Monthly Archives: February 2007

Calibanus and nolina

It has rained here the last few days, great gasps of storm to knock potted plants off the porch. One pot broke. A Calibanus hookeri, bought cheap from a big box store that did not know what it was, and it sat out on the porch all night, roots exposed in a pile of sherds. I took the excuse to divide it. The growers had put two plants together in the pot, a cheat to make small, slow-growing plants look larger. They sit tonight in their own unglazed terracotta pots, awaiting the next storm. There is another pair still in its original pot — I went back to the store for it — and another I have been coaxing along for a few years indoors, now potted up. 

Near them, a Nolina longifolia, looking right now like a small, trunkless pony-tail palm but with much longer leaves. I’ve wanted one for three years now, since we saw one at Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Arizona. I think, in fact, that the one we saw is the one in this photo. Boyce Thompson is one of very few arboreta allowing dogs: Imagine me and Becky and Zeke standing in front of this plant the first week of January 2004, the two of them waiting patiently for me to stop gaping. I scoured the nurseries until this past December, when I finally found one. It arrived this month with a couple new agaves and a cactus that will eventually be 30 feet tall unless I kill it. I dimly remember putting them in pots a couple weeks ago. Someday I will struggle to repot the Nolina grown large in the fourth or fifth pot after the one it’s in now, and I will be struck by how long it has been since he left, and it will not seem that long.

White roses and trout

MB Eric reminds us: [Update: Sorry. You know how married people start to look alike after a while.]

It’s White Rose Day. On this day in 1943 Sophie and Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst were guillotined.


The Nazis executed Probst (right) and the Scholls (left) for blogging, or at least for getting as close to it as they could gven the technology of the day. From the Jewish Virtual Library:

One day in 1942, copies of a leaflet entitled “The White Rose” suddenly appeared at the University of Munich. The leaflet contained an anonymous essay that said that the Nazi system had slowly imprisoned the German people and was now destroying them. The Nazi regime had turned evil. It was time, the essay said, for Germans to rise up and resist the tyranny of their own government. At the bottom of the essay, the following request appeared: “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as you can and distribute them.”

The leaflet caused a tremendous stir among the student body. It was the first time that internal dissent against the Nazi regime had surfaced in Germany. The essay had been secretly written and distributed by Hans Scholl and his friends.

Another leaflet appeared soon afterward. And then another. And another. Ultimately, there were six leaflets published and distributed by Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends, four under the title “The White Rose” and two under the title “Leaflets of the Resistance.” Their publication took place periodically between 1942 and 1943, interrupted for a few months when Hans and his friends were temporarily sent to the Eastern Front to fight against the Russians.

The members of The White Rose, of course, had to act cautiously. The Nazi regime maintained an iron grip over German society. Internal dissent was quickly and efficiently smashed by the Gestapo. Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends knew what would happen to them if they were caught.

People began receiving copies of the leaflets in the mail. Students at the University of Hamburg began copying and distributing them. Copies began turning up in different parts of Germany and Austria. Moreover, as Hanser points out, the members of The White Rose did not limit themselves to leaflets. Graffiti began appearing in large letters on streets and buildings all over Munich: “Down with Hitler! . . . Hitler the Mass Murderer!” and “Freihart! . . . Freihart! . . . Freedom! . . . Freedom!”

The Gestapo was driven into a frenzy. It knew that the authors were having to procure large quantities of paper, envelopes, and postage. It knew that they were using a duplicating machine. But despite the Gestapo’s best efforts, it was unable to catch the perpetrators.

One day, February 18, 1943, Hans’ and Sophie’s luck ran out. They were caught leaving pamphlets at the University of Munich and were arrested. A search disclosed evidence of Christoph Probst’s participation, and he too was soon arrested. The three of them were indicted for treason.

A few years back I read some letters from Hans Scholl to his sister. One of them struck me: it was a heartfelt paean to a quintessentially German piece of music, one whch Scholl felt expressed all that was good in the German people, something worth holding on to even in the darkest of times. I post part of that piece here, as a small remembrance of their sacrifice.



taricha torosa 2.JPG

The first of the two ponds is murky. Light penetrates only an inch. We walk past it to the second. The Sunday afternoon breeze has blown the duckweed to the second pond’s east side. We sit on the west. They are there beneath the water, hundreds of them.

The California newts are mating.

They come out of the woods after the rains — the females with new, sharp keels on their long tails, the males with new little suction cups on their toes to grasp the females — and they find the nearest water of around a foot in depth. There the males offer up spermatophores, which the females may or may not accept and place in their cloacas, fertilizing their eggs. The eggs are laid in spherical packets, stuck to submerged twigs or to the ground. They hatch in two or three weeks.

