Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Among Great Minds

Saturday Otto and I went to an annual party that we have attended for decades - the birthday party of Dave Seaborg, son of the Nobel prize-winner, Glenn Seaborg. Dave himself is a noted evolutionary biologist. (Google him if you are interested.) His birthday parties used to be in the home of his parents, but in the past several years, after the death of his father, it has moved to his and his wife's home in Walnut Creek, over the hills from us. The living room of their town house is beautifully decorated - a large oriental fan with painted flowers on one wall - and, somewhat incongruously, under it both a state-of-art music system and stacked terrariums (terraria ?) with two beautiful snakes.

Dave does the inviting, and a fascinating mix of people results - scientists, poets, writers, philosophers, political activists (liberal) - you name it. Some are just people with interesting ideas. At least one time, there was a magician. The main activities are talking and eating. It is a pot-luck party, and most people bring their best recipes. The discussions are fast, animated and fascinating. I mostly listen and learn, although occasionally I get a word in edge-wise.

Dave is somewhere in the range of about six feet, four inches to about seven feet tall, very tall, and very thin. His wife tries to pull little tricks on him at these parties, and the following photo shows Dave looking chagrined as he realizes that the reason he has not been able to blow out all the candles is that she has included some that cannot be extinguished without dunking them in water - which he proceeded to do.

On the way back home, when we reached the crest of the mountain, the bay area was spread out below us, a blaze of lights on this exceptionally clear and calm night, with reflections on the water of the bay.

"Do you want to stop and take a picture?" Otto asked me. And I have been kicking myself ever since that I said, "No."

I think I was just too tired trying to digest both too much food and weighty ideas.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Future of the Planet

Earth is too beautiful to let it die.


Today is the teeter-totter on which our actions determine what the future of our planet will be. We can tip it either way. What we can’t do is wait. There is a chance that we have already waited too long before acting, and that we are beyond the tipping point, the point of no return.

This prompt inspired the following as yet unpolished, untitled, inverted, Italianate sonnet. At least I think that’s what it is.

As glaciers and the polar ice-caps shrink,
that which radiated to the sky
is trapped by smog-spawned blankets holding heat.
And still our SUVs and Hummers drink
their Falstaff-portioned quaffs of gas. We buy
tales that without more sales we face defeat.

Coal-fired power-plants belch deadly gasses,
contaminate the earth - as carbons fly
and poisons rain on skin and leaf and grasses
and scorching droughts turn fields to desert-dry.

Yet all the while our hope is shining high
above us: Sol, our star, our answer, Sun.
Its flames can turn our turbines. Will earth die?
Not if humans are wise and act as one.


Husband Otto works 16 hours a day on trying to save the world. If you would like to see about his inventions to make more efficient motors to reduce our energy load, go to his website.

As to harnessing the sun, he has proposed building solar-turbine power plants in such places as the Gran Desierto of northern Mexico, the Yuma desert of Arizona, the Sahara and Gobi deserts.

The power plants, of his improved design, would be the conventional steam turbines now used, with the schematic below showing a more economical design than any current solar plant. Low-cost parabolic trough concentrators would boil water. The wet steam would then be dried and superheated by the focused solar light of tracking heliostats.

This would significantly reduce dependence on fossil fuels. It would be a first step toward slowing the accelerating pace of global warming before it reaches the point of no return.

parabolic troughs for single axis tracking
at Mahalia, India

These are small contributions in the total scheme of things. Everyone must do his or her part if we are to save our beautiful planet.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Creative Creatures

The Sunday Scribblings prompt: Compose.

(Haiku Sequence)

Drawn on grey dawn sky
bird-notes on a staff of wires
write their own music.

Snail who has feasted,
in silver calligraphy
leaves his thank-you note.

Butterflies flutter
brightly multi-colored wings,
inventing flowers.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Who's Afraid?

Here Grandson Johnny Smith shows
a tiny harmless snake to cousin Ruthie.
For a while Johnny thought he would become a herptologist.


Serpent has a connotation of wickedness. We all know what one of them did to Eve.

But why should that reputation extend to the ordinary garden variety of snake, that harmless shy little creature that scurries away when confronted by humans? The snake helps keep down the insect population intent on eating our plants. In its larger manifestations it devours one of humanity's greatest enemies, the rodent.

According to psychologists, a child of a certain age shows automatic fear of snakes. Perhaps it is because of the snakes startling mode of locomotion, that legless slither through the grasses. In much of the world that fear remains part of the culture, resulting in indiscriminate destruction of any casually met reptile. By hoe, by boot, by gun, snakes are decapitated, smashed, shattered, eliminated.

