Pelican

Once upon a time, in another life, I tried to write a poem about pelicans, and it began like this:

“Once I stood on packed sand still
dark with the receding tide on an afternoon
that couldn’t decide not to be winter,
on a barrier island named for wild horses,
at the dune-drifted, grass-whispered margin
of the Gulf of Mexico…”
 

After this point, the words changed and shifted like shoals every time I looked at it. It was never right. The poem hemmed and hawed and finally got around to trying to describe the birds that remind me so much of pterosaurs. Every time I see the creature, I travel back to the Cretaceous in my mind:

 “Pelicans slip the air streams
like ancient machines perfectly designed
for what they need to do, all hooked
bill and hollow bone, sailed wings sending
shadows ripping across the waves…”
 

Or something like that. I put the poem away, unfinished, with all my poems years ago. Now I take pictures. So here are a few photos of my favorite bird, the brown pelican. I think they have inspired me to try to finish the poem. (Maybe.)

It’s amazing how a creature that is so graceful and strong in the air, like a glimmer of prehistory reminding me of the largest flying creatures the world has ever seen, becomes kind of cute and dorky when he’s waddling around on the land.

Just for the curious: The first 3 photos were taken in Edisto Beach in SC last August and the last 2 were taken at the Outer Banks in April.

Aging Still Sucks

Disclaimer: Reading this essay may cause mild to severe panic in individuals approaching middle age.

Maybe it started when your arms got shorter. Suddenly they weren’t long enough to read the small print on your pill bottles. So you bought your first pair of reading glasses. Or maybe it was that first pill case you bought with compartments for each day of the week to remind you to take your “meds.” These are all signs that you have reached your biologically-predetermined peak in life and are now making your descent toward your “silver years.” It really is all downhill from here. The only question now is, will you remain intact enough to enjoy the trip, or will you get caught up in an avalanche and be swept away in a crushing tumbler of metaphorical ice, snow and stone?

The first signs of impending catastrophic aging are gradual and sneaky. You can get used to anything – even the ground shivering occasionally beneath your feet. If it doesn’t go away, it becomes your new normal. For instance, I’ve recently invested in stronger reading glasses, and if I get caught without them, I have to have one of the children read labels for me. I’ve also graduated from a simple 7-cell pill case to a pill condo with 28 individual compartments, four for each day – a reward for scoring badly on my last blood test.

I’ve noticed many other signs of aging escalation that I’m sure many of you share. If you’re over 40, chances are you grunt or groan when you sit down or stand up. It may be subtle. You may not even notice you’re doing it. Ask your husband/wife/partner. They’ll tell you. He or she will also probably tell you that you snore. It’s also likely that you have trouble sleeping, that you feel like absolute crap first thing in the morning, that you suffer from some kind of chronic anxiety or depression, that you have frequent headaches or acid reflux or both, that various joints are showing signs of irreparable damage, that you are overweight, that you have to exercise twice as hard or long as you did 10 years ago to achieve the same effect, and that there are foods you can no longer eat without extreme discomfort (or without clearing a room). And if you’re a woman, your reproductive system is preparing to shut down spurring a whole host of fun symptoms (which deserves a whole essay of its own, so I won’t elaborate here).

Don’t despair. There’s a bright side to aging. Or so I’m told.  You get to develop character. “That which does not kill us…” and all that, right? Yes, I know. What a crock of shit. See, now we’re finally old enough to really understand what a nutcase Nietzsche was. Pain is just pain and it sucks. It doesn’t make you stronger. It just is and most of the time, we endure it because we have no choice. So no, aging isn’t for wimps but even the wimps will do it. They’ll just whine more.

But the good part is, if you can learn to live with the change without whining, you start noticing things. Maybe you stop taking so much for granted. You appreciate little things like you never have before – a good night’s sleep, not passing gas during a meal in public, or just the time you get to read a book while you’re in the waiting room at your doctor’s office.

