Archives for posts with tag: research

NECESSARY DISTRACTION

 

 

One recent morning I lie awake at 4:00 a.m.   Involuntarily, and uncontrollably, my brain flits through dismal thoughts:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health; the Con-Man in DC; carbon emissions growth; stock market collapse; and, the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback situation.

I struggle until 7:00 when I arise, open the shades, look out the window and notice something new.  The pond across the street, normally placid and uninhabited except by slow-moving turtles appears to have a surface disturbance. As I focus, whatever moved disappears below the surface so quickly I wonder if I’ve imagined it.  Several seconds later, a bird reappears.  It looks like a miniature duck, but what kind?

I reach below my desk for the “Field Guide to Wild Birds.”  I scroll through twenty-two pages of common ducks and also a few rarer ducks I’ve seen, including, hooded mergansers that visited last summer and Muscovy ducks, the huge green/black fowl I’ve seen at the zoo.

Aha, our visitor is unmistakably a female “bufflehead.”  She is described, as follows: “Among the smallest of ducks, grey-brown with an obvious oval of white on her cheek.”   As predicted in the guide, she dives incessantly for insect larvae.  She remains below the surface for fifteen-twenty seconds at a time.  She is tiny, much smaller than the standard mallards one generally sees.

I haven’t spent too much time pondering ducks in my life, but if there is one thing I know about ducks, it’s that they mate for life.  Is our duck a widow?  A divorcee? Who’s heard of a pond with one duck?

 

*****

 

 

I grew up across from a pond.  It served as a water feature on the Bala Golf Course, an Irish Catholic institution that zealously excluded everyone else.  The several times I ventured onto golf course property during hours of play, a “ranger” appeared magically as if an alarm had been tripped.  He’d drive a golf cart down a hill from the clubhouse shouting: “No trespassing!  Private property!  No trespassing!”  Needless to say, my six-year-old self ran home immediately.

In Philadelphia in the early 1960’s it was understood there were Protestant (WASP) clubs, Jewish clubs and Catholic clubs.  If one wanted to golf ecumenically, I suppose, one went to a public course.  In a way, my exclusion from Bala probably saved me from developing a golf habit, along with the expense, time and frustration that entails.  Thank you, discrimination.

Meanwhile, back to the pond…. In winter, when no one golfed, the overwhelmingly Jewish population of our neighborhood considered the pond the local skating rink.  As soon as sub-freezing temperatures arrived, I cheered for the developing ice like a sports team.  Intellectually, I’d learned from my older brothers, it required at least four complete days of below freezing temperatures to create ice thick enough for skating.  Alternatively, it required 7-8 nights of nighttime freeze if daytime temperatures climbed above thirty-two.  Still, from the first transparent appearance of ice on the surface, I nagged my mother every day asking if the ice were ready.

The pond also hosted ducks.  I recall they were exclusively mallards, with the green-headed males and greyish females.  We’d save stale bread to feed the ducks in the corner of the pond where a waterfall prevented freezing.  The ducks ate ravenously, and we felt virtuous.  Recently, I’ve read it’s not healthy for them to eat bread, and local ducks I’ve encountered don’t seem interested.  Could they have gone on a species-wide health kick in the intervening fifty years?

 

*****

 

A week later, the mystery of the single bufflehead continues until one morning, a male appears.  He’s much larger, with brilliant white highlights between otherwise brown and gray feathers.  It’s exciting!  Our girl has found (or been found by) a mate.  They spend all day diving together.  My faith in duck companionship is restored.  By spring, I expect ducklings to brighten the pond.

The next morning, he’s gone. “What happened to our boy?” I wonder.  Am I over anthropomorphizing?  After a couple of days, the tiny female departs, too.  Our pond is again uninhabited except for turtles – no harm, but no fowl.  I realize I miss the daily speculation about her situation.

 

*****

 

Little came of my early skating career. There were few kids my age and teenagers didn’t want a six-year-old in their hockey games.  And, though I owned a stick and a puck, I wasn’t equipped to do more than skate in circles.  When the NHL Flyers came to Philadelphia in 1967 I realized for the first time there existed such a thing as specialized ice hockey skates – quite different from my figure skates.  Though I passionately embraced a rooting interest in the Flyers, I immediately sensed the rough and tumble of hockey were best observed from a distance – baseball and tennis embodied my interests better – no body checks or elbows.

