Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Please Don't Go There: Hint of a "It Never Happened" Ending for LOST?

Throughout the years that ABC's hit series LOST has been broadcast, fans of the show have speculated heavily about the meaning and reality (within the show's framework) of the island and what it meant for the various participants to have been "lost."  Producers and writers have reassured the audience several times, steering them away from plausible explanations (such as the "survivors" of Oceanic 815 being dead, that the island is a kind of Purgatory, etc.), and have done well to back up those claims later (through evidence such as Miles, the "he hears dead people" guy who clearly stated he doesn't interact with the dead--meaning those "losties" on the island aren't dead, for example) despite tossing out a few more red herrings here and there, between the various potential literary and mythological references dropped.

And, we've been told, the show is not simply a dream or a similar cop-out; in other words, no, we are not due at the end of next season a deus ex machina revelation that the entire show took place in some autistic child's snow globe.

Yet there's a hint now that it might be possible for the events of the entire program to date to simply have never happened.  Lovable physics-nerd Daniel Faraday revealed in this week's episode "The Variable" (a play on a prior Daniel-and-Desmond-centric episode, "The Constant") that he has a plan to prevent the events leading to the crash of Oceanic 815--and thus everything that's happened over the past four and a half seasons--from having ever happened.  "You'll land in Los Angeles," Daniel explained.

Daniel, you see, had decided that the future could be changed after all, having changed his mind over the past three years, by realizing that the losties are variables, not constants, and as such can indeed cause events to unfold differently.  Get everyone off the island, then set off the hydrogen bomb ("Jughead") he'd previously talked the island's indigenous "Others" into burying in 1954, and he'd be able to prevent the "Incident" and its release of electromagnetic energy which caused Oceanic 815 to crash.

Now, I'm sure there are those on the island who'd see that as a perfectly acceptable change to history, and indeed, several who have died (Boone, Shannon, Charlie, Eko, Ana Lucia, Libby, Michael, the entire stock of Red Shirts 'R Us, Arzt, and even those "Poochies" Nicki and Paolo, just to name a few) would have another chance at life.  Yet none of the redemption and character growth we've seen our troubled, broken cast of characters go through over the six seasons of LOST would have happened, and indeed, the stories of redemption are one of the biggest reasons the show has been as successful and has remained engaging throughout its run.  All that would be wiped away, worthless, in an instant which never would have happened.  (I'll avoid consideration of the paradox we'd end up with, whereby it took the crash survivors to prevent the crash from having ever happened; at some point, you have to let it go.)

Of course, Daniel managed not to change history once already: he got himself shot by his own mother back in 1977--though some might question whether or not that was his intention all along or whether it was indeed "destiny" (though we never got a "You're my density!" from him, a perfect Back to the Future reference for his character).  So perhaps there's hope that history will not be unwritten, even though "Mr. Fixit" Jack seems driven now to implement Daniel's plan, left conveniently in his hands before Dan's untimely exit via a strange reverse-matricide (and if you think about it for a moment, kindly old Ms. Hawking sent Daniel back to the island, knowing her younger self would kill him...)

But despite the fact I still feel LOST and its current writers are among the best in television, I do have a bit of nagging fear that they've opened the door to erasing the events of the past several years, and hope they do not take that path.  It's a fine line to dance, between destiny and free-will, after all.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

In Defense of Blue Jays

Many birders, myself included, do not exactly hold Blue Jays in high regard.  The loud, big birds are feeder bullies, often driving away smaller birds (which include just about all birds see at back yard feeders), and the omnivorous jays have been known to raid the nests of other birds, eating their eggs and even the young of other species.

However, this morning, I witnessed what I can only describe as redeeming behavior by the group of six or seven jays who have taken up residence in the Chateau Papillon back yard.  The Blue Jays began screaming and calling incessantly with their alarm screech, and a quick scan of the tree and fence lines revealed the reason: an adult female Cooper's Hawk.

While I admire hawks and do not begrudge them their prey--their hunting is part of nature, and an impressive sight to behold at that--we do have a pair of bluebirds nesting in the yard, too, and I'd hate to see one of the bluebirds become breakfast for a passing hawk.

In short order, the flock of jays "mobbed" the Cooper's Hawk, a behavior of prey birds where groups will flock around and even dive at predators like hawks and owls, eventually driving the Cooper's away, possibly saving the lives of birds far smaller than the boisterous jays in the process.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Updated Bird List for Chateau Papillon

As May approaches, I wanted to put together a comprehensive bird list for Chateau Papillon, along with a few choice photos I hadn't previously shared.  We're at 46 birds currently, with several additions just the past few days.

