Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Standing in the Light

I have just finished Sharman Apt Russell's book, Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist, which I found in our public library's new book section. The book combines information about the history of pantheism and some of its major figures from the early Greeks on, with musings about nature (especially bird watching) in the Gila Valley in New Mexico, where the author and her husband have homesteaded for many years, and her experiences with a Silver City, NM Quaker circle she attends intermittently. The result is an eclectic blend of interesting information presented in a meandering style more than slightly akin to the Gila River, which also winds its way through the book.

I found this image of the Gila River on the WikiMedia Commons website. It was taken by Joe Burgess and has been released into the public domain.

Quite a bit of information about present day Quakers is included, along with bits of Quaker history. I was intrigued to learn that pantheists find themselves welcome and at home in Quaker Meetings, some of which consist of an hour of sitting silently in a circle waiting to hear the voice of God within. Russell explains that this is a traditional Quaker format, referred to as "unprogrammed." "Programmed" Quaker services, which more nearly resemble other Christian church services, were a 19th century development. I wrote a passage of Russell's description about Quaker Meetings in my journal:

Silence is another defining tradition. We know the divine best through personal, immediate experience, and that divinity, that Light, is here right now, all around us. Silence is how we listen for the Light. In a moment of listening, we will hear a small, inner voice, the voice of God within. We will know what we have always suspected: Eternal life is under the words. (p. 146)

The book concludes with a section of selected notes and references, which outlines much of the reading sources Russell used while writing the book. This serves as a handy source for additional reading. An index is also provided.

Both nature lovers and spiritual explorers will find much to appreciate in this book.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Relaxed Christmas

Thanks to Christmas falling on Thursday this year, coupled with a change in hours at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Elly had the week of Christmas (Monday through Thursday) off, a rare thing in retail. I took Monday and Tuesday off from work, and worked from home Wednesday morning, so we got to spend the week together.

Apart from some grocery shopping in midtown KC (where we live) on Monday, I didn't leave home. I can't recall the last time I was home for three days in a row without getting in a car once. It was such an enjoyable and relaxing holiday. The only way it could have been happier and more fun is if Samba, our dog who passed away in July, were still with us. We do have a new pup on the way, though, which helps.

We spent the time watching birds at our backyard feeders, cooking holiday recipes, listening to Christmas music, reading, watching Christmas movies, and enjoying each other's company. I wrote out nine Christmas cards to family and friends, Monday morning, a little late, I know, but most of them arrived on Christmas Eve so it worked out well.

These are three house finches and two goldfinches on our niger feeder, which we moved up to one of our hackberry trees. The goldfinches love the new location. We've seen as many as six at a time on the feeder. That is a lot for an urban backyard. At least for our urban backyard.

Years ago we scaled back on Christmas presents, which not only saves a lot of money but also reduces time spent wrapping. That leaves more time for everything else. It is better for the environment, too. If holiday shopping doesn't increase every year, the shopping season is supposed to have been a failure. Just calling it the "shopping" season is a symptom of what is wrong. How much of this stuff do we need? What is the cost to the environment? To future generations? Should we be measuring our success by how much more we consume each year? I heard on the radio today that shopping was down 8 percent in the United States this holiday season. I wish that were cause for celebration rather than lamentation.

Enough of that! Here is a Christmas ornament my grandmother made for me in 1974. Elly and I have been giving each other Christmas ornaments for years, but my grandmother's ornament is the oldest one we have on the tree by a long shot.

Elly is pretty much the master of the clever gift card. Here she is hinting about the library I need to build.

Naturally, the hint occurs on a gift that turns out to be a book. In fact, most of my Christmas gifts from Elly are books -- my idea of the perfect present. Dracula may seem a little out of place at Christmas time, but this is a lovely new edition annotated by Leslie S. Klinger, who I think I interviewed years ago.

Here is Elly with our new cat Brulee, who has decided it is high time she receive Christmas dinner. Brulee is sort of an unexpected Christmas gift. And, since she is pregnant, also the type of gift that keeps on giving. We will be calling on friends once the kittens have arrived...

And our own Christmas dinner. This included two types of croustini, both of which were delicious but the roasted tomato and goat cheese croustinis were out of this world and surprisingly simple to make.

The croustinis accompanied a fabu asparagus salad.

For dessert we had Christmas cookies, made by Moi. :-)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A New Name

Aficionados of the Fiske Miles blog may notice that it now has a new name. I made the change to reflect a central value of my own life. At some point along about my late 30s I found myself more and more frequently lamenting the hectic pace of my life. I often fretted about the increasing rate at which information poured in and events (both wanted and unwanted) seemingly occurred. This is not a unique concern. In fact, it is much more the rule than the exception based on what I have observed in those around me. I asked myself the same question that many others ask: am I enjoying my life? Am I doing what I want to do? I found myself looking for books about "downshifting" and life in the slow lane. I found a few, but, honestly, they were not much help.

Ever the pragmatist, I started looking at what I was doing to figure out how to slow things down. How to spend more time doing the things I wanted to do and how to enjoy them more. How, essentially, to live a less hectic life.

Gradually, as the years passed, I began having more and more success at this. I have found more and more ways to remove, or at least minimize, the frenetic from my life. I'm more relaxed. Stress is not a problem for me. I am happier and healthier. I am doing more of the things I want to do. Surprisingly, it wasn't that difficult to accomplish. It didn't require moving to a mountain top, years of meditation practice, changing jobs, or giving up things that are important to me.

I didn't find some profound secret. There isn't one. There is no "get relaxed quick" scheme. When I talk with people about the changes I made, the changes I'm making, they don't usually seem impressed. How would that really make such a difference is a question I see them pondering. Usually, they are too polite to ask. Or, maybe, well that's okay for you but I wouldn't want to do that. I still hear them complaining about their hectic lives, though, and not having enough time.

My blog reflects those things which are important to me, which I value and enjoy. I think it reflects the relaxed pace of my own life. I haven't written any posts specifically about how I have slowed down, but I think I will do. Maybe they will help someone else find their own way to enjoying their life more. At any rate, changing the name of my blog is a commitment to making it a place of peace and serenity in the blogosphere.

About the robins. We have a heated bird bath. Water, it turns out, is as critical for birds when the weather turns icy as food. Elly and I were watching birds in our backyard during a snow storm a few mornings ago, one of our most favorite things to do, when several dozen robins flew in for a drink. We haven't seen this before. It was fun -- a magical event and a wonderful way to start our day. Spending time watching the natural world is an excellent way to make one's life less hectic.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Another Family Member on the Way

We lost our beloved Rottweiler Samba in July -- one of the saddest events of our lives. After several months we realized we would simply never stop missing him and not having dogs in our home was making things worse. We decided that our next dog (dogs, really, because we plan to have more than one) would be a Labrador Retriever. We searched for several months, made one false start, and finally found a breeder we are happy with in October -- Susannah Joy, who operates Top Form Labradors in Sedalia, Missouri. Susannah has been breeding, and showing, Labs for 35 years. We were fortunate to find such an excellent breeder so close to Kansas City. (Sedalia is about 90 minutes southeast of where we live.)

We met Susannah in early October, and also met Bing (BISS CH. Waifin's Topform Conundrum RN, WC), and Emma (Topform Patience Pays) and Zena (Topform Face The Music N’Dance) who Susannah planned to mate with Bing for litters to be delivered in December and February respectively. We put a deposit on a male puppy from Emma's litter, or, failing that, a male puppy from Zena's litter.

Here are some pictures of Emma, whose breeding with Bing was successful, just days before her litter of puppies was born.

In this second picture, Emma is staring (hungrily, Susannah believes) at a lovebird.

Emma had ten puppies Wednesday, December 10. She had six yellows and four blacks. Elly had her heart set on a yellow male and there are several in the litter so we will get a yellow boy. The puppies won't be ready to leave their mom until they are eight weeks old, so our new puppy will come home in February. We get to visit the puppies for the first time on Sunday, January 4, 2009.

