Saturday, March 30, 2013

Wednesday Afternoon at the Enchanted Forest

Dear George,
We went the other day to Eden Park to the Krohn Conservatory’s early spring floral show.  It’s called “An Enchanted Forest,” and it actually was quite enchanting, featuring hyacinths, tulips, violas, and daffodils, along with 22 tons of sandstone boulders and several elf and fairy houses sprinkled among the flowers.  Here are some photos which capture a bit of the pleasing scene.

G-mail Comments
-Phyllis S-S (3-31): Dave, Gorgeous photos - I think I'll try to get there soon. Best, Phyllis
-Gayle C-L (3-31): David,  Have a great holiday!  Love.   G

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Did You Ever Wish You Were a Duck?

A Pair of Mallards at Burnet Woods Lake

Dear George,
I started walking to work through Burnet Woods shortly after we moved to Clifton in the 70’s.  There’s a flock of mallards who’ve always lived at the lake, and I’d check them out as I went by.  Years ago I started wondering whether it’s more satisfying to be a human being or a duck.  That sounds weird at first, but the question came up one day when I was dreading an afternoon of noxious appointments and boring faculty committee meetings.  Not surprisingly, the ducks’ lives looked idyllic by comparison.  Simpler, more peaceful, less stress.  Just paddling around, dipping into the water now and then for a tasty nibble, enjoying the warm sunshine and the company of one’s fellows.  After watching for a while, I’d head off to my workplace, vaguely wishing I could spend my day relaxing on the lake instead.

Now that I think of it, our family has always had an affinity for ducks.  Growing up on the Menominee River, they were a regular feature of our environment.  Then when my parents moved to their Birch Creek Farm, my dad would go out every afternoon to spread bird seed on the pond for the group of ducks could be counted on to arrive between 5 and 6 p.m.  My mother, an ardent bird watcher, would keep an eye out from the living room window, and the ducks’ daily visits were a source of joy for all concerned. 

Thinking seriously about ducks’ lives poses deep philosophical questions.  You might scoff at this because it’s obvious that humans can do lots of things that ducks can’t, e.g., watch “Downton Abbey”, order takeout pizza from Dewey’s, play Sudoku, collect South American postage stamps.  From a duck’s perspective, though, these things have no interest.  What’s Sudoku to a duck anyway?  And ducks can do a lot of things that humans can’t.  Like laying eggs.  Or floating effortlessly for hours on end.  Or flying.  (Definitely flying.)  As far as I can tell, most ducks like being ducks and would find human existence a serious comedown.  Perhaps the more telling question is whether a mongoose or a lizard would like to be a human or a duck.  There’s no way of knowing for sure, but my guess is that most would probably opt for duckhood. 

Lately I’ve been asking Google some pithy questions about the lives and emotional well-being of ducks.  Here are some of the things I’ve discovered so far:

  • The word “duck” comes from the Old English “duce” which means “to duck, bend low, or dive.” (11)
  • Duck flocks are called “sords”. (2)
  • Mallards are the most common ducks in the U.S. (about 10 million).  They are the ancestor of nearly all domestic breeds. (9)
  • Ducks look awkward on land, but that’s because Mother Nature set their legs far back on their bodies to give them power and efficiency when swimming. (2)
  • Ducks’ feather coats are so well-constructed that their bodies don’t get wet when they swim underwater, and they don’t feel cold even in freezing water. (2)
  • Whether on water or land, mallards can take off nearly straight up into the air for 30 feet or more. (2) 
  • Ducks can reach speeds of up to 70 feet per second (9), and they can fly up to 332 miles a day. (6)
  • Ducks sleep with half their brains awake, and those at the edge of sleeping groups keep one eye open, enabling them to detect predators. (7)
  • About 20% of duck mating is by male-male pairs. (3)
  • Most northern ducks go south for the winter.  Ducks from North Central states (e.g., Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin) head for the Grand Prairie of Arkansas. (1)
  • According to pet authorities, ducks are highly intelligent.  One website notes that "they can understand commands, play with toys, play games, give kisses, and beg for snuggles like other birds if you take the time to work with them." (8)

It’s easy to see why many people wish they were ducks instead.  The only way to really resolve the duck vs. human question is through Science.  What’s needed is an objective test that can determine, once and for all, whether ducks or humans are best off.  I’ve been working on just such a test for some time, and I think I’ve finally completed an authoritative version.  Here are the critical five most critical items:

  1. Who is more handsome?  (a) Joe Biden; (b) A mallard drake.
  2. Which is a more fun way to travel?  (a) Jogging; (b) flying.
  3. Where would you like to live?  (a) In the polluted city; (b) On a beautiful lake.  
  4. What do moms prefer?  (a) Pushing your babies in a carriage; (b) Having your babies swim behind you, all in a row. 
  5. What’s better?  (a) Staying home in the snow and sludge; (b) Flying South for the winter.

