Monday, May 31, 2010

The Coming Battle

The geese took a holiday stroll with their brood on the grassy shore of Chandler Pond this weekend. The weather was fine and the goslings couldn't have been cuter.

It was nice to enjoy such simple pleasures during a weekend set apart to honor the men and women who have served our country and died for it. This Memorial Day, we find ourselves under a terrifying environmental threat. It's probable that our National Guard and other troops will soon be deployed to fight a sickening battle against the ever-expanding Gulf oil spill.

E. and I visited Louisiana two years ago. We stayed in the little bayou town of Napoleonville and took a wonderful boat trip deep into the bayou. My fond recollections of the beautiful landscape I saw then only adds to the grief I feel now at the thought of its despoliation. Of course, my sadness is nothing compared to that of the area's inhabitants, who now face the end of their way of life. My thoughts and prayers go out to them.

The photo below shows an osprey on its nest in the bayou. These birds have made a comeback in the area. I only hope that they and their fragile ecosystem manage to survive the coming onslaught of oil.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Packing and Packing and Packing

Most of us have had recurring dreams. For years, I had an exam dream in which I faced an exam that I wasn't prepared for, in a course I'd never taken. It took many years after my last law school exam for that recurring dream to cease. Since my recent trip to Memphis, though, I've been having a new recurring dream about, of all things, packing.

I found packing for my son's wedding in Memphis one of the more challenging packing experiences of my life. Usually, I try to pack light, though I rarely accomplish that goal. This time, though, I didn't care about packing light. I just wanted to make sure I brought the right clothes and plenty of them. I even packed a backup dress for the wedding itself. I'd heard a story about a woman whose zipper broke as she was getting dressed for her son's wedding and I didn't want to be without a dress in case of such an emergency.

For several days, I piled clothes on every available surface in my bedroom, then began adding and subtracting items. I finally accomplished my goal — filling a medium-sized suitcase with apparel and toilet articles. That bag would have to be checked. I planned to carry on a garment bag containing the dress I would wear to the wedding.

Everything worked out fine. The suitcase made it through baggage without getting lost and the zipper on my dress didn't break. I had just the clothes I needed and wore almost everything I packed. Nevertheless, I apparently still have packing on the brain. Every few nights since my return from Memphis, I've had a dream about packing. In it, I'm selecting items for a trip. I keep getting distracted. I can't remember exactly what I need. It's almost time to leave and I haven't started putting clothes in my suitcase. I frantically attempt to pack but I can't ever seem to finish . . . And then I wake up.

I wish that while in my dream state I would come up with some good packing strategies for future trips. But that seems a futile hope. More likely, I'll face my next packing challenge with even greater anxiety knowing that it can be a never-ending task, re-lived nightly in my dreams.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Princess and the Pea

People who know me well have perhaps noticed that I'm a bit sensitive. I don't like loud noise, prefer to avoid crowds, injure easily. Sometimes, even a strong hug will leave me sore. I dread the hair wash bowls in beauty salons. I've yet to find one that doesn't leave a bruise on the back of my neck. And if you've been reading this blog, you already know that most shoes find a way to irritate my feet.

I've been compared by my loving family to the princess in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, "The Princess and the Pea." In that story, the princess' sensitivity to a single pea placed under twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds is taken as proof of her royal birth. In my case, my sensitivity is regarded not so much as a sign of regal delicacy, but rather as an annoying personality quirk. That sensitivity was put to the test yesterday afternoon, when I visited Koko FitClub to try out their machine-based workout system.

I was greeted at the Needham club by owner Paul Romeo, who took me through a demonstration of the workout. The club is one of a number of franchises located across the country. It has a fresh, modern look and convenient parking. A row of Smartrainers, the machines used for strength training, line the wall on one side, while treadmills and elliptical trainers take up the other side.

I found Paul to be pleasant, low-key, and knowledgeable about his product. The Smartrainer looked imposing, to say the least, but Paul introduced me to its intricacies, which involve a personalized computer program, and I quickly got the hang of it. The Nautilus equipment I used at the Y had some of the same features, but the Smartrainer is more advanced, incorporating different exercises every session to adequately exercise all the muscle groups and provide variety in a thirty-minute workout. To learn the machine's capabilities and use it successfully, I would clearly need some guidance. Paul made it clear that he would be available for as much time as it took, at no extra charge.

