Toad in the Hole March 2005 Archives

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March 30, 2005

Another Dem Genius Moment

I hear the Democrats are buying attack ads against Ton DeLay. Great timing, folks. Look, his own base base is turning on him; the "conservatives" are making ominous rumblings about his contribution to the Schiavo mess. A perceived attack from the other side could only help him now -- these people thrive on a pouty and aggrieved sense of being persecuted.

I'm thinking they should stand back and let nature take its course. Sort of like what ought to have happened long ago with Terri Schiavo.

Posted at 03:13 PM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2005

Back from the Death Valley

We're back, and I thank whatever gods may be for Motel 6. If we'd camped, we'd have enjoyed high winds, sandstorms, and rain by turns. As it happened, though, we got to frolic in the flowers, brave the flying sand in the car, and at the end of the day drive through the rain, which was strong enough to wash the bugs and ichor off the front of the car besides.

And the place was gorgeous. I'll post a few more grafs on it later.

We were lucky enough to be caught in the middle of a butterfly migration. Painted ladies migrate as spectacularly as monarchs, though I guess they don't congregate as densely when they get south. They were coming north from Mexico in their millions the two days we were in Death Valley, riding those stiff winds, sailing by in an aerial flood, a blizzard of butterflies.

Posted at 06:17 PM | Comments (0)

March 21, 2005

And Away!

We're off to Death Valley for a few days, feeling only slightly guilty about leaving the housesitters in charge of a lovelorn snake. (I thank whatever gods may be that the Vivarium has a liberal return policy on feeder rats.)

Amd I promise not to think about Terri Schiavo and that pack of hyenas in DC even once.

here's the scary thing, though: her parents reportedly said that even if she had left her wishes in writing, they'd have ignored them unless it meant keeping her breathing. The consolation is that it probably would have been harder for them to do so, and this mess would be long over by now.

Me, I'm donating to Body Worlds if they'll have me. I figure I'd look better without my skin anyhow.

Posted at 05:25 PM | Comments (1)

March 20, 2005

Homebank Screwcurity

So the last three times Joe has tried to deposit our piddly free-lance writer paychecks (and my slightly-less-piddly editor's paycheck) in the bank, he's had a problem. They didn't want to accept checks made out to Ron Sullivan and Joe Eaton for accounts in the names of Veronica Sullivan and Martin Joseph Eaton.

This is new. We've banked with that same branch of Union Bank for, oh, 15 years or so at least, and handed over such checks regularly for that long, without any quibbles. They know us, theoretically; they've presumed to offer us financial advice; they call and offer gilt-edged banking services now and then, etc. And we've established that we are the people to whom the checks are made out, and why they come to those names -- the names we publish under.

First a young female clerk gave Joe a hard time. Then Joe dragged me in to partake of the pleasure, and the late-30s? white male clerk -- or demi-manager -- gave us both a hard time. He said the policy had been in place since October of 2003, which is odd, as we've been depositing these checks in person at least monthly since way before then and three visits ago was the first we'd heard that something might be off. He said we'd got notice of it along with our regular statement... oh, sometime around mid-2003.

Maybe. We actually do read the crap that comes with statements most of the time. This didn't ring a bell.

He said it was a Federal requirement, part of the Homeland Security regulations, that a bank had to know who was depositing money in every account. That we'd each have to get a legal declaration of alias drawn up.

Yeah right. I'm going to pay to have the bank accept my earnings, as they have for years and GODDAMN WELL KNOW WHO I AM.

So instead we asked our various venues to please make out paychecks to our formal names, which they have agreed to do. I think. But one more check came from the Berkeley Daily Planet, made out to "Ron."

Joe went in to deposit it without paying much attention, and encountered the same male demi-manager. DM gave him the same hard time. He did not, however, give Joe a hard time about another check in the pile, made out to "Joe." Joe asked about that little detail.

"Well," said the DM, "I can see where you get 'Joe' from 'Joseph' but I can't see how 'Veronica' is 'Ron'."

Somehow I don't see his problem. When I introduce myself, I sometimes get asked, "Rhonda?" I explain -- it's a tagline by now -- that it's a heavily pruned Veronica. Gardeners generally get it. This dude has been looking at my name for months now, apparently, and has met me in person, where I've explained who I am and where he can find my byline -- the same publications that send the checks, duh. Bur somehow he doesn't see the second syllable of my baptismal name. (I note that "Joe" appears nowhere in "Joseph.")

