Wildlife

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<i style=”size: xx-small”>Birch leaf on snow – Valentine’s Day 2006. A gift from my wife.</i>
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In the middle of winter, while we were visiting family in warmer climates, our carpenter spent two weeks rearranging our sleeping quarters. Note the affectionate and respectful use of the possessive: “our carpenter”. A truly honest and honorable craftsman. He used to be a programmer for National Life insurance until his job was sent overseas to Bangalore, India without him. He decided it was time to stop dreaming about remodeling houses for a living and do it. He is full of wisdom, such as, “A bad day of carpentry is still better than the best day in a cubicle.”

Our carpenter worked very hard to get the work completed in the two weeks we were gone, because he loves our children and wanted them to have bedrooms to come home to at the end of our vacation. Meanwhile, our next door neighbors were having their kitchen remodeled. I will not share all the misery they endured. When we returned from our two week trip, their work was not half done and they later confided to me that they would look out their windows in the morning and say to themselves, “Hey! Harry’s contractor comes to work on time,” and they would look out their windows at night and add, “Hey! It’s 8:00 PM and Harry’s contractor is still working!”

I now have a new crib-free office with paint on the wall that does not feel like the inside of a coffin and a sunny view of backyard trees and gardens. Admittedly, most of the backyards I am looking at are not ours, but we have friendly and trusting neighbors who are willing to share their views, relying on a vague border of trees to delineate land rights should they ever prove necessary.

We all have lawns out front. It would be indecent not to, I suppose, but this is Vermont and what we really value is the “unimproved property” hidden in back, the woods and weeds, the honeysuckle and mudpatches and overgrown apple trees abandoned when the farms were sold and split into housing lots. We are only a mile from downtown, but there is still a great deal of unimproved property. So I have seen lots of wildlife out these windows, and I believe we are in a corridor of sorts, which I find exceptional so close to “downtown” Montpelier.

Last year, the local deer herd numbered around three, so we were quite surprised to find fifteen or so cropping our neighbor’s grass this spring. They stand and move like ballerinas, incredibly graceful on their long legs and pointed toes, yet they are strong and leap across the field effortlessly as though on stage. Watching them reminded me of the moose in Alaska – large, strong, ungainly-looking creatures with long heavy snouts, mossy beards, and watery eyes, not nearly as cute as the deer. Yet even they could move as easily and gracefully as a thoroughbred horse when they chose to. Nothing defies physics so much as the sight of a moose leaping a wire fence from a standstill.

From my new work milieu, I’ve seen plenty of squirrels, chipmunks, chickadees, nuthatches, crows and bluejays. Occasionally a cardinal comes through, and we seem to have a nesting pair of woodpeckers that come to the feeder. However the feeder will be coming down due to our resident black bear. Although usually nocturnal, the neighbors sighted him during the day in our backyard when we weren’t home. I saw a fox trot by in the middle of an afternoon when a self-respecting fox ought to be napping, and a wild turkey nervously strolled through affecting an air of confidence and self-absorption, a form of whistling in the dark, as he trespassed the bounds of potentially resentful landowners.

One afternoon, I caught the flicker of small wings outside my window and exclaimed to my coworker in Seattle over the phone that the largest bug I had ever seen outside of Africa was hovering among the wild perennials in our shade garden. But once I swapped my computer glasses for my regular far distance glasses, I realized it was a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird, sipping nectar from the flowers. She made several visits that afternoon which afforded me the opportunity to try out my new digital camera.
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The local star is Bartholomew, our resident groundhog. He lives underneath our front lawn. His front door opens up to a maple sapling under a huge pine tree on the slope down to the Silvers backyard. Like most suburban houses, his front door is reserved for receiving formal visitors. For daily use he seems to prefer the backdoor, a smaller hole conveniently located near our mailbox which affords a hidden and unimpeded view of arriving relatives-in-law and other predators. I occasionally watch him come and go on his foraging expeditions by my window and have often debated in my mind whether it is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing that he has taken up residence with us.
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Had we time to garden, I’m certain I would curse his fondness for tulips, sunflowers, and radishes. But for now our flowers and berry bushes study mischief through our lack of diligence, and Bartholomew is welcome to the few surviving bulbs. Dawn caught him boldly stripping the lawn of dandelion heads, so he is currently endeared to my heart. Plus I admire his stamina to survive the entire winter without eating. Groundhogs hibernate in some secret chamber, separate from their summer dens. I could imagine his heart rate and breathing keeping the slow drip pace of a leaky faucet.

