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Saving Jemima: The Audiobook

Sunday, May 19, 2019

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I spent most of three days last week recording the audiobook for Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-luck Jay. Normally, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hires voice talent to record books. Not this time. Nope, it would be me or nobody! As I read, I chuckled to myself, thinking the following random thoughts:

1. Criminy this writer loves polysyllabic words!
2. This is HARD to READ
3. Who but me would even know how to pronounce this stuff?
4. Much less how to emphasize this sentence?
5. Uh-oh. Here comes a rough passage. Don't choke up. DON'T CHOKE UP.

It was certainly interesting to have to read my own writing aloud. Mostly, it was a blast! I was surprised how much fun it was. Reading an audiobook incorporates acting and emotion, timing, storytelling and some technical know-how (like what to do when you flub a line). But it also is a really good way to discern if you're telling the story well. 

5 1/2 years delivering commentaries for National Public Radio's afternoon show All Things Considered  was the best possible training for this gig. I felt completely comfortable and pre-adapted. And after all, these are my words, so I might as well own them and read them like they mean something.
I cut my teeth in radio, writing and performing the three-minute commentary form. This, though, was a slightly different animal. This was reading entire chapters at a time, ranging from 1,200 to more than 4,000 words. 
I found out I could read only about 3 1/2 hours total in a day, but I got almost half the book done in that amount of time. Gotta say I'm kind of a beast at this. I really, really dig it. I think it's going to change the way I write, to make it more conversational and easy. 

I really enjoyed working with Houghton's Executive Producer of Audiobooks, Tommy Harron. He was patched in via Skype from Park Avenue in New York CITY!! (thinking of the old salsa commercial). We worked with a local sound engineer named Joe Huck, and that was great, because I could just drive into town and set up in his studio and go with it. I was sad at first, because Bill and I had set up this beautiful soundproof booth in our basement in March, and we'd done a couple sound tests with Tommy,  using Bill's wonderful podcasting equipment. We were all ready to go, but it wasn't to be. If I could have gotten eight hours out of him in a few sessions, it would have been so lovely both to read my new book to him and have him engineer the recording. But in the end he just didn't have the strength to do it.

It's just one small thing in the pantheon of things that were taken away from us when he had to leave. 

Anyway. I was grateful to be recording my book with anyone, grateful to have the job, grateful that there seems to be a growing market for audio books again. It made me think about podcasting, which Bill was so damn good at, and kept urging me to dive into. Well, I have a lot of irons in the fire, and I never got to it while he was alive, but maybe I will when the dust settles and I can look around. 

Liam was newly home from school, and I hated to leave when he was home, but he's sleeping until almost noon, so I didn't miss all that much time with him.

Now, Curtis was another matter.  It hasn't taken this dog long to get utterly spoiled, assuming his Ma is going to be home 24/7. And I have been, mostly, and the only trip I've taken, I took him along! (New River Birding and Nature Festival in Fayetteville, WV).

This is the extreme stinkeye he fixed on me as I pulled away the first morning.


The weather was cold and kind of nasty, so that was fine. But oh, I hate to miss any spring skies, being indoors.

I hate to miss any spring light.


But I got to see Marietta in that light on my lunch breaks This is our awesome ca. 1904 courthouse! It's really marvelous inside, too. 

I saw this awesome Pontiac LeMans 350, ca. 1972, in its original paint (ya think?)


The rear view was even better. They knew how to design cars then. For looks. They weren't terribly functional, but man, they looked cool.

 This car was being driven, I surmised, apparently without preciousness or irony. It was strewn with the ordinary stuff of daily life, and there were no oversized fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. You don't see that very much.

I did a bit of dogspotting and found this young refugee from the Humane Society shelter, who was adopted with her brother. Her owner was lovely and we had a wonderful lively yak. This doggie is half Lab, half coonhound, and she had the most marvelous disposition and the slidy loose shiny skin of youth.  A delicious buttercream sundae of a dog.

On one lunch break I walked the railroad tracks behind the home recording studio in the Harmar section of old Marietta. I could have walked them all day, listening to the catbirds, orioles, tanagers and vireos singing.


And then I got to come home to my road and my Three Graces in spring afternoon light. Let me know if you ever get tired of seeing them dance, because I don't.


And when I got home, someone jumped right up into the driver's seat and told me I was not to leave without him again. Ever, ever, ever again.