I would have liked everything about the Koko FitClub concept if it weren't for my "Princess and the Pea" syndrome. For some exercises, the lowest weight on the Smartrainer, 15 pounds, was too much for my currently-weak upper body. And the machine, while surprisingly versatile, does have limitations. With free weights, I've learned how to do biceps curls that spare my easily-injured elbows. Although there were several options for biceps curls using the Smartrainer, all would have put my elbows at risk.

So, regretfully, I have to conclude that the Smartrainer is not for me, though I like the idea of it. If you're a more normal person of whatever age, this could be a good option for you. As for me, I intend to go at my own slow pace, using free weights and therabands, and always checking under my mattress for stray peas.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

No-Pain Fitness?

I'm not a fitness fanatic, to put it mildly. I like to walk, but have never been drawn to high intensity aerobics or competitive sports. In my forties and early fifties, with the threat of osteoporosis looming, I did get semi-serious about weight training, though. I joined a gym and worked out regularly for a number of years. My biceps had definition for the first time in my life. And I actually felt strong, at least when I wasn't nursing one minor injury or another. But did I like working out? Sad to say, no.

What I did enjoy was meeting my friends at the gym. Knowing that at the end of my weight circuit, I would join a friend or two and walk around the gym's indoor track made the whole exercise process bearable. In good weather, we headed outdoors and walked the pleasant path around the business park where the gym was located. Then one friend moved away and the other opted for Jazzercise at a different location. My interest in weight training immediately began to wane. Eventually, I convinced myself that keeping up my cardiovascular health through walking was sufficient — what did I need big muscles for, anyway?

Turns out my spine needed the upper body workout more than I realized. My recent bone scan showed that while my hip bone density has increased (without the use of any medication), probably due to my regular walking, my spinal bone density has declined. It's still in the positive range for my age, but it won't stay that way for long without some kind of intervention, according to my primary care doctor. His prescription — start a weight training regimen.

Since that verdict, I've been looking for a good fitness solution, one that won't be too onerous or expensive. Yesterday, I heard about a new concept, called Koko FitClub. It uses a high-tech machine, called the Koko Smartraining System, to set up a 30-minute exercise program. According to the FitClub's website, the "technology makes sure you're always doing precisely the right exercise, the right way, at the right pace, for the best possible results." Sounds too good to be true, right? But I figure it's worth a try, especially since a free demo session is offered.

I've made an appointment to have my free session this afternoon. If you don't hear from me tomorrow, it means I was swallowed or otherwise abused by the machine. Otherwise, I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More on Robins — The Messy Side

I usually think of robins as cheery birds, welcome harbingers of spring. But robins have a dark side, a behavior that would strike most human beings as insane, and one that presents a hazard to the robins themselves — window strikes.

Sometimes birds fly into windows because they simply don't see the glass. Either it appears transparent to them or they see the outdoors reflected in the glass and proceed to fly right into it. But in the case of the robin who began smashing into the glass window on the door that leads to my deck, the behavior almost certainly reflected an attempt to defend his territory.* His mate had recently built a nest under the deck, so his territorial instincts would have been aroused. Probably, the robin saw his own reflection in the glass and perceived it as an intruder robin, so he did what came naturally — he attacked.

The first time I heard the sound of something banging against the glass, I thought a bird had accidentally flown into it. But when repeated banging ensued, I concluded that some kind of territorial imperative was at work. Before long, I identified the culprit as a robin and realized his behavior might be linked to the nearby nest. I feared for the robin's safety. After all, how many whacks can a robin take without being injured or killed? In fact, multitudes of birds suffer injuries every year due to window strikes — some estimates put the number of North American birds killed in such collisions at between 100 million and 1 billion!