I hate to say it, but, if you’re like me, you probably picked (b) on every question.  If so, the score is 5 points for ducks and 0 for humans.  That seems pretty decisive.  I have to admit, though, that I ran across some additional information about ducks that complicates the matter and prevents too hasty a conclusion: 

  • Ducks get plenty to eat, but their foodstuffs aren’t always tempting.  Along with tasty entrees like berries and nuts, duck menus include beetles, flies, worms, snails, slugs, live minnows, small frogs, and dragonflies. Hmm…not so good.  (11) 
  • Male ducks are chauvinists.  Though monogamous during the breeding season, males abandon their partner as soon she lays her eggs, i.e., the minute the hard work begins.  They never bother to come back. (10)   
  • Quacking looks like fun, but only females get to do it.  Male ducks whistle, yodel, squeak, or grunt. (11)
  • Despite my impression that the ducks on Burnet Woods Lake live in harmony and brotherly love, experts observe that ducks are among the most aggressive bird species.  Males battle over territory, food, and prospective mates.  (3)
  • Mallards can hypothetically live for 7 to 9 years, but over 50% are killed or die by age two.  Nasty duck predators include large fish (e.g., muskies), large birds (e.g., hawks, eagles), snapping turtles, and various mammals (e.g., foxes, raccoons). Humans are the most frequent and dangerous predators -- hunters shot about 15.8 million ducks last year in the U.S. alone.  Ducks also die from accidents and various diseases (e.g., botulism, cholera, viruses). The duck’s world is a lot more perilous than I realized.  Yikes!  (5, 10) 
  • Finally, it can be embarrassing to be a duck.  A British researcher recently concluded that, of all the birds and animals, ducks are most frequently the target of humor and silliness (e.g., Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, Howard the Duck).  (11)

Now I find I have to rethink the whole thing.  It’s hard to accept, but a duck’s life isn’t all fun and games.  Being eaten alive by snapping turtles or hawks is totally unpleasant.  Some days I skip the lake altogether and just walk through the forest.  Recently I’ve found myself wondering: What’s better -- being a human being or a squirrel?

SOURCES: (1) www.arkansasduckguiding,com, “Duck Migratory Patterns”; (2), "What is a Duck?"; (3), “Mallard Duck”; (4), “Duck”; (5), “Harvest Diary Surveys”; (6), “Interesting Facts about Ducks”; (7), “Facts About Ducks”; (8), "Keeping and caring for pet ducks"; (9), “Duck Factoids”; (10), "The Mallard Duck"; (11), “Duck”, “Mallard”. 

G-mail Comments
-Terry O-S (3-28): Dear David:  By an odd coincidence, my companion Joe and I were recently talking about ducks.  I was telling him about the "game dinners" that our parents and their friends staged every year and how awful the wild ducks smelled when they were cooking, because they ate fish.  Joe insisted that ducks do not eat fish because ducks don't have teeth.  We were not sufficiently invested in our respective positions for either one of us to pursue the matter - and now comes your blog post!  It is silent on the question of whether or not ducks have teeth, but does include minnows in the duck diet.  So: can you resolve this minor dispute?  Do or do not ducks have teeth?  And do you agree that the wild ducks smelled awful when they were cooking?  Best, Terry

Friday, March 22, 2013

Silly Dog Pics: Arco and Friends

Arco at Burnet Woods Lake

Dear George,
There’s a new dog in our household.  I named him Arco (after the German Shepherd war dog that my Uncle Kent brought back from the battlefields of France in World War II).  I found Arco at the Dayton flea market.  While I hadn’t been looking for a pet, he was on sale for a great price and I couldn’t pass him by.  I worried about our sheepdogs’ reactions, but they don’t seem upset at all.  Arco is easy to adjust to.  He never barks or chews things, doesn’t need monthly grooming, and doesn’t seem to want to get in the bed at night.  I think he might have belonged to a photographer because he’s so photogenic and such a good model.  He poses in a stately manner, gives a happy smile, and sits in place as long as I need him to.  He’s so perfectly behaved Katja doesn’t even think he’s for real.  Here are some photos I took recently of Arco and a couple of his other friends from our pack.  Looks pretty real to me.

