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BIRD BRAINS


We were awakened in the grey dawn by the frenzied barking of an angry Jack Russell, announcing the return of Henry, our semi-resident crow. Henry and his pals come to scrounge our yard and annoy us periodically. Our prejudice is reflected in our language; after all, a group of crows is called a murder, which seems a good idea, and their relatives, the ravens, are called an unkindness. Is it their color, their loud voice or their aggressive behavior?

It is too bad that these glossy black corvids have aroused the same suspicions as black cats, black sheep and black hats. A sexy little black dress might elicit some suspicion as well. I think it has everything to do with the voice. When the crows come to town, their raucous cawing announces their arrival. I have the same opinion of certain politicians. Their aggressive behavior can be frightening, as well.

The same sentiment is reflected in art: American realist Winslow Homer’s iconic 1893 painting Fox Hunt depicts the popular nineteenth century notions of crows as symbols of doom. In the painting, two low-flying crows harass a red fox as he makes his way over a snowy landscape, while in the background more crows lurk ominously. In the painting the crows are chasing and frightening the fox, and the viewer wants to shoo the birds away. And despite the fact that the most famous quote of his writing career is attributed to a raven, even Edgar Allen Poe considered the whole crow family grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous.

In 1989, the British House of Lords rose in outrage that corvids should receive some sort of protection like other birds. But one lawmaker cried out “What if the ravens left the Tower of London?” Legend warns that this would mean the fall of the Kingdom, and to prevent such a catastrophe, the nation employs a royal raven keeper.

But these birds aren’t a gang of nasty villains. They are really just birds who are among the most family-oriented birds in the world. Crows and their relatives are expert tool users. They actually make tools to help them accomplish their goal, and they can use two different tools in succession. They frequently work as a team.

When in Alaska visiting many fisheries, Dr. A often witnessed ravens working together to steal shrimp off the large trays in the packing houses. The shrimp were covered with tarp, and the crow army assembled in well rehearsed formation. Some on the ground, a couple on the tarp, and of course, watchmen to announce human arrival. As the ravens threw the tarp off the shrimp, they threw them onto the ground, where waiting ravens took them away.

In the city, crows go even further; they manage to use human tools to their ends. Walnuts are a crop new to Japan, but lately groves seem to be springing up everywhere. Crows find walnuts tasty and nutritious, but the shells are hard to open. The solution; crows pluck the nuts from the trees, then fly to perch on the traffic signal at the nearest intersection. When the light is red, they fly down and place the nuts in the front of waiting cars. When the light turns green, the cars run them over, cracking the hard shells. when the light turns red again and the cars stop, the crows fly down to safely eat the nutmeats.

The answer to facing up to these efficacious winged intruders is don’t get mad, get smarter.

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IS IT MORE THAN A GAME?


Is Bridge more than a game? I think it is probably the social media of the past; a way of connectivity. Playing cards are believed to have been another invention of China, along with paper, sometime in the 14th century. From China, the interest in card games spread to Persia, India and Egypt before arriving in Europe.

Tarocchi Players of Caso Borromeo, Milan 15th c.

My parents played cards throughout their lives. Game playing was very important during the Great Depression, and people played a great variety of card games along with Bridge, a game which allowed four people to play and demanded a certain degree of skill. My aunt and uncle made up the fourth at the bridge table, and there was no ceremony connected to their decision to sit and have a game of cards. My father was a natural card player who somehow knew what cards each of his opponents held. He was also an impatient player, which led my mother in later life to refuse to play with him. Strangely, none of the next generation of our family have chosen to learn the game. A favorite niece of mine, when offered a suggestion by a kibbitzer, threw her cards in the air and said “I give up!” Though we love games of all kinds, it amazes me to find that many of our friends do not. They much prefer an evening of good conversation, and we find that equally stimulating.

A “Bridge party” soon became a party, complete with food and beverage, and allowed the hostess to trot out her best linen bridge cloths and china, and supply tea and cookies. Hundreds of cookie recipes have been created to keep up with the social obligation of a bridge party.

When in my forties, I joined a group of women most of whom were learning to play the game, and we met once a week learn the finer points. I was late to the game as my interest lay elsewhere at an earlier age. The game takes concentration, and I have to admit that my focus was more on the food and the companionship.

My mother-in-law introduced me to the bridge party having two tables of four players, and as the years passed I found that two or even three tables were expected if you joined a bridge club. Your bridge club was a commitment to however often it was decided to play. If you found you would not be available on that day, it behooved you to get a substitute. Through the years I have belonged to several bridge clubs, some often containing the same women. As women aged, their intensity never waned. My sister-in-law and my best friend each took the game seriously, and would play at the drop of a hat or should I say at the drop of a card?

