Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spring in Kansas City: Really nice, but what does it mean long term?


“It’s February, and spring has finally come to San Antonio.”

Reading these words in the Sierra Club newsletter in 1997, during a March (it came a month late) in which spring had definitely not yet come to Chicago, we had to laugh. Although we found, when we moved to San Antonio that year, that spring not only came in February, but that it was not always clear that there was a winter between fall and spring. The trees had not yet finished losing their leaves when the new buds appeared. Spring, in whatever month, is a great season, and we enjoyed it in San Antonio as we looked forward, with less than excitement, to May, when temperatures would start to hit 90, or June when they went to 100, not likely to come persistently below until October. Still, we thought, better than a Chicago winter.

But what are we to make of this year in Kansas City? Kansas City is never as cold in the winter as Chicago, but this year it is San Antonio. We have had hardly any weeks this winter where the temperature didn’t go above 40 at least some of the time, and much of it has been above 50. For the last few weeks it has been above 60, and this week 3 days of over 80. And this was before St. Patrick’s Day! Everything is in bloom: magnolias are already losing their flowers; the fruit trees such as apple and especially the Bradford pears are in magnificent bloom. There are daffodils all over, and the little groundcover wildflowers, the clover and violets, are all visible. It is March, and spring has come full-bore to Kansas City. The beautiful redbuds that mean “spring” in this city are already in bloom.

 We just hope there is no freeze, to wipe it out. In Chicago sometimes there would be a few warm days in April, followed by a frost that killed all the buds, and Kansas City is certainly known to have its share of ice storms. Still, this is not a freakish few warm days; this is the reasonable follow-up to a winter that normally belongs several climate zones south of here.

And that, of course, is a concern. I am not complaining about not having had a chance to use the new snow boots I bought on sale in Winter Park, CO, last summer, nor to be without icy winds in my face. Winds, on the other hand, we have; it is Kansas. The days of 40 degrees felt frigid with the wind, and when it first was in the 60s, we went out lightly jacketed to freeze in the breeze. But with 80, it’s, well, 80, so you really need a gale to make it less than pleasant.

And gales we have had.  A couple of weeks ago there were dozens of tornadoes in the Southeast US. In February. There were some last year, but this year was worse. New York had major snowstorms, and there were hurricanes. There has hardly been a month without a big weather disaster. Yes, there are tornadoes and hurricanes and snowstorms every year, but for the last several years they are becoming more common more freakish, and more regular; so much so that the freakish is not so freakish anymore. But tell that to folks in Joplin, MO, or the smaller cities that have been devasted by tornadoes and other weather events.

Amazingly, there are still climate change deniers. Some have harped on the phrase “global warming” – which it is over the long term – when the weather change has led to colder weather with more snow in the winter. They can’t argue that what we have in Kansas City – and all over the Midwest, where the temperatures are higher, and planting zones have moved north (we brought crepe myrtles in pots from San Antonio 10 years ago; despite being uncommon then they survived the winter with good mulching and are now doing well; turns out they have become common in KC nurseries now).

So I look out the window at the flowering trees, rub my eyes from early tree allergies, enjoy the warmth, and worry about the future of the planet.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Woody, Arlo, and me


In 1967, when I was in college, I spent the summer working as a “gateman” at the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. There were 6 of us with this job description, and 2 of us worked days and 4 of us worked nights; we rotated doing 2 weeks of nights and then a week of days. Both had their perks. Nights, 4pm to (more or less) midnight, were less real work; we handed out the tickets to those people who lined up for them, let people out and back in at the intermission, and put up the seats in the outdoor theater at the end of the performance. Not too hard, and we got to watch the plays – many times. I saw, for example (not all in ’67, I worked there ’68 as well) young Sam Waterston as Prince Hal, Stacy Keach as both Falstaff and Peer Gynt, Martin Sheen as Romeo; some folks who were more famous in other arenas too.  Judy Collins as Anitra in Peer Gynt, and Tom Tryon, then an actor but later more well-known as a novelist, as someone (?Hotspur? Maybe not.)

