Saturday, June 29, 2013

They're gettin' hitched in California

Friends in San Francisco who wasted no time in taking advantage of California's new freedom to marry.

Congratulations to the both of them - and to all the others that have been clogging up the City Halls around California this week and in the weeks to come!  

Harvey Milk couldn't be happier.

. . . countdown to August first here in Rhode Island . . .

. . . and about friggin' time . . .

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"It's fine" and the Language of Olds

For years now, if we offer the boys something and they decline, they'll say, "It's fine."

"Do you want some more smoothie?"
"It's fine."

And every time we say:
"What's that mean - 'it's fine'?"
"No, it's fine, I don't want any smoothie right now."

But we don't break them of the phrase, and I asked Monica, who's off running around the lakes and hiking trails with kids all summer, whether other kids do that.  "All the time," she says, "and I'm always like, I don't know what you mean, 'It's fine.'"

So this is what it's like to be old and annoyed by the language choices of the young.  We baffled and bothered our elders with our own innovations -- replacing "say" with "is like" for example.  So what goes around comes around.  Ah well.  

Nico listening to an old person

Monday, June 24, 2013

Working on the Long Descent

Ed at Gin and Tacos, lambasts the stupidity of a Price Waterhouse study that criticizes "Gen Xers" for not getting with the program.

Tsk-tsking at the younger generations manages to magnificently miss the point.  This is what economic contraction looks like.  But no one wants to even imagine what the end of economic growth means, so we keep pretending to each new generation that they can have it as good or better than earlier generations.  If that's not working out, then there must be some mysterious flaw in them or their strategies.  They're not working or they're complacent or they're not as assertive as the union-members of the past.

But the contraction's been going on a long time and it's been working it's way up the through society, like water dissolving a pyramid of sugar.  It's reached people, who did what they were supposed to and got an education, who worked and sacrificed for careers, who even saved and invested - and who are much worse off than they'd expected to be.  And it's moving up past them - removing the possibility of the old imagined success even further away.  (Years ago someone like Ed might look around his milieu and see some people succeeding and some failing - but now he looks around and he sees no one who has built the kind of career they'd been lured on with.)

The powers that be keep printing money and flinging it onto the top of the pyramid, but it doesn't do anything there really.  It's not being invested in anything but financial tricks, because people down the pyramid not only don't have money to spend on some new product, but they are being idled and underused in an economy that doesn't know what to do with workers other than employ them to provide crappier and crappier services to one another at narrower and narrower margins.

Increasing income inequality may be speeding the spread of contraction, but I don't believe it's the cause.  It's the powerful trying to hold onto their privileges as the proverbial pie shrinks.  (We should push back or course . . . )

This is the second time already this week, I'll try to imagine advice I'd give, but I'm  getting restless with critique.  After all, I have a fifteen year old son, and what will I tell him?

Learn to do something that even people without much money will pay for.   Don't count on a wage to meet your every need.   If you don't have a family network to invest in and draw from, try to find a way to put roots into a social network.  Know that the older generation doesn't understand the economic world we live in even though they will judge you as if they do.  Take advice (like this) with a grain of salt and look around.   Find the things that you value - especially those things within your means.  Again, see what you can do with your hands and brain that people will value.

There's more I could say, but a 15-year old will only stand still for so much advice.

What would you say to a person setting out?

Sunday, June 23, 2013



In the pre-dawn I was awakened by a snort from the young buck that's been haunting the yard.  But I lay in bed for a moment listening, because a whip-poor-will was calling out from the woods.

whip-poor-will -- whip-poor-will -- whip-poor-will -- whip-poor-will -- whip-poor-will 

It's a call I haven't heard since dimly-remembered childhood.  I put on sandals and walked into the wet grass glancing up to see if the great perigee moon was still out.  It wasn't, and there was no sign of the deer either.  It might have been watching me from the shadows.  The bird continued its clear, insistent call.

whip-poor-will -- whip-poor-will -- whip-poor-will -- whip-poor-will -- whip-poor-will

I walked to the edge of my garden and peed in the tall grass - as an affront to the buck - then walked back inside and crept into bed.  I listened. The whip-poor-will eventually fell silent and there was a time of silence before the dawn chorus began.

