Leaving Memphis

IMG_6490  A mockingbird sang an eight-part song with no repeats, ceasing only at the insistent squeal of a fledgling. Now they are silent. Besides the basil and rosemary in the garden, my daughter has a fig tree and a crape myrtle. Next door is a pink mimosa, not the kind you drink. The air is heavy with the kind of Mississippi River humidity most Americans have not learned to love the way I do. Memphis is not Houston, but coming from the north, St. Louis, I might be fooled for a bit. The bungalows on my daughter’s street could be in Montrose, right in the heart of Houston. Ancient magnolias with their blown white flowers and rubber leaves grace the corner.

Memphis may not have the petroleum-based euphoria of Houston, but it may be just as misunderstood. It is much more than the town where our nation’s most tragic assassination occurred, at the now civil rights monument of the Lorraine Motel. It is a music and barbeque city, with much theater. It is the big city Faulkner’s characters flee to.

IMG_6498There is the Memphis of excellence, with St. Jude’s hospital for children, Autozone, and Fed Ex headquarters, along with universities, University of Memphis, and Rhodes College. But there is a lack of opportunity that is different from Houston. There are racial divides I do not know the scope of. Many flee to places with names like Germantown, but why do they not choose to live in colorful Cooper-Young, Vollintine/Evergreen or verdant Central Gardens or more generally midtown or downtown? There is a big park with zoo and plenty of green trails. Tomorrow we will kayak the Ghost River.

IMG_6492But this is not written as a travelogue for Memphis, city of contrasts. It is good bye. My daughter has spent four wonderful years at the University of Memphis where scholarship is celebrated and students who might otherwise not find higher education at all are cherished. She has found wonderful colleagues and lives on a city block where people look out for each other. They help with soup for the ill, dollies for moving, cat sitting and most of all many front porch parties. It is the kind of community that seems more easily found inside cities than out in the suburbs. It is a place where furniture is traded among neighbors. This block seems quiet now, before most have had their coffee, but later the neighbors will be out and chatting.

I wish I had looked at Wikipedia on this interesting city earlier. It was apparently purpose built on the bluffs over the Mississippi, on the fourth Chickasaw bluff, above the confluence of the Wolf and Mississippi rivers. Early it was a major city, just as St. Louis used to be. But they took their water from the Mississippi and suffered from swampy conditions that contributed to the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. The numbers I came across said there were 50,000 on 5 August 1878, then 30,000 fled, all those that could and of the 20,000 or so left, all but 2,000 got yellow fever and about 5,000 died.

Does a city that loses its leaders stumble forever, or do leaders as good as those before emerge from the masses the way my social amoebae can endlessly form a new front to its slug? What if there are plenty of great leaders, but the resources the others brought from outside changed it? Could Memphis have rivaled Atlanta? Might St. Louis have become Chicago had the railroads gone another way? Surely Galveston would have been what Houston is without the hurricanes of 1900 and 1915? I am not a historian, so I do not know how to answer these questions. I do know that saying goodbye to Memphis will be hard.

Posted in Art and Music, Fiction, Moving to a new city | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Anything you say will be held against you

IMG_2185Anything you say will be held against you.
No, you are not among friends.
We do not like you.

Anything you say will be held against you.
What part of that do you not understand?
No, you do not fit here.

Anything you say will be held against you.
No, you may not explain.
We make all the decisions.

Anything you say will be held against you.
Yes, it is fine if you are quiet.
For remember, we do not like you.

Anything you say will be held against you.
No, we will not tell you the rules.
We do not need you.

And no, you may not judge us. We judge you.

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The bird sounds of Houston

Open your Houston windows to the soft, hot humidity early in the morning and listen. You may hear tires on asphalt of the West Loop, but you will also hear the birds. Just five species fill much of the sound canvas, white-winged doves, Carolina wrens, northern mockingbirds, great-tailed grackles, and northern cardinals. Learn these five, and see how long into your day it takes to hear all of them.

White-winged dove

White-winged doves are new, surging into Houston from a Galveston introduction only in the late 1980s. To me their sound was once exotic, typical of McAllen along with the chachalacas down on the border.  Is it global warming or human transport that has let them overwhelm the dove community of Houston? Their song is barred owl-like, but much softer, who cooks for you?