In addition to worrying about the robin's welfare, I also had to contend with the mess. The robin often perched on the edge of a white plastic deck chair near the door. He would leave his droppings on the chair and then inevitably step in them. Then, when the robin attacked the window, he left smeared white footprints all over the glass. The good news — the bird-brained creature apparently knew enough to hit the window feet-first rather than head-first. The bad news — the repeated assaults on my window left a heck of a mess, not to mention the bird droppings covering the chair and deck floor beneath it.

Since the baby robins left their nest two days ago, I haven't heard any banging on my door window. I'm hoping it's now safe to clean the window and hose down the chair and deck. And I'm happy to say the robin doesn't seem any the worse for wear — I saw him and his mate hopping around this morning in search of worms. I'm working on ways to eliminate the reflection from the window, so that in the future no robins will see imagined rivals reflected in the glass. Meanwhile, I plan to enjoy watching the birds who inhabit my backyard. Hopefully, they'll remain among the trees, grass, and flowers, where they belong.

*Apparently, both male and female robins exhibit this territorial behavior. Probably in this case the culprit was the male robin, since many of the window strikes occurred while the female was sitting on the eggs. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Empty Nest

I've lived in Newton for 28 years. During that time, I've noticed an evolution in the bird population. For many years, crows were everywhere. With their imperious caws and intimidating size, they ruled the Newton roost. In winter, their gatherings were particularly impressive, with their black shapes sometimes filling every bare tree limb in sight. Newton was home to many other birds as well — robins, cardinals, bluejays, mourning doves, sparrows, nuthatches, and titmouses, to name a few. But the crows, with their intelligent eyes and hulking appearance, definitely dominated.

About fifteen years ago, I began to notice the occasional red-tailed hawk. Once, I watched a hawk standing guard over its latest kill, a crow. I always knew when a hawk was in the area because I heard the cries of the crows, who would harry it in the air, cawing and buzzing it incessantly. The hawks were a nuisance and even a minor threat to the crows, but that's not what led to their local demise. That took a disease, the West Nile virus.

About ten years ago, the virus struck New England birds. Crows were hit particularly hard. I began to see dead crows in the street, but not so many in the sky. Within two years, the local crow population was decimated. This apparently created an opening for an opportunistic bird species. Before long, I began seeing northern mockingbirds. Soon they inhabited my neighborhood in great numbers.

For the past few seasons, however, robins have supplanted mockingbirds as the prevalent species. In addition to the pair that nested under my own deck, I see robins hopping about on every lawn in the vicinity. And lately, I've hardly noticed any mockingbirds at all.

Yesterday, I wrote about three robin chicks who left their nest, prodded along inadvertently by my own proximity. A few years ago, when mockingbirds held sway, I became similarly engaged by a drama in my backyard. I wrote a poem about the experience, which I've reprinted below. In that case, I was merely a witness, rather than a causative agent, in the events that unfolded.

Empty Nest

The baby mockingbird crashed
into my window and fell,
stunned, to the ground. I waited,
helpless, picturing myself
engaged in bird burial,
until it managed to lift
off, staggering in mid-air
as if drunk on first flight or

too young to have left the nest.
Determined, it launched itself
toward the pear tree and perched there,
chirping a feeble cheep, cheep,
until its mother swooped in,
bringing her bird version of
comfort, protecting her chick
with impressive vigilance.

I aimed my binoculars,
viewed the drama from polite
distance, saw the frail fledgling
close its weary eyes and rest
its beak in its own feathers.
For several days, I heard
the plaintive cheep, cheep from one
nearby tree or another

and saw the mother guarding
her offspring from a roof edge
or a neighboring treetop,
singing her borrowed love songs.
If only she could defend
her fragile child long enough
for it to gain strength, perhaps
it would survive and take wing.

A few days later, I found
a baby mockingbird dead
on my front walk, its mother
gone. Now every mockingbird
reminds me of that mother,
trilling her infinitely
varied tune, its melody
a bird’s poem of devotion. 

After learning about the robins' nesting habits, it occurred to me that I might have misunderstood what happened to the mockingbirds I wrote about. This morning, I did some research about mockingbirds. I discovered that when the chicks are about twelve days old, they leave their nest. They don't fly immediately, but rather hop around on the ground or in low shrubs. During this transitional period (after leaving the nest and before they can fly), the parents still care for the young birds, feeding them up to five times per hour. This continues for several days, during which the male teaches them how to fly, until the fledglings are capable of sustained flight and can forage for themselves.