Board of Directors

For several decades, I’ve managed to avoid any position of serious responsibility outside my immediate family. I have belonged tosocial, leisure, religious, political, educational, recreational, and spiritual organizations, but there is not a single one in which I can recall undertaking an assignment that should have caused me to lose sleep or expose myself to legal proceedings.

Some of these organizations advanced noble goals, but most pursued some obscure leisure passion, such as the Oak Apple Morris team. This dance troupe specialized in noisy, demonstrative, public displays sporting green knickers and handkerchiefs. Other groups sought no purpose higher than surrounding its membership with like-minded individuals, such as People United To Eliminate Logic and Rationality. As these were strictly leisure pursuits on my part, I would take no responsibility for running them, else why bother to belong to them at all?

Does this sound selfish? Yes, perhaps it is. On the other hand, no one ever invited me into the inner circle of mover and shakers. I can hardly be accused of outright shirking. I simply came across as a person who could not be expected to do more than a mediocre job among a larger pool of talented and willing applicants. Never did I communicate, openly or silently, any hostility or aversion to the idea of being tapped for a position of responsibility. Never was my opinion in the matter tested. Until recently.

With the erosion of youth and ambition, the available pool of talent has drained. The membership appears grayer about the temples now. Whereas we once raced to the feast, we now saunter quietly in, discussing children and retirement plans in somber tones. The green enthusiasm, the earnest and idealistic discourses, the energetic and pathetic attempts to be noticed, have all vanished. That vitality has retreated into the cerebral centers of discernment and observation. Whereas a member ten years ago, or even five, might have sought attention by entertaining his fellows with a jig, he would nowadays achieve a similar result more effectively by holding forth his opinions on all matters of organizational business. The cub scout who once spent hours carefully carving his balsa wood entry in the soap box derby, who eagerly cheered on his teammates from the elementary school bleachers, has now grown to a poorly-shaved curmudgeon who might contently hijack an hour of business meeting to debate the triviata of membership seniority.

Among such a background of applicants, I find myself being approached with alarming and increasing frequently to join the board of various organizations. These personal petitions, delivered by phone in the suggestive twilight hours of evening, seek to bolster my weak self-image, building it up into some impressive architectural structure.

One organization which would have had me on committee or board was my house of worship, but I declined, on religious grounds. I was also gently and persistently recruited by my child’s preschool, until a spark of youthful idealism bubbled up from some poorly extinguished defect of my personality. I capitulated. I became not only a member of its Board of Directors, but its Secretary, and as such, a member of the Executive Board, a term whose meaning was not fully divulged to me until a month after the annual board meeting where I was elected without opposition, dissent, or discussion.

The annual meeting is a social event, but at heart it is a quaint ritual, the one time of the year when the entire membership is invited to come together to reaffirm their commitment to the four B’s. A Budget is proposed, Bylaws are amended, a new Board is elected, and the Bureaucracy is officially re-instated as if it existence really depended on human beings.

The business section of the preschool’s annual meeting lasted all of twenty minutes, whereas the synagogue required two hours just to agree to the budget. The reason behind this glaring discrepancy was obvious. The synagogue provided a table groaning with carbohydrates (the traditional folk dish of my people) before the meeting began, so that the audience was predisposed to stupefaction before anyone rose to speak. Whereas the preschool made it perfectly clear that food would not be served until all business was complete, and thus not a single nay vote was heard all evening.

At the time I was elected, I knew little about boards, and even less about “money” as the term is used by organizations, though I have intuited that “money” means something very different to a large group of people than to an individual. A large group of people can lose a large sum of money without substantially affecting its membership lifestyles. A large group of people can misplace a large sum of money without anyone going to jail. And a large group of people can spend a large sum of money without having anything to show for it and still justify the action on paper.

I’ve managed to figure out this much. All organizations need money. They raise money in a variety of ways ranging from Distressingly Creative to Irritatingly Obsequious. And because there is often a lag between the getting and the spending, a fiduciary condition arises. I like this word fiduciary. It lends a respectable air to its speaker, but the dictionary informs me that it simply means that someone is holding money in trust for someone else. And where money is held in trust, in the American system, there naturally follows the aforementioned four B’s.

Bylaws must be enacted, ostensibly to define the purpose and goals of the organization, but really to protect members from liability in the event of embezzlement. Budgets too must be proposed, argued, wrestled, rejected, reapportioned, approved, and ignored. This in turn necessitates elected Board members, nominally to write the budgets and push the money around, but more importantly to serve as communal scapegoat, a group of people on whom the membership can blame organizational failures and vent their ire and frustration whenever necessary, which is to say, continually. This forms the simplified Bureaucracy of most non-profit organizations.

