Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Critter Report, Summer 2016

Any day that starts with a lizard in my pants is okay with me. This morning, I walked out of the bathroom, put on a t-shirt, reached for my pants, and saw a swift motion out of the corner of my eye. Fortunately, I didn't reach out to smash whatever it was, mostly because I thought it was a roach, and those guys are filled with goo that you have to clean up. Nope, I could see it clearly, looking up at me: a tiny lizard. And I knew just which one it was.

• • •

Don't make it sound too good. Tell 'em we got bugs that'll hurt you bad. Plants that'll poison you. There's rattlesnakes and other critters that don't mean you no good. People should think about that before they decide to move here.

Hondo Crouch, in an interview with me, Luckenbach, Sept. 26, 1976

* * *

I grew up in a lizardless region, the New York suburbs. There were salamanders, and I always liked our vacations in Vermont because there were toads and frogs around the lake the cabin we rented was on, but there were few critters around the place I spent most of my time. 

But, as Hondo Crouch (who died the day after I interviewed him) made clear, that simply isn't the case in Texas. You've got to be careful in Texas. The plants can get you: I've never seen such opulent poison oak as used to thrive in the woods by my old house on West 9 ½ Street. Pecan trees were everywhere, and you could pick up a snack any time from the windfalls. If, that is, you were willing to crack them and then very, very carefully pick out the membrane from the meat. It contains so much tannic acid that your mouth will pucker so badly you'll be hard pressed to get anything in it. And of course, there's cactus, but nothing as lethal as the cholla that's all over the place in Arizona. 

Some of the animal life seems incredibly exotic, too. One morning my dog got very excited, the hair standing up on his back as he ran around on tiptoe, growling. I was still asleep and yeah, I heard something walking outside the window, but it was moving quickly and after a while the dog calmed down. After breakfast, the dog and I went on our customary walk in the woods and found two cops with Stetsons and rifles on horseback, and a very excited little Latina girl, about six. "Did you see the pantera?" she asked. "Yeah," one of the cops said. "We got a report on a panther on the loose around here." It happens, I guess. The lady next door to me complained about armadillos digging up her garden, and I'd see them occasionally when I went to pick up my girlfriend in way-far-north Austin (hardly way-far-north these days, of course) and once, on Thanksgiving, I was invited to dinner out in the country, and took a British friend who was about to return home. "I've really enjoyed my stay here," he said, "but I'm sorry I've never seen an armadillo." As if by magic, two appeared at the side of the road. They were, um, making more armadillos. 

So far, there's been a decided lack of such critters here in suburban far south Austin. There are birds, of course. My office looks out on my back yard and I can hear birds with the windows open, which alerts me to their presence. For a while, I had a woodpecker who pecked a wound in one of the trees he visited daily. The wound bled sap, which was sweet, ants were attracted to it, and the bird would show up to eat them. I'd always assumed there were bugs in the wood that they were after. There's also a cardinal couple, who seem to hunt as a pair. He is the most brilliant red imaginable outside of the tropics, a magnificent bird. She, conforming to the ways of birds, isn't. She's a kind of drab brown with a tiny bit of red on her head. That seems to be how bird love works: "Darling, I've seen some drab females in my life, but you're really drab." "Ooh, listen to mister sweet-talk." 

The one bird I've been wanting to see, but hadn't until recently, was the monk parakeet. Friends tell me of them visiting their yard, but they don't come here. Finally, one day when I was walking to the nearby middle school to vote -- it might have been the primary -- I heard a familiar sound, and sure enough two green birds, bickering loudly, swooped over my head and onto a branch. I have no idea why they don't come to this side of South First, but I've never seen one here, although I'm about ⅛ of a mile from that sighting. I also enjoy them in Barcelona, where they seem to outnumber pigeons. 

Bigger than a budgie, and surprisingly omnipresent. Wikipedia photo

But this year I made the decision not to mow the back yard. This was in large part because of the regal toad that used to come every night and sit beneath the light on the back of the house, which also attracted bugs, or, as he thought of them, dinner. I hoped there were more critters out there. Benign ones, of course. And there were: as springtime came on and the rains let up a bit, at sunset giant clouds of lightning bugs would lift off of the plants back there, a luminous flying carpet. That was nice. And I knew I was getting somewhere when I found a small brown Cuban anole hanging out on the deck sunning himself. 

