Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Dogs, cats, humans

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Ok, I’m getting sentimental here. But I’ve opened yet another door of the Medical Winchester Mystery House – an autoimmune condition this time – and I’m in need a bit of sentiment. I’ll write the gloomy stuff later, but right now…

I’ve posted (and posted and posted) about Otto, my dog. I’ve said less about my ex-cat (ex-mine that is, not ex-feline), Orion. Orion now lives with a dear friend, partially due to my medical adventures, but he’s still a frequent visitor.

More important, Orion and Otto are… well, it’s kind of hard to say what they are to each other: lets just call it a really really strong bond. Orion was here first, and when Otto arrived as a 7 week old puppy they fast became inseprable. Breaking them up was one of the sadder things I’ve ever had to do. It’s been sadder yet for the two critters.

During Orion’s last couple of stay-overs, I started taking notes on life with a cat and dog. Anyone who lives with both knows that the usual cat rules and dog rules – and your life – change erratically.

So here are the notes. And please: send along your own observations. No doubt we can come up with a book. (more…)

Empty Nest

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

When I left for the mountains two weeks after the hummingbird chicks hatched in my back yard, I knew I’d likely miss the ending of the nesting drama with Patience and her twins. Unfortunately I was right: I came home to an empty nest. The last picture of the chicks I posted before the trip showed two growing but still very young and pin-feathered baby hummers, baby-bird beaks pointing to the sky, waiting for mom to come feed me! Feed Me! FEEEED MEEE!

And this is what I found on return:

Fortunately for  all who’ve followed this tiny saga, a neighbor was kind enough to tend the garden and keep me posted on the chicks via eMail. Just five days after I left, she sent the latest pictures of the twins. And I was astonished. The scraggly little pinballs had turned into actual birds!  Here are two of her pictures:

Photos by M.C., May 14, 2009

Five days to from pinballs with gaping mouths to recognizable birds – astonishing. No wonder Patience looked so thin the last time I saw her.

The very next day…  best to quote my neighbor’s eMail directly:

I took this [picture below] at about 7:45pm.  Then I stepped back towards the door and stood for a couple of minutes watching from a distance.  Suddenly there was a little buzz – I couldn’t see clearly but I THINK it was mom – then a whirr and a ripple and all three were gone, up to the right and over the wire above the fence.

I’ll keep watch in case they come back for a rest in the next day or two, but I suspect they’re on their way, fledged and capable of feeding themselves.  Certainly they were just as fast as mom!

I’m glad I went down this evening – at least now we know they FLEW away, and weren’t snatched by predators.  –M.C.

Here is M.C.’s last photo of the chicks.

Photo by M.C., 15 May 2009.

Today, a good handful of days back from the mountains, I watch the nest deteriorate – a feather comes undone from Patience’s careful weave, a small twig falls out of place, the once solid structure appears more and more fragile. A friend commented that one rainstorm now and it’ll be gone.

Hope of another tenancy by Patience or another hummingbird seems remote now that summer is here, which in San Francisco means icy cold fogs blowing off the Pacific intermixed with a few hours of cold sunshine and sharp winds. The growth of the cherry tree Patience built her nest in is robust enough that it whipsaws even more jarringly in the winds.

Still, the hummingbird saga isn’t over completely. I hear them in the back yard all the time and see them flitting among the trees during calmer moments. A couple of days ago during a sunny interlude, one came down to get water from the hose as I was spraying the plants. It wasn’t an Anna’s though, like Patience and her brood. This one was bigger and I could actually see the wings move. Maybe another species will take up nesting in the yard next year. I hope so.

What I got out of this small drama, even more than the wonder of experiencing it first hand, is how this minor scene of nature touched so many people as it unfolded. Are we really so removed from the world that the raising of two baby birds from eggs is seen as a small miracle? What does it say about the place we’ve made for ourselves in the world that we view such events not only with fascination but relief?

