Thursday, April 24, 2008

Spring Calls for New Projects

After writing about hedgerows, native plants, birds, bees, butterflies and the like, I've decided to put my money where my sore knees will be and turn our yard into a Certified Wildlife Habitat. A naturalist-gardener friend of mine, Frederique Lavoipierre, gave me the idea and steered me to The National Wildlife Organization, which sponsors the official backyard certification program. Since I'm not much for garden or yard organizing, I figured this would be as good a way as any to structure my wanton, gone-to-seed-and-weeds backyard. And harbor a few critters along the way. And this is part of the point of the project, to integrate way stations and habitats throughout our land for critters, rather than relegating them to the diminishing wildlands and the scattered, insufficient nature preserves. I want to do my part because without insect or critter scurrying, bird songs or butterfly dances, our place seems sterile and barren. Eerie, too.

So I cruised and found it's not really all that difficult, to wit:

All you need to do is provide elements from each of the following areas:

  • Food Sources. For example: Native plants, seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, nectar
  • Water Sources. For example: Birdbath, pond, water garden, stream
  • Places for Cover. For example: Thicket, rockpile, birdhouse
  • Places to Raise Young. For example: Dense shrubs, vegetation, nesting box, pond
  • Sustainable Gardening. For example: Mulch, compost, rain garden, chemical-free fertilizer
(excerpt taken from
(link to it from title of this post)

Some of the steps I've already put into practice. I've done my hippie best to avoid all chemical additives, to the point that our lawns were more like weed-patches--and not that kind of weed, either. I've used compost and mulched like crazy. Last summer, we nuked our front lawn by sheet mulching it, letting it RIP under thick layers of newspapers and wood chips. I don't intend to reseed with water-greedy grasses. To encourage bird and butterfly life, I've planted a few sorts of bushes and flowers they like (mallow, penstamen, lavender, salvias) and kept two bird feeders going. Newts and salamanders have benefited by my lax and lazy gardening; I spy them under damp leaves and overgrown bushes.

So I really only need to provide a water source, some shelters and more places to raise young. And up my use of native plant species. I can probably do all that this spring. Then we'll see how many creatures take me up on my welcome mat. I'll even leave the porch light on--for the bugs.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Nerd or Geek; what’s the distinction?

This was the question posed at a celebratory dinner the other evening. I was curious because, at least in my experience eons ago, these terms had not only been used derogatorily, but also somewhat interchangeably. How many people feel the need to parse an insult? Get mad, get even perhaps, but not stop to quibble about which slur fits. But the times, thank the goddess and pass the gigabytes, have changed and, in this regard, for the better. Still, it leaves me with the question: is there a definable difference between geek and nerd, and if so, what?

So this is what I’ve come up with.

Geek — someone who is highly, even overly, enthusiastic about a particular field of endeavor or interest. More than hobbyists, geeks are several ranks up from buffs. Usually, equipment or materials are involved, as in: camera geek, yarn geek, car geek, silent movie geek. Has to be non-sentient, too: someone who’s avid about people they don’t personally know would be either a fan, groupie or stalker. So, one can be a rock geek, a star geek, but not a rock-star geek.

Geeks collect their totem items, and can be distracted beyond measure by its presence. Witness a book geek in a bookstore. Might as well bring in take-out Chinese if you thought you were sharing a lunch date.

Geeks love to hang out with other geeks of their persuasion, witness camera clubs, yarn-off evenings and Trekkie Conventions (Trekkies are geeks not fans because their focus is the whole show, not just the stars). A geek’s concentration, while it might seem somewhat whacked to their significant others, nevertheless can be genially tolerated and should even be indulged. If it’s an irritant, then look out, that relationship is OVER. While geeks will gladly talk shop whenever possible, they are also willing and able to converse on other topics and they will participate in other activities, such as work that might not be their enthusiasm, raising the kids, attending family functions. In the best of all possible worlds, some one, a nephew, niece, grandparent, in-law, uncle or aunt, is also smitten by the same bug, and the long afternoon barbeques pass in a lovely haze of shared enthusiasms.

Nerd — this is someone who is in over their head, immersed in their interest to the point of letting go of the tow rope. They are generally the reigning expert and are only too happy to establish that. They don’t seem to understand “a passing interest” in their subject. When talking with a non-nerd, the conversation can be quite one-sided; when talking with another nerd, the volume tends to escalate, as they strive to out-nerd each other. Nerds can be quite bored with activities or people not related to their interest. This makes it difficult for non-nerds to appreciate their genuine intelligence and wealth of knowledge. I would think that nerds are best matched up with another nerd of the same or similar persuasion.

Although those who know me might disagree, I self-identify as a word-geek. I love words and how they operate; I love them forwards, backward, sideways, jumbled-up, scrabbled. New words thrill me; making them up is even better. Anagrams, puns, poems; bring them on. A word geek like myself either has the OED or lusts after one. But a word nerd no longer needs one; they have it memorized and can recite definition and antecedent, first print appearances, annotations, footnotes, and variance of usage across time. We need the word-nerds of the world to keep the dictionaries well-oiled and running. Then we word-geeks can have the fun of pushing them to their limits.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Getting Unstuck

When the words don't flow, when the ideas are lame, when the brain is mush and the eyes crossed, there is nothing left to do but throw up my hands and admit I'm stuck, flat out stuck. There are all sorts of evasive measures I'll take to prime the pump. But if weeding/mulching/pruning all 16 roses, vacuuming lint out of the crevisses of the sofa, washing every reachable curtain, changing the oil in my car, grooming the cats, answering email, and laying in supplies for the winter hasn't brought forth the juices of creativity, then I apply the following 7 steps, in the method of a religious ritual.

