Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Comes Autumn Time - A Journal Entry

The transition from Summer to Autumn is one of my favorite times of year, especially now that I’m actually waking up early enough to see the sun come up and burn off the morning fog (unlike, after spending several of the last 18 years working until midnight or so, when I’d occasionally stay up late enough to see it from the other end). There’s something about the air, especially the sunlight, that is different even from cooler summer days.

So as the stock market tries to take deep breaths during its current roller-coaster of a ride and Washington is now poised to pump in $700,000,000,000 to shore up the banks that failed – I await the FBI investigation and charges of ENCO-like fraud that will no doubt be discovered – I sit on my garden bench in the late-afternoon sun on an Autumn day and realize (aside from what all this is doing to my poor bedraggled 401k Plan) it’s the corporations who are now getting bailed out, not the poor middle-class tax-paying schmucks squashed by home foreclosures who have been reeling toward bankruptcy for months. What would I like to say to those financial people who’ve always argued funding for the Arts is not the government’s responsibility when performing organizations cannot survive in a free-market economy?

Despite wondering if the White House is still pushing for its plan to turn Social Security into private accounts tied to the stock market and then reading the endlessly polarizing debates about Sarah Palin (if they thought she was an expert on Russia because you can see it from Alaska, why didn’t they just have her drive by the United Nations yesterday, instead?), I spent several hours during these past afternoons sitting on my little bench under the Japanese maple tree trying to read, though easily distracted by the activity around the bird feeder.

It took awhile for the birds to become less wary of me – the mourning doves never did, just sitting near the edge of the roof, craning their necks down at me questioningly before flying off into the tree – but eventually the family of cardinals came in, both the male and female adults as well as the pair of juveniles, the young male now just coming into his full red coloring (a week ago, they still sat there waiting to be fed by the adults even though they seemed bigger or at least fuller than their parents: by now, they might learn to feed themselves, you’d think).

Eventually, some nuthatches came by and a few chickadees, the first I’ve seen them in months (perhaps they’ve come down out of the mountain woods now that it’s cooler here). The juncos’ arrival will be the true harbinger of colder weather – “snowbirds,” they’re often called – fairly consistent with their first appearance but not as organized as the swallows of Capistrano (and a lot more attractive than the buzzards of Hinckley, Ohio). There were the little “chipping sparrows,” the tiniest birds I see here, more slender than the wrens who seem to live only out front, more often heard than seen. The blue jays were fairly wary but squawked mightily at me from nearby branches for a while before giving up and flying away. The crows stopped by, too, about six or seven of them this time. They’re not as bad as they used to be downtown, about seven miles away (as the crow flies) where for a while they had replaced starlings and pigeons as nature’s major urban nuisance: when we’d had more seagulls coming in along the riverfront, I swore we were living in an Alfred Hitchcock remake.

The chipmunks may have been more skitterish with me there, but that would not keep them away from the tailings for long. Every morning I put a scoop of bird seed out in the little St. Francis feeder at the edge of the porch – placed there over 40 years ago so my dad could watch them from the living room – and pour a little bit across the porch-floor for the chipmunks, as my mother had done decades ago. When I am late or forgetful, one will sit out on the rock underneath the feeder and scold me, setting up a repeated sharp “chirp.” One recent afternoon, I startled one who ran and hid in the rain-spout. I could see him peering out at me, cautious. After a while, he hopped out to stand on his haunches – there’s a low stump of a branch on the euonymus bush about two feet from me that makes a good perch – and then he began to scold me with these same sharp “chirps,” set up with metronomic precision. When I turned a page, he ran back and hid in the rain-spout again, still chirping: did he think he sounded more awesome, now, echoing through this metal tube, like someone singing in the shower?

My dad used to love watching them vacuum up the seeds till their cheek-pouches were nearly bursting: small wonder he nicknamed one “Dizzie Gillespie,” though how many of them we had then, who knows? Now on occasion I’ll see three different ones all at the same time, with the frequent scampering of territorial defense. One goes off around the back of the porch, another through the garden under the maple toward the neighbors behind me, a third one high-tailing it around the garage to the front of the house.

The squirrels do not come around when I sit outside. They are an unwelcome but unavoidable part of the garden, probably devouring more of the bird seed than the birds. They always seem to come up from the neighbors behind me, though I know there’s a nest in my other neighbor’s big oak on the east side (what my parents always called “the lower end,” where the hill recedes and the basement opens out, making the house looks like a two-storey). I see them less on the front yard: there, it’s too open and accessible to the passing hawk. Back in the spring, I saw a red-tailed hawk down on the grass being attacked by a squad of crows. Not sure if the hawk was wounded or maybe had gotten a baby crow, I ran out to scare it off: it flew off with the tail of a gray squirrel dangling limply from its talons.

The squirrels, of course, are a big draw for the cats inside, sitting on the backs of chairs, on the drum table or the old victrola, watching them for hours. Sometimes, the squirrels come up and peer in the windows, reminding me of the accusation once leveled at the Americans by Iran, that the CIA was training squirrels to be spies, then dropping them off undercover in Iran to blend into the landscape, not realizing squirrels were not native to that part of the world. Are these squirrels, then, trained by al-Qaida? When I see one digging in my lawn to plant a large black walnut – wherever that tree is located, they manage to come to my place to store them for the winter – I do a double-take, feeling I need to make sure it’s not a yard-side bomb that could injure the Lawn Guys when they come to mow.

