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.