First, Beth and I heard a Barred Owl on the 24th, its distinctive "Who-cooks-for-you; who-cooks-for-you-all?" call in and of itself good enough to land the bird on our list--but then later that same evening, we saw it land in a tree at the edge of the yard, only to be mobbed by a flock of angry Blue Jays.

This morning, we got one expected but still great-to-see bird, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, along with an unexpected delight: an Indigo Bunting.  I spotted the bunting when trying to describe the position of a female Eastern Bluebird to Beth so she could get a closer look through her binoculars; a small blue bird landed nearby--too small to be a bluebird--and then buzzed our feeder a few times, giving us a better look at the pleasant surprise addition to our list.
  1. Bluebird, Eastern
  2. Bunting, Indigo
  3. Cardinal, Northern
  4. Chickadee, Carolina
  5. Cowbird, Brown
  6. Creeper, Brown
  7. Crow, American
  8. Crow, Fish
  9. Dove, Mourning
  10. Finch, House
  11. Finch, Purple
  12. Flicker, Northern
  13. Goldfinch, American
  14. Goose, Canada
  15. Grackle, Common
  16. Grosbeak, Rose-breasted
  17. Hawk, Cooper's
  18. Hawk, Red-shouldered
  19. Hawk, Red-tailed
  20. Jay, Blue
  21. Junco, Dark-eyed
  22. Kingbird, Eastern
  23. Mallard
  24. Mockingbird, Northern
  25. Nuthatch, White-breasted
  26. Owl, Barred
  27. Phoebe, Eastern
  28. Robin, American
  29. Siskin, Pine
  30. Sparrow, Chipping
  31. Sparrow, Fox
  32. Sparrow, House
  33. Sparrow, Song
  34. Sparrow, White-crowned
  35. Sparrow, White-throated
  36. Starling, European
  37. Titmouse, Tufted
  38. Towhee, Eastern
  39. Vulture, Turkey
  40. Waxwing, Cedar
  41. Woodpecker, Downy
  42. Woodpecker, Hairy
  43. Woodpecker, Pileated
  44. Woodpecker, Red-bellied
  45. Wren, Carolina
  46. Wren, House

I expect to see at least several more (such as a Grey Catbird, perhaps some of the orioles or tanagers of the region, and maybe a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and a kinglet or two) through the rest of spring and into summer.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Adding Life-Birds to the List ... in the Back Yard!

Add another bird to the Chateau Papillon bird list--this time a "life bird," meaning one I'd seen for the first time in my life.  (And two life birds for Beth; though I'd seen a Purple Finch before, she hadn't.)

I'd planned a morning outing to Huntley Meadows Park followed perhaps by a visit to Monticello Park, both of which are fantastic birding hot spots in the Washington, D.C. area.  We usually like to get to Huntley Meadows no later than 8:00 am, and Monticello no earlier than 10:00 am (due to the best birding times at each), but Beth had a petsitting visit to take care of first--so while she was out, I watched the back yard feeders here at Chateau Papillon.

Our thistle feeder was absolutely loaded with birds; typically, goldfinches are the only visitors to that feeding station, as most other back yard birds have beaks too large to reach through the tiny slits and get at the nyger seed.  But I've been watching the goldfinches closely, and they're almost entirely yellow; these birds had only a splash of yellow on their wings--and had streaking which goldfinches lack.

Ahah--an entire flock of Pine Siskins at the feeder!  I'm sure they are in the process of migrating north and stopped off between weather fronts to "refuel" at our feeders.  A couple were so tame (or hungry!) that they let me approach so closely that I had to switch my Canon EF 300mm f4L lens to "macro" focus.

Topping off the morning of excellent back yard birding, we had a large flock of Purple Finches visiting our black oil sunflower seed station (and giving Beth her second "lifer" of the morning, and my first good photos of the species).

The bird list is now up to 38 species; I'm hoping to hit the mid-40s by the end of April or early May, which will put us well on our way to our goal of 50-60 species--not bad for a back yard!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Do-It-Yourself to Save

I've always been a hands-on, self-taught, Jack-of-all-trades sort of guy, and that philosophy extends throughout all facets of my life.  In today's economic crisis, those traits open up all sorts of wonderful cost-saving opportunities.

You don't realize how much you can save by doing things yourself that you'd normally pay others to do until you sit down and calculate some of the savings.

For example, at Chateau Papillon, Beth and I have done nearly all of the work in our renovations; indoors, the only thing we've contracted out to date was the extension of a gas line to the kitchen for our range--and it's not that I don't feel I could have successfully taught myself to do gas-line plumbing, but rather that I'd prefer to have the security of mind in knowing someone who does that work for a living did it safely.  I'd rather my house not go "bang!" after all.