Game playing of any kind is a competition, and let’s face it, we all like to win. Playing with and against all kinds of men and women over the past 60 years, you can learn a lot about human nature. For those who stick too closely to the rules, I admire them and hope they enjoy their game, but I will be busy that day so you need to get a sub.

One lovely aspect of the bridge party is the sharing of secrets, and keeping up old friendships.

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WHAT CAN I SAY?


I have lately become aware that I babble. By that I mean, what relevant conversation can I have with my adult children and grandchildren? Even as I search for ways to make my mundane activities interesting to another, I realize that they don’t really care if I ate quiche for lunch or mopped the kitchen floor. Sometimes my tongue gets ahead of my brain. After asking about their day, and exclaiming as to its fun aspects or not, I’m not finding much of interest to disclose.

Old age, as I have written, is a special time of life in which we melt into our newly formed habits, repeating them day by day with comfort we lacked in our youthful existence. Those who have a particular interest such as sports or the market, may share it with others whose interest interact with their own. My interests however are not those which bear sharing: a new painting, a new book, what the dinner preparation might be, and of course, my singular passions which don’t bear repeating; politics and religion. I can hardly begin a deeply felt conversation with a 40 year old grandson by trashing President Trump or the Catholic church. I have noticed a definite uptick in conversations which end with “Oh gee Mom, I’ll call you back!”

I’m beginning to analyze my discourse to make sure it can’t be construed as complaint. I always hated that when it came from elders in my own family. After my mother’s passing I came across a small scrap of paper on which she had written: When I am gone, I hope they remember that I was fun.” And she was.

I think the memories we leave should be pleasant, or at least relevant. The key as we know, is your interest in the other. I think after I gather all their information I will just hang up before I begin to babble.

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THERE’S MAGIC IN A TOWN


Ibecame familiar with Palo Alto, California while my father’s cousin worked at Stanford University. We were occasionally gifted with tickets to art exhibits and concerts there, and made the trip over the bridge from our island of Alameda. Years later, when I had the decorating business, Palo Alto was a source of much of the material I used in store design.

Allied Arts is a lovely group of artist studios and a small tea room where volunteers take your order for lunch, and even sell you the recipes. Shirley Temple Black waited upon us once years ago. I still use their recipe for carrot soup. Our young neighbors were married there in the patio.

The main office for Sunset Magazine was for many years in Palo Alto. The magazine was started after The Southern Pacific Railroad advertised that you could come out to California and buy a lot for fifty bucks. The magazine advertised the ‘good life’ showing how Californians decorated their homes, planted their gardens, and cooked food equal to that of anywhere in the world. Their building was an ideal typically California style, with hand made tile roofs and floors, and a quiet beautiful decor, showing off hand woven pieces, and pottery. It was surrounded by a rough post and rail fence covered with America climbing roses. When we began landscaping our home, we took note of all of it, and planted 125 America roses along the fence. It was a mass of peachy-red color in the spring. Time Magazine bought the magazine and moved their office to Jack London Square in Oakland. The lovely building in Palo Alto has become something else now. I hope they kept the roses.

Dr. A’s cousin worked for the Magazine for many years, and now our next door neighbor works in the testing kitchen a few days a week. She gets first hand knowledge of what goes into a coming issue, and frequently brings us a sample. This Christmas it was a delicious shortbread cookie.

The town itself was charming, filled with lovely old homes and tiny ‘candy box’ cottages, all owned by mega moguls working in San Francisco. As the years have progressed, businesses have begun to fill in the vacant spaces and it has become another busy place to stay away from. The lovely old homes are still there,surrounded by well-groomed gardens, and the tiny cottages sell upward of a million dollars.

Though Dr. A will always support his beloved University of California at Berkeley, we rarely missed a football game at Stanford, Berkeley’s arch rival. It had a lot to do with the country feel of the campus as opposed to ‘middle-of-the city’ feeling of Cal. It didn’t hurt that he took over the insurance for the University years ago. Today it finds itself in the middle of Silicon Valley.

A number of our friends were Stanford graduates and football fans, and we met each morning of a game in the same place for a “tail-gate” party. There were perhaps 10 or 12 people in our group, one who played in the infamous Stanford band, and whose parents and grandparents before him had graduated from the school. Amazingly, though he donated a great deal of money each year to the school, when it became time for his daughter to enroll, she was denied admission because all she had to offer was a 4.0 scholastic score. Stanford wanted someone who also was active in another activity, such as a sport. Stanford, named for Leland Stanford’s son, Leland Stanford Jr., became one of the most prestigious universities in the world and though in the middle of the city it still maintains its over 8,000 acres of tree-shaded beauty.

