Saturday, May 31, 2008

Too much cute for one day

I couldn't resist posting one more photo of Henry Jr., as the neighbors dubbed the baby raccoon who spent all day Friday on our deck railing. See the comments to yesterday's post for the Rest of the Story.

The "now you know" department

Six things I would never have known without the Internet:

1. We may be running out of oil, but Peru is running out of shit. (New York Times)

2. Aggressive medical treatment can shorten your life. (Consumer Reports)

3. The stock market prefers Democrats to Republicans. (Slate)

4. High gas prices are forcing rural school districts into four-day weeks. (ABC News via Huffington Post)

5. Kiss likes Condi. (Reuters via New York Times)

6. "Goodnight constitution/And goodnight evolution." (

Friday, May 30, 2008

'I ain't no playtoy'

This morning it stopped raining long enough for Hogan the Wonder Dog to go out for a whiz, and in doing so he tackled this young raccoon, apparently thinking it was a new doggie squeak toy. The 'coon took exception and leaped up onto the deck railing, where he posed somewhat defiantly for this photo. When I was a boy we had a couple of pet raccoons, who were cute and adorable until they were about a year old, at which time they commenced to bite -- savagely and to the bone -- any loose finger that got in their way. Needless to say, we're not making a pet of this one.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cackle, cackle, hacked the grackle

All I have to show for my latest sweaty photo-forage onto the backyard deck is this Common Grackle. At least it captured the beautiful iridescent colors of the bird's head and neck. This is about all the nice one can make about grackles. They are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders, eating insects, frogs, small eggs, grain (farmers particularly hate them) and even small sparrows they kill at bird feeders. If they spot a robin wresting a worm from the ground, they'll swoop over and snatch away the prize. Their calls are scratchy, unmusical and annoying. I used to work with people like them.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Lugubriosity on the wing

A mourning dove, they say, is nothing more than a pigeon that's been to college. At least they are not terribly skittish, therefore are easier to photograph than most suburban birds. Two pairs of mourners hang around our back yard, sniping and bickering like neighbors painfully aware of each other but who barely speak -- much like the Clinton and Obama campaigns.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Capturing the elusive redbird

A striking cardinal visits our back yard frequently, but he's tough to photograph -- the species is known for its speed on the wing, and they perch only for seconds before zooming off who knows where. Yesterday I finally nailed him.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Let it all hang out? Not here.

A comment to the previous blogpost urges me to make public the intimate details of my recent spinal surgery. To which I can say only: It might amuse you to learn that I now have the world's longest butt-crack, but is either of us ennobled by that knowledge?

Didn't think so. That's why as a blogger I've tried to limit myself to subjects that are truly revelatory even if only to me, like the May 13 entry about lipreading and diversity, hoping others will find them agreeable to read about. Who needs a banal laundry list of drugs and their effects on the digestive system?

The young will, of course, disagree, and continue to spill their tasteless secrets all over Facebook and MySpace and the ilk. What they haven't yet learned is that unfettered self-revelation is puerile, unless that self is truly sui generis. And that's very, very rare. Even so singular a confessional writer as Augusten Burroughs must resort to the tricks of fiction to keep his "memoirs" interesting.

Two generations before Burroughs, Anais Nin's orgasmic intimacies may have titillated readers of her "diaries" -- the diary, once sheltered and secret, was a prototype of today's let-it-all-hang-out public blog -- but her appeal depended mainly on the "shock of the new," and today her writing just seems dated and quaint.

The Victorians were on to something when they perfected the art of reticence, focusing their energies on external events and the internal ideas they spawned. Reticence is not necessarily repression -- it often simply reflects good taste and what used to be called common sense.

If you are inclined to explore this subject further, you might read "Exposed," an article in this coming Sunday's New York Times Magazine, in which a narcissistic young blogger named Emily Gould reveals the consequences of what she naively calls "oversharing." It is fascinating, if only for the astonishing number of times she employs the first person singular. And who could blame her ex-boyfriend for their breakup? I wouldn't have put up with her, either.

[LATER FRIDAY: The Times cut off reader comment on the Emily Gould article after 727 mostly snarky responses -- and apparently has restored it. At 2:51 p.m. CDT the count had climbed to 890. And the Sunday paper hasn't even appeared yet.]

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


A bunch of unrelated observations as I continue my long climb out of the happy abyss of painkillers:

1. The surgeon said I could start driving today, now that it's been 48 hours since I took my last pain pill. All well and good, but at $4.24 per gallon of gas? Huh? Going for a drive just to feel the breeze in one's hair is a non-starter these days. And I'm not sure I could squeeze myself into the thrifty Civic, though I'd have no problem with the thirsty Odyssey. Good thing I won't be flying the Cessna until late August at the earliest; aviation gas costs more than $5 a gallon most places (and it's $7.57 at O'Hare!).

