Further Encounters …

Somehow, the following story seems a continuation of this earlier post.

Greetings from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority arrived in our mailbox the other day. The addressee shares my last name, but the first name was not a match. Still, I opened it.

It appears that someone pulling a trailer with Tennessee plates recently ran a toll booth on the NJ Turnpike. An automated camera snapped a photo of the back of the trailer and its license plate, then the communication between the great states of New Jersey and Tennessee associated our address and this not-quite-right name with the offending vehicle. Not-Quite-Right-Name owes the Turnpike Authority the unpaid $6 toll plus a $50 fine. I do not own—nor have ever owned—that trailer or one remotely resembling it. I have not been in New Jersey in years.

The form letter lists three ways to protest: phone, website, or mail (by completing a section on the back of the form and returning it). Since I had a question about what the form asked, I tried the phone option first. After getting lost in phone menu hell, where no option fit my situation, I hung up and tried the web. But the website claimed the “violation number” I’d entered did not match anything in its system. I rechecked that I had faithfully copied the number from the form letter and was rejected again. So I went back to the phone.

This time, I found the place in the phone menu from which entering “0” connected me to another human being. This representative of the Turnpike Authority checked my number, and stated that, as this was a first violation, she could waive the $50 fine if I promptly paid the $6 toll. I declined, explaining that no one of that name lives at this address and that no one at this address owns or has ever owned the vehicle in question. She remarked that I should have marked the envelope “return to sender” instead of opening it.

From this unhelpful start, we finally got to my question. The form has a place for me to indicate that I do not own the vehicle in question. But it also asks that I provide a copy of the vehicle’s registration. Huh? She was less puzzled than I as to how I would access the registration of a vehicle I do not own.

I have returned the form, sans registration copy, disavowing both the vehicle and the name. I suspect I have not heard the last of this.

If we start having unexplained lane closures on the Solway Bridge, I’ll be thinking New Jersey.

The Xylo

In our post about the car search, I mentioned that Nancy recently bought a nearly 100-year-old xylophone. It was her first e-bay purchase, so an adventure in more ways than one. She is now the proud owner of a Deagan 844 “Drummer’s Special,” manufactured sometime between 1917 and 1929—three octaves (C5 to C8), Honduran rosewood bars, plated resonators. (Deagan introduced the 844 in 1915, with pitch A=435. They switched to A=440 in 1917. Nancy’s instrument is stamped A-440, so is a 1917 or later model.)

The xylo needs some work. The felts on which the bars rest have lost most of their cushioning ability, there is a century’s worth of dirt, rust and grime to be cleaned up, and the rear frame rail that supports the incidental bars arrived broken. But, the important parts—the bars and resonators—are in good shape. All the musicians who have heard it praise its acoustics. (The photo shows the instrument without its resonators, temporarily mounted on a Z-stand. The colored stickies are place markers for a complicated passage from Shostakovich’s “Polka of the Golden Age” that she is working on for the next concert.)

Nancy's xylo without resonators
Nancy’s xylo without resonators

We have decided to build an entirely new frame. Applying a temporary fix to the broken rail revealed more weak areas in the original frame. Nancy’s goal is to have a high-quality instrument to support her band and orchestral activities, not a meticulously restored antique. And, while Deagan built the “Drummer’s Special” series with portability in mind, we are hoping to improve on that aspect. We are playing with several design concepts, but are not far enough along to publish anything yet. Stay tuned.

While you wait, check out SuperMediocre, a blog/website that follows a father and his middle school son as they construct, from scratch, a concert-grade xylo for the son. That quest involves digging into the math and physics of tuning wooden bars, a number of empirical experiments to verify/refine what was learned, and the actual shaping and tuning of 44 Honduran rosewood bars. Lots of hard work. Lots of father/son interaction. Lots of the joy of learning and doing. To get the full story, you need to start at the beginning, which in blog format means going to the bottom of the stack and reading up towards the top. It’s worth the effort.

