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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

An Itsy-Bitsy Hummingbird Present (March 31, 2009)

The hummingbird is the smallest adult bird that I know. Its bright eye is a grain of rice. Its beak is as narrow as a needle. Although it is small, it is fast. Or is it the other way around? Is it fast because of its size, its speed a survival tool? Either way, the hummingbird is fascinating. I have first-hand observations as well as unanswered questions about this animal because of what I discovered yesterday. A tiny bird has built an equally small nest a few feet from our back door.

For about a week, every time I went out our back door, I heard ZZZZzzzoooooooommMM! The first few times it scared me. After a while I must have subconsciously expected it, and no longer was startled. The noise was the very rapid departure of what looked like a hummingbird-sized blur and I wondered why it was spending so much time in the Jasmine vine near our back door. I didn’t see a logical spot for a nest, and peering through the leaves, I saw no evidence of one. Until yesterday.

For the fiftieth time in a week, I went out my back door on the way to the garage door, walking right by the vine. Once again, a bird races away. I decide I will look once more for a nest. Obviously, I won’t touch it, as the bird will abandon her nest if it has been touched by humans. But I’m so curious. I must see!

Sure enough, at about my eye level there is a small nest, the size of half a chicken’s egg. It’s tightly-woven, unlike some of the larger nests I have seen, which are loosely-built of twigs. This one seems much softer. I think the bird has used some of our dryer lint, which the hubby kept near a woodpile in case we feel inspired to build a fire. Since tomorrow is April 1 and the air is warm, fire-building nights are unlikely anytime soon. I say: Bird, have at it. The lint is yours. From my perch atop a chair, I see two tiny eggs inside, the size of Jordan almonds.

I’m no expert on the nest-building requirements of hummingbirds, but it seems to me that a vine near someone’s backdoor is not the ideal spot for a nest. Didn’t the bird do her research? Didn’t she see that we walk past that vine about twenty times a day? Surely there was a more remote spot for her eggs.

This year I’ve seen more hummingbirds in our yard than ever before in the five years we’ve lived here. They love the orange flowers in our yard. Still, after five years with no apparent hummingbird residents, I’m surprised and thrilled to have a mommy and her nest.

The internet provided information beyond my own observations. My search led me to Worldof, which is an excellent site full of information. Apparently there are at least 356 different types of species of hummingbirds! I believe our bird tenant is an Allen’s Hummingbird, which spends summers in California (where we live), and does not have unusual coloring, like a ruby-throat or purple cap (which ours does not have). Apparently all hummingbirds share certain characteristics. I was most interested in nest and egg information.

Hummingbirds make small, cup-shaped nests, decorating the outside walls of their nests with lichens and mosses. For insulation, the mother lines the inside of the nest with soft materials such as feathers, animal hair and dryer lint. Spider webs are used as glue, allowing the nest to stretch as the babies grow.

The hummingbird eggs will remain in the nest incubating for approximately 16-18 days before they hatch. Once hatched, the babies will weigh approximately 0.62 grams, one-third the weight of a United States Dime. They are about one inch long and cannot regulate their own body heat. Their beaks are short, stubby, and yellow. The mom will feed the babies approximately every twenty minutes. Within a couple of days, the size of the baby hummingbirds will almost double.
At three weeks of age, the little baby hummingbirds will more like a real hummingbirds. They test out their wings more and more in preparation for flight. In the next few days, these little baby hummingbirds will fly away as real adult hummingbirds.

Discovering the nest has added to my exuberance for spring (which was already major). Amazing how such a tiny thing, a hummingbird, in her itsy-bitsy home, caring for two teensy-tiny eggs, can bring such huge excitement. I’ll keep you posted on the eggs. I can’t wait ‘til they hatch!!!!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ten Thousand and Counting (March 25, 2009)

Things that happen by chance sometimes have a big impact. Eight months ago I picked up the Union-Tribune and read an article that moved me to get my scissors, cut it out, find a website, and send an email. The funny thing is, I’m not a regular reader of the paper, so reading this particular article was chance. But it moved me so much that I vowed to learn more about an organization that was also born out of a chance occurrence.