A very odd kind of dyslexia, I think -- and one more way for tin-eared martinets to jerk people around, in the name of national security no less. He seems to be inventing rationales as fast as he's asked about reasons. Quite a little dance, especially the most recent step. No one gets more power in this atmosphere of crapola than petty tyrants passing out bullshit, to mash a metaphor.

We're thinking, if we're going to be so damned patriotic, maybe we need to move our modest assets to an American-owned bank, PDQ. I'm only sorry I entrusted my 401k to these clods.

Posted at 10:14 PM | Comments (0)

March 18, 2005

The Sedentary Adventurer

No, not TV.

I was sitting at the keyboard here in my bathrobe... OK, I was playing 19th-level Trogdor. Joe was at the library, Matt the Cat was out somewhere, and Shep the snake was still mooning about his cage, all lovelorn with the season.

I heard a tip-tap in the dining room. Not clunky enough to be the turtles, maybe the rats (lovelorn snakes lose their other appetites), maybe... ?

I looked over my shoulder into the dining room. There was a California towhee on the rug, a couple of feet from the office door. It hopped and pecked in the casual irregular rhythm they have, cocked its head this way and that, kept hopping over to a spot under the dining room table.

Hmm, maybe I should vacuum more.

Kept hopping and pecking at the floor, disappeared behind the table.

I got up and very quietly walked to the office door. I knew the back door was open, and worried that Matt might have come in too; also worried that I'd panic the towhee and it would fly into a window or something. No, it came out between the table and the ugly heater, still hop-pecking, cast an eye on me, never broke stride.

Kept on at the same pace across the dining room, into the kitchen; meandered across the kitchen and through the back hall, out the back door.

We used to see the occasional towhee in the back hall at our last place, where they'd come in to inspect the dust bunnies under the storage shelves. But that was a first-floor flat; here, we're in the second floor. I also used to think it was the inexperienced young, maybe birds hatched that year, who were so tame. I guess not, as it's only March and this year's birds haven't fledged yet.

I wonder who'll come in if I get to the 20th Trogdor level.

Posted at 04:56 PM | Comments (2)

March 14, 2005


It's 3.14, official Pi Day!

I think we need more holidays like this.

I'm still a bit vexed that International Women's Day isn't March Fourth, because dammit, we still need to.

Posted at 03:32 PM | Comments (3)

March 13, 2005

Templeton, Schmempelton

I've had the juxtapositional frisson this past week of reading

1/ about the Templeton Prize of a gazillion bucks and how this year's went to yet another high-end physicist who says conveniently vague things about how religion and science are similar. It's kinda pitiful, if you look at it sociologically, that the various religions keep pointing to an ever-shrinking part of the unknown world and saying, "See? See??!! We're still in the vanguard! We're almost as smart as those other guys so we should still be in charge!"

Similarly (and see below) they point to areas of human behavior and various efforts toward freedom and justice, once they've followed actual radicals into some polite version of struggling, and say, "See? See??!! We're noticing this! So we should be in charge because we're moral!"

I'm seeing this in the enviro movement lately, of course.

2/ Richard Dawkin's compilation _A Devil's Chaplain_, in which he loses patience a few times and challenges (or slaps down) most of the "separate magisteria" compromise, which allows science to examine the factual and confirmable and religion to opine unchallenged both on what isn't known yet and on human morals. It's a fun read.

3/ Temple Grandin's newest book, _Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior_. The subtitle is much more self-aggrandizing than the actual content of the book. Grandin talks about what autism is like for her and mentions the experiences of other autistic people she knows or knows of -- and says that that's what she's talking about. She strays into generalization on occasion, like the statement that autistics are "visual" rather than "verbal" people, but she quickly and repeatedly makes it plain that she's speaking from her own experience, and waiting for more evidence to come from more autistics.

... I could be wrong. But for me, predicting animal talents is getting to be a little like astronomers predicting the existence of a planet nobody can see based on their understanding of gravity. I'm starting to be able to accurately predict animal talents nobody can see based on what I know about autistic experience.

There's yer Beginner's Mind, too.