And although the excitement of skating on the pond loomed large in my youthful mind, even before global warming took hold, skating was only possible for a few days each winter. Truthfully, I was a so-so skater with a tendency to quit at the first onset of frozen toes and fingers. Skating, for me, became just a prerequisite for the hot cocoa waiting back at the house.

 

*****

 

It’s been several weeks since the little bufflehead and her short-term suitor disappeared.  The pond remains placid except for an occasional visit by a flock of Canadian geese.  They are charming enough as long as they stay in the water.  But their invasions of the surrounding grass leave a trail of, shall we say, debris.  The pond seemed so alive with possibility when the bufflehead was around.  Now, it’s still pretty, but it looks empty.  Is there anything in the news I’d want to think about today?  Hmmmm.  How does one attract ducks to a pond?  Google, here I come….

 

 

 

 

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THE SHARING ECONOMY

 

 

Use of Airbnb instead of a hotel is second nature to anyone under thirty but for the rest of us, it’s a brave new world. For the edification of my “mature” readers I will describe our experiences using the “sharing” economy while traveling, and offer what I hope are helpful suggestions.  Spoiler alert:  the perfect solution does not exist.

 

*****

 

Facing what seemed to be astronomically high hotel rates, my wife, Katie, was willing to take the time to scroll through numerous Airbnb listings before a trip to California’s wine country in 2016.

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That’s the first thing you must know:  unless one is reckless, this is a time-consuming process.  By that, I mean, failure to do extensive due diligence risks victimization by a number of potential hazards, such as:  pets to whom one may be allergic; sagging mattresses; talkative and/or omnipresent hosts; quirky access procedures; and, surprising additional fees.  One might also encounter problems one may not anticipate in a property let out to the public, such as:  insect infestation, mustiness, traffic noise and, non-functioning appliances.

To be clear, several of the pitfalls above could also be encountered in a hotel.  But if one encounters a bad mattress or smelly room in a hotel, there is generally recourse via the front desk.  One can move to another room or, failing that, one can proceed to a different hotel.

Recourse is not as easy with Airbnb. The owner may not be on site.  He or she may not be easily reachable by phone or email.  One has paid for the room in advance to a landlord who may not agree with a subjective determination of smell or noise, so a refund is refused.  Also, an Airbnb is often located in a residential neighborhood where other overnight options are not available.

 

*****

 

Our first Airbnb stay occurred in St. Anselmo, CA.  We attended a wedding and Katie found online a home surrounded by gardens walking distance from the wedding site.  Wonderful, until we arrived.  First, we couldn’t access the property because of what appeared to be a locked exterior gate.  Fortunately, we reached the on-site owner by phone to render assistance.  She’d thought we were coming the next day, so hadn’t left instructions about the balky door – it was actually unlocked, but required a level of strength like an NFL linebacker’s to overcome humidity-swollen wood.

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Following a long explanation of the garden and house and of her artistic career, our hostess showed us our room. It was lovely as advertised and contained a bowl of fruit and a kettle for tea. Wonderful, again, until we realized the host’s kitchen, living room and painting studio were separated from our quarters by only a floral sheet and she intended to be present throughout our stay. Any noise either party made, beyond a whisper, reached the other.  She showed us the small section of the refrigerator that was “ours.”  Each visit required an exchange of pleasantries.

Bottom line:  ultimately, our two-night stay was marginally satisfactory due to the pleasantness of our room, a good mattress, a great location for our particular need and a great price.  But there were hurdles as well as lots of whispering and tip-toing around!

Our next two nights in Wine Country were spent in what turned out to be a marginal neighborhood of tiny, ramshackle homes and trailers.  We were deeply concerned upon arrival, as we followed a skinny driveway to a detached garage behind a hovel. But the landlord’s instructions for entry were exact.  When we climbed the exterior stairs and entered the apartment we saw an incongruously pleasant space, open and airy with sleek furnishings over a hard wood floor.