There is no compensation for such board members. They usually serve for personal glory or from a sense of duty or simply because they believe no one else is available to do the job. They remain on the board until the voting membership thoroughly purges these idealistic notions from their minds. When this happens, only the camaraderie of their fellow board members, assuming such esprit de corps exists, will keep them in the trenches.

I would categorize my own temporary insanity under the above stated “sense of duty” clause, though I am still uncertain why anyone would have me. I have no notion of fundraising or grant writing. A balance sheet is no more comprehensible to me than hieroglyphics, and this despite having written a mathematical masters thesis with more Greek in it than plain English. I have no natural leadership charisma or effervescent charm. My distaste for generating enthusiasm among the masses was deeply infused during the few high school pep rallies I was unable to skip. Thus far, the only skills of value I have demonstrated in meetings are:

1) an ability to type nearly as fast as people speak.
2) an ability to defuse a tense confrontation with an inappropriate joke.
3) an ability to keep my mouth shut when I have an uninformed opinion.

Actually, now that I think about it, it is no mystery at all why I was asked to join.

Conversations

I set the table for breakfast each day according to a familiar pattern. First I fill the three vitamin cups – breakfast, lunch, dinner – four regimens from seven bottles. The latest addition is a child-dose aspirin, once a day at lunch for me, or rather, for my circulatory system.

Why this is necessary is something of a mystery. I do not drink or smoke. I do not eat meat or much sweets. Perhaps I don’t get nearly enough exercise. At 41 years old with a sedentary job I might be softening, but I am not more than five pounds over my college weight. Yet my family has gifted me with genes. My younger brother just had triple bypass surgery at 39 years old, three years after my father had the very same operation. My mother’s mother and all her siblings died early of coronaries. All my siblings and parents are on Lipitor for high cholesterol levels. Combine this with my first slightly not-OK cholesterol reading last year, and my doctor, who adores my children and wants them to always have a father, is prescribing aggressive prevention treatment.

So, one aspirin in the middle vitamin cup, which today happens to be the translucent red cup. It fits in between all the multi-vitamins, calciums, and Vitamin Cs. The only one that doesn’t go in a cup is children’s chewable, broken in half, for Samuel who still doesn’t have all his teeth. I crush on the counter with the flat of a butter knife and mix it in some applesauce. Screw the cups together and place them in the middle of the dining table where, more often than not, we won’t forget them.

Then the drinks: tap water, filtered water from the fridge, and hot tea for Dawn, only I never remember to start it in time, so I fill the kettle and leave it on the stove burner for her to deal with later. No juice – too much sugar. Our favorite published pediatrician says children can have juice when they’re old enough to go out and buy it for themselves.

Next the cereal, which includes a wide assortment of choices from the co-op. Community food co-ops in the 80’s still carried unprocessed, unrefined, organic cereals that resembled brown silage. Not surprisingly they did not sell well, so the sugar content has slowly increased over the years, until they nearly reach the threshold of the superhero and cartoon cereals that glow in neon colors and stain children’s teeth. Of course, the cereal from the co-op does not contain “sugar” or “corn sweeteners.” Instead it contains “organic dehyrated cane syrup.” But I am not fooled. Sugar is sugar is sugar.

Next the utensils – bowls, spoons, bibs, tray, cups. The first big decision of the day for Rose is the color of the bowl, after she has spent anywhere from ten seconds to fifteen minutes about how awful we are to make her get it herself. However, she will select her color and announce her decision to everyone. Then the milk skim for me and almond milk for Dawn who cannot drink cow milk. She is still nursing Samuel who is allergic to cow milk and left blood in his diapers to prove it. No milk for Rose or Samuel who prefer their cereal dry.

A banana for Samuel. Or sometimes a ripe pear. He eats them faster than we can cut them up for him, so either Dawn or I won’t get to eat right away. The tea kettle sings. Something else is forgotten a baby spoon or a honey drizzler. Requests for more cereal, more fruit, more water. We are up and down from the table to the refrigerator or stove or cabinets and back again, and over again. I play the vitamin game with Rose (“Don’t eat that vitamin! Don’t do it! Stop! What are you doing! Argh!”)

