September, 2014

Bird Watching with Alfred Hitchcock

September 25th, 2014 17 Comments



One of the great things about living in a rural area is all the wildlife one can see.

I saw my first condor the other day. Well, “saw” is a relative term; technically, yes, I saw a condor, I think, but it was so far away that the only reason I even bothered to look through the binoculars was that it was being harassed by a raven, and by comparison the raven looked like a sparrow, size-wise. Also, I knew the condors were in the area because my friend Dan Bronson ( told me the condors were in this neck of the woods. Very much in his small corner of this neck of the woods.

For those of you who might live in other countries and not be up to speed on the California condor (gymnogyps californianus) it is the closest thing we have these days to a pterodactyl. It looks like a cross between a pterodactyl, a dyspeptic undertaker, and a B-52 bomber, only nowhere near as pretty as any of those. It is America’s largest bird, with a wingspan that can reach over nine feet, and for many years it teetered on the brink of extinction.

And right now would be a good time to point out that those of you who believe global warming is an unprecedented catastrophe caused by man’s rapacity and greed, a catastrophe that will destroy the world as we know it, you will all be pleased to know that global warming should be a definite asset to the condor. If I have my facts right, the ancestors of the California condor were once both common and widespread from the Pacific to the Atlantic, but their numbers (and physical size) became greatly reduced as a result of the last ice age.

Be that as it may, for the last thirty-five years the condor has been the subject of an intense effort to keep the species viable, and they were only released back into the wild in 1991, so seeing one is a big deal. That is, to see them through binoculars is a big deal. For Dan and his wife Sonja, it would be more accurate to describe it as a big ordeal.

That’s Sonja’s photograph above. That’s Dan and Sonja’s gazebo the condors are sitting on. Each condor weighs about twenty-five pounds. Each condor has a prodigious and powerful beak. Each condor has a (pick one) highly developed sense of humor, or a great deal of curiosity, or a catholic sense of taste. The result is that when they come to call, as they did at Dan and Sonja’s, they leave a trail of destruction, with damaged or missing roof tiles, screens torn out of the frames, and—most inexplicable of all—large quantities of caulking around the door frames missing, apparently ingested, but certainly no longer where Dan would like said caulking to be.

The handyman hasn’t gotten to Dan’s house yet, but it looks as if the damage with run to several hundred dollars at the very least.

And for those of you who think I’m just a tinfoil-hat-wearing-paranoid when I say that the NSA has its cameras in all our underwear, consider the following:

When Dan sent me the photograph, and mentioned the damage that had been done, he also asked me, as a hunter and wildlife lover/enthusiast, if he ought to call US Fish and Wildlife to see what he could do to discourage a return visit. I jokingly left him a phone message saying that I had contacted USFW on his behalf and that they had declared his home a condor refuge and were taking his house under eminent domain, and that he and Sonja would have to move. Dan had barely played his phone messages when USFW did in fact show up at his house, the real thing, not an imitation, but not because of me. It seems the tracking devices they put on the birds are so accurate that it is possible to pinpoint an individual’s location to within a matter of feet. Hence the young man who knocked on Dan and Sonja’s door.

Apparently the young man was very polite and helpful; not so helpful that he offered to reimburse the Bronson’s for the damage the birds had done, but helpful in offering suggestions for discouraging the birds’ from lingering, suggestions that included running around and waving your arms and yelling; or running around and banging pots and pans together; or squirting the birds with water. You know, all those things we really long to do and have so much time to do instead of, oh, earning a living.