Why, then, do I have such fond childhood memories of snakes? My first memory of a snake is of one my father caught for me when I was about four years old. My grandfather was paying us one of his rare cross-country visits at the time, and he and my father hovered over me as I let the cunning little striped garter snake wind in and out between my fingers. It felt like reticulated ivory. It looked like the ribbon candy I only saw at Chistmas.

I loved it instantly.

The greatest credit for my non-fear, however, goes not to my father nor my grandfather but to my mother. For my sake she suppressed her reaction of complete horror. She had a true snake phobia. All her life she had nightmares about snakes. They were to her the epitome of everything frightening and repulsive. Only years later did I realize that the mere knowledge of a snake nearby could set her to trembling uncontrollably.

I continued to like snakes, having them as pets at various tines. They were not allowed in the house. I learned about poisonous snakes--in California that meant rattlesnakes--and I developed a reasonable caution in approaching unknown snakes or hiking through snake-infested areas.

Then I went to college and, in the course of time, fell in love with the man to whom I am still married sixty-six years later.

He might have been known for his brilliance as an engineering student, by his beautiful singing voice, by any number of admirable things, but to most fellow students his single most striking attribute was that his pockets always held a collection of snakes and lizards. He was generous with them; he would lend me fence lizards to wear on my sweaters, or beautiful black-and-white-ringed California king snakes to while away the time in a less-than-absorbing class. This caused me a few problems, such as the time I forgot to remove the lizards from my sweater when being interviewed by a poetry professor for entrance into a special class. He gave one horrified look and expressed the opinion that we might be personally incompatible.

On the first Christmas after our wedding my husband was teaching at Tufts college in Boston. We were very poor and we were far from our western homes. I was enrolled at Tuft's as an undergraduate and had no personal income. I wanted to give Otto something very special, but I didn't want to spend his money for it. Christmas Eve found us still shopping in Harvard Square. I had exactly one dollar in my pocket. In the window of one of the book stores was displayed a beautifully illustrated copy of Ditmar's Snakes of the World. It would be the perfect gift for Otto if only I could afford it. Foolish thoughts! But what’s wrong with pricing your dreams? I went in and asked. By some miracle (or publisher’s indiscretion) that over-sized hard-cover coffee-table edition in full color cost exactly one dollar.

Lacking funds for luxuries such as movies, we spent our winter evenings reading the book aloud and thus becoming rather knowledgable about what had been heretofore just interesting pets.

When our daughter was about two years old my husband and I developed, for schools, a lecture series--called Bats in the Belfry--about various unusual pets that we had had. To add interest we would bring a selection from our current home collection of salamanders and newts, frogs, and most popular with the children, a beautiful large snake, a black racer, about five or six feet long. Candace, our daughter, was presumably of about that age at which children show an automatic fear of snakes. But she hadn't read the textbooks. One of her favorite activities was to drape the snake over her shoulders and parade around the yard. The black racer is a semi-constrictor. That meant that her snake would take a firm grip of her shoulders with his mid-section then carefully lift head and tail to prevent their erosion from ground friction. The snake seemed to enjoy the ride, but various neighbors expressed horror and disapproval.

My mother apparently felt that by hiding her fear of snakes from me that she had earned the right to be completely honest with my children. They were left in no doubt that Grandmother was terrified of snakes.

My oldest son was fond of snakes and usually had one resident in his basement room: nice little snakes, garter snakes, king snakes, rubber boas. When he was about seven my mother came to stay with the children while my husband and I went on a trip.

Otto Joe couldn't really believe that his Grandmother would object to so pretty a little pet. After much thought, he came to her and said, “Grandma, you wouldn't be afraid of just a little tiny snake, would you? Like this?" And he produced his small garter snake from behind his back. According to my Mother (and confirmed by my children) her scream could be heard by the neighbors.

My grandson, Joe, when a young teen-ager, used his summer earnings to buy a boa constrictor, which he named “Richter.”

Richter lived in a large terrarium with an electrically heated rock to keep him comfortable. He was free to crawl up over the sides of the terrarium at any time, but he generally preferred the comfort of his heated rock. Periodically, however, he would lazily slither forth into the room on a foraging expedition. At this time the cat was removed to another location (although it never was determined who was a greater menace to whom in a cat-snake confrontation), and it became incumbent on Joe to come up with suitable fare for a hungry five-foot boa.

Mice were bought for this purpose. They were too cute. Joe couldn't bear to feed them to Richter. Baby chickens were the next choice. Joe was too tender-hearted|.