I was discussing her online with an autistic woman, who mentioned Grandin's courage in coming out as an autistic, risking her job and status to do so. I hadn't been aware that she'd had to come out, that it was news.

My correspondent went on to say that it was courage like that, as well as the Internets, that had enabled her and many other autistics to speak of their own experiences, get listened to, and oppose some rather nasty "therapies" for autism that sound awfully familiar to those of us who know history. And that what she liked about Grandin was her "egalitarian" approach, that she said straighforwardly that she was recounting her own experience, not stating some general law. That in fact it was public statements like that -- as well as being able to correspond with each other and the rest of the public on the 'net -- that had allowed autistics to start finding out what they have in common, that autism has a wide spectrum of effects, that there are signs to look for and ways to help, or allow, autistic people have decent lives, careers, and respect.

(This might seem oxymoronic, given the "visual not verbal" thing, with which my correspondent agrees, but it seems to be connected with the need to express oneself without the social cues one uses in face-to-face conversation, and with which autistics typically have problems -- as well as the sheer sizer of the online population.)

Grandin's lectures, according to my correspondent, have this same egalitarian, down-to-earth tone. I've found that in several scientists, especially some that I've seen lately at the California Academy of Sciences member lectures. Tyrone Hayes, the guy doing studies about atrazine and frog development, comes to mind. If you ever get a chance to hear him, do so.

I'm thinking that there's nothing like a genuine scientific attitude to foster humility.

And I'm thinking that the Templeton Prize ought to go (if posthumously) to the advocates of closest approach I've ever seen of religion to science, expressed in the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts":

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'Tis the gift to be free;
'Tis the gift to come 'round where we ought to be...

When true simplicity is gained,
To turn, to turn we will not be ashamed.
To turn, to turn, will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning, we come 'round right.

Posted at 07:55 PM | Comments (2)

March 11, 2005

The Complexities of Chow

The other day, Joe and I took a stroll in Hayward Regional Shoreline park. I had an ulterior motive -- wanted a look at the plantings in an apartment complex near there, as I was doing a consult with people rehabbing it -- and it was also the one place we thought of where we could go on this first sunny weekend in forever that wouldn't be mobbed and muddy. The backyard has my lifetime dose of mud; don't need more.

Well, it's Spring there too. The barnswallows are back, zipping and chattering around the visitors' center building. The avocets have their pale-bricky head coloring; the ruddy drakes are getting ruddy and their bills are turning that improbable pale blue, all at wildly various rates. Some black-bellied plovers have black bellies. There were gaggles of least sandpipers nearly invisible in the mud and pickleweed; curlews and godwits hunting in loose pairs and foursomes.

Right at the start of the trail along the dikes, a great egret was highstepping, hunting in the mix of grasses, scrub, and pickleweed on the opposite bank. Ignored us completely. Looked here, looked there, and then Zap! Flash of snaky neck and big sharp bill into the tangle.

Came up with a song sparrow struggling, held by one wing and a bit of body in the big scissor bill. The egret juggled the sparrow a bit, got it aligned headfirst; little smudgy pinfeathers and blood started staining the bill's sides. A few more shakes and more positioning, and the egret gulped the sparrow -- clearly still alive and struggling -- down whole. We could see its progress down the long throat. It was clearly not as easy as swallowing a slick fish, but down it went.

Then the egret walked down to the channel, washed the blood and feathers off its bill, and gulped down water as a chaser; we could see the throat moving for that too. Apparently egrets, like pigeons, can swallow water with their heads down.

Immediately it strode back up the bank to resume its hunt.

There were song sparrows and savanna sparrows and marsh wrens singing in their places all along the trail; I suppose the pickings were easy, though this one had been grabbed from some hiding place, not the top of a bush or grass stem.

We've seen birds swallowing -- or trying to swallow -- some unlikely things over the years. A gull in Golden Gate Park, with one arm of a largish red starfisn in its mouth and the other four arms spread out in front of it, walking around looking rather perplexed. I suppose the star's little sucker feet had hold of the gull's tongue, because when we backtracked a couple of hours later, there they were still in exactly the same fix. I do have to wonder how that turned out.

