Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Tide of Summer

Memorial Day weekend 2012 is upon us, and we in central Phoenix are enjoying an unexpected and most welcome respite from the triple-digit temperatures that burst on to us about a month sooner than they should. The high temperature yesterday was in the mid-80s, a good 14 degrees cooler than what's considered normal. When we get lower-than-normal temperatures in Phoenix anytime from May to October, we have something for which to be thankful.

About a week ago we were broiling through temperatures that reached 108 degrees. That does not bode well for the remainder of the summer, which stretches out in front of us like 500 miles of the ugliest, most pothole-ridden, unpaved road imaginable and we're in a broken-down Ford Pinto with no air conditioning.

The tide of summer is poised to sweep over all of us, like a tsunami of horribleness that we know is coming and are powerless to stop. Last year's summer was brutal, one of the very hottest on record. It's a sure sign of advancing age when I am having more and more trouble getting through this time of the year. I know it's a consequence of living in the desert and you would think after 19 years I would be fairly well accustomed to it, but I'm not, and it's just getting worse. I find myself thinking more often of moving to a more moderate climate, like in New Mexico. Santa Fe and Taos are calling to me, and they sound better and better with each passing degree.

During the very hottest days, which are from mid-June until the monsoon season kicks in mid-July, temps can approach 120 degrees. There are no circumstances under which that amount of heat can be considered necessary or appropriate. I mean, seriously, what's the point? What does a 120-degree temperature accomplish that a 112-degree temp can't? Anything past 114 feels like hot death anyway, what's the purpose of going any higher? Coupled with the fact that the overnight temp sometimes doesn't drop out of the lower 90s, and you got yourself a little slice of hell on earth.

Sometimes I think about other seasons when it gets really hot. It helps a little (though not nearly enough) to remember what it felt like back in December and January, when I would wear my flannel pajama bottoms, wrap myself in a favorite cardigan and sit on a warm blanket on the sofa, insulated from the sharp chill outside. Or during our short autumn in early December when you wake up on a bright, chilly morning and go out to see the tree leaves turning scarlet, burgundy, lemon yellow and russet against a turquoise sky adorned with puffy white cumulus clouds. Or our springtime, which starts around Valentine's Day, when the trees and shrubs are covered with richly-colored flowers, just waiting and hoping for any moisture to come down from the sky like liquid manna.

Yes, the tide of summer is coming, and Memorial Day is just the first stop of a long, arduous and debilitating journey, not into a heart of darkness, but a heart of blinding, blazing light and heat. I know there are good days and bad days to come, and just as summer follows spring, autumn will be following summer, although trying to catch of glimpse of it over the vast, parched, desolate wastelands of June, July, August and September, it seems impossibly far-off, like a mirage shimmering in the heat waves far in the distance. You walk toward that mirage and it seems to retreat farther away the closer you get. You will reach the mirage someday, but at a pretty steep price, as it seems like summertime sucks the life out of you like a vampire that hasn't eaten for several centuries and has just been given 15 minutes in a blood bank.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

I'm Sorry, Babs

There comes a time in everyone's young life when you begin to realize that the world can be a really harsh, unpleasant and messed-up place.  No matter if you've had a mostly idyllic childhood, as I had; eventually you will see and hear things that will cast a dark shadow on the sheltered, protected life you have lived.  You start to understand that bad things happen.

I clearly remember as a young child, probably 5 or 6 years old, being taken by my parents to a funeral home where there was a viewing of an infant who had died.  I saw a small baby dressed in a fancy white gown laying in something like it was asleep.  I thought that was kind of odd, why was everyone making such a fuss over a baby sleeping.  That was bad enough, but what was really jarring was seeing all the adults in the room all distressed and upset and carrying on in ways I had never seen nor expected.  The worst was when the mother of the deceased baby fainted dead away in the middle of the room and collapsed to the floor.  My parents took me out of there pretty quickly, but I will never forget what I saw that sad day.

By the time you're in your teens, you've seen enough to know that the world can be pretty screwed up.  Some bad stuff happens completely by accident or fate, and are just dumped on you with little or no warning.  Other things happen either because of things you did or didn't do.  One of these is when you get yourself a pet.  I always tell people when you get a companion animal of any kind, you are signing up for a future heartbreak.  In spite of our best efforts, we never seem to have enough time with our beloved companions, and their short lifespans (compared to ours) guarantee that someday we will get our hearts thoroughly and completely broken.  The only thing that makes it worthwhile is the love we give and get while they are here with us.

If you choose to work in animal rescue and welfare, as I and many of my friends do, you've really signed yourself up for a lot of pain.  The things that happen to animals in this cruel, sadistic world are truly awful and hideous, especially since in the vast majority of cases, the animals are innocent victims of the ignorance and evilness of humans.  And that makes it all the more sad and painful.  Such was the fate of Babs.