I’m not letting myself off the hook here; the trip to the mountains was essential for me precisely for the same reason. I spent most my time up there off-road, walking and hiking and driving dirt tracks, trying to get as close to the world – and as far away from what we humans have created – as I could.

What does this say about us? When do we face it?

Photo by M.C., 14 May 2009

Hummer chicks grow fast!

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

More on the hummingbird saga unfolding in my back yard Regular posts will resume soon! (Written Sunday/Monday May 3/4.)

Over the last week Patience the hummingbird has worked dawn to dusk feeding her two chicks. They’re thriving, growing from pea-sized bits of gelatinous gray to wiggly lumps spiked with the beginnings of feathers and an orange beak, all of which still can’t quite fill a teaspoon. Back and forth she went hunting nectar and bugs, feeding the two several times an hour. Often, when I used the hose nearby, she repeated her “request” for water and I obliged by spraying the nearby plants. Her absences allowed me better views of the two little things though I always backed away when I heard her returning buzz. The weather at last cooperated too, with cool days and little wind.

Hummingbird chicks

As days went by she seemed less concerned about visitors to the yard, human or otherwise. She expressed no worry at all about Otto or me and ignored the robins, finches and doves. She still wasn’t too pleased with the European starlings bug-hunting below her tree however, and I can’t say I blame her. The starlings are the obnoxious tourists of the bird world, squawking and squabbling, hogging and fouling the bird dish and even bathing in Otto’s drinking bowl. Otto dispatches them whenever he sees them.

I noticed that the chicks don’t peep and squabble or do anything at all while mom’s gone, unlike most other young birds. The nest is not even 5 feet/1.5m off the ground yet you’d never know they were there if you didn’t know where to look. This seemed to me to be just too quiet for any little critter and I wondered if everything was going all right. I found the answer – and many other bits of useful information – from the amazing and exhaustive World of Hummingbirds website. The silence is a safety measure, to ensure that nothing gives their presence away while mom is off foraging. The chicks hunker down deep in their nest and wait until they feel/hear mom’s wings, then perk up for a feeding. Considering how often and long she was gone, this made sense.

Hummingbird chicks 2

By Saturday the 2nd, Patience was almost never around. I saw her feeding the chicks only once during the day. I didn’t think too much about it; I hadn’t been out back much and figured I’d just missed her. Besides, her absences allowed for lots of nest views for myself and others. The chicks had grown to the point that their beaks had lost the baby orange (already!) and were growing into a point. Their bodies were bigger too, taking up over half of the little nest’s depth.

Saturday night when I took Otto down for his pre-bedtime pee, I checked the nest. Still no Patience! I freaked. Yes, the chicks were bigger and it probably wasn’t that comfortable to be sitting on them, but still: they were only as big as a small strawberry. How could they stay warm? I looked around the cherry tree to see if she was sitting nearby, but it was dark and she’d never shown much interest in sitting in it before. I violated a rule I’d set when this back yard episode of  “Nature” began and went upstairs for a flashlight. Careful not to shine the light directly on the nest, I could see both chicks were quite alive, their metabolisms racing like they’d just run a race. Was this right? Where is mom?

Back upstairs, this time to the computer and the hummingbird website where I found the following:

After one week, the baby hummingbirds will be covered in tiny little fuzzy feathers making them look like a miniature prickly balls. Baby hummingbirds will usually have enough feathers to regulate their own body heat by about nine (9) days after hatching. The mother hummingbird will no longer need to sit on the nest all the time, and the baby hummingbirds are too big for the mother hummingbird to fit.

I checked the calendar. I’d noted the day the eggs were laid and the day they hatched. Saturday was day 10 post-hatch. The next morning the little guys were fine, beaks pointed out of the nest, waiting for their next nectar-and-bug smoothie. And so it goes, even through a gentle rain that has been around for the last couple days. I’ve seen Patience only once more, but her kids are growing fast. Fast. According to the website, she may actually be building another nest nearby so she can do it all over again before the season ends. Amazing. Maybe Patience isn’t that patient after all.