Susannah has posted several videos of the new puppies on YouTube and has links to them on her website.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Insightful Dialog

The following is a response to an atheist friend who observed that our beliefs are farther apart than he had imagined after reading my analysis of a series of questions presented as a "doubt" quiz on Krista Tippett's "Speaking of Faith" program on American Public Radio. The quiz is drawn from Jenifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History. (Link to quiz provided below.)

I have come to realize that insightful dialog doesn't depend that much on agreement from both parties. What is important is a non-dogmatic spirit of inquiry and exploration.

I guess the differences in our position is why we have agreed to disagree on the use of the word God. :-) What I discovered when I found my faith is that my problem was not with God but with what I believe are false conceptions of God.

Sorting that out, understanding it, has helped me be much more confident, even comfortable, considering the beliefs of others. I don't mean in an argumentative way, but in the sense of understanding (and accepting) where my beliefs diverge from those of others.

As a quick example, when I hear statements about God's judgement, it is easy for me to disregard them. God does not judge. People judge, and sometimes ascribe their judgements to God. Profound and needless suffering often results from such behavior. How can one be certain that God does not judge? Simply by observing the natural world, God's creation. We might not like everything we see (because humans do like to judge) but denying what is clearly before us, or attempting to rationalize beliefs that are not consistent with experience, is nothing other than making God in our own image, which is absurd.

It is just as easy for me to dismiss statements that the universe is without purpose. I don't believe we can understand its purpose, but we can discover and understand the natural laws which give it order and govern how it operates. This pattern and order serves some end, no matter how mysterious it must remain to us. I think accepting this central mystery is much the same thing as accepting God. A universe without purpose would be chaos. If you consider any statement insisting that the universe is without purpose, they almost inevitably depend on the notion that humans aren't at the center of it. :-) Just reread the last question in the Doubt Quiz.

I find it more rewarding, spiritually, to accept that I am part of something far larger than myself, and be happy that I am a part of it. Maybe this is why I have never felt insignificant when doing astronomy. I find it thrilling to be part of something so stupendously grand.


After reading this post over, I decided to provide my analysis of the Doubt Quiz questions. My overall response to the quiz is that the questions depend heavily on viewpoints informed by traditional monotheistic belief systems. If one's beliefs fall outside those traditions, the questions are poorly formed and the available responses are not meaningful.

1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?

My answer to this is easy: no. Accurate knowledge of ultimate reality is not available to finite beings. Also, it is up to each of us to determine the purpose of our own lives. In doing so, we serve God's purpose, whatever that might be. Some (many?) people turn to religious organizations to find purpose in their lives. This seems perfectly legitimate to me, though I would point out that turning to religion is a personal choice each believer makes.

2. Do you believe that some thinking being consciously made the universe?

I think this questions is incoherent. I responded that I'm not sure, but what I would rather have said is that the question is poorly formed. Thinking and consciousness have meaning in a human context, but what meaning can they have in the context of God? Also, what does the word "made" mean in the context of God? The way humans make things can bear no relation to the actions of God.

3. Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?

I said yes to this, but it is another poorly formed question. The issue partly turns on the word "identifiable." In other words material or available to scientific analysis? The universe clearly operates according to "identifiable" laws, and I would say that those ARE dependent on God, which is why I said yes, but the idea of a God force or the equivalent is naive in my opinion.

4. Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?

I struggled with this too. From my perspective, the purpose of prayer is not to ask for things one wants but to experience communion with God. In that sense, it is effective. Since I believe God is ultimately beyond human conception, I can't possibly know the relation of my thoughts or words to God.

5. Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?

More anthropomorphism. God does not think in the way humans think. Still, human thought is probably the closest we can come to a symbol of God's thought. Speak? The word seems inappropriate to the feelings I have concerning the presence I have felt.

6. Do you believe this being has a memory or can make plans?

Same issues as for 5.

7. Does this force sometimes take a human form?

I answered no to this because it seems like an obvious reference to the divinity of Christ, which I don't accept. BUT, I could have answered yes because I feel that the form of everything in existence is dependent on God. In this sense, Christ was divine, but then so are you and I, as well as every living and nonliving element in the universe. This sounds like pantheism, but is probably closer to panentheism and I'm not sure I understand either position well enough to be comfortable with them. I don't think of myself as a pantheist.

8. Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?

I answered no pretty easily to this one, though the term "animating force" worried me somewhat because it relates back to my feelings about question 7.

9. Do you believe that any part of a human being survives death, elsewhere or here on earth?

I answered no easily to this, because I would say that what survives is not specifically human, or, perhaps more accurately, we are part of something much larger that is eternal. Again, this sounds close to pantheism/panentheism. Have you read my Samba's Last Day posts?

10. Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

I struggled with this but answered yes. My reasoning is that I don't think feelings can be admitted as evidence concerning material existence, in other words, objective knowledge of the natural world, but I think think they support the reality of God. I have a problem with the use of the word evidence, though. I would say this question is poorly formed and probably incoherent. There is also a serious logical fallacy -- begging the question of what reality means.

11. Do you believe that love and inner feelings of morality suggest that there is a world beyond that of biology, social patterns, and accident — i.e., a realm of higher meaning?

Answered not sure. I think morality is a human response, and so is love. I don't think they apply in a coherent way to God. But, I believe in a realm of higher meaning. Or, more cogently stated, I believe humans can comprehend only a tiny fraction of all that is meaningful.

12. Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?

This was an easy one. Yes. Answering no is scientistic.

13. If someone were to say "The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme nor reason, and all life on earth is but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to be judged, noticed, or remembered," would you say, "Now that's going a bit far, that's a bit wrongheaded?"

Another easy yes. Though, what I would actually say is not that it is going a bit far but that it is blatantly wrong. :-)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An Addition to the Family

Somewhat unexpectedly, a new member of the family has arrived. Brulee (it took all of two minutes for Elly to name her "like creme brulee because she has a burnt sugar look about her, but I'm not thinking of keeping her" "no, of course you aren't, dear") appeared on our doorstep Sunday afternoon indicating she would like to come in and was ready for dinner. We have never seen her before. She is an affectionate and very pretty cat -- possibly how she got herself into a "family way." I posted her picture on our neighborhood egroup, but no one has claimed her. Our theory is that her previous owner didn't want to contend with a pregnant cat and abandoned her in our neighborhood far from home. She is obviously used to being inside, not outside.

We took her to see Dr. Byer at Westwood Animal Hospital for a "well kitty" visit yesterday. Dr. B thinks she is about three years old and will probably deliver kittens in a month. She got a rabies vaccine. The rest of her vaccines (and a few other procedures!) will have to wait until after her kittens are weaned. Two cats is our household limit, and we already had Beatrice before Brulee arrived, so we will be looking for homes for the kittens.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Union of Actual and Ideal

-- from A Common Faith by John Dewey

"These considerations may be applied to the idea of God, or, to avoid misleading conceptions, to the idea of the divine. This idea is, as I have said, one of ideal possibilities unified through imaginative realization and projection. But this idea of God, or of the divine, is also connected with all the natural forces and conditions -- including man and human association -- that promote the growth of the ideal and that further its realization. We are in the presence of neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are mere rootless ideals, fantasies, utopias. For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name 'God.' I would not insist that the name must be given. There are those who hold that the associations of the term with the supernatural are so numerous and close that any use of the word 'God' is sure to give rise to misconception and be taken as a concession to traditional ideas.

They may be correct in this view. But the facts to which I have referred are there, and they need to be brought out with all possible clearness and force. There exist concretely and experimentally goods -- the values of art in all its forms, of knowledge, of effort and of rest after striving, of education and fellowship, of friendship and love, of growth in mind and body. Theses goods are there and yet they are relatively embryonic. Many persons are shut out from generous participation in them; there are forces at work that threaten and sap existent goods as well as prevent their expansion. A clear and intense conception of a union of ideal ends with actual conditions is capable of arousing steady emotion. It may be fed by every experience, no matter what its material.

