April 27, 2017

The Pain in My Back is a Pain in the Neck

My Primary Care Physician (previously known as a ‘family doctor’) will never get back the fifteen minutes I spent ranting in his office yesterday.  But at least it made me feel a little better.  Maybe even a lot better.
I am the not-very-proud owner of an extremely strained set of latissimus dorsi muscles.  Two evenings ago, what had been a two-month-long minor back ache turned into a full-fledged all-hands-on-deck, fifteen-minute-long spasm of my back muscles.  It happened at an especially inopportune time.  I was fifty miles from home, just finishing up a speaking gig.  I was carrying books, my laptop, and a projector out the door when several attendees stopped me to ask questions.  It was 9 p.m. and I had an hour’s drive in front of me to get home.

Instead of putting down my belongings, I continued to hold them.  After about seven or eight minutes of pleasant conversation, I turned to push open a door.  My back muscles decided this was the perfect time for an insurrection.  For the better part of fifteen minutes, I felt the most intense pain I have ever felt in my life as a wave of spasms went up and down my back.

Two of the witnesses to this event happened to be nurses, bless their hearts.  They saw the look on my face and began offering professional guidance. 

An MRI machine
In my view, those back spasms were entirely preventable.  Their genesis goes back to last summer when I had my decennial colonoscopy which showed a lone anomaly in an otherwise quite healthy colon: there was a slight indentation in a location that corresponded to my appendix.  Upon being told this by a Colorectal Specialist, I explained that my appendix had been removed at the age of 4 or 5.
 And so, to clear up the mystery, an MRI was ordered.

Think about this: I am on Medicare.  The Center for Medicare Services (CMS) has decreed that all Medicare subscribers are eligible for a $7,500 colonoscopy every ten years.  Because I dutifully agreed to have this procedure done, I am now in the hands of a Colorectal Specialist who had never laid eyed on me until last year.  My medical records from the early 1950s have almost certainly long since gone to a landfill in South Florida.  I cannot prove I ever had said appendectomy (the scar seems to have vanished).  It will take a $6,000 MRI to determine if I have an appendix and if said appendix is gently pushing into my colon.

Your appendix, if you still have one
The MRI results came back.  The Colorectal Specialist determined that I had the stub of an appendix, and that the stub appeared to be filled with some kind of fluid.  I was told I needed an appendectomy, which would be performed laparoscopically.  And so, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I went in for a $20,000 laparoscopic appendectomy (known as a “lappy appy” as the cheerful surgical resident informed me) at one of Boston’s major teaching hospitals.

Laparoscopic appendectomy
Five hours later I was sent home with written instructions: DO NOT LIFT ANYTHING OVER FIVE POUNDS.  OTHERWISE, YOU WILL PULL YOUR STITCHES AND YOU WILL REQUIRE A SECOND OPERATION.  Left unsaid but quite understood was that the fine folks at CMS would kick that bill back in my direction for full payment.  And so, for the next six weeks, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, I adhered to those orders.  In the meantime, I also received the biopsy results of my “lappy appy”.  The full page, jargon-filled letter boiled down to one word:  “Ooops.”

There was indeed a tiny stub of an appendix, but it was not filled with fluid and it was not causing any problem.  It was all a matter of an ‘ambiguous reflection’ on the MRI.  Call it a ‘false positive’.
Like I said.  “Ooops.”

But I had emerged from my enforced inactivity at the beginning of February with some unwanted extra pounds, sort of like the ‘Freshman Fifteen’ but at the age of 67.  I am by nature an active person and I had just gone through the prime holiday period with no acceptable outlet for that energy.  And so I began doing things.  I moved furniture.  I shoveled snow rather than use the snow blower.  I carried stuff just to get the exercise. 

