Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Of robins and wrens

For those of us who enjoy observing nature and the wildlife that inhabits therein are often gifted with graceful and beautiful exhibitions of Mother Nature in process. Maybe it’s a Carolina chickadee flying down to perch on the birdbath dripper, not descending to the pool, but hop-inching toward the opening at the end of the tube where fresh water drips. Let’s get to the good stuff would be a good caption for such a picture.

Or maybe it’s marveling at how columbine, day lilly, and black-eyed susans thrive with such a colorful show in mildly fertilized earth with benefit of just water and sunlight.

Still, if one watches for long, and especially if one celebrates such wonder with the grandkids, some ugly and puzzling lessons are also observed. Ugly is, of course, a subjective judgement, but if one celebrates the miracles of nature with kids, one is left with explaining some of that magic gone horribly awry, or so it would seem.

As written about in a previous blog, back in mid-June I was sitting on the back porch and heard some kind of pinging of something unknown to me. I looked around, but couldn’t identify it. After hearing it a couple more times, I found it was an American robin taking some hacks on our downspout -- the part that bends just below the roof soffit and out of the weather -- as she was contemplating the spot for nest building. She seemed to have liked what she found, because a collection of materials was observed growing on the spot. I once saw her fly in with a stick, place it with the others already there, and then hunker down on the spot, apparently sizing the opening of the nest. Within a couple more days, the nest had grown to completion and the observation of Nature’s miracle of egg-laying and hatching begun. Great stuff for visiting grandkids, don’t you know.

As the robin-making process continued, I was disappointed to discover that I could spook the adult off the nest pretty easily by just walking down the sidewalk at that corner of the house. I would have avoided the area completely if I could have, but unfortunately, the little out building that houses the lawn mower and gardening tools is just adjacent to that corner of the house, and, I decided, we would just have to co-exist for the duration of the robin-rearing. I tried walking slowly and pulling my hat down over my face, not making eye contact, hoping such behavior would seem less threatening to mother robin. Sometimes it worked, but more often than not, she jumped the nest.

Within a week or so, we saw little robin heads with their huge jaws poking up over the side of the nest. I counted three hungry bumpkins, and occasionally, from a safe distance down on the porch, saw mom fly in with squirming sustenance. Very cool indeed. Noah got the binocs out at least once to get a better view.

But then just a day after an active chick-sighting, all seemed too quiet in the nest. No mother. At all. And the observation of a collection of bird guano on the stone walk just beneath the nest. It didn’t look good. I pulled the extension ladder off the house, and climbed up for a look. Sure enough. No babies. They were gone. No way they could have fledged so soon. It was my fantasy that some bluejay made an easy lunch of the young ones. Noah and Grammy and I talked it over. So it goes with nature, we said. Everybody has to eat. At 9 years old, Noah seemed to understand.

And then last week we noticed loud Carolina wren song out front. Just off the front porch, we have a bird box that has seen a few hatchings over past summers, and so it was again. This time it was a couple of adult birds working and watching the area. A couple days ago I observed a wren beaking an ant into submission, then flying off with it, presumably to feed young. Yesterday another observation of a wren beating up on a small caterpillar, tossing it up in the air, banging on the little beast with its beak, and chasing it around the porch, tossing it again, until it became docile. Then, sure enough, up to the nesting box it flew and in with a load of nutrition.

I love birds. I love trees. I love nature. I love storms. I so enjoy sitting and being quiet, hearing cicada and bird song fill warm summer air. Even with the air conditioner on, I still crack the bedroom window, just so we can hear nocturnal critters making their nighttime sounds as we fall asleep.

I am sure somebody’s getting eaten out there, but I’m also aware that life goes on. And at my age, I am also very aware of my place on the great mandala. In a very natural way, I find it all a comfort.

Today’s elder idea: Several of Nature’s People I know, and they know me -- I feel for them a transport of cordiality...