The newts often walk some distance before finding water. We found one a quarter mile away this afternoon from this the nearest pond. We two have hiked here before. Becky was stricken with remembrance, with desolation. The woods are moist and the creek running, and she laid her right hand on the moss-covered bole of a bay laurel and sobbed. That part of the trail was especially steep.

The newts weave in and around the stands of egg packets, now seeming to nip at one another, now clasping one another, sometimes a dozen at a time. Adult newts sometimes eat the eggs themselves, and they are likely the only animals that can. The gelatinous cloak that covers the eggs is loaded with tetrodotoxin, the same poison in fugu and blue-ringed octopus, the same poison in the skins of the adult newts themselves. Children capture newts here all the time, molest them briefly and then reluctantly loose them back into the world, and no blaring headlines result in the local newspapers. There is a fatality on record in Oregon: someone decided to swallow a newt of a closely related species. The toxin shuts down the nervous system, paralyzing the respiratory and then the circulatory system. A few garter snake populations have evolved an immunity to the stuff. I walk to the east side of the pond: a blanket of duckweed obscures the mating. Little snouts break through the leaves here and there, newts coming up for a gasp of air. They dive again and the duckweed swirls in their wakes. A few of them walk the shallows, their outlines rendered vaguely beneath a carpet of minuscule red leaves. They are comical in cadence, a child’s wildly imagined windup toy, limbs wheeling in absurdly exaggerated arcs one after another, spines flexing leftward and then rightward. Somehow they scale impossible, overhanging four-foot cliffs, walk miles through the forest.

The carpet runners I bought for him are rolled up in the garage, soiled beyond repair. I will take them to the dump on Wednesday. The sunny corner in our bedroom where once he slept is full again, cycads and sundews and pitcher plants in the window above bare hardwood floor. We cleaned the house the day before Chinese New Year, something between tradition and obsession, and little of his hair remains. I am impatient with his memory. I long to be full of something else, or empty altogether. Westward, a ridge backlit in late-day sun, and on it ten years ago he stared down two coyotes as Craig and I watched. This landscape breeds some things that will seize up your lungs whether you swallow them whole, or leave them alone to multiply beneath the surface.


Raven with purple high-tops
Raven with Purple Sneakers. Matthew Yellowman, artist. A gift from Becky, received yesterday.

The world goes on regardless. They call me back into it. Seven years ago they called me back, their song not meant for me but I took it anyway, walking with the dog in a blur of loss and I heard them, atonal and grating from the power lines.

“We are here,” they sang.

I don’t know if I have ever seen the same raven twice. Two of them in the tree outside this window yesterday, probing the pollarded plane for insects. One against a field of blue as I walked. They are a pestilence in the desert, flock there by the tens of thousands disturbing the wildlife. So we’ve got that in common too. Ten years ago Sharon and I drove past an afternoon congregation of them, a thousand of them merrily dissecting a vacant lot outside a small Mojave town. “It looks like they’re waiting for a Who concert,” she said. “Counting Crows” I replied, earning a Look. Ravens follow humans and their edible garbage deeper and deeper into the Mojave each year, and many of them supplement their steady diet of cheese-coated fast food wrapping paper with an occasional baby tortoise.

I enjoy seeing ravens in the desert but it is more and a guilty pleasure, much as is seeing myself in the desert. Hitchcock’s nightmare comes true but it is not the revenge of the wild: the profusion of ravens rather one more aspect of the injury we do to the wild.

We walked this weekend on Bodega Head, after we took the dog’s old things to the shelter for donation, and along the clifftops we talked of whether Zeke would have enjoyed being there with us, where vertiginous trail met cliff crumbling toward the ocean. I stood at the edge, watched splayed blue-black wings shining off against a flawless sky, heading out to sea. The Birds was mainly filmed in Bodega, and the old church is still there and the old school. The movie didn’t end the way the filmmaker had intended: there was no budget to cover the Golden Gate Bridge in brooding ravens, his vision of an emphatic wild arisen to assert itself again. We are here.

A quick announcement

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February weeds

I was supposed to go for a hike today. It’s been weeks. But I let the rabbit out this morning to clean his cage, and it’s a warm sunny day, and I just can’t bring myself to make him come back in, he’s enjoying it so.

I work in the garden instead, pruning and clearing. We plan to turn Zeke’s lawn into an herb garden, and I started shaping a huge rosemary wth that in mind. I planted it four years ago as a little sprig. This morning it was five feet high and five broad. I pruned it up into small tree shape to make room beneath for new plants. I laid the long rosemary branches as a bower on Zeke’s grave.