Getting your news despite the news media

I rarely listen to the mainstream news, because it is riddled with so many assumptions and unspoken claims that I vehemently disagree with.  Reporting on government is all about politicians jockeying for advantage rather than about actual governance or the systemic corruption that has mostly replaced democracy.  Reporting on the environment thoroughly ghettoizes any talk of sustainability away from all the things that we are supposed to value.  Economic reporting deals almost entirely with the concerns of the rentier class - stocks, investments, the "creation" of jobs and so on.

It's not accidental, of course.  We have a mass media completely in the hands of enormous corporations, which are mostly funded by delivering eyeballs to the advertising of other large corporations, overseen by a regulatory system that is nominally in the public interest, but co-opted at every level by corporate influence.

When was the last time you watched the news and saw information on how to form a union - or found out about other ways that employees were successfully insisting on things that suited their interests?  How about the idea that avoiding catastrophic climate change almost certainly means leaving fossil fuels in the ground and ratcheting back on the culture of consumption?  As for the political system, the media will deplore the state of our democracy, but only in ways that encourage people to double down on the constricted channels of present-day partisanship or else disengage entirely.

If an anti-consumerism were to germinate (whether rooted in environmental sustainability, Christian anti-materialism, or some other rejection of our deeply unsatisfying culture), how could it possibly thrive in a media environment that is entirely built upon delivering consumers to businesses?

The solutions?

Pay for the product (rather than being the product).  I chip in $15 a month for the New York Times for straight national and international news.   Reading the products produced at the NYT, the Guardian, and the Independent will keep one up to date on most of the major events.

Support publicly funded media as an alternative.  The effort by politicians to push PBS and NPR out of the public interest model and into the corporate advertising business model has been mostly successful.  But there is still potential to re-claim that portion of the mediascape as our own.

If you are really motivated to understand what is going on around you, get your news from non-corporate sources.  The blogosphere may be a raggedy crazy quilt of information, but it's also richer and more self-correcting than the main media sources.  Grist and Think Progress do excellent environmental  and general interest reporting.  For the progressive version of politics and punditry, Balloon Juice, TPM or some of the writers on Daily Kos keep a smart, critical eye on things.  You can find smart, informed, critically-minded people out there on any subject you care about.  Chip in a few bucks when you can.

There's more news out there than I could ever possibly digest or interpret, and it takes some work and practice to navigate.  But until we can actually construct and maintain a media industry that serves us (rather than serving people who don't mean us well) I'll have to do it the hard way.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Deer Alarm

sunflower, stripped by the deer

In the foggy morning, shortly before six I heard a pair of venison outside the window snorting like they owned the place.  

I don't know if a man running at them in bare feet and a blue bathrobe can really strike enough fear into them to keep them away from the plum trees for very long - but I'll do it every morning if I have to.

It's not really such a bad way to shock the body awake -- a pair of cold, dew-wet feet.  Probably healthier than coffee.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Death among the parsnip flowers


Here's a welcome creature nectar-sipping at my parsnip flowers. 
 Trichopoda pennipes, called the feather-legged fly.
Another bane for garden pests.

Drawn in by blossoms of the carrot family, 
she'll stay to hunt the squash bugs.
FInding one unwary, she'll lay an egg or two beneath its plated abdomen.

A hatching larva will burrow in and set to drinking up the tissues of its host.
A happy maggot soon bursts the carapace of the victim bug, 
leaving it to die.

feather-legged fly
But in the meantime, this feather-legged fly had best beware,
Because among the florets lurk those thirsty eight-legged killers.

A spider has snagged an unwary wasp and drinks.

But this gorging huntress had best beware, 
because orange-marked spider wasps
are in the parsnip flowers and they have eggs to lay.

She'll sting a spider with a paralyzing venom, and drag her off down snugly to a burrow,
where she will lay a single egg within the body.  
Sealing off the burrow, she'll fly away to hunt again and drink of flower nectar.

And the grub, hatching in the dark, following its instinct will eat around the crucial organs, 
because the spider, after all, is still alive,
and it wouldn't do to have it die and rot before the wasp is ready to emerge.