Emily Dickinson

image: New Haven Camera Club (internet download)

Monday, July 19, 2010

My Reds

I’ve always been a Reds fan. When I was a kid I rooted for Wally Post, Big Klu, Vada Pinson, and Johnny Temple while listening to Waite Hoyt on the radio. I loved them so much I dropped a class when I was old enough to know better just because the Reds were in the playoffs and I could NOT NOT watch every minute of the proceedings.

Back in the day I wanted the Reds to win so badly I prayed for ‘em every night. I can remember being on my knees and promising some kind of good behavior the next day if only Jesus would let my Reds beat those nasty old Pirates. Like the bike I constantly prayed for and never got, I doubt my intercession cut any mustard in the sacred realm. Not near enough influence in high places, I have come to learn.

Still, I love the Cincinnati Reds, win or lose. Unfortunately, there have been way too many mediocre teams and way too many lousy finishes over the last too many years. A 14 year-old grand nephew -- a true baseball playing Red’s fan -- told me he’s never seen a trophy-producing season in Cincinnati his whole lifetime. Ouch.

I was inspired to write this blog when I found myself smiling at the old Mr. Red mascot shilling for Skyline chili on Fox Sports Ohio during post game the other day. What was it about this character that warmed me? What did this mascot, pictured above, represent to me?

I guess I’d have to say, basically, is that it’s just baseball. It has the longest history of professional team sport in this country. A whole lot of us played it in the street. Generations of us were raised on it. It’s part of our American spirit.

I threw rubber baseballs up against Mrs. Gunder’s front yard retaining wall evening after evening, pitching to marks on the concrete block, and somehow learned to love the game. I played Jesse Haines league badly. I remember once getting caught leading off first base after a miracle base-on-balls and my coach impatiently said, “I told you to go on anything. Why did you take off before the pitcher threw the ball?” I was ashamed. Still, I stammered out that I had no idea what “go on anything” meant. The coach looked a bit blank and then responded that I was right, he had never taught us what “go on anything” meant. I guess I felt a bit better, but I also felt pretty darned stupid.

I don’t come to enjoy Major League Baseball as a jock player. I come just as a guy from southwest Ohio who loves the game. And since MLB is really a regional thing -- you know, Dodgers vs. Reds, Yankees vs. Dodgers; Red Sox vs. Yankees; oh, hell, anybody vs. the Yankees. It’s a here kind of thing. And here is represented by our very own Cincinnati Reds. And not just the Reds, but the Dayton Dragons, too. We’ve seen a handful of kids here at Fifth Third Field who became players and at one time or another drew a paycheck in Cincinnati. Adam Dunn. Austin Kearns. Jay Bruce. Ryan Hanigan. Drew Stubbs. Joey Votto. It’s been pretty darned cool.

Just to know that so many men came to Cincinnati to play professional baseball over the years. They came to play the game they loved. They came to play for us. They were our guys then and they’re our guys now. Johnny Bench. Pete Rose. Joe Morgan. Ken Griffey. Ken Griffey Jr. Rob Dibble. Randy Meyers. Norm Charlton. Don Gullett. Barry Larkin. Frank Robinson. Joe Nuxhall. Johnny Vander Meer. Bucky Walters. Ewell Blackwell. The 1919 World Series Champs. To heck with the Black Sox scandal. The 1975 & 1976 Championship teams. The wire-to-wire guys in 1990.

And what about this year’s team? Votto. Phillips. Rolen. Cabrera. Bruce. Gomes. Arroyo. Rhodes. These guys work hard and work hard together. I don’t think they’re the best team in the league. Maybe not even the best in the division. But they grind away. They never quit. They come to work every day waiting out pitchers in good at-bats. They run with the best going first to third on a single. They lead the majors in winning games in the last at bat. Pitching has been good, especially for the kids. Mike Leake. Johnny Cueto. Micah Owings. Sam LeCure. Things look promising.