Or maybe you notice just how amazing being alive really is, breathing out and breathing in, and thinking about every living thing that ever breathed that same air, or where the water in your glass was a million years ago or the exploded star your molecules came from. Just being able to think about all that while feeling the sun on your face, well, that’s a lot.

But it’s not everything. C’mon. There are going to be times when you can’t manage that isn’t-life-amazing-I’m just-happy-to-be-here mojo. So here’s my advice, just a few things I do when I’ve had a rough day of living:

1-      Watch a monster movie.Nothing will make you appreciate being alive more than watching other people being eaten alive by a giant, angry shark. Or an alien with acid for blood. Or a pack of zombies, pirate ghosts, guild-ridden werewolves, pissed-off angels, vampires with a conscience, wise-cracking demons who want to be human, giant desert worms, or 3,000-year-old reanimated mummies of ancient aliens. Fill in your monster(s) here.

Funny monster movies are even better.

2-      Read a funny book. It’s hard to complain while you’re laughing. I can personally attest that any of the following authors will make you snort your coffee:  Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, Tom Holt, Bill Bryson, David Sedaris, and Janet Evanovich. And special kudos to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett for Good Omens.

3-      Spend time with your kids. If yours are teenagers, this might be a little more difficult than it was when they were little. But even mine are willing to patronize the parents once in a while and have a family movie night or go out for snow cones. Even if you just get them talking while you drive the carpool to school, they can be quite entertaining and something about their enthusiasm is infectious.

That’s about all I have in my arsenal except for going hiking with my camera which you already know about if you’re a regular follower of this blog. So what do you do to combat the rigors of aging? I’d love to hear some suggestions.

For those of you who are interested, see my first post on this subject: Aging Sucks.

All the Days of Summer

“Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.”

–  Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

When I was a kid, summer was all about freedom – from school, from homework, from having to close the book and turn out the light too early every night, from bells ringing and chalk squeaking on a black board and being expected to sit for most of the day. And from staring out the window daydreaming about being out there, outside under the fierce sun and fathomless sky watching clouds scud across the blue like clipper ships with full sails.

Sometimes, I think I remember my childhood summers like stories Ray Bradbury wrote just for me. If you picked up my copy of I Sing the Body Electric or Golden Apples of the Sun, you’d find them there, my stories, like the thirteenth floor in tall buildings, invisible until you looked for them. And when you did, there I’d be in print – running with the neighborhood kid pack, riding my bike and going barefoot and wading in ditches and scooping polliwogs into pickle jars.

The summers I remember smelled of pine sap and honeysuckle and sounded like cicadas. There were water moccasins in the garden, gators in the bayou, and graveyards in the woods. All old homes were haunted, especially if they were built before the Civil War, and people said the river sang with the voices of a vanished Indian tribe. I wore cut-offs and drank water from the hose, got bitten by mosquitoes and deer flies and horse flies and ants, climbed trees and neighbors’ fences, and rode my bike around deserted schools and vacant ballparks. Sometimes I’d stay out until the bats swooped in the evening sky and the streetlights flickered on and my mother’s voice began calling me home.

If I was inside on a summer day, I was reading a book – Bradbury or Heinlein or Asimov or Clarke, stories where anything could happen and usually did. A trip to the Pascagoula Public Library to stock up on new stories was even better than a visit to the Pixie Pet Shop where we got our dog (a 12-pound miniature dachshund named Caesar) and where they kept a real piranha in a huge murky tank. The library was seemed dark when you first stepped in from the afternoon sun until your eyes adjusted and you could see all the daylight the old building let in, dust motes drifting in rays of light from walls of paned windows. The air inside was cool and smelled of aging paper and ink and glue. Its stacks were labyrinthine and had creaky wooden floors, high shelves, and secret corners perfect for reading. The librarians were traditional and enforced the quiet so it was easier to dive out of the world and surface in another where dinosaurs still lived or spaceships were real.

