Thursday, November 27, 2008

Something worth giving thanks for:

Sunni Eating Thanksgiving Dinner

Princess Sunni gobbling down her Thanksgiving Day feast, on this Day of Thanks Giving.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

More Butterflies!

It's been a very long time since I posted a butterfly update, so here are three:

As you can imagine, lots has been happening. To begin with, I have these pictures of the overwings of a couple of Gulf Fritilliaries. These are very active butterflies -- you might say they the ADHD butterflies -- so it's hard to get pictures of them. Once they emerge from chrysalis, they are ready to go:

Gulf Fritilliary Overwings

This Fritilliary on Judi's fingers was caught in the act of flapping his wings:

Gulf Fritilliary Flapping

I mentioned in an earlier post that we had some Queen caterpillars (Queens, like Monarchs, are milkweed butterflies). Here's what the Queen caterpillar looks like -- similar to the Monarch, but with different coloration, and three sets of tentacles instead of two:

Queen caterpillar

She went into her chrysalis and emerged as a beautiful butterfly. Here are two pictures that we got before she flew away:

Judis Queens Overwings

Judis Queen on milkweed

Having nothing to do with anything else in this post, this is a picture of a Monarch just peeking out of its chrysalis as it emerges. I just liked the moment:

Monarch just emerging

This is a large Black Swallowtail caterpillar munching on a sprig of fennel. If you look closely (or click for the larger image), you can see it holding the fennel with its maxillae. They will actually cast around for a sprig, grab it in their maxillae, and pull it towards them before they start munching. It's remarkable to watch:

Black Swallowtail munching

I posted this caterpillar picture for a reason: There will be more to follow about this little guy, because he went on to mark a first for Judi in her butterfly gardening: A closed lifecycle. And he emerged as a stunning butterfly.


A New Type of Butterfly (for Judi)

The Polydamas Swallowtail (also called the Gold Rim Swallowtail) does not actually have a swallowtail, making it "the swallowtailless swallowtail." Go figure. Judi has Polydamas caterpillars feeding on a Dutchman's Pipevine along the back fence. The Polydamas is unique among butterflies in that the female lays eggs in a cluster, rather than singly and spread out, and the caterpillars travel together in little caravans as they feed and grow:

A herd of young polydamas caterpillars

One theory is that by massing together the Polydamas caterpillars look like something big and mean and are less likely to be taken by predators. Here's a group of larger ones grazing shoulder to shoulder:

Some larger caterpillars grazing along together

These caterpillars get really, really big. Also really, really ugly:

They get really, really big; and really, really ugly

When the Polydamas caterpillar forms a chrysalis, it looks a lot like a dead and dried leaf. This little strip of vine features a dead leaf at the top, Judi's first Polydamas chrysalis in the middle, and another dead leaf at the bottom, so you can see how realistic they look:

Polydamus chrysalis and two dead leaves

This is the chrysalis up close:

Polydamus chrysalis

Judi has three of these Polydamas chrysalises in protective custody at this time, and a bunch more caterpillars still munching away on the vine out back. I hope to have pictures of the emerged butterflies for you in a later post.


The Transformation of a Sulphur

This series of photos illustrates part of the process that a member of the Sulphur family goes through to form a chrysalis and emerge as a brilliant yellow butterfly. Judi and I have taken pictures of a lot of such transformations, and this series combines photos from several different butterflies, hence the different backgrounds. As usual, you can click on any of these pictures to see a larger version.

This is how they start: A small caterpillar crawling, in this case (by accident), on my shirt:

A little caterpillar

Lots and lots of eating later, the much larger caterpillar attaches itself to a branch using some incredibly tough threads and hangs in the shape of a J:

Starting to form a chrysalis

The transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis takes place inside the skin of the caterpillar, while the encasing skin becomes shiny and thin:


Then the tender chrysalis convulses until the outer skin, that was protecting it, splits and is shed. In this picture, the dark ball above the chrysalis is the shed outer skin. The chrysalis itself is still soft at this point and hasn't settled into its exact final shape:

Final step:  Shedding the skin

In a few hours the outside of the chrysalis is hard, and it hangs for weeks while the butterfly forms.

When the butterfly is finally ready to emerge, the outer shell of the chrysalis starts to become thin and transparent, and the butterfly inside starts to become visible. In this picture, you can begin to see the orange spots on the wings that will make this an Orange Barred Sulphur:

Close to emerging:  Showing color

In this picture, the chrysalis in front (there's another behind) has become so transparent that you can see the yellow of the wings, and vaguely make out the head (pointing down) and the ribbed abdomen (pointing up):

...showing more color...

Now you can see the butterfly in there pretty clearly -- even its yellow eyes and the veining on its wings. It's ready to come out (it's worth clicking on this one to see the larger version):

There's a butterfly inside!

