2021 Blogs

Charles Bowden (April 5, 2021)

Sometimes good writing grabs me by the front of my shirt and pulls me into the prose. Just as likely, however, an equally good piece of writing does almost the opposite, not drawing me in so much as pushing me away into my own memories and reflections. Recently I read a 2015 remembrance written by Richard Grant about fellow author Charles Bowden.* For me, the short essay worked as this latter kind of writing.

The very first paragraph of the article stated that Bowden drank only red wine. While I concur with this assessment of wines, reds in recent years have given me headaches. Even after only a glass or two, I feel the ill effects just before bed and then again in the morning. I pay the price of a slight hangover without the reward of a pleasant buzz. I’ve been trying to find a dry white with the same bite as a red, but such a thing might not exist.  

Manyu suffers from Asian glow; even a sip of alcohol makes her flush and nauseous. This means that unless we have guests, I drink alone. If I have a glass of wine with dinner and then let a few days go by without a second glass, the opened bottle starts to go bad and too much wine gets poured down the drain. I tell myself to buy boxed wine, which keeps better, but when I get to the liquor store, I get drawn into the rows and rows of enticing bottles and forget about the less glamorous boxes shelved over by the beer. I already drink boxed wine in the wilderness (it packs better and keeps glass out of the backcountry), and some of it satisfies my unsophisticated palate.

Grant’s article about Bowden then turned to the subject of nature. He observed that a few days in the backcountry allows a person to hear his or her own heartbeat. He also said that the wilderness experience is enhanced by the presence of potentially dangerous animals, as even the possibility of a snake or bear encounter keeps a person vigilant.  I agree with the first observation, but not the second. When I am outdoors I want my heightened awareness to be a joyous mindfulness, not a precautionary wariness. 

Having said that, the bluffs surrounding my home here in La Crosse are a rattlesnake hotbed. In nearly thirty years of living here, I have yet to see one. Among my outdoor friends, I’m the only one who hasn’t. I did once step into a circle where a ball of fox snakes must have just uncoiled after a winter’s hibernation. I was in no danger, but being surrounded by dozens of relatively large snakes was still unnerving. Fortunately the reptiles ignored me. All of them were slowly moving from a high spot on the ridge down toward the river bottoms, and they left me with the impression that there was someplace else they needed to be. 

I did not know who Charles Bowden was until I read the article. If the description of the man is accurate, I’ve been missing out on some topnotch nonfiction. If the description is accurate, Charles Bowden was a Southwestern version of Jim Harrison, meaning he had a talent and a rugged lifestyle that many wannabe writers (me included) wish they could emulate.

*Grant, R. 2015. A sense of Chuck. Aeon. Found at https://aeon.co/essays/in-memory-of-charles-bowden-a-writer-and-a-sensualist.

Saw a Cheesehead Sticker on a Cadillac (March 29, 2021)

This morning I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Sweet Dreams Are Made of Cheese.” Wisconsinites do have a few admirable traits, and one of them is their ability to laugh at themselves when others think the state is nothing more than Northwoods and cow pastures. Because of televised Green Bay Packer games, pretty much all nonresidents know that people from Wisconsin are called Cheeseheads. Not as many know that when the DMV held a contest to redesign the state’s license plates, the governor at the time sarcastically recommended we change the state’s license plate motto from “America’s Dairyland” to “Eat Cheese or Die.” Wisconsin produces a lot of cheese, and quite a bit of it gets consumed in-house.

Each year when Manyu visits Asia, she packs one suitcase with clothes and one suitcase with gifts for family and friends. She always leaves La Crosse with two suitcases, usually returns with only one, and then has to shop for a new suitcase a year later. For her mom and her sisters, she buys skincare products that are hard to find in Asia. For friends, she brings either vitamins or Wisconsin-grown ginseng. Vitamins are much more expensive in Taiwan than they are here. For her two French brothers-in-law, one now living in China and the other in Thailand, she brings cheese. Even Claude, my food snob brother-in-law, grudgingly admits that Wisconsin cheese is as delicious as the cheese he grew up with.