That means our only costs have been materials.  No costly labor (though for those less handy, the stagnant construction industry means you might be able to hire contractors for far less than you would have just a couple of years ago--keep that in mind, too).  That's let us spend much more on those materials and thus get a lot more renovations done than we would have otherwise.

Likewise, I've tackled several home maintenance tasks entirely on my own.  When the downstairs bathroom clogged so badly that the toilet wouldn't flush and the shower wouldn't drain, we could have (and almost did) call a plumber--something that would have cost us likely $200 or more (and I speak from experience--a clogged sink at our prior rental home cost the owners nearly $700 and three different plumbers to fix satisfactorily).  Instead, we spent $11 at Home Depot on a little gadget that screws onto a garden hose and expands to fill the pipe, then directs pressurized water at the clog to break it up.  Snaking that down the shower drain cleared the problem up in less than ten minutes.

In the back yard, we've made great use of local resources; instead of paying quite a bit for composted soil or for someone to haul mulch to our home, we've visited Fairfax County recycling facilities which give away composted leaf and hardwood mulch--the stuff you'd pay $4 or more a bag for at garden centers.  So far, we've used at least six cubic yards of the free mulch--saving ourselves at least $500 and recycling yard waste which otherwise would go to waste (no pun intended).  We've done all of our own landscaping so far, after a (free) consultation with a local garden center.

And it's not just in the home improvement arena where we've saved by doing things ourselves.  Yesterday, I replaced a burnt-out headlight and brake light on Beth's car; we'd have paid several dozen more dollars in labor had we gone to a shop, and the work was only a matter of ten minutes or so.  A while back, I repaired and then reupholstered one of our dining room chairs; the discounted upholstery fabric I used combined with scraps of memory foam from dog mattresses we'd made in the past saved us a ton over what a shop would have charged.  And while we're on that topic: sewing is a great skill to develop, and one which isn't difficult to learn for the purposes of repairs, hemming, simple clothing construction, etc.

Now, you might not feel like you're ready to tackle some of the do-it-yourself projects we have; that's fine.  But remember: I'm largely self-taught, and like me, you have to start somewhere.  Find a relatively easy project to start with.  Visit your local library, home improvement center, or craft shop to see if you can find hands-on instruction--for free or at low cost.  As you complete each project, you'll experience a great sense of satisfaction, and your confidence will grow, enabling you to tackle those larger jobs.

And "do-it-yourself" extends beyond the areas of construction, maintenance, landscaping, and the like; take up cooking, and with any degree of creativity and self-confidence, you'll find yourself quickly moving beyond following recipes word-for-word to all-out improvisation.  For example, one night last week, I glanced in the pantry and pulled out a couple of different varieties of dried lentils, some bulgar wheat, pine nuts, walnuts, an apple, and some cheese that was getting a bit old and dry from the fridge, and cooked up quite a tasty (and healthy, I might add) dish, just from what we had on hand.  No need to go to the store or to spend money at a restaurant; our dinner cost perhaps $2 total in ingredients, and a half an hour or less for me to prepare.  Cooking is a wonderful skill to develop that will save you quite a bit of green.  You might find yourself like me, noting the sale and coupon items at the store and wondering, "What could I do with that?" and thus saving even more!

So consider doing-it-yourself to save yourself a bit of green!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Visit from the Pileated Woodpecker

During the years we lived in a rental home in nearby Vienna, VA, we had a couple of back yard feeder visits by North America's largest extant woodpecker, the Pileated.  With the likely extinction of the Ivory-billed, the crow-sized Pileated is the largest to be seen in the United States, dwarfing its smaller cousins.  Still, though we'd had a Pileated visit us before, they're not exactly frequent feeder visitors, and as the Pileated is a favorite bird of both Beth's and mine, we were rather hoping that the woods around Chateau Papillon would bring one to our yard.

Over the winter, I heard several Pileateds in the woods, and Beth saw a pair fly over our yard.  And yesterday during yard work, we both saw another, though it didn't linger long enough for me to get a photo.

So we were quite pleased to see this fine male Pileated pay our back yard suet feeder a visit today.  (For perspective, the suet feeder he's hanging from is about four to five inches wide and tall.)  Oddly enough, he chose the plain suet cage, and not the special "large woodpeckers" suet feeder visible in the foreground; the wooden tongue on the larger feeder gives larger woodpeckers a place to brace their tails while they sup.

We're hoping he'll be a frequent visitor now that he knows what good eats we've got in our yard!

One other back yard birding note: I'm almost certain I saw a Purple Finch today at our feeders; though the similar House Finch is much more common, the bird I saw lacked significant streaking on his flanks and had much more red on his body than I typically see on House Finches.  That brings the Chateau Papillon bird list total to 37.