One last bit: according to the website, “toilet training comes built in… baby hummingbirds will do everything they can to dispose of waste over the side of the nest.” I read that after seeing it happen in the flesh, so to speak. I was looking at the pair when one suddenly made a move and raised itself up to the top of the nest. This was more effort I’d seen either of them expend. Once in position – hard to tell what the position was as they still look like spiky lumps with a beak – a tiny squirt ensued then the little bird collapsed back into the nest.  If only we mammals were similarly pre-programmed!

Waiting for mom 1, Tuesday 5 May

Update: I wrote the above Sunday/Monday. Today, Tuesday, the chicks almost fill the nest and their beaks can’t even remotely fit inside. Like I said, they’re growing fast. Patience couldn’t sit on them any more even if she wanted to. All they do is wait, metabolisms racing, for the next feeding. Oh, and grow. This is the most recent picture. They barely fit in their nest anymore!

Waiting for mom 2, Tuesday 5 May

Chick pics!

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

As in Patience the hummingbird’s chicks. Below are the first shots she’s permitted me to take and an update.

More happening in the garden, but the biggest news is,  I found out Tuesday: a) there are in fact two chicks, and b) I have two pics! Here’s the first.

Chick pics 1 of 2

In this picture, the two chicks are at the back of the nest, beaks pointed up waiting for mom to come back with food. As tiny as they are – the nest is just larger than a golf ball – they are huge compared to my first peek right after the first one hatched.

Here’s an update, some of it written before I got the pictures yesterday.


In the morning the sun is out and the winds have stopped, a relief for hummingbirds and dogs and humans. Patience is busy back and forth feeding her chick. Or chicks: I still don’t know how many. Otto and I are away most of the day, but when we get back I hear from my neighbors that we’ve had another visitor in the yard – a red-tailed hawk who apparently decided to try his/her luck with the doves. This is a real surprise; the yard’s only 10 or 12 feet wide, the trees in the next yard that lean in are well over 40 feet tall and a red-tail is not a small bird that prefers open spaces.

The aviary continues to grow. Besides the doves, the starlings and the robins (and of course omnipresent sparrows) we’ve had a small red bird drop by a few times – a house finch it turns out (I had to look it up) and a raven or a crow is apparently nesting nearby. I think it’s a raven though I haven’t got a good look at its tail or beak yet, as ravens are regular San Franciscans and crows only visit.


Otto now knows exactly where the nest is but neither he nor Patience seem to care much. It was quiet when I took him out early this morning. Patience wasn’t in her nest at the time. Otto did his business and while he was doing a sniff check of the yard, Patience returned. As usual, she hovered and buzzed and made her way zig-zagging back to her nest. Otto heard her and managed to keep track as she moved about. He followed her path back to her nest and when she settled down, he went to the base of her small tree and looked up.

Since then, Otto’s paid no special attention to the spot and she’s paid none to him. He continues to chase the other birds out of the yard and that seems to suit her just fine.


The winds have died down to just the normal leading and trailing edges of the fog moving in and out from the ocean. It’s cool out but anything’s better than the windstorms of the last couple weeks. Especially for hummingbirds.

I’ve found that the best time to look into the nest is mid-day when Patience is off feeding and taking a break – mom’s time off, I guess you can say.  Today was the jackpot: two pictures of two chicks. One’s above, the other here.

Chick pics 2 of 2

You can just make out the second chick’s beak between Patience and the one feeding.


Patience definitely prefers her water sprayed on a plant. She lets me know by hovering near me when I’m using the hose. This isn’t the first time she’s done it. I spray the plants near her nest and a bit later she makes her way to the wet leaves and drinks. I got another look into the nest; the chicks were sleeping but appeared fine. and definitely bigger. Feather roots (what’s the correct word?) are visible on both.Patience sits higher and higher on her nest as the days go by.  Soon they won’t be able to duck below the edge and hide.

