. Then it flew away with its victim, presumably to feed its young. So it seems that humans, who use automatic weapons, bombs, chemical weapons, and various forms of mayhem and terror, have violence in common with animals and other creatures. We're not so evolved, except in our choices, and how we have perfected the art of producing killing marchines. Also violence for violence's sake, to make a point or gain notariety. Perhaps like the great apes might, to posture for dominion over the group. Seems to me that the hawks and jays and great apes won't destroy their own species in the process of living. Humans have shown that they might. What a shame.

She's been persistent, our new robin friend, coming 'round most days to work on a precarious and doomed nesting site atop the yard lights just outside the door to our deck. First, though, she taps on a window and peers in. She might choose the family room or dining room. I've observed her on the outside ledge of a bedroom window in the lee of an apricot tree, gazing in. It seems to me she wants in. Either that, or she spies a reflection of trees and sky, and perhaps the ghosted version of a female robin whom she intends to run out of town. From inside, her beak on the window makes a hollow, echoey sound. A forlorn sound, I imagine (though I'm given to imaginings).

Her choice of nesting sites was doomed, the lights too offset to hold the grassy threads and twigs she tried to drape there. She was persistent (probably new at the job). Naturally, I tried adding some wire supports to her chosen post, the better for her to build upon. But no. My efforts scared her away. She gave up bringing twigs but came back to the redbrick sill of the family room window, to tap and jump up with wings aflutter, with moves not unlike some circus act.

I hope she keeps coming 'round. Everyone needs a rusty red acrobatic friend.

"When Breath Becomes Air" is a moving memoir written by a young neurosurgeon in the last year or so of his life. His cancer was particularly deadly, and because he'd studied the brain and nervous system and also the nature of what makes a life worth living and also the elements of dying, he felt particularly close to the process. He writes eloquently about his education and the patients it brought him into contact with, patients he learned to take responsibility for, not just treat. Meaning he didn't just doctor their brain tumors or reconstruct their broken bits, but he also cared about what they were experiencing, their fears, their hopes. He honored their lives and their deaths. The memoir makes him sound like someone to know.

So the story has me thinking about the journey my family and I are on with an elder whose health is a conundrum. Is she sicker than she looks? She often acts unwell, reports feeling pain and fatigue and we've only found one doctor so far who has looked in-depth at signs that her body's systems may not be in balance. She resists knowing news about her health or signs it might need attention, and decries one doctor as being prescription-happy (which I have not observed). It seems to me that this elder is regressing to a childlike state regarding certain subjects that she finds distasteful. It's as if someone gave her chores to do, or assigned her more homework and her response is to plug her ears and murmur nah-nah-nah-nah. I am wondering how to channel Paul Kalanithi (above mentioned author) and his respect for patients who resented the bad news he delivered, or else resisted treatment of their diseases or injuries. Did he tend to their medical needs even when they pretended to better health than was the truth? Could he have weathered that sort of perspective in his own family? Is doing so a form of acceptance, and can someone like me master it too? 

I've been reading "Mother Earth News," a magazine dedicated to sustainable living, meaning ways to live off the land. Now that I think of it, city living could be sustainable in various ways, but most city people don't grow their own food. We, for instance, have a small garden plot on the south side of our house. Were we to forsake flowering shrubs and a couple of monster-sized shade trees, we could plant even more than the tomatoes, summer squash, and winter squash we specialize in. I grow scallions, too, and a couple of sad asparagus plants that haven't seen enough summers to grow stems larger than fat threads. Some day they'll fatten up, I'm counting on it.

The thing about the magazine's how-to advice and its profiles of folks who have built their homes and gardens, (in many cases off the grid) is that I'm attracted to the processes it explains. When I was younger I fancied how I could have been a pioneer woman, ranching and farming and riding horses, toting water from the well, that sort of thing. Was that unadulterated romanticism? Sure was. As a city girl I had no possible notion of how physically demanding that sort of life would have been. Dangerous, too, in many ways, and riddled with disease. Having visited metropolises like NYC and London in the years since, I've also come to recognize that I'm adaptable to a large-city lifestyle. I could thrive in NYC or London, if I needed to. Admittedly, that doesn't sound as attractive as it once did, but I could. I'd revel in the galleries and museums and music clubs. The city fashions and the swirl of humanity. But when I dream of a different life, it's not the big city that comes to mind. It's the countryside, with zero air pollution and plenty of home-grown vegetables, a few fruit trees and a chicken coop. Maybe that's a young person's life, sustainable country living, as you'd have to be strong enough to chop wood and pluck chickens, milk the cow, that sort of thing, so maybe I'm past my sell-date for all that. Something in between, though, a smaller town with a larger relationship to nature. That still sets my days a'dreaming. 

