Updates on Grouch

In a most fantastic yet perplexing manner, Grendel‘s condition suddenly reversed course in the past few days.

His weight loss stopped, his shaking disappeared, his overall demeanor improved…

Why this is I can’t say.  Hell, I can’t even say what ailment vexed him these last weeks.

Then again, several veterinarians are similarly perplexed, so I’m in good company.

Nathalie and I recently spoke about this during our regular visit to the neighborhood Starbucks.  You see, one of her dogs has been ill for a spell, progressively succumbing to old age and tired bones.

We spoke that morning of how a sick loved one like this wrestles one into the pits of despair, the curse of depression.

It’s the same I felt when my father faced the danger of aggressive tumors in his head, when my grandmother walked the lonely walk toward death, when Derek battled those last hopeless weeks against a foe he could not overcome, and when Henry struggled against the menacing torment of more than twenty years of life that a cat rarely enjoys.

So these weeks since Grendel’s health spiraled down the drain have been dangerously painful, horribly difficult and ravenously abusive.

His weight is low, so much so that I feel I might break him each time I pick him up, his skin easily giving way to bones underneath no longer shielded by fat and muscle.  There are times when I believe I might well throw him across the room accidentally as I expect more substance where none exists.

Nevertheless, he reached a turning point over the weekend that I hope leads to a mending, a recovery.

Things are not what they seem, however, for he still faces an uphill battle and many challenges, not the least of which is the specter of this devil returning in the future.

We still don’t know what it was—what it is.

Last year I killed a man

At 9.45am on Saturday, June 23 2007, I killed a man. A perfectly ordinary man, on a perfectly ordinary summer’s day. CCTV pictures show him entering the station, unremarkable among all the passengers going to the West End. He waited at the front of the platform until he could hear my train approaching, then he calmly stepped down on to the tracks and looked directly at me as he waited for the impact.

This made me cry, made me think, made me feel.

Go read it: Last year I killed a man

Faces that we meet and pass

A Monk parakeet (a.k.a. quaker parrot; Myiopsitta monachus) walking through the grass (20080713_09580)

Monk parakeet (a.k.a. quaker parrot; Myiopsitta monachus)

“Is he taking pictures of the grass?”

“Looks like it.”

“How weird.”

They didn’t notice the parakeet rummaging about the ground beneath a shade tree.  All they noticed was that I stood there taking photos of something they failed to see.

Close-up of a male green anole (Anolis carolinensis) as he challenges me with a full fan display (20080702_08942)

Male green anole (Anolis carolinensis)

“Dude, are you taking pictures of your patio fence?”

“No.  There’s a lizard standing here challenging me.  I thought I might snap a few pictures.”

He looks at the reptile before returning his gaze to me and saying, “Just a lizard?”


He sees just a lizard, just a small, insignificant life that offers nothing for his world.

I see a master of his territory, a predator controlling the local insect population, a marvelous creature with the climbing ability of a gecko and a color-changing ability superior to that of a chameleon.  I see a grand living thing.

Close-up of a female eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) as she perches on a stem (20080712_09324)

Female eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)

“What are you taking pictures of?”

“Everything.  Birds, trees, flowers, lizards, insects—”

“Oh, cool.  Seen any interesting bugs?”

“There were some beautiful dragonflies around the marsh back there.”

“Really?  We must have missed them.”

They missed a plethora of life, so many insects filling the air and foliage that I found it impossible to count them.  All they noticed was the man taking photos as he walked the edge of the marsh and woodlands.

Close-up of Elvis, a male muscovy duck (Cairina moschata), as he watches me take pictures (20080701_08879)

Male muscovy duck (Cairina moschata)

“Wait, Mom.  I wanna take a picture of the ducks.”

“They’re always here, sweetheart.  Let’s look for something more interesting for you photograph.”

Her daughter noticed, noticed how uncommon the common can be, how beautiful nature is in all its forms even when we see it day after day.

I noticed, especially when Elvis walked right up to me to see what I was doing kneeling in the grass.  He and I have developed a bond of trust such that he’ll come to me to investigate and will gladly stand next to me in case I have something to offer.  He knows I won’t hurt him.  And he knows I never ignore him.

A male swan goose (Anser cygnoides) sleeping in the grass

Male swan goose (Anser cygnoides)

They climb out of their car and walk directly to where the swan geese are sleeping and preening.

The father lets his two small children chase the animals, each screaming in joy as the birds honk and flap their wings as they run.

I worry as there are goslings mixed in with the crowd.

I hope one of the parents beats up your brats, I think to myself.

Then I watch as a large male knocks over the young boy and bites at him before fleeing in the opposite direction.  The child screams in shock or pain, or both, and I laugh to myself.

They don’t notice the beauty of these creatures.  Both children and their father see nothing more than entertainment, creatures to be chased and abused to satisfy a need to be cruel, to be hateful.

Close-up of a great egret (Ardea alba) (20080628_08248)

Great egret (Ardea alba)

A dog rushes headlong toward ducks lounging in the shade at the lake’s edge.  The owner stands by and does nothing.

Wings flap and flutter as panic strikes the group.  They all retreat toward the water as they take flight.

The reeds next to the flocking birds hides something else, something besides the water lapping at the shore.

Frightened by the commotion and the rushing canine, an egret takes flight, limping as it struggles into the air.  Its leg is hurt such that it might be broken.

The dog cares little for such things and its owner even less.  They don’t notice the pain, the limp, or even the unnecessary stress their antics place on these animals.

But I notice.  I shake my head with evident disgust before walking away.  I ignore the dog’s owner as he heaves primitive insults at me for my obvious disapproval.

Close-up of a male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) as he perches on a leaf (20080621_07182)

Male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus)

“I was at the pool yesterday, and there are some really big bees over there by the bridge.”