I tackled spring clean-up chores
with gusto
And I began to feel twinges in my back.  I ignored them.  I am a tough guy.  Spring finally arrived and Betty and I planted dozens of new shrubs and perennials.  I sawed tree limbs, raked with relish and toted brush-filled bags to the transfer station.  I was bound and determined to work off those pounds.  I also had a busy speaking schedule and I carried two bulging bags of books with me.
And so I was understandably angry when my back revolted.  And I freely admit that I was also more than a little frightened.  Which is why I called my Primary Care Physician, who cleared time for me because he could recall only one time in a three-decade relationship when I called to request a same-day appointment (it was my first encounter with Lyme Disease).

He listened to my rant.  He looked at the computerized reports.  He agreed that I had received $26,000 of ‘overly cautious’ medical attention, but that the blame lay with Congress for failing to rein in tort reform when the Affordable Care Act was being drafted. 

So, what was he going to do about my back?  After a full examination, his learned advice could best be paraphrased as “suck it up”. 

Yoga was prescibed
“I could set you up with physical therapy appointments or you could try acupuncture,” he said.  “But the real treatment is ice and yoga.  Your muscle will recover when you stop stressing it.”  

Because I whined, he also gave me a prescription for $1.86 worth of muscle relaxers, but cautioned that the pills don’t know which muscles need to be relaxed.  “They could decide to relax some muscles you’d rather keep under control.”  Message received.

And so I write this as part of my therapy.  All things in moderation.  This too shall pass.

April 5, 2017

The Seven Cent Solution

Feeder Enemy #1
Last month, I wrote that a gang of marauding squirrels had deemed my bird feeders to be their personal fiefdom.  They would shamelessly scamper up the three slender poles in my back yard to wantonly attack the five suet, seed, and worm feeders that hung from those poles.  While overwintering birds watched helplessly, the squirrels (Latin name: Sciurus carolinensis, which translates as ‘rats with bushy tails’) would gorge themselves on sunflower seed.  One even made off with a hamburger-sized chunk of suet.  My solution, I wrote, was to oil the poles; a process that had to be repeated every few days.

Yankee Flipper
I was pleasantly surprised to receive dozens of emails from readers offering advice.  A few also admonished me for blatantly favoring avians over phyla mammalia.  I responded to the latter group by underscoring that I had specifically purchased ‘bird’ feeders.

But I was excited by the reader suggestions for varmint-proofing my feeders.  Many were commercial products.  Two readers touted something called the Yankee Flipper, which incorporates a free-spinning base that takes any squirrel that jumps from a pole onto it for a ride akin to something that belongs in an amusement park.  Target carries them for $24.99, but I noticed two things in the video I watched.  First, as the feeder spun round and round, it also spewed out a sizeable serving of seeds.  The second, and perhaps more disturbing finding from viewing the product in action was that the squirrel appeared to be enjoying itself.  It hung on for half a dozen rotations and I would swear it was grinning.

Plexiglas works, but at a high cost
Plexiglas domes also figured strongly into reader suggestions.  The idea is simple: the dome hangs over the feeder.  The squirrel climbs a tree, drops down onto the dome and cannot gain a foothold.  After half a dozen tries, it adjusts to the new reality of a seed-free diet.  Simple domes start at about $15 although, for reasons I cannot fathom, they also are sold for twice and three timer that amount.  But the operative word at the top of this paragraph is ‘tree’.  Plexiglas-covered feeders mounted on a pole are child’s play to your average squirrel: they just jump the few inches from the pole to the feeder, then scarf down a pound of seed while being protected against the rain.

Clearly, for a pole-mounted feeder to work, the squirrel has to be kept from getting up the pole in the first place.  One reader suggested a product with the imposing name of the Stokes Select 38023 Squirrel Baffle.  It’s a simple device: a conical metal ‘hat’ that rests on a disc tightened to fit around the pole.  I was impressed but, at $13 each, I would be spending $40 to protect my feeders.  Was there a less expensive solution?