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The rear view was a citrus orchard, and the owner had left muffins and fresh-picked fruit on the counter of a fully appointed, brand-new kitchen.  Per her written instructions, unless there was a crisis, she did not expect or desire to communicate with us.  We did not even know where she lived except that her instructions indicated she did NOT live at the premises.

We spent two terrific nights there and departed happily after re-depositing the key in its hidden spot. Now seems a good time to note an interesting tidbit about Airbnb’s.  While this apartment included welcoming muffins upon arrival,  that hospitable gesture was not repeated.  Despite what the name of the company implies, breakfast is not included.  There is no second “B” in an Airbnb.

 

*****

 

Our next adventure in Airbnb took place a year ago in Australia where our son, Sam, was conducting research. Since we were visiting for ten days it seemed a wonderful opportunity to settle in and experience real-life Sydney. Katie found a one-bedroom apartment in a modern high-rise walking distance to a subway.

The owner’s representative/friend met us, as promised, at the metro stop and escorted us to the building.  Though middle aged, he appeared to have been lost on the way to a Grateful Dead concert.

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Despite our determination to be understanding and “not judge a book by its cover” during the course of our three-minute walk we learned about his divorce, health issues and addictions.  Thus, we took to heart his admonition:  “I’m really not in any condition to handle stress.”  His hangdog expression reminded me of Droopy of the Seven Dwarfs.

Upon arrival at the apartment he oriented us and explained “just a few little nits,” namely: the clothes dryer, dishwasher, and coffee maker were not operational.  “I’ll be dealing with them one of these days, but not this week” he said.  Granted, these are first-world problems, as they say.  But we weren’t paying a pittance.  When he left, we declared: “no way we are going to call him for anything.”

As to our lodgings, our first two days were uneventful.  We enjoyed the sights of Sydney, its gardens and coffee culture.  We usually ate out but apparently accumulated a few breakfast crumbs and the like since we came home on day three to an infestation of ants in the kitchen like in a horror movie. The counters were crawling.  The appliances were teeming.  The floor flowed like a river.

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“We’re on the sixth floor,” I observed. I didn’t think such a thing was possible.

“Oh,” said, Sam, who’d lived in Sydney for several months.  “Australia may be the insect capital of the world.  There are no boundaries.”

If this had happened in a hotel, we would have moved.  But our only choices were to call Droopy or deal with it ourselves.  We cleaned and cleaned, as though we were preparing the property for sale.   After a couple of hours, the whole apartment was pristine.  But we spent the additional five days paranoid about eating anything.  And what we had seen in and on the stove sapped all enthusiasm for cooking. Ironically, this Airbnb had the largest “cleaning fee” we’d experienced.  Yes, that’s another distinction from a hotel – at an Airbnb you will often pay an additional fee for “cleaning,” detailed in the small print, on top of the advertised rental fee.

 

*****

 

Would I use Airbnb in the future? Considering the cost is about half a normal hotel rate in many situations, perhaps.  But one needs to spend time doing research, be willing to accept quirks rarely encountered in a hotel, and not be hung up on uniformity. Is the Airbnb experience more interesting?  Usually.  Can it be treacherous?  Yes.  Is it for everyone?  Probably not.

 

 

 

 

 


FUNGUS AMONG US

 

To accrue knowledge is generally a positive thing. But in certain circumstances ignorance is definitely bliss. For instance, twenty years ago, thanks to a herniated disk in my lower back, I mastered a whole new vocabulary. I could hold forth on extrusions, nerve endings, and all types of spasms. I didn’t seek this knowledge, but it washed over me like a tsunami. More recently, I learned all there is to know about another unwanted affliction. On the theory that misery loves company I share my knowledge below.

 

*****

 

My wife, Katie, and I were invited to attend a wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee in October 2015. As the weekend approached, we were particularly excited to get away because it had rained every day the preceding week. Knowing the Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful we planned to extend our trip for several days to see the scenery.

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Unfortunately, it continued to rain from the moment we left Chapel Hill until just moments before we returned five days later. The bride and groom were admirably flexible in shifting outdoor events inside, and the wedding proceeded triumphantly.