In a general interest magazine for the older set I came across an article that posited how social media postings might some day constitute the memories of a particular person, or family, or era. No need to leave love letters for future generations to peruse, or to pass photo albums down to the grandkids; Facebook and Twitter posts will last virtually forever and encapsulate glimpses of those previous times. That, of course, suggests that at some future point a niece of mine might want to revisit all the drinking pictures she's posted, or her references to friends who turned out to be unfaithful. 

I can imagine the photos of beach scenes and ballgames triggering happy memories at some future point. Or the photos of our towheaded nephew. Those would be worth saving. Presumably they're also on the next gen's phones, although there they might vie for an inch of space and attention among the hundreds or thousands that get snapped in a single year, let alone throughout multiple years. The eternal lifespan of social media posts might require that in five years' time, the old stuff lies languishing in the blinking-light brain of a server designed not to crash from the weight of all the posts of all the people who post drinking photos and artful repasts and girls in S.F. Giants hats. If the servers somehow overloaded, or blew away with rooftops during a tornado, or turned mutinous at last because of being used but never properly respected... perhaps people's brains would have to resume recalling the important bits (which might not turn out to include all those sweating glasses of beer).

That article I read went on to mention some brain science that's looking into the unlocking of memory/memories, the notion being that if a brain could be preserved just so (presumably outside its original body), future tinkerers might unlock that brain's memories, and therefore its cognition. I'm not sure about that last part; I include it because it seems to fit. I remember therefore I am, or some such.

My mother sounds like Donald Trump. This month we moved my mother into our home. One of the many challenges we now face is that she speaks her mind a lot like the Big D. You know--open mouth, say whatever strikes you. You might be insulting someone. You might be angry that your daughter (that's me) has suggested it's time for a shower and hair scrub. You might be afraid that your grown son hasn't checked in with you in a couple of days and he's been over in California getting some medical appointments satisfied and that means driving on the highway and being out of your grasp. There's a reason for my mother's lapses in civil discourse--she has dementia and has experienced a stroke this year. When the brain loses blood flow (and therefore oxygen), it loses certain functions, one being the filter that keeps people communicating civilly. I've seen her MRI results and the diagnosis provided with her dopler carotid artery scan. I know she's regressing, returning to a child's sensibilities in some ways, acting pissy when frustrated over losing her purse in her bedroom drawer. Not being able to open a can of soda. Having trouble with the TV remote. Resorting to sarcasm when she doesn't get her way. Numbers fail to make sense, she has difficulty with the cycles of night and day and exhibits some paranoia. She's sure she's in charge and capable when she is not any longer in charge, and not very capable. She has a brain disease, which explains what's up with her. I get that part. What I'm trying to figure out is how come those same characteristics apply to The Donald.

Such a wordfight over the issue of fetal tissue donated by female clients of Planned Parenthood. Semantics, some of it, and always the political play on people's emotions instead of their intellect. An unfortunate turn of events (as Lemony S might say) because where would the health of humanity lie were it not for animals and people playing a role in medical research. I, for one, appreciate the research on Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other maladies that benefit from human tissue donations. What difference does it make if it's fetal tissue or my grandmother's body donated to science? Lets get real. Do we want progress, or not? I sure do. I'd like to think that while I contribute mostly tax dollars to cancer and other types of research, I may someday benefit from progress being made today through contributions by others, large and small. And while we're getting real--but unreal, because this will happen when I am queen: Each family or couple who protests against women's rights regarding abortion should/shall sign up for the 8-12 week foster care training, with concentration on staying sober and clean. They'll bring their homes up to foster code and perhaps train to parent special needs children. They'll each foster a child with the intent to adopt. When each has adopted a needy child or sibling group, thereby reducing the number of children languishing in foster care, THEN they may vote to limit a woman's right to choose whether or not to bear a child. Only then.