Squirrels are natural acrobats
I found one via another reader’s exciting suggestion: use a Slinky.  This sent me to the internet to view what turns out to be dozens of videos of squirrels being unable to master that ubiquitous, simple childhood toy.  I watched in fascination as squirrel after squirrel was defeated by a resilient spring.  Checking prices, I found that Home Depot (who knew?) even sells a three-pack of Slinkys for $12.94.
But was there something just as effective for even less?  Trolling more YouTube videos, I came across one that showed the use of two-liter plastic bottles.  The bottom had been cut off and the neck clamped to the pole with screws.  Well, we had a used, two-liter plastic seltzer bottle in a bag awaiting the opportunity to return it to the supermarket for the five-cent deposit.  I sacrificed the deposit, cut off the bottom, and taped it to one of our poles with about two cents worth of strapping tape. 

My 7 cent solution
Less than an hour later, a squirrel scampered up the pole and found itself inside a tiny jail cell made of polyethylene terephthalate.  The squirrel moved below the bottle and reconnoitered its situation.  It tried and failed to grab the bottom of the bottle.  It reached a paw up to gain purchase on the side of the bottle without success.  It again hunkered inside the bottle attempting to hatch some fiendish plan.  After three minutes, it gave up.

Yesterday, Betty and I consumed another bottle of seltzer to protect a second pole and I thoroughly oiled the third one.  As of this morning, only birds are enjoying the seed, suet, and worms. 

At least for the moment, we have found a solution to our squirrel problem for just seven cents a feeder.  I think even Sherlock Holmes would approve. 

March 3, 2017

Like a Hawk

The problem with wildlife is that the creatures in your garden haven’t seen all those Walt Disney movies and so they don’t know how they’re supposed to behave.  It isn’t just that they don’t spontaneously break out into cute songs.  It’s that they behave like, well, animals.
Take our birdfeeders.  Back in November, we purchased a twin-hooked steel pole, an Audubon-approved feeder, a 50-pound bag of sunflower seeds, a suet cage, and a six-pack of suet cakes.  We placed the pole out behind our house and almost immediately were inundated with birds.  And, not just any birds.  We had chickadees, house wrens, flickers, downy woodpeckers, and orioles.  We were stewards of the land.
We felt so good about the first pole that we acquired a second one and mounted a worm feeder atop it, then stocked the feeder with freeze-dried meal worms (who knew?) to attract yet other bird species.  That was followed in short order by a third pole with still another seed feeder and suet cage.
The enemy
Then, two things happened.  First, squirrels discovered the feeders.  We would see them during the day, sitting around in the trees, smoking little cigarettes, shooting craps and listening to gangsta rap, waiting for us to turn out the lights in the house.  Late at night they would then quickly scale the poles, knock much the seed out of the feeders, and gorge themselves until dawn.  Come daylight, we would find empty feeders and obese squirrels. 
Worse, one squirrel crew set about chewing off the bottommost two perches.  One morning we discovered they had very nearly succeeded in chewing through the connecting pins that held the bottom of the feeder together.  One more pin and there would have a glorious avalanche of seed that would have found a place in the lore of the Grand Council of Squirrels.  That feeder is now held together with steel-infused strapping tape.
Squirrels tried to gnaw out
the bottom of the feeder
We reminded ourselves that we had put up bird feeders.  Not squirrel feeders.  We began greasing the poles and took pleasure at watching squirrels take flying leaps onto the poles, only to slide ignominiously down to the ground; the seed safe from their gluttonous grasp.
But then, without notice, the second thing happened: the birds disappeared.  We tried to tell ourselves that our neighbors must have put up newer, better feeders; possibly with live music and a cappuccino machine.  It made no sense that we would be so readily abandoned.
One afternoon two weeks ago, we were chatting with our across-the-street neighbor.  Her two boys have a seasonal ice rink in their front yard and can skate on it for hours.  But, our neighbor said, sometimes the boys put down their hockey sticks in fascination just to watch and admire the hawk.
“What hawk?” we asked.
Yep, there's a hawks nest
Our neighbor obligingly pointed to a sixty-foot-tall pine at the front of our property and move her finger up the tree trunk.  There, fifty feet up in the air, was a massive aerie.  From it, a hawk could gaze up and down the street looking for unsuspecting mice and moles.  And, by turning its head just a little to the right, it could monitor the comings and goings at our feeders.
Hawks are carnivores. It is well known that hawks eat small mammals such as mice, rats, voles and other rodents. Less well known is that hawks – and especially red-tailed hawks like the one we had seen numerous times in the wetlands behind our home – also eat smaller birds, frogs and reptiles.  (When a two-foot-long garter snake disappeared from our garden, Betty did not go looking for a culprit.)
When a bird is snatched from a feeder by a hawk, the other birds scatter and look for less vulnerable feeding spots.  After a period of time, they’ll return to the scene of the abduction.  It’s a cycle that will repeat itself as long as supplemental feeding is needed.
'Our' red-tailed hawk
What’s a steward of the land to do?  It is not that we placed the feeders in too exposed an area.  The tree canopy is less that twenty feet away and birds perch within a few seconds flight from the feeders.  But hawks are excellent hunters, and they are silent and swift. We’ll leave the feeders in place until our over-wintering avian friends no longer have use for them.  As for the hawk, it’s part of nature.  Hawks got to hunt.

