Friday, June 29, 2012

Oh Please

At the southeast corner of Central Park, they finally took down that confounding tornado of truck tires I posted about last year.

In its place, a worthy successor. It's a Piper Seneca hoisted by the wingtips between two pylons, motorized so the plane twirls slowly around its pitch axis.

As always, there's some explanatory text on a placard nearby to give passersby a clue as to what they're looking at.

"Airborne but flightless, its steady circular movement is mesmerizing," the curatorial spiel says. "The shift of context from airport runway to New York City plaza is equally dramatic. It creates the striking but surreal experience of a familiar object seen in an unexpected place doing a very unfamiliar thing."

Maybe I'm missing an art chromosome, but I can't see what makes this different from sneaking out at night to put the dean's Volkswagen upside down on his front lawn.

And am I the only one thinking that if ever there was a city that didn't need a replay of the not-so-amazing idea that it's startling to see an airplane in a high-rise neighborhood, it's New York.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Day One, Rest of Our Lives

The smile above is for the New York Family Court, which granted our petition yesterday to adopt Elizabeth.

We never had much doubt we could make this happen eventually. But courts often seem more interested in their own procedures than in the merits of the case at hand, and we've been working on this for a year and a half.

Even yesterday, with all the pleadings and supporting documentation finally lined up as neatly as our lawyer could make them, the expert witness standing by, and reassuring signals emanating in advance from the judge's own clerk, we entered the courtroom with our hearts in our throats.

When I'm feeling troubled over how much damage a dysfunctional judicial branch can inflict on ordinary citizens, I naturally think first of the current U.S. Supreme Court. But the view changes when you stand before a judge with the power to decide something you care deeply and personally about. You realize that courts of original jurisdiction are the ones that really have to work right.

Fortunately, on this day, this one did. The judge wore a permanent scowl and brought a harsh, disapproving tone to almost everything she said. And she practically leaped off the bench and down all our throats when the muted iPhone our daughter Laurel was using to keep E distracted suddenly interjected a short fragment of the Dora the Explorer theme.

But in the end the court found that Elizabeth's mother can't take care of Elizabeth, that we can, and that it's in E's best interest that her future be placed in our hands.

We both shed a few tears of gratitude and relief as everyone in the courtroom, almost all of them strangers, applauded. The judge excused us, and as we rose to leave, E looked up brightly and contributed her first and last word to the proceedings.

"Bye!," she said.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bear Bust

When the Game and Fish truck rolled up on our house, the neighbors wanted to know who dropped the dime on the bear.

Well, it was me, I admit it.

The day after he ran Elizabeth and me off our deck, he came back to see us again. It was about lunchtime, and I was away picking E up from her part time playschool. Pam was home alone and heard scrabbling at the kitchen window.

She got up from the table where she was doing some Home Depot research and there he was, knocking the screen from the open window and getting ready to do whatever it took to lever himself up and inside.

Pam slammed the window shut, then flashed me a text. "The Bear is Back!" I never saw it, since I don't text and drive . . . at least not when I'm trying to organize the presets on my new car radio. But when I got back to the house, Pam was waiting at the door to warn us we needed to get inside pronto.

The conventional local wisdom about bears is that if you feed them, you turn them into potentially dangerous nuisances. They may hurt somebody, on the way to getting themselves killed.

So I called Game and Fish and told them we apparently were dealing with exactly that kind of bear. The officer was at our door a few hours later, and less than an hour after that he hauled the trailer above to our little street. It's a bear trap, baited with day-old pie and some fruit. Pam added a cup of sugar water from our hummingbird feeder.

We left town for New York the next day, so we don't know yet if they've caught him. We've got mixed feelings about it too. On the one hand, we'd like to use our deck without feeling like prey. On the other, the officer told us bears often don't adjust well when they're moved, and in some cases the department decides instead to put them down.

If I'd known all that, I might have kept my dime and looked for a better way to secure the deck. Would that have been smarter or fairer? I don't know.

We drove away from Ruidoso on roads that had been closed for days while the Little Bear fire raged last week. It was easy to see why. Vast stretches of blackened forest still smoldered on both sides of the highway, and we passed many of the more than 200 houses that were destroyed, reduced to circles of ashy debris with here and there a stone fireplace and chimney for a monument.

In a few cases, a morose cluster of former homeowners and what looked like insurance claims adjusters surveyed one of the devastated sites. Overhead, a vast towering column of smoke still rose thousands of feet into the air as firefighters continued to back burn dead trees, brush and other dry fuel inside the containment boundaries.

