Saturday, June 30, 2007

An Iraqi girl holds her hands up while U.S. and Iraqi soldiers search her
family house in Baquba early June 30, 2007.
(Reuters, Goran Tomasevic)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

As I was walkin' -- I saw a sign there
And that sign said -- no tress passin'
But on the other side ... it didn't say nothin'
Now, that side was made for you and me!
Woody Guthrie

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Howard's End
(A happy ending, that is)

Ever since I moved Howard into a larger tank out on the back porch, I've been considering letting him go this summer instead of next. I had wanted to keep him another year, to get him to a size that would make him nearly invulnerable to raccoons, skunks and other minor predators.

However, two factors outweighed that: One was that I was concerned he was becoming (for a snapper) too socialized and would approach humans expecting food. The other was that he spent much of his time in the translucent plastic tank scrabbling at the edge trying to get out.

Okay, a third factor -- snappers are not clean animals and the larger he got, the more it became apparent that we were going to have to go to twice-weekly tank cleanings. All in all, the notion of a winter indoors with Howard was beginning to look like the point at which you go from having this odd little pet to having a strange, obsessive thing going on. Hockey-puck sized Howard was cute, but he was growing fairly fast and, by next spring, would be kind of a weird thing to have in the house.

In any case, I don't give animals at this level a lot of credit for the kinds of emotions you would see in dogs, elephants, etc., but whether he is capable of being "happy," Howard was very much ready to start rambling. This is one of the major issues with exotic pets -- they're all pleasant as infants, but when they reach adolescence, they don't want to be fussed with. They need to be out on their own.

So the decision was made, and I started scouting places where he wouldn't run into people, and where he would be less likely to go wandering across roads.

This swamp is about 9 miles from the house, and set back about 100 yards from a road. The grass you see here is waist-high, growing on foot-tall tussocks with black mud between them. A very slow creek runs through it, so I got on the far side from the road, which doesn't have a lot of traffic to begin with. (There was a small bridge going over the creek, part of an ATV trail.)

If Howard decides to go out on the road, it will take some effort. As for him being disturbed, it is very unlikely that anybody is going to go through this stuff. I put on my gumboots and carried him out there in a plastic food storage box. Tough going -- where I couldn't go tussock-to-tussock, my boots were really sucking down into the mud. Nobody's going to idly wander out there, and, if they do, they'll be too busy avoiding falling into the muck to bother looking for turtles.

This is the edge of the aforementioned slow-moving creek. I set him down on the mud, and you can see the results in the video above. He sat quite still for about a minute and a half, then looked around, gave me one more glance and began trucking off on his own -- away from the creek, as it happened, though it will still be there if he changes his mind.

Here he is heading into the grass. I assume he'll burrow into the muck, once he finds a spot he likes. I would expect him to spend most of the next few years just growing. I don't think snappers worry about mating until they're several years old, and they're not at all sociable otherwise. I gave him as much food as he wanted over the past couple of days, so he'll be fine while he figures out the wild-food thing. I'm pretty confident that he'll work it out -- he really never gave any indication of being other than a moving collection of prehistoric instincts.

Which is not to say I won't miss the little fellow. It's been very interesting having him around, in large part because he was all instinct and very little emotions -- a fascinating guy. As for affection on my part, well, you don't cuddle these guys, but here's a loving dad -- just under that last bit of khaki, you can just make out the edge of my gumboots. One more half-inch of muck and I'd have had wet feet. As it was, after Howard had left, it took me a few minutes to rock my feet back and forth and yank my feet -- with boots still attached -- out of the mud.

Howard had left four of the goldfish behind, so I'm going to fill his tank with water and let them hang out for awhile. I figure it was his equivalent of a pardon as he left. (Though in a week or so, he may be kicking himself -- "Man, I should have eaten those stupid fish!")

A minor disturbance

Brian asked how many people were at the cartoonists' presentation Saturday. It was a small but full room -- maybe 50 or 60 people. They were all very polite except this fellow, who started screaming at Wiley that he "knew damn well who those dinosaurs represented" and that "if Wiley thought that was an amusing rendition, he'd see what rendition was all about!" However, security quickly escorted him out.

Hmmm ... guess he should have worn the blue serge ...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Lobsters, moose and cartoonists

Three of our area cartoonists -- well, none of whom was actually born here, which, in local parlance, means they're "from away," but all of whom live in Maine now -- were in Portland Saturday for a panel discussion of cartooning, as part of the "Maine Festival of the Book."

From left, it's Wiley Miller, of "Non Sequitur" and "The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil", Corey Pandolph of "Barkeater Lake," who is also stepping in for an ailing artist at "The Elderberries," and Lincoln Peirce, of "Big Nate."

An interesting session -- I'm so used to people who are absolutely nuts about comics talking that it was interesting to hear more ordinary citizens asking questions. I'd like to drop some big bombshells but the only news that emerged was that Wiley's got a second kid's book coming out in February and that Corey's going to be continuing on The Elderberries a little longer. Most of it was news like the reason Lincoln does so well at capturing the mind of a sixth grader is ... well, you can guess how he explains that. To which Wiley added that the normal mindset of a cartoonist also makes them really good at Trivial Pursuit, which doesn't surprise me in the least. And that was largely the mood of the session -- some good information in response to the questions and quite a few dry jokes and laughs.