But the squirrels?  Let them order take-out pizza or whatever those Disney rodents live on.  I’m going to keep greasing those poles.

February 28, 2017

The Wasted Opportunity

The Principal Undergardener usually writes funny, upbeat items about garden-related slices of life.  I promise to return with something humorous in a few days but, this morning, I have something festering in my mind that needs to get down in words (and, no, it has nothing to do with politics).
It is a tale of a wasted opportunity on a vital topic. 
I have the pleasure to accompany my wife to many garden club events around Massachusetts.  Clubs enjoy meeting her and Betty relishes the chance to take a few minutes to speak about what the state Federation is doing, especially by way of education.
A week or so ago, we were at a joint meeting of two clubs.  A very nice garden center kept its doors open and provided a great meeting space. Because the event was well publicized, it drew a crowd of more than 75 people, many of them non-garden-club-member guests drawn by the topic at hand.  (I have purposely omitted names and details.)
The topic of the evening was bees and the danger they face.  There were to be two presentations.  One of them was from a professional beekeeping service.  The other was a librarian with a keen interest in the subject.
The beekeeping company was not a guy with a truck and some hives.  Rather, it is a firm with a presence in multiple cities.  Its founder is a behavioral ecologist who has written a lucid book on bees, and the company is quite adept at generating positive publicity for itself.
The speaker, according to the garden clubs’ flyer, was to have been the firm’s marketing director.  For whatever reason, she wasn’t there.  Instead, two of the company’s employees made the presentation.  What followed was a disorganized and poorly presented program that was astonishingly short on facts. 
The two presenters were both in their early twenties, and I’ll call them Ken and Barbie.  Ken gave part of his presentation not noticing he was standing between the projector and the screen.  He delivered half of talk directly to Barbie, who was standing to one side.  He gave the other half to the screen, where he read slides word for word.  He occasionally glanced at the audience, which noticed the absence of eye contact.
Ken would go backwards in the presentation looking for a particular slide.  He also paused to speak about a particularly ‘cool’ graphic done by the company’s ‘awesome’ in-house graphic artist; then apologized because the graphic wasn’t really large enough to be seen beyond the front row.  He also delivered his talk with one hand in his pants pocket, which would ordinarily be grounds for criticism (it telegraphs to an audience that you’re not serious) but, given the rest of his transgressions, barely matters.
Barbie was better, but her part of the talk comprised about 15% of the program. 
Poor presentation can ruin a program, but avoiding speaking about the ‘elephant in the room’ is unforgivable.  The presentation was devoid of discussion of neonicotinoids in general; and clothianidin, imiadcloprid, and thiamethoxam in particular.  Instead, according to Ken, colony collapse occurs because “bees just wander off”.  The absence of such a discussion was puzzling.  It lead one person with whom I spoke after the presentation to wonder aloud if the beekeeping organization receives funding from insecticide manufacturers.
Maybe the most bewildering slides was a list of nectar/pollen plants available by month.  I believe there was a single plant listed for September with nothing thereafter, and Ken allowed that, “after August, there isn’t much food out there for the bees.”  When questioned about the chart, Ken said the information in would be updated when other sources were verified.  (Our garden has active bees and food plants for them into November; I offered to supply Ken with my plant list.)
* * * * *
It was, in short, a wasted opportunity.  The question I keep coming back to is, ‘why’.  There are two possible answers.  The first is that Ken and Barbie were last minute substitutes who had never presented publicly and were unfamiliar with the program they were supposed to give.  That’s the charitable explanation.  The other is that this beekeeping organization considers garden clubs secondary or tertiary audiences that aren’t worthy of sending in the ‘big guns’.  If so, they blew it.  In the Q&A session that followed, it was members of the audience who asked the tough questions, citing specific chemicals and industry practices in detail.
The librarian’s presentation, on the other hand, was well researched, carefully thought out, and well-presented  – in short, infinitely better than the ‘professional’ one the preceded it.