...One reason why personally I think it fitting to use the word 'God' to denote that uniting of the ideal and actual which has been spoken of, lies in the fact that aggressive atheism seems to me to have something in common with traditional supernaturalism. I do not mean merely that the former is mainly so negative that it fails to give positive direction to thought, though that fact is pertinent. What I have in mind especially is the exclusive preoccupation of both militant atheism and supernaturalism with man in isolation. For in spite of supernaturalism's reference to something beyond nature, it conceives of this earth as the moral center of the universe and of man as the apex of the whole scheme of things. It regards the drama of sin and redemption enacted within the isolated and lonely soul of man as the one thing of ultimate importance. Apart from man, nature is held either accursed or negligible. Militant atheism is also affected by lack of natural piety. The ties binding man to nature that poets have always celebrated are passed over lightly. The attitude taken is often that of man living in an indifferent and hostile world and issuing blasts of defiance. A religious attitude, however, needs the sense of a connection of man, in the way of both dependence and support, with the enveloping world that the imagination feels is a universe. Use of the words 'God' or 'divine' to convey the union of the actual with ideal may protect man from a sense of isolation and from consequent despair or defiance." (pp. 50-53)

-- from River out of Eden by Richard Dawkins

"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

Monday, December 8, 2008

How to Crack a Hazelnut

I looked over my 2008 New Year's Resolutions a few days ago. Embarrassing! Still, I have accomplished a few things, among them improving my culinary skills. I can't say I have made great progress in French cuisine, but I definitely learned a thing or two about cracking hazelnuts on Thanksgiving Day. Elly needed hazelnuts for several dishes she wanted to cook. I came home with a bag of unshelled nuts, and she said "Great. Now how are you going to crack them?" "Crack them? Is that my job?"

I started off with the traditional nutcracker, which, frankly was not up to the job. I had a hard time breaking the shell and frequently crushed the nut inside. After a minute of this I thought to myself there has to be a better way and consulted the ultimate authority. Google.

I didn't find that much about how to crack hazelnuts. One source suggested boiling them first, which sounded like a total mess. Another person said, not about hazelnuts in particular, but just nuts in general, that if you didn't have a nut cracker, you could use a pair of pliers or something from the workshop. A light bulb turned on ever my head. Channel lock pliers! They exert considerable force and can be opened to convenient widths -- much wider than regular pliers. After a few experiments, I found that exerting force from top to bottom was the most reliable way to crack the shell without crushing the nut inside. There were a few tough nuts. With these, I found rotating them a bit, putting pressure on from multiple angles, was a good way to open them without exerting too much pressure.

A few broken nuts can be seen in the picture below. These were caused by the traditional nut cracker. Once I started using the channel locks, I had almost no trouble with crushing them. Now, if I could only come up with an easy way to get the skin casing off the roasted nuts. Rubbing them together did't work that well...

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Mystery of the Visible

A response to Will Buckingham's post, Dragons and Levitating Monks.

The first point about Will's post is that his examples are asymmetrical.

Presumably, the Indian restaurant owner and his wife actually believed the monk could levitate. The example provided by Sagan, an atheist and debunker of irrational belief, was created to demonstrate such beliefs can always be placed beyond the reach of empirical proof. The true parallel of the levitating monk, for Western religions such as Christianity, would be things like belief in the ability of saints to perform miracles, divine intervention by God in medical cases as a result of prayer, possibly even a McCain victory in the upcoming U.S. presidential election (surely a subject of much prayer among a certain segment of U.S. Christians).

The second point is that what these examples illustrate is a wide-spread desire for the miraculous, however that might manifest itself. A significant component of such desires is the validation of religious beliefs. This demonstrates a lack of faith, rather than what one might suppose to be a demonstration of it. Faith, after all, requires no proof.

A final point is that we are surrounded by the miraculous. Our very existence is itself a miracle. It is human nature, I suppose, to become accustomed to what we experience constantly and to lose sight of the wonder plainly manifested to us. As Oscar Wilde expressed it: "The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

A deeper, more enriched spirituality is available to anyone who wishes to pursue it by rousing themselves from the illusion that our common, every day experiences are nothing special.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Pumpkin Pie

After a somewhat lengthy hiatus, I am finally making an actual blog post (as opposed to a book quote addition, which, in my view, is more or less cheating and shouldn't be counted as a legitimate post!). I've been somewhat inspired by two of my favorite bloggers, who have also taken up the keyboard again in recent weeks -- Diana Sudyka on her Tiny Avery and Eloise by the Book Piles, who I turn to when I feel particularly guilty about adding more books to our already sizable collection that sprawls across every floor of our three story house. Four, if you want to count the basement, my workshop, where my wood working and other shop books go. Eloise's most recent post discusses books she found still in the shopping bags she carried them home in. What an inspiration! :-)

So what about pumpkin pie? On a recent visit to Sunshine Flowers, now our favorite source for plants of all sorts for the yard, I was picking out several pumpkins for Jack O Lanterns when I noticed a box of "pie" pumpkins. Pie pumpkins? A long standing tradition in the Miles family holds that trying to cook real pumpkin for a pie is a total waste of time. This tradition got its start when my mother and grandmother (my grandparents operated a boarding house in midtown Kansas City many years ago) decided to bake a pumpkin pie from real pumpkin. One of their lodgers raved about how delicious pumpkin pies were when made from fresh pumpkin. They spent most of the day doing battle with a fresh pumpkin, made an unholy mess, and finally threw the whole thing in the trash and used canned pumpkin for the pie. Predictably, the fresh pumpkin pie fancier raved about how delicious their pie was, and how much better than it would have been made from a can...

The thought which crossed my mind at Sunshine Flowers was that mother and grandmother, who were not necessarily the most diligent when it came to culinary research, probably used a standard carving pumpkin for their pie. A no-no, as it turns out. I bought two of the pie pumpkins. They are much smaller than pumpkins used for carving, about 8-inches in diameter, and have a much better consistency and taste than their larger cousins. After getting them home, I rooted around in our cookbook collection until I found what I wanted in Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. I'm pleased to report that cooking pumpkin is every bit as simple as the title of Waters' book suggests and the result truly is far better than canned pumpkin. I must also add I was totally disappointed by Cooks Illustrated: why "America's Test Kitchen" has chosen to cop out on cooking pumpkin is something I find hard to understand. Perhaps they will eventually make amends.

1. Cut the pumpkin in half lengthwise. Be careful when doing this not to let the knife slip. You need a very solid cutting surface. This is actually the trickiest part of the whole process.

2. Scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp with a large spoon. I have read that an ice cream scoop is good for this, but had little success with that approach. A large spoon with its sharper edge proved much more effective. Don't worry about getting every last bit of the stringy pulp out, just get most of it.

3. Spray a rimmed cookie sheet or baking pan with PAM or a similar cooking spray (you might want to line the sheet first with aluminum foil for easier clean-up). Put the pumpkin, cut sides down, on the sheet and bake in a 375 degree oven for around 45 minutes until the pumpkin is soft to the touch. Cooking time can very depending on the pumpkin. Denser, heavier pumpkins take a bit longer but actually have a better flavor -- something to keep in mind when selecting them.

4. Remove the pumpkin from the oven and let cool. Once cooled, flip the pumpkin halves over and scoop the cooked pumpkin out of the shell. This is quite easy to do -- the shells are strong and the cooked pumpkin is soft and easy to scrape out. Toss the shells. (Some people advise saving the seeds for toasting, etc. I tried this once. Life is too short for that sort of headache!)

5. Puree the cooked pumpkin in a food processor until it is smooth.

That's all there is to it. Aside from cooking, the whole process takes minimal time. Maybe a total of fifteen minutes. It is almost absurdly easy, to be honest.