I usually root for people, but lately I've been rooting for a quail hen that is sitting on a nest of eggs in our front yard. The first evidence of her efforts was when our German shorthair hunting dog fetched an egg from behind that shrub and presented it to my husband, who thanked the dog and put it back. We weren't sure if such an intrusion, even while she was away, would scare her off her nest or not. The next day there were two eggs. A few days later there were more. Eventually I counted 12. The hen went out foraging during the daytime and came back to her nest at night. She had a terrific location for such comings and goings because the morning sun would warm the nest and the brick seatwall behind it. Being only human (and not sure how this making-quail stuff is supposed to work) I put a shallow dish of water in the garden where she could pop out for a drink now and then. That was the mama in me trying to protect her. Each evening I pour some fresh water into it, which from her vantage point probably looks like a waterfall turning on and off. Here's my current concern: It's been about three weeks and she's still sitting. Sometimes during the day too. And no chicks have appeared yet. I don't know enough about whether she may have misjudged her daydime gadabouts or if it just takes a long time to hatch those peepers. Consequently, we're all waiting. The one little mama and the humans who keep watching.

A documentary on sage hens came on PBS while I was tending to my mother's health in May. We watched it together and I couldn't help thinking how her new neighbors reminded me of the courtship displays of these big high desert birds. The people next door are young-ish, twenties maybe, and like so many their age, they call to each other in shouts, and when they party around a fire pit on weekends, they are the loudest thing in the night. The snapping fire and beery laughter carry far and wide. There are local teenagers too, walking home from school in the alley that runs between the backyards of houses in that neighborhood. Within pinching distance of each other they still speak in near-shouts. F--cking blank blank, and What the F--ck? It's the guys making most of the noise around the fire next door but the school kids are egalitarian swearers. Sage hen males do likewise, expanding their neck pouches to warble for a mate. They're young--the neighbors and the sage hens--as they preen and strut about. We did it too when we were young. Not the F bombs (though guys swore among themselves) but the preening and wild laughter and sideways glances to make sure others noticed. We're not so unlike other "lesser" creatures on this earth. Showoffs all.

I've been reading "Freakonomics," a non-fiction book that lines out the economic consequences of certain human behaviors and choices, and the likely reasons why such behaviors occur. It all seems to boil down to self-interest. No surprises there. Something about the economics perspective (its emphasis on who benefits from certain types of behavior) puts me in mind of human evolution having developed from random mutations. I love the reasoning behind that process, that small mutations in relatively similar strings of DNA result in considerable differences in species over time. And then too I've been recently reading about and watching documentary material about dark matter and dark energy. Also what the images sent back by the Hubble Space Telescope have revealed to the space scientists and physicists and all. Somewhere in all that mix, perhaps incited by how strange my last couple of months have been family-wise, I am beginning to wonder if humans as organisms endemic to Earth, might not themselves represent mutations to Earth's evolution. Mutations that will inevitably alter the functioning, appearance, and viability of Earth (as an organism of the universe). We think we're tops, but really, maybe we're just mutations in a planet's lifespan. Not all mutations result in happy endings. 

When your 80-year old mother answers the door with her sweater on inside-out and backwards, you can be pretty certain that something is wrong. You thought things sounded screwy when you heard that the city police and EMTs had performed a welfare check and she had refused to go to be transported to the local ER. She had been dressed oddly then too, but convincingly lucid, which means they wouldn't force her to go with them. Adults who are not at imminent risk of death and who can communicate their desires are simply not forced into emergency health care against their wishes. A separate curious clue was that she spoke for three hours straight with her eldest son. The kind policeman had dialed the phone because she couldn't see the keypad. The two of them visited from 3:30 - 6:30 a.m. and during that long and rambling conversation she described having taken a fall a few days prior. At home, in the kitche, and her head had been "on a stick" the way it wonked to one side.

Thus begins the new phase of our lives as grown children with a parent who has experienced a stroke but not sought emergency care. The hours and days fill to to overflowing with crying jags, arguments and a stumbling gait. Vision impairment, confusion, cognitive dissonance, accusations. Gratitude, fear, sleep disruptions, dizzy spells, brain scans, emotional outbreaks. All the questions that do find answers seem to also beget yet more questions. Consequently, she, we, I, they have buckets full of concerns and a thimble's worth of answers. This is the next phase.