2. Geovany Soto is my current culture hero. The chunky Cubs catcher's inside-the-park home run the other night against Houston thrilled slow-footed gimps like me everywhere. It is said that it took Soto only 15 seconds to circle the bases but 20 minutes to catch his breath. What a guy!

3. A certain newspaper political writer wrote this morning that Barack Obama has problems reaching the "white middle class," judging from the Kentucky primary. Appalachia is white middle class? Maybe she really means the lowest rungs of that class: the bitter, uneducated and ignorant who find racial hate easier to hang on to than to grasp meaningful change in their lives. It was folks like these that James Carville had in mind when he not so cynically observed that politically Pennsylvania was "Ohio on the west, New York on the east, and Alabama in the middle."

4. The best book I read during my downtime was Jane Gardam's 2004 novel Old Filth, a brilliant and often hilarious character study of a British barrister during the waning days of Empire. (It was part of a postsurgical CARE package brought over by my neighbors Bruce and Barbara.)

5. God help me, I want to see the new Indiana Jones movie!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Squirrel ears, hairy and not so hairy

Now that I'm a bit more mobile, I can go out on the backyard deck and photograph suburban wildlife. If you can stand the bandwidth, click on the photo above and compare it with the squirrel of April 27. Note the ears of the latter are a good deal hairier than those of the first. This leads me to wonder if the squirrel above is a young fella while the April 27 critter is an old coot. You know, as they age, human geezers grow veritable thickets in their ears. Perhaps the same phenomenon is true of squirrels.

Storm clouds on the book reviewing horizon

1. According to last Thursday's GalleyCat, a newsletter of, Publishers Weekly is halving -- from $50 to $25 -- the pittance it pays freelance reviewers for their unsigned capsule notices of upcoming books. Even though many who labor for the publishing industry's leading trade magazine are eager young writers seeking to make a small mark for themselves, some veterans churn out these mini-reviews just to keep "Publishers Weekly" on their resumes. My suspicion is that many such contributors don't try very hard, merely reading the first and last chapters and carelessly skimming the rest, knowing that anonymity will protect them if they're caught in glaring mistakes. As partial restitution, PW will now list the names of freelance contributors -- but won't reveal who wrote what.

2. Also according to the same issue of GalleyCat, an unnamed author is offering to split $500 among the contributors of the first ten reviews of his new self-help book on He says he isn't soliciting puffs, but the mere offer from an author to pay $50 for a review of his book violates all kinds of ethical standards. This is deplorable -- but understandable as an act of desperation. Now that many newspapers have dropped book review coverage (my new Cache of Corpses got fewer than half the reviews than did the first in the series, Season's Revenge, in 2003), it's getting harder and harder for the lesser-knowns and unknowns to pass the word that they've got a new book out. Poor bastards.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


One of the unexpected consequences of aging, I have long thought, is diminishing lipreading skills. In the last few years I've had a little more difficulty understanding other people. It's taking longer to get used to the speech patterns of strangers. Possibly my intellect is not quite as nimble as it used to be -- I once was crackerjack at guessing what people would say if I knew the context, the subject of conversation. And my vision isn't what it used to be, either.

Until my recent hospital stay, I hadn't credited one other cause of this phenomenon: rapidly growing ethnic diversity in the United States.

There I would be, lying flat on my back, as Indian, Sri Lankan, Jamaican, Spanish, Arabic, Filipino, Russian and Central European doctors, nurses and technicians poked at me while speaking in puzzling accents and syntaxes. (My surgeon is Bosnian, from Sarajevo, but speaks excellent English and with such sweeping facial expressiveness he is easy to lipread.)

This wide range should not have surprised me, for medicine attracts immigrants from everywhere, and Evanston Hospital is a teaching institution affiliated with Northwestern University Medical School.

Still, for an old guy who grew up in the 1950s in a place where everyone spoke Midwestern white-bread farm-boy English, understanding new kinds of folks always has been a challenge. In college it took a while to adjust to my roommates' Bahston accents, and only after years of watching closed-captioned BBC "Masterpiece Theatre" dramas did I get used to British English. Rapid-fire New Yorkese still buffaloes me, and so does Ebonics.

All this notwithstanding, there were only two occasions in the hospital in which I had to resort to paper and pencil. One of them: "Where are you taking me?" I said to the guy with the gurney, who, after much patient struggle, picked up pad and pencil and wrote "X-ray."

One way or another we managed to connect, and that is all that matters.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Return to port

To continue the criminal abuse of seagoing metaphor begun April 24:

The M.V. Reluctant Blogger tied up at her home wharf yesterday after a trip to the shipyard for heavy repairs to her keel and a brief shakedown cruise in which the heating and cooling plant gauges malfunctioned. For four days the shipwrights searched for the cause of the problem, which cleared up on its own. When it became plain that the plant had returned to tiptop shape, the vessel was released to active duty.

Sorry, too much Master and Commander over the years. Patrick O'Brian has a lot to answer for.