The toad hasn't been back, but the back yard wasn't my only concern. The tree in my front yard was host some days to a magnificent Texas spiny lizard, which I'd never seen before, and whose commanding presence (at about 11") just plain looked good, even though he was expert at dodging the camera. 

Not a great shot, but not mine, either. Wikipedia.
He hasn't been back yet, either, but I gather they have a pretty good range they wander, eating bugs as they go. Welcome back any time, dude. 

And I was aware that there was other critter action in the front, dating from two years ago, when I found a J-shaped toad turd in the driveway, and running up to early May of this year, when I returned from shopping to find a small snake waiting by the front door. I ran inside and grabbed a camera (or maybe it was my phone) and found he'd stuck his head under a pile of leaf litter, so I took a stick and pulled him back to photograph. His head arched up and he took a good snap at the stick, hard enough that I felt it. Then he sat back and let his picture get took:

Healthy snake, wounded stick
A Texas garter snake, a useful website told me. 

I haven't seen him since, but I suspect he showed up because a bit up the hill Google Fiber was putting in cable. This has resulted in a bunch of eco-upheaval, because there's a tiny stream up there, right where they're working, and its critters are abandoning it. The most remarkable one I've seen was hanging out in the parking space in front of my house, fortunately when I was carrying my phone. 

Somewhat traumatized by the speed at which he was moved, a red-eared slider,  who later moved on to another small creek. 
You can tell by the pattern on the shell that he was just hanging out in a diminishing stream when the decision was made for him to move. Nine inches long, and plenty heavy. 

Then there was the night when I went out to light the grill and this guy hitched a ride on my shoe and hopped off when we returned to the house.

Not a great photo, but he was jumping around like crazy, and I wanted him outside where he could do some good: a tiny, tiny toadlet who could have perched on a quarter. Progeny of Back Door Toad? Maybe, maybe. At any rate, a quick ride on a piece of paper, and back to foraging for bugs. 

Because there are bugs. Anybody who lives here knows that. The most common one is the ant, of which Texas seems to have 23,847 kinds. My computer hasn't gotten clogged with Raspberry Crazy Ants, fortunately, but there are small ants who manage to squeeze through the windows, and, recently, great big ants I call Iron Ants because you step on them and they kind of go "ow" and keep on walking. They hold regular love-ins in my shower, where I literally pour cold water on their assembly, and they either go down the drain or retreat behind the shower lining into the wall. Last night, though, I saw something odd that I've never seen before: an Iron Ant walking with another one in its mandibles, a kind of a T walking across the living room floor. I have no idea what that was about. 

And, sadly, there are roaches. Mostly, there are the big ones, the ones you can't step on unless you want to get down on the floor with a paper towel or something to clean up the ooze that results. My research, though, says that these so-called palmetto bugs or waterbugs don't want to be in the house, since it's not their natural habitat. The way I deal with them now is to stun them with a broom and then go all Canadian on their asses and play curling with them, opening the door and launching them outside. Sometimes I say "cheeseburger" to alert the neighbohood reptiles and birds that a sumptuous meal awaits. (Or any Thais who might be around: I found a small Thai grocery here that sells them canned, and in Montpellier there was a Thai restaurant with an insect menu that I never went near). They're not real smart, but they are real fast. And, according to Wikipedia, they're properly called American cockroaches. The ones you don't want because they do want to live in your house (and which you can whack with impunity) are brown, or German cockroaches. I never saw one in my 15 years in Germany, so maybe this is a xenophobic leftover from one of the World Wars, like "liberty cabbage" for sauerkraut or the more recent Freedom Fries. 

Another new visitor this year was one I found irrationally scary. I routinely approach the bathroom by my bedroom with watchful eyes, because there appear to be a couple of entryways from outdoors, and the big roaches get in. Well, the other night there wasn't a roach, but under the sink was a three-inch scorpion, reddish brown. There are over 1000 species of scorpions, none of the ones in Texas are lethal (for that you have to go to the Sonora desert in Arizona), but I, a Scorpio, freaked out, whisked it out with the broom, and stomped the hell out of it. Then I swept it out the door and waited for the adrenaline to subside. 

Right there, on the wall, under the brace, that's where it was. 
But wait, the lizard in your pants, aren't you going to tell us about that? Well, yes, because the above photo is about that, in a way. 