It now seems likely that the baby bird in my poem had left the nest as mockingbird chicks normally do and, during an early flying experiment, had crashed into my window. The adult's hovering behavior was apparently normal for that stage of its offspring's development. I did see a dead mockingbird on my front walk, but I now believe it may not have been my mockingbird. My poem's little chirping creature, under the guidance of its devoted parents, may have survived to live a productive bird life and produce many offspring of its own. Of course, I'll never know, but I can always hope.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Drama Under the Deck

For the past several weeks, I've enjoyed watching a robin's nest built on one of the rafters under my backyard deck. From a lower-level window, I could see the female robin sitting on her eggs. The female had done most of the work, selecting the nest site and building the nest before laying her eggs and sitting on them. Her mate stood guard when she went off to feed and occasionally sat on the eggs himself. After the eggs hatched, I soon could see four open mouths just barely peeking above the edge of the nest.

E. and I were away for five days and by the time we returned, the tiny hatchlings had begun to look like their parents. They had feathers and recognizable robin beaks and they were so big they filled up the nest. For the past few days, I've been waiting for them to leave. By yesterday, it appeared that one had, since I could only count three chicks still remaining. This afternoon, I decided to take a few photos so I'd have a remembrance of their brief sojourn under my deck.

I didn't venture too close to the nest and I moved slowly and quietly. I took a couple of shots, uneventfully. The chicks appeared calm, not in the least agitated by my presence. They should have been somewhat accustomed to human beings by then. E. and I had walked, grilled, and sat on the deck just above the nest, and I've approached quite near the nest previously without any apparent problem. But today, after the click of my iPhone as I took the last of several photos, two of the chicks flew out of the nest.

It was clearly their first flight. They didn't go far. Both landed near the deck and began hopping about. One of the two hopped around the corner and out of sight. The second lingered on the gravel under the deck. I hoped, futilely as it turned out, that it might fly back to the nest, where the third chick still sat. But such a flight would have been tricky. The chick would have had to navigate between the rafter and the underside of the deck. My heart sank. At the very least, I'd been responsible for two of the three robins departing the nest slightly prematurely. Judging by their size and markings, they had looked ready to leave, but if I hadn't interfered with my camera, how much longer might they have lingered?

Filled with remorse, I went inside and took a post at the window, where I waited to see what would happen. The chick who had remained under the deck flew up to a nearby rock outcropping and perched there. The mother soon appeared, worm in mouth, and fed the hungry chick. While relieved that the parents would not abandon their babies, I felt worried that the chick wouldn't be able to fend for itself.

A short while later the chick flew from the rock onto the deck stairs. It perched between two rails. To my amazement and delight, it was soon joined by the second chick, who had apparently discovered the first chick's whereabouts. Both parents hovered nearby on the grass, searching for worms but ever on the alert. I thought the two chicks might settle in for the night at this location, given its relative security. The parents would be able to protect them and also protect the one chick still remaining in the nest. But after several feeding cycles, one of the chicks followed its parent, flying nicely from the deck onto the grass, where it proceeded to hop around just like an adult robin.

The other chick seemed smaller and more timid. It took flight in two stages, first from the deck back to its earlier perch atop the rock. As I watched, one of its parents fed it a worm. But the parent did it in a teasing way, only actually feeding the chick the third time the chick opened its mouth. Robins do this to motivate their offspring to leave the nest and search for their own food. Sure enough, the chick followed its parent as it flew from the rock to the grass and began hopping around, as if it were searching for a worm. I felt encouraged — maybe the chicks were old enough to make it on their own.

A few moments later, E. called me excitedly to report that the third chick had also left the nest. This thrilled me and gave me hope that the other two chicks had, indeed, been ready to leave. I soon saw the third chick on the deck, the same vantage point from which its siblings had surveyed their brave new backyard world.