It is difficult to work out there with him, without him. But the weeds are taller than they should be, and the rabbit little help. This much I can say: I have less impediment to using the fire pit. Zeke always hated the popping sound of firewood. Tonight I’ll make a little fire of rosemary and grapevine.

The key is to act as though I think going on matters hoping that I will, at some point, start to believe me.

We went to a group session the other night, counseling for people who are grieving their pets, and came away with our sense of gratitude reconfirmed. He lived so long, and went so easily and in love. He did not howl in pain at the ministrations of callous vets, or sit outside all night with pneumonia while we argued with the parents who would not let him in. We have the privilege of pure grief without guilt.

Our good fortune is just staggering in its joyousness.

The weeds are tall and I must go pull more of them. It is odd to be able to reach into a clump of weeds without fear of dog shit, to sit outside near the lawn he killed with his piss and smell only the oak’s sun-warmed leaves, the scent of rosemary on my leather gloves.

The pinnacle of bad movie science

I think I’ve found the baseline, the object standard by which all bad movie science will forevermore be judged.

We went out this past weekend to rent some movies. Given recent events, I had a couple of requirements for the movies I would pick, to wit:

1) no dogs
2) no sad deaths of characters of species other than dogs
3) funny enough to be distracting, or
4) bad enough to be funny enough to be distracting

And so I picked Magma, Volcanic Disaster, a made-for-TV budget science fiction disaster flick, thinking it would be just bad enough, with CGI unconvincing enough, that Becky and I could give it the old MST3K treatment. The copy on the DVD box was enough to persuade me: Xander Berkeley plays Peter Shepard, a volcanologist who decides that something is wrong with the Earth’s innards and must persuade unimaginative and short-sighted government bureaucrats that the world will end Unless We Do Something.

So we took it home, and the first few minutes seemed to bear out my suspicions. Five anonymous, red-shirted geologists in the field in Iceland all get cinderized in really bad CGI lava that flows at approximately the rate of spilled Everclear on a warm day. Cut to Xander in front of the classroom, giving an “intro to volcanology” lecture to a class, and describing the science in rapturously hokey terms: the “blood pressure of the living planet” etc. And then we find out that this is the last class of the term. Why’s he giving the intro speech to the last class of the term? Because the writers clearly wanted the intro speech in there, but Doctor Shepard needs to leave on an emergency field trip to Iceland that week, so he gives the speech as an intro to the class the students mght be taking next semester. Bad continuity = amusing.

Okay. Enter the important stock character: the frighteningly intelligent, drop-dead gorgeous geology graduate student Briana, played by Amy Jo Johnson. She corners Xander in the hallway and talks herself into a spot on his field trip, the clinching argument being that she’s got enough moxie that she went out and bought tickets for the flight to Iceland already. The next scene, she and Shepard and three undistinguishable brown-haired and jokingly sexist male graduate students are aboard a chartered plane… you know, the one the Rock Studying Graduate Babe bought the commercial airline Air Iceland tickets for that she’d waved in the previous scene.

This is prodigiously bad writing, and I was happy in a jittery, nervous sort of way.

But the next scene suddenly goes deeply, deeply wrong, and I realize I’m in over my head.  I didn’t believe my eyes. The single worst movie science mistake of all time happened, and then, just in case anyone watching had a non-blown synapse, the writers capped it off with a basic terminology goof of the half-understood jargon variety.


It was so bad I sat there stunned until well into the scene where Xander, back down off the mountain with his crew just as the whole thing asplodes — with no warning whatsoever! — is discussing his failed marriage with the wheelchair-sitting European-accented colleague. It took me that long to vbe able to move my remote hand.

I think we need to start an award of some kind for really bad movie science, and name it “The Magmas” after this ne plus ultra of the type. “The Maggies,” maybe.

I’m still going to try to make it all the way through the movie, but I may need some time.


It’s been interesting, the last few days, to have what amounts to a ringside seat at the big stupid manufactured blog-related media crisis of the week. For those of you who don’t frequent political blogs, here’s what happened.