Patience update

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

[By popular demand, here’s an update on Patience the hummingbird nesting in my back yard. It’s in the form of notes from the last four days. Nice to have something to write about besides health stuff – mine or the world’s.]

I take Otto downstairs for his morning pee. When I open the door to the yard the first place I look – as always these days – is Patience’s nest. She’s standing on the edge, her long beak buried below the nest’s edge, feeding something. The eggs have hatched! Seeing me and Otto she hops back to sitting position, settling in carefully.

Afternoon: I get a peek inside the nest! The weather is calm and warm, and Patience is going back and forth catching bugs and hunting nectar. She stays near the nest but once she leaves the yard and my curiosity gets the better of me and I look inside the nest. Next to an unhatched egg is a small bit of motionless gray the size of a Jelly Belly. It doesn’t move or make a sound, but I’ve been around enough newborn chickens and pigeons to know a hatchling isn’t a finished work.

I have my camera in hand – I always do when I’m downstairs these days – but the baby and egg are too deep inside to get a shot and I don’t dare stay long. I hear Patience’s distinctive buzz and back away. Otto lies in the sun, oblivious.

Patience riding her nest

The temperature is down 30F/18C from Tuesday. Very San Francisco: when the fog returns after a heatwave we say the air conditioner’s back on. I check Patience several times. She’s always very busy, in and out, flitting everywhere. Once I try to look in nest again but she comes rushing back, disproving. She’s not so calm about my presence now – or Otto’s.

During one of her forages she pays attention to Otto for the first time, hovering above his head and then in front of him and at his side. He seems to have a hard time seeing her because of her size and ability to teleport to different spots but he has no trouble hearing her so he gives one of his famous head tilts and follows her buzz closely. A moment later Patience flies off, curiosity apparently satisfied.

I change the syrup in the old hummingbird feeder I resurrected. I’m not sure she uses it but I know another hummingbird has: it did so while Patience was in her nest and I in the chair nearby. I also saw her displeasure at another hummer being so close to her nest. “Territorial,” the guides describe the genus.

In the evening the winds that hit before the heatwave return as do the starlings. From upstairs I clap my hands once sharply and they fly away.

Wind, wind, wind. The temperature is down almost 40F/22C over Tuesday. The conditions outside are horrible; even Otto doesn’t want to go out. Patience’s tree whips back and forth and she rides her nest like a barely-in-control boat in a storm. I think she’s in the state of torpor hummers go into in lieu of sleep but it’s hard to tell.

The winds pound the city all day. I worry that Patience or her chicks won’t survive. I can’t imagine really how she could.

I return about 5pm expecting the worst. Yet I open the door to the yard and in the cherry sapling still bending in the wind Patience clings to the edge of her nest, feeding the invisible contents. Seeing me she settles back in, but higher up than she used to sit. I spray the nearby plants with water and leave her be. She’s struggled enough for one day.

The winds died down last night and the day is cool but pleasant. Patience is sitting on her nest when I check in the morning. I can’t stick around but I do a bit of watering before I go. The dry winds dehydrate plants in a flash and several are wilting. Also, waterdrops on plants are a hummer’s preferred way of getting moisture as far as I can tell.

I return with Otto in the afternoon and we spend some time in the yard. He sits in the sun, I putter with plants, my camera nearby. Patience is on her nest per usual. She stays put while I move about but eventually I hear her leave. I don’t approach the nest too closely. Instead I try a few test shots. The tree’s in deep shade at this point, and even setting the ISO to 1600 it’s hard to get a blur-free shot. I set it as best I can and wait for her to return.