A few weeks back, I was passing in and out, grilling something for dinner, and a two-inch brown Mediterranean gecko (not unlike the Moroccan geckos who occasionally visited in France) ran in. I tried to dissuade him, but no soap: he ran to where I couldn't get him and it was at a crucial part of dinner so I gave up. Anyway, I don't mind a gecko in the house. They have prodigious appetites, and the summer I moved away from Austin to go to Berlin, my house suddenly had two of them in the kitchen. There had been a problem with German roaches, as there usually is in a house with no central air conditioning and open windows and doors. There was, within 24 hours of these two moving in, no longer a problem with German roaches at all. And, with his propinquity to the shower and the ant love-ins, I suspect this one had found a good place to hang and was hanging and dining well. I tried to photograph him, but it was before I'd had my coffee, so it didn't happen: the camera refused to click when I had him in focus and when I returned with the phone (and its clip-on fancy lenses) he'd vanished. But I was curious why the camera wasn't working so I aimed it at the under-sink area, and hence the above photo. 

I'm blessedly without mammals, although a large, fat white cat with black blotches saunters through my yard each day. He is manifestly not welcome: I caught him staring at an area where the toad hung out during the day last year, and wished I had a pan of water to throw at him. Cats are stupid hunters and predators, and with the cardinals and the various reptilia, I just don't want them in the yard. And yes, there are squirrels. I don't pay them much mind, but this spring, there was a very cool sighting. Remember Pizza Rat? He was a thing on the internet a few months ago, a tiny rat straining to take a mammoth slice of pizza down the stairs to the New York subway. Well, one day this spring, I noticed a squirrel behaving oddly, and saw that it had a slice of pizza in its mouth. No camera nearby, no phone, and he was moving quickly: he was, after all, bigger than Pizza Rat, and the slice was smaller. And I kind of felt sorry for him.  Pizza Rat was rewarded by a luscious New York slice. Poor Pizza Squirrel probably had Domino's. But no matter where it was from, it didn't matter: none of us critters in Austin have access to good pizza. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

On Returning, Part...Uh...

Lord, it's been a while since I touched this thing. I have to keep reminding myself it's not just a travel diary, but, then, what else has been of interest recently? I've been contemplating using my new camera to keep a log of the critters that have been in and out of the house, but I'm waiting for a moment when there's a critical mass of critter-to-photo data. Anyway, the summer's only just settled in. I'm sure there'll be more.

As for the rest, I'm mainly just hanging around waiting for the books to come out. Not a lot to write about there. I'm reading, doing very little writing, taking the opportunity to grab DVDs from Netflix while they're still trafficking in physical media, and, well, that's about it.

But it was that last bit that inspired me to write something today. A friend recommended a film, suspecting that I might have a reaction to it. Since none of the things I actually want to see on my Netflix queue are coming very quickly, this one got delivered last week and I watched it last night.

Having been elsewhere during his ascent as a filmmaker (although I think I got screwed by Mother Jones under his leadership), I'd never seen this one, but the premise intrigued me: Moore visits ("invades") a bunch of mostly-European countries, "stealing" good ideas to take back home as the spoils of his invasion. Thus, we learn about why Finland's educational system rates as the highest in the world, how workers in Italy get so much time off but still manage to be productive and competitive with other economies, why the French take school lunches and sex education so seriously, and so on. So I watched it, and fired off this e-mail to the guy who suggested I watch it. I've edited it somewhat, but this is mostly first-draft, top-of-the-head stuff.

* * *

On your recommendation, I checked out that Michael Moore film last night. Knew most of it, of course. Some random comments. 
As you might expect, I looked for counter-arguments and/or hidden nuances behind the rosy pictures he presented. Here are a few of them. 

FRANCE: Despite the nutritional benefits of those school cafeterias, he tiptoed around the big issue, which is that they also have to accommodate Jewish and Muslim students by observing dietary laws. The good news is, Kashruth and Hallal are almost identical. The bad news is, nativist right-wingers are using this as a wedge: several schools in more right-wing parts of the country have refused to stop serving pork. This became a major issue in Denmark, actually, where the Right is blooming like the Occupation never happened. 