I found a cheese factory outlet that vacuum packs cheese specifically for air travel. One time I asked the woman doing the packaging to include cheese curds in my order, and she refused. She told me that she wouldn’t sell curds to any customer who wasn’t planning to eat them right away. “All of our curds,” she said, “come straight from the factory. If they aren’t eaten in a day or two, they don’t squeak.”* Curds are the Beaujolais of the cheese world.

I am writing the first draft of this blog at the kitchen counter while I cook dinner. One of my tasks has been grating cheese for the Red Lobster biscuits I’m baking. My dog wasn’t even in the room until I pulled the cheddar and Jarlsberg out of the refrigerator. Since I’ve started grating, he’s been underfoot. Jarlsberg currently is my favorite cheese. It is also imported, which messes up the Wisconsin theme I am going for in this blog. I briefly considered lying about the two cheeses I used for the biscuits, but even that small bit of poetic license got overridden by my Wisconsin-bred trait of honest to a fault. Had I realized beforehand that the content of this week’s blog was going to be so regional in nature, I would have left the Jarlsberg in the meat keeper and pulled out the Colby.

*Unlike cheeses that improve with age, cheese curds have to be eaten immediately. The freshest curds squeak when a person bites them.

Walls of Jericho (March 22, 2021)

Until 1999, I considered St. Patrick’s Day an irrelevant holiday. In my younger days, there were a few times when I peed green into the late hours, but otherwise the holiday affected me no more than Ground Hog Day. Then on St. Patrick’s Day 1999, Clare was born. Now the day runs neck and neck with Christmas in terms of importance.

Nothing will compare to the March 17 of twenty-two years ago, but the St. Patrick’s Day just past was at least out of the ordinary. Several minor, but unique events all fell on the same day, and all were COVID-related. First of all, Clare was home for her birthday. Grinnell College has yet to invite her back to campus, so our family celebrated Clare’s birthday in person during her free time between online classes. I thought the days of Clare being home for her birthday were over. Secondly, I got my second COVID shot. Third, my family’s COVID relief checks showed up in our bank account (and I helped to spur the economy by spending more money than usual for Clare’s birthday present and ordering a fairly expensive takeout birthday dinner from a local restaurant). Fourth, the walls of Jericho came down.

This last one needs explanation. In the classic road movie “It Happened One Night,” Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are relative strangers forced to share a hotel room. To give Colbert’s character some privacy, Clark Gable strings a blanket through the middle of the room and calls it the walls of Jericho. At the end of the movie, the wall comes down. For the past fourteen days, our house has had its own walls of Jericho. Manyu quarantined herself after her flight from Taiwan, so I strung a shower curtain in the hallway dividing one bedroom and one bathroom from the rest of the house. The CDC recommends a ten-day quarantine, but in Taipei (the place of departure for Manyu’s flight home), the recommended quarantine is fourteen days. Manyu tends to be overly cautious with anything relating to the pandemic, and I’d be foolish to disagree with her. Finally, on March 17, my wife had been back in the States for a full two weeks, and I removed the curtain. I didn’t want the thing in the first place, but taking it down felt like a tangible act representing life getting back to normal.

No Syrup in the City (March 15, 2021)

There has always been a sensitive balance between outdoor recreation and nature preservation. While the two human endeavors are usually compatible, it is not always the case. Should hikers be allowed in sensitive ecosystems? Should snowmobiles be allowed in Yellowstone? Should hunting be allowed on lands managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service? Even though I taught outdoor recreation for over thirty years, my natural inclination is to favor preservation over recreation when the two come in conflict. Still I am wary when certain forms of recreation are unnecessarily banned in the name of environmental protection.

For example, two of my friends tap maple trees each spring. One lives in the country and one in town. The country maple syruper owns a woodlot and has many more silver, red, and sugar maple trees than he can possibly use. The city dweller has only one big silver maple on his property, so he sometimes asks friends and neighbors whether he can drill a hole or two into a few of their trees.