Unless, of course, the children aren’t hungry. Then Rose tries to poke holes in the placemat with her fork while Samuel, moving with the speed and determination of a construction crane, carefully moves bites of cereal and bits of banana from his high chair tray to the floor, one at a time. Rose is either surly or perky, depending on the sleep last night and the weather outdoors. There is no inbetween. This morning however, she is thoughtful. She has a question to ask. Her multigrain Mighty Bites lay ignored in her orange bowl. I will later put them in an plastic Avent bottle for her to eat on the way home from preschool. She is staring out the window without really seeing anything. In her mind, words are stringing together like beaded chains into phrases and sentences. They start to come out half-formed.

“Papa?”

“Yes, bud?”

“Papa? On my birthday… next year … when I’m five …”

Another pause for reflection. At this point she will either tell me what’s on her mind, or get distracted, shout out something absurd like “Goo Goo Bird!” and laugh uproariously. This never fails to catch Samuel’s attention who also laughs, spreads his food across his tray wiping his hands across like a windshield wiper, and ends all thought of eating anything else that morning. I hold my breath.

“Papa, on my fifth birthday….”

“Yes, Rose. I’m listening.” Relieved.

“Will you buy me an F-eighteen super hornet fighter jet?”

Anthony, the teacher’s aide at Montessori has been talking and showing pictures from the air show he went to. “You want an F-18 Super Hornet?”

“Yeah. I want to fly it around the house. Zoooom!”

“Well, if I can find an F-18 for under fifty dollars, and you still want it by next April, I’ll buy it for you.”

“OK!”

“If you’re sure you want it.”

“Yes, Papa. I do!”

My father was a master of literalist humor. He made you watch your words, not out of any grammatical Puritanism (that was my mother’s job), but he enjoyed the humor of it and passed that love on to his sons. We laughed at the absurdities he highlighted in our language even as we affected embarrassment over it. But Rose is still too young to appreciate this humor. It scares her very literal mind. You cannot play “Got Your Nose” with her because she gets mad or scared. “NO! That’s my nose and you can’t have it. I need it to breathe.” Still, I can play within the limits.

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The work day passes in sullen phone conversations. We have a project. My boss and I talk across one continent and three time zones. He is nervous. He is anxious. He wants reassurance and control. He has given me what he believes passes for a User Requirements document. It probably works very well for the client who doesn’t need to worry about details and consequences, but I need to create a Technical Design from it. There are many holes in the document. Much miscommunication on the phone. Much tired sighing from having to repeat what he thinks is obvious. Finally, he asks me to just design a particular user interface and call him back to discuss it.

First I need a break. I go to the bathroom. I get some water. I switch a load of laundry. There are grandparents visiting and I stop briefly to be social, or at least not to be rude. They are not from the East Coast. They grew up in a time when passing a neighbor without an hello was a serious breach of protocol. Ten minutes later I return to the office/bedroom and create the design. I am proud of it, because it meets all the requirements I know of and a few others I know will be needed. But now I need to call my boss back. It is Vermont in early summer, a warm sunny day and the windows are open. I pray no one decides to mow their lawn. I call and describe the user design.

He doesn’t like it. It is obvious, though he doesn’t say that. Instead he asks me to describe it again in detail. He interrupts frequently and asks me to justify certain design decisions. The conversation begins to spin out of control on several tangents. It’s like this: I say something – he misunderstands and asks a question in return which is unrelated to what I was trying to say. Do I walk down this tangent with him or do I try to force the conversation back to my point? This happens in reverse as well. He isn’t mad (nor am I). He isn’t abusive (nor am I). We are polite, but frustrated. His voice is quiet, calm, with yet more sighs and pauses. Then tones of impatience. He doesn’t see that he is contradicting things he has said in the past. But no one likes to have their own words flung in their face, so I try to avoid pointing this out because it just interrupts the flow and creates more tangents.

I stumble and justify and forge on as politely as I can. I feel stupid and hot in the face. The children start screaming somewhere outside the door. I move with the cordless phone over to the closet where I sit huddled near piles of damp-smelling laundry, one finger pressed in my ear, the spine of my back pressing against the wooden closet trim.

My boss is now walking me through an alternative design. He wants to know why we can’t do it this new way. We can. No reason we can’t. I ask why and instantly regret it. He lists more user requirements that I’ve never read or heard of before. I didn’t choose to do it that way because I didn’t know all these user requirements he is now describing to me. Fine, let’s do it that way.

I simply do not understand why he didn’t design the user interface himself. It sounds like he knows exactly what he wants. Why drag me through this humiliating exercise?