She’s all over the place. I sit next to Otto in the sun and she puts on quite a show. Up and down and all over the yard, she pulls bugs out of mid-air, dips into flowers, goes after water sprayed on plants. At one point she stops on an old trellis and cleans herself. Otto sees her, gives a head-tilt and watches. I tell him to stay still – he’s been given free run to chase the starlings out of the yard for her benefit and I don’t want him going after her too. He doesn’t need to be held back; he seems as curious about her as she was about him yesterday.

She returns to her nest and this time rather than settling in, she settles on the rim and feeds the still invisible chicks. I use plural, but I don’t know if both have hatched or just the one; I’ve not gotten a peek in since that first day. Slowly I approach with the camera. She looks at me, but keeps on feeding. I snap a couple of shots before she gets nervous and settles back over her brood.

Feeding time

Evening, the winds are back and the trees are whipping about in the yard. Otto doesn’t want to stay out long. Patience is in for another tough night.

Patience's enemy

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

[A hummingbird, who I’ve named Patience for reasons that would be obvious if you saw the effort she is spending, has built a nest in my small city back yard. I haven’t posted much about it here, but you can catch up on my Flickr page here and here and here. The following is the latest news.]

The drama in my back yard gets more intense as the hatching of Patience’s eggs gets closer.

It’s very hot here in San Francisco right now. Temps hit 93F/35C yesterday and 90+ so far today, something that only happens once or twice a year when a mass of high pressure air presses down hard on the west coast. (And oh! do we San Franciscans suffer! This is a town that calls 75F/23C a heatwave!)

The critters feel the heat too. Otto (my dog) mopes about as if his destiny is a barbecue spit and refuses to walk more than a block. Birds of all kinds flock to my yard to get water from the old planter saucer I keep filled for them. Otto and I are spending a lot of time outside because my apartment is too hot: it has huge windows, which are wonderful most of the time but on hot days turns the place into a microwave oven.

So we’re out back, Otto and I, and I watch Patience the hummingbird get off her nest periodically to cool herself and probably her eggs, since optimum temperature for hummingbird eggs is 96F/36C and she doesn’t have to use much body heat to get there right now. The eggs are due to hatch any time, though they’re still eggs and not chicks as of this writing: I peeked when she took her last break.

Patience’s alert level has definitely moved up a notch to orange; she’s become very picky about who is allowed in the yard and who isn’t. To my continuing amazement, Otto and I pass muster. I think she gives Otto a pass because he often runs off the other birds who linger too long around the water dish which is very much to her liking (more on that in a moment). That he doesn’t seem to even be aware of her – she moves too fast, has no scent to sniff, never goes down to his level – probably helps.

And me? Well, this will doubtless draw charges of anthropomorphizing or being off my meds or just plain old-fashioned California kookiness, but it is my strong sense that she considers me a sort of ally in her efforts. She won’t leave her nest for long and never leaves sight of it – unless I’m sitting in the red chair a few feet away. Seriously: I just returned outside after an absence of a few hours and I no sooner sat down than she zoomed off into the next yard, first letting me know she’s going as she always does by hovering above me for a few seconds and making her little clicks.

She was gone about five minutes this time (that’s when I did the egg check), again hovered where I could hear her and then made the five-point maneuver around the tree and into her nest she does every time she returns. If I’m somewhere else in the yard or going in and out her behavior’s different: she doesn’t come near me and she doesn’t leave sight of the nest.

The enemy

Yesterday Otto and I watched transfixed as she chased a dove out of the yard – thus the picture and the title of this post. She was very aggressive about it, chasing the dove to the roof of our four story building. The pair of doves have been around much longer than Patience, but she doesn’t care: she just wants them gone. She repeated her chase later in the afternoon with both of the pair and again succeeded. I’m surprised by this. I knew she distrusted the starlings – she gets very agitated when they dig for bugs below her tree. (Otto runs the starlings out of the yard which may be why she gives him a pass.) But doves? It’s hard to see doves as a threat, but what do I know about life’s dangers from a hummingbird’s perspective (cats excepted)?