Last week the city syrup maker went to a friend’s house to empty his sap buckets, when the friend came out of his house with a piece of paper in his hand. The paper was a cease and desist order from the City of La Crosse demanding the removal of all tapping equipment. The tapped maples at the friend’s house were between the sidewalk and the street, meaning that officially the trees belonged to the City and not the homeowner. According to the order, the taps were causing damage to City property.

These are the same trees that, until recent years, were pelted with road salt every winter. These are the same trees that power company road crews decimate with chainsaws if their branches come near the utility wires. These are the same trees that, if they resided at a house using a lawn service, receive an application of herbicide at least twice a year.

I understand the City’s desire to protect trees in the boulevard. La Crosse recently lost just about all of its ash trees to emerald ash borer, so the remaining maples, honey locusts, and basswoods have become especially valued. However, a couple of drill holes aren’t going to cause any permanent damage, and I suspect other motivations underlie the policy. Taps and plastic collection buckets are a little bit unsightly, and I am guessing that tapping trees is banned for the same reason that grazing goats in the front yard are not allowed. It violates someone’s standard as to what urban residential neighborhoods ought to look like. Traditional ways of connecting with nature should be encouraged, and the cease and desist order is bothering me more than it should. 

Finally (March 8, 2021)

Last Wednesday I drove to O’Hare to pick up Manyu after her six-month stay in Taiwan.  Her flight was on time, and except for some confusion with the Illinois tollroads, the car ride part of her trip went as well as a long drive between La Crosse and Chicago can go. The problem with the tollroads is that the tollbooths no longer accept cash. Without an I-Pass on my car, I was not sure what to do.

Manyu’s and my reunion, due to coronavirus, has been anticlimactic. Because her plane was crowded, Manyu is social distancing until we are sure she hasn’t been infected. I gave her a quick hug at the airport, but other than that initial masked embrace, we haven’t so much as held hands. On the way home, she sat in the backseat. Now that we are home, she has sequestered herself in the master bedroom, and I sleep on the couch. As one friend observed about the sleeping arrangements, “So everything is already back to normal.” I have strung a clear plastic shower curtain in the hallway between her living space and mine. We talk to each other from opposite sides of the curtain; our conversations have all of the romance of a lawyer/client strategy meeting at a high security prison.

The CDC recommends travelers either 1) sequester for ten days or 2) get tested and, if the results are negative, reduce the sequestration to seven days. Manyu wanted to skip the test and just wait the full ten days. I put the kibosh on that suggestion, partly because I want to get rid of the social distancing as soon as possible and partly because I have come to  realize I am at her beck and call until she comes out of quarantine.

This blog is making it seem I am not excited to have Manyu back. I am excited to have her back – but maybe not as excited as our dog. Thursday morning at 1:30am, I opened the backdoor of our house after the drive from O’Hare. Dependable Jack came from wherever he was sleeping to greet me as I walked in. When he saw it was Manyu who preceded me through the doorway, he went berserk. With his tail wagging frantically, he tore around the room for a full ten seconds, then clamored up her legs begging to be petted. I know it was not Jack’s intention, but the little guy made me look bad. In comparison, my tepid greeting at the airport was pitiful.

Signs of Spring (March 1, 2021)

My usual route with Jack takes me past a neighborhood daycare center and preschool. This morning I fell in behind a mom about to drop off two young daughters. Mom was holding the hand of one girl who was, I am guessing, three years old. The other daughter, about a year younger than her sister, trailed behind by herself. As they approached fresh ice on the sidewalk, the mom slowed her pace, but did not turn around to alert the second daughter of the hazard. It turns out a warning was not needed. The little girl did not bother to take her hands out of her coat pockets, but as she approached the ice, she changed her gait from a clumsy toddler stride to a more controlled sliding of her feet. I have canned goods in my pantry older than that little girl, but she already knew how to handle icy sidewalks. At the very least, she understood winter better than elected officials in Texas.

We have survived the polar vortex. Fresh ice on the sidewalks only comes with melted snow. Nighttime temperatures still dip below freezing, but the afternoons reach into the 40s. Last week I received my first coronavirus shot, and in two days I will drive to O’Hare to pick up my wife after six months in Asia. Toss in some sane politics on the national level, and how can I not feel like we’ve turned a page?