This happens once a year when the deadlines are pressing and the work is expanding. This is not like my boss. Normally our working relationship is friendly, respectful, efficient, humorous. Last week we had an annual review with glowing praise on both sides. I told him how much I value the flexibility he allows me telecommuting and the independence he (usually) allows me. He said I’m the only one in the company whose job he can’t do. He knows it wouldn’t be easy to replace me. But today, I am wondering if he wishes he could.

Our conversation peters out. We have wrestled the design back to his corner and we are both exhausted, headaches coming on. A separate part of my mind has observed the conversation from a distance, knowing it was absurd, helpless to change its disasterous course, reassured that this will be forgotten in a month. He is doing the same. We have a weak laugh over this. More of a quiet snort. But the full design isn’t complete, and we know will likely do the same thing tomorrow. I turn off the phone, leave the closet, and come out to see my family and guests who have been waiting an hour so they could have dinner with me.

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That evening after dinner the grandparents take the children outside to run around, and I decided that despite their gracious help in the kitchen all week, I am going to clean the dishes. Normally it is my job anyway, and I need a mindless task in a quiet sunlit room without any human interaction. Dawn agrees, and she also wants to give our guests a break. But I am barely started when she interrupts to say we have to get the children to bed. It is late.

Everyone tromps in, and I say to Granny as she heads for the sink, “Granny, tonight I am going to do the dishes. Please go relax and don’t touch them.”

She is a midwesterner, the oldest of many siblings, who spent her life cooking, cleaning, sewing, and caring for children. Her dialect is as rich and authentic as the “Collarada” mountains she comes from. She has a particular heart-ache she is carrying around these days and has as much need as I, if not more, to keep busy with mindless tasks. But tonight I am feeling selfish.

She turns to look me in the face. “Are you sure?” she asks in disbelief. I suddenly realize I could be insulting her. She has done the dishes every night she has been visiting. Does she think that I am telling her she hasn’t done a good job? I press on anyway.

“Yes, please.” I answer.

She smiles. Genuine. After decades of housework, she won’t turn down the opportunity. “OK, they’re all yours.” I think she means it. I think. I go help Rose put away a few toys, and walk by the kitchen just in time to catch Granny putting two glasses in the dishwasher.

“Granny, I said I would do the dishes!”

She smiles shyly, caught in the act. She doesn’t look me in the eye. “Oh, I was just puttin’ away a few glasses, is all.”

I do not snarl, but my hackles get up. Without thinking, without caring if its sounds rude or mean, I say “Granny, get out of my kitchen!” It just feels good to not hold back the frustration for the first time today.

“Yes, sir,” she laughs. I think she salutes. Granddaddy is also in the kitchen the whole time, putting away his camera. He doesn’t understand why his son-in-law, who is working a full-time job, raising two young children, and doing night duty with the baby (so he will remain night-weaned) – why would I possibly want to do the dishes on top of all that? And the only answer that comes to me is the one I give Rose when no better answer is at hand.

“Because I asked her nicely.”

He frowns, puzzled, but then laughs. “Well, it didn’t sound so nice to me.”

Granny rescues me, “Oh, you weren’t around when he asked me the first time.” She truly is relieved that I meant it. She really doesn’t have to do the dishes. Hallelujah!

I wait until they leave the kitchen, assured it will still look that way when I get to it later. I return to the bathroom to give Rose her bath. She is waiting. Thoughtful again. She sits on her stool and obediently opens her mouth so I can brush her teeth. Thirty times on each tooth, though I do them in pairs, because they stain easily and get cruddy and sensitive. I check the bath water and turn it down to cold before she undresses.

“Papa?”

“Yes, bud?”

The familiar pause.

“On my next birthday… on my fifth birthday, would you get me a trunk of clothes for my new teddy bear?”

Suddenly my head clears. This is so absurd and unexpected, I want to laugh, but I don’t. I am too experienced a father to hurt her feelings that way.

“Now wait a minute, Rose. Do you want a trunk of clothes for your birthday, or do you want an F-18 Super Hornet fighter jet?”

She stops undressing, because she has to think about this for a full fifteen seconds.

“A trunk of clothes for my bear.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Papa. I’m sure.”

I grab the ends of her sleeves so she can pull her arms out. “Now, Rose. If I can’t find a trunk of clothes for your bear, are you going to be OK with an F-18 Super Hornet? You won’t be disappointed?”

“As long as it is big enough so bear can be my copilot.”

“OK, that works for me.”

And she steps gingerly into the warm water.