Here is my pie recipe, which I modified somewhat from Alice Waters' version, which has a frighteningly small amount of sugar and actually calls for black pepper. Why do this to a pie???

You'll need one pre-baked pie shell. I feel guilty about not making my own pie pastry (something I intend to experiment with sooner or later), but, honestly, Pillsbury pie dough is SO easy and it tastes great! I got the idea of pre-baking the shell from Waters. Previously, I baked pumpkin pies in an unbaked pie shell. Pre-baked makes for a much better pie.

1 cup of heavy cream
2 tsp flour

Mix the flour with 1/4 cup of the heavy cream and bring to a gentle boil over moderately low heat. When the cream thickens, slowly add the remaining 3/4 cup and bring it back to a gentle boil. Remove from heat and let cool.

1.5 cups of pumpkin (the typical pie pumpkin yields about 3 cups of cooked pumpkin)
3 eggs

Whisk the eggs in a large bowel and then mix in the pumpkin. Mix in the cream.

1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp kosher salt

The salt is VERY important. Waters' recipe doesn't include it, but adding salt really brings out a lot of flavor and adds depth to the pumpkin. Don't use regular table salt, which is iodized. Use kosher. In fact, kosher (or sea) salt should always be used for cooking.

Mix the sugar and spices together in a small bowl, then mix with remaining ingredients.

Add 1.5 tsp of brandy to the pie filling and mix in. This is optional in the Waters recipe, but not in mine. :-)

Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 45 minutes. Check the pie after about 35 minutes. Remove it from the oven when the center is just set. Don't over cook your pie! I like to use foil edge protectors to keep the crust from browning too much. It's best to put these on initially, and then remove after the first 30 minutes.

The result should look something like this.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Literary Labyrinth

Finally, when phonetic writing prevailed, the sounds of words were represented at first in syllables, and later, in a further refinement, by alphabetical symbols or letters standing for the phonemes -- the vowel and consonant sounds -- that make up our words. Now we had a graphic counterpart of speech itself. We could represent and pass on to others in an enduring way the realities that we observed and discovered within and without for their inspection and introspection. To our point, we could express our selves and learn about the selves of others beyond the limits of time and space that constrain the spoken word.

Nancy M. Malone
Walking a Literary Labyrinth:
A Spirituality of Reading

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Coming to Our Senses

"I am speaking of accessing the timeless in this very moment--because it is always right under our noses, so to speak--and in so doing, to gain access to those dimensions of possibility that are presently hidden from us because we refuse to be present, because we are seduced, entrained, mesmerized, or frightened into the future and the past, carried along in the stream of events and the weather patterns of our own reactions and numbness, attending to, if not obsessing about what we often unthinkingly dub "urgent," while losing touch at the same time with what is actually important, supremely important, in fact vital for our own well-being, for our sanity, and for our very survival. We have made absorption in the future and in the past such an overriding habit that, much of the time, we have no awareness of the present moment at all. As a consequence, we may feel we have very little, if any, control over the ups and downs of our own lives and of our own minds."

from Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn (p. 22).

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Barack Obama's VP Pick

The two subjects one is supposed to avoid in many conversational venues are religion and politics. I have obviously violated this guideline with regard to religion, so why not go all the way?? Here is something that has been perplexing me for several months. Why is it media pundits tip-toe around the obvious VP issue for the Obama campaign? The question Obama's campaign team has to be considering is do they put Hillary Clinton on the ticket or not? Put another way, can they win without Hillary?

The situation is not as complicated as many make it. Sure, Hillary has a couple of negatives. Bill is a BIG one. And H. herself has something of a credibility problem.

But look at the numbers. Obama has the African-American vote sewn up. Anyone who believes he isn't going to poll 90% of their vote is not paying attention. What happens if Hillary joins the ticket? 70-75% of the female vote? Ditto that for white working class Americans and Hispanics (all three areas where Obama needs help and Hillary delivers). Plus the liberal middle class.

What does he lose? Religious and social conservatives? They aren't going to vote for him anyway.

Basically, adding Hillary to the ticket means Barack can start writing his inaugural address. Or, at least working on the outline.

The closer the polls look now, the more likely an Obama/Clinton ticket becomes.

This doesn't seem like rocket science...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Decent Nobody, with Warts

A few months ago a friend who also has hackberry trees in her yard asked me if the leaves on our hackberry trees develop “warts” too. They do, indeed. I have been meaning to investigate this situation and on a recent visit to the Kansas City public library came across The Urban Tree Guide: An Uncommon Field Guide for City and Town by Arthur Plotnik, a Chicago author widely known for a book titled The Elements of Editing after Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Plotnik has also published a book, rather waggishly titled Spunk and Bite, which is a guide to lively writing. I haven’t had the pleasure to read that, yet, but if Plotnik’s tree guide is any indication, Spunk and Bite should be a lot of fun. He also maintains a blog (which he refers to as a “snog”) named The Lubricated Snoot. The illustrations in his tree guide are provided by Plotnik’s wife, Chicago artist and teacher Mary Phelan.

As the title suggests, the book concentrates on trees one might find in urban areas, covering more than 200 species. In addition to helpful identification tips, latin names, common names, and other such info, each entry includes a detailed essay relating interesting information, a sort of character dossier, about each tree.

But I was uninspired by tree-identification field guides. Most lacked heartfelt descriptions and none focused on trees in the city. They offered brief descriptive data — leaf and twig morphology (form, measurements), sub varieties, and zonal habitat. Enough to guide field trippers, perhaps, but not to reveal a tree’s personality. (p. 5)

Plotnik’s hackberry entry is titled “A Decent Nobody, with Warts.” The Latin for common hackberry (what I believe we have in our yard and shown in the first image included with this post) is Family: Ulmaceae (Elm); Genus: Celtis (hackberry); Celtis occidentalis (Common Hackberry).

Hackberry leaves often host eraser-size “nipple galls,” the dwellings of minute jumping lice. Located on the underside of the leaf, the hard and well-sealed galls take on amusing shapes, like cartoon fireplugs or baby bottle nipples.

Naming them lice sounds pretty scary, I have to say. We see swarms of these critters in the spring and fall. I previously thought they were miniature leaf-hoppers. Plotnik has done his homework, though. Lice, indeed. In fact, jumping plant lice or hackberry psyllids, described in detail on this Ohio State University fact sheet. Elly and I don’t spray insecticides to control them (perish the thought!) and simply put up with the nuisance in the spring and fall, periodically vacuuming them up from door and window sills with my shop vac. Here is a close-up image of one of the nipple galls I found on a hackberry leaf lying in our yard. Each gall includes a single psyllid. The adult insect is tiny, about 1/8-inch in length, and is said to resemble a miniature cicada. I’ll have to use a hand lens on one to see if I agree with that description.

Here are hackberries on the tree. A number of the galls can also be seen. The tree leaves look quite eaten up, diseased even. This is natural and does not indicate any problem with the health of the tree. In fact, a book I was reading about organic landscaping recently (don’t have the title too hand, my apologizes) stated that using ornamental plants which are “naturally resistant” to insect damage actually harms local biospheres by reducing insect populations which are critical to birds and other wildlife. This is one of the big objections to non-native plants, which are often introduced for the very reason which makes them harmful: the fact that native insects have evolved to eat native plants. This hadn’t occurred to me, but it makes total sense.

Mature hackberry trees have a sort of weird, warty bark (consistent with the warty leaves, though, in no way related to the pysllids). Here is a closeup of the bark on one of ours.

And, finally, an image of Elly and myself, taken last Sunday. We spent most of the day in our backyard. The weather was delightful. Elly proofed galleys for the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s new handbook (managing one of the coolest museum stores in the country isn’t enough of a challenge by itself, apparently), and I spent my time reading and photographing our hackberry trees...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Final Gift from Samba

I have decided to share an additional detail about Samba's last day. If you have not read my previous blog post about Samba, you should do so before continuing. What I have to say should be seen in the context provided in that post.