Carolina wrens are the noisy, tiny birds no one ever sees. Put a little wren house up in a scrubby corner of your yard and help these jewels out. They have the long wren tail at an angle and a defiant white eye stripe. Pay attention to this song, for you will realize it is one you hear daily. You might even spot a little wren disappearing into a brush pile, or atop the wooden fence built after Hurricane Ike took down the original one.


Northern mockingbird

Of all the birds on this list, no doubt northern mockingbirds are the one you know. The males sing to their mates from up high, varying their song as they try for flamboyance. They will flutter up in fights as they divide Houston into mockingbird territories. Or they may be witnessed dancing along their borders, one hop after the other, as so many of my students discovered. If songs were tails, mockingbirds would be peacocks.


Great-tailed grackle


Great-tailed grackles make improbable sounds resembling cars backing up or metal clashing when the males court the females, rushing them with ever closing circles of blue-black feathers. Then here they nest in the trees along freeway medians when parks are not available.

Northern cardinals may sing the way a child might imagine the arch typical bird to sing, in pure simple notes. They will be a backdrop to any Houston morning.

High above are the chimney swifts, seldom settling except when they swoop into their night time roosts. Spring is here when their chips are above us.

Dusk is for the night hawks, night for the screech owls, and the toads. So leave your windows open as long as you can, Houston, at least through May.

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Best place to stay in San Antonio


Red-tailed hawk


Great-tailed grackle


Preparing for Dave’s 60th birthday!

DSC09995Across the street from our colorful casita a lonesome voice sang a corrido, strumming a slow guitar accompaniment. I could not tell if the song came from the balcony or the porch, obscured by bushes. The next night the sad songs repeated, echoing my youngest son’s anticipatory nostalgia on graduating from Trinity University, soon to leave San Antonio forever.
A couple of blocks down the street are  San Antonio’s oldest cemeteries, where a few paces separated a few graves of Bravos and Martinezes few decades old from the much older and more abundant Woefel and Spanseil and other German and English graves of the 1880s. This is what Ed Snyder says: “The City Cemeteries were the first public cemeteries in San Antonio  −  City Cemetery No. 1 was established in 1853, and the Alamo Masonic Cemetery next to it a year later. You really won’t find many tombstones dated before 1853, as Texas was only annexed to the United States in 1845.” You should read his whole post, though.
A pair of red tailed hawks endured attacks by great-tailed grackles and mockingbirds before soaring up. Next door five very small dogs attended to the street from behind the safety of their fence. Next door the other way two boys dolphined with delight in their above ground pool as their younger sister watched from the ladder, lifting her dress above her head to plunge in up to her panties.DSC09956DSC09968
Our house was as green as the youngest grass, encased in metal, doors and bars. The floor was glossy treated concrete, immaculately clean. Bedrooms flanked the living room, two left, one right, the master, with two closets. Behind was the kitchen and eating area, back towards the joyful voices of the splashing boys. The single bathroom was plenty, requiring only a little talking and  planning. Our intense green home was not a microhome now so popular, for it clearly had a family in mind.
Ours was one of several on the narrow lot with a parking lot out front. The pink home housed the maintenance man who told me the dogs in the neighborhood would not bother me, if that was God’s plan. Esther dressed, curled, combed, and cut hair in the front yellow building. I wondered what these homes once were before Esther found Airbnb. Was I living in a home where families had flourished, sons in the west bedroom and daughters in the east? Esther’s father built her these homes to rent out back in the eighties, she said, a little business on top of dressing hair.

Music, playing boys, curious dogs, ancient cemeteries, and wild birds make up this unique and central neighborhood. So the real question is, who would choose a soulless hotel in concrete  San Antonio when you could have your own snug casita with Esther’s glossy brown floors?

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Famous biologist Rich Kessin writes a novel with the best feminist twist I’ve read

Rich Kessin could almost be called a Houstonian since he loves the city and spends several periods a year with us. When he isn’t being a famous Columbia professor and mentor to the entire social amoeba community, it turns out he’s turned his hand to fiction. He’s now written a book that I could hardly put down as I read a late draft. It is called The Famine of Men and you can get it from his website, or from Amazon, though more funds go to Rich from his site.