The next time we visited my son’s home, we found a large and flourishing colony of white mice and a half-grown rooster that roamed the house and had established a working relationship with the cat. Richter had been donated to the science class at the high school, which was thereafter responsible for his board.

Now we come to granddaughter Anna Phyllis, my namesake and the youngest member of the Smith clan. She was two years old and adorable at the time of which I speak (she is now a college student – still adorable). She liked attention and hugging, and had learned that if she jumped across a room saying “Hop! I'm a little bunnie,” that her mother will swoop her up and kiss her. Then she and her older brother Johnny and her father found a pretty garter snake. Her father is the afore-mentioned Otto Joe, unsuccessful evangelist to his grandmother. They all made much of the little snake. Anna was obviously convinced that here was something even cuter than a rabbit. The next time she needed attention she wiggled into the room, mouth already puckered for a kiss, and said, “I’m a little snake.”

It’s all in your point of view. After all it was in Paradise that Eve encountered the serpent. And my paradise also has tended to have snakes winding through it, like tendrils on the decorative initial of an illuminated manuscript, tying together my loves: my father, my husband, my children, my grandchildren, and, by her forebearance, my mother.

I am thankful for the serpent in my garden.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Bird in a Gilded Cage

(Sunday Scribblings prompt: photograph)

In this 1906 photo of my aunt Rose, she is posed with her oldest brother, Charlie Sitzler. She is dressed in her wedding finery, bought for her by her soon-to-be husband, “Doc” Rudolph, physician and surgeon, a rich man in his forties. Rose is sixteen years old. Her brother will walk her down the aisle, since her father died many years ago.

This photo is one of the saddest I have ever seen. Look at the expression on Rose’s face. Does she look like a happy bride? It is probably the most miserable day of her young life.

Her mother, my usually wise Grandmother Sitzler but raised in a different culture in 19th century Germany, has told Rose that this marriage is a wonderful opportunity for her. How else could she get the musical training that her lovely voice deserves?

My grandmother, with her seven children, was barely making ends meet on the family dairy farm near Baldwin, Kansas. The oldest two, Charlie and Ida, had to leave school to help. But Grandma is determined that the younger ones, at least, will have better opportunities. Dr. Rudolph has promised to see that Rose has excellent voice teachers and that she can go to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he lived and had his practice.

Dr. Rudolph obviously adored his young wife. He showered her with jewelry and every other luxury. They took trips to Europe, bringing home works of art and antique furniture. She did, indeed, complete a degree in musicology at K.U. Uncle Doc arranged recitals to show off her talents.

She had maids, and the means to send spectacular gifts to her relatives, most of whom eventually moved to California. I remember one Christmas when my gift from Aunt Rose was a beautiful German doll with bisque head and eyes that opened and closed. That year she sent my mother a tortoise-shell vanity set.

I don’t know how much older Uncle Doc was than Aunt Rose, but it wasn’t surprising that he died while she was still in her forties. And suddenly she was free! She could move to California to join her mother and siblings. She admitted that, on the train to the west coast, she flirted with a handsome younger man, flashing her expensive diamonds to dazzle him. Before they reached the west coast he proposed to her, and they were married even before she joined her family.

This time it was true love for Rose, but it was a disastrous marriage. He rapidly went through her fortune. When her family attempted to intervene, she vociferously defended him. Eventually he simply abandoned her. The easy life of a rich man’s wife had not prepared her for the real world. She settled down miserably to wait for his return. Maybe she died of a broken heart, although the official cause was pneumonia.

My grandmother confessed to me that she had made a mistake by urging Rose to marry a man she didn’t love. By that time, in the 1930s, Grandma was thoroughly American, having even forgotten the German language (although she never lost her German accent).

I inherited boxes of sheet music from Aunt Rose. I was the only one who was interested in the old “art songs” that had been a large part of her repertoire.

And among them was the song I will always associate with that sad photo: “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage...”.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Newborn Fawns

Above is the proud mama of the twin fawns born in our back yard early this morning. She has chosen a spot where they are so camouflaged as to be almost invisible. If you click on these photos to enlarge them, you may be able to discern which is doe and which are little spotted fawns, still wet either from being born or from being licked by mama. She has been alternately licking them and leaning back as though exhausted, while they energetically nuzzle for food.

I took the pictures from an upstairs window so as not to disturb her. The last picture (below) may look as though she is posing for her portrait, but she had just caught on that I was there. That is a wary gaze she is turning my way. At any rate, we feel honored that she chose our yard in which to give birth. But, as Otto says, nearby Tilden Regional Park probably smells too strongly of mountain lions to seem safe for such a momentous event.