Condor in flight


I would have liked very much to have witnessed Dan’s efforts to be inhospitable to the condors, but I got the next best thing. I happened to be talking to him on the phone the next day, as he wandered around his yard picking up bits of screening and roof tiles that were no longer on the roof, when the condors returned for another feast of caulking material, and the soliloquy that I heard went something like this:

“Yeah, it was really fantastic to see them, Jameson. It’s why I love living up here in these mountains so much. I mean they’re one of the rarest of all birds, so it’s something most people never get a chance to… Oh, wait. One of them is coming back… No it’s, it’s four of them. No! Five, six, seven, eight. There’re eight of them. One of them is flying right over my head, only a few feet over me. Wow! This is cool! It’s an immature one because it doesn’t have the white underwing markings… Oh, no! Oh, shit! It’s landing on the roof. They’re all landing all the goddamn roof. No! Hey! Get out of here! Go away! Go! I’ve got to get the hose. Sonja! Where’s the power nozzle? Go away! (pant, pant) God damn it! I haven’t got enough pressure. I can’t reach them. Sonja! Get some pots, get the lids and start banging them. Oh, no! Don’t do that! God damn it! Go away! Oh, shit! (pant, pant) I’ve got to get the ladder. I’ll call you back.”

Postscript: I just received an email from Dan, an email that is conspicuously lacking in his normal cheerful and chatty style, an email I can best describe as terse. There are now seventeen condors currently circling his house. Either his caulking tastes really good, or perhaps the birds know something he doesn’t, and he and Sonja ought to check their life insurance policies.


September 19th, 2014 26 Comments

Ancient algebra


ISIS, the International Society of Islamic Swine, has been getting some bad press lately, but a headline caught my eye recently that made me think that maybe these fellows aren’t as bad as they seem. The headline, from various news sources, notably The Times of India (not, I admit, my ordinary news source), states that ISIS has banned math and social studies. I don’t know much about social studies—I can’t recall ever having had a course in social studies during my checkered academic career—but when I was in school, I would happily have signed on the dotted line with any organization that banned math, especially if said organization banned algebra.

Now, I know this doesn’t outweigh beheading people, or slaughtering people wholesale across much of the Middle East, but you must admit it is a good first step at rehabilitating their image. It’s an act of Christian charity—perhaps that’s not the right phrase, under the circumstances, but you know what I mean—that goes to show that ISIS has a softer, gentler side, that their hearts are in the right place, that they’re trying to make amends.

There is a certain irony, perhaps, in an Islamic organization banning algebra, since it was invented by Arabs. I believe both algebra and the concept of fractions had their roots in ancient Babylon, which goes a long way to explaining why Babylon no longer exists. Algebra is the only black mark I know of against the otherwise admirable Persian philosopher and poet, Omar Khayyam (as in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a poem which helped me endure many a painful math class, and gave me solace afterward in detention) who apparently frittered away much of his time writing about algebra when he could have been writing more verse.

I have always subscribed to Irish math myself, where two-plus-two may equal three or five or nothing whatsoever, and I have managed to totter through my six decades without ever once having felt the need to express myself with elementary, abstract, or linear algebra, and I plan to keep that record unblemished for the next six decades. I don’t wish to know the value of x. X hasn’t done anything to me, and I’m perfectly content to let it maintain its air of mystery. We all have our little vanities, and if x wishes to appear aloof and unknowable, let it.

Now we just have to get ISIS to extend its tolerance and understanding to some other areas of life, like just about everything you can think of.

Country Matters of the Pungent Variety

September 16th, 2014 15 Comments



I slept with the window open last night and some predator, almost certainly an owl, set off a skunk much too close to the house. The smell was enough to wake both my bride and me, and Darleen—burying her head under the covers—proclaimed bitterly that it smelled as if the owl had taken the skunk directly outside the bedroom window, possibly even in the bathroom. I was tempted to laugh at her, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night on the sofa. My poor little hothouse flower doesn’t know what a skunk smells like when it’s really up close and personal. As, for example, when it sprays you. I do.

While we were still living in Germany, my mother and father had an adventure right out of one of those macabre pre-World War Two books or movies like The Old Dark House, only with a happy ending. My sister and I were away at our respective schools and my parents took a vacation by themselves in England. Somewhere, on some desolate moor or common, on a dark and stormy night, their car died (a Jaguar, natch) and they had to hike across country through a driving rain to the only light they could see. It turned out to be an ominous and forbidding old stone farmhouse, but as soon as the door opened it became considerably less o. and f. The place belonged to a very affable farmer and his wife and five bullmastiffs who all took turns trying to lick my parents to death. The dogs, that is, not the farmer and his wife.