Friends of mine are at war with the squirrels, whether it’s putting out poison or trapping and transporting them to more remote woods, as if their absence wouldn’t quickly be filled in by other squirrels in the neighborhood. Someone once told me there was a kind of squirrel contraceptive you could put out that would “render” them infertile. Fine, I thought, but I drew the line at having to put the little condoms on them. True, I don’t plant bulbs for spring flowers because I figure it’s too expensive to feed the squirrels that way – the birdseed is bad enough – but I’ve decided to give into them and just co-exist for now. I rather doubt what happens in my living room is of much interest to the Iranians, anyway.

The groundhogs, however, are another matter. They had taken up residence at this address probably before my parents built the house 50 years ago. Shortly afterward, there was a large hole dug alongside the back basement wall, hidden behind shrubs that have long since died. A few years later, we discovered a larger one on the opposite side of the house, out front near the Lower End, hidden behind a large arbor-vitae. We were convinced the two were connected and that they had now succeeded in building a vast warren of dens underneath the house that some day, the whole lower end of the house would just – phoom! – drop deeper into the earth a foot or two.

We would shovel the mound of dirt back into the holes but within a couple hours, the groundhog would have completely cleared the opening (who needs a back-hoe with paws like that?). My mother had caught one in a trap and transported it to the fields about a mile down the back road to town, but a neighbor was convinced the groundhog had managed to run back faster than my mother could drive. The next day, there it was, sitting on the back porch, calmly eating one of the neighbor’s tomatoes.

The guys who’d dug the wells for my geothermal installation this summer told me to toss an onion into the hole: groundhogs hate the smell of onions and would vacate the premises. So I did that (feeling like Bruce Willis yelling “fire in the hole!”) and a few days later, found the onion tossed out on the dirt about two feet from the opening.

Then I got an idea: I tried it first on the readily accessible one out back, dumping into both the main hole and its emergency exit about five pans of well-used cat litter, then covering them with a few shovelfuls of dirt. After a couple of undisturbed weeks, I figured perhaps this could be the answer, so I crawled behind the arbor-vitae out front and did the same thing there. I do not want to feel smug about this, should I have won this round, because I’m sure he’s planning his revenge, whether it’s reclaiming his old homestead (which has been in his family for how many generations, after all) or excavating newer and possibly larger digs in a less welcome spot, not that I am likely to run out of well-used cat litter. Three days later, there has still been no sign of the rodent but it can only be a matter of time. Having grown up on Bugs Bunny cartoons, I am well aware you don’t mess around with Nature.

And with the cooler weather, I have now turned on my heat to see how well the new geothermal system is working. I know the biggest test for the air-conditioning will come next summer after I’m able to compare those electric bills with this past summer’s. Though August’s bill contained the last three days of old-fashioned air-conditioning which I was running heavily during a 90-degree heat wave (if they were going to tear out the old system and I could be without a/c for a few days, I wanted to build up a well of cooler air in the house, as if that would help, and so it was running almost constantly, probably the heaviest use all summer), but it was also the first summer electric bill in years under $100 – in the past two years, they might range from $120-150 depending on the a/c use, and that was to keep it around 78-80°. I’ll have to go back through my mother’s files, though, to find out exactly (she kept everything: I could tell you how much she paid for fuel oil in 1960, the first winter we lived in the house – it’s all in this one box).

I already know how my fuel bills will compare to last winter’s, not including the $300 for the annual service check-ups and much-needed maintenance policies (especially for a furnace pushing 50), when I spent over $3,300 on oil. It was tough writing those checks for $16,000 once the geothermal project was complete, but in two or three years, it will have paid for itself, including what it would have cost to replace the existing fossil-burning system. In August, I could run the new air-conditioning to keep the house at 72-74° and the electric meter barely budged. So far, the heat has worked equally well, once I figured out the computorial complications of the thermostat which, eventually, I’ll keep at 68°. Of course, now they’re talking about removing the “rate-caps” on electricity – I guess it’s their turn, now: the oil companies have been raking in the profits as gas prices soar and there are struggling CEOs out there who see themselves losing out on the market – so now they say our electric bills may increase 40-43%. I’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it. Who knows what a barrel of oil will cost by then, anyway?

Despite the dire news, the depressing political campaign and its implications for the future, the on-going wars and the fact that seven years later Osama bin Laden is still at large, despite the fact I have no income at the moment (or certainly not enough so far to pay even one month’s health care coverage) and the composition I’m working on is going far too slowly, I sat on this garden bench in my back yard, enjoying the late-afternoon sun of a beautiful Autumn day, watching the birds and the chipmunks, almost oblivious of the dull, ever-present roar of the highway a quarter-of-a-mile away, and feel oddly contented with my life at this point and don’t really know why. True, I’m easily the happiest I’ve been in years and though not exactly healthy, healthier than I’ve felt in a couple of years as well, or less mindful of it.

One afternoon, I was reading about Brahms toward the end of his career, fearful his 4th Symphony could be a disaster because it was too intellectual for even his most intellectual friends, but yet not changing it, much less destroying it as he did two subsequent attempts at writing another symphony. Over the years, I have heard Elliott Carter doggedly following his own integrities in spite of critical reactions or his lack of popular acclaim, writing only to satisfy himself and hoping that, among the small elite audience interested in classical music there are, in the even smaller elite audience interested in contemporary classical music, enough listeners who would find a comfort level with his music to make it worth his while to bother picking up a pencil and putting notes down on paper, the daily struggle of any composer (or artist) worth the brain-cells it takes to be creative.

When I first began to understand that this subjective world of Art – especially music, particularly composing and performing it – was the application of something logical to achieve an illogical response, I never thought I would so easily accept such a balance in my own life. And yet, there it is. For now.

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