My pal Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon got a job running John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign blog. (I got the ringside seat when she asked me and a few others to help out at Pandagon.) A few rightwing bloggers dug up some stuff Amanda had written and threw it around the wingnutosphere. The thing that stuck was an admittedly vulgar but completely defensible (and in my view, true) criticism of people who invoke the Virgin Birth of Jayzus as an “argument” (for lack of a better term) against abortion. Enter William Donohue, sole proprietor of the Catholic League, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Baron Vladimir Harkonnen as overplayed by Kenneth McMillan in the bad David Lynch version of Dune. Donohue is best known for his vulture-like opportunism (and I apologize for the slur against innocent vultures) but ought to be better known for his blatant and chronic Anti-Semitism and his defense of child sexual molestation done by Catholics. Melissa McEwan, aka Shakespeare’s Sister, also hired onto team Edwards as a netroots coordinator, was the other target of Donohue’s ire, as he objected to a remarkably tame statement asking what religious conservatives don’t understand about “keeping your noses out of our britches, our beds and our families”, calling that vulgar anti-Catholic bigotry.  Donohue sent out press releases alleging that the women’s remarks were bigoted against Catholics, ridiculous on the face of it, and demanding that Edwards fire them.

He’s got a right to his opinion, of course. But Donohue soon started making the rounds of the media, actually being granted air time to make his case, a spectacle not unlike CNN inviting Jeffrey Dahmer to speak for a few minutes on the Atkins diet. After several days of this shit, Edwards released a pursed-lip statement that seemed intended to placate all sides, about which the best thing one could say was that no one really expected anything better. After all, he didn’t want Donohue to pull out his heart plug or anything.

And then Amanda, after receiving assurances that her job was safe and that she was free to continue writing at Pandagon, published a review of the movie Children of Men that included the sentence:

The Christian version of the virgin birth is generally interpreted as super-patriarchal, where god is viewed as so powerful he can impregnate without befouling himself by touching a woman, and women are nothing but vessels.

Donohue sent out press releases blasting the sentence as “bigotry” for failing to deliver the requisite respect to conservative Catholicism, and reiterating his demand that both Amanda and Melissa be fired. I’m not sure why Melissa deserved to be fired for a movie review Amanda wrote, but what the hell. She’s a left-wing feminist woman so she’s probably guilty of something. Interestingly, Donohue neglected to continue his quote of Amanda’s review with the very next sentence in it:

But this movie offers an alternative interpretation of the virgin birth—one where “virginity” is irrelevant and one where a woman’s stake in motherhood is fully respected for the sacrifice and hard work that it is.

Which hardly seems disrespectful of the alleged historical personage of Mary, or even really in conflict with a traditional Mariolatrous Roman Catholic view of the Blessed Virgin as Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix. I mean, if being the go-between among the Holy Trinity and a world full of sinners isn’t sacrifice and hard work, what is? And do we ever write or call? I know I don’t.

So Amanda, feeling on the one hand like a liability to the campaign and on the other hand like she couldn’t defend herself adequately, quit and came back to Pandagon. And now Pandagon is up only sporadically, reeling under the traffic the insipid “scandal” has generated. And by oh boy, has the hate mail poured in. I’ve taken the liberty — so as to avoid sending you all to Pandagon to read the “site down” page thus making the slashdotting worse — of reprinting Amanda’s statement-with-hate mail below the fold. Some of that hate mail is pretty vile, which makes the accusations of Amanda’s having a potty mouth all the more funny. You know what? She does have a potty mouth. Amanda Marcotte is, aside from being a hell of a fun writer, a vulgarian in the best American sense, like Lincoln and Clemens. Even so, you’d have to distill about a year of Pandagon posts to reach the number of swears on the Deadwood Season One DVD.

I have more to say about the larger point this whole mini-scandal makes about our body politic and the suppurating pustules thereon, but this post has gone on long enough. More in Part II. For now, suffice it to say that whether you’re conservative or liberal or leftist, if you call yourself a Christian, you’ve got some goddamned sick people claiming to speak in your name. And I’m not pointing fingers: I want to help you come up with a way to neutralize them. I’m not a Christian any longer, but though I disbelieve in the stories and ideology at the root of Christian mythology I do find a lot of good in Christian communities, and these sick people need to be repudiated but good.

Continue reading


February here is a time of reminders, of bright creased-red flowers swelling from dank wood, green renewed and moist, succulent. Downhill is a patch of Narcissus and he always stepped on them. Each year I would forget and lose myself in thought and then look up to see him trampling down the bright green stems, the leash still slack between us. My neighbors are patient people, and never complained though I saw it in their eyes. Their patience has been rewarded. The Narcissus are blooming this week, grown tall and unbent.

There is one patch of soil ungreened on the entire hill, a rectangle of upturned earth three feet by four. We went to the nursery a week after he died, bought blue flowers to plant over him. In our yard in Richmond he loved the Scilla: he would loll about for hours among the Delft-blue blooms, a wide patch of them two feet high until he rolled on them. I always meant to grab the camera. The nursery had no Scilla, but it is far too late for planting Scilla. We bought forget-me-nots.