For my part, what I enjoyed was that Wiley and I have known each other on-line for several years but had never been in the same room before. It was nice to finally get face-to-face. As it happens, for the past two or three years, he's been living about eight miles from my step-daughter, Paige, but we've never quite gotten it together -- the one time we did set something up, I arrived in York Harbor just ahead of a horrendous blizzard and did well just to get out of town, never mind stopping to visit anyone else on the way. Of course, now that he's doing the kids' books as well as his regular cartoon, he doesn't get out of the studio very often, so it really doesn't matter where he lives. He's a stone's throw from Brook McEldowney who divides his time between Pibgorn and 9 Chickweed Lane and so is also driven by deadlines and the two of them have never managed to get together.

Incidentally, I didn't buy any books from the guys today, for the simple reason that, when I get ready to make my annual Christmas purchases, I prefer to do it on-line so that the artists have more time to do nice signings, rather than the hurried stuff at an event like this. I highly recommend that -- I've given signed copies of cartoon collections each year and the cartoonists have been wonderful about it. (It doesn't hurt them, of course -- two years ago, I gave signed copies of Hilary Price's collection of pet cartoons, "Reigning Cats and Dogs," complete with little sketches of the giftee's dogs, and included a copy for my assistant at the paper. That copy began to make the rounds at the office and totally disrupted work for most of an afternoon -- several people logged on to Amazon to get their own copies while they were supposed to be doing something else.)

It's not a bad way to support cartoonists.

On the way home, I stopped off in Freeport to get a pair of shoes at LL Bean -- I've bought shoes from them by mail order before, but it seems sensible to try them on, since I was going right past the place anyway, and had a gift card that's been in my wallet for several months now. While there, I spotted this food stand on the street and had to get a shot of that sign front-and-center.

Presumably "vending executives" wear three-piece suits and sell "lobstah rolls" out of their briefcases.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Destry at 10

Des turns 10 this week. For Rhodesian ridgebacks, that's not young. He's probably got two or three years left at the most, but it's hard to say, because ridgebacks go fast. You don't see a ridgeback who needs five pills three times a day. One day they are healthy, the next day, they are gone. This is a bit of a blessing, because who wants to watch a dog suffer? But it also makes you nervous when your dog gets to a certain age, because you won't get much warning when the curtain is about to come down.

So I watch him turn white, and I worry about him, but I also enjoy him, knowing that we'll probably have a good time together right up to the end.

Destry is such a sweetheart that I often forget that he is the most impossible dog I have ever owned.

When I was looking for a new dog, to replace the amazing Mr. O'Malley, my first ridgeback, I told breeders I would be happy with a pet-quality, over-sized, hyper-alpha male. That was, after all, what I was used to.

A breeder in Massachusetts got in touch, saying she had the perfect puppy for me: He had only one crown in his ridge. These are the cobra-hood-like marks at the top of the ridge -- you need to have two swirls, so that, with only one, he was definitely a pet-quality dog. And he was very much an alpha -- he refused to socialize with the other pups and went his own way.

So I went down to meet him, when he was about five weeks old (that's the picture on the left, above). Only he failed his temperament test: When I rolled him onto his back, instead of fighting to his feet like a good alpha, he was pleased to have his belly scratched. The breeder was surprised, and so was I.

It turned out that his independence was not the result of a strong alpha personality -- it was because he simply didn't care what the rest of the pack was doing. It didn't register on his radar.

I should have walked away from this pup: There is no bigger challenge than training a dog who has no sense of peer pressure, of pack structure. If he doesn't care what everyone else is doing, you have virtually nothing to hold over him. This dog could have been impossible, and to some extent he was, and is.

Do dogs live up to their names? I named him Destry, after the Jimmy Stewart character who comes into town forced to live up to his father's reputation as a straight-shooting, no-nonsense lawman. This pup was following a very special dog and I wanted a name that would remind me that he didn't have to be O'Malley, that he was entitled to carve for himself.

And, boy, did he. And he lived up to the name in that he is so laid back that he makes Jimmy Stewart look like the guy in the Federal Express commercials.

Destry is frustrating to walk with because he lags back, sniffing this or that, looking at whatever interests him and generally going his own way. If you yell at him to catch up, he has no idea why you're so upset -- either he acts like nothing is happening, or, if you finally do get through to him, he's completely panicked and has no idea why you are so angry. There's no point in losing your temper because you only frighten the dog and you don't in any way change his behavior.

What saves him is his gentle, kindly manner. He is without a doubt the nicest dog I've ever known. He is a big (130 pounds), bumbling, gentle giant, and, yeah, he's kind of dumb, in a genial, self-effacing way. He doesn't like to cuddle, but he does come up to you and lay his enormous head against you for a scritch, and he is so completely gentle with my granddaughters that I absolutely love him, as they do.

Oddly enough, however, under all that goofball exterior, there is a ridgeback.