Football fans can become a bit over the top, and many people set up shop early in the morning with barbeques fired up, and drinks being buzzed in osterizers. Another friend, who was a big football star at Stanford, brought an enormous bus each game day, filled with his friends and fitted out with all the comforts of home, to be partaken of in the few hours before the game. Thankfully, in those sensible days, a game started at about 1 p.m. Today, most games are televised, and begin in the early evening, making it a very late evening before the game ends.
Stanford parking is in the unpaved woods under ancient oak trees. Of course if it rains, the area becomes a giant mudhole. I remember a story my mother-in-law told of being stuck in the mud after a ball game in their youth. Not fun in the mud and in the dark if it were a night game.

Today, our eleven year old great granddaughter has hopes of someday attending Stanford on a soccer scholarship. The dreams of an eleven year old can’t be dismissed. It always begins somewhere.

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MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU


In my post AMERICAN POMPEII I wrote about how one idea can lead to an even greater idea. The human brain is remarkable in its ability to shift gears without actually stripping the original intention.

The young George Lucas had dreamed of making a new Flash Gordon movie in full living color. It had previously been filmed in black and white several times. He had lost the confidence of the movie studio after the cool reception of his first movie, and had no money. He took the advice of an Italian film maker and made a simple movie about teenagers in a small town to help raise money for his larger project. The simple movie turned out to be AMERICAN GRAFFITI, a box office smash hit. Lucas’s encapsulation of space journeys were still to come.

Lucas’s conception of Flash Gordon evolved into the magnificent seven film franchise of Star Wars. Star Wars captured the imagination of a generation of children who learned that “the force” was with them. Between the movies, the games.light swords and clothing it generated, parents could not refuse the desires of the young S;pace wanna-bes. Star Wars took over the world. There wasn’t a child or adult who couldn’t say “May the Force be with you!”

Two weeks into the filming of the original Star Wars, the production was plagued by failures, and young George Lucas was convinced that the movie would be terrible: R2-D2 refused to work. It wasn’t stubbornness on the part of the droid–a trait that would endear the character to millions of Star Wars fans around the world. Rather, as the first day of filming began on Star Wars in the Tunisian desert on the morning of March 22, 1976, R2-D2 wouldn’t work. His batteries were already dead. The little droid wasn’t the only one with a problem. Several other robots, operated via remote control by crew members standing just out of sight of the movie camera, were also malfunctioning. Some fell over, others never moved at all, while still others had their signals scrambled by Arabic radio broadcasts bouncing off the desert floor, and sending the robots careening wildly out of control across the sand or crashing into one another. As Mark Hamill, the 24 year old actor playing the hero Luke Skywalker said, “It took hours to get them set up again.”

The 29 year old George Lucas simply bided his time and waited. If a robot worked properly even for a moment, Lucas would shoot as much footage of it as he possibly could until the droid sputtered to a stop. Other times, he’d have a malfunctioning unit pulled along by invisible wire until the wire broke or the droid fell over. A difficult way to film a movie.

It was the first of what would be 84 long excruciating days of filming Star Wars–20 days over schedule. And the shoot was a disaster almost from the beginning.

It wasn’t just the remote control robots that were giving Lucas trouble. Anthony Daniels, a classically trained, very British actor who’d been cast in the role of the protocol droid C-3PO, was miserable inside his ill-fitting gleaming gold plastic costume, and unable to see or hear much of anything. With every movement he was poked or cut–covered in scars and scratches,–and when he fell over, as he often did, he could only wait for someoe on the crew to notice and help him to his feet.

It was very difficult to make things work. “We have no money, but we have to make these things work somehow.” But Lucas was determined to do it himself without the help of the studio. But you can’t fight them because they’ve got the money.

Between the lack of money, the wildly unpredictable weather in the Tunisian desert, the malfunctioning robots, ill-fitting costumes. equipment failure, and constant setbacks, Lucas was certain his Star was a mess.

excerpted from George Lucas, a Life by Brian Jay Jones

A bit of trivia: A droid (short for android) is a fictional robot with artificial intelligence. They were created by John Stears, a special effects artist, when robots were made to look like humans. Droid is now a registered trademark of Lucas Films.

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IT ISN’T EASY BEING OLD


Crow Print by Marvin Oliver

It’s a shame that just when you get comfortable being youngish, you suddenly find yourself being classified as “elderly”. You see strangers being referred to as elderly when in their 70’s. I suppose we are lucky that the longest period of our lives is called middle age. But the middle of what?