Birds who have recently acquired their flight feathers and can survive outside the nest are known as fledglings. Normally, robin fledglings stay close to their parents for the first two weeks and become capable of sustained flight only by the end of that period. The three chicks who left the nest today look like the pictures I've seen of fledglings (see photo at right). All three can fly, although not for a sustained period. During the next couple of weeks, they have a lot to learn. Here's hoping they make it.

Photo of fledgling courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Scenes from Chandler Pond

Yesterday, E. and I took one of our favorite walks, around Chandler Pond, just across the Newton line in Brighton, a neighborhood of Boston. A mere three-quarters of a mile from our home, it's a world away from the typical suburban street and from Brighton's busy Oak Square, only a few blocks away. Although I've lived in Newton since 1982, I didn't discover Chandler Pond until 2000. It was a revelation — a plethora of birds and other wildlife thriving in a tranquil setting only steps from my door!

When I take the path between two houses that opens up to reveal the 38 acre space, comprised of Chandler Pond and its adjacent grassy shoreline, I experience an instant feeling of delight. The beauty of the water, with perhaps a swan floating on its surface, soothes me. And the turreted edifice that looms on the hillside above the pond, part of St. John's Seminary, allows me to imagine that I've literally been transported to a European medieval village.

During yesterday's walk, we saw a healthy group of goslings feeding, their parents keeping watch close by. And we found the pond's lone swan preening itself in the grass by the water. We haven't seen its mate so far this spring and, knowing that swans usually mate for life, we fear that something has happened to it.

On previous walks, we've spied red-winged blackbirds, cormorants, great blue herons, and ducks. Occasionally we've glimpsed snapping turtles sunning themselves on a log that drifts across the pond's surface. Yesterday, we didn't come across any new varieties of wildlife, but we did notice a sign that had recently been set in place to remind visitors not to feed the waterfowl. Though noble in purpose, the sign falls short in execution — the writer apparently failed to use spell check. Still, there's nothing "foul" about Chandler Pond — its charms draw me back on a regular basis.

 Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Crystal Lake

Now that I'm back in Newton, I've been enjoying the lovely spring foliage and the surprising variety of wildlife I can see right in my own backyard, including rabbits, red-tailed hawks, Baltimore orioles, a red fox, and a group of ungainly wild turkeys. Robins have become the dominant neighborhood bird and a couple has built their nest on a rafter under our deck. From the lower-level windows of my house, I can watch the open mouths of their little hatchlings as the robin parents feed them worms. But one thing I can't see from my backyard is water.

In Miami, my apartment overlooks Biscayne Bay. In Newton, I miss the water view, so when I go for a walk I often head for a local pond, river, or reservoir. Yesterday, a friend and I decided to take a stroll around Crystal Lake. The lake, known as Wiswall's Pond during colonial times, occupies 33 acres just a few blocks from bustling Newton Centre. During the 1880s, the lake was renamed Baptist Pond because the First Baptist Church of Newton used it for baptisms. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, ice dealers, who sold ice harvested from the lake for refrigeration, gave Crystal Lake its current name, believing it would appeal to customers. Today, houses surround most of the lake, but there's also a public swimming area. On one side of the lake, opposite the public beach, the "T" can be heard as it carries commuters to and from Boston.

I first saw Crystal Lake almost 30 years ago, before I'd even moved to Newton. My sister-in-law, who was then a Newton resident, invited me to join her there for a swim. She was seven months pregnant at the time and had been keeping fit during the summer by swimming in the cool lake waters. I spent a delightful afternoon with her. The beach was tiny, but the water was cold and clear. Perhaps too cold. Later that day, my sister-in-law went into labor and shortly after gave birth to a premature baby boy. All ended well, though — today, my nephew is a strapping young man.

Yesterday's walk around Crystal Lake was less eventful than that first swim, but still a lovely way to spend a spring morning. It had rained the previous day and the air smelled sweet with the scent of flowers. We ambled along the lake, past imposing homes with emerald-green lawns, until we arrived at the public area. The lake shimmered with, dare I say, a crystalline glow. As I stood admiring the lily pads, it occurred to me to take the photograph shown above with my iPhone (click on the photo to enlarge it), in the hope of capturing the moment.