“He brought out a yellow nickel tablet. He brought out a Ticonderoga pencil. He opened the tablet. He licked the pencil…”

When Ray Bradbury passed away a few weeks ago, just before what would have been his 92nd summer on the planet, all I could think was – the world will be poorer without him but thank goodness for all the stories he left us –  The Martian Chronicles,  Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes. And especially for my favorite, Dandelion Wine. In that novel, he created the most magical summer I’ve read (or experienced) making me feel nostalgic about growing up in the Midwest in the 1930s though I was raised a thousand miles away and 40 years later.

So I might have semi-mythologized the summers of my own childhood and it might have been at least partly Ray Bradbury’s fault. I might have glossed over all the mundane details, and I’ve realized lately – I really owe him for that. Because what else are we but a set of selective memories we take out to re­-live, tell it like a story, polish it like a stone, and then put it away again? I’ve got some good stories now, and like dandelion wine, they get better with age. Thank you, Ray. RIP.

Roadside Relics: Old American Motels

I love old motels. We used to live in a mountain tourist town that had a leftover population of the old lodgings in various stages of decay. So for a time, I collected them – with my camera.

The cool thing about digital collections, besides the fact that they occupy very little space outside the virtual world (a handy fact that helps to keep me firmly on this side of the line that separates “collector” from “hoarder”), is that I can play with photos later. Lately, I’ve been trying to learn a little more about how to use Photoshop Elements, so I experimented on some old motel photos.

I thought I would provide a little history to go along with this bit of Americana: Motels evolved along with American car culture.

My car in another life.

 As the US highways sprouted in the 1920s, auto travelers needed handy places to stop for the night that were affordable and easily accessible. So the motor inn in all of its various incarnations (motor court, motor lodge, tourist lodge, cottage court, tourist cabins, auto cabins, cabin court, or auto court) was born.

Sadly, the Rockola was torn down not long after this was taken.

It might have been 1960 if it weren’t for the Coke machine.

The word motel was coined in the mid-1920s as a combination of the words motor and hotel. Motels were often a cluster of cottages or cabins with common parking area or a single building of connected rooms that opened on the parking lot which allowed rumpled, road-weary travelers to get to their rooms without trudging through stuffy lobbies.

One of my favorite motel signs ever.

Tropical bungalow style motel in the mountains 800 miles from Miami.

In the fifties and sixties, to get motorists’ attention, motels often featured colorful neon signs and themes from pop culture. Sadly, after the sixties, chains like Holiday Inn began to run unique, privately-owned motels out of business.

There’s still a few around, though, if you’re lucky enough to stumble across them.

Because Life is Sticky: A Countdown of My Top Five Favorite Onerous Household Chores

via bonanza.com and Erma Bombeck

Disclaimer: If you’re not a stay-at-home mom, house dad, homemaker, or someone else who spends a substantial amount of time cleaning up after your family, you may want to skip this fun little list as its grossness factor is high and its only real entertainment value is in commiseration.

Note:  I have omitted anything involving blood, pee, poo or vomit for being too evident. Everybody knows that no parent likes changing diapers or cleaning up after sick or injured children or pets. This list concerns a few of the disgusting chores that get less attention but may be even more onerous by virtue of their long-term (i.e. well past potty-training) and frequent occurrence.

5 – Scraping fruit stickers off the sink, counter, or furniture. Do your kids do this? Take the sticker off the apple or banana and carefully press it onto the edge of the kitchen sink or other handy surface? This is one of the many things that sometimes makes me wonder what my kids really think of me. Do they really believe I have nothing better to do than to scrape away the sticky left by a Granny Smith apple label? Look kids! Here I am, putting my college degree to use with the dull edge of a butter knife. Thank goodness for Goo Gone, the wonder product that removes all residual stickiness! (And the fact that I just wrote that sentence with genuine gratitude makes me want to stick a fork in my eye right now.)

4 – Cleaning in and around trash cans. Nothing more fun to me than picking up used Kleenex or dental floss off the bathroom floor because our sons just missed the trash can. (Not the only thing they miss, but I promised not to mention that.) The kitchen trash can is even worse.  Ours has a lid because otherwise our dogs would help themselves. How does a kid manage to lift the lid, deposit the item, close the lid, and then manage to spill food on top of the lid (and wall and floor)?