Thirteen years ago a young woman named Jenna Druck was overseas with a friend. They were on a bus and Jenna noticed a girl crying in the back so she left her seat and went to comfort the girl. When the bus crashed, Jenna’s friend survived but because Jenna had left her seat to help the girl, Jenna died.

The article didn’t tell the story of Jenna’s bus crash. I heard that story from Jenna’s dad, Dr. Druck (“call me Ken”). The article chronicled the first annual conference given for pre-teen girls, sponsored by the Jenna Druck Foundation. The foundation was started to honor Jenna Druck, to bring her gusto to countless girls, to help transform their lives. I clipped that article, knowing that I wanted to participate. About a month ago I attended an evening information session about the foundation and the conference. I rarely do things at night because I’m so worn out after taking care of my 2- and 5-year old. But I made a point to go to that meeting. The foundation seemed like a great match for what I’d been looking for: an opportunity to give back. A chance to bolster the sometimes fragile self-esteem of young women. A way to help others find happiness without having to take all the paths I tried before finding it inside.

On Saturday, March 21, I volunteered at the twelfth annual Spirit of Leadership Conference for teen-aged girls. That morning I woke in the dark, even before my 5:45am alarm could ring. I was ready for this day.

Three hundred girls were registered to attend the Spirit of Leadership Conference at Marina Village. Adults had nominated them as girls with leadership potential, girls who would flourish with some nurturing and the right mix of challenge and self-acceptance. We arrived at seven and began setting up in the cold gray air. By 8 am I was tucked behind a registration table as the girls began to arrive, walking through an arch of balloons, down a red carpet, and into the meeting hall. There were girls of every race, size and style, and I only mention the physical because it was refreshing and exciting to see the variety in the girls. This was not a day intended to be about looks. This day could be an escape from the daily pressure to look a certain way, a reprieve from being aware of what boys think. The program’s goal is to develop girls’ minds and talents. This day was about being who you are and saying what you think. A family had come all the way from Palm Springs to bring their daughter. One volunteer drove from her college a hundred miles away to give back to the program she attended four years ago.

The girls gathered at tables for ten. At each table sat a mentor, a woman who had applied to share her story with the girls over lunch. The day began with a welcome, and a Keynote Speaker, Maria Reyes, from Freedom Writers. She told her own story of being a 3rd generation gang member, of teachers who told her she would never amount to anything. But there was one teacher who would not give up on her, even though Maria did not yet trust the teacher’s kindness. The story was about the difference one person can make in the life of a young person who doesn’t have enough support or resources, who does not believe in herself. A group of volunteers clustered around the door to the meeting hall, listening to her speak, holding our breath. When it was time for our next assignment we didn’t want to leave the doorway. We wanted to hear more. Her story was so compelling, her voice so passionate, almost yelling at times, then easing the mood with a humorous note. It’s amazing when one woman’s story touches everyone in the room, despite age, racial, and economic differences. But it did. That’s what the conference was about: finding common threads among us all, messages that speak to each of us.

After the morning session the girls attended two one-hour Break-Out Sessions. These were group workshops facilitated by life coaches, authors, business women, professional speakers and counselors: women who have a message about self-confidence and success for girls.

At lunch time the sun finally broke through the clouds as the girls helped themselves to a buffet from Souplantation. They ate at the tables, talking with their mentors and one another. I heard a lot of laughter and saw a lot of smiles. One volunteer suggested that the girls clear their own lunch plates, but the day was about honoring the girls and the plan was that we would clear the tables so they could continue listening to the speaker. They were appreciative and had excellent manners. I didn’t mind taking their plates. Ken helped, too. He is all about celebrating girls.

In the afternoon Tami Walsh spoke to the girls. She is a San Diego-based life coach for teen girls, and she was terrific. She is energetic, funny and youthful, the perfect bridge between teens who can’t relate to their parents, and concerned parents who can’t reach their kids. After an ice-breaker game, some of the girls stood to tell everyone funny or inspiring things they had learned about others at their table. One girl said her mentor inspired her because she was undaunted by those who told her she would not make it. She took many odd jobs to make finance her college education (including “scraping possum fat. Gross!”).