G-mail Comments
-Ami G (3-22): These are a hoot!
-JML (3-22):  Nice photo project Dad. 
-Linda C (3-22):  I love your dogs so much. I can only have a cat in my apartment, but a quiet dog would be ok.  Where do I go to buy one? Flea markets or pounds?  These pictures are fabulous, so hope you will photograph mine, once I find him.  Do you have any ideas of how I would be able to tell the dogs nature before I buy him,  I have decided on a male dog.  Thanks, can I call you if I have other questions?
-Jennifer M (3-22): I love these photos. Great use of perspective. If I hadn't seen Arco in real life, I wouldn't know how small he is. :-)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Let's Go Find Some Other Lives

Sven Ljungberg

Dear George,
In college I wasn’t that interested in Calculus or Geology, but I got into a lot of other topics, e.g., UFOs, Bigfoot, mental telepathy, the Loch Ness monster, etc.  I think I was tired of everyday reality and eager to move on to more extraordinary things. Reincarnation held particular appeal.  Though I’d already dismissed notions of Heaven, Hell, and the after-life, the idea that people can return after death in new bodily forms held a certain fascination.  However, as soon as I went to graduate school I stopped thinking about all these things.  Then when I turned 65 the notion of reincarnation suddenly reappeared.  That could have been because of panic about my mortality, but I prefer to think I suddenly had more leisure time to explore life’s deep mysteries.

Reincarnation, of course, is more of an Eastern notion.  In Hinduism, one's soul is believed to move on to a new existence after the body's death.  The quality of one’s rebirth depends on their karma (essentially the sum total of one’s past moral conduct, good or bad).  Good deeds result in a higher caste and a better next life; bad deeds, to a crummier life.  The cycle of death and rebirth goes on forever unless the soul is released through major effort, mainly by devout Buddhists or saints who abandon all worldly desires and attain a state of oneness with all of existence. (2)   

About 22% of Europeans and 20% of Americans believe in reincarnation (4).  According to a CBS news poll, 10% of Americans say that they have been in touch with one or more of their past lives. (1)  Shirley MacLaine is one of the best-known devotees, having returned to her earlier lives as a harem girl, an entertainer, and a Muslim gypsy girl. (3)  When I found out that millions of people have had such experiences, I got depressed because I’ve never been in touch with a single past life.  Then I learned that you can do this by paying $139 at a reincarnation convention, getting hypnotized, and undergoing age regression.  I didn’t want to pay the $139, but I discovered how to accomplish the same results at home for practically nothing.  Basically, last Friday night I took a sleeping pill and a shot of Canadian whiskey and started meditating in front of my computer.  Once I’d reached a state of complete bodily relaxation, I started going back in my mind to earlier stages of life.  I worked my way quickly through the ups and downs of my work life, then lingered for a while on my dissertation orals and my wedding day.  College and high school whizzed by, and I jumped all the way back to early memories of playing with neighborhood kids.  When I reached my third birthday, I blacked out for a while.  Then, as I slowly regained consciousness, I became vividly aware of my identity as Sven Ljungberg, an 1890’s schoolteacher in rural Sweden.  I looked in the mirror and saw my gaunt face and bloodshot eyes.  I was married to Ulrika, a red-haired woman with the disposition of a fishwife, and we lived in a log house with a thatched roof and our seven squabbling children.  I taught dim-witted pupils in a one-room schoolhouse during the day, and I imbibed a quart of vodka each night to escape the horrors of my waking life.  Ultimately I got lost in a blinding snowstorm with my sled dog, Gnurlha, and we both froze to death.

Elated by my discoveries and still in my trance state, I shifted my attention to various family members.  I quickly discovered that Katja had formerly been a duchess in Queen Victoria’s Buckingham Palace court.  My sister-in-law Ami was a member of Gertrude Stein’s literary circle in 1920’s Paris, and my brother-in-law David was a silent film director who specialized in vampire movies.  I was amazed that my sister Vicki had actually starred in David’s films as a vampire love interest.  My brothers Peter and Steven were a railroad tycoon and a riverboat gambler respectively.  My brother-in-law George was a beloved actor in the Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side.  J and K were adventurers who had navigated the Amazon and ridden a dog sled to the South Pole. 

Now that I have indisputable proof that reincarnation is real, I’m less anxious about what the future holds.  However, I am nervous about the condition of my karma.  When I add them up, I think my bad deeds in my life so far outweigh the good, and that could mean that I’ll come back as a destitute person or even a lizard.  I still have some time left, but I’m going to have to pack about a dozen good deeds into every day if I’m going to alter my fate.  That’s a lot.  I’m going to start right this minute by cleaning up the sink and taking the sheepdogs out for a good hike.  Wish me luck and good karma to us all.