Love Cars, Hate Buying

We have been looking at cars. Nancy’s beloved Audi wagon is 14 years and 210 thousand miles old, and it seems prudent to begin thinking about its replacement. We’ve had a lot of cars, it seems, but when one is meeting our needs, we hold onto it for a long time. We bought this one used, have had it ten years, and are responsible for more than three-quarters of those miles.

In many ways, it is still meeting our needs. Its seats are the only ones in which Nancy could sit for long periods without discomfort, and that includes other vehicles, sofas, and a long series of office chairs. The station wagon configuration has worked for us, too. The Audi routinely transports band instruments and gardening tools; frequently is pressed into service for the dog, bales of pine straw, and pots of perennials; did yeoman’s service when we emptied Mother’s house before selling it; and has on occasion hauled 300-pound rocks for Nancy’s ornamental garden.

But her hauling needs are growing. Nancy is playing mallets and miscellaneous percussion for two community bands, a community orchestra, and a church ensemble. She started small—one band and a borrowed set of student practice bells (glockenspiel). Then she bought a full-size set of orchestra bells, and started joining other groups. That means her 35-pound instrument has to be loaded into and out of the car six to ten times a week, along with its X-stand, a music stand, mallets, sheet music, and the hand cart we use to roll it to and from the car. But wait!—as the infomercials say—that’s not all. For one group, she also plays bass drum. For two others, xylophone. The drum and xylophone belong to their respective bands and normally reside at the practice sites. But, as concerts near, they, too, get carried around in Nancy’s car.

For now, the Audi wagon is just barely big enough, if we are content to be constantly reconfiguring: seats up, seats down; cargo mat in (for dirty gardening work), mat out (for musical instruments and other “clean” uses). But Nancy recently bought her own xylophone—a fine 100-year-old instrument. It needs some refurbishment, but once we get it fixed up, I suspect she will be taking it back and forth to practices and concerts. This one has resonators, and will require a more substantial stand than does the borrowed one. I am sure we could fit everything into the Audi, with a few more contortions. But the inconveniences are mounting.

So, there is our dilemma. We are looking for luxury car seats and utility van roominess. SUVs don’t quite do the trick. Nancy wants to sit down into a seat, not climb up to it. And the loading heights are fearsome. Remember that 35-pound set of bells? The xylophone with its resonators will be as heavy—and larger with a much larger stand. Utility vans and the boxes-on-wheels that have come out in recent years are, well, Spartan. Full-size wagons have mostly gone out of production, and would, in any case, not solve the space problem. Minivans come close, but the seats are somewhat higher than she finds comfortable, and surprisingly, do not offer passenger-side 8-way adjustability. With all the motors on modern minivans, for side doors and lift gates and so on, why not two more, so the front passenger could adjust the height and tilt of the seat bottom?

I have been wondering if one vehicle can do what Nancy needs. Should we consider two—a stripped down box for local hauls (music, gardening) and a conventional car for long trips and general transportation? I am not ready to give up the open bed of my pickup; we have too many needs for mulch and gravel. Half our carport is already taken with a 280-Z whose fix-up is on hold while our son works to get established in another town. So that would mean four vehicles sitting at a two-person household.


I have been reading online reviews, studying Consumer Reports, looking at ads. The starting point of all the advice assumes you at least know the type of vehicle you want—a small pickup, a mid-sized sedan, a large SUV. It is hard enough, from such a starting point, to choose the models and options and to decide whether to buy new or used. The latter is a hard choice. I have an unhappy history with cars purchased new. I have done that twice, and twice had financial reverses force me to trade down. I like the idea of buying a three or four year old car and letting someone else absorb the initial depreciation. That’s the only way we ended up in the Audi. Yet, the electronic safety features on today’s new cars seem too good to pass up, so we’ll at least consider taking the new car plunge again.

But first, we have to get to first base. We have to settle on a type of car.


We learned early on that if you want dimensions, you have to measure them yourself. The only thing the sales staff or literature know is volume. Nancy’s instruments have length, width, height—as do most things you put into a vehicle. I crack to a salesman that volume only matters if I am a party planner with a load of balloons.