I was working at the Rabbit Rescue Thrift Store on a Wednesday when a call came in from a woman who said she had gotten a rabbit a day ago and she found she could not keep it because of "allergies" (the lamest and most overused excuse ever). She said it was a Flemish Giant female about 2 years old. Normally calls like that we would refer to another agency since our shelter is perpetually full, but I decided to take the bunny in anyway. Even though my house is filled up with well over 20 rabbits (don't ask) I can't turn my back on a Flemmie. They are usually very sweet, gentle and loving animals, and are a lot like great big puppy dogs. I told the woman to bring the rabbit to the store for me to look at.

I was not prepared for what came in the front door, though. A woman came in carrying a very large gray rabbit, its feet dangling loose, wrapped in a dirty towel. The rabbit's bottom and rear legs were stained and filthy with urine, and the strong, acrid odor was a sure sign of a urinary tract infection. The woman, accompanied by her grubby, dull-eyed toddler, said the rabbit had wet itself on the way over, but you don't get that kind of staining from just a car ride. This rabbit had been in this condition for quite a while.

Now this white-trash, hillbilly moron, whose apparently only useful talent in life is spreading her legs and having children, told me a really convoluted story about her buying the rabbit for $50 from someone moving from a house into an apartment. She said her asthma was acting up and gave out with a couple of wet, loud wheezes to prove her point. I'm sure everything coming out of her mouth was a lie, and when she implied that it would be a good thing if we could reimburse her for the $50 she spent, I sent her back to her miserable, wretched life and concentrated on trying to help this poor rabbit. The woman left a bag of food the rabbit had been eating, a vile, horrible mixture of sunflower seeds, corn kernels and peanuts (shelled and unshelled) - all things a rabbit should never, ever be fed.

The rabbit, who would eventually be named Babs, was the largest bunny I had ever seen. She was enormously, morbidly obese, and was very nearly spherical in shape, weighing I'm sure over 20 lbs. She could barely sit up on her own, and running and hopping was out of the question. I can't imagine the stress and strain on her skeleton and internal organs. Her lungs, kidneys, liver, spleen and especially her heart, were all under dire, extreme pressure and stress.

After I cleaned her up at the store, I took her home and set her up in a pen, and tried to do everything I could to help her. I started her on medicine to help her urinary tract infection, and gave her some fluids because she seemed to be very thirsty. It became clear to me that it was going to be a very difficult task keeping her alive until she could start to lose some of the weight that was crushing her body. She needed to lose at least 5 pounds, and that would take a very long time. I slowly came to the realization that keeping her alive until she could begin to realize benefits from weight loss was going to be a very tough task.

Babs was an extremely sweet, docile and lovable girl. She had wonderful salt-and-pepper chinchilla-type fur, and long, dark eyelashes surrounding open and trustful eyes. Even after all she had endured, she could still trust a stranger and show him affection. I fell in love with her instantly, and vowed to do everything I could to help her. She didn't show much interest in eating anything other than a little bit of vegetables, and any movement was an exhausting, uncomfortable ordeal. Along with her critical obesity, her urinary tract infection was complicating matters immensely. Inside, I was losing hope, but knew I had to do everything I could. All the humans in her life had let her down. I would be goddamned if I was going to be another one.

The next day things looked much worse. Babs had not eaten any vegetables I left the night before. She was unable or unwilling to move at all, and pretty soon was laying down on her side. I took her out of the pen and let her lay on the cool tile floor. She flattened out like a huge, furry pancake and just laid there, breathing heavily. I think she knew, as did I, that she was losing her battle to live.

The end came later that afternoon, barely 24 hours after I first saw her. She was still laying flat on the tile floor, when I found her. There was a look of sad disbelief frozen on her face, as if she could not understand how such a terrible fate could befall a good bunny who never did anything wrong in her all-too-brief life, other than be born and want to be loved.

I knew that I had not let Babs down. I did everything I could to help her. Other humans had let her down. Their ignorance and stupidity led them to tend to her so poorly that her body got completely out of control. I am so sad that I could not have gotten her sooner, and maybe could have caught her downward spiral in time to change the outcome. I don't know, and will never know.

But I am also sure of one thing. Babs' physical problems were obviously extremely severe, but what you couldn't see was how depressed and sad she was with all the dislocation and abandonment that she suffered recently. Even though the humans that had her were vile, ignorant, loathsome assholes, they were her family and she missed them dearly. Even though she came from an undoubtedly shitty environment, to her it was home. When she came to me, she had no will to live, no fight left in her. She had given up, and she was tired and wanted to rest. Her body became a prison to her, her life filled with pain and discomfort. She would suffer no longer, and I believe she chose to go when she did. I am very very glad I was able to provide her with a place to transition to the next life. I am sure she knew she was safe, she was valued, and she was loved.