Yes, this brilliant, empathetic, sleek, kind, clairvoyant tigerdog is wrapped tightly around my heart, wound in and out of the ventricles, and I'd have it no other way.










Ever Seen a Chickadee Quilt?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

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I can't begin to tell you how sweet it is to stand on my dirt road on a May morning and drink in the sights: the light, the sky, the clouds and the sounds of the birds who make their homes on our land. It's such a simple thing, to walk out the door, trot out the driveway and about a half-mile down the dirt road. I find myself praying it stays dirt for good; that nobody plops houses on the haymeadows or lets them grow up to woods. Simple prayers, but heartfelt.


In this video, you can hear, more or less in order, Carolina wren, song sparrow (scold), indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, American redstart (the really loud see see sweew) Eastern towhee, Tennessee warbler, a school bus turning around, orchard oriole, common yellowthroat, American robin, a possible blackpoll, and northern cardinal. Of those, only the Tennessee warbler and blackpoll are  migrants, headed farther north; the rest are going to hang around and breed right here. I'm pretty used to picking apart a cacophony of birdsong into its various contributors, but this presents a bit of a challenge. It's a birdsong menudo. Everyone's singing at once!

          

I watched the young male redstart and a pair of white-eyed vireos fluttering in the sunlit edge, looked for but couldn't find the tanager and orchard oriole, and gazed at my beautiful new doggeh, feeling very lucky. 

It's all so beautiful. I could never tire of seeing the light stroke across this landscape, especially with a cur in the foreground. Going out with Curtis every morning puts a big piece back into my scattered jigsaw puzzle of a life.

The field daisies are just beginning to bloom, dotting the haymeadows with clean stars of white. They always start blooming well before I'm ready for them, and every year they're a delightful surprise. Oh! The daisies are out! Even before it really warms up for good. It's a disgusting 46 out at 5:47 AM which is what you get when the skies clear and all that heat radiates out into space. But then what will follow is a sunrise and a sparkling sunny day, so hauling all that stuff back into the greenhouse is ultimately worth it.  I've let daisies come into my flower beds, because they make me happy. I can see how they got out of gardens and into everyone's fields.  

One of the things I do in spring and summer is check my bluebird boxes. Technically, I try to hit each box at least once a week, but when there are babies, I check a bit more. Things can always go wrong with babies, and it's good to be looking in.


Checking my boxes gets me out into red-headed woodpecker habitat like this. Hearing their querulous squirks! lifts my heart. Seeing their banner colors stops it. 


Really, how can a bird be so gaudy, so perfectly clean-cut, so noisy and social; so delightful? Red-head was a pretty obvious choice by Bill for his favorite bird. Someone less enthusiastic and outgoing might have chosen something more subtle. (Says the person who chose blue jay).


You may detect hazy August light in these shots. I certainly do. Though I usually post up-to-the-moment iPhone photos, for the birds I occasionally have to go back and raid the long-lens archives. Not apologizing. Just 'splainin'. 

Ahh, that's better. Look at this glowery May day!! And I get to be out checking bluebird boxes in it! Lord. What a place I get to live in. These skies, I'd put them up against Tuscany's any day.


Here's a box, perfectly sited by my sweet late friend Jeff Warren. He built the box, I built the pole and baffle. We were a team. 


Inside that box, three bluebirds, two males and a female, 14 days old. They're atypical 14-day-olds, small and not as fully feathered as they should be, but thanks to all the rain, the hay is tall and foraging is tough for bluebirds when the hay gets so tall. They'll be OK, even through these nights in the 40's, because it's going to warm up and quit raining so much now. Right? This is why I check more often when there are babies. Someone might need help.


Though it's really pushing Blogger to ask it to publish two videos in one post, here's the father of these babes, dive-bombing me. Turn the sound up to hear the angry castanet snapping of his bill as he comes close. This bird was paired for years with a female who was just as aggressive as he. She disappeared, and their box went empty for the first time this spring. He's turned up at this box, several hundred yards away, now paired with a female who vanishes under duress.