ITALY: Yeah, that lifestyle looks good, but a lot of Italians don't pay the taxes that support it and it's a good question how much longer they'll be able to keep going unless some serious enforcement among the titans of industry takes place. On the other hand, Berlusconi is obviously dying, and I would imagine his type of "legit" "businessman" (ie, non-mafia) is also becoming a thing of the past, since there's no postwar economy to build up and make obscene profits from these days. 

GERMANY: Yes, they're hyper-vigilant about any possibility that fascism will return. So much so that neighbors like Austria and Denmark worry about the effect on free speech and the foreigner-in-the-street wonders why the few undeniably positive things that can be said about German culture and history are so rarely mentioned. In fact, that's one of the things that made life there finally unbearable for me. Well, that and the food and the weather. But the fact that they've hidden the remains of the Old Synagogue in Berlin always spoke volumes to me: starting in the 18th century, it spawned a revolution in Jewish thinking, leading to a renaissance in German intellectual life, German business, and, not coincidentally, the birth of Reform Judaism. But not a peep about that on site, and Libeskind's much-vaunted Jewish Museum, like much contemporary German thinking, continues to present Jews as victims. 

(I'm having zero luck finding the photos that went along with this blog post and hope they're still recoverable, and the post makes far less sense without them, but whaddya gonna do?)

NORWAY, FINLAND & SLOVENIA: One thing missing here is the lives the ordinary people live, and the spaces in which they live them. Mile after mile of postwar identi-housing, very small living quarters, dreary public spaces. Of course, some of this is inherent in the physical properties of the countries themselves. My guess is that prison in Norway isn't quite as cheerful in February as it was when Moore and his crew visited, and yes, the old town of Ljubljana sure is pretty but I'd guess that a ten-minute walk in any direction from the central square puts you smack in the middle of a bunch of Tito-era kleenex-box buildings. And it's nice that the Finns enforce equality the way they do, but it's a very small population they're dealing with, so micro-solutions work. 

TUNISIA: Moore's surprise ending may well present an over-optimistic view of the situation here, the one country in the film that I don't have as much first- or second-hand knowledge as I'd need to comment with any authority. The reactionary Islamist forces aren't as benign as the old man with bad teeth who comments here, especially the ones operating out of the country's neighbors like Algeria and Morocco. My optimism is a bit more guarded than what's on display here. 

The film seems to naively suggest that these solutions -- made, as several Europeans note, out of American ideas (Thomas Dewey, among others, I imagine) -- could work if applied here. The problem with that is that they *are* in fact American ideas, and they've been tried and discarded here. Not always for good or even desirable reasons, or with enough of a trial period to make a reasonable assessment of their viability or worth, but there is definitely a large, well-funded, powerful opposition to them. Barring a catastrophe, our grandchildren will die of old age before even modest progress will be made along those lines. In other words, I continue to believe that this country is doomed. Self-doomed, at that. 

As I am not the first to mention, Moore is a very clever polemicist and propagandist. It's just that it feels nice to be in the choir being preached to. For a change. 

Moore does not look well. He's gargantuan, and it's all fat. Expect we'll be losing him soon.

* * *

If you think the above touches on my ongoing deep ambivalence about my repatriation to the US, well, you don't win a prize. For a long time after my last blog post, way back there in April after returning from France and Spain, I struggled to make clear an idea that had formed during the trip, and finally it came to me. I had returned from a civil society to a highly uncivil one. This goes way beyond the events of this past week here, the various cop shootings and shootings of cops, or the candidacy of the most manifestly unsuited candidate for President in American history. For me the annoyances are far more granular: the way people drive, the astounding amount of self-absorption, the refusal to give an inch in compromise, even when all that's gained is getting to the red light faster. I try not to let it get to me, and I fail a lot. I got too used to something different, and it's not that I'm having trouble adjusting, it's that I resolutely don't want to adjust. 

I'm pretty sure by the time we figure that all out it'll be way too late. As for me, I have two books coming up that I have to promote, as well as another one to plan and, I hope, write. So for now, I have to stay where I am, get out when I can, and put one foot in front of the other. Live like the alcoholics, as I always tell people, one day at a time. And plan my escapes wisely: I may well be house sitting in Jersey City and then go to Montreal next month, and I'm planning a trip to Spain at the end of September and the beginning of October. Then back to taking it as it comes. Which is okay, given that I'm living somewhere I don't particularly like. But hell, I've done that before, and at least I'm pretty capable of expressing myself in its native language. 
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