The “perk” was being able to hold tickets for friends and relations to pick up at the box office without waiting in line. It was the first time that I ever had any such clout, and it felt good. I also felt a little conflicted; I liked the fact that people were supposed to line up for the free tickets, and approved of the fact that it rewarded folks with more time than money. After all, everything else rewarded more money. It still does, and I don’t think there are many other venues where the reverse is true anymore. But I could do favors for my parents, or friends who were working for not much and thus had little time or money. I was getting what seemed like good pay; $4/hour, which, in 1967 for a college student, was not at all bad. The minimum wage in NYC at that time was $1.50 (I looked it up!).

Which was the good part about working days. It was much harder work than nights, as the two of us had to clean up the theater. As an outdoor venue, there was a lot of trash and it was hard, dirty work. On the other hand, there was no supervisor and we got paid for 8 hours even when we finished in 3 or4. Of course, in those days folks could smoke in theaters (even indoor ones) so a lot of what we had to pick up was cigarette butts, and I noticed that folks smoking regular cigarettes (say, Camels, or Marlboros) would have several butts at their seats, while those smoking the relatively new “low tar” cigarettes seemed to smoke a pack or more. I was ready to do a commercial: “I pick up all the garbage at the New York Shakespeare Festival, and I find more ‘True’ cigarette butts than any other brand. So – be cultured! Smoke ‘True’!” The reality was, as I knew from trying them, that it was hard to draw any smoke through the complex ‘True’ filters, so probably folks got not satisfaction from them, which is why they smoked more of them.

Anyway, that summer my parents took a vacation in their motor home with my younger sisters and drove up to Provincetown on Cape Cod. I told them I’d hitchhike up for the weekend and did; take the “Number 6” train to the last stop, Pelham Parkway, climb the fence on to the New England Thruway, and stick out your thumb. I didn’t get rides as easily as my friends who were young women, but this time it worked well. And we had a good weekend, and my parents paid for me to fly back (Provincetown to Boston Airways up and down, good thing as the weather was terrible, then the Eastern Shuttle back to LaGuardia. And the Q-33 bus to Roosevelt-Jackson to get the subway).

While we were there, we saw that Arlo Guthrie was playing at a coffeehouse, so we decided to go see him. Arlo was at that time just Woody Guthrie’s son, and also the son of Marjorie Mazia, who my sister (I think) and certainly friends took dance lessons from. It was afternoon, and the coffeehouse wasn’t too crowded, and we sat there as this young man sang, in particular a long and complicated story-song (not too common back in ’67) that went on and on, involving a restaurant, garbage, an arrest, and a Selective Service induction physical (yes, Virginia, there was a draft and a war on at the time!). That fall, his first album was released with that song, “Alice’s Restaurant”, as the title track. (By the way, when we heard him he sang, referring to himself, "the All-American boy from Coney Island"; on the record it has "New York City".)

I thought about this last night when Pat and I attended the Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert in Tulsa, OK, where the new Woody Guthrie Museum will be housed, not far from his birthplace in Okemah. It was an excellent concert; Arlo performed, along with John Mellencamp, Roseanne Cash, Jackson Browne, and a bunch of groups I knew less well (some of them from Oklahoma, but apparently popular, like Flaming Lips and HANSON).  Arlo’s sister Nora, who has maintained the archives and organized the concert was there (but not performing), but his son and grandson did perform with him. Yes, that tall, stocking-capped guitarist was his grandson – and I think he is only a year older than me! Heck, my friend Stefanie went to his bar mitzvah! So I have seen Arlo early in his career, and late (hopefully not at the end, but at least as the grandfather of a full-grown adult musician!) Tempus fugit.

What was a little disappointing about the concert, in addition to the entirely white audience, was the ratio of male to female performers. I mentioned Roseanne Cash. That was it. Including supporting performers. She played with her guitarist husband John Leventhal, and every member of every band was male. I mean, it was sponsored by the GRAMMY Museum, so maybe not totally progressive, but it was a Woody Guthrie memorial, and this was pretty amazing. I bought a CD, not of the concert, but of songs that consist of lyrics that Woody wrote and different artists put music to and recorded, none as good as the whole ‘Mermaid Avenue’ CD by Billy Bragg and Wilco, and ONE is by a woman, Ani DiFranco. It is depressing that even when lauding a real progressive (a conference that we missed during the day yesterday included talks on Oklahoma’s “different shades of Red”, from being a populist “red” state to a Republican “red” state”) we see such a lack of female performers. On top of having seen the film “Miss Representation” recently (highly recommended) it is incredible that so little net gain seems to have occurred in the media in the 40 years of the “second wave of feminism”.