Both my parents loved dogs, but my father in particular thought life without a dog was like a meal without wine or a day without sunshine, and he had a special weakness for the bully-breeds, bulldogs, mastiffs, boxers, and here he was surrounded by five of the bulliest of the bully-breeds. Our beloved old one-eyed boxer had died only a year or so earlier, one of the bullmastiff bitches was pregnant, and the upshot was that long before any mechanic arrived to fix their temperamental car, money had changed hands. Six months later a bullmastiff puppy from the farmer’s “R” litter arrived at the Cologne airport.

Roger, for so the farmer had named him, was an affable, lazy old schmoo. He looked intimidating as hell, but in the normal course of events his attitude was, much like my father’s, “Wherever two or three are gathered together, let’s have a party!” When events became abnormal, however, he became a very different kind of dog. It only happened twice that I know of, but both times he lived up to the bullmastiff’s justly earned reputation as a guardian. For the most part, however, he was just a big old happy-go-lucky slob.


After he retired from the Foreign Service, my father became the director of a small museum out in the country in Virginia, Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which eventually became the model for our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, so many of which are so flagrantly ignored by today’s administration. One of my chores in those long ago days before security systems and alarms and electronic communication, was to walk Roger around the place late at night, just to make sure everything was safe and secure. Roger and I were ambling down a path not far from the house one very dark night, when suddenly he growled and started to run. Being a Bear of Little Brain, and thinking I was a lot tougher than I really was, I ran after him. I could hear, rather than see, him stop, so I skidded to a stop too, and then I heard a faint hissing sound.

Before I could even process what it might have been, the spray hit me. Hit both of us, actually. The only good thing was that I was so close to the skunk that he only got me from about the waist down. I had to throw away a pair of suede boots and a perfectly good pair of blue jeans. Poor Roger, on the other hand, hand to be repeatedly bathed, and even after all that he had to spend the night on the porch.

They are sweet dogs, bullmastiffs, but not prodigious intellects. One night later that same summer, my parents had long since gone to bed, Roger and I had already done our late-night patrol, and I decided to let him out into the fenced yard for one last leg-lift before I went to sleep. I was brushing my teeth when I heard something outside. It was Roger, engaging in a rematch with a skunk, but unfortunately, this skunk happened to be right by the air-conditioning intake, and a minute later, my father, my mother and I all flew out of the house in our pajamas, my father lighting up the night with a string of profanities that probably still drifts through the woods of Mason’s Neck like phantom fairy lights. It was weeks, and I mean literally weeks, before the smell eventually faded from the house enough that you could walk in there without your eyes watering.

You can see why I’m not terribly sympathetic to Darleen’s grumbling about distant smells drifting down the hill.

American Exceptionalism

September 7th, 2014 15 Comments



Many years ago, while I was still earning my bread and butter in the gilded jakes, I made a very bad decision to do what turned out to be one of the three worst movies ever made. Ever. In part, I agreed to do it because it took me to countries I would normally never have been able or likely to visit. The first of those was Namibia.

We started filming just outside the tiny town of Walvis Bai, one of only two towns on the Skeleton Coast that have fresh water, hence their existence. The actors with the biggest roles (it’s hard to dignify such a dreadful film by saying “stars” in connection with it) were put up in private vacation cottages overlooking the famous bay and the countless tens of thousands of pink flamingoes that fed there. Most of the crew were put up in hotel rooms, but the town was so small that some had to be boarded out in private homes. Then there was the issue of the roughly three hundred black extras. Namibia was still South-West Africa back then, and still a protectorate of South Africa with its infamous system of apartheid. Renting rooms in white homes for black extras was not an option.