While I count myself a believer, it is also true that I am of a skeptical disposition and most of my beliefs are centered in naturalism. My sense of the miraculous derives from the existence of our universe (that there is something rather than nothing) and that life somehow emerges from inanimate matter. These are miracles enough for me, and I celebrate them daily. I don't offer any conclusions about the meaning of what I'm about to describe, only that the event gave me pause to reconsider my own beliefs.

When Elly went upstairs, and I was sitting alone in the kitchen with Samba, writing in my journal, I was startled by a bright flash of bluish light in the room. It seemed like a camera flash or something electrical. My first thought was that Elly had taken a picture, but I'm the photographer in the family -- Elly doesn't know how to use the camera. And, at any rate, it was sitting on the table beside me. I got up and looked around, thinking she had come back downstairs and was somehow responsible for what I had seen. She hadn't. I looked around the kitchen at our appliances, thinking an electrical cord had shorted out or something. I didn't see anything like that. I also looked out the window to see if something had reflected into the room from outside, but didn't find an explanation there, either. As I sat back down, I thought to myself if Samba were passing away, that would be an eerie event. Elly came back a minute later and Samba did pass away.

I was dazed. It was an emotional moment for us, of course. I told Elly about what had happened and her first response was she had somehow missed Samba's departure. I gently pointed out that Samba had obviously been waiting for her to return, which was undeniably true. I also pointed out that of the two of us, I was the one who had to see the flash of light to believe it.

We had expected to feel so bereft and overwhelmed with grief at that moment. Instead, we felt serenity and peace, wonder and happiness.

I called Westwood Animal Hospital, where we had made the appointment for Samba, and they said we could borrow a stretcher to bring Samba to them. When I got there to pick up the stretcher, Dr. Beyer, Samba's vet, asked to come with me and help. When we told Dr. B years ago we were planning to get a Rottweiler, he said he had never liked Rotties because he found them to be aggressive and dangerous dogs. It took Samba about 15 seconds to win Dr. B over, and they were fast friends Samba's whole life. When we got back to the house, Dr. B couldn't resist rubbing Samba's head and telling him that he had treats in his pocket for him. (Samba was a great one for encouraging generosity in the treat department.) We took Samba to Westwood AH.

When I got home, Elly and I sat down to reflect on everything that had happened. After we both calmed down, it came to me the flash had been caused by an undercounter light over Elly's desk that had blown out. So, there was after all a perfectly reasonable explanation for what had occurred. A skeptic would say it was only a coincidence, happening when it did. I would have said that myself before Tuesday. Now, I have to admit I believe there was more to it than mere coincidence. The choice between living in a world where one is bereft of hope and overwhelmed with grief in the face of loss, or being filled with peace and serenity, hope and wonder at the magic of life is no longer difficult for me.

I have much to thank Samba for, but his last gift to me was perhaps the most important of all.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Samba’s Last Day

From the moment he entered our lives as a nine week old puppy, until the moment he left us on Tuesday, July 1, 2008, nine years later, Samba was special. He was graced with intelligence, power, humor, and most of all love. Our lives are richer because of him. It’s hard to find words to convey what he was like: how magical he was. I think the best I can do is relate his last day with us.

Samba was diagnosed with bone cancer (osteosarcoma) at the beginning of July 2007. Most dogs with the condition live for only a few months. Samba motored on, just as he always had, for nearly a year. He was that strong. In June, he started going down hill. He wasn’t having a lot of pain, but he was resting more than he ever had and moving more slowly. We realized the cancer which had first appeared in his left front leg had spread to his hindquarters. On Monday, June 30, Samba didn’t want his breakfast — a first for him. We knew in our hearts the time had come to let him go peacefully. The day was so beautiful, we decided to spend it with him and made an appointment for the following day, Tuesday, at 3:30 PM to have him put to sleep. It was such a sad moment for us. Something we had dreaded.

When he got up Tuesday, Samba wanted to lie on the back porch. He hadn’t wanted to do that for some time, and we were happy to sit with him. Samba loved our kitchen and was most comfortable there, so Elly and I stayed in the kitchen. Whenever Elly left the room, even for a minute, Samba became anxious, looking for her until she came back. Around noon, he wanted to go out in the backyard to lie in the sun: something he started doing a few years ago. Usually half an hour is enough for him, but he stayed out for an hour. Elly and I sat with him.

Samba was panting when we came back in, which was nothing unusual. We have often laughed at how a black dog liked to lie in the sun until he was panting so much he had to get up. He seemed to be having trouble cooling off, so Elly suggested closing the doors and windows and turning on the kitchen AC to help him be more comfortable. We did that and Samba lay down near the air conditioner. Elly had to go upstairs for a minute. I was sitting at the kitchen table writing in my journal.

When Elly came back, she sat down with Samba and started petting him. A moment later she told me Samba was passing away. I did not believe her, at first. I came over to look at him and he was breathing deeply. I said he was just resting. Elly said when she had sat down he had been breathing rapidly, but when she started petting him his breathing had slowed way down, and now he was only taking occasional breaths. A minute later Samba took his last breath with Elly and me sitting beside him. He had been waiting for her to come back before leaving us. He passed away two hours before we had planned to take him to the animal hospital.

We had been so miserable at the thought of having our beautiful Samba put to sleep. He spared us that pain. He said goodbye to us on his own terms, where he most loved to be. That was Samba.

When he was about fourteen months old, we had taken Samba to visit Dianne Moore, who owned Samba’s father, Cory. Samba was a massive dog. Not fat, but at the maximum height and weight according to the Rottweiler breed standard. Dianne had commented to him: “I don’t think you’re going to be losing too many fights, Samba.” And the truth is he never did. Even his last fight, with cancer.

The three pictures above were taken while we were sitting out with Samba on his last day with us, an hour and a half before he passed away. The following picture, one of our favorites, was taken a few weeks ago on June 14 at sunset.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Finding God Through Atheism

I’ve promised myself, and a few friends, to do a better job of writing posts for my blog. Especially, light-hearted, entertaining stuff like vegetarian barbeque, backyard nature watching, progress on our 20-year home remodeling project, my rampant bibliomania. Stuff like that. In case you haven’t already guessed from the title of this post, it does not fall into the light-hearted category. If you are uncomfortable reading unambiguous statements about religious concerns, this would be a good post to skip.

Still here? :-)

I got an email last night from a friend who had come across some of my pages about telescope making. He had noticed a statement from me on a previous website that I was an atheist, but could find no comment about it on my current site and wondered if I had changed my mind or simply avoided discussing the matter because it was a hassle. I responded with a longish answer to his question — probably a lot more than he wanted to know. After reflecting on my response, I decided to post it on my site. Why not be open about my thoughts on the subject, my progress even, for people like my friend who are curious, possibly following their own path and trying to decide what they believe?

So, here is how I answered his question whether I had changed my mind about atheism.

I gave up atheism. :-) You know, this is something that I have thought about a lot. One of the experiences that really put me off atheism was discussing Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, with a group of atheists on an Internet forum. They were all just so cocksure there is no God. They were the mirror image of fundamentalist Christians. Fundamentalist atheists, I guess. And they were so dismissive concerning the Bible. So contemptuous of it, even. While, for me, the Bible does not reveal God, it profoundly reveals the longing for God felt by many people in Western civilization. I was raised in the Christian church, so the Bible has more meaning for me than other religious texts like the Koran, Upanishads, etc., though I don’t for a moment believe it has any superior claim to legitimacy. Of course, it is also a cornerstone of Western civilization, much of which doesn’t make sense without it.

I’ve realized one of the things that kept me from believing in God for the longest time was Christianity, odd as that sounds. I simply can’t accept Christian concepts of God. I think some atheists, maybe a lot of atheists, reject God for the same reason. And, of course, in Western civilization, at least, Christian concepts of God are pretty much a monopoly. Perhaps I should say Abrahamic concepts of God, to include Hebrews.