Last fall I voted early at City Hall and was impressed at how smoothly the polls were set up. This past Wednesday I felt the same way about the huge room where the coronavirus shots were being administered. There were staff members at every juncture explaining what to do and where to go. There were rovers watching for confused people. There were volunteers ready with wheelchairs for people who needed them. The nurse who gave me my shot was as cheerful as could be, and she made sure I had my second appointment before I left her small cubicle. The only downside was the realization that I must be as old as the rest of the codgers who were standing in line for their inoculations. For all the bellyaching about problems with distributing the vaccine, my experience was effortless. First, I received an email from my healthcare provider stating that I was now eligible for my shot and that doses were available. Second, I made an appointment for 10:50 on a Wednesday morning, arrived ten minutes early, and was back at my car by 11am. 

After writing that my experience with the vaccine went well, I checked to see whether La Crosse was distributing its allotment equitably. La Crosse County scores “Very Low” in all five categories of concern (historical undervaccination, socioeconomic barriers, low health care resources, poor health care access, and irregular medical care). Low is good; high is bad. Anyone interested in their county’s score can go to https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/02/25/opinion/covid-vaccination-barriers.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage.

If this positive trend continues, I’ll be on my bicycle by the end of the week and in my canoe by the end of the month.


Pen and Paper (February 22, 2021)

Clare has two computers. One is her personal laptop, the other is a loaner sent to her from her college when the campus went totally online. This past week both computers crashed within a few days of each other, and I had to give Clare my laptop to use for her classes. Except for an hour or two each day, I am now without a computer – and while it may seem counterintuitive, progress on my writing has actually improved. There are three reasons for this.

First of all, and most importantly, I went back to writing each morning with pen and paper. I’ve always known this to be the most effective way for me to draw out fresh ideas, but lately I’ve been going directly to my computer. When I hold a pen in my hand, words come to mind quicker than I can get them down on paper. Only one thought in ten is worth the time it took to write it, but the paragraph that comes out of that one good thought often is better than anything I compose on a keyboard.

Secondly, I made a hard copy of the most recent pages of my manuscript so I’d have them with me while I was without my computer. For the first time in a long time, I am editing on actual paper. I immediately fell back into my old habit of writing in the margins, and some of those comments have been pretty good. I know that word processing software comes with comment tabs, but the stuff I write in those little computerized boxes never seems quite as insightful as my notes in the margins.

Finally, not having a computer meant I could not easily put aside my manuscript every time I got bogged down. I could not stop writing to check emails or read the New York Times or do the Daily Beast crossword puzzle. I had no choice but to work through the slack periods.

The IT geeks at either Best Buy or Grinnell College will soon have one or both of Clare’s computers up and running. If not, she and I will be making a trip to the computer store. One way or another, I’ll have my computer back by the end of the week. When I do, I hope I have enough sense to keep writing by hand.

February 2021 (February 15, 2021)

February might be my least favorite month, but usually it had at least two things going for it. First, it stayed light past 5pm. Secondly, the weather was not as cold as January. This year I will have be satisfied with just the additional hours of daylight, because February is turning out to be the coldest month of the year. 

To be fair, it is not February’s fault. February 2021 might still end up being not much colder than normal as far as average temperatures go. The problem was January. This January was so mild that I let myself be lulled into thinking we might get through the winter without an Alberta clipper or polar vortex passing through. When a stretch of subzero weather hit last week, I was caught off guard. I’d even taken Jack in for a haircut, so now my well-groomed, but less insulated dog is cold because I thought this winter might be different from every other Midwestern winter in my lifetime.

