Friday, October 28, 2016

'Tis the season of the spiders

Just in time for Halloween, and the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, spiderwebs have appeared all over the ranch. Some are small, maybe six inches across, others can span gracefully and grandly for three or four feet, sometimes from one bush or tree to another. A few are works in progress, just a lone strand between two bushes, as delicate and perilous as the wire that carried aerialist Philippe Petit between the two towers of the World Trade Center.

All in a day's work.
It's an awesome display, particularly early in the morning when the sun, barely peeking over the horizon, backlights the spiders and the dewy landscape. It's as magical as it is ephemeral: You've got to put off your breakfast for a hour or two or you'll miss the show. By the time it warms up most of the spiders and the glistening dew will vanish, as nothing more than a vision.

Both Stew and I are entranced by the beauty of the cobwebs. That makes us arachnophiles, or "spider fans" though our affection has its limits. Last year we were introduced to the dangerous brown recluse spiders, one of which almost killed one of our dogs.

Apparently we are a small minority in a world dominated by arachnophobes—spider haters. Seeking to unravel some of the mysteries of spiderwebs I looked in Google and before anyone had any kind word about spiderwebs I had to suffer through three or four pages of comments, questions and suggestions on how to kill, smash and otherwise get rid of them. Some of the posts were hysterical, with four-letter words as if spiderwebs were monsters poised to destroy people's homes.

The dawn's early light, before the fog dissipates, it's the best time to admire spiders.
Around here, spiderwebs are clearly seasonal. They appear just as summer is letting out its parting sigh and most every plant and animal is readying for winter. The patches of rambunctious zinnias, that this year grew four feet high, are shriveling but not before scattering their seeds in preparation for next spring. As the flowers vanish so do the butterflies, which two months hovered in small flocks but now are down to a few laggards picking over whatever flowers are left.

Bees seem to be hunkering down too, though they don't know that next week Félix and Stew will be disrupting the hives to harvest the honey. For some reason last year we had a very meager honey harvest but these year they have peeked in the hives and it looks as if we should be back to four or five gallons of honey. We have boxes of jelly jars ready to be filled.

Dueling webs. 
British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, not exactly a chirping bundle of cheer, described man's existence as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." And have a nice day, Tom.

Spiders' existence may be solitary and definitely short but none of the other. According to the OregonLive site, spiders shed their skins four to five times a season, before the adult females begin building the webs in late summer or fall to lay their eggs and, alas, die, presumably the eggs to lie dormant until spring to start the cycle again. No word about the fate of the males.

One of a number of spiders in our ranch. Not sure of its exact name. 
A  few more engineering points. A web's filaments, made of liquid protein—and which comparatively speaking are as tough as steel—are secreted by the spider at night and blown by the evening breezes until one sticks to something. The spider then goes back and forth on that initial strand to strengthen it and from there build the concentric web. Towards evening, many spiders eat the web and start building anew. Spiders, aside from their astonishing engineering skills, are excellent insect predators too.

So next time you see a spiderweb don't go running for a broom or start recycling childhood horror stories. The same thing for bats, another voracious insect-eater. These guys are much better than harmless—they are actually very beneficial.

Just go out early in the morning, stand back and admire the spiders' astonishing handiwork because in a few more weeks, it will all be gone.

A week after this post, the Washington Post published this article about a young girl's fascination with a spider:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2016/11/03/what-my-daughter-taught-me-when-she-gave-a-spider-a-name/







Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Then there were five (mutts), again

After our dowager mutt Gladys died several months ago, under sad and questionable circumstances, Stew and I made a solemn pact not to adopt another dog. I knew it was going to be a fragile promise, though, what with a canine chorale that assembles outside our front gate every day howling for food, a reassuring pat on the head and a back scratch—and admission to The Other Side.

No more stray mutt, mister. From now on, it's Señorita Ellie to you. 
This ensemble is made up of seven to ten members, of all sizes, colors and appearances. There's a scruffy Benji look-alike that knows English commands that he must have learned from his previous owner who likely abandoned him by the side of the road. I'd like to think that he got lost; I can't fathom how someone could dump an animal that gentle and beautiful and just drive away.

There's also Malcolm, a small orange number with short hair, a mutt from central casting, with a tightly curled tail and a squeaky bark calling for attention whenever someone approaches the gate. Malcolm practically lives outside the gate under a bush, with Poochito, a smallish, twice-removed relative of a Border Collie, with long black matted fur. Stew named him Poochito because he looks like a small replica of our Chicago dog Pooch.
We have tried a few times to wean the dogs from our food handouts but it's impossible. They keep gathering at the gate, skinnier by the day, their howling gradually turning into a desperate dirge. So after several days we say, okay, okay, okay and get more bags of dog food that right now run about a hundred dollars a month.

We've sterilized all of them but when one disappears a replacement promptly joins the pack after a brief audition by the other members. That's how an orange Chihuahua-nese female appeared about three weeks ago, at first crawling timidly but then leaping, licking and nipping at our pants. She would not be ignored.
She timed her appearance well. Stew, Felix and I still miss Gladys, who died at the vet's office we suspect of bungled or negligent treatment. Gladys left a glaring vacancy in our pack of five dogs.

Left is my best side. 
I tried to be firm in my arguments against taking in another dog but neither Stew nor the little orange mutt—a genius at self-marketing—would give up. I knew it was game over when Stew started writing possible names, most of which began with "e", as in Edna, Ethel, Ellie.