3 – Cleaning out the bottom of the refrigerator after discovering that somebody has spilled something liquid and sugary in the not-so-recent past (giving plenty of time for maximal microbial and fungal growth before I discover the bulk of the spill hidden by the bottom drawer). Last time I think it was a mixture the juice from a can of black olives and some kind of red soda.

2 – Reaching into the spaghetti pot soaking in the sink to remove whatever my family has thrown into the water. Do your loved ones do this? Why do they do this? I need to know. I fill the pot with hot soapy water to soak so I can scrub it clean in the near future. But if I leave it in the sink and do not get back to it quickly enough, my family, rather than rinsing their post-dinner dishes and putting them in the dishwasher or other side of the sink, will simply dump every utensil or plate or glass they use into the pot. So now I have to reach into cold, greasy, rehydrated tomato-sauce-water (which now contains a rich, varied mixture of other organic debris) to retrieve a glass that originally just held someone’s after-dinner iced tea but is now coated in a viscous residue from the dirty orange dishwater soup. Ugh.

1 – Reaching into the garbage disposal to retrieve whatever is making the horrible noise. So far I have found spoons, forks, broken glass, bottle caps, lemon or lime rinds, a marble, a handful of pennies, a Lego Guy, and just today, a white jelly-like sack of something that looked like a breast implant with a tough pulpy core that I can’t identify and sincerely wish I had never handled.

Some days, I love my job less than others.

So your turn. What’s your favorite housework to hate? What chores make you feel like an underappreciated, domestic grunt with dishpan hands?

Who Needs a Darkroom?

I think that to me probably the coolest thing about the 21st century besides digital cameras is photo editing software.  I have Photoshop Elements and sitting on my couch tinkering with it sure beats investing in a bunch of expensive equipment and spending an afternoon in a dark closet with open trays of smelly chemicals. Even for a complete novice like me, adjusting the basics is pretty simple. Then I just have to pick what I like best.

But I can be seriously indecisive, so I thought I’d get your help. Here are three different treatments of the same image of a leafless tree towering over an abandoned school. What do you like best?

Will You Take a Quarter for This?

“That’s the meaning of life isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff… That’s all your house is. It’s a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”

“Have you noticed that everybody else’s stuff is shit and your shit is stuff?”

 – George Carlin

If you haven’t already seen it, you should
watch Stuff on Youtube now.

Stuff is devious. It pretends to be something that will make your life easier or more pleasurable but often ends up being a burden – something you’re tied to and can’t get rid of. Suddenly, pleasure becomes a responsibility. Better not get rid of this stuff. It might be useful again one day. You might be unhappy if it were gone. You might never find stuff like it.

So you relegate it to the garage or the basement or the attic where it fills boxes and makes homes for spiders and becomes forgotten. Even there it creates work. It needs to be moved about so you can get to other stuff, shoved aside so you can get to the Christmas decorations or the summer water toys or the Halloween costumes. It’s in the way, taking up space – in your home and in your brain. Just what was in those boxes, you wonder. Or, why do I still have those lamps or an antique cookie press I’ll never use or boxes of toys the boys outgrew years ago? So I decided it was time to liberate my family from the tyranny of owning too much stuff – by having a yard sale.

Before we moved to our present home, we lived in a neighborhood that had collective yard sales every May. It worked out really well. It became habit once a year to rid ourselves of excess stuff. But four years ago, we moved. Fortunately, I did a pretty thorough job of thinning our stuff then, because ownership is not nearly so attractive when you have to pack all your stuff in boxes, carry it up the basement steps, and load it in a U-Haul. So we trimmed down. Way down. In terms of stuff, we were positively svelte by the time we took up residence in our new home. But that was four years ago.