        

Of course, I am perfectly aware that the dive-bombing male here could be the son of the pair in question, but finding the box the Aggressors had occupied for at least five years suddenly empty led me to the possibility that the female died and the aggressive male moved. My observation from 37 years of running bluebird boxes is that, in eastern bluebirds, female choice drives nest location. I've seen male bluebirds try to override their mate's choice of a nest site, and it is not pretty. Those girls know what they want, and a male can resort to beating her up and even tearing out her nest, trying to get her to change her mind. So, having perhaps lost his mate, Mr. Aggressor had to change locations, letting his timid new mate dictate where the nest would be. It's kind of nice to be swooped on by only one bird. Maybe just a touch of PTSD from my years of working with least terns, who swooped, sometimes struck, and pooped on me, too.

Back in the Aggressors' original box, someone finally moved in! What a wonderful surprise! And not a bill snap to be heard.




I am usually wearing going-to-town clothes when I check the boxes on this road. The tall hay is almost always wet, and so am I.  But oh, the sights you'll see!


I watched this pair in a haymeadow on my road fool around with a half-built nest for weeks. They only got serious when a pair of tree swallows showed interest in the box. I suspect the female is getting quite old and just had to gather herself to build and lay this year. She's usually a late nester, but initiating a first clutch on May 12 is really pushing it. Still, she laid five beautiful eggs (the norm around here is four). I honestly think these small Gilbertson PVC nest boxes, and the small slot boxes as well, discourage bluebirds from laying their full normal clutch of 5. Which may not be a bad thing; in times of privation, it's tough to raise all five. It's always a pleasant surprise to see a fiver in my little boxes. 

But the best surprise of this day was yet to come. This PVC box in my driveway started out with bluebirds who laid two eggs, then mysteriously abandoned. I think they started over in another box just down the driveway. Why, I have no idea. 
Another(?) bluebird came in and covered the eggs with a new grass lining. Well, OK. If they're going to go to waste...I dug down, fished the cold eggs out, and farmed them out into two other nests, where they both proved to be infertile. Maybe that first bluebird knew something about her own eggs.
The renovating bluebird never laid eggs in the nest, and it sat empty for several weeks. I left it, because something interesting could yet happen, and it was a perfectly good, fresh nest. One day I found it all tamped down and neatened up. Oh! Someone's been renovating! 

And a few days later, a very pissed off Carolina chickadee shot out and scolded at me when I checked it. Oh!! I left her alone for a week. You don't want to disturb a nest-building bird. And when I finally checked again, I found the MOST marvelous thing.

A patchwork chickadee quilt, made of three kinds of fur (rabbit, squirrel, and something with dark brown wooly underfur); some soft grass, and two wads of green Hollofil!!!  I suspect the Hollowfil is still from toys Chet Baker used to shred on our lawn. Hollofil doesn't biodegrade, but it is wonderful insulation. Chickadees know this. They love it, and Polarfleece too. I found a chickadee nest once with purple Polarfleece from Chet's (and now Curtis') favorite blankie. She must have gathered it while it was hanging out on the line!


While she's laying, a Carolina chickadee makes a little quilt that she lays over her eggs to hide them when she's away. Because I have checked many a chickadee nest, I knew to lift the patchwork quilt. It came up in one neat piece, like a blanket. And there beneath, treasure.


I covered the tiny orbs back up and went on my May way.

April's Gifts

Sunday, April 14, 2019

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The greenhouse has once again become a place I resort to for comfort. Every plant you see here got the crap frozen out of it on January 31 when the gas well on our land froze solid. And each one came back. It's amazing!



Speaking of gifts, look at Creole Lady!! She froze solid on January 31 (read it and weep here) but look at her now!! I'm told all hibiscus need a severe cutback from time to time....well, maybe. I can tell you neither of us needed a greenhouse freeze at the end of January.

But then again...maybe I had to lose all my beautiful plants, live without them for a few weeks, to make room in my heart to say yes to Curtis on February 19. Maybe everything happens for a reason. Or maybe it's all just mindless, undirected randomosity. Some things feel as if they were guided by a higher intelligence. This thing, for one. From what heavenly cloud did you flutter down, Sugarbean?



Creole Lady, when will you flower again? That's OK. You don't have to answer. Just put out leaves and leaves. Feed yourself first.


The Path looks like a hairy stick. But it's alive, and it will be beautiful again by July, mark my words. 

The red-brown powder is dried blood. I'm trying to keep the chipmunks from chewing the leaves off my hibs INSIDE THE GREENHOUSE as fast as they grow out. Yes. That is what's happening INSIDE the greenhouse.