We're in New York until next week, when we attend a court proceeding connected with finalizing our adoption of Elizabeth. We hope it will be the last one. Our lawyers say it might be. Keep your fingers crossed.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

It'd Be Funny If It Weren't Omnivorous

We're starting to think everybody wants a piece of us. This guy certainly seemed to. Pam's theory is that he was interested in the hummingbird feeder hanging just above the frame of this photo. But to me it felt personal.

He had just taken me and Elizabeth by surprise, shuffling onto our deck while I was watching E play with her Water Table toys.

You can see the opening he came through in the background behind the table and chairs. This photo was taken an hour or so before the bear arrived, but E was still playing in about the same spot, and I was sitting about where Pam was when she snapped this.

I didn't notice him until he was halfway across the deck. Fortunately, the door was just to my right, so I was able to snatch E and get through it before he got much closer. 

I'm not sure what attracted him. We were planning to have steak for dinner, but we hadn't even fired up the gas grill, which I think we'll start parking in front of that open gate.

But once we were inside the house fluttering nervously from one window to another, he turned his attention to the Water Table. He knocked off the accessories, took a drink or two, then began trying to climb into it.

I never thought he'd fit and was pretty sure that if he did the three blow-molded plastic legs would collapse. But he wedged himself in and sat there soaking contentedly for quite a while before moving along. 

Fisher Price will be proud to hear about this. Of course, we will have to give the whole table a good wash before E uses it again. We don't really know what he was doing in there and there's no telling where he'd been.

Elizabeth became agitated as we watched the bear playing with her toys. She has never liked sharing her things that much.

But what really dismayed her was that in the rush from the deck, we had left her doll outside to face the bear alone. "Baby, Baby," she cried over and over as we checked the locks and latches all around. 

The doll was in her bed right outside the door, sleeping through the whole thing. I thought I could crack the door open and make a quick grab for her, but Pam said "Don't even," and to be candid I didn't really mind letting Baby fend for herself. 

But E saw and heard all of this, and I think in her eyes some bloom is now off the grandparent rose.

Travelers' Rest

Some people say that digital devices are getting in the way of interpersonal relations, but I'm inclined to doubt it. Neither E nor I is a great multi-tasker, but we're both up to the modest challenge of enjoying each other's company while looking at a flat panel.

We're just as relaxed as we look, having arrived back in Ruidoso yesterday to smokeless skies and optimistic fire containment reports. The Little Bear blaze is finally living down to its name.

We did have an anxious moment or two on the road into town as we logged onto the nmfireinfo site for the latest. One of the few unchecked items on the doomsday scenario scavenger hunt list we've been working for the past couple of weeks was flood, and it looked like we might get to check that one off yesterday.

There were thunderstorms in the area, which authorities warned could mean flash flooding driven by runoff from the burned areas, now denuded of vegetation. People living in low lying areas along streams below the blackened zones, such as ourselves, were advised they might need to evacuate.

The rains did come, but not in hazardous amounts. The warnings were withdrawn before nightfall, so we unpacked.

Today our worst problem is that we're far enough up the canyon from town that our AT&T wireless phone service doesn't reach. Our landlords didn't bother to provide a router, and it will take us at least a couple of weeks to get the cable company to bring us a box. Helpful neighbors gave us the passwords to theirs, but although our devices claim to connect, the Internet still stiff-arms us.

So we're off the grid except for a feeble pair of Verizon bars on Pam's iPad, unless we come into the village to a coffee shop like I'm doing right now.

In the photo above, E is watching videos of herself on Pam's iPhone, and I'm reading an e-book. I'm not complaining. That's about as much excitement as any of us needs for a while.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Missed Us

We're still on the road, trying to stay ahead of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and just barely managing.

Pam and our Dallas friend Doreen decided Wednesday to visit the drought-stricken city's arboretum, where Dale Chihuly's touring collection of frizzy glass art is currently on display. Only hours after they finished looking, a front rolled in and directed a surgically aimed hailstorm at the fragile exhibition, shattering one of the works they had admired most, a set of big crystal lily pads mounted in a pond.

Some of the hailstones were as big as baseballs and spiked like geodes. When they stopped falling on the fancy glassware, the storm moved over to the city's Lakewood district, home of Pam's other longtime Dallas friend Betsy. It smashed roof tiles, car windows and shrubbery everywhere.

This morning, we stopped by for a visit and paused at the local Starbucks for a latte on the way. As you see above, the storm had made flappuccino out of the awnings, and inside the only topic of conversation was heavily caffeinated one-upping over whose next door neighbor had gotten the worst of it.

Betsy, preoccupied and grim, was patrolling her densely planted front yard doing damage assessment as we rolled up. When we came through her gate, she said, "If you're roofers, get off my property."