The history of the baseball provides America with a case study of who we were in a complicated but simpler time, as Ken Burns has so beautifully attested. Like him, I’m just in love with the concept. I love baseball. And those Red’s guys an hour down the road are my guys. Always have been. Always will be. It’s just the way it is. Tonight they’re beating the Nationals by 5 in the ninth. If the Cardinals lose, the Cinci Boys of Summer go back into first place by a half game. It’s the stuff summer is made of.

Today’s elder idea: Pete Rose is baseball.

Sparky Anderson

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I know it’s a bit manipulative, but when somebody I meet while traveling asks where I’m from, I like to respond with “The home of aviation.” I enjoy the puzzled look on their faces before most say, “North Carolina?”

Then I tell them, no, not Kittyhawk, North Carolina, but Dayton, Ohio, the home of Orville Wright. Then I go on and tell them how Kittyhawk has great breezes and soft sand and was the perfect place to fly first, but Dayton is the place where The Wright Boys did their research and flight tables, designed working kites and planes, fabricated all for shipping on railroad cars to more sandy shores, and eventually perfected the controls that made flight practical while working locally out at Huffman Prairie, which is, by the way, the largest native grassland left in Ohio.

In any case, I’m proud to call Dayton my home town, too.

My town can now lay claim to the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Park, located on various campuses in the area. We’ve got one of the first agile aircraft Orville and Wilbur flew on display for years now over at Carillon Park. And we’ve got Wright Patterson Air Force Base and its continuing work on flight and space technology.

Perhaps the best venue we have that celebrates flight locally is the National Museum of the United States Air Force. It’s our hope that we land a retired space shuttle when all the flights are done next year. We’re hoping for Atlantis, the orbiter that flew more Air Force projects than any other. We’re keeping our fingers crossed. If you’ve never been or haven’t been for a while, you owe it to yourself to go to the museum. Besides, admission is free, though I bet you can’t make it through the gift shop without buying something.

I like to promote the local pride in flight with my grandkids by going to the museum. I’ve taken Noah to the Air Force Museum, as we still call it, countless times. He knows the place, perhaps, better than I do. I know for a fact he knows more details about aircraft. True, he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows at age 9, but he knows quite a bit. I figure as he matures his knowledge and humility will grow in equal measure.

We, in fact, were over at the museum just yesterday, along with my brother-in-law who grew up in Springfield, just down the road from here, but now calls Missoula, Montana home. Chris remembers visiting the museum when he was a kid and likes to stop by whenever he’s in town. As an auto mechanic, he’s got a thing for machines and engines. He knows one hell of a lot about historical aircraft, too.

At one point yesterday, though, while walking through the exhibits trying to figure out where Noah had gotten off to, I was struck with sadness. There was this beautiful Cold War era flying machine -- bristling with armaments. Somehow I had walked past a replica of the 'Fat Man' atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki, on display in the shadow of Bockscar, the actual aircraft that dropped The Bomb on that Japanese city, without thinking about it too much. By the time I got back to the more recent retired aircraft, though, it got to me.

I know there is evil in the world. I recognize that sometimes wars have to be fought. I accept that people have to die.

But I am also struck with the news we get now and then of an errant cruise missile that misses the bad guys and blows up a school or a wedding party or some other peaceful gathering of people just trying to make their way in a war-torn country. It bothers me, too, that when we count war dead in this day and age, we only count our dead: our soldiers, our contractors, and our civilians. Back in the Vietnam era, we always heard about Vietcong body counts. How many enemy soldiers bought it today? Somehow those numbers made our own losses more palatable.

Now, however, we don’t hear much about the death toll on the other side, whether military or civilian. Maybe we’ll hear about something broadcast on Al Jezeera from time to time, but overall, it is about our losses, not theirs.

There has been so much death from the sky over the last century since Orville and Wilbur perfected control at Huffman Prairie. I’m still proud of those boys and what they did. The machines created and improved since then using their ideas have been wonders, indeed. Still, the death and destruction humanity rains on enemies today from these technical works of art that have taken to the sky is enough to make a person stop and wonder if the cost for humanity has been worth it. Sure makes it easier when war fought in our name doesn’t provide us with the knowledge of who’s hurting and how much.