But even in that spider flesh, the larval Arachnospila had best beware.
For there are carrot wasps among the parsnip flowers.

A carrot wasp (genus Gasteruption)
She drinks the vanilla'd nectar of the flowers now,
but soon she'll want to lay her eggs.

Needle-like she cannot sting - that spike has other uses.

A wasp or solitary bee has a hidden stash to feed its young - 
perhaps a buried, living, grub-infested spider. 
She finds that stash
and that long spike slides down the burrow and leaves a solitary egg.

Her invading grub may eat that spider and if it can, a burrow-mate as well.

(On what basis do you expect to find this universe in the hands of a 
benevolent god?)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Valerian weed

From the start of our time here, I'd noticed a pretty weed in a couple of spots around the yard.  The glossy, but unfamiliar green leaves made me think that it was probably an ornamental.  Given the chance, deer would chomp off the flower heads, which made me suspect maybe it was a native plant.  But lately I'd also noticed that it was starting to spread, so I enlisted my sister (who's good with wildflowers) to identify it for me in case it was some invasive that I'd regret allowing to get established.  

It turned out to be Valerian - one of the great herbs of the ancients.

By the time of Hippocrates it was already well known as a cure for insomnia and depression - a status that modern science has validated in its turn.  The foul smelling root is dried, ground and made into infusions -- (or in modern times placed into less-foul-smelling capsules).

It's also valued by gardeners as a source of phosphorous for the compost heap, since the plant draws up and concentrates the mineral in its tissues.

I may dig up and dry some roots as a way of getting my herbal apothecary's toolkit underway once again - (if only to see if it's as bad smelling as reputed).  We used to keep a medicine cabinet of herbs when we lived in San Diego, but got out of the habit when we moved away.  And I guess I'll also make a point of throwing the leaves and stems into the compost along with all the nitrogen-rich vetch the garden's been generating.  I'm sure the garden soil can use the help.

longhorn beetle on valerian flower

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Mournful Thyris


Here's a pretty little moth.  

A Mournful Thyris (Pseudothyris sepulchralis) resting on a milkweed leaf.  

One of it's host plants is clematis, 

so I can thank the neighbors for this one.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Eat your Weeds!

Lamb's quarter, ready for eating, stems and all
Many of my garden weeds have no redeeming characteristics that I'm aware of, particularly the grass and the sedge.  I suppose the vetch is a good nitrogen fixer, but it aggressively smothers all in its path.  I've heard chickweed is edible, but haven't made a study of it yet.  Wood sorrel is nice for the occasional nibble, though not in the quantities that spring up upon every inch of soil here.

But among my weeds are some true gems that I've been actively encouraging - namely the purslane, lamb's quarter and sheep sorrel.

Michael Pollan once called purslane and lamb's quarter "the two most nutritious plants in the world." Purslane is a creeping succulent weed that adds crunch and a hearty flavor to salads.  Sorrel adds a lemony tang as well as vitamins to salads, soups or stir fries.  

Yesterday I had to thin and weed the beets, so at dinner we had lamb's quarter and beet greens sautéed with a little garlic and sorrel.  

Blades of sheep sorrel
Curly dock with pokeweed behind
Personally, I think lambs quarter outclasses any other green.  As a child the only greens I would eat where lamb's quarter and its cousin, a wild amaranth we called red root.  They are both mild, but hearty.  Throw in some mustard leaves for heat.

I also have curly dock and pokeweed, though not in the garden.  Both are too mature now, the dock too bitter and the poke downright poisonous.  But I make note of where they are because in march, their early leaves are the first salad of the year.  I still haven't tried the poke, but the dock was a mild, tender leaf more delicate than lettuce.  Mixed with some early dandelion leaves (which I find bitter) it's delicious.  I can only imagine how delicious it must have been to people who'd had no access to fresh greens through months of winter.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Horsehair worm

From the puddle on the cats' drinking stone, I pulled out a maple helicopter and little bit of string - like a piece of silk from an ear of corn.

As the string began to writhe and knot itself I saw that it was a horsehair or gordian worm, (named for its likeness to Alexander's famous knot). 