This morning I was Skyping with Manyu, and Jack jumped up on the table. When my wife saw our dog without his full blanket of fur, she immediately told me to go out and buy him a coat. I resisted. While Jack may be secure enough in his masculinity to be seen in public with silly clothes on, I, as his walker, was not. Rather than argue with Manyu 10,000 miles away, I agreed to go to the pet store and check out the options. As it turned out, there has been a run on clothes for dogs, and even the big box pet stores didn’t have anything I’d consider buying. All that remained on the shelves were tight gray pullover sweaters with little holes for the forepaws. They looked slightly less ridiculous than most clothes for animals, but had obviously been designed by someone who’d never tried to dress a dog. Jack is doing fine without a velcro garment strapped to his torso, and the coldest weather is now behind us.

I look forward to the daytime temperatures creeping back into the 20s. I am also glad we had ten days of frigid weather. Had we not had a cold spell this year, I would be more worried about climate change than I already am.




Priorities (February 8, 2021)

It was Saturday.  I should have known better than to go on a weekend, but I was bored. I was getting nowhere with my writing and, except for walking the dog, hadn’t been outside all day. I decided to go fishing. So far this winter I’d been on the ice only a half dozen times and had yet to catch a fish big enough to keep. I assumed the fishing would be as poor this time as all of the other outings, so I did not even bother to stop at the bait shop. I had a few waxworms left over from a previous trip and figured they would be enough. I also chose a spot that, while rarely producing many fish, was remote. If I can’t catch fish, I could at least be alone in nature. 

I parked along Hanifl Road on Green Island and pulled my little red sled full of fishing gear through the woods to Bluff Slough. In the three other times I’d been there this year, I hadn’t seen another person. Today there was a party going on, complete with six portable shanties, at least twenty-five people, and country music blaring from a boombox. As I turned around to go back to my car, I saw dozens of blue gills and crappies lying on the ice. The fish were biting, and the word had gotten out.

I decided to stay. I told myself that I could catch a quick meal for Clare and myself, then get out of there. Most of the people on the ice were crammed together in a fairly small area, so I found another spot about fifty yards away. I couldn’t escape the yelling and loud music, but I could turn my back to the crowd and focus on the end of my line.

The bluegills were biting, but in their subtle wintertime way. During the coldest months, panfish are fairly lethargic. They don’t attack the bait so much as gingerly mouth it. Fishermen and fisherwomen need to watch for the slightest twitch in the line, and even then there’s usually nothing there when the hook is set. On Saturday, I brought a fish through the ice maybe one nibble in ten, but after little more than an hour had eight fish big enough to bring home. I put them in the bucket I’d been sitting on, covered them with snow, and left.

I was not disappointed with myself for fishing near a noisy crowd, but I was surprised. The urge to catch fish almost never supersedes my need for solitude. On Saturday it did.




Crossing Losey (February 1, 2021)

This morning I finally gave up trying to write first thing in the morning. Instead of going directly to my writing table as I normally do, I put on my coat, hat, boots, and mittens to take Jack for a walk. For the past month Jack has been pestering me earlier and earlier each morning for his morning walk, so I thought I’d not even try to write and just get the walk out of the way. When I put on the leash, however, Jack wouldn’t go – so I took off all of my winter clothes, made coffee, and sat down to write. Immediately Jack started barking to go for a walk. I relented, put all of my winter outdoor clothes back on, and this time he couldn’t get out of the door quickly enough. Apparently I’d missed an important step in the process where Jack barks at me for five minutes before I relent and we go outside. 

Walking Jack first thing in the morning means I have to cross Losey Boulevard during La Crosse’s 30-minute rush hour. Losey is the busiest street in town certain times of day. There is, however, a traffic light four blocks up from where I normally cross, so I walk up to the light when traffic is heavy. On my return trip home today, I crossed at the light and then realized (with my bulky mittens) that I had dropped my poop bag. I looked back and saw the bag sitting on the curb right at the spot I’d been standing while I waited for the light to change. For a brief moment, I was tempted to just leave it, even though it was only fifty feet away. To retrieve that poop, I would have to wait for the traffic light to change back to green, recross Losey to pick up the bag, then turn around and wait for the light to change again. The traffic light at Main and Losey between 7am and 8:30 stays green in the north/south direction for a long time, so it took eight minutes out of my life to retrieve a bag of dog poop. Of course, Jack didn’t know what was going on. 