A reader might wonder why, instead of venting in a blog, the Principal Undergardener didn’t express his thoughts directly to the beekeeping company.  I did.  I sent a detailed critique to the company’s founder, chief scientist, and marketing director the day after the presentation.  I heard back… nothing.

February 1, 2017

The Huddled Masses, Leaning Toward the Sun

They are camped out around our home, unwilling refugees, far from their tropical and subtropical origins, gathered by windows and leaning toward a feeble sun for sustenance. They huddle together to preserve precious water in a house where the humidity is in single digits. 
With its east and south-facing windows, our library
is a favored spot for wintering houseplants

What we do to our houseplants. We take growing things whose ancestors never experienced a frost and transport them to environments where, for six months of the year, all that separates them from death by frozen capillaries is a pane of glass. And all this for…. What?
Why do we have houseplants? I typed that question into Google, ordinarily a bastion of reason and well-marshaled information. The first response was a query right back at me: ‘How can I get rid of gnats?’ Not ready for a Socratic dialog so early in the morning, I declined to provide an answer. Five pages of scrolling later, I had not found any erudite responses from horticulturally-inclined sociologists, although I uncovered an online survey indicating that our home’s houseplant population puts us dangerously outside the bell curve (the average number is five).
One of our 'guest' orchids.  It hogs
two windows in my office
And so, I am left to come up with my own answers. The first one is obvious: they’re green and they sometimes flower. It’s February in New England.  The world outside my window this week is relentlessly brown. Who wouldn’t want to have something nearby that reminded us that winter is not some Game-of-Thrones-style permanent condition?
Another answer is that houseplants are undemanding. Water them once a week. Check them for insects (including, yes, gnats). Re-pot them once a year. Compared to your average pet, they’re self-sufficient. My aunt kept a snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) in a darkened hallway that, to the best of my knowledge, was never watered, only dusted occasionally. It lived for decades.
A wintering bougainvillea and an
array of plants in Betty's office.
A third answer is that houseplants are your friends.  We have deployed a small army of Peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) around our home.  They not only produce a handsome, long-lived flower, but they also cleanse the air of multiple toxins.  Many other houseplants perform similar functions.
Plants can surprise you. We have friends who have decamped for South America for a lengthy vacation.  We agreed to ‘babysit’ two of their orchids.  Our friends arrived for dinner in late December bearing the two biggest plants I have seen outside a botanical garden.  For two weeks, those orchids simply occupied space in our home; one of them hogging an entire twin set of casement windows.  They were nothing but greenery.  Then, one morning two weeks into our plant-sitting exercise, we awakened to find our guests in spectacular blooms of pink and white.  They’re still brightening our home and are welcome to stay as long as they wish.
This croton has been
with us for two
Finally, plants get to become family. We have two wonderfully colorful crotons that has been around so long they are practically family retainers.  Our various bougainvillea have been in residence for so many years that I can predict their flowering cycles to within a few days. Betty was given a ‘bunny ears’ cactus (Opuntia microdasys) almost a decade ago.  Every year, it rewarded us with a new ‘ear’, growing like an oblong floor of an oddly-shaped building.  When the cactus broke over under its own weight, Betty thought it might be a goner.  Instead, the area from which it broke produced two ears, each of which is now happily adding to the plant’s bulk.