Some of you may have noticed a series of posts I did about cool stuff I’ve found at thrift stores. (See thrift pick)  I frequent them regularly and drag home odd, old or unusual items that have only one thing in common – we have absolutely no use for any of it. I admit it. I am a collector. A junk store junkie. (See Confession of a Thrift Store Junkie) I regularly troll second hand stores and drag home whatever cast-off catches my fancy – a globe, a green glass jar, 800 Scrabble tiles. Four years is a long time for someone like me to go without thinning out the stuff.

It was time. So it’s a good thing for me that you can haul all your stuff out on the front lawn and put a sticker on it and chances are, someone will come along and buy it. (Unless it’s badly broken or extraordinarily ugly, it which case you put a sign that says “FREE” and it will disappear. American magic.)

So last Saturday, I did just that. After 4 hours of standing in my drive way with nothing better to do than to study the people who stopped to look at our stuff, I was able to identify several types of yard salers:

  1. Saturday morning pleasure shoppers – I like these kind. They’re the type who figure yard saling just means a drive on a pleasant morning, a cheap way to spend time with friends, and the off chance you might stumble on something you think is really cool.
  2. Antique Roadshow wannabees – These are fairly annoying. They’re just hoping to rip off some poor schmuck who’s selling his great granddaddy’s ugly old painting for $5 that’s actually an authentic Picasso. They’re not looking to find treasure. They’re looking to take it from some one else.
  3. Junk dealers – Only slightly less annoying than the Roadshow trollers. They tend to come early and drive big pick-ups with stuff piled in the back. They don’t expect to find treasure, but they want to pay dirt for your stuff.
  4. Grandparents – These can be fun because they’re always looking for something for their grandkids. Some of them will pinch a penny until it screams though and will haggle over a quarter.
  5. Young couples with cute little children – These are my favorite. They often don’t have a lot of money so they really appreciate cheap stuff (especially toys and kid clothes which we always have).  And it’s always fun to give the kids more toys than their parents are willing to buy.

All in all, having a yard sale isn’t nearly fun (for me) as going to one. But I have to do it, right? I try to think of it as the ultimate recycling. Just doing my bit to keep my stuff out of the landfills.

And how else would I get to have fun conversations like this:

“Will you take $5 for this?”

“Uh…I don’t think so.”

“But it’s old and ugly.”

“Yes, but I don’t think the neighbors want to sell their cat.”

Or.

“Do you have a dining room table?”

“Yes, it’s in the dining room.”

“How much?”

“It’s not for sale. That’s why it’s not out here. In the driveway. Where we’re selling stuff.”

He looked at me like I had just spit on him and stalked back to his car.

Or.

“Hey, can I get a cup of coffee, too?”

“Uh, I’m not serving…What do you mean ‘too’?!” I spun around. “Alright, who took my cup?”

Okay, I made up one of those. I’ll let you figure out which.

The Summer Country

It had been about 6 weeks since the last time I managed to get away and go for a hike, just me and my camera. I had come to this very place, an artificial wetland created by the state after they had dammed a local river and flooded the natural wetlands.  It’s a great place to go birding and butterfly hunting.

That day in the spring, the last time I was here, the air still had a nip, a cool breeze ruffled my hair, and fluffy white clouds drifted in a deep blue sky. What a difference a few weeks made. The sky was bleached and pale. The heat was stifling. Not the slightest breeze moved in the trees. The birds, though, were everywhere and they were singing.

The path is actually a narrow road – just 2 graveled tire tracks lined with high grass and wildflowers. It makes a big loop around a marsh and is bordered by pine woods on the outer edge. I glanced down the path and froze. Something was moving in the grass about 20 yards ahead. I squinted. Not a squirrel or a bird. It was brown and seemed to hover about a foot off the ground. I turned on my camera, zoomed in and saw this: 

Can you tell what it is? I was still puzzled, so I waited a moment. And then this popped up:

He watched me for a moment and fled when I took a step. I felt kind of bad for interrupting his foraging.

Part of the fun when I go for a hike is that I never know what I’m going to see. Today there were black swallowtails everywhere.