...and now it's out, hanging from the now-empty chrysalis until its wings expand and harden:

And now it's outside

These are the butterfly's underwings as it sits on Judi's fingers and comtemplates launching on its first flight. It's very hard to get a picture of this butterfly's overwings, because they never spread their wings unless they are in flight, and then they're moving like a pinball in a pinball machine, except it's a three dimensional pinball machine:

On Judi's fingers

In case you want to get up close and personal (another one you might want to click on for the larger version):

Up close and personal


Thursday, November 20, 2008

I have a question

If you have read Jack London's The Sea Wolf, you know that its narrator, Humphrey van Weyden, comes from a wealthy family and has had an extensive formal education. He's thrown into the company of the title character, Wolf Larsen, who, while very intelligent (also very violent), grew up without any education. The adult Larsen has read widely, but, as Humphrey scornfully notes, his reading has been random, rather than following a curriculum, and so Wolf doesn't appreciate the significance or importance of everything he has read.

The moment I read Humphrey's words a felt a kinship to Wolf Larsen -- I still feel it today. I, like Wolf, have read a great deal, but without a curriculum, and I felt the sting of Humphrey's criticism as surely as if it had been directed at me instead of the sea captain.

My random reading has included a few of Shakespeare's plays -- Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear (my favorite), The Merchant of Venice, and Richard III come to mind -- but not, until now, his sonnets. For this I blame a bad experience I had in high school: I went to a Catholic high school, and our study of Shakespeare's sonnets amounted to reading a single one -- I don't remember which, but it was one addressed to the Dark Lady -- and then being instructed to each write a sonnet on our own.

I don't believe most high school English teachers have any writing ability. That's the only way I can explain why it's so common for them to teach creative writing or poetry by simply telling students to "write one," as though that's all there is to it. I sat there, utterly miserable, for the allotted time, and in the end had nothing but a failing grade for the day. Maybe that's why I passed the half-century mark in my life having never read Shakespeare's sonnets. Those of you who have had Humphrey's formal education will be shaking your heads at my ignorance, but there you have it.

Then, I think sometime in late 2006, I heard a famous British actor -- it might have been O'.Too.le -- on NPR, say that he thought Shakespeare's greatest accomplishment was the sonnets, not the plays, and O'.Too.le even went on to recite one, explaining that he had memorized them all.

I was impressed. Maybe, I thought, I should read these sonnets. So (not wanting to invest a lot of cash), I bought a very beat-up copy from an online bookseller (so beat up it was missing the page that contained sonnets 16 and 17 -- I had to print them from a Web site and insert them myself), and in February, 2007, during a trip to the Napa Valley, I began to read.

It took me over a year. In my defense, I consider the only good way to read poetry to be aloud. Reading poetry without reciting it is like reading sheet music without playing it. So that limits when I can read. After all, reading love poetry out loud on buses or in the lunch room at work can be embarrassing. Also, I usually read a poem several times, to try to get the rhythm right. Also, my copy of the sonnets included essays about Shakespeare, analysis of the sonnets, criticism of the sonnets, etc., which were pretty slow going. But I finished.

So what did I think? To begin, he-who-might-have-been-O'.Too.le was not correct. The sonnets, like the plays, are uneven, and among the sonnets, like the plays, there are some that are truly amazing. But among the sonnets, like the plays, there are some real stinkers. The sonnets do not eclipse the plays in greatness.

I may post, sporadically, in the future about this sonnet or that. But for now, I have just one burning question. I have read some of Shakespeare's plays. I have learned what little we know about Shakespeare's life, such as the infamous second-best bed. Shakespeare is drummed into our heads in school. Shakespeare is talked about, speculated about, and referenced in public culture. I have been listening. I swear. So, how, oh how, I ask you, how have I gone through a half-century of life...

...without anyone telling me that Shakespeare was bi?

Of course he was. Anyone who reads these sonnets and thinks otherwise is so terrified of homosexuality as to be relieved of his or her senses. I have since learned that there were and are, in fact, those who are so voided of sense, including W. H. Auden, in an essay in my copy: Auden starts out (mostly) well, admitting that "men and women whose sexual tastes are perfectly normal [by which he means hetero], but who understand and enjoy poetry, have always been able to read [the sonnets] as expressions of what they understand by the word love, without finding the masculine pronoun an obstacle."

True enough (except for the perfectly normal slap), and what we would expect from enlightened people who are not bigots. But then as Auden goes on he seems to find the masculine pronoun more and more of an obstacle himself, as he argues that the truth is (in his opinion) that Shakespeare had a sensibility so much more highly attuned than the rest of us in the vulgate that his love for the Fair Youth transcended sex and gender. He calls it the "Vision of Eros" -- yes, he makes it a proper noun. And thus Shakespeare wasn't really bi. Oh, my dear W.H., you eventually sound desperate. Not to mention silly.

The other "Shakespeare wasn't bi" arguments -- that he was commissioned to write the sonnets to the Fair Youth for someone else, that he couldn't have loved the Fair Youth because he encouraged him to marry, and others -- are equally ridiculous, but it's a waste of time to debate people who have lost their good sense, and I'm not going to do it.

So what if Shakespeare was bi? It's not a big deal... or at least wouldn't be such a big deal, except that, on the one hand, it seems to be something no one talks about, and then, on the other hand, when someone does start talking about it, it raises such intense and shrill emotion.