A few years back, when he was about two, a group of us used to run into each other on the paths in a wooded area in Glens Falls. One of the dogs in the group was an obnoxious, pushy little border collie named Bandit, who would pick on Destry for the entire walk. His owner refused to discipline him, saying, "They'll work it out," and I must confess that I often wished for Destry to lose his temper, grab that damned dog by the neck and shake him into submission.

But it never happened. Destry would cringe and submit and let Bandit shove him around, and what eventually resolved it was that the fellow got a job in another city and moved away.

A year later, however, Nellie Bly joined us. At the time, she was a year-old bitch who had spent much of her life in kennels and had a lot of enthusiasm but not a lot of discipline. She was, however, well trained and I was working on getting her used to life as a companion dog, when, one day, we were out in those same woods and she went enthusiasitically bounding up to a large German shepherd whose owner was saying, "He's not friendly -- get your dog away!"

Sure enough, the dog broke away from her and attacked little Nell. And that was when I realized that Destry really could live up to that Jimmy Stewart name -- he was between them before the shepherd had finished pouncing. He took the fangs in his own shoulder and turned on the dog swiftly. I was able to get there in time to prevent an actual fight, but Destry had shown that, while he didn't mind being picked on himself, nobody was going to mess with his niece Nellie.

After that, I looked on his laid-back, goofy attitude with a different perspective. Like his namesake, Thomas Jefferson Destry, he had earned his right to hang up his guns and insist that violence doesn't solve anything.

So now, when he's lagging behind, sniffing the flowers and absent-mindedly shuffling along at his own pace while Ziwa and I are trying to keep some kind of sensible pace on the trail, do I get angry and frustrated with him?

Of course. This dog absolutely drives me out of my mind.

But he also reminds me of another movie, a short one that I loved as a kid, long before I knew who Jimmy Stewart even was.

Anyway, happy birthday, Des, you kindly old farthound. Many, many happy returns of the day.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My Senators are Republicans ... but also Mainers

That cussed Yankee independence is one of the things I like best about this place. Both Senators have taken some grief from anti-war purists who expect them to consistently vote against their own partyline. But they've shown a willingness and an ability to speak their minds and to buck the system plenty of times. Yesterday was a particularly good example.

"In our system, a no-confidence motion is a meaningless political gesture. Nevertheless, the fact is that I have lost confidence in the ability of Attorney General Gonzales to lead the Department of Justice effectively.

Every week brings yet another revelation of serious errors in judgment by the nation's highest law enforcement official. It is up to the President to decide the Attorney General's future, but I think his continued tenure does not benefit the Department or our country."
-- Susan Collins, R-Maine

“Today’s vote related to a non-binding resolution that would not have the force of law, and yet I voted to continue debate on the resolution because of my deep concerns regarding the conduct of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. Although it is true that Mr. Gonzales serves at the pleasure of the White House, this vote sends a clear message the President must recognize that the cumulative and troubling pattern of developments that have been disclosed over the past several months have undermined confidence in the Attorney General in his ability to serve. I believe the President needs to give the facts we have heard recently very serious consideration.

Quite frankly, I have found the circumstances surrounding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys and the lack of the Attorney General’s apparent oversight in that matter to be a part of that troubling pattern. In addition, the more recent allegation about a late-night visit to the hospital room of an ailing John Ashcroft, revealed a lack of judiciousness and is truly bizarre. As a member of the Intelligence Committee who has had fundamental concerns about how this government conducted the wiretapping surveillance program, the allegation, if true, is contrary to the high conduct that we expect from someone serving in this vital position in our government.

Therefore, I voted for cloture because, in fact, I have no confidence in this Attorney General. This resolution—which is the first in history for the U.S. Senate—is a proper forum to express my belief the President needs to give these recent facts very serious consideration.”
-- Olympia Snowe, R-Maine

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Why goldfish will never rule the world
"Somebody's coming! Quick! Let's all hide under the snapping turtle!"

Incidentally, you'll notice that, since Howard moved out to the back deck for the summer, he's grown a lovely crop of algae on his back and tail. He's enjoying the larger pool and deeper water, and the occasional goldfish, since he's in training for next summer and the introduction of harsh cruel reality in which people don't come by and drop chunks of meat in front of your nose.

Despite being forced to catch his own dinner, however, he still expects good things from human beings, which is a matter of some concern. I was bringing him in at night because of the risk of raccoons and skunks, but he became so comfortable with being handled that I quit after a week and, instead, put a screen over the pool at night and hope anyone trying to break in makes enough noise to rouse the dogs.

Here, Howard is watching me hang laundry, or at least he was until I saw him looking up and paused to take a camera out of my pocket. (His pool is on the wooden raised platform where the laundry line runs to the barn, so I was standing over him. And I always have a camera in my pocket in case something newsworthy jumps out in front of me. Or in case I find a small turtle staring at me.)

I cropped this picture a little wide so you could check out the design on the flower pot that currently serves as his cave. I don't think he'll get that kind of decor out in the wide, wild world, either.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

"It's damn easy to get into a war, but if it's going to be awful hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in."

LBJ talks to McGeorge Bundy, at a time when only 260 Americans had died in Vietnam.