There was afternoon entertainment provided by a local Stomp-style band of young men making music with trash cans. The girls danced and let loose for a while before an afternoon session with Tami and Leanne Tibiatowski, from the foundation, and a message from Ken Druck.

I was there to support young women, but I received something immeasurable, too. Seeing the openness in these girls’ faces brings me back to my high school years. I still think and even dream about high school, sifting through my memories, trying to make peace with the ones that still hold pain. Being around teen-aged girls seems to be a piece of my own healing and growth. As Ken wrote in an open letter to the girls attending the conference, it will take a while for the conference’s messages to sink in and take root. The same applies to those of us who volunteered. Just because we’ve graduated from our teen years does not mean that we have it all figured out. Although I was there to help the girls, participating in a program like this teaches and nurtures me, too.

Back at home that night, I told the hubby about the day, sharing funny stories and meaningful messages. I was very tired, but so glad I’d participated. The next day my feet hurt and I was uncharacteristically sluggish. Outside, rain came down. What luck, I thought. The rain did not come during the conference, which was both indoors and outdoors. Ken writes in the conference’s program that “this day is designed to ignite your spirit, shape your dreams, bring out the highest and best in you and connect you to an amazing group of young women from all over San Diego County.” It did that, and more. So far, the Jenna Druck Foundation’s Young Women’s Leadership Program has helped more than ten thousand young women and girls to see their own possibilities. You GO, girls!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin’s Cousin—the Two Dollar Bill (March 3, 2009)

Oftentimes I write about the random, every day things I notice. Today’s topic won’t change your life but it’s something to think about: two-dollar bills. The last time I thought about a 2-dollar bill may have been more than twenty years ago, when my dad gave my sister one of them. I hadn’t even known they existed. Today I had an unexpected reunion with the 2-dollar bill, and the questions added up: Why were they created? Why were there so few printed? Had they been discontinued?

My curiosity about this rare bird began at the recycling center near my house. A few months ago I brought what I thought was a lot of glass, plastic and aluminum cans to the recycling center. Fifteen minutes later I emerged with $5 and change, not the killing I’d imagined. Still, recycling takes almost no effort to do, and I decided to see how much money I could earn taking it in myself for a year.

Today’s recycling earnings totaled $6.29. To my surprise, the woman dispensing my fortune handed me three two-dollar bills. All three were perfectly crisp, without a single crease. They had the words “2003 series” on them, making them 6 years old, yet seemingly brand-new. I had a 2004 series 1-dollar bill in my wallet that had been folded, crumpled, and traded enough times to render it velvety soft. Had these 2-dollar bills been sitting somewhere safe for six years, away from people, air, traffic, and contamination of any kind? Had Bernie Madoff had them in an airtight vault in his Manhatten apartment? Did they line the shelves of cabinets he never used? Why were the ones I received today so fresh and unlined, so… UNused?

The contrast of the scene fascinated me: receiving pristine, new bills at a recycling center, where the air smells of old beer, where aged, used, sticky bottles and cans fill cavernous dumpsters. I liked the incongruence of getting a very rare bill at a place where you trade in something very common. Recycling places are where old bottles and cans are traded for money, both of which will circulate again and again. Recycled items and money have unknown histories and will have many lives, whereas these unused two-dollar bills seemed to have no past.

I went online in hopes of answering this question: how rare is a 2-dollar bill compared to the ubiquitous 1-dollar bill? I need money, I spend it almost every day, but I know very little about the whys and hows of its printing. Here are a few facts many of us probably did not know:

US currency bills are printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), which prints more than 16 million one-dollar bills each day. Most of these are used to replace worn, older bills, which are shredded. According to the US Treasury, there are billions of one-dollar bills in circulation.

On average, a dollar bill has a life span of 18-22 months, whereas coins have an average life span of 25 years. No wonder the Treasury keeps pushing to popularize the one-dollar coin.

