Wednesday, July 25, 2012

This New House

This is a picture of a kitchen cabinet knob, and if you peer closely at it you'll see that it's imprinted with the miniature paw print of a bear.

It's a cute accessory for the little house we hope to move into soon in a neighborhood where a real bear makes an appearance from time to time.

Bears have it all going on. They're endearing but also menacing if they get too close, and thanks to these qualities they've been fetishized in our mountain community, subject of hundreds of crude chainsaw sculptures all over town.

We're not interested in those, much as we like bears. To our way of thinking, the embossed kitchen knobs is a more nuanced homage. It's only one example of the countless items I've been asked to consider lately that I never would have expected to.

I've never paid a nanosecond's attention to any kitchen knob that didn't come off in my hand, so it was a revelation to me to learn that there are many different styles to choose from. That's actually an understatement. There are many thousands, and when you're done with style you still have size and color to deal with. You're not done yet. You need to decide where to place the knob on the cabinet door.

Once you graduate from knobs, you move along to drawer pulls. You're not overwhelmed by all this decision making because by now you have already chosen the cabinets and drawers themselves and have long since mastered the art of producing opinions out of thin air.

It's better to have a round toilet than one of those long oval ones. Or is it? Glass on a shower door should be clear, not beaded or misted. Or should it? A pine ceiling looks tacky and cliched with anything more than a clear coat of varnish over it. Or does it?

I've moved in and out of dozens of dwelling places without knowing or caring how this sort of thing got decided. The rooms and their appurtenances were what they were, which for the most part was just fine, or at least serviceable.

But the day we started our little house from scratch, acceptance became a luxury I could no longer afford.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Resting in Peace

Last month as the forest fire blazed and we were fleeing east to Dallas, we found ourselves in little Brownfield, Texas. Pam suddenly realized we were just a few miles south of even tinier Meadow, Texas, where her mother's family farmed for several generations.

Some of those ancestors lie buried in Terry County Memorial Cemetery just outside Brownfield. Pam decided we should pause and pay respects.

So we fired up the iPad and Mapquested our way to the place, which proved easy to find because it was one of the few substantial stands of trees anywhere in or near the town, or for that matter between us and the horizon in any direction.

Pam had been to at least one funeral there many years ago, but she had no recollection of where in the park it had taken place. So we began cruising the quiet lanes and scanning the markers for the family name, which was Waters.

After a few minutes I realized a curious thing. All the names on the headstones were Hispanic. At first we thought we might have blundered into the Catholic cemetery. But then I had the idea that since we had turned left from the center road to start our search, we might find Anglo names if we went back and turned right instead.

Sure enough, we found that the other half of the cemetery was populated with Osborns, Baggetts, Haywoods, Paddacks, Andresses, and, presently, several Waters.

Otherwise, the two halves of the burial ground were indistinguishable. Same good perpetual care. Same handsome stones. Same lovingly placed flowers here and there. Just across the county road to the south was Zion Cemetery, just as well groomed. We didn't go in to see what sort of folks lay there, but we didn't really have to.

Every soul in all three parcels lived and died in what was and remains for the most part a segregated community. But there they all are, peaceably sharing the only shade for miles around, separate but indisputably equal at last.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

You Can't Go Home Again

Is there anybody left out there who still doesn't think the Tomlins are dodging hostile thunderbolts from somewhere on high? Well, get a load of this.

The photo above was shot yesterday outside our former Manhattan home at East 56th and Lexington. An underground transformer overheated and exploded, blowing its cast iron manhole cover into the air.

Under normal circumstances, they say if New Yorkers notice these flipping disks at all they only interrupt their sidewalk conversations long enough to call heads or tails.

But in this case there were flames, and they were hot enough to ignite a minivan parked at the curb. The minivan burned long enough to spark a second explosion in its gas tank, which set off some construction scaffolding overhead.

The blaze gutted the corner salon where I used to get my hair trimmed, along with the 2nd and 3rd floor condos above it, and blackened the 16-story building facade all the way to the roof.

Elizabeth's best buddy Parker fled the building in the arms of his daddy. His mommy was just ahead of them. They all plunged around a wall of fire and smoke across the building entrance and spent the night in a hotel.

Our dear friend and next door neighbor Mignon wisely chose not to trust the elevators and wasn't prepared to trust her knees either for 14 flights of stairs. On the doorman's advice she stayed where she was and monitored the situation on the news channels.

One of the elevators did fail, trapping a less prudent resident between floors for the better part of an hour. Smoke rolled into the basement, forcing another to barricade herself in the laundry room until FDNY cleared the air.