A great blue heron at Arrowhead Marsh grabbed a mouse from the marshgrass twenty feet from us. We turned to see it because we heard the frantic skritching of the mouse's feet on the heron's bill. The mouse kept struggling furiously, squeaking, scratching, and the heron turned, walked to the water, and held the mouse under till it stopped, then swallowed it. That made us rethink just which "behaviors" are hardwired -- it certainly wouldn't have worked to drown what I think of as a heron's usual prey, fish.

Last month we were down at the Berkeley Marina, looking for some white-fronted geese in puddle-ponds where marsh restoration has been started. At the far edge of the pond with the geese was a GBH, with a very large dead rat. I mean, this puppy was well-fed -- about the size of a good hefty possum at least. The GBH had the rat in its bill and was having a problem with the next step. It kept dunking the rat vigorously in the water -- not holding it under, just sloshing it around -- and repositioning it, but it was clearly just too large. But the heron wouldn't give up, and who can blame it: "If I get this thing down I wont have to hunt for days!" We watched for a good 20 to 30 minutes before we gave up.

Owning a snake has raised my consciousness about this problem, the one of having to swallow your dinner in one piece. It's amazing to watch, even in a critter who has distensible jaws. Shep's jaws separate two ways: at the jaw hinge, and in the middle of the bottom jaw. Right now, he's not swallowing anything because, evidently, it's the season for a young adult male ball python to get all lovelorn and pace around for hours, looking for a snaky date. I never particularly wanted to parent an adolescent, and look what I went and did.

I fed Emma's baby hognose snake once, and the silly thing grabbed the thawed pinky sideways and refused to let go or reposition it. She swallowed the thing still aimed laterally -- what a face! You know that photo of a dog with three tennis balls in its mouth? Like that.

At the Marina, earlier that month, we watched a raven eat a pocket gopher. Raven perched on top of a sign and wedged the gopher into the open top of the post, then tore bits off. Egrets and herons certainly have cutlery analogous to a raven's, but I guess they can't or won't use it the same way. And there, I guess, is the hardwired part.

Or so I'll suppose until I see a heron working on its meal like a Benihana table chef.

Posted at 02:33 AM | Comments (1)

March 10, 2005

Frog Shoes?

Open Toad, of course.

Time to come out of hibernation; we've had oh four days in a row with sun in 'em.

I'm enjoying how vices becone virtues. The damned old banksia rose is all clambering up and into the (second-story) kitchen window again, and yet another year has gone by that I didn't cut it back and wash the filthy window. It's a big window, over the sink, and the curtains need replacing too. But there are blooms on the rose already, and I almost don't have the heart to whack it when it's blooming where I can see it from the house. I get little enough pleasure out of the garden at eye level; let the second-story flowers bloom at least.

The decision was sealed the other day. We were eating breakfast in the dining room, and heard an odd, off-beat tapping. First thought: the mice were back. It wasn't the feeder rat at the water bottle; it wasn't the turtles knocking around in their pen; it certainly wasn't the snake; it was coming from the kitchen.

I tippytoed out there, and no, the tapping wasn't from under the sink where the mice had been before Joe stuffed the hole around the pipe with steel wool. Higher. Also, not on the sink cabinet's plywood: sharper.

It was coming from the window. A bushtit was hunting bugs in the rosevine, and now and then going after bugs in the cobwebby schmutz at the edge of the window. TAP tap tap. Very businesslike for a little gray bird... Wait, one bushtit? It must be breeding season. Spring. The rest of the time they run around in fluid little flocks, peeting to each other for contact and tracking, noshing on those little bugs that hide so well in the garden plants.

I have a fond hope that they might even nest in the rosevine. A bushtit's nest looks like a disreputable old ravelly gray wool sock, with a hole near the top. OK, that hope is fond in the old sense, foolish, but I have more remote hopes socked away in the fantasy attic. It'd be fun to watch.

And if I'd kept the windows clean and planted that rose somewhere it belonged -- instead of forgetting the gallon can in the space by the driveway long enough for the plant to root right through it -- we wouldn't be able to watch, from two feet away, little birds forage and pause for a friendly rap on the window.

Match that, Martha.

I was talking about bushtits and wrentits and titmice, um titmouses? the other day and Geoffrey Coffey asked why so many birds were named after tits. I answered and he put it on
his blog which is a pleasant compliment too.

Posted at 06:33 AM | Comments (3)