Two-dollar bills were printed in 1976 and again in 2003, when 121,600,000 were printed. As of April 30, 2007 there were more than $1.5 billion worth of $2 bills in circulation worldwide. Most stores do not carry them because their cash registers don’t have a spot for them, but you can request them at your bank.

Although 2-dollar bills are relatively rare, they are still worth only $2.

Now I know a bit more about this unusual bill. Does this information change my life? No. But my brain is always working on something, always curious, and I like discovery. At a nondescript recycling center I brought old cans and formed new questions in my mind. It was fun for me to answer my own questions, and it’s another example that learning opportunities are everywhere, tucked into the most unlikely places.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Birds are Back to Attack (March 20, 2009)

San Diego, CA. 58 degrees. Gray skies. Cold.

It’s the first day of Spring today, and ironically, also the first cold, gray day here in a while. Six months ago I marked today’s date on my calendar. I wanted to be sure that I checked back in with my beautiful enemy today. You know who I mean (no, not Angelina Jolie): our backyard Bird of Paradise plant.

Six months ago today the bird and I fought a messy battle. It was coincidence that I cut down the bird on the Autumn Solstice, but in retrospect it seemed significant because the solstice marks the end of an old phase the beginning of a new one. That was a warm September day, and it took five hours to cut down hundreds of stalks, load them into the wheel barrow and into Hubby’s truck bed. At the computer that afternoon, after I’d taken the bird down, my fingers twitched and my arms ached but nevertheless I had to write about the battle.

Today, six months later, it is cold, but the birds were out in their spring finery as I took their photo. There are currently eight flowers on this plant (two are a double-headed beauty on one stalk). She is about 30 inches tall, with no watering help from me.

If you heard about the battle six months ago, you know it was no easy feat taking her down. She’s gorgeous and it’s not that I didn’t like her. But she’d been there long before we moved in (maybe as many as twenty years), bullying the nearby plants for turf, and winning every time. She had a monopoly on the back yard real estate and it was time to even things up a little.

At the time I did not have my blog yet, so today I’ll post the essay from six months ago. I entitled it “Flipping the Bird,” and I’ll include a photo from that fateful day, as evidence of her growth in six months. All I really wanted was to get the plant to a manageable size. I’ll let her grow again but this time I’m keeping an eye on her. Give that girl and inch, and well, you know…

Flipping the Bird (Sept. 21, 2008)

Today is the Autumnal Equinox, the official border between summer and fall. The blur of my summer is filled with piles and heaps of yard work. Today I conquered every gardener’s worst nightmare, and although my forearms are so sore it’s hard to type, I must tell my tale, and perhaps save others from the battle I waged.

I spent the summer wrestling my back yard, literally an endless project. As soon as you’ve pruned or weeded something, water and sun conspire to grow more that soon will need pruning and weeding. If nature is a cycle of life, backyards are a cycle of work with no end. But I love plants and don’t want a cement-scape for a yard, so I accept that weeds will come, leaves will fall, and eventually I will have to deal with them. I’d avoided even looking at a certain overgrown plant for months, too intimidated by the thought of trimming it. But eventually Operation Ignore Big Plants no longer cut it.

It’s not that I want a perfectly manicured back yard. That look is too controlled for me, too UNnatural. After all, plants grow wildly, unpredictably, not in the lollypop shapes you see at Disneyland. But our backyard jungle bears no resemblance to the sculpted hedges at the happiest place on earth. No, our yard is sometimes the NAPPIEST place on earth. At attempt to create a little more order was…in order, and long overdue.

Today’s mission: Slaying the Bird. This beast is a 25-year-old Bird of Paradise plant. We’ve enjoyed the trees and plants that our house’s previous owners planted. At first I liked the Bird of Paradise, and why not? They’re colorful, graceful, and thrive with no water. BUT, lesson learned: if something thrives with no water, it clearly is durable, and trimming it is like hacking at rebar. The only thing breaking is YOU. But the plant was encroaching on the other trees, overtaking the yard, so I plowed on.