We are, perhaps, not typical car shoppers. Waltzing in with tape measure and notepad in hand, we are not interested in a test drive or a list of features or the JD Power ratings.  “Do you want to look at the engine?” No, thanks. We assume it has one.

We ask how the rear seats can be collapsed or removed, then put them through their paces. Is there a way these tracks, these lugs, can be covered? How smooth and level is the resulting deck? Can we slide an instrument case in without catching on some hardware?

Mercifully, we draw salesmen who are intrigued and amused. Only one, out of more than a dozen, tries the high pressure tactics. He’s young, still has lots to learn.


It is done. Nancy’s new ride is a minivan. After more than a month of “maybe this, maybe that,” the choices and tradeoffs and preferences seemed all at once to pull us to a convergence. With end-of-season incentives, we could get a new car for the price of a two-year-old one. We did end up with the same color as the Audi.

Gone are those luxo Audi seats, the leather still supple and un-cracked after all the years and miles. Weighed against 210 thousand miles, the trade-in value of the whole car was not even close to four figures. We’d have given that much to transplant the seats to the new minivan. “It will void your warranty,” is the salesman’s dry response. As if I’d seriously considered taking a welder’s torch to a brand new car. (Nancy says her heart leapt when I mentioned the idea.)

The result is a compromise. Most of life is, I suppose. We gave up some creature comforts for hauling capacity. Even the “8-way” adjustability of the driver’s seat promises more than it delivers. The seat-height range is high-higher-highest. Nancy is a long-legged 5’ 7-1/2”, and is barely comfortable at the lowest setting. I read that the “average” adult female in the US is 5’ 4”.

On the plus side are modern cameras and safety systems and other “i-features.” On the plus side is all that room for hauling. On the plus side is the peace of mind that a long trip is not a risk. On the plus side is that new car smell.

Summer Winding Down

“Is it normal for there to be no bird song and no insect buzzing?”

I am hiking to Hen Wallow Falls with West Coast son, who’s visiting this week, and have been conscious of the silence for the last quarter mile. Inwardly, I am reflecting that the older I get, the less I know about more and more.

“I was noticing the lack of birds,” he replies. “I do hear some insects, though.”

They must be masked by my tinnitus.

It is great to spend time with him. Last night we saw Violet at the Clarence Brown Theater. (Highly recommend) Today, this hike in the Smokies. During the week, the dew point has dropped from the high-60s to today’s mid-50s. After weeks of August’s heat-induced doldrums, it is energizing to be outdoors again.

At home, we are waiting for the turtles to hatch. For the third year (non-consecutive), we observed an Eastern box turtle leave the woods and deposit her eggs in the gravel walkway behind our house. Nancy placed an upended milk crate over the spot to mark it and protect from foot traffic and other hazards. Then she marked the calendar. The youngsters should be emerging soon.

School is back in session. Tomorrow is the last of the summer breakfasts to be prepared by our men’s group. One of Nancy’s bands will give its last summer performance on Monday. The black gum in our front yard is busily shedding its summer foliage into our pond.

Summer’s winding down.

Soon I’ll not be able to use the heat as my excuse to stay out of the garden, out of the shop. I’m glad. Some good projects await.

For all its joys, I will not miss summer. I am ready for what comes next.

The Xena Paradox

Inspired to learn that paper wasp faces are as different as snowflakes  (Sheehan & Tibbets, 2008), Nancy set out to identify the frogs who frequent our pond. The first to be studied, and named, was Xena, who has a distinct little swish on her left upper lip. We first introduced Xena as the bold frog, who allowed close encounters rather than diving for the bottom at the slightest approach. Nancy deemed it a female, based on physical characteristics (the size of the tympanum relative to the size of the eye, and its placement along the dorsal lateral ridge). Bold female, warrior princess, Xena. Nancy observed Xena for months. Quiet. No frog calls.

Then we scrutinized the frog fight. “Xena” and a smaller male. “Xena” definitely in command. Woman on top? Warrior princess? Most unladylike behavior for a frog. Typical frog fights are between males.

Amplexis
Calmly This Time

Next day, Xena was submissively sitting underneath the loser of yesterday’s battle. Ladylike again.