Ellie (and Stew) won and after a trip to the vet for shots, de-worming and spaying, she's doing delirious figure eights inside and outside the house. She must have been someone's pet, because her tail was chopped off and she seems to be housebroken. The vet figures she's about nine months old and in the middle of teething which means a gnawing frenzy, including pant cuffs, with her piranha-sharp choppers. After a few growls from the resident dogs and two cats—which seemed unnerved mostly by her energy—Ellie seems to be fitting in well.

If any readers are interested in adopting—please, I don't want any more dogs—e-mail me and I'll introduce you to the outside pack: Malcolm, Benji, Poochito, Brenda, Osita and Doofus #1 and Doofus #2 (also known as the Doofi sisters), and any others that may have shown up by the time you get here.

###






Monday, October 24, 2016

Tourism in the Age of Anxiety

What are people addicted to the thrills of foreign landscapes and cultures to do when news from many of those places is ominous or at least unsettling? Get travel insurance in case trips are cancelled because of terrorism, popular uprisings or other mayhem? Look into medical evacuation policies in the event they get shot by angry natives? Or should they stop traveling altogether to be completely safe?

It used to be that dangerous places were remote too—Bangui, anyone?—or obvious kamikaze destinations like Damascus, Baghdad or Mogadishu. But by now the list of high-risk locations has expanded to include legendarily civilized places like Paris, where one-hundred and and thirty folks got blown up in various terrorist attacks late last year, or Brussels, that drowsiest of European capitals, which morphed into a terrorist hotspot earlier this year after thirty-two people were killed at the airport and a metro station downtown.

The list goes on and it gets scarier the closer you get to home. Should we visit bars in Orlando, Florida? Historic black churches in Charleston, South Carolina? Or Chicago, home of the Cubs and also one of the highest homicide rates in the U.S.?

Even closer to us is Mexico, the world capital of criminal impunity, where you can mow down a dozen people and unless you're a singularly hapless gunman, never worry about spending a night in jail or even going before a judge. Get even closer: Did you hear about two bombs that blew up recently in downtown San Miguel de Allende, of all places?
So last month, amid flak from everyone we knew—aren't you scared?—Stew and I took off for Egypt for two weeks and we found it far more peaceful than Mexico or even many places in the U.S., thanks to an authoritarian regime not afraid to lock up anyone for just looking at a cop cross-eyed, and also a population desperate to revive the vital but comatose tourist industry and coddle the few tourists that dare visit.

Admittedly the omens were strongly against visiting Egypt. On October last year a Russian plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb shortly after takeoff from an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea, killing all 224 people on board. Hmm. Then in May of this year an EgyptAir plane spiraled to a crash in the Mediterranean, killing 66 people on board, cause yet unknown except it was caused by a fire on board supposedly unrelated to terrorism. Oh boy.

Yet after some serious head-scratching Stew and I decided to go. The cost of the tour was very attractive ($3,650 each) considering it included round trip airfares from New York and within Egypt, all meals and tours, lodgings at first-class hotels and a four-day cruise down the Nile, plus a camel ride that we skipped. Business class upgrades were about $4500.

The tour operator was Road Scholars, an educational travel outfit that we had used to visit Israel and Jordan two years ago (weren't you afraid?) and Morocco (isn't that place full of Arabs?) seven years before that. We figured, or assumed, that Road Scholars had scouts on the ground in Egypt that would pull the plug on the tour at any sign of immediate danger.

Our ever-present pal, Ahmed Oddjob. 
It turned out that no one was more concerned about security than the Egyptians themselves. Airport security at JFK and within Egypt involved triple X-Ray and thorough manual checks of passengers and all their luggage. Entry to hotels and all historical sites required similar searches.

In addition, we were accompanied during our bus travels by a beefy, unsmiling gentleman whose gun sometimes poked from under his suit, and who bore an uncanny resemblance to Goldfinger's sidekick Oddjob sans the steel-brimmed bowler hat. To be completely sure, our bus was escorted by a police car with four guys carrying long arms.

If such security measures evoke images of a dour police state, a la North Korea, you'd be way off the mark. I made it a habit of greeting everyone—vendors, hotel workers, passersby, policemen, young and old, men and women—with a hearty "Hello!" and my gesture was invariably returned with a smile, except for women bunkered behind black veils who acknowledged me with a modest nod. Some younger guys added an enthusiastic "Welcome!" and oddly, "Obama! Obama!" after discovering we were Americans.  (Quite different from what you get from some Mexicans here who spit out "Troomp" with a tone that makes it sound like a social disease.)

Two weeks under the wing of a guided tour is not conclusive evidence of the popular climate in a foreign country. But none of the thirteen travelers on our group detected even a whiff of danger or hostility by anyone we encountered. It could be either the tight security or the Egyptians' desperation with their economic travails, aggravated by the collapse of tourism, one of the top sources of foreign earnings. Or both.

Prices were very reasonable too. The best advice I can give to potential visitors, aside from "Go!" is to carry a wad of single dollar bills. Whether to buy a trinket or tip someone for having their picture taken, "one dollar! one dollar!" seemed to be the most common way to seal a deal.

***

For my slideshow of Egypt, click:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/alcuban/albums/72157671637936964/with/29658003143/

(click on each image to get captions and other information)

For a New York Times slide show of Egyptian exiles, click here:

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2016/10/25/blogs/after-egypts-revolution-a-new-start-in-american-exile/s/end.html