I have been remembering a day eleven years ago, a mile down the road from my father’s house in New York, when we walked down Buffalo Creek in search of fossils. The creek was broad and nowhere more than a foot deep, sun-warmed July water slick with ropes of algae. We found a slab of shale, oddly intact and harder than its surrounding rock, with crinoids and brachiopods, horn corals in it, and I lugged it back a quarter mile to the truck. Craig and Allison were there with Becky, Zeke and me; we waded back upstream and then Zeke trapped himself on a little island, paced back and forth along the shore as we climbed the bank on the far side. He cried, grew a little frantic. It was only fifteen feet or so across, and no more than a few inches deep, a riffle really over shallow stones, and I called encouragement to him from atop the old abandoned bridge on which we’d parked. He didn’t listen. Before I could go back down to help him cross he’d run the other way across five times as much water, and up the far bank to reach the bridge from the other side. He flew up to us smiling. A cloudburst off Lake Erie hit and drenched us all before we could get in the truck.

The sun shone the day after he died, and we dragged ourselves out in it. South of us is the Heart Place, a ridge cloaked in pines, a reservoir atop it, and both of us went there alone with Zeke. Becky took him there when I was callous, and he’d drowse in the thick pine needles as she wept. I took him there when she was gone. We sat there together the day after he died, the trail up to the ridgetop a teary blur, our howls thrown at the unfair world below us.

It rained the whole next week.

Rain a bit on our dry soil and the soil comes up alive and green. Plums blossom all at once in February on the Pacific Coast, the quince and currants with them. There is a pink currant in our garden, and a yellow one, and both show color now. The creek is up. Mallards delve beneath submerged grass stems. I have been to the creek at least twice a day since we buried him, and I have not seen the egret flying once. Instead, he stalks the creek on foot.

I stalk the creek on foot. I run down to the bay and along the shore, race the trains rolling slow past the crew resetting sidetrack ties. Each morning I leave, walk stupidly to the closet door for the leash until I remember, go downhill beset by ghosts. At this corner I lifted him over the curb his last few weeks, when his feet were too unsure to land safely without help on the slanted pavement below. My right arm around his waist, my left hand under his breastbone I would lift him over, and steady him for a moment when his feet touched asphalt. At that long patch of ivy under oaks he would stop, smell the leaves that overhung the curb. His last visit to the park we lingered beneath that plane tree. He was stretched out on the lawn and I sat leaning up against the trunk, telling myself I would bring a book next time. On the way back up the hill he would stop again at that patch of ivy, look imploringly at me until I hoisted him, and he would lean against my shoulder for the next two steep blocks.

I turn the key in the lock and I hear him jump up to greet me and he is not there. I walk into his room and from the corner of my eye I see him lift his head from his bed to look at me through clouded eyes and he is not there. Until a week ago the sparrows foraged between his feet, trusting and unafraid. They pick over seeds and ants on the upturned soil now, and an Anna’s hummingbird browses the rosemary flowers next to him, its red head patch now dull, now brilliant through the breath-fogged window.

The plums will bloom, and then the cherries, and then the Bradford pears. When the crape myrtle blooms this summer we will travel, we tell ourselves. We will hike together unburdened by our love for him. The oaks will flower, and the grasses. The hills will brown. The wind will shift from the east. In October, or not long after, I will look up and notice rain. I will remember congratulating him, by that patch of ivy, for making it to one more season of rain, and not long after the plums will bloom again. The memory will fade and soften. I will forget him an atom at a time.

That day in New York I breathed hard putting the slab of Devonian shale in the cab of the truck, in the hollow behind the driver’s seat, and laid his blanket over it. He would sleep on it as we drove west the next two weeks, step around it for eleven years after that. He grinned in the downpour as Becky loaded him in the truck bed, climbed in after him with our niece. He was always so afraid we’d go on without him. The slab is twenty feet from him now, a jumble of Devonian crinoid stems and modern California dust. We found brachiopods that day, hard dull gems of the detail of life preserved. They shaped the rock around them. Years of proximity welded sediment into rock, a perfect imprint of the animal, and then the animal dissolved away into the world and left a void in its exact shape. The fossils we held were that void filled, a bit of dust at a time and pressed into the creases, a representation of the lost one finely detailed but still without life.

There will be years and years, each small forgetting a betrayal, each small betrayal a comfort, each small comfort another death. There is no lesson here, no lesson. Narcissus sought himself reflected in the world and found only death. Plums will bloom until there are no more plums. I will join him diffused into the soil, our component atoms intermingled one day soon, a dog and a man who walked together for a time, a brief spark of sweetness in an aching world.