SOURCES: (1), “Reincarnation: Believing in second chances”; (2), "transmigration of souls"; (3), “Shirley MacLaine’s past lives”; (4), “Reincarnation”

G-mail Comments
-Gayle C-L (3-18): David,  I always wish you luck and great karma !!    You should probably come back as a great leader, philosopher,, maybe even F Scott Fitzgerald..  Yes.. Lots of love.. G
-Jennifer M (3-18): Very exciting discoveries!
-Donna D (3-18): such a hoot   i have a to do list you could work on to wrack up good deeds
-Linda C (3-18): You have me convinced, will try it and report my findings.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Wanted: Better Kitchen Help

A Pile of Carrot Peels

Dear George,
Katja was cooking a pot roast the other night and asked me to give her a hand.  I was sort of surprised.  Katja rarely asks me to help cook because she thinks I lack basic skills.  This time, though, she was working on the onions, and she needed me to peel a pound of carrots.  I went to the refrigerator and found a bag of shredded carrots, but Katja said she didn’t want those.  She said I should peel raw carrots instead.  I didn’t understand why shredded carrots weren’t just as good, but I put them back and got the bag of raw carrots.  Katja added that I could put the carrot peels in the sink.  I asked how many carrots were in a pound; Katja said seven.  I started in on the first raw carrot.  I was amazed at how long it takes to peel a large carrot.  I took off the first layer, then the second, then the third, etc.  There must be at least twelve layers to an adult carrot.  Soon I had an impressive pile of orange peels in the sink.  Finally there was nothing left of the first carrot except a thin, pencil-like core.  It was too flimsy to peel any further, so I ate it and started in on the second carrot.  When I was about halfway done, Katja looked over and asked, “What are you doing?”  The sink basin was covered with an inch or two of peelings.  “I’m peeling the carrots,” I said.  “I’m putting them here in the sink.  That’s what you told me to do.”  “I don’t want the peels,” Katja said.  “We throw them away.  I just want the peeled carrots.  Just peel the carrots.”  “Oh”, I replied.  I was silently relieved that she hadn’t said, ‘Just peel the carrots, you idiot.’  Of course, I do know how to peel a carrot.  I’d just gotten off on the wrong track.  There were so many peels in the sink by then that I ate handfuls of them as I started over on a new first carrot.  It went much more quickly this time around.  When I finished all seven, I took the leftover carrot peels, along with Katja’s onion skins, and flushed them down the garbage disposal.  Katja thanked me for helping.  Relieved that I’d successfully finished my task, I snuck away before she had could think up any other challenging jobs.

The next morning I was working upstairs on the computer when Katja called up to say that the garbage disposal was clogged up.  I brought down the toilet plunger and worked on the sink for several minutes, but I couldn’t budge it even a millimeter.  Finally Katja called the plumber.  He tried plunging too, but wound up taking the pipes apart.  The bend in the pipe was solidly blocked with ground up onion skins and carrot peels.  “You should never put carrots or onion skins down the disposal,” he said.  I thanked him for the helpful tip.  It cost $90.  I decided that Katja probably doesn’t usually ask for my help because it costs too much.  We ate the pot roast for supper that night.  It was excellent.  The meat was tender, the onions were tasty.  The carrots were the best.  If we’d had the same meal at a fine restaurant, we would have paid more than $90.  I felt better.  Everything had turned out o.k. after all.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Daylight Whoopee Doopee Time

Dear George,
We performed the annual March ritual of springing forward by setting our clocks ahead one hour on Sunday morning.  The big day always leaves us a little groggy.  We get confused whether our go-to-sleep time of midnight is really 11 p.m. or 1 a.m., so we sleep sporadically, and then we’re exhausted when we wake up.  Fortunately our digital cable TV and cell phone clocks reset themselves automatically, but it still takes us a week to get all our other household clocks aligned correctly.  Given so many conflicting signals of “old time” and “new time” scattered throughout the house, it’s a wonder that we ever get anywhere on time.  Just this afternoon I told Katja I’d be home at 3:00, but I was an hour off because the clock in our car was wrong.  On a more elemental level, since I’m a person who craves stability and order in my life above all else, I find the whole idea of altering time unnerving.  If there’s anything in the universe that ought to be constant and objective, you’d think it would be time.  I can hardly believe that Congress, which can’t get anything else done, can just decide that on March 10th 2:00 a.m. will henceforth be 3:00 a.m.  Mother Nature probably rolls over in her grave.