So we all, critters and me, await the Event. This “wild kingdom” saga transpiring in my small back yard in one of the densest neighborhoods of San Francisco is a thrill to watch. And to be a part of, whether I really am or not.

More, as hatchings occur.

"Fear Of Change" Isn't Just a SignOn A Coffeehouse Tip Jar

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Yesterday I listened to three-fourths of a lecture by Dmitry Orlov titled Social Collapse Best Practices. Three-fourths? Well, as fans of Russia’s great writers know, nobody does gloom like the Russians. Consider Dostoyevsky. Or Solzhenitsyn, who makes Dostoyevsky read like Steve Martin. Orlov channels that famous Russian gloom into our new century and aims it square at the heart of our current socioeconomic madness. I ran out of mental room for the apocalypse so I had to put the last bits aside.

Mr Orlov is a hybrid: born and early raised in Russia, he moved to the U.S. at age twelve. Now he is a writer and lecturer specializing in such happy topics as Peak Oil and the collapse of societies. Serious collapse, as in Post-Soviet the-world-we-knew-is-gone-OMG! collapse.

Both bits of his background come through. He is relentlessly, apocalyptically depressing, forecasting nothing less than… oh, let him say it:

I am one of the very few people who several years ago unequivocally predicted the demise of the United States as a global superpower.


It's The Stupid Economy

Friday, February 27th, 2009

I have this image stuck in my head:

It’s a few months from now. Everyone who can possibly be foreclosed upon has lost their house and been booted out. The banks have repossessed apartment buildings from the landlords and every tenant has been evicted. And all of us, home owners and renters side by side, are parked on the street, right in front of our former homes, worldly goods stacked around us.

We cook on barbecue grills, sleep on mattresses spread along the asphalt, wash our dishes and ourselves with hoses hooked up to fire hydrants. We queue for the block’s portapotty, all the while staring at our boarded up, crumbling former homes, wondering, “how did we get here?” No answers come forth; we shrug and go about our days.

This scenario is of course delusional. Oh, not the part of all of us living on the streets; that seems all too possible. The delusional part is the idea that everybody will shrug and go quietly about their business. We’re just not that kind of species. Paraphrasing our national court jester: burn, baby burn.



Saturday, October 11th, 2008

Funny thing about confidence: you don’t really know you’ve lost it until you start getting it back. Without an inner voice constantly whispering a “you can do it” nag, a hypercautious agony aunt takes over and plunges you into a fog of jitters. Auntie has excuses for everything. “No, no, no!” she hisses. “Be careful!” “Oh, you really shouldn’t go out tonight. You’re not quite recovered you know!” “Of course you shouldn’t feel guilty about not taking that bike ride! Look at what you’ve been through!” Eventually this irritating scold owns you so completely you cringe at the risks involved with everything. “Be careful of that tea now, it’s hot!” “Don’t trip on that step!”

Unless you had the misfortune to be raised wary (or had a very difficult childhood, the same thing), auntie’s isn’t the default human condition. (more…)

Off topic AND on topic: No free passes for this election

Friday, October 10th, 2008

I don’t send out political screeds. This is my first and hopefully my last. But I feel strongly about this election, so strongly I’m risking alienating a lot of people here. Please, consider what I’ve written. Send it out to the world. Link to this page. Send it to friends and relatives and strangers. Cut it, edit it, reword it. Post it on blogs, squeeze it into comments. Send it back to those rumor-mongering eMails. Whatever you can do. Thanks. –Ed

No free passes this election

Recently a friend told me he’s voting “none of the above” for President. My blood boiled. I’ve heard others planning to do the same, write in somebody irrelevant or just skip voting altogether. My blood boils and my head spins. What are they thinking?

Does anyone really think this country would be the disaster it is today if the election had been different in 2000? That we’d be in the same financial, military, and moral mess? (more…)