My first tool of choice was hand-held clippers. Effective but slow-going, so it was back to the arsenal of tools. Machete. No dice. Sharper machete. No luck. The Electric-powered “saws all” was as effective as hacking through the Amazon with a plastic butter knife. Back to the clippers. I literally clipped thousands of times. I cut hundreds of stalks multiples times because the stalks were so dense I couldn’t get the clippers to the root. I’d cut off the first 3 feet all over before I could get close enough to give the whole thing its military recruit hair cut. It has a flat top now, but like hair, this beast will need another hacking before long.

Surprises lay buried beneath the bird. I found a border of bricks, long ago concealed by the plant itself. A large metal tomato plant cone was tangled among the leaves. A small china plate, remarkably intact, lay at the base. I imagined the stories behind these surprises. Was the plate set aside for just a minute during a patio birthday party, then forgotten for twenty years?

I filled our wheelbarrow ten times, emptying twenty year’s worth of leaves and stalks into my husband’s truck bed. It was so full I had to climb onto the bumper, jump up for momentum, then shove the lid down to close it! I took photos of the full truck bed and the flat-topped Bird and raced to the computer to document my efforts. It took five hours to take this beast down. I wanted to tell everyone I knew how mighty I am. My husband (wisely) agreed with me.

I’m proud of my victory over the bird. The whole yard looks more open, cleaner. But after one improvement is made, everything else looks even worse! For instance: the 50-year-old fences, which are literally falling at our feet, begging us for rehab. One neighbor replaced the mutual fence after I spent hours cutting tree branches and clearing weeds to clear space. In two days a new 6-foot fence stood proudly, making the whole yard look better...until you see the other fence, which now look even worse! And now that the bird has been tamed I see thousands of dry leaves. I dread the very idea…The lesson is: don’t make improvements! Once you fix something, you will be caught in an endless cycle of “what else looks terrible now?”

Another moral of my story: avoid the bird. Run from it when it beckons you from Home Depot’s Garden section. Ignore its seductive whisper, its promise that it won’t grow into the plant beast from Little Shop of Horrors. Today it’s a few stalks and glossy leaves. Twenty years from now you will need dynamite to remove it. Do not give in to its temptation, lest you meet the fate I met on the weekend of the autumnal equinox. There isn’t enough space on your property for you both: either the bird goes or you do, and either way, it isn’t pretty!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Scare in the Suburbs (March 17, 2009)

Today I took the hammock out of the garage after its winter hibernation. I lay on it and marveled at how the leaves on the trees above had literally doubled since yesterday. The sun shone down and I sighed contentedly. Spring makes me happy.

A short time later I was talking to my husband on the phone when, in the course of two minutes, a cluster of events changed the flavor of my day. Our toddler began screaming so I ended the call and put my cell phone in my pocket. The baby was fine but needed a diaper change. It was a very dirty diaper so I decided to take it to the trashcan outside before calling my husband back. I’d taken about six steps out the door when I stopped and looked back. I saw IT immediately. The snake was about 16 inches long, it was perfectly still, and it was looking right at me. This seemed like a good moment to call the hubby back. “A SNAKE!!!!! What do I do??!!! It’s not coiled, but what if it strikes?!! What do rattlesnakes look like?” is how Part Two of our chat began. I am not good with snakes, even the kind behind a solid pane of glass at the zoo. I’ve only seen two other snakes up close before, ever. I’m a novice.

The hubby didn’t share my attitude about the invader. In fact, his exact response to my breathless panic was “Wow. Cool. I’ve never seen a snake near our house.” Easy for him to be intrigued—he’s 17 miles away from the killer snake. Was it a rattler? He said they are brownish and have a diamond pattern on their bodies. This snake was brownish and had stripes. But what if they were actually diamonds? I was not eager to get closer to examine the pattern. What if the stripes were the precursor to diamonds? Many animals change as they grow, I reasoned. The hubby recommended I toss a rock near it to scare it off. No good. The snake would probably come right at me, since the house and the garage limited the snake’s escape routes to two directions. Hubby suggested turning the hose on it to scare it away. No thanks. I don’t want it going away and finding another hiding place so that it can scare me all over again. I said I’d call him back once I figured out my strategy. The good news: the kids were in the house with the screen doors shut, so if the snake did escape from my view, it couldn’t get to the kids. The bad news: the snake pretty much lay in my path to the front door. I envisioned running for it, leaping across the sidewalk near the snake, then envisioned its jaws lunging for my legs. Clearly, Plan B was the way to go.