For a much more complete history of Crystal Lake check out this 1911 Historical Sketch.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Post-Wedding Dress and Accessory Update

A few months ago, I regaled my readers with the saga of my search for a pretty dress to wear to my son, Aaron's, wedding (see "Shopping for 'The One'"). It was no small task to find a dress that fit my requirements in size, price, and elegance. Once I'd purchased a dress, I moved on to the next challenge, shoes. My quest to find a suitable pair involved numerous online purchases and returns (see "If the Shoe Fits"). So how did it all come together at the wedding? Here's my report.

After logging many hours in department stores, bridal shops, and boutiques, I found a gown in a shimmery espresso shade, which, amazingly, was on sale for an unbelievably low price in a petite size that fit me everywhere, including the waistline. As it turned out, I was too excited to eat much during the days immediately preceding the wedding, so I was able to wear the dress without the torturous body shaper I'd bought along, just in case I needed it.

The most stressful moment, dresswise, came when I asked one of the bridesmaids to pin on my corsage. It was a daunting task requiring advanced engineering skills. I feared that the two long pins and weighty flowers would either rip the dress or weigh it down unbecomingly. But, after a few false starts, the ingenious bridesmaid affixed the corsage in exactly the right spot and it stayed in place beautifully all evening long.

The shoes fit, too! For me, that's an event worthy of an exclamation point. I found a pair of bronze leather dressy sandals online, wide enough in the toes and low enough in the heels. They looked lovely but didn't kill my feet. An ingenious solution suggested by a friend made them even more comfortable. She recommended I purchase a pair of toeless pantyhose. They slipped on like Japanese tabi socks, with an opening for my big toe and another for the rest of my toes. This allowed my newly-pedicured toenails to peek out, while the rest of my feet were encased in silky nylon.

Once I found the dress and the shoes, I figured I had it made. Then a friend asked me whether I needed a wrap to wear over the dress. That hadn't occurred to me, though it should have. I tend to like something over my shoulders unless it's exceedingly warm. And what about an evening bag? My selection was pitiful — one black silk bag (which was all wrong for my brown dress and bronze shoes), and a couple of ancient odd-colored bags that also wouldn't work.

As I set out in search of these accessories, my object was to spend less on them than I had on my dress. Any woman knows that it's easy to drop $500 on a tiny handbag. Happily, I found a shimmery deep gold wrap at a local boutique, as well as a bronze leather evening purse. Each cost less than $100, not exactly cheap, but worth it to complete my wedding ensemble.

It all came together exactly as I'd hoped. The zipper zipped, the gown fit, and the neutral palette of my outfit accomplished my goal as mother of the groom — not to draw attention to myself. As it turned out, there was no danger of that, since all eyes were on the bride, Karen, who looked dazzlingly beautiful in her gorgeous strapless white wedding gown.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Blues City

E. and I arrived in Memphis last Wednesday, a few days before the wedding of my son, Aaron, to his bride, Karen. As we approached downtown in our rental car, E. reminisced about the last time he had visited Memphis, 40 years earlier. He had been traveling through the south during the summer of 1970, interviewing locals about blues musicians — research for his college thesis.

We already knew one another back then, though we weren't dating. Forty years later, it was hard for either of us to believe that so much time had passed since he'd gone on that trip, a long-haired white kid driving a weird Swedish sports car, his Saab Sonett, and venturing into down-and-out black neighborhoods.

Later, we walked over to Beale Street, the heart of the Memphis blues scene. E. was amazed that it looked much as he remembered, though fixed up and filled with tourists. That evening, motorcycles lined the street, each one more shiny and spectacular than the next, their owners gathered for some kind of rally. Blues music poured out of the open doors of clubs, the rhythms reminding me of my youth, when E. collected blues LPs and we listened to blues artists perform live whenever we could.

As we surveyed the lively scene, my eye was caught by signs for the B.B. King Blues Club and B.B. King's Company Store. The great blues guitarist and singer-songwriter got his musical start in Memphis, where he earned the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy," later shortened to B.B. King. All this interested me because it gave me my own tenuous connection to Memphis — back in the seventies, I interviewed King for a column in Guitar Player Magazine.