Well, we're sorry our former neighbors were frightened and inconvenienced. But I'm quite sure that once again this was all about us and our recent string of mini-calamities and brushes with disaster. We were just there LAST WEEK! I almost got a haircut!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Wild Kingdom

No need any more to sit wondering what that pretty bird in the tree is, not in the age of wifi and Google. Here's Steller's Jay, a common site around the place we're living these days.

The real thing is prettier, if anything, than its close-up. The tail, back and wing tips are flashing lapis lazuli, fading to charcoal around the head and shoulders, or whatever birds call them.

With help from our visiting friend Doreen, who likes birds more than we do, we've also become familiar with the Western Peewee, which seems to have a nest under our eaves and sits staring in at us from wires in front of our picture windows.

We've seen a couple of varieties of woodpecker, including the Acorn with its little scarlet beanie. And the hummingbird feeder is back up outside the kitchen window. They feed and harass each other like fighter pilots almost full time, and one bird actually flew into the house. It took a five minute game of gentle broom badminton to send him back outside.

But maybe you're wondering about our bear. We left town for New York the day after the Game and Fish guy put the trap trailer out for him. The trap was gone when we got back last week, so we emailed to see if it worked.

"I did not catch the bear," Ranger Mark replied. "Call me if you have any other problems with it."

There's a responsive public servant for you. But knowing now that Game and Fish runs a gas chamber, we decided we'd lose that phone number and consider taking our Albuquerque friends' advise to get a pellet gun and plink Smokey in his fat butt if he bothers us.

But we didn't see the bear again. Until yesterday, when he wandered back into the neighborhood, looking as untroubled and saucy as ever. We immediately checked our locks and latches and discovered that the french doors from the deck to our bedroom no longer lock or even latch. A gentle nose bump is all a bear or even a raccoon would need to pay us a midnight visit.

The carpenter is supposed to be on his way this morning. We slept restlessly last night behind a stack of patio furniture.

But our most satisfying wildlife event in the past week was an elk sighting. Actually there were four of them, browsing in the woods about 100 yards up the steep slope behind the house. They are majestic creatures at this time of year, much larger than deer and heavily muscled, with their enormous antler racks extending half the length of their bodies.

Elizabeth is as interested in the fauna as we are. But whenever we see a wild thing near the house, her first move is to get Baby off the deck.

Monday, July 2, 2012

More Heat Than Light

The blackened hillsides north and west of our new home are cooling off, but local tempers not so much. Something terrible happened, and it must be somebody's fault. More particularly, it must be somebody else's fault.

When the fire was still expanding out of control, the story took hold that when a lightning strike ignited the Little Bear blaze, dimwitted Forest Service bureaucrats safe at their desks in Alamogordo decided to treat it as a "prescribed burn," an opportunity to clear away brush and deadfall the way nature intended.

Outrage spread faster than the flames. Only a moron would prescribe a hot weather burn in a forest parched by drought and pocked with stands of brown trees infested by bark beetles.

This narrative got a powerful boost when the local congressman, Steve Pearce, parachuted in to repeat it in a confrontation with Forest Service officials during a public meeting that was supposed to be about helping residents understand where flames were advancing and what was being done about it. The officials declined to engage Pearce beyond observing mildly that his accusations weren't helping to fight the fire.

That was probably a mistake. Politicians love being mouthpieces for the righteous indignation of their constituents, and of course sometimes that's their job. In this case, though, the story appears to be wrong.

Observers with more facts at hand are now saying firefighters got to the blaze quickly and did all they could to put it out. The real culprits were difficult terrain, bad conditions for water drops from the helicopters and tankers that were promptly deployed but couldn't get water directly on the flames, and the tinderbox state of the forest.

Fortunately for everyone looking for scapegoats, there are still plenty available. The most appealing are:

1. The Forest Service, for caving to decades of public pressure to suppress every fire that could remotely threaten homes and businesses as development expands ever deeper into former wilderness areas, allowing buildup of dry fuel that would otherwise be burned in smaller natural fires.

2. "Tree hugging" environmentalists whose misguided efforts to protect habitats of endangered species have thwarted rational forest management practices.

3. Congress, for cutting Forest Service budgets and depriving the agency of the resources it would need to practice controlled burning and other fuel clearing techniques, and to fight catastrophic fires more effectively.

It's a tough bundle of issues for any community located near forests, even more so for one just starting to deal with the damage and trauma of a worst-case fire.

A strong local newspaper could help a lot. So far, the semi-weekly Ruidoso News hasn't offered much more than a forum for the partially informed and the self serving.

I hope this is not where all civic conversations everywhere are heading now in the twilight of print journalism.