Today’s elder idea: Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense of theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


The Fourth of July is a national holiday when Americans celebrate personal freedoms. It was on that day in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson released his revised version of the document that spelled out the colonists’ grievances against the Crown of England in no uncertain terms.

Most of us know the opening line -- When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to another -- but we forget that most of the document is a laundry list of grievances against King George. Independence from England was necessary, so felt the Founding Fathers, because the Crown had, for example, imposed taxes on us without our consent. It’s an impressive list.

Another big cause for celebration on July 4 is the US military. We thank the men and women through generations who have put their lives on hold and their bodies in grave physical danger to uphold freedoms for all Americans. One patriotic thing I heard over the weekend was that soldiers protect the flag so those who disagree at home can burn it if they choose. It’s such a dichotomy that it seems absurd: Citizen soldiers risking life and limb abroad to protect freedom of speech back home. Such is just one of the contradictions of this land we call the United States of America.

Let me make this perfectly clear: I respect the military and thank them deeply for their sacrifices. I can’t imagine the pain of getting news that a son or daughter has been killed by a roadside bomb and the fabric of a family irreparably torn forever. I can’t imagine re-starting a life with lost limbs in a wheelchair after being blown apart by an IED. It’s part of the reason I cringe when my own grandsons play with faux military weapons like they are just toys. I truly hate it.

On the other hand, I have a problem this time of year with celebrating the tasks we assign our military to do. I mean, we train these people in the use of lethal weapons to fight an enemy, we are told, who hates our freedoms and wants to kill us. We teach our military to fly aircraft and fire rockets that do not know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. Both bad guys and civilians die. We see this tragic news now and then on CNN, then pretty much forget about it by lunch time. Collateral damage we are told. It happens.

But the folks in other countries where we fight don’t forget. They must look at the impact craters and mourn their dead -- and wonder what kind heartless enemy could do such a thing.

And what about soldiers who are trained to kill and maim an enemy of someone else’s choosing? What do they do with that knowledge -- that mindset -- once they finish their tour? Dive for cover when firecrackers go off in neighborhoods after they come back home? Live with nightmares they can’t even talk to their spouses about?

Yes, there is evil in the world. Yes, the military is necessary. Yes, our forces will be called on to suppress injustices when called upon. And, yes, their sacrifice can be beyond anything any other American might be called upon to make, except perhaps firefighters and police officers.

My July 4th point is this: While our military deserve remembrance on this day, so do the aforementioned firefighters and police officers, as do EMTs, teachers, social workers, judges, assembly line laborers, garbage men, street maintenance crews, construction workers, communications technicians, and so many others. So many have dedicated their lives to making America and the world a better place. In my view, they deserve some accolades, too, for working diligently and non-violently to get it right. For doing what they can to make everybody’s home safer.

There have been good wars when evil needed to be stopped. World War II is a good case in point. But there have been so many other wars waged by US -- the good guys -- only because high rollers in power wanted to further their markets and their ability to attain resources we don’t have enough of. Like oil. Good soldiers, we are told, don’t ask questions. Theirs is to serve and do and die when necessary.

Maybe it’s a bad war. Maybe they are viewed as invaders and occupiers in the countries where they fight and die. Doesn’t make any difference. They must live by the military code. Nobody made them put on the uniform. They signed up as volunteers.

Still, others went to college or learned some technical skill that makes the US, and the world, a better and safer place. These folks opted to take a path that wasn’t consumed with violence to contribute to the greater good. And I think they deserve some accolades on the Fourth of July, too.

Today’s elder idea: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Declaration of Independence

¶ 2

Image: From the Story People collection by artist Brian Andres.

See his work at

For another take on celebrating American military, see “Our American Heroes: Why It’s Wrong to Equate Military Service with Heroism” by William J. Astore from (22 July 2010)