At the time, I was an editor at the magazine, hired more for my language skills than my musical ability. Though I played the piano and could read music, I knew little about the guitar. Still, when the opportunity to interview B.B. King arose, I jumped at the chance. With the help of my senior editor, I came up with a list of questions designed to make it sound as if I really understood the instrument.

At Guitar Player, we took our mission seriously — no celebrity gossip for us. We wanted to give our readers tips from the guitar greats about how they achieved their unique sounds. I arrived for the interview nervous but excited. B.B. King invited me into his dressing room. He was gracious and kind. Within thirty seconds, he probably knew I didn't play the guitar, but he answered my scripted questions patiently and thoroughly. A few times we were interrupted by visitors, most of them women. King invariably asked them to "Gimme a little sugar," and kisses were exchanged.

Just as I finished my last question, the door opened and a man clad in a white suit entered — Santana. He faced us and put his palms together in a Hindu-style greeting and bowed. It was quite a moment, the accolyte acknowledging the master.

All this came back to me in a rush as I stood on Beale Street, where B.B. is still king. In the days that followed, I would be establishing a much more important connection to Memphis, with the family of my new daughter-in-law. But for a brief moment, I was transported back to my own youth and the years melted away.

Here's a YouTube video of B.B. King  in 1970, playing his classic hit, "The Thrill is Gone."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Peabody Ducks

I just returned from a glorious weekend in Memphis, where E. and I attended the marriage of our son, Aaron, to his college sweetheart, Karen. I could go on at length (and possibly will, in a later blog) about the joy I felt watching Aaron and Karen become man and wife, surrounded by my family and friends. It was a bi-cultural affair, with Karen's Chinese family celebrating alongside us, merging Eastern and Western traditions.

The setting was the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Karen grew up and where almost all her family lives. She and Aaron chose the Peabody because it's a lovely historic hotel with a great rooftop party room. They also liked its location near Beale Street, famous for Memphis blues music, and its proximity to the Mississippi River, a short walk away. But, knowing Aaron's fondness for animals, I think what sealed the deal was the fact that at the Peabody Hotel you not only get nice rooms, good food, and a friendly staff — you also get the Peabody ducks.

In a tradition that started in 1933, every day at 11:00 a.m. four or five mallard ducks descend in one of the hotel's elevators from the roof to the lobby where, to great fanfare, they "march" on a red carpet from the elevator to the marble pond in the center of the lobby. There, they spend their day eating, swimming, and preening themselves until, at 5:00 p.m., after a rousing sendoff by the "Duckmaster," they waddle back onto the red carpet and into the elevator, which takes them to their rooftop "Duck Palace."

It all sounds rather silly and juvenile, but the ducks are adorable and appeal to just about everyone. Their presence gives the Peabody character lacking in most big hotels. During our five-day stay, E. and I watched the ducks march on several occasions, but until our final morning, we hadn't checked out the Duck Palace. On that last morning, we rode the elevator to the roof for one more view of the Mississippi. Once there, we noticed a sign for the Duck Palace and decided to take a look. It was about 10:45, so we knew the Duckmaster would soon arrive to escort the ducks down the elevator to the lobby.

The ducks live in uncommonly fancy surroundings, which include a small swimming area, but when we arrived they were resting on a granite platform. We were rather surprised to find ourselves the only people there. We'd been down in the lobby a few minutes earlier and it had been jammed with hotel guests already lined up along the red carpet, awaiting the ducks' arrival. But on the roof, we had the ducks all to ourselves. At about 10:55, they suddenly perked up and a moment later, the Duckmaster came walking around the corner. We felt like privileged spectators as we watched the ducks literally run out the door of their palace and across the roof deck toward the elevators, only stopping when the Duckmaster told them to "wait."

The Duckmaster invited us to ride down the elevator with the ducks. When we reached the lobby, the doors opened, the crowd cheered, and the ducks hightailed it onto the red carpet. It was a hilarious sight to behold and a fitting end to our wonderful wedding weekend at the Peabody Hotel.

To get a sense of the Peabody duck tradition in action, take a look at the following Animal Planet segment on YouTube.