So, why do we have houseplants?  I think it’s because they’re a year-round reminder that, no matter our station in life, we all ultimately came from the land.  A few generations ago, our forebears farmed to survive.  Today, we exchange our labor for money and, if we ‘farm’ at all, we call it ‘gardening’ and we do it for pleasure.  In short, houseplants keep us rooted.

January 3, 2017

Winter is for the Birds

Until this year, we never felt compelled to place bird feeders near our house.  At our previous homes we always had mature specimen trees and shrubs to provide shelter and food.  We left up seed-rich plants and other ‘natural’ food sources.  And, we didn’t want to encourage normally migratory birds to stick around on our account.  Our lone concession to the need for supplemental nutrition was to hang a slab of beef suet in a squirrel-proof wire frame suspended between two trees.
Our 'feeding station' has four stops, and
has accommodated as many as eight
birds at a time
We started with a blank canvas at our new home; or at least one-third of a blank canvas.  The front half-acre of our land was an ecological desert of climax pines, burning bush, and swallowwort.  No self-respecting bird would have had anything to do with it.  We created, from scratch, a new landscape of native trees and shrubs.  The birds followed almost immediately and gorged themselves on seeds, fruits, and worms.  We set out a hummingbird feeder and promptly attracted three families that waged incessant aerial warfare and conducted strafing runs to win the right to our station.
But as October turned cold and our perennials collapsed, all that was left were eight or nine immature ilex and snowberry shrubs; hardly a welcome mat for our avian friends.  Maybe we needed to re-think our ‘no feeder’ mindset.
As it turns out, we had all of the elements of a feeding station.  Betty gets invited to a lot of garden club events – she attended more than a hundred of them this past year.  As president of the state garden club Federation, no one ever asks her to pay, even though meals or big-time speakers may be involved.  Conscious that she’s a guest, Betty always makes a point of buying tickets for Opportunity Drawings (the IRS-approved terms for what used to be called ‘raffles’). 
The problem is, if you attend 150 events and buy ten Opportunity Drawing tickets at each event, the math says you will walk home with a certain number of items.  And so a corner of Betty’s office and some basement space is dedicated to storage for items she won but for which she has no immediate use.
When we went looking to create a bird feeding station, we needed look no further than these storage areas.  She had won several Audubon-approved bird feeders, a worm feeder (complete with ten packages of freeze-fried meal worms), and a suet cage.  Thanks to our hummingbirds, we already had one tall pole on which to hang a feeder. To set up shop we purchased a second pole, a 50-pound sack of striped sunflower seeds, and some suet.
We had company by mid-day of our formal opening and we apparently got good reviews on the avian equivalent of Yelp! because the crowds kept coming back.  Curiously, we would have times when the feeders were deserted.  Apparently there are other feeders in the neighborhood, and the birds felt a need to frequent both their older haunts as well as their new favorite.
Our biggest initial problem was squirrels.  They are voracious consumers of anything that even looks like food, and they’ll empty a feeder in minutes; dumping the contents on the ground for easy pickings at their leisure.  After watching them climb our poles with an easy, athletic grace – and awakening to empty feeders that had been topped off at dusk – we settled on a squirrel-proofing idea that will likely horrify the Nature Conservancy:  we greased the poles.  There was a certain satisfaction watching squirrels take a flying leap three feet up a pole, only to slowly slide down to the bottom with no hope of traction.  We also noticed that after two or three days, they stopped trying.

So, we’re now officially in the bird feeding business and that first 50-pound bag is nearly finished.  Now, our task is to figure out what to do with the sunflower seek husks: they contain a chemical that inhibits the growth of anything except sunflowers.  Do we rake them up and take them to the transfer station?  We’re not sure, and ideas are gratefully accepted.