Just under 365 shopping days to Valentine's Day ~
Phew. That's over with. The hooplah over people needing to buy stuff for each other to prove they care. It's been a boon to the retailers, for sure. Diamonds, flowers, chocolates, dinners, champagne, weekend getaways, new car anyone? I'll admit, I've grown cynical about most of the "holidays" hyped to Americans that a majority seem to fall for. Do I want to be treated a little special sometimes? Sure. Do I want to treat others whom I care about a little special somtimes? Yes indeed. Is once a year on a specified date the best way to express caring to those who are important to me? I think not. I'd rather be remembered with a thoughtful message or treat at any time of the year when it suits the person doing the remembering. I'd rather be kind regularly to those I'm close to, and kind randomly to those I see occasionally, and have those kindnesses be a surprise instead of something that fulfills the expectations shaped by the vast American marketing machine. I'm happier with the gift of a pretty rock, hawk feather, or bird nest brought back by my husband from a hike on a random Tuesday than a diamond necklace on Valentine's Day. The feather means he thought of me on Tuesday, during his hike, which was meant to be all about him. And he recalled how delighted I am with all natural wonders and the many small ways we express our love and respect for each other, and he made the effort to share a symbol of his outing with me. That's a sweetheart in my book.

Feb 2015 ~
At last, Superbowl madness is over and it got me to thinking about how rabid sports fans can be. Very like the ancient crowds of the storied Roman Colliseum as gladiators fought (to the death, sometimes), or when Rome's criminals battled tigers. Entertainment and sport and violence in one package. Humans are a violent species. Not that other species aren't. Chimpanzees for instance. It makes me wonder if our close genetic links to other mammals leave within us the markings for battles of survival. Kill or be killed. Is that what gets fans so het up about big men, athletes for sure, smashing into one another? A type of blood thirst or desire to witness those condemned to acquit themselves in battle? Though it seems to be a pursuit to aspire to. But I believe the emerging evidence that football dooms many of its participants to a future of shrunken mental abilities. They become shadows of themselves. The same effect may have killed victorious gladiators in Roman times. At least ancient adversaries didn't live long enough to endure decades of diminished capacity. How far we've advanced since those days.

Almost 2015 ~
A preditor's job is hard. Take the Cooper's hawk sitting today in our apricot tree while plucking its prey. Every meal is slow food. First comes the relentless patrol to catch some fellow creature unawares, then the execution, which must be spot-on, else hunger remains. No eating on the fly; a proper perch is a must. Before the feast commences the meal must be cleaned of feathers and down, in this case by a hundred dips of a slate gray head. Really, how much meat does a starling afford, or a sparrow? Enough to forego another hunt for a day and a night? The feathers floating across the yard at first resembled snowflakes (which we've been waiting for), but too large and fluffy to be correct. This is how I knew that one of those handsome, dashing hunters had made a kill -- when feathers fall instead of ice crystals, a preditor is hard at work.

December ~
Birders will recognize this, how fascination with watching creatures in their habitat takes over a morning. I suppose hunters do this too, my husband for instance, who for hours will watch the sky go by while reclined in his duck boat. He wants ducks to come in to his decoys, of course, but the grasses and waters, the hawks floating on thermals overhead, and the various duck species coming and going, those are all golden. Yes, he kills them, which I could not. But I understand what's in him, the hunting, the watching. Watchfulness. It's such a part of learning the world beyond skin and bones, but a curiously restive activity, sometimes. I can sit with my chin in my palm for long streches, watching the yard birds as they vie for the seed I've put out for them. One day recently, a house finch, mild of color so a female, I think, seemed tipsy on approach. I have good eyeglasses (spectacles, my eye doc's office calls them) but it took a minute or two to discern that this little bird was missing a foot. With each hop she would touch her tail to the pavers then dip her beak for a bit of seed. One of the others, a male (based on color) jabbed at her and she bounced away, but she kept coming back, working around the periphery of the redder one, who eventually acquiesced. What a lot of work for a few mouthfuls, but she was good at it. I wondered at the time, how does a one-footed bird gain a perch in one of the shrubs at night, safety and shelter found at the intersection of slim branches and evergreen leaves? How does she find water to drink when she can't perch on the rim of a bird bath? Love. Love is not the hard part. Love and sex, they come easy. Survival. That takes work.