And not one of them would stop and hold still even for a moment. They would appear out of nowhere, flutter aimlessly about, within tantalizing reach of my zoom lens, and then swoop away again without checking out a single flower.

So I took pictures of the flowers because they didn’t fly away before I could focus.

When I finally did get a bug to hold still for me, it wasn’t a butterfly.

Just after this, I was walking along, thinking about icy Gatorade and wishing for a breeze, when something splashed, squawked and 3 big shapes flew out of the reeds to my left. Since my lightning reflexes kind of misfired, I didn’t get a photo of the mystery squawker(s) until one landed in the top of a nearby tree.

I had no idea what bird this was and that illustrates part of the fun of my little hobby – looking stuff up when I get home. Uploading my photos after a hike is like a present I get to open after I have showered, rehydrated, and collapsed into a comfortable chair with my laptop. It’s even more fun if there is a) a particularly good photo or b) a photo of something I have never seen (or noticed) before.  This one was particularly fun to figure out because it’s a juvenile and because at first I couldn’t find a match that could do this:

This one landed in a neighboring tree and his body language says he is quite alarmed. So he stretches out his neck and raises his crest to make himself appear bigger. But most photos, including the ones in my field guide or on Cornell’s excellent site, don’t show the crest. So it took me a little while to figure out that they are juvenile green herons. I felt a happy, warm glow when I identified him.

Sometimes, I am convinced that I was born in the wrong time. I should have lived in the 19th century when natural history was still such a mystery and explorers all over the world were sketching rocks and fossils and bugs and birds in their notebooks so they could study them later and identify or compare and classify and name the new species. I would like to have lived when Alfred Wallace was still tramping about in the jungles of South America or the East Indies, when Charles Darwin was sailing around the world, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne wrote their fantastic tales, when museums still sent great expeditions all over the world to bring back artifacts and specimens and first-hand accounts.

But this is not the dark continent of Edgar Rice Burroughs or the Gobi desert or the Amazon rain forest. It’s a rather pleasant walk around a big, artificially-designed swampy area with songbirds and butterflies. No leopard waits to sink it’s fangs into my skull and drag me up into a tree, no malaria-carrying mosquito will take my blood and leave me feverish, and I’m not going to stumble across ancient ruins in a clearing or find a plateau full of leftover dinosaurs. But I will get to go home and look up my bird using a world wide web of interconnected machines that not even Jules Verne could imagine and then write a little diddle about it that people all over the world might read within minutes.

Pretty cool really, but still sometimes I have to get away from the machines and come walk where I can’t hear engines. I have to sit by the water to enjoy the weak, bloodwarm breeze that finally sprung up and study the world upside down in the water and flight of dragonflies.

When I got restless again, I walked until I found a bank of purple and white.

I took a dozen photos of these flowers trying to figure out the right light and angle to do them justice when this flew into the frame:

And then a male joined her:

And then they were gone:

As they left, they orbited each other like twin suns, each captured by the other’s gravity, revolving in a fluttering ball to within a few inches of my face, hanging there for a moment like some fantastic Christmas ornament and then they spun away.

About then, I realized my tongue felt like parchment. I had left the water in the car because I didn’t want to carry it and my camera too and I was only halfway around the loop. I resolved to pick up the pace, took two steps and found this:

Can you imagine having to shed your skin every time you grew? The next time I am aggravated with the trials of parenting teenagers, I think I will try to remember to be grateful that I don’t have to pick up their old skins along with their dirty socks.

By this time, I could feel my skin burning through my sunscreen, so I really did pick up the pace. I spent the last half mile daydreaming about swimming in a river in Texas where I used to go hiking and fossil hunting. Even in the dead of summer when it hadn’t rained in weeks and I could walk parts of the river bed without getting my ankles wet, I knew where a deep shady pool was that never went dry and the water was always cool and green. But that’s another story.