Apparently it had taken only hours after the hail stopped falling for a predatory army in tool belts and pickup trucks to descend on Lakewood trolling for payment in advance. The Morning News ran a story warning of contractor scams. Betsy had turned away dozens and her courtesy cupboard was bare.

We're on our way back to Ruidoso now. The Little Bear fire is well on the way to being contained, and if the wind continues to blow from the southwest we shouldn't have trouble with smoke in the Upper Canyon.

Tomorrow, we'll have just a few hundred more miles of two-lane blacktop across the frying pan flatness of West Texas, where by the way we have encountered a plague of grasshoppers crossing our path in mating pairs, trios and now and then a frenzied cluster of four or more.

Some of the calamities Nature sends our way are more entertaining than others.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Smoke Follows a Bad Camper

We're planning to live in Mexico most of the year. But one of the reasons we went ahead with our small getaway place in Ruidoso was that it would give us a safe haven to bolt to in case the drug wars suddenly made Puerto Vallarta seem too dangerous for retirees with a toddler in the house.

So imagine our disappointment yesterday to log onto and see the photo above on the home page. It's a guy named Jose Trevino Morales celebrating his horse's victory in the American Futurity a couple of years ago at our very own Ruidoso Downs.

Morales' brother is said to be second in command and top enforcer of the dreaded Zetas cartel, and it turns out these two led a group that has built a major quarter horse breeding and racing business based in Ruidoso as a convenient and entertaining way to launder some of their drug billions.

On the very day we were driving past the racetrack on our way out of town ahead of flames and smoke from the Little Bear fire, federal agents in unmarked vehicles were sweeping into the stable yards within view of our escape route to seize horses and make arrests.

Savvy locals are telling the Ruidoso News that for the past couple of years they had noticed these strangers rolling up to the Downs in their shiny black Escalades and the puzzling though welcome infusion of big money they were bringing to the New Mexico racing scene. They wondered what was up. So now they know.

And so do we. Safe and comfy for the moment in the bosom of our generous Dallas friends, we contemplate a future of fleeing seasonally from one of our retirement paradises to the other, hoping the cycle of forest fires and outbreaks of cartel barbarism match up well with Elizabeth's school year.

We're pretty sure they will. Despite all that's been happening, we're still optimists.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fire on the Mountain, Run Boys Run

The song says "run" twice, so that's what we've now done.

The smoke from the Little Bear fire north and west of our new part-time home in Ruidoso NM drove us down the mountain to Alamogordo last Saturday night. But when we got up Sunday morning and looked north, the plume we could see the evening before stretching east from Sierra Blanca seemed to be gone. So we packed up and drove back to what passes for home these days.

When we arrived, the sky over the village and the Upper Canyon where we're renting was clear. We had a relaxing day on the deck playing with Elizabeth. The bear came back, but he just ambled around looking pudgy and comical, and he loped away when a bunch of neighbors came after him with cameras. You can throw rocks and he doesn't care, but apparently he wants no pictures.

Things looked much grimmer this morning, however. The advisories said the wind had diminished, but it had also shifted. The fire's perimeter now encompassed more than 35,000 acres and had advanced to as little as four miles from the top of our canyon. Evacuation prospects for our area had changed from "possible" to "probable." Worst of all, there was an acrid mist in the canyon that the smoke hazard websites warned could be dangerous for anyone with sensitive lungs.

We decided we should leave again and stay away for a while. But where to go?

After considering the options, we decided on a three-stage escape. First stop would be our place in Puerto Vallarta for ten days, then back to New York for an adoption hearing we all have to attend, then back to a hopefully safe and sound Ruidoso in time to replace the 30-day temporary license on our "new" car.

But of course like all our plans lately, this one quickly seemed doomed. Pam had her passport and Elizabeth's in her purse, but mine was stored in a box of papers and documents that I brought to Ruidoso in my rental moving truck and left in a mini-storage locker with our appliances for the new house.

The locker is in Alto, just a few hundred yards beyond where authorities have blocked the highway heading north from Ruidoso toward the burn area. We had also turned over our only key to our builder so he could fetch some of the appliances for installation before we arrived in town. The builder, an avid bow hunter, is in Maine trying to skewer a bear. (Yes, I know.)

You might have thought this meant the Mexico option was off the table, but not if you know Pam. She called the owner of the mini-storage, who agreed to meet us at our locker with a grinding wheel and a new lock.

On his advice, we drove north, turned right just before the National Guard's roadblock, left into a residential area and then left again onto a dirt road marked "Private, Trespassers will be Prosecuted." It let us out onto the highway about a half mile behind the roadblock in an area where unauthorized persons are subject to arrest. Pretending to be invisible, we scooted across the road and up the hill to our locker, watched Van destroy our lock, and retrieved my passport.