It is hard for me to figure how much Jack affects my writing. Without a doubt his walk messes up my morning routine, but it also tires him out enough that he falls asleep next to me afterwards. His (quiet) presence alongside my writing table probably keeps me writing a little bit longer than I would on my own. Jack’s total impact on my writing might be a wash. My current writing project has taken four years, but I can’t blame it the dog.


Inauguration and Henry Aaron (January 25, 2021)

Last Wednesday I watched the inauguration on television. Afterwards I went fishing. In other words, I waited four years for a change in presidents, and then when Biden was finally sworn in, I went about my day as if not much had happened. During the drive to my fishing spot on the backwaters of the Mississippi River, I pondered my casual attitude. I thought back and tried to remember how many other inaugurations I actually watched in real time. Biden’s was the first one since I retired, so maybe I’d always been at work before. I did recall watching Obama’s first inauguration, but I was living in Asia in 2009. Work would not have been a problem, as 11am in Washington was midnight in Taiwan.

In trying to understand why I took Biden’s inauguration so much in stride, I mostly came up with platitudes like “the peaceful transition of power” and “the democratic process prevailed.” Had the inauguration not gone smoothly, I would have gone crazy and spent the day figuring out what to do next. Because everything happened as peaceably as I hoped it would, I was able to watch the ceremony and the odd collection of politicians on the steps of the Capitol – and then go outside to play until dark. While Biden was signing executive orders, I hovered over a hole in the ice and twitched a tiny waxworm for bluegills and perch. The weather did not warm up as predicted, and I did not catch a single fish big enough to keep, but still it was a very good fishing day, in one way the best I’ve ever had.

I wrote this blog on the Friday after the inauguration. When I finished writing the first draft, I took a break, refilled my coffee cup, and checked CNN online. There I saw that Henry Aaron had died. My hands shook, and it was a little hard to type after that. As a kid in Green Bay, I had two sports heroes. Scratch the word “sports.” As a kid, I had two heroes. They were Bart Starr and Henry Aaron. When Bart Starr died, I knew he’d been sick for a while, and I was ready for it. Henry Aaron’s death came as a surprise, and I was crushed.

A Winter's Day (January 18, 2021)

I don’t sing much, at least according to my Asian wife who’s grown up on karaoke. This morning, however, as I took Jack for a walk and was only a block down Hackberry Lane, I realized I was singing I am a Rock. Wow! A better writer might stop right there and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions. I am not that better writer, and besides, I need to do a little reflection for myself.

First of all, I am (regardless of the depressing nature of the song’s lyrics) doing fine. It reminds me of a time many years ago when a friend of mine went to a record store and bought albums by Phil Ochs, Gram Parsons, and Janis Joplin. The guy behind the counter asked, in all seriousness, whether she was okay.

I am content right now. Considering the current state of the world and the current state of my personal affairs, I might be happier than I have right to be.

    • It is mid-January in Wisconsin (i.e., the dead of winter)
    • Politics and the American electorate are a disaster (although I am hopeful)
    • COVID worsens (although I am hopeful)
    • I have not seen my wife in four months, and I have another two months to go
    • My daughter is home, but only because her college isn’t allowing her to return to school during the pandemic
    • No one wants to publish the book I have been working on for the past four years
    • My prostate is the size of a pear (this may be the only item on the list that is irreparable)
    • My eyeglass prescription is off just enough to give me headaches when I read, but because of social distancing, I haven’t gone to an optometrist
    • Now that I recall Phil Ochs and Gram Parsons, I worry about the quirky people who used to work in record shops and used bookstores.

Of all the complaints in this whiny collection of concerns, the one that bothers me the most is January in Wisconsin. Usually cold weather and short days don’t affect me much, but this year has been different. Maybe it’s the social distancing, maybe it’s a wife half a world way, but for the first time in a long time, I’ve let winter get to me a bit. Manyu and I have long talked about moving back to Asia, but our conversations lately have been more frequent and more specific. I have one more adventure left in me. I haven’t felt this unsure about my future since I was twenty-five years old, but unlike COVID and American politics, the uncertainty feels good.