So Shakespeare was bi. Is it the end of the world if the greatest literary force in the history of the English language -- a man credited (usually in exaggeration) with singlehandedly coining some percentage of the words and phrases that we use today -- was bi?

Apparently some people think it is.

Anyway! I know I'm not adding anything new to this debate. I'm just expressing my surprise that I found out this little tidbit about Shakespeare -- a man about whom we know so little that every tidbit seems to be treasured -- at this point and in this way. Oh, and one more thing:

I'm sure you know that many people believe that someone other than Shakespeare actually wrote the plays and sonnets. This is because (as they believe) Shakespeare was too provincial, ignorant, and even stupid to write them himself. So I do appreciate the cosmic irony that, on the one hand, there are those trying to drag down Shakespeare's image as a poet (and probably don't care whether he was bi), while, on the other hand, there are those who have elevated his image as a poet to such a height that they have to drag down the facts about his sexuality. Poor Shakespeare: He's either too great a genius for his own good, or not smart enough for his own good.

Oh, and if you haven't read The Sea Wolf, I recommend it. I couldn't put it down.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Making a Difference

I haven't posted in over a week (bad, bad blogger). But we're sitting here now in the aftermath of an election, and so many people seem to be feeling a sense of empowerment for the first time, so I thought I'd tell you this true story:

Some years ago, we were on vacation in Palm Springs, and during that vacation we took a bus tour of the Coachella Valley. Our tour guide was a retired gentleman named Mr. Harriman. As the bus was traveling between sights, Mr. Harriman told us stories of his early days in Palm Springs. He had moved there in the 1950's, when it had been discovered by Hollywood stars but not by the newspaper photographers, so it was common for famous people to come to Palm Springs to "let their hair down" and act like themselves without the press around. In those days, Mr. Harriman told us, Palm Springs was a small community, and the only place in town to have a drink was the Racquet Club. He didn't have much money himself, but he used to drop by the Racquet Club and buy one drink, and sit and nurse it as he watched stars and celebrities arrive and leave. It made him feel like he was among the famous.

After the last stop on the bus tour, we had a long run down the Valley back to our resort, and during that run Mr. Harriman told us this final story:

When he first moved to Palm Springs, he was a schoolteacher. Specifically, a music teacher. In fact, he was the only music teacher in the whole Coachella Valley, so he rotated from school to school, spending a couple of days at each before moving on to the next. Whenever he first showed up at a school, all the children ran to him and crowded around him in excitement, because they knew that his arrival meant they would have a few days break from the usual monotony, studying music.

One evening, after a day of teaching, Mr. Harriman dropped by the Racquet Club and bought himself a drink. While he was sitting there nursing it, he recognized, at another table, a little girl who had been in his fourth-grade class that very day. She was sitting with a well-dressed man and a well-dressed woman who he assumed were her mother and father. But the real excitement was that they were having dinner with Dinah Shore!

For those of you too young to know about Dinah Shore, but she was a famous singer from the big band era, and also one of the early female talk show hosts. She was an enormous celebrity in her day, and current celebrities like Oprah Winfrey owe a lot to her.

Anyway, when Mr. Harriman got back to the school the next day, he took the little girl's teacher aside and said, "Do you know who I saw that little girl, in your class, having dinner with last night? Dinah Shore!"

The teacher replied, "Well, she's never said anything to us about Dinah Shore, but you know, when she got to school this morning she was so excited that she couldn't wait to tell everyone, and all the other students were so jealous, because when she was out to dinner last night, she saw Mr. Harriman!"

Everyone can make a difference.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008


I voted yesterday. As I walked through the door into the polling place, I suddenly became forcefully aware, just as though I had had a revelation from Heaven, that the most important reason I was there was to vote No on Proposition 2. Voting for Obama wasn't nearly as important as defeating Prop 2. I mean, the presidential election was just two guys running for office. Prop 2 was about fundamental human rights. This revelation lifted me spiritually. I went in and voted.

This morning I discovered that Prop 2 passed. Human rights were dashed. And, along with them, my spirits. To make matters worse, anti-marriage amendments also passed in Arizona and California. I can't feel any joy in Obama's victory, especially knowing that (even though I voted for him) he's one of the bigots who opposes human rights. He was the best choice, and will do the best job, but his victory is hollow and joyless.

In 2000 I was bitterly disappointed when Dubya "won." In 2004 I was even more disappointed when Kerry lost. So disappointed that I didn't listen to news of any kind for two years (when I started listening again, I was startled to find that Colin Powell was no longer Secretary of State, and had been replaced by Condoleza Rice -- who?). And now, in 2008, I am disappointed yet again.

Maybe I'll just give up voting altogether.

Ignorant Morons

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The other history

Northern Bro: As we bask in this glorious moment in political history I would like to point out another milestone that was reached yesterday:

For its next term 13 of the 24 New Hampshire State Senators will be female, marking the first time (according to NPR anyway) in American history that women will make up a majority of a state legislative body.


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