Fifty-one Years and Counting

A year ago, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and I wrote this little essay for them. Since then Fork in My Eye was born, so I thought I would post it here to honor another year added to their tally:

June 24, 1961 – She had just finished high school and he had just graduated from the Naval Academy.

This is the story of an artist and an engineer and how they have weathered 51 years of wedded bliss including: parenthood to three neurologically atypical children, a multitude of pets representing at least 4 of the vertebrate phyla, 10 years living at the command of the US Navy, hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours on the road, a sandstorm, two earthquakes, 39 years of Mississippi heat and mosquitoes, and several hurricanes including a category five that washed their house away. Together they’ve witnessed the elections of ten US presidents, the end of the Cold War, and the doubling of the world’s population. They survived cars without seat belts, lead paint, asbestos, mercury thermometers, second-hand smoke, McDonald’s transfat French fries, Hare Krishnas at the airports, and Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door.

During the Navy years, they spent more time apartthan together. While Kennedy and Khrushchev sparred in the news and the young  officer’s ship stalked a Russian submarine off the coast of Cuba, she was home in Norfolk, Va, caring for their firstborn infant son and still unaware that she was pregnantwith their second.

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969
Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and she watched from home with their three young children, he was serving his country 9,000 miles away in My Tho. During these first 10 years of their marriage, they drove roughly the equivalent of the earth’s circumference, up and down the Eastern seaboard, then ocean to ocean and back again on shiny new interstate highways. And they did most of it with 3 kids and a dachshund in a Pontiac station wagon with no air conditioning.

In the seventies, they settled in the deep South and upgraded to a Freon-cooled, blue Mercury station wagon with genuine, faux woodgrain paneling along the sides and a profile longer than some baby limousines. As the decade got rolling, the Beatles broke up, Nixon got caught, bell bottoms became hip huggers, Happy Days premiered on TV, and two men were abducted by a UFO from the west bank of the Pascagoula River just a few miles from the Gallaghers’ new home in the Mississippi woods.

Dad designed warships by day, went to school at night to earn his masters degree in business, worked most Saturdays, and served in the Naval reserves one weekend a month. He came to every softball game and soccer game and refereed a few of the latter. He would always play chess or Scrabble or gin rummy on request. And notably, he gave up smoking at the request of his youngest child.

Mom took art lessons and soon was giving them, planted beautiful gardens, decorated the house, joined the garden club and the Hickory Hills Country Club and the PTA. She sewed clothes for the kids and costumes for school plays and Halloween, attended umpteen swim meets in the sweltering Mississippi heat, read Erma Bombeck’s books, and listened to Paul Harvey every day on the radio.

The King Tut exhibit toured the US and everything Egyptian became an American fad. We saw the exhibit in N.O. in 1978.

Together they dutifully attended three years (one for each child) of beginner band concerts without once pointing out to each of their children the clear deficit of musical talent in our family. They took us to see Jaws and Star Wars and the King Tut exhibit when it came to New Orleans. The house was always full of books and art and animals. Their family expanded at various time to include not only dogs and half-feral cats that wandered in from the woods, but also tropical fish, parakeets, mice, gerbils, box turtles, rabbits, snakes the boys caught in the woods (these, our mother asserted, were temporary guests), and one mean duck.

The eighties rolled over. The boys graduated high school and left home for college. Dad took up jogging, read all of Dr. James Fixx’s books, and amassed an impressive collection of tacky t-shirts from 5K and 10K runs. Mom realized Father Cleary, the stern, sexist, philanderer of a rector of the only Catholic church within 15 miles had finally been replaced and dragged her youngest child back to mass, started arranging flowers for the altar, and then dragged the same child through fields full of fire ants, chiggers, briars and bull thistles in search of wildflowers (which the youngest child thought was way more fun than church). She taught a year of art at a Catholic high school and then went to work part time at a florist where the ladies always had the latest gossip because they did the flowers for every event.