The producers of this horrible film were contemptible, despicable crooks (think The Producers, without the charm or the talent), but to give them their due, they did their best to come up with a solution. We were actually filming in the nearby pink sand dunes (as famous as the pink flamingoes) and they rented an enormous tent, hundreds of cots and piles of blankets, another cooking/dining tent, rows of portable toilets, rows of portable showers, water trucks, the whole nine yards. Voilà!

It didn’t work. The young black men were from different tribes and not only would they not sleep or eat with each other under a common canvas roof, their animosities ran so high that even after more tents were rented and pitched far apart from each other among the dunes, the American stunt coordinator had to sleep out there also, with a walkie-talkie tuned to the local police station in case war broke out. When it came time to film a large battle scene, the show’s armorer passed out rifles (firing pins removed) to all the extras and to my stunned amazement, some of the extras immediately, without hesitation and right there in front of God and everyone, pointed their rifles at rival tribesmen and hopefully pulled the triggers, something I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen it.

That was my first experience of tribal hatred and how deep it can run.

Some years later, I was in Cape Town, South Africa, sitting at the bar in the Mount Nelson Hotel only a few months before it burned down, and I fell into conversation with a very elegant lady who turned out to be a doctor. There had been a tribal skirmish on the border between Chad and Sudan, and the male population of an entire village had been slaughtered, the women and children led away as slaves by the simple expedient of punching a hole in the hand of each and stringing the group together with a wire cable. The event had made headline news in South Africa, and it came up as the doctor and I talked. I told her of my experience in Namibia.

“Oh,” she said, “That’s not uncommon. I had to fire a nurse once because she refused to treat a little boy who came from a different tribe.”

A few years later came the horrific events in Rwanda, followed in short order by equally horrific events in Bosnia.

All of this was followed by the events of 9/11 and America’s war on Iraq. It just so happened that I was then reading a biography of Captain Sir Richard Burton, the great British spy, explorer, scholar, author, warrior, scientist, and linguist. I happened to read a passage where he was quoted as saying that as a spy he was in the greatest danger not from being discovered as an Englishman (he spoke too many Arabian tongues too well for that), but from being mistaken for a member of a rival tribe. He talked about how one tribe had a different protocol for peeing than another tribe, and that to use the wrong protocol in the wrong place was to invite death. I remember reading that and thinking to myself that all the optimistic talk in Washington about post-war nation-building might be a trifle Pollyanna-ish.

I’m not bashing President Bush more—or less—than President Obama. Both men, and just about all Americans generally, appear to be equally ignorant of history, and both men appear to be equally blinded by American exceptionalism, albeit in different ways. When it comes to our foreign policy, American exceptionalism is perhaps America’s greatest weakness, and it comes directly out of America’s greatest strength.

On the Great Seal of the United States, on the back of every coin, is the de facto motto of our country, E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one,” and it is precisely why America is so exceptional. Russian Jews fleeing pogroms, Irish peasants fleeing starvation, desperate Mexicans looking for work, Italians, Germans, Japanese, Indians, Chinese, Scandinavians, from every corner of the globe, every race, every religion, every culture, and speaking every language, our parents or our ancestors have poured in with one desire: to be an American. Consider World War Two, when this disparate people came together to fight a common enemy. E Pluribus Unum. Of course we’re exceptional.

But unfortunately, that tends to color the thinking of those of our elected officials who haven’t read their history. Did George Bush really think he could create a unified Iraq? On this morning’s news, Barack Obama talked about unifying Iraq and went even further, talking about building a coalition between sects and tribes whose mutual animosity goes back to 570AD on the religious front, and back seven- to ten-thousand years on the tribal front. Are both these men so blinded by American exceptionalism that they think such things can be achieved in the space of a few months or years? Doesn’t anyone read any history anymore?

Democracy in Action

September 3rd, 2014 22 Comments

Michael Bloomberg


There’s an interesting phenomenon going on in Washington State. It’s called Initiative 594.