I'm sorry, Babs, that I could not help you more. I'm sorry that the previous humans you had to deal with were some of the worst examples of the wretchedness and inhumanity of people. I'm sorry that you did not get to live a happy, fun-filled life with a family who treasured you and made sure you stayed the healthy, perfect creature you once were. I'm sorry you didn't get more chances to run and play in a yard on a bright spring morning, and I'm sorry you didn't get more opportunities to prairie-dog up on your hindquarters and beg for more tasty treats. I am so sorry that humans let you down.

What happened to you was truly criminal - a heinous, cowardly assault on an innocent and defenseless soul. It was profoundly unjust, outrageously cruel and - worst of all - completely, utterly unnecessary. I'm sorry, Babs, and I hope you can forgive us someday.

You deserved so much better.


Sunday 20 May 2012 brought the prospect of a solar eclipse practically to my backyard.  I've seen plenty of partial eclipses in my time; that's when the moon slides across the sun in the sky and blocks part of the solar disk.  While interesting, nothing apparently tops a total solar eclipse, when the moon completely obscures the sun, making a pearly corona visible and plunging lucky viewers into a false, temporary nighttime.  From all accounts it is probably the most awesome thing you can ever hope to see in the sky.

Halfway between a partial and a total eclipse is something called an annular eclipse.  That's when the moon crosses the solar disk but is a bit too far away to cover the sun completely.  What you end up seeing is a "ring of fire," a brilliant circle of sunlight in the sky.  This is the kind of eclipse that happened last Sunday.

Usually eclipses happen in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or Antarctica or the Kamchatka peninsula or some other gawd-awful corner of the world.  So I was completely psyched when I learned months ago that one will be visible from northern Arizona, a mere 200 miles from my home in Phoenix.  Even better, the event was going to happen at 6:30pm, as opposed to sunrise, which would give me plenty of time to get there and set up.

So, after helping out at Brambley Hedge Rabbit Rescue Sunday adoptions, I packed up my camera gear and headed north.  On the way to Flagstaff I drove by the site of the Gladiator wildfire, and could see huge columns of smoke rising in the distance.  The smoke turned the entire sky a dirty beige color, and it was surreal and claustrophobic to see such an angry, damaged sky from an out-of-control fire.

The drive was very pleasant if uneventful, and I haven't been up north of Flagstaff in a very long time.  I had forgotten how beautiful the landscape is up there.  All along Route 89 north I spotted people off the road in little clearing areas, setting up their cameras and their telescopes, getting ready for the event.  After 3 hours of driving I made my turn-off onto Route 64, with the Vermilion mountains a muted magenta color in the distance.  I was planning on going to the Grand Canyon to watch but I was too cheap to pay the $25 entrance fee, and chose instead a speck on the map called the Little Colorado River Gorge Overlook.  The name of the place is bigger than the place itself.  I had an hour before the high point of the eclipse, and I used that time to explore the Gorge Overlook, which was very much bigger and deeper than I had ever imagined, and it turned out to be a marvelous and very impressive thing to see.

The Gorge Overlook site turned out to be pretty popular with astronomy nerds like me, and there were at least 20 other people that had come there to do the same thing I was - observe the eclipse.  We all had a very good time laughing and talking, and everyone was as excited and thrilled as I was at the approaching sky show.

I set my camera up and sat down to wait for the event.  The minutes ticked by and I could see a bite taken out of the right side of the sun.  The bite slowly, inexorably got larger, and by the time the sun was one third covered, the brightness of the sun was noticeably diminished.  The moon slid further across the sun and my anticipation was building with each passing second.  I started furiously snapping pictures, getting more and more excited.  Finally, the moment I had been waiting for happened.  The moon crossed the limb of the sun and the annular phase had started.  A thin, brilliant ring of sunlight surrounded the moon, and the area was plunged into a strange kind of twilight, almost like the sun was being filtered behind some clouds, but there were no clouds in the cerulean blue northern Arizona sky.  This is a composite photo I made of some of my best eclipse shots:

Two minutes later, it was over.  The moon breached the opposite side of the sun and the ring of fire turned back into a thin crescent.  The eclipse was finished, but the memories it left with me I know will last the rest of my lifetime.  It was an awesome and awe-inspiring sight, and it left me absolutely exhilarated and feeling like I had just witnessed something extremely rare and special and magical, which I had.

Even better, it made me feel very excited about something I had never seen before. I was almost giddy with anticipation, and felt that there are still wonderful things to marvel at in the beautiful, complex, sometimes terrifying and always fascinating universe in which we live. It was good to know that I can still be impressed and humbled by nature, and I'm not quite so jaded that I can't be made to feel like a young child again.