“You mean the cicada killers?”

I already feel good that he knows what they are.

He continues, “The big wasps, you mean?”

“I guess so,” she replies.

“They’re harmless.  They won’t hurt you.  All they do is kill cicadas.”

By the look on her face, I doubt she believes him.

His response is so calm, so understanding, that I realize he has no intention of doing anything about the second wasp colony a block away from where I live.  He knows they pose no threat, knows they only live for a few months.

I feel a great sense of relief and pride that he notices them, understands them, and has no intention of interfering with their short lives.

How not to light a cigarette

It was the winter of 1991.  Several colleagues and I flew to Virginia for a week so that we might complete an important project our employer saw as critical.  We saw it as nothing more than a chance to get out of the office and enjoy a bit of travel.

As fellow employees are wont to do under such circumstances, our comrades in the Richmond office had treated us to a late night of wining and dining that lasted into the wee hours of Friday morning.

Our flight back to Texas meant we needed to be at the airport around noon.  That meant we needed to be up early so we could finish the project in time to go home.

Barely capable of standing and only slightly aware of the world around me, I packed my things before checking to ensure my teammates were ready.

They weren’t.  In fact, they seemed in worse shape than I was, the few I spoke with looking less alive than I felt.

It was going to be a long day.

In lieu of waiting, I headed downstairs to get checked out of the hotel.

That business tended to and still alone, I decided to step outside for a cigarette.

Blustery cold winds greeted me as I pulled up the collar on my jacket and braced myself against the chill.  An ashen sky full of clouds threatening snow stretched in all directions, and the occasional flake drifted by as though reiterating the promise of what was to come.

The company van idled nearby, so I put my luggage inside before pulling a cigarette from the pack.  I stepped up against the cold brick of the building, fetched the lighter from my pocket, then cupped my hands as I feebly struggled to produce a bit of flame under the wind’s constant onslaught.

After what seemed like an eternity with flame blowing in every direction except toward the end of the cigarette, my gyrations and manipulations paid off when at last the cancer stick sparked to life.

I puffed readily on it while I watched people rush through the cold morning, each one hunched over in an attempt to hold in body heat, each one hugging their arms tightly to their chest as they dashed from the hotel doors to waiting vans, taxis and rental cars.

Only a few times did I notice the somewhat perplexed looks some gave me as they passed, the curious eyebrows raised or the smirks that hid deep desires to point and laugh.

I paid it no mind but instead finished my cigarette before heading back inside.

Making my way through the lobby felt like a clown walking down the aisle during a State of the Union address at the Capitol.  Eyes glanced, whispers echoed quietly, and I felt increasingly uncomfortable.

Was my zipper open?

Had I suddenly grown some grotesque wart on my cheek?

Did I have a booger hanging out of my nose?

The elevator couldn’t arrive fast enough.  Thankfully I seemed to be the only person going upstairs at that moment.

Following a quick walk down the hall once I reached the floor where our rooms were, I desperately knocked on the door of one of my fellow employees.  I felt like I needed a place to hide.

The door opened and I was happy to see most of them had gathered together so they could head downstairs, but Aaron, the one who opened the door, sent a chill down my spine when he burst into uproarious laughter.

From behind him Brad asked, “What the hell is that?”

“What?” I responded.

“Dude, what happened to your mustache?”

My hand reflexively landed on my face as I tried to determine what they were so entertained by.  Alas, something did feel wrong with my mustache, so I turned immediately and walked into the bathroom.

To my horror, the mirror revealed why I would never return to this hotel: half of my mustache had been burned off.  One full side stood in ghoulish contrast to the other, a half bit of singed and mutilated facial hair that looked like some disease remnant.

The cold wind had cloaked the flame’s attack and kept me from feeling it as it lashed my face and reduced one side of my mustache to a smoldering cinder.

I’ve never been back to Virginia since then.

A few of my favorite things

Because I haven’t the wherewithal to offer more substance than paltry photos, at least at this exact moment…

A female short-winged grasshopper (Dichromorpha elegans) perched on a blade of grass (20080704_09012)

Female short-winged green grasshopper (Dichromorpha viridis)

A female crane fly (subgenus Yamatotipula; Tipula furca) hanging on the side of a tree (20080314_02612)

Female crane fly (subgenus Yamatotipula; Tipula furca)

A giant robber fly (Promachus hinei) clinging to a tree branch (20080711_09237)

Giant robber fly (Promachus hinei)

That last photo is interesting in that it’s the first time I’ve been able to capture an image of the most common species of giant robber fly in the state of Texas.

Although they can inflict a painful bite if mishandled, robber flies pose little threat to people; they do, however, pose a significant threat to other insects.

True flies with no stinger and only one pair of wings, robbers are predators—and giant robbers will attack any insect that flies, including wasps, bees, grasshoppers and dragonflies.

Their prowess stems from their ability to capture prey in flight, overwhelm them with strength, and deliver a deadly bite filled with acidic juices (something normally targeted at the head).  The robber then drinks its meal in peace.

Most robber flies are considered beneficial to a degree in that they target other pests such as flies, beetles and wasps; others are not so beneficial since they target bees and other beneficial insects.

Giant robbers prefer to travel the middle of the road: they target all prey equally so long as it’s large enough, so they might just as easily destroy a local wasp nest as they would a beehive (the former being good and the latter being not so good).

This one happened to perch on the tree outside my patio one day.  When first I spied it, I thought it a bit of dead leaf or other debris stuck to a branch.

Then it flew after a cicada-killer wasp—a female that easily knocked it aside, I might add, for her size dwarfed the fly and gave her a distinct advantage.  That’s when I realized it was something far more interesting than dried vegetation.