1)Remind myself I can quit writing any time; it's not like I'm getting paid the big bucks here.

2)Find some walnuts, hard apples, stale chips, anything to gnash with my teeth as I have probably gnawed my fingers to bleeding stumps, thus accounting for the small red-brown smears on the final paper drafts, something electronic submissions can't yet transmit—thank you, thank you, Goddess of All Small Things.

3)Consume vast quantities of coffee to get the heart rate up and the blood flowing, hauling a fresh dose of oxygen up to the brain, shaking loose cobwebs, freeing up ideas, making connections.

4)Consume even vaster amounts of chocolate to raise the serotonin levels, lubricating all the newly loosened brain-parts.

5)Within the hour, I'll be jittery, sweaty and queasy from the odd combination of foodstuffs, caffeine-overdose and oncoming insulin shock. I bolt out the door for a very, very long walk around town, muttering to myself in the voices of my characters. That is, not only talking to myself but answering, the classic definition of schizophrenia.

6)Returning home, I'm exhausted and in some sort of trance. Surely something will arrive when I sit down at the keyboard, as there is nothing left in my puddin'headed brain to offer any resistance.

7)If all else fails, I write to the Tiny Lights question of the month. By the time I'm finished, the day has passed and I'm off the hook. Tomorrow, I swear, I'll finish the novella.

(published courtesy of

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

April? Spring?

Some of these posts will be un-chronological, dislodged somewhat from time. The one below is an excerpt from a chapbook my daughter made from essays of mine published by Newsbytes, a newsletter of Sonoma State University. Which explains why it is talking about winter in the middle of spring. Not that it feels like spring. Though the trees and tulips have blossomed, the wind whipping the pollen around has been cold, cold, bitter cold. Down vests in April, oh yes, and in California, believe it or not.

btw, the chapbook is beautifully put together. Very proud I am of her and it.

Stopping by Our Pond on a Pre-winter’s Morning

Winter is close upon us, the nights and early mornings brisk, as they say in New England. To the west and east of our valley, dense fog layers over and between the hills, Chinese ink paintings for our contemplation during morning and evening drives. Coming in from the M lot one morning, the ponds were grey with the reflected sky. Six cormorants stood along the concrete rim of the island, black-clad sentinels for an invisible castle behind them. There had been a whole slew of them a few weeks ago, more than ever before, it seemed. Aside from those six standing on the island’s edge, I counted at least four more in the water— though it’s difficult to get an accurate head count the way they lingered underneath, popping up just as others popped down.

I went back by the ponds around noon-time that day for a bit more cormorant-watching and ran into Carol Hall, Administrative Coordinator in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and bird enthusiast. We swapped tales as we ate our respective leftovers-for-lunch in the weak sunshine. She told me she’d counted anywhere from 8 to 15 cormorants over the previous week and showed me some pictures she’d taken of them, both in the pond and out. Along the bank of the island in front of us, the cormorants stretched and held out their wings like damp feathered overcoats linings loaded with goodies for the indiscriminate bargain hunter: knock-off watches, oyster-shell rings, mackerel tails, seaweed necklaces.

These are Double Crested cormorants, dark-bodied, with a pale orange around the eyes and beak, sometimes a dull yellow sliding down the neck like a meager ascot. They hold their wings out in order to dry them, for the top layers of their feathers are not as waterproofed as those of other water birds. This gives the cormorant deeper dive capabilities; the Double Crested is known to dive close to 25 feet down — other species of cormorants dive even further.

They are amusing birds, these cormorants, endearing and lithe, true swimmers. They are not buoyant birds, like the more staid and stately ducks and geese that float on the water like ships, flipping their back ends up as they scrabble under the water’s surface for sustenance, rarely submerging themselves completely. Cormorants are the submarines, their backs just under the water’s surface as they cruise the pond in small flotillas, their distinctively hooked beaks pointed skyward, like periscopes-up! Or as if in salute. They’ll be there one moment and gone the next, gathering themselves up and shooting under water, sometimes two or three in unison, having spotted some sort of succulent pond snack. They are under long enough that we begin to wonder and then up they surface, almost bouncing a bit as they hit the air, a fish tail sliding quickly down their beak and gullet. They can be quite far from their point of entry into the water, and if Carol or I didn’t see them dive under, it was un-nerving to see them suddenly pop, pop, pop! Up on the pond in front of us. It tickled my funny bone, and made me giggle, even when I didn’t think I had much to giggle about.

The double crests, for which this species is named, are white feathers projecting out over the eyes and above the head, only visible during courtship and mating, which takes place in early spring, further north and inland from here, often in colonies of thousands. This small batch was probably scoping out some over-wintering spots and will move on once the fishing gets slim, as it’s bound to do. Because they aren’t buoyant and their top feathers are wettable, cormorants are quite vulnerable to oil spills; they get soaked to their skins, the weight of the oil immobilizing their wings, pulling them under to drown.

So I am glad they were here, even if only for a short spell, for they have escaped the oil sludge from the tanker that has contaminated the Bay and the San Francisco and Marin beaches. It is some comfort to know that we have a respite station. For the time that they were here we have enjoyed their presence and appreciated their grace and humor. And they in turn might remember that our ponds were a safe haven during a very bad fall for ocean life in the Bay Area.