It turns out that ancient civilizations were more flexible about time.  Typically, the daylight period was divided into twelve hours, regardless of the season and the length of of days.  In ancient Rome, for example, the third hour after sunrise was 44 minutes long at the winter solstice, but 75 minutes long at the summer solstice.  Benjamin Franklin is credited as the first person to advocate changing our use of daylight.  As the American envoy to France, Franklin wrote a satirical essay in 1784 proposing that Parisians cut back on their use of candles by getting up earlier in the morning.  To assist in the process, he suggested that church bells be rung and cannons be shot off promptly at dawn.  (6) 

A New Zealand entomologist named George Vernon Hudson in 1895 was the first to propose a modern version of daylight saving time (hereafter, DST).  He wanted to have more daylight leisure time in which to collect insects.  In 1907 an English outdoorsman and avid golfer named William Willett, who disliked cutting his golf rounds short at dusk, argued for DST, but the British parliament failed to follow up on his proposal.  (6)

Germany and its allies were the first countries to actually adopt DST, their aim being to reduce energy usage and conserve coal in World War I.  Britain and its partners soon followed suit, and the U.S. adopted DST when it entered the war in 1918.  DST was repealed in the U.S. in 1919, then reinstated in World War II until 1945, and finally adopted by Congress in the Uniform Time Act of 1966.  Arizona (aside from the Navaho Nation) and Hawaii are the only states that don’t currently observe DST.  Arizona’s reasoning is that, because of excessive summer heat, it’s worse to prolong daytime hours.   A 2008 Department of Energy study found that electricity use decreases about 0.5% a day during DST.  That sounds miniscule, but it’s enough to power 122,000 U.S. homes for a year.  (1)

Daylight Saving Time has always been controversial, and arrangements across the country were a mess for many decades.  Despite being an avid golfer, President Warren G. Harding strongly opposed daylight saving time and made it voluntary in Washington D.C. in 1922 for private employers but not for federal employees.  Needless to say, Harding's policy created chaos, and the practice was subsequently terminated.  (3)  In the 1950s and 1960s every U.S. community could choose for itself when to begin and end DST.  My home town of Menominee and its twin city of Marinette operated on different summer times, and we regularly crossed the river to do some shopping, only to find the stores closed.  On a bigger scale, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia found themselves on different times than Washington D.C., Cleveland, and Baltimore.  Bus passengers from Steubenville, OH, to Moundsville, WV, had to change their watches seven times in the space of 35 miles.  The situation led to millions of dollars in costs to various businesses and industries.  Extra railroad timetables all by themselves cost over $12 million a year.  (5)

People cite many advantages of DST, e.g., more daylight to do outdoor chores, socialize or do recreational activities, and spend outdoor time with children after work, as well as reducing electricity usage, traffic accidents, and crime (since criminals like darkness).  (4)  DST has generally been favored by retailers, outdoor sports enthusiasts, and tourism interests.  Farmers dislike it because their animals don’t observe it and they have to get up early anyway. One Internet discussant also adds, “That extra hr. of sun just burns my garden up in the summertime." (2)   That’s a serious problem, though there’s something iffy about the logic.  DST also has negative effects on prime-time TV ratings, drive-ins, movie theater attendance, and other evening entertainment. Bar patrons sometimes get upset when they lose an hour of drinking time on the night that DST springs forward.   In 1997 in Athens, OH, home of Ohio University, over 1000 students and other late night partiers chanted “Freedom” as they threw liquor bottles at the mounted horse patrol police who were attempting to control rioting when the bars closed early.  (5)

Despite my minor misgivings, we ourselves love Daylight Saving Time.  It is a Whoopee Doopee time.  That’s not because of energy conservation, crime, Dairy Queen hours, or the tourism industry.  By March we’ve had it with the seemingly endless stretch of bleak, dark days.  Shifting to Daylight Saving Time symbolizes the beginning of Spring and happier days.  In particular, it makes for more evening outings with the sheepdogs.  That, in turn, makes the world a better place for the dogs, the people, and the neighborhood at large.  Happy DST! 

SOURCES: (1), “Daylight Saving Time 3013: 5 Things You didn’t Know”; (2), "Daylight Savings Time - For Or Against"; (3), "How Daylight Saving Time Works"; (4), "The Never-ending Daylight Saving Debate"; (5), “Daylight Saving Time: Incidents and Anecdotes”; (6), “Daylight Saving Time” 

G-mail Comments
-Linda C (3-11): The first week of dst makes me nuts, by a week I'm fine, but I spend a lot of time saying  " if I get up at 8am is it really 7 am or 9 am?