But the music was good, the exhibit currently at the Gilcrease Museum was excellent, and it was a fun, 4.5 hour drive each way to Tulsa, with a nice stay in a Courtyard by Marriott that is a converted office building downtown. Maybe we’ll go back again.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Tucson and the birds

I am sitting in my sister and brother-in-law’s living room in Tucson watching the birds. The south-facing wall is almost all glass, and faces a walled courtyard filled with trees and bird feeders. Most of the trees are sparse because it is winter, and some, like the mesquite, are desert plants with small leaves anyway. It makes it easy to see the birds that gather in it, some of which I can identify from my years here: the red-chested house finch, whose name always struck me as too plan for such a pretty bird, its yellow cousin the goldfinches, the mourning doves whose heads are too small for their bodies. There are also a variety of sparrows, hummingbirds, a Gila woodpecker rocking the hummingbird feeder to slosh the liquid so it can get at it, some Gambel’s quail (blue-ish, so prettier than many varieties, with a distinct hanging topknot) who manage to get far enough off the ground to walk on top of the wall and access the feeder from the mesquite branch that serves as a bridge, and the occasional phainopepla, pyrroluxia, or cardinal (Tucson is one of the few areas that have both cardinals and pyrroluxia).

In contrast to the stark mesquite, there is a mock orange tree in the corner, lushly covered in dark green leaves and gaudily decorated with the oranges. Mock oranges survive well in the desert, and are often used as ornamentals. When I lived here there was a real orange tree in my backyard, planted in a raised bed built from bricks about two feet high. The first year, there were no fruits, so we watered it the second year. To our pleasure a number of real, tasty oranges were produced. The third year saw a profusion of small green oranges promising a bumper crop. Until, one day, my four year old son and his buddy appeared at the back door, all four of their hands proudly full of the small green fruits they had picked. It was just a little challenge to smile broadly and accept this gift with the enthusiasm with which it was offered, and to, in a really positive tone, suggest that next year it might be fun to let them grow even bigger before picking them! Of course, next year we were living in Chicago, and there were no orange trees of any variety.


This particular mock orange, apparently, was planted by a previous owner who had plans to graft multiple different citrus branches so that the one tree could bear oranges, grapefruit, lemon and lime. It never happened, but it is lucky for the birds that it is there, for it offers cover when (presumably) a hawk is spotted. Suddenly the mesquite is almost bare of birds, a little while later the leaves of the orange tree flutter as dozens of birds leave its cover to resume their feeding. The danger is, momentarily, past, but is ever present. Yesterday we sighted a Cooper’s hawk skimming down the road in front of their house only a few feet off the ground, presumably searching for ground squirrels or other rodents rather than birds on that trip, but quite capable of feeding on smaller birds. Last week, my sister took a photo of a hawk sitting in her back yard, quietly munching a dove, and unperturbed by her presence as she approached close to get a good picture. I have chosen to not include it in respect of the squeamish, but have attached another of a hawk perched on a
fountain in front of the house in the same yard I am watching.

There is a loud harsh machine sound that comes from behind me to the left, in the vicinity of the fireplace. It lasts several seconds and then stops. I wonder what machinery out in that direction, toward the driveway, has briefly clicked on, and then off. It happens again, grating and definitely mechanical, and then again. It isn’t the furnace coming on and off, though it sounds a little like that; it is in the wrong direction and is too brief. Perhaps there is a water heater out there? In these climates they are often outside the house in a little shed, but it doesn’t sound like one. Is there something a trash pickup truck might do that could make such a noise? It happens once more and then it is gone. Another mystery.

Until, just a few minutes later, my sister appears in her bathrobe (did I mention it was early morning?)
I ask her and she tells me that it is the Gila woodpecker trying to feed from the metal chimney. She notes it frequently alarms visitors. Ah. I note that it is not in the front yard any more. Mystery solved. Except the one about why the woodpecker has not yet figured out that there are no grubs to be had from the chimney. Better it should keep rocking the hummingbird feeder to slosh up the sugar water!