After thinking of myself as an atheist for a few years (prior to that I described myself as an agnostic), I was startled one day to realize I believe, devoutly believe I have to say, in God. I came to this, I think, as a result of considering that life and the existence of the cosmos is miraculous — a mystery within which we exist and beyond which we can never perceive. Accepting the essential mystery of our very existence, an impenetrable mystery, freed me to accept the existence of God as our creator. I can offer no proof for the existence of God, but neither have I heard any convincing proof that God does not exist. I simply have no choice but to believe. I can’t not believe. I make no attempt to convince others of the existence of God, but for myself, I simply have no doubt. I guess that is faith. :-) I have to smile reading that statement. Did it really come from me?

The existence of God is a matter beyond proof because God is beyond human comprehension. I think this is where I started having problems with Christianity. I don’t believe it is possible for finite beings to understand the intentions of God, or to reach conclusions concerning God’s judgment. When I hear people speak of God’s love, their assertions are meaningless to me. Love is a human emotion. Does God love us? I don’t believe that is a coherent question, even. Maimonides said something to the effect that the highest knowledge concerning God is that God is beyond human comprehension. I accept that. I also accept, as Einstein asserted, that to know God, in whatever trivial capacity we are capable of doing so, we must study God’s creation, that is, the natural world. Of course, the natural world includes the human race. Not that we are the pinnacle of creation — that’s absurd. But we must, in some way, reflect the providence of our Creator.

A second irony in all this is that until I embraced atheism, I could not believe in God. It was only through becoming an atheist, that I found my faith.

The fact that I believe in God does not mean I believe in life after death (in the sense of our conscious awareness surviving our death), that humans have souls, or any of the other trappings of major religions. In that sense, my worldview is utterly naturalistic. Where I part with naturalism is the assertion that nothing exists beyond the natural world. That God, in fact, does not exist. You can see this sort of thing on the website. The simple truth is such assertions can have no rational basis because we have no way to support claims concerning anything beyond the cosmos in which we exist. The statement that God does not exist is a faith position in the same way that my earlier statement of belief in God is a faith position. We must each search our own hearts and decide for ourselves.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Teaching Starlings

Elly brought home the June 2008 issue of Review magazine, which covers the visual arts community in Kansas City. It includes an article, “Wings of Change” by Jessica Owings about an “urban culture” project conceived by Brian Collier centering on starlings. An invasive species, starlings were introduced to America in the late 19th century in an ill-conceived attempt to “improve” native American wildlife by Eugene Schieffelin who had the idea of introducing all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. One hundred starlings were released in New York’s Central Park. They have proliferated so widely their number in America now exceeds 200 million. Their aggressive character has resulted in the displacement of many native American bird species, including the Eastern Blue Bird.

Collier’s project is to teach starlings, which are remarkable mimics, to say "Schieffelin" (pronounced she-flin) utilizing nestboxes equiped with a motion activated audio device that sounds the name repeatedly. The idea is that if some starlings learn the phrase, other starlings may pick it up too, and eventually birds accross the country could be repeating it. More information can be found at Collier’s Teach the Starlings website.

The thought of providing nest boxes for starlings, which have driven so many other birds from their nests, makes one wince. Still, I wonder how much difference that can make at this point -- it's not like starlings are having any difficulty finding nests. The whole idea seems hilarious to me. Though, one of my birding friends was less than amused and has promised to report Collier to the Audobon Society for “aiding and abetting an invasive species.” We’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, Elly and I are keeping our ears pricked for Schiefelin saying starlings. Maybe this young bird is getting ready to sound forth...

Saturday, May 24, 2008


I decided to get my long weekend off to a good start by adding a post to my blog, which I have been neglecting in recent weeks. I have been making adjustments to our bird feeding arrangements in the backyard to attract a greater variety of birds. In the past, we have had goldfinches in the early spring but as soon as grackles show up, the goldfinches depart. Grackles are vicious birds, responsible for killing many more house sparrows than cats claim, so it is not surprising that goldfinches (much smaller than house sparrows) give them a wide berth. I moved the niger feeder from its position near the chip and hopper feeders that attract the most birds, including grackles, up to one of our hackberry trees where it is hung with a branch hook. I worried the feeder might be blown out of the tree by a strong wind, but obliging gale force winds (gusts to about 70 miles an hour) arrived within the week and proved my fears groundless: the feeder remained in place.

Within a week the goldfinches became frequent visitors. We see them about the yard daily now, and have had as many as four at a time on the feeder. A terrific reward for the minor inconvenience of climbing an extension latter once a week to replenish the feeder. Despite appearances, the overhead power lines are in another yard, far away from my position. Our neighbors arrived home when Elly was taking this picture. She told them it was for future insurance claims. Nice!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Einstein's God Letter

The news story widely published this week concerning a letter from Albert Einstein to philosopher Eric Gutkind in January 1955, in which the scientist makes remarks that belief in God is childish, etc., doubtless has many atheists crowing triumphantly. The USA Today article is more informative than many.

The curious point about this, a point which should give pause for thought, is that Einstein emphatically and angrily denounced atheists who attempted to use his statements to support their disbelief in God. (See Max Jammers, Einstein and Religion, pp. 96-7.) Jammer's own conclusion, and a reasonable one, is that while Einstein rejected belief in a so-called "personal God", that is, a God possessing anthropomorphic or anthropopathic qualities, he retained belief in God manifested "in the laws of the Universe as a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble" (Jammers, p. 148).

Einstein's statement in the letter to Gutkind concerning the childishness of belief in God would be consistent with his other statements about God if the term is used in the sense of a personal God who watches over humanity and to whom one should pray. In other words, the common, anthropomorophic concept of God.

The ambiguity of Einstein's remarks concerning God stem from the fact that once one has rejected anthropomorphic concepts, little can be said concerning the true nature of God. Any attribute one attempts to assign, love, intentionality, etc., is also a human attribute and thus anthropomorphic. Jammers compares Einstein's theological position with that of the 12th Century rabbinical philosopher, Moses Maimonides, who argued that the highest knowledge of God is knowing we are unable to comprehend God (paraphrased from Jammers, p. 144).

Whether Einstein could be considered a theist is something of a vexed question. He was obviously not a theist in the traditional sense, which Jammers points out. However, since he was not an atheist, nor an agnostic, and apparently did believe in some form of God, it is difficult to know how else to categorize his belief. Einstein repeatedly argued that the only definite knowledge we possess concerning God's nature is how God is manifested in the laws governing our universe. The argument indicates a belief that God in some sense is responsible for creation, which rather suggests a theistic position.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Neurological Foundation of Mysticism?

-- from The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

"A second puzzle that Wilson [David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral] can solve is why mysticism, everywhere and always, is about transcending the self and merging with something larger than the self. When William James analyzed mysticism, he focused on the psychological state of 'cosmic consciousness' and on the techniques developed in all the major religions to attain it. Hindus and Buddhists use meditation and yoga to attain the state of samadhi, in which 'the subject-object distinction and one's sense of an individual self disappear in a state usually described as one of supreme peace, bliss, and illumination.' James found much the same goal in Christian and Muslim mysticism, often attained through repetitive prayer. He quoted the eleventh-century Muslim philosopher Al Ghazzali, who spent several years worshipping with the Sufis of Syria. Al Ghazzali attained experiences of 'transport' and revelation that he said cannot be described in words, although he did try to explain to his Muslim readers the essence of Sufism:

The first condition for a Sufi is to purge his heart entirely of all that is not God. The next key of the contemplative life consists in the humble prayers which escape from the fervent soul, and in the meditations on God in which the heart is swallowed up entirely. But in reality this is only the beginning of the Sufi life, the end of Sufism being total absorption in God.

From Wilson's perspective, mystical experience is an 'off' button for the self. When the self is turned off, people become just a cell in the larger body, a bee in the larger hive. It is no wonder that the after effects of mystical experience are predictable; people usually feel a stronger commitment to God or to helping others, often by bringing them to God.

The neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has studied the brains of people undergoing mystical experiences, mostly during meditation, and has found where that off-switch might be. In the rear portion of the brain's parietal lobes (under the rear portion of the top of the skull) are two patches of cortex Newberg calls the 'orientation association areas.' The patch in the left hemisphere appears to contribute to the mental sensation of having a limited and physically defined body, and thus keeps track of your edges. The corresponding area in the right hemisphere maintains a map of the space around you. These two areas receive input from your senses to help them maintain an ongoing representation of your self and its location in space. At the very moment when people report achieving states of mystical union, these two areas appear to be cut off. Input from other parts of the brain is reduced, and overall activity in these orientation areas is reduced, too. But Newberg believes they are still trying to do their jobs: The area on the left tries to establish the body's boundaries and doesn't find them; the area on the right tries to establish the self's location in space and doesn't find it. The person experiences a loss of self combined with a paradoxical expansion of the self out into space, yet with no fixed location in the normal world of three dimensions. The person feels merged with something vast, something larger than the self." (pp. 235-7)

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Recent Birds

We have had a lot of fun birds in our backyard over the past few weeks, this Baltimore Oriole being one of the most beautiful. I’ve glimpsed an Oriole in our backyard once before, but only fleetingly in one of our trees and at that time didn’t get a good enough look to be positive about its identification. This fine bird obligingly landed on bird feeder central and stayed long enough for me to grab a few quick shots with a digital camera. Unfortunately, it didn't stay long enough for Elly, who was upstairs at the time, to see it for herself.

We’ve also had groups of white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumpled warblers, chipping sparrows, and Lincoln’s sparrows. A previous post on Lincoln’s sparrows includes a picture I took of one. Lincoln’s sparrows are quite shy and fly off immediately if another bird approaches.

I have decided one of the main reasons we are getting so many more visitors now is that last fall I started spreading birdseed liberally on our driveway. Doing so has attracted many more birds because it avoids competition at a small feeding station, which, essentially becomes a bottleneck. In addition, while some birds go to extreme lengths to discourage species generally viewed as pests — house sparrows and starlings, for example — we have decided not to worry about attracting them. As a result, we are actually seeing more of the rarer birds one often looks for because the common birds act as decoys, luring them in.

Within the last week the idea occurred to me to start spreading seed in inconspicuous locations, like near shrubbery, which has had the welcome effect of encouraging even more visits from shy birds that feel nervous in exposed locations. It seems simple enough in retrospect, but I wonder how many backyard feeder enthusiasts follow the practice? At any rate, the results are encouraging. I’m looking into increasing the number of native plants and shrubs in our yard as further encouragement for bird (and butterfly) visits.

Mark McKellar at the Backyard Bird Center told me that since we live in an older neighborhood with many mature trees, we might be able to entice orioles to become regular visitors with an oriole feeder (which makes orange halves, nectar, and grape jelly available for these birds). Accordingly, I have set one up in a hackberry tree and we are patiently watching for return visits. Here is one more picture of our recent visitor from Baltimore...

Saturday, April 26, 2008

On Book Buying and Self-Restraint

I was pleased this morning when I checked my book buying log (a spreadsheet I started to track book expenditures in an attempt to work on self-restraint) to see that I had not purchased a single book in the month of April. Unfortunately, some backsliding occurred today. I had a bag of books to trade at Half-Price, and this fatal lure resulted in the purchase of 5 more books. I rationalized that the trade credit covered half the expenditure. And one of the books was a Martha Grimes novel Elly wanted. Then I saw Native Landscaping for Wildlife and People by Dave Tylka at Backyard Bird. I couldn’t pass that up! Then I noticed a new ALexander McCall Smith at Costco, Miracle at Speedy Motors. That was another book for Elly. I also placed an Amazon order today. One of those was for Elly too.

I dutifully added them all into my Book Buying log this evening: 12 books! It puts me at about 1 book every other day. Well, maybe not quite that much because the Amazon order won’t come for a week or two. I guess I’m going to add a Bibliomania category for book buying confession posts. Anyway, here is the list of 12.

Martha Grimes, The Winds of Change. (Elly!)

Edward Hirsch, How to Read A Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. (I’ve had this checked out of the library twice. Figured it might as well have a permanent place in our home.)

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. (I obviously need no help freeing the "book buyer" within.)

Anne Lamott, bird by bird. (I blame this one on Eloise by the Book Piles.)

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale File. (Lovely Everyman’s Library edition for $7.98 at Half-Price.)

Alexander McCall Smith, The Miracle at Speedy Motors. (Elly!)

Dave Tylka, Native Landscaping for Wildlife and People.

Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion. (Another book I have checked out from the library multiple times. I needed it for my next Richard Dawkins rant...)

Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual. (Irresistible. Are you reading this Eloise? One to add to your TBR pile.)

Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Traveled. (Eloise’s fault again. BUT, this is available as a bargain book from Amazon now for $5.99.)

Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as Stage. (Had to return this to the library today and Elly said we might as well order it. Shakespeare books generally come with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card from Elly.)

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis. (One of the most interesting books I have read this year. With, I should say, an extensive, and equally fascinating bibliography, which doesn’t bode well for future book buying restraint...)

The picture of Samba and me was taken this morning. For those of you who are aware that Samba has bone cancer, I am happy to report he is doing excellently ten months after his diagnosis. Life expectancy after a diagnosis of canine bone cancer is usually 2-6 months. Samba is getting a combination of radiation treatments and intravenous pamidronate. He is the first dog our vet has had on this course of treatment. The result has been so good she is now treating two more dogs with the same combination.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Warbler Redux

The yellow-rumped warblers I first saw Wednesday evening were back for more fun and frolic in our hackberry trees last night, Thursday evening, and again this morning. I counted 4-6 of them last night and at least four again this morning. They move around quickly so it is hard to get an exact count. They seem to rove about in a little band of mostly males. One or two seem drab compared with the others so maybe they are females. They don't come down to the feeders at all, but stay up in the hackberry trees pecking insects off the budding branches.

Last night I had the idea of taking my binoculars up to our day room and opening the door so I could have a clear view of them from a higher vantage point. It was raining, but the roof overhangs the doorway so I was able to stand in it and look more or less directly at the birds. Two of them stayed in the hackberry for 15 to 20 minutes. They have yellow patches on their sides just by the front of their wings, yellow crowns, and yellow rumps (of course) which I couldn't actually see from the ground looking up but could see from the day room. They also have pronounced white eye rings that are more prominent than what is shown in Sibley. They weren't bothered by the rain at all.

They are strong fliers and acrobatic when foraging for insects, hanging upside down, twisting every which way, and frequently hovering to peck up insects they couldn't reach from a perch. When one takes off, the rest seem to follow. I hope they hang around for a few more days so Elly can see them when she gets home. They have been the most enjoyable group of feathered visitors we have had in our backyard.

I read in Birds in Missouri by Brad Jacobs (which is a wonderful book for Missouri birders that I purchased at the Backyard Bird Center a few weeks ago) that Lincoln's sparrows, while secretive and rarely seen, will show up on occasion if you scatter birdseed on the ground, which we started doing last fall. I guess that is why we were favored with a visit. It was probably attracted by all the birds which frequent our yard. The house sparrows, mourning doves, and other common urban birds are decoys for the less frequent visitors, who hang about in trees on the margins until things slow down a bit and then fly in for quick foraging raids or just stay in the trees if their preference is for insects.

I wonder if the warblers would have been attracted to our hackberries if all the other birds hadn't been present? I know some people go to considerable lengths to avoid feeding more common birds like starlings, house sparrows, etc. It may be possible that by doing so they are limiting their chances to see rare visitors they are eager to view. That would be ironic.