Plan B involved getting to the back door. This would have been easy-peasy a few months ago, because the only thing separating our yard from our neighbors was an old, termite-tunneled four-foot fence that I could have climbed or even pushed down. But last year hubby put up sturdy new six-foot fences. My escape would hinge upon my ability to scale that fence. At my disposal were one large trash can with lid (on one side of the fence) and one large composter with lid (on the other side of the fence). I climbed the trash can, then the fence, touched down on the composter and made it to the safety of my back yard. Time to check on the kids. They were fine. Next I grabbed my camera and climbed our fort ladder. It’s built up against the back of the garage, giving me the perfect path to the roof. I crept across the roof and peered over the edge. The snake had not moved so I zoomed the camera’s lens in on it, then snapped a photo of my escape route.

Back in the house, my pounding heart gradually slowed. I felt safe. Ish. But I pondered why I was always the one having to battle wild beasts in the name of my family’s safety. There were the rats in the composter. Then last year I discovered black widow spiders and their egg sacks. I killed at least 10 spiders in about 5 months and burnt the egg sacks. Since hubby was at work, for the safety of my kids I had to get rid of these spiders. My skin crawled but I felt brave and proud.

But snakes? This was too much. I got onto the internet, determined to know whether the trespasser was a rattler. I learned that some rattlers have diamond patterns but some have stripes. This could be a baby rattler! Shivers raced up my spine as I realized how close to danger I’d come. I’d already downloaded the photo of our snake, and I clicked the mouse to get a look at his striping again. Yep, it looked a lot like some of those rattlers. Except…wait…in the shadows, nearly hidden by leaves…what was that? Were they…legs? Yes, upon closer examination I realized ruefully that the snake had two front and two hind legs, tucked parallel with its body, barely visible. I phoned my husband back one last time, reporting the snake’s legs. Hubby laughed, and I did too. It seems my dramatic fence-scaling escape was all because of a very long lizard. I’ve seen plenty of lizards before and I’m not scared of them, but I’ve never seen one that was 16” long, hiding its legs, masquerading as a snake. From nose to hind legs it was about 6” long, with a tail that was at least 10”. I felt a little let down, but mostly relieved. So although today’s adventure was a false alarm, I say it’s never wrong to take the safe route when it comes to snakes. Climb trash cans, composters and garages if you need to.

It’s an hour later now and I’m still a little keyed-up from all this. Maybe a rest in the hammock is in order. Of course, I’ve had enough encounters with wild animals outside today. So for now, the hammock is in my living room, with the doors locked, just in case!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Spring Sings (March 1, 2009)

Two weeks ago I took photos of the first buds on our fruit trees. This photo shows a tree about a week after budding. There was a heat wave in San Diego this January and February and the trees are blooming early. Today will be 80 degrees, which is unusually warm for March 1, even in San Diego. The days are getting longer and warmer. Yesterday we drove with the windows open. Spring is amazing, obviously. I know this, I expect this, but still, every year, it blows me away how quickly things come to life this time of year. Although I don’t live where it snows, the changes in my yard are still major. My succulents are blooming, and the lilies and clivia have flowers. Plants I’d thought were gone forever are waking up. In a strip mall yesterday I saw hundreds of hibiscus buds, waiting to open. Humming birds zoom through my yard, darting among the orange flowers they love. About three weeks ago I saw the first few patches of orange and purple flowers blooming on the sides of the freeway. When I lived in an apartment and had no garden, I marked the change in season by the freeway flowers’ blooming. Roadways may be mundane and unaesthetic, gray slabs of concrete, but when spring comes even the freeways seem happier, edged now with brilliant shocks of color. In my own yard, I notice new growth every day, marveling at how many tiny purple leaves have sprung up. This season is pure joy. Spring’s coming, baby.