What makes us “old”? Since Dr. A, at the age of 91, is often seen out and about, either walking Charlie or sweeping leaves, he is often offered help; either to get up if he is pulling a weed, or loading a bag of compost into the car. Shaking his head, he wonders if they think he is old. I always use the line uttered by Hermine Gingold to Maurice Chevalier “Oh no, not you.”

The question is not so much how we look. Obviously the years take their toll in ways we would rather not think about. The story inside a beat-up second hand book is just as good as when the book was new. I a heard young man the age of forty something complain that he was getting “old”.

The First Wednesday group met last week and celebrated two more 90th birthdays. We were joined this time by two daughters, one granddaughter, and a little great-grandson. Generations in action. I began paying more attention to the questions my friends asked. One asked me if any of Dr. A’s old friends were left.The answer has been “no” for many years. Another asked if I were still cooking. The answer is “yes”, she was not. Another asked if my hearing was still good. She had just got hearing aids, and doesn’t like them. I have never heard of anyone who loved wearing them. They fall into the same category as false teeth; an unavoidable necessity.

Do all these things make us old? No, they are the exterior signs of lives well spent. If we are given the gift of age, it behooves us to do the best we can to get on with it. Dwelling on what we have lost is boring and non-productive.

Having said that, I visited the eye doctor again yesterday for a new glasses prescription. Something glamorous and sexy and makes me look 65 again would be nice. Before this can be achieved, you review the same old tests everyone takes to determine how much you can actually see. The result was neither more nor less than I expected, since my eyesight has been failing regrettably faster than I thought.

On the last visit, they showed me a few magnifying devices said to help failing eyesight. Yesterday there were a whole shelf full of lighted ones, a couple to wear on your head, though I couldn’t find the buttons meant to work like binoculars. Strange looking things which would scare the dog into thinking you came down from an unknown planet.

I have found that some things, like youth, cannot be recaptured; sight being one of them. We need to go with the flow as long as the river runs.

Back to my original question, “What makes us old?” It isn’t the loss of our looks, or the loss of our capabilities. It’s the loss of hope. The loss of interest in new things. The loss of someone or something to care about, or who cares for us. All those things are at the core of Life. If we lose them, yes, we are old, and it isn’t easy being old.
As a good friend called over his shoulder the other day while leaving the house, “Old age sucks!”

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ANCIENT SCRIBBLERS


“WAVE ACTION” Handmade paper by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Drawing is a primal urge. Caveman depicted what he saw by drawing on rock walls. Children, from the earliest years, draw on anything made of paper, but drawing only became a standard art form when paper became available. At the beginning, paper was of poor quality and expensive, and parchment was too difficult to erase. You couldn’t dash off a quick sketch and it had too low a standard to use for serious art. But by the the 15th century, paper quality had improved to the point of opening the possibility of the sketch.

Renaissance artists sketched out their work before they drew, painted or sculpted it. This new ability to plan and toy with an idea raised their art to a new level not known before the Middle Ages.

Just as today, artists came with varying degrees of skill. Leonardo da Vinci was legendary for his skills as a draftsman. Michelangelo was equally brilliant, and many art historians consider him to have been the greatest draftsman who ever lived—though most of his drawing was scribbled chaotically on sheets of paper not intended for public view. The story is told of a sketch by Michelangelo that was displayed in the Palazzo de Medici for art students to copy. Since the sheet, like most of Michelangelo’s sheets, had a variety of sketches on it, students started tearing off pieces of it and they became scattered over many places. Those fortunate students who ended up with a remnant, treasured it.

Michelangelo used a great deal of paper–and almost any piece of paper he used contained a great many sketches. Only a few are finished drawings. A stunning drawing of the resurrection of Christ is also marked with a shopping list. Masterful drawings were folded up with notes of his neighbors comings and goings on the other side. Michelangelo may have been the first to jot down ideas for himself. Letter writing is another practice that blossomed with the widespread use of paper.

Leonardo was notorious in his lifetime for his inability to finish projects. Fortunately there was paper to capture his genius. Though he is usually thought of as a painter, only fifteen paintings, some unfinished, have been found, along with two damaged murals. He also attempted some sculpture, though he never finished one piece. But he left behind thirty bound notebooks. Unlike Michelangelo, he did want people to see this work on paper, including the notes he made in his mirror-image script a curious response to being left-handed. He left drawings depicting all kinds of inventions, and notes on literature, arts, mythology, anatomy, engineering, and more of all nature.

Leonardo also left behind four thousand sheets of drawings of staggering beauty. He was the first artist to be recognized for his drawings on paper. Leonardo’s work became the standard for art in Renaissance Florence. Studying art now meant working on paper, learning to draw. Leonardo had learned art that way himself, in the workshop taught by Andrea del Verrocchio. Artists have been trained on paper ever since.