Finally, the youngest child left home and they were alone. But not for long, because we came back – each one of us for some length of time over the next few years ran back to Mom and Dad. And then we didn’t for a while. Dad had to quit jogging because of a bad back so he focused on scholarly interests that come naturally to him – genealogy, history, world economics, politics, applied sciences, new technologies. He became active in local politics when their tiny community finally incorporated and became a city. He retired as a captain in the US Navy in the early nineties but continued to work until just last year because he said, he was still enjoying himself.

Mom began to sell her paintings at galleries along the coast and still does. Her gardens became even more extensive havens for local wildlife including, almost every summer, at least one water moccasin which she dispatched herself with whatever garden implement was at hand. Her house became a showcase but always a comfortable one. She was also active in local politics and always had her finger in a dozen community pies.

They took their first trips alone since their honeymoon posing for photos on a Canadian glacier, exploring Yellowstone, strolling through Stonehenge and Blarney castle (and yes, Dad kissed the stone). Their children finally grew up and grew more interesting, probably because one son travels the world and brings back cool stuff and stories and photos, and the other son and daughter acquired children of their own and by virtue of being parents themselves suddenly had more in common with their own parents.

After the turn of the new millennium, Mom and Dad decided that 30 years in one place was long enough, pulled up roots and moved 50 miles west to a charming artsy little community on the beach. A year later, Hurricane Katrina roared in with a 30 foot surge and washed their new house, and everything they had accumulated over 40 years together including all the family photos, away. In the months that followed, as they and their children scoured the debris field, they found no piece of their house bigger than half the staircase. They salvaged a few things in the rubble – some jewelry and silverware and knick knacks.

They have rebuilt. Bigger, better, more beautiful than before, and several feet higher – their new home is full of light and air with high ceilings, lots of windows, and big screened porches. Mom’s new gardens are maturing beautifully and the wildlife is coming back. The pool that was a festering swamp for two years is sparkling blue again and surrounded by new foliage. Visiting them is like staying at a beachy bed and breakfast  run by my own mom and dad and it’s is one of my favorite places on the planet.

And I wish I could be there today. But since I can’t be, I’d like to take this opportunity to once again apologize for any time I may have vomited on you, wiped my nose on your shoulder, or kept you up all night. I am also heartily sorry for years of making dubious noises with brass instruments in your home, any time I bitterly complained about helping out around the house, and especially for my late teens and most of my twenties.

I love you and miss you both. Happy 51st anniversary, Mom and Dad.

Chasing Summer

Ever since I first picked up a camera when I was 12 or so, I’ve displayed a tendency to chase pretty bugs with wings trying to still an instant so I could get a closer look. I wasn’t very good at it when I was 12, and I’m not really great at it now, but I have 2 things going for me that I didn’t have then – a compulsive persistence honed by decades of practice (or neuroses management, your call) and a digital camera with a zoom lens.

Now I can take dozens of images of a given butterfly without necessarily having to put myself within arm’s reach – a distinct advantage when you’re dealing with an insect whose spastic, high-speed flight path contains nothing akin to a straight line and can often swoop on a whim over the trees and out of your reach forever.  It also helps that I am finally learning something about butterfly behavior, so I can catch them in relative stillness while they’re feeding, sunning or puddling. But still, the skittish little suckers are fast and erratic and will often fling themselves out of my frame at the last second. So sometimes my butterfly hunts are reduced to photos of things that move much more slowly – like wildflowers.

Next to tropical fish and seashells and the feathers of peacocks, I always thought a butterfly’s wings are one of the most brilliant canvases nature has come up with – all of summer painted on a scaled wing, more exotic than the flowers they feed on. Once I started hunting, it was all about collecting (because that’s the nature of my particular compulsion), so I’m always chasing something I’ve never seen or caught (or a better shot of one I have).

Here are a few of my favorites.

Tiger Swallowtail

Black Swallowtails

Common Buckeye

Monarch

Monarch

Tiger

Gulf Fritillary

Long-tailed Skipper

When I’m not quick enough

Black female tiger swallowtail.

Red-spotted Purple and a Viceroy.

 

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