Why do I like the book so much? Partly it is that it is by my friend, but that would not keep me going. Rich has a poetry with his words, an insight into what motivates people, a clear perspective on the complexities of research. But the book doesn’t get too technical. It has too cool a plot for that. It has mystery viruses, epidemics, mixed with love affairs, lab politics, and Amish religion and custom. It feels like I’ve entered a whole world, one I can snuggle into a comfortable chair and put out my own issues for awhile. But it isn’t too much of an escape, for the lab scenes are all too familiar.

Check out this great book and wonder it the world wouldn’t be a better place if the Kessin virus were reality!

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Don’t kill the ants in the lounge!

Leave some sugar out and there will be ants. Sugar ants, tramp ants, crazy ants, fire ants, you name it, we do not live in sterile environments and ants find food. If you bring in a plant, you may well bring in a happy, usually harmless colony of ants.

So why is it that people at the first sign of ants want to call in the dealers in poison, the chlorinated organophosphates and the like? Why are people not more afraid of these chemicals than of a few ants? What kind of environment do they imagine we have? Why can’t we just tolerate a few ants and use them as a reminder to be a little neater?

What if all the microbes on our bodies and our work areas were as visible as the ants?  What would we do then? Would we bathe and scrub with soap like Lady Macbeth, washing out stains that will not leave? Aren’t we doing more harm than good, turning our immune systems back on ourselves when they have nothing foreign to chew on? Why are we so obsessed with this form of purity?

Yes, we have a faculty lounge here at Wash U. It is largely unused because it is locked and only for faculty, to protect the free packeted coffee. And yes, there were ants in there today, the kind I call crazy ants, named for their speed. I bet I could get a great photo of them from Alex Wild. The poison guy was called. He wanted to put out a gel, just a gel, why not? Yes, it has something toxic in it. Yes is was manufactured somewhere. No, we don’t know what the standards for its manufacture were. What will it harm besides the ants?

The thing is, we don’t need it. We don’t need purity. What we need is nature and more of it. We need living things. We are extincting so much. How do these harmless little behaviors, so called, contribute? Where does the poison come from? Where does it go? What is the end?

I like the attitude of my wonderful Venezuelan friends, Juan and Simonetta Castillo. When the termites hatch and fly, the cats feast. When the army ants move through, everything is cleaned. Keep the house open to nature and accept what comes with the seasons. I need to get out of here for respite in the peaceful tropics. Ants, I love you!

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The heartbeat of nature

HomeIt may not seem like much, but that strip of forest behind my childhood home made me a biologist, a lover of nature, a seeker of the unexpected. I thought about it as the airplane made a wide loop into the Lansing airport that I knew would take me right over home.

How small the strip of forest seems today. How ravaged are the fields and forests that once seemed so primeval. I suppose I was the kind of animal that did not need wild corridors. I freely crossed roads, fields and even back yards of homes in search of wildness. I knew the gravel pits were man made. But that did not detract from the tadpoles, beetle larvae, snapping turtles, and blue gills in them. I longed to eat off the land in those long summer days, but more often simply pilfered fruit trees, or community gardens where a middle school now stands.

That church had not gouged out our woods when I was young. The aspen were still standing. Our previous home seemed miles away, though it is now on my daily walk circuit and doesn’t even get me to the ten thousand paces that make my Fitbit buzz.

I don’t think I realized until college that the landscape I loved was not Michigan’s eternal one. We are looking at the result of catastrophic logging. Once I knew that, I believed for a short time in succession. But now half a century has passed, and Michigan’s woods only look more damaged. It isn’t only last fall’s ice storm that broke so many trees and limbs, the pale stubs still showing. It is the ragged nature of this prespring forest. These trees are not majestic. There is no sign anywhere of a return to the climax forests Michigan should have, though I haven’t read the literature on this topic.

But the spring peepers are calling. Soon the mosquitoes will be out, and soft green will hide our scarred and feeble forests.


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