Thai Giant Crown of Thorns going nuts! Nothing eats a COT. They have nasty milky bitter  Euphorbia sap. I wish more of my plants had that.


Teeny Kenyan Crown of Thorns trying to keep up! I love growing these two extremes of the same species. Oh what humans can do to a plant, a dog, a chicken, a horse.


My friend Alan told me to dig up my big lemon verbena and put it in the basement for the winter. Well, that worked! It's delighted to be welcomed into the greenhouse and smells divine. 
Runner's tea a-coming!

My seedling impala lilies, or Adeniums, who never batted an eye at the freeze.  I can't wait to see what color their flowers will be, when they get old enough. It could take years upon years. That's most of the fun.


See the little score marks on the caudex of this one, below? Chipmunk. Climbed up to the top shelf and chewed these helpless little Adenium seedlings.

Erodium reichardii, a little alpine geranium, also weathered the freeze without losing a leaf. (The chipmunks chewed one side off it, but it grew back).


My gardenia sulked a bit after the freeze, but she is going to blow me away when she finally bursts into bloom. Every stem has a fat emerald Christmas bulb at the end.



I counted and there are 24 buds ready to pop on this plant. I keep feeding it, hoping it'll grow some more leaves on those spindly stems. But when it blooms I'll forget all about its looks. This is the plant I got for $10 on clearance last summer. It survived the freeze pretty well.


I was sure my Fuchsia "Gartenmeister Bonstedt" was a goner. But up from the root it comes!


As does this incredible hybrid balcony Pelargonium. Already has a flower bud forming!
It just takes time, faith, and care. That's all. 
It hasn't even been two months, and here they all come roaring back!


 A tidy shelf of color. So grateful to have my Vancouver Centennial still with me, and a new dwarf pomegranate seedling in bloom for the first time.

 

Against all expectations, my pink fuchsia Trandshen Bonstedts all came back from the root. This is one I was harboring in my house, my "plant ark." 


And then there's Happy Thought. I've missed you so. Remember my gigantic Happy Thought from last winter?? My pride and joy?? It was almost six feet across.

Well, this cutting that rooted and is blooming for the first time is all that's left of it, and I'm so, so happy I have it. I have to keep it on a pedestal inside the greenhouse or the chipmunks, hungry for anything green, will destroy it. Life is harder than it ought to be sometimes.


 Yesterday the chipmunk jumped onto the plant on its pedestal and clipped off some leaves, just to keep me from relaxing and enjoying my plants. Havahart will be set tomorrow. I've caught one and I'll catch this one, too.  Peanuts and peanut butter will get him.


It seems that death and destruction is always waiting when you try to grow things. There's always something trying to get at the things you love, whether it's coons and snakes after your bluebirds or deer chewing down any little tree you try to plant.  Or #$#$%$# chipmunks breaking into your greenhouse, climbing the baker's racks, and annihilating your precious plants. It's always something.  Despite it all, the plants persist, and so do we.


Another lovely thing that keeps me going: nesting bluebirds. They're building, laying, incubating, singing and tussling everywhere. This pair cannot decide which of three different boxes they want. They have spent so much time poking around. Now another pair has shown up to contest them. They could be incubating by now, but they dither instead.

 I've already got baby Carolina wrens piping in the copper bucket under my front eave! Must be a record, such an early hatch! They're trying to beat the rat snakes. If they can pull off a brood before the snakes stir, they're way ahead.
 There are now five eggs in this Carolina wren nest, placed somewhat atypically in a shallow, small slot box along the driveway. They are such clever artisans where nest building is concerned. I love those birds.



I love this little bird, too. He likes to bake his bacon on the porch and on the lawn.


It feels so good to look out the kitchen window and see a dog on the stoop. Even if it has no front legs. Papaw still gets around pretty good wifout his legs.


Figured out why Curtis smells gently of potting soil most of the time. He has dug hisself a couple little setts where he cools off when his bacon is overheated.


There's no sense getting exercised about how dirty he is. As soon as it dries, it just falls off him like rain. I try to make sure that happens outside. On this particular morning, he had an al fresco breakfast because he was raining a fine sprinkling of potting soil. If you click on this photo you can see the fallout.



Just a few things that make me happy, in a roller-coaster spring of wild oscillations in the weather and my heart.




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