Our anticipated sightseeing, however, was less successful, unless one considers windshield wipers beautiful. We enjoyed approximately ten minutes of magical vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway, then four or five hours of fog, drizzle and torrential downpours. I suspect holding the steering wheel in a death grip doesn’t make the tires grip the road more firmly. Still, just in case, I squeezed as if our lives depended on it

 

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Upon our return home in late afternoon twilight, we noticed something odd on the square columns supporting our front porch; there appeared to be small, circular black dots, hundreds of them, about five times the size of the period at the end of this sentence. We didn’t think too much of it at that moment and went inside to recover from the ride. Overdue to power-wash the exterior of the house, we credited the dots with reminding us to call a contractor the next day.

 

*****

 

In the morning, curious about the nature of the dots, Katie and I went to the front porch and scraped one with a fingernail. To our surprise, it didn’t come off. The black material held onto the light beige paint more strenuously than a politician holds on to publicity. I noticed the dots also covered the cedar siding, which was also beige, though slightly darker than the trim. A few dots came off the comparatively rough surface of the siding with a fingernail but there were HUNDREDS of them, maybe thousands. Each one represented not only a stain but also a tiny bump.

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“Power-washing won’t get this off,” I said.

“What could it be?” said Katie.

“It had better not be mold,” I said, mindful of the health risks and extreme expense of mold removal.

Perplexed, we inspected the entire exterior of our home. The north and west sides were covered with stains from ground level up to about fifteen feet. The south and east sides were relatively unscathed with just a single dot every few feet. Inside to the computer we went.

Searching “black dots on house” it took only a moment to find our condition.

“That’s it!” we said at once.

We had “Artillery Fungus.” The photograph referred us to a Penn State University website that wrestles with the entire issue of artillery fungus. Under FAQ’s were the following: 1. Is it dangerous to house and/or humans? 2. How does it develop? And 3. How is it removed?

Fortunately, as to the first question, the University’s findings assure that artillery fungus is NOT dangerous to human health. It also does no permanent damage to a home. It doesn’t destroy or penetrate wood. Basically, it is a dormant stain, an aesthetic problem. It can be permanently covered with oil-based paint, AFTER the bumps are removed.

As to questions two and three, beyond the assurance that the fungus is not dangerous, the website provides less an explanation than a plea for assistance from readers. Penn State knows that artillery fungus spawns in specific conditions: dampness, the presence of cedar or other soft, permeable mulch and the presence of light-colored surfaces.

“We hit the trifecta!” I said, or words to that effect, spoken with extreme sarcasm bordering on despair and self-pity.

For reasons unclear, it also prefers the north and west sides of a home. As to removal, Penn State indicates there is NO KNOWN treatment. They ask readers to comment on their experiences. Apparently, everyone initially thinks, “power-wash,” as we did, the simple and inexpensive solution. Reality then intrudes and people try a variety of solutions only to learn that no fungicide, herbicide or pesticide affects the fungus.

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Also, no particular method has proven effective at dot removal. With varying degrees of success, readers have used razor blades, sand paper or paint thinner. Like us, after failing with those methods, victims resort to their fingernails, one dot at a time.

 

*****

 

We battled our fungus for a month. First, we paid our landscaper $500 to remove the mulch we had just paid him to spread two months earlier. Next, we raked our soil repeatedly, placing the top layers in plastic bags and delivering them to the dump. Each day, we also took time, after much trial and error, to use sandpaper on our wooden surfaces, steel wool on the stone foundation, and carefully, razor blades on the glass surfaces of our windows.

No strategy proved totally effective. Eventually, however, the vast majority of bumps were removed, though some left a flat, brown residue on wooden surfaces. In accordance with Penn State’s speculative suggestion, we bought bales of pine straw and spread them around the entire house to discourage future “explosions,” and, for the price of a European vacation, we hired a painter to paint the entire exterior.

 

*****

 

If there is a happy ending to this tale of woe, the house looks beautiful with its new, darker paint and fresh pine straw. But we are scarred mentally, never having suspected our garden beds harbored potential enemies. We’ve learned to avoid this problem in the future. First, no shredded cedar mulch. Second, no light paint colors near the ground on the northern side of the home. Finally, we will never allow it to rain for twelve consecutive days.

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