Yew (January 11, 2021)

Years ago I had three Japanese yews growing along the front of my house. They were, in spite of my regular trimming, aesthetically too large for the yard. They did provide, however, excellent cover for birds in the wintertime. From the large window in my living room, I could see into the backside of one of the shrubs, and there were almost always birds within.  Sometimes it was a pair of cardinals. Other times it would be up to a half dozen English sparrows. Usually the birds would just hunker down and sit. Less often they would flit from branch to branch inside the shrub.

I took out those yews. Their removal reminds me of how little I know about the needs and wants of nature. Besides visually dominating the view of my house, I also took them out because they were not indigenous to Wisconsin. I thought replacing them with native species would be good for wildlife, but, in retrospect, I’m guessing the birds would disagree. None of the birds in the neighborhood ate the yew berries, but the cardinals’ and sparrows’ use for the yews was not as a food source. I replaced the exotics with ground cover and two smaller deciduous shrubs. As I write this blog, a house finch (or maybe it’s a purple finch) has alighted atop one of the shrubs. It serves as a temporary resting spot, but with only bare branches in the winter, it provides no shelter. When the bird takes off, I am pretty sure it will disappear into the protection of the Colorado spruce across the street. 

Today I was walking Jack and saw over a dozen robins eating berries off a small fruit tree. I don’t recall ever seeing so many robins together in one place before. They must, like bald eagles, congregate near food sources in the wintertime. Some of the birds were in the tree going after hanging fruit. Most were on the ground eating fruit that had fallen. I didn’t even know robins ate fruit, but if they are sticking around all winter, they obviously have to feed on something other than bugs and worms. A quick look through my bird books confirmed that both flocking and eating fruit are common wintertime behaviors for robins. It makes me think there have been other times I’ve seen robins in flocks and just failed to make note of it. Now that it is on my radar, I’ll probably see it more often.

Walking Jack gets me outside in the winter, but it is a lousy way to watch wildlife. It is not so much that my dog disturbs the birds and small mammals in my neighborhood; rather his herky-jerky route with stops at yellow snow and discarded burger wrappers does not necessarily coincide with my preferred resting spots. It is a credit to my observation skills that I noticed the robins at all.

Taking Down the Tree* (January 4, 2021)

For twenty-seven years my neighbor’s discarded Christmas tree has shown up on the curb on January 2. The same neighbor on the same day also takes down his outdoor Christmas lights. I do not consider this guy to be overly organized, but he definitely has a specific date on his calendar to mark the end of the holiday season.

I, in contrast, have no idea when my tree will come down. No, that’s not true. It will come down sometime this month. Some years I put it out on the curb in time for the City to pick it up; other years I miss the deadline. I’ve never bothered to find out what the actual last day is. When I do take the tree down, I put it on the curb regardless of the date. If it is still there after two weeks, I assume I’ve missed Christmas tree pick up for the year and take it to the yard waste disposal site myself. As far as removing my single strand of outdoor Christmas lights, I’ll unplug them in about a week and then wait for an unusually warm day to unravel them from my porch railing. They aren’t doing anyone any harm.

This has been a unique holiday season. With Clare home, it has been good, but not exceptional. Manyu was away in Taiwan the whole time. Even though her Taiwanese upbringing did not include a Christmas celebration, she knows it represents family to me as much as Chinese New Year does to her. She and I normally deal with her annual trips to Asia very well, but Christmas apart this pandemic year was hard for both of us. I bought a bottle of sparkling wine for New Year’s Eve, but neither Clare nor I bothered to open it as midnight approached. We celebrated by watching the annual fireworks display that takes place not far from our house, but after the grand finale, we both went to bed.

Still it is not all bad. Yesterday I noticed it was still light outside at 5pm. 

*This is the first blog entry for 2021. Every January I have teach myself all over again how to make a new archive page for the year’s entries. If I was smart, I would just go ahead and make pages for 2022, 2023, and 2024, then schedule them to appear one, two, and three years from now. I already know I won’t.



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