October ~
So this is really strange, coming from me. People who know me know that I am a little phobic about spiders (is there such a thing as a little phobic?). That said, the last many years I have been rescuing garden spiders that appear in our house, carrying them in a tissue to the back yard and depositing them into a planter or pot. They have a job to do, which I recognize and even respect, but I don't want them trying to do their job in my house. The desire to keep them out-of-doors, I'm sure, rises up from a fear of them walking on me when I'm asleep. Lest you think me a priss, I have had such a thing happen, which woke me up, and I have also been bitten by a spider while asleep in bed, when in the mountain home of someone I adore. I don't hold any of that against the spiders, nor do I want a repeat. Still, I have befriended a large spider that showed up in our vegetable garden -- a "cat spider," which makes the most beautiful web, symmetrical and glistening, the kind of web you see in nature movies. These type of spiders, though, they're massive, and also colorful. This one has an orangish body, which makes her glow in the light of day. I say "she" though I don't know that she is a she, but it seems gentler somehow to think of her that way. Anyway, she had anchored her web upon a large sunflower stock and anothe point on one of the yard cleanup buckets and so it kept getting torn. At last I cut off the stem that was her refuge (it sported a curled leaf) and carried her to the walking stick tree at one side of the backyard. Soon she had built a new web between that spot and the Virginia creeper climbing the fence. I check on her when I'm in the yard. Though I'd rather she didn't have babies, I like her fine, much better than the black widows and brown widows that populate crevices around these parts. Widow webs look demented and give me the willies. Cat lady is a much better sort. She'll need a warm place for hibernating through winter, but it had better be an outdoor place. That's all I'm I'm saying.

August ~
As it turns out, in July I spent a week on the Oregon coast finishing the first draft of my new novel, tentatively titled "A Prayer for Norma Jeane." Besides the drive from Reno, which can include all manner of scenery and wildlife sightings, the place I was staying was perfect for a birder and observer of sky and sea. Each time I needed to pause from my focus on the computer screen before me, I could glance out the wide windows before me and take in the fog pushing by on the wings of the steady west wind. In the distance, cormorants sat on a downed tree trunk, drying their wings while looking ever so much like distant vampires spreading their capes to the sun. All manner of birdlife flew by or paddled about or vied for the sugar water in the feeder above the front porch. One day, after a long work session, I hied up the adjacent hill for a look off the bluff at the top. Out stretched the great gray-green sea. No wonder early mariners thought there might be an edge to things. An ocean horizon is like no other, vast yet discernable and not easily estimated in miles or knots or measurements vaster, though vaster would be called for. What strikes me deeply in such situations is both how very alive I feel while wrapped in the luster of the larger, natural world and also how very insignificant. Just a speck on the riverbank. I imagine that as a function of country life, the opposite of how a manmade city could fool people into thinking they are at the top of the heap. When I stand in proximity to where a river kisses the sea, or on a bluff with views stretching a hundred miles, it becomes so obvious that when mankind blows itself up, every remaining insect and wild thing will simply go on as if humans had never existed. They don't need us. Nature rules. We do control and affect so much of what we encounter, but few other creatures would blink at our passing. 

Already July ~
And baby, it's hot outside! I've probably bitched about this before, but I don't do well in the heat, unless I'm in airconditioned comfort and looking out at the heat as I shake my head ... uh huh huh, that's enough to melt the rubber off the bottom of your China-made shoes.

I will go out in the heat, though, for money. Specifically, to photograph subjects that occur on hot July days and nights. It's Artown time, and they've got me on their side. It's hard to object when there's music everywhere you look. Dance, too, and children's crafts, and poets reading their work, and musicians talking about songwriting. I keep flashing my Press badge and getting into the venues, and slinging my Rebel around, snap snap. I love the shapes and colors of people and parks and the way the river runs through the middle of town. All fair game.

Soon, though, I'll be headed to the Oregon coast, one of my favorite locales, all those boulders the size of RVs and cliffs that look like they could keep out the rising tides. I used to fancy that I could live on that stretch of coastline but in the years since my first crush on it I've come to the conclusion that 80+ inches of rain per year might create an attitude adjustment in the wrong direction. Oh, it's good for the skin, all right, all that moisture and lush fog and rain. I can feel my epidermis plump up when I come in sight of the first lighthouse, but living there? That would be a whole other thing. I guess I'll just settle for a quick fix now and then. New territory this time. I'll let you know how it goes, and hmm, I wonder if Oregon Magazine would buy a story from me about the ranch I'll be staying on. Guess you know I'll carry my camera and my notebook.

Contact pjoriley ~
The peaceful yard where bird violence takes place.