I saw several dark-eyed juncos last night and a few again this morning. We've gone a few days without having any, and I was starting to wonder if we had seen the last of them until fall. They usually head north for their breeding grounds around the middle of April, not returning until the middle of October. I also saw a white-throated sparrow this morning. They stay year-round, but visit our yard less frequently in warmer months when insects, grubs, and other food is plentiful.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

I decided not to make any stops on the way home from work so I would have time to mow our front yard this evening. It was the first mowing of the year, and, to be truthful, was a bit over-due, as our front yard has a southern exposure. I had to make frequent stops to empty the grass catcher.

When I finished mowing, I fed Samba and decided to sit out in the backyard for a while to enjoy the evening air and give Samba the opportunity to enjoy it too. Or, more accurately, to eat grass. Why do dogs do that? Before Elly and I became wise to the ways of dogs, we imagined they ate grass because they felt sick and throwing up made them feel better. We have since realized that they make themselves sick by eating the grass, which they like for some unaccountable reason. Anyway, it takes a lot of grass to make Samba sick (he is big!), and he wasn't going after it in earnest so I didn't worry much about the matter.

Instead I sat in my La Fuma lawn chair, sipping a glass of white wine, reading a bit from American Mania by Peter Whybrow, and congratulating myself on not being caught up in the rat race. Elly is in Florida for the week, and Samba and I have been doing the best we can without her. (Not that well, really.)

Still, it was a fine evening and glancing over at our neighbor's mullberry tree, which hasn't leafed out yet, I saw a bird hopping about and new immediately it was a warbler. I can't say just how I knew this, only, after watching lots of birds for a few years, one becomes surprisingly adept at sorting them out. Of course, there are about a zillion different warblers, and warblers are tiny birds, so I couldn't identify it naked eye. I popped inside for binoculars and the bird obliged me by hanging about until I came back. It was a yellow-rumped warbler. These come in two varieties, apparently, and this one was a Myrtle male. (The other variety is know as Audobon's.) These used to be classified as separate species, but the discovery that they inter-breed has resulted in a reclassification. Apparently, the two types were separated by glaciation during the last ice-age, which has caused subtle differences in their plumage. A fine article about them can be found in the Wikipedia. Lots of nice pictures are available on the web, too.

I haven't seen one of these before, though they are said to be fairly common migrants in our area. I've come to realize that if one only spends time outside, relaxing and looking about, all sorts of birds can actually be seen during migration periods. The trouble is we so rarely take the time to look. A few minutes won't do it. You actually need to sit still for half an hour or more and watch patiently. Of course, it helps to have mature trees about. Our neighborhood is about 100 years old, so we have plenty of those.

As the twilight began to deepen I noticed the waxing gibbeous moon was high in the eastern sky, and not yet covered with clouds, so I brought out my 4-inch telescope and spent an enjoyable 20 minutes refamiliarizing myself with some of its features. The forecast is for thunderstorms after midnight, and by the time I was putting the telescope away I could smell rain in the air. Still a few hours away.

I was struck by how hectic the last few nights have seemed, and how this evening has been so relaxed and rewarding by comparison. Coming straight home from work made the difference. I got home before 6:00 pm and had the front yard mowed by seven. Plus, I already had dinner prepared (left over shrimp creole from the other night).

Happiness Trap

“Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.” (p. 4)

“In sum, the rider is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. The rider is Gazzaniga’s interpreter module; it is conscious, controlled thought. The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don’t always work together well.” (p. 17)

“The elephant was shaped by natural selection to win at the game of life, and part of its strategy is to impress others, gain their admiration, and rise in relative rank. The elephant cares about prestige, not happiness, and it looks eternally to others to figure out what is prestigious. The elephant will pursue its evolutionary goals even when greater happiness can be found elsewhere. If everyone is chasing the same limited amount of prestige, then all are stuck in a zero-sum game, an eternal arms race, a world in which rising wealth does not bring rising happiness. The pursuit of luxury goods is a happiness trap; it is a dead end that people race toward in the mistaken belief that it will make them happy.” (p. 101)

— from The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wallace Stevens Contemplating

from Wallace Steven's journal, Sunday, August 10, 1902 [New York]
Letters of Wallace Stevens: Selected and Edited by Holly Stevens

In the early part of the day I saw some very respectable country which, as usual, set me contemplating. I love to walk along with a slight wind playing in the trees about me and think over a thousand and one odds and ends. Last night I spent an hour in the dark transept of St. Patrick's Cathedral where I go now and then in my more lonely moods. An old argument with me is that the true religious force in the world is not the church but the world itself: the mysterious callings of Nature and our responses. What incessant murmurs fill that ever-laboring, tireless church! But to-day in my walk I thought that after all there is no conflict of forces but rather a contrast. In the cathedral I felt one presence; on the highway I felt another. Two different deities presented themselves; and, though I have only cloudy visions of either, yet I now feel the distinction between them. The priest in me worshipped one God at one shrine; the poet another God at another shire. The priest worshiped Mercy and Love; the poet, Beauty and Might. In the shadows of the church I could hear the prayers of men and women; in the shadows of the trees nothing human mingled with Divinity. As I sat dreaming with the Congregation I felt how the glittering altar worked on my senses stimulating and consoling them; and as I went tramping through the fields and woods I beheld every leaf and blade of grass revealing or rather betokening the Invisible. (pp. 58-9)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Google Notebooks

I have gotten very interested in many of the tools Google offers to users for free. For one thing, they often include mobile versions for wireless phones and other mobile devices. I recently purchased a Palm Treo 755p smart phone, which has one of the best miniature querty keyboards I have seen and features a convenient user interface. It’s great for accessing web pages, believe it or not, especially ones that offer a mobile style sheet.

Google’s Notebook tool is a terrific way to make quick notes on anything you want to keep track of. Notes can be organized into individual notebooks you create, and within notebooks into individual sections. Convenient search options are also provided. The user interface is intuitive and easy to learn. What’s more, the tool includes a nifty clip feature enabling you to clip items of interest from web pages and insert them automatically into notebooks.

The mobile version is limited to viewing notebooks and adding notes (you can’t create notebooks in the mobile view, for instance.) But just being able to add notes from your phone is a terrific feature. At least, it is if you always carry your phone. It’s easy to use while reading, no matter where you happen to be.

I’ve been trying to figure out a convenient way to search my notes from the phone (the mobile version of notebook doesn’t include the search features either). I finally realized if I published a notebook (another feature of the tool) and made it available as a web page, I could view the page on my phone’s browser and use the browser’s search text feature to locate notes. I decided to add a few of the notebooks I have published as links on my blog just for fun. My notes aren’t great reading, by any means, but they do provide an audit trail for my eclectic rambling through topics that interest me.

If you happen to be an inverterate note-taker, you owe it to yourself to check out Google’s cool (and free!) notebook tool.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Elly and I added a bird to our life list this evening, a Lincoln’s Sparrow, bringing the total to 90 (a pitiful number in the eyes of seasoned birders I’m afraid, but there it is). We noticed the elegant little visitor foraging for seeds on our gravel walkway, and I managed to get some pictures of him. Her? It was just a bit smaller than several dark-eyed juncos who were also frequenting the area.

Seeing a new bird is fun, especially so when we find it in our own backyard. We have had a run of luck in the last few weeks, seeing Great-Tailed grackles for the first time. Then seeing a ruby-crowned kinglet, which we have observed before but not in our own yard. And then this fine bird. The Lincoln’s sparrow was named by Audubon in honor of Thomas Lincoln, who was a friend of his, as well as being the father of Abraham Lincoln.

The pictures don’t do it justice, actually. Many of the American sparrows are beautiful little birds, far different from the common House sparrows, which aren’t even native to the Americas (European imports), and aren’t actually related to our own sparrows. Nevertheless, they are what most people think of as sparrows. The Lincoln’s sparrow who visited us was a treat, and stayed around for an obligingly long time to have his picture taken and be carefully studied. These sparrows are said to be secretive birds and somewhat rare migrants in Missouri.