Washington, like other states, allows citizens to place new legislation onto a ballot in the form of either initiatives or referendums for popular vote; it’s an involved process, but anybody can do it, and it can be used either to propose a statute or to amend a constitution. On the face of it, this is the essence of democracy in action. But because it is a process open to anyone, it is consequently also open to exploitation by anyone. In fact, in a news report on another, unrelated Washington state initiative, the news agency referred to the man spearheading that particular initiative as, “an initiative entrepreneur,” a phrase that contains a multitude of negative implications that his work is designed for personal gain, not public good.

Ballot initiatives can be good or bad or any mixture of the two, always keeping in mind that the road to hell is paved with the unforeseen results of what seemed like a dandy plan at the time.

As an example of a bad ballot initiative, consider the ban on mountain lion hunting in California that was passed into law about twenty-five years ago. The mountain lion was not an endangered species in the state, but by using emotional arguments, backers of the initiative were able to gather enough votes from the state’s enormous urban population to get the ban passed, and the key word here is “emotional.”

The California Department of Fish and Game employs scientists and wildlife experts to determine the population numbers of all the given species within the state as well as the various methods of manipulating those populations for the carefully balanced good of both the various species in question and the public, and hunting is one of the best and most effective tools to achieve that balance. Too many deer for sustainable viability in a given area? Increase the number of deer tags for a season. A stressed herd due to drought? Reduce the number of tags for a season. Scientists and wildlife experts are the ones who have the necessary expertise to make those determinations, not an emotionally charged urban public. In the case of mountain lion, there were enough of them that the state had to manage the numbers by selling hunting tags, a system that provided the state the control it needed as well as being a source of vital income to the most underfunded Fish and Game Department in the nation.

The ban was passed, and now the state must pay professionals to kill more mountain lions annually than were ever taken by hunters before the ban, a perfect example of a lose-lose proposition and the result of unforeseen consequences that come when science is trumped by emotion.

So what is wrong with Washington State’s Initiative 594? Essentially, it is a gun-control initiative, so from my point of view there are innumerable things wrong with it, but that isn’t what bothers me. What bothers me is that is that it is an initiative crafted and backed by a gun-control organization using the funding of a handful of billionaires including, among others, Bill Gates, LA Clippers’ new owner Steve Ballmer, and—most alarming—former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

What a minute. What the hell does Michael Bloomberg, who lives in New York, have to do with gun control in Washington State?

My point exactly.

His Honor has spent virtually millions of dollars of his own vast fortune in an (up to now) unsuccessful attempt to influence both the laws and the outcome of elections in states as varied as Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, and now Washington. And what I find most appalling about this is that it is the precise opposite of any definition of democracy. It is bad enough that billionaires should attempt to buy the legislation they want in their own states (think Bill Gates), but to attempt to buy the laws or change the constitution of a state where said billionaires do not even reside smacks of the worst excesses of plutocracy. To take this to its illogical extreme, if Bloomberg can do this in Washington, what’s to prevent, say, Carlos Slim Helu from taking out dual citizenship and then buying whatever legislation he might want regarding immigration and border control along the Mexican-American border?

In the meantime, the backers of Initiative 594 have clearly taken Joseph Goebbels famous dictum to heart (“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”) and are busily lying through their teeth and selling their legislation-push as a grassroots organization (because of course there are so many grassroots billionaires), while decrying the National Rifle Association as a “well-funded” lobbying organization. Excuse me? Five million ordinary people contribute an average of five dollars each to an organization to represent them, and that’s damned as a totalitarian use of money, but a single billionaire tries to do the same thing on his own and that’s democracy in action? I don’t think so.

You may be rabidly anti-gun. You may think Initiative 594 is the hottest thing since pancakes. But no matter what you may or may not think about that specific piece of proposed legislation, I urge you to think very carefully about the potential effects of allowing billionaires to determine the laws of the land, because the next time, it might be a piece of legislation you may not like.

Top of Page