There are over 300 species of these parasites that grow inside the bodies of crickets and grasshoppers and other insects.  As they mature within as a larger and larger knot, the insect gets thirstier and water-obsessed until zombie-like, it is ready to drown itself in a body of water.  And when it does, the knot unwinds and an aquatic horsehair worm bores its way out.

They're harmless to pets and humans, though I knew perfectly well Monica wasn't going to allow me to put this one back in the cat's drink.  I hadn't the heart to dump the creature in the grass, so I put it into the rain barrel.  Maybe it will find a mate and if I water the garden with the million eggs of grasshopper-zombifiying gordian nightmare worms so much the better.  I prefer my garden to be a predator-infested hellscape for my arthropod pests.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Inequality, Toilet Paper and Hungary behind the Iron Curtain

For a long time in our work we've been researching and crafting strategic communication about policies to reduce economic inequality.  It is never easy because most Americans viscerally dislike the idea.

Recently, I was reminded of a run-in I had in the East Bloc nearly 30 years ago.  It was the summer of 1985 and I was bicycling around central Hungary with my friend Melissa.  This was at that time still well behind the Iron Curtain.  For most people outside of Budapest, we were the first Americans they'd ever encountered.  On one hot afternoon we had stopped in a little town upon the central plains to forage for food in a local, poorly-stocked bakery.  I went to use a public restroom nearby.  There was a stocky, gray matron in the dingy foyer who took a few forints from you and gave you four squares of toilet paper.

The few flimsy squares hardly seemed adequate.  Since there wasn't much to buy in rural Hungary, and our Deutschmarks had bought plenty of the local currency, I held out some coins gesturing for more paper.  ( I knew a half dozen words of Hungarian, none of which availed me here.)   Her formerly blank gaze flickered with annoyance and she shook her head.  I held out more coins, and she grew visibly upset, quivering with anger.  She wouldn't have anything more to do with me, so I continued in toward the toilets with my four squares of paper.

It was only much later that I understood this collision of world-views.  Toilet paper, like everything else, was in short supply in mid-eighties Hungary.  According to the socialist ethos, each person deserved an allotment of what did exist.  I had naively walked into that foyer with an attitude that I deserved to have more - triple or quadruple my allotment even - because I had money.  This was as obvious and self-evident to me as it was disgusting anathema to her.  Clearly, in her view I didn't deserve any elevation of privilege just because I had pockets full of Deutschmarks.

Her attitudes toward equality and privilege were fairly common in an older generation who had seen the Communists knock down old structures of class and oppression and bring a kind of rough equality that - however imperfect, hypocritical and self-serving - did actually improve the lives of many Soviet bloc citizens, especially women, workers and rural people.

It was a perspective lost to the younger generations already even thirty years ago, who saw socialist virtues made mockery by the gross corruption of their elites and the conspicuous wealth of the capitalist West. And it is a perspective that simply cannot be part of public communications here in the US.  Nearly all Americans are hostile to ideas of economic equality.  On the contrary, the Economy - like God - is supposed to be one of the great arbiters of merit and success.  The economy "works" when inequality is distributed in just and proper ways - when people get what they deserve.  The lazy poor suffer the edifying lash of deprivation; the hard-workers apply themselves to move on up within the American dream; that genius who builds a better smartphone makes her millions.

The fact that our Economy generally doesn't work that way - the lazy and corrupt prosper, while hard work goes unrewarded - is certainly outrageous to people.  But to the confusion of many advocates for greater equality, the terrible and persistent injustices that are inherent to our system don't mean that people think there should be less inequality - just that inequality should be more appropriately distributed.

I doubt very much that my old washroom attendant ever got on board with that.  I wonder what her grandchildren, if she had any, made of it.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Paddling the Pawcatuck river

My sister came by for a visit after a week of camping in Maine.

We spent an afternoon paddling on the Pawcatuck river 

which runs through the woods and marshes behind our house.

We saw herons and turtles and water snakes.

And a couple of beaver kits that were swimming near their lodge.

(Here's Porter after he swamped his kayak squabbling with Nico.)