For a month now, “Xena” has been emitting male mating calls. There are two calls. The first is very elaborate while the second call is more typical.

Gender Examples
Left to Right: Male, female, Xena.

Male or female? Someone suggested that frogs occasionally change gender. My limited reading does confirm that at least one species has been observed to undergo spontaneous sex change. But I find no reference to that behavior in green frogs. There is evidence that female green frogs emit mating calls, but quietly. Not like this! But there was that long, complicated call. Hmmm.

Do we have two look-alike frogs, one male, one female? If there are two, then both have that bold, I’m-not-afraid-of-you, characteristic. Why do we never see both at the same time?

Can you figure out which frog is Zeno (aka Hercules)?

Nancy has been reviewing her photos and has tentatively concluded that there are two frogs. The identifying mark she has been going on is slightly different  between Xena and what’s-his-name. So we need to name the male. Zeno, of paradox fame, comes to mind. (Okay, technically, we are not dealing with paradox here, just mystery. Grant us just a little bit of artistic license.) Or should we forego alliteration and go with Xena’s partner, Hercules?

Frog-Mystery2

 

Add One Snake

“There is a snake in the pond,” Nancy informs me.

DSC03559I watched for a while before noticing a different kind of stirring of the water. Then, the head appeared. Alert. Curious. Tongue seeking clues on the wind.DSC03573

DSC03630It’s a garter snake. We watched it slide out of the water, more than two linear feet of it before the tail finally emerged. It hid under a nearby fern, then later was back in the pond.

We have noticed no frog-sized lumps in its sleek length, so speculate that it  feeds on eggs and small larvae as it hoovers along the edges of the pond, in and out of the gaps between stones.


DSC03629

DSC03612

Threads

We were walking the dog, and I was telling Nancy about several ideas recently encountered and bouncing around in my head.

Item: Richard Rohr has been writing about liminality, sacred space. “We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of ‘business as usual’ and remain patiently on the ‘threshold’ (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. … That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. … The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.” It dawns on me that the disciplines of The Artist’s Way (see my post on the reading fast), and all the contemplative disciplines, seek to put us into liminal space.

Item: In two recent “Almost-Daily eMo[s] from the Geranium Farm,” Barbara Crafton writes of the creative arts as openings into liminal space (without using the term). In response to the Mary and Martha story (Luke 10:38-42), she recalls that she and her brothers were intense readers, to the point of being called lazy. But she defends them as “honoring their Mary selves. … sitting quietly with our hearts somewhere else.” On another day, she cites the impact of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Walker Evans/James Agee collaboration illuminating the plight of Alabama sharecroppers in the Great Depression. She reports that David Simon, creator of the television series The Wire, writes, “Famous Men is the book that made me ashamed and proud to be a journalist-all in the same instant. Reading it made me grow up. Or at least, it demanded that I begin to grow up.”

DSC03034Item: I am pondering the role of reading in my life. For all its joys and its capacity to move me into sacred space, my reading fast illuminated for me how I often use reading not as a gateway but as a wall. Even after Nancy has opened for me the world of dragonflies and hummingbirds and frogs outside my dining room window, I am more likely to eat my lunch with a printed page or e-screen before me than to pay attention to the vibrant life just a few feet away. But it is not reading that is my problem. Rather, it is my underdeveloped disciplines of presence and attentiveness. As if to underscore the point, Nancy comments on how long it has been since she has seen “that pond” in operation. “That pond” is in front of the house we are walking past, a house I have walked past several times a week for many years. I have never noticed the pond.

All this and more is rattling around in my head, and I am trying to explain it all to Nancy as we walk.

“So,” I conclude, “I have all these threads and I don’t know what to do with them.”

“Weave,” she replies.

Here I sit with a lap full of threads. Ideas and ideals form the warp. My actions are the woof. I am trying to weave a life.

Prodigality

Prodigal Summer is one of my favorite Barbara Kingsolver novels. Among its many gifts is redeeming that word, prodigal, from its Sunday School connotation of degeneracy and firmly implanting in my mind the second definition, the more positive notion of nature’s extravagant and lavish abundance.