But tonight we're not on our way to Mexico. We're in yet another forgettable motel in Sweetwater, TX, on our way to stay with friends in Dallas. I'm not sure why we changed our minds. Probably because it would have been too luxurious and relaxing, and we can tell the universe doesn't think we deserve it.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

What Next?

Looking at these two happy rusticators enjoying the peaceful babble of the Rio Ruidoso this morning, you'd never guess that just 15 miles north of where they sat a galloping forest fire was burning people out of their homes. Or that a few hours later, they and their photographer would be refugees themselves.

It's the latest and gaudiest episode in a "heading west" saga that keeps turning awkwardly and sometimes catastrophically away from the path that we planned for it.

Our rental truck wouldn't hold all our furniture. A sharp-eyed foot patrolman lurking near the Lincoln Tunnel cited us for a seatbelt violation just before we made our getaway. The high school graduation celebration we were supposed to attend in Iowa was cancelled for lack of a few credits. The friend's home where Pam was supposed to stay to keep her daughter company while the friend recovered from double knee replacement surgery proved uninhabitable due to cats and asthma.

Pam and Elizabeth flew from Iowa to San Antonio, where another friend was selling us her mom's SUV, ten years old but with low miles and therefore a great bargain. I dropped off our furniture in Ruidoso and turned in the truck in San Antonio where Pam met me with our new ride.

Our cabin won't be done until August, so we've rented a house in Ruidoso not far from the spot shown above. We headed toward it, but with a couple of weeks to kill before we could get into the rental, we decided to drive to the Big Bend on the way. On the long, desolate road that leads to the park, we hit a deer. Our car and that poor animal were probably the only two moving objects within ten miles, but somehow we both ended up trying to occupy the same point in all that space at the same time.

The impact sheered off the grill, smashed the right headlight assembly, crunched the right front quarter panel so the passenger side door wouldn't open, and shredded the bumper. I had to saw off the flapping excess with a Swiss Army knife before we could go on.

The car looked terrible but seemed fine for daytime driving. We reported the accident to our insurance company, cut our park visit to one day and drove straight to New Mexico counting our blessings. But when I got the vehicle to a body shop a few days later, the estimator clucked and murmured solemnly as he examined the damage, much of it invisible and some from prior accidents. Our car, which could still do 80 miles an hour uphill without breathing hard or a hint of wobble, was declared a total loss and impounded as unroadworthy.

Two days ago we bought another SUV at a real world price, only partly offset by the insurance settlement which we're not likely to see for a while anyway. Yesterday we moved into the rental house in Ruidoso's lovely Upper Canyon, where tall Ponderosa pines cover the steep slopes that lead down to the banks of the small stream above. We took a deep breath and figured we'd finally put the worst behind us.

The serene moment was a short one. A bear chased our neighbors out of their hot tub and browsed for edibles around their house, ignoring shouts, barking dogs and the large rocks they pitched at it. Bears are fairly common. But then I looked out our kitchen window and saw a large cougar sauntering down the slope just yards from the deck where Elizabeth and I had been playing with some new toys minutes earlier. Where do people come off thinking New York is dangerous?

Wild animals are one thing. Wild fires are another. We already knew one had been burning for weeks in the Gila National Forest far to the west of us. But as we came out of the Walmart parking lot late yesterday, we were shocked to see a vast plume of smoke rising from behind the summit of Ruidoso's iconic Sierra Blanca.

We monitored the state fire information website throughout the evening and went to bed on edge. By this morning, the blaze had expanded to 10,000 acres, closed the main highway north of town, knocked out the towers relaying all local cell phone and wireless Internet service, damaged three lifts at Ski Apache on which Ruidoso's winter economy depends, and burned at least 20 homes.

High winds were driving most of the smoke to the northeast, but by mid-morning some of it was drifting into Ruidoso and Pam was starting to feel it in her lungs. We re-packed the car and drove south to Alamogordo, where I'm writing this.

Since the fire seemed to be moving northeast and away from the village, we didn't think there was much danger we'd lose our home or our half-completed cabin. Yet shortly after we left, authorities issued a "pre-notification," a sort of heads up, that evacuation of the Upper Canyon might become necessary.

Now we sit in our motel room, catch glimpses of what's been dubbed the Little Bear fire on the national news, and wonder when we'll be able to go back to our new home or what we'll find when we get there.  Pam and I are getting a little weary of living out of suitcases. Only Elizabeth seems not to mind.

As we returned to the Best Western from a mediocre Chinese dinner, she smiled and sighed happily as we pulled in at the curb in front of room 102.

"Home," she chirped.