Lavish Abundance
Lavish Abundance

This is indeed a prodigal summer. The bank along our driveway is a riot of bee balm, cone flower, four o’clock, zinnia, black and blue salvia, butterfly bush,  black-eyed Susan, and wild bergamot. Despite a month wasted attacking windows and car mirrors, our bluebirds have managed to reproduce. An Eastern box turtle laid eggs behind the house. The daily show of goldfinch and cardinal and house finch and ruby-throated hummingbird and robin and bluebird continues just outside our dining room.


A few days ago, I glanced at the frog pond and saw the most frantic splashing and flailing about—two frogs in belly-to-belly combat.

The brief video clip here does not do justice to the ferocity I first witnessed; by the time Nancy had arrived and switched the camera to video mode, the pair were nearly exhausted.

Calmly This Time
Calmly This Time

A day later, the same pair were engaged in amplexus (frog sex). The female, on bottom, Nancy has named Xena. She’s the brave one who does not dive when humans approach, recognizable by a mark on her left jaw—a distinct blip in the green-black boundary. She’s a fierce woman-on-top in the video. From Nancy’s reading, territorial fights are not rare, but would be expected between two males. Why Xena was fighting her future sex partner is a mystery.


The Economist says of the campaigning leading up to the recent Brexit vote, “Knowledge has been scorned … (b)asic facts have fallen by the wayside …,” and that the campaigning has exacerbated “the growing void between cosmopolitan and nativist parts of the country, the diminishing faith in politics, the rise of populism, the inadequacy of the left-right partisan spectrum in an age when open-closed is a more salient divide.” Sound familiar?

A lone gunman kills or wounds more than 100 people in a gay nightclub. Gun sales rise, as do the share prices of gun makers, and both sides in the gun control debate claim the carnage bolsters their arguments. Sound familiar?

The father forgives his wayward younger son and throws a party to celebrate his safe return. Steady, obedient older brother resents the welcome given his sibling. Sound familiar?


Despair comes easily in today’s world. We are beset on all sides by intolerance and tribalism and fear that “the other” is a threat to our livelihoods if not our very existence. Where can we find our antidote to despair? I turn to words: My weekly dose of Parker Palmer and the rest of the On Being crew, local writer Stephanie Piper, and others.

Bee and Bee Balm
Bee and Bee Balm

I also try to wrap my scarcity-oriented economist’s brain around the notion of abundance, to meditate on bee balm and bluebirds and the eggs of frogs and turtles, to shake off my older brother righteous indignation and trust the prodigal father’s lavish abundance.

Mid-June at the Frog Pond

Mopheads
Mopheads

I’m looking out the dining room window. Three green frogs—the regulars—sit in or around the pond, silently watching. Dragonflies flit in the ferns, but there is no egg laying going on today. The low evening sun lights up the hydrangea nearest the street—mophead blooms of mixed blue and pink. The pond and its surroundings are in shade, with just an occasional ray breaking through the tupelo and black cherry canopy to spotlight a fern frond.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds visit the feeder and, occasionally, the hosta flowers. A male goldfinch drinks from the ant moat above the hummingbird feeder, and a robin splashes in the bird bath. House finches come and go. (I mis-identified these as purple finches in my earlier post.)

Emerging Dragonfly
Emerging Dragonfly

Nancy is busy elsewhere, and her camera is at hand, so I pick it up and try to capture some of the action. Alas, photography is not in my skill set.

Above is a photo Nancy shot recently of a dragonfly emerging from its nymph stage. (Click on the photo and it enlarges to fill the screen. All the photos in this blog should do this. If you find one that does not, email me so I can reset the parameters.) Two empty nymph skins (exuvia) are behind the new adult, and one of the frogs is in the background. The adult is still deploying its wings; notice that the back pair are not yet perpendicular to its body.

And here are some more of Nancy’s recent photos.

Bathing Bluebird
Bathing Bluebird
Frog on Lettuce
Frog on Lettuce
Frog & Plop!
Frog & Plop!