Owl See You Later Life in Congress

We’ve never lived in a house that was previously owned before and after living here for a couple of years, I’m convinced that this one is haunted—or at the very least it has a poltergeist. Our house constantly talks to us. The doors squeak, the floors creak, and there are strange noises coming from inside the walls. We’ve put rocks at all the doors to keep them from opening or closing on their own. It gets worse at night after we turn off the TV and the house goes dark. For the first couple of months, one of us would be startled awake and shout, “What was that?” After getting out of bed to investigate—and I’m always the designated detective—I hopelessly search for the noise’s source. We’ve gotten used to much of it now and mostly ignore the strange sounds.

That was until the other night when I woke to what sounded like scuffling on the other side of the headboard. As I laid there trying to decide if the noise was real or if it was part of my dreams, it happened again, and I thought, “There’s something going on outside.” It was 3:00 am and my brain began cataloging all the possible causes for a noise like that. Could it be a coyote cornering a rabbit against the house? Was there a javelina rooting in the dirt? What if it’s a mountain lion? By the time I listed all the scenarios, the hooting started. I suspected that the cause of the racket was an owl. Now that I was pretty sure it wasn’t a lion, I could be brave enough to get up and take a look.

I’ve been on recon missions like this before. I know that I can’t see anything in the dark; especially on a moonless night. That’s why we have dozens of Pelican flashlights all over the house. I also know that if you turn the light on while inside the screen door, all you get is a well-lit close-up of the screen. Finally, I know that you have to wait to turn on the light until you’re ready for it, otherwise your prey will see you moving and they run-off. You get bits of wisdom like this from experience; lots and lots of experience.

I sat up and grabbed a flashlight from my nightstand drawer and tiptoed to the front door. Since the nights are very quiet out here, I purposefully opened the front door and gingerly slipped through the screen door. If there was an owl, the first place to look would be on the TV antenna, and there is only one spot on the front porch where you can see it. That spot is the outmost right corner, so I cautiously slipped into place and looked toward the aerial and then turned on the flashlight. Staring back at me were two pterodactyl sized great horned owls sitting at opposite ends of the antenna like it was a teeter-totter. To my surprise, they didn’t fly away. Instead, they stared at the light while shifting their heads in a circular motion. They were trying to figure out the light.

“Oh! Anne has to see this,” I thought and slipped back into the house to wake her. Now, this is the dangerous part because if I’m not careful, I could lose a limb … or worse. Because it’s summer, she was sleeping without covers in all of her natural beauty. I grasped her ankle which was beyond the reach of her claws and gently squeezed while I hushed her. “Huh … what?” she uttered as she woke. I whispered about the owls and how she should come and see. Her sleepiness turned to excitement as she followed me outside. I guided her into the spot and then turned on the flashlight. The owls were gone. They must have flown away when I went inside. I assured her that they were real and they were huge and they made a racket when they landed on the pole. She was disappointed that she didn’t get to see them. Then from my neighbor’s front porch, I heard John’s voice ask, “Hey! What’s all the commotion about?”

Until next time — jw

Memorial Day Weekend The official start of summer in the desert.

This is the Memorial Day weekend and we get Monday off from work. Good, I need a break from my frantic retirement schedule. I’ll probably use the extra time to get some extra naps in over the holiday weekend. You just don’t know what kind of stress I go through having to decide each day whether to have breakfast on the front or back porch.

For our overseas friends, Memorial Day is the day in the U.S. that we honor and remember servicemen and women who have fallen in defense of our country.  There is some bunting and American flags hung in neighborhoods around the country, but most of the big ceremonies are held in national cemeteries. It’s not the joyous celebration like the 4th of July. It’s more somber.

Memorial Day is one of summer’s delineating pillars. America’s cultural summer officially begins this weekend and closes on Labor Day. The two holidays mark when public pools open and close, the beginning and end of grilling season—in places where that’s actually a thing, they frame when schools close, and the time span that it’s proper to wear white. It’s the first long weekend to get away with the family to the beach, the lake, Disneyland, or camping in a National Park. It marks the beginning of travel season—when the amateurs are loose on the roads. It’s the most dangerous weekend to be driving.

This year, we’ve had a mild May in Arizona but weather forecasts predict sustained triple digits beginning Monday. The Bee-line highway will be packed with valley traffic headed to Payson. I-17 will be crowded with even more people on their way to Prescott, Sedona, or Flagstaff, and the swells will be on I-8 for the San Diego beaches. Phoenix will be deserted. A good part of the exodus from the cities will be campers and it’s the wrong time to be in the woods. We haven’t had rain since January so the forests are bone dry. Rangers have prohibited campfires they have closed some of the choicest locations. Still, the woods are packed with people who know more, and next week, we’ll be watching stories about the new forest fires on the evening news. Camping will be much more fun after the summer monsoons hose down the forests.

Rush Hour
Rush Hour – North Ranch residents waiting for the security gate to open before escaping for the summer.

Queen Anne and I aren’t going anywhere. The streets in our little park are already quiet. The snowbirds have pulled out already and they won’t be back for months. Even the over-night spots up-front are empty with just a couple of stragglers remaining. I have the streets to myself while I’m on my bicycle ride in the cool mornings. You see, here at North Ranch, Memorial Day marks the season’s end. We’re 180º out of phase.

In college, one of my required courses was the natural history of the desert where they talked about how the flora and fauna have adapted to survive the harsh climate. I can tell you it’s true because after forty-five years I’ve learned some summer survival rules. I’ll share a few with you.

  • Pack all your sweaters away by April 15th.
  • Cover your windows with your heaviest curtains by May 1st.
  • Get your chores done by 10 am, then hide inside until the sun goes down.
  • Always find a shade tree to park under.
  • A cool drink of water does not come out of the tap.
  • Wear wide brim straw hats.
  • Pack an ice chest and shop at the Prescott Costco.
  • Never wear black unless you want a nice sear instead of a tan.
  • There is never enough sunscreen.
  • Forget about daylight savings time, the last thing we need is more daylight.
  • A green lawn is a money pit.
  • A person driving a car with all the windows down has the right of way—thanks to Bob Boze Bell.
  • You never need reservations for lunch at an outdoor café.
  • What’s a dinner jacket?

That’s a few that come to mind off the top of my head. I’m sure you can add to the list and I urge you to in the comments section. Maybe we can come up with enough to compile into a beginner’s guidebook. I’ll think about it while I sit on the front porch in my white shorts and shrunk wife-beater enjoying my morning coffee amidst the peace and quiet.

Until then — jw

On A Morning Walk Super Blue Blood Moon

Some would call me a brave man. Foolish; maybe, but I’m not brave. You see, Queen Anne asked me to wake her at 5:00 am so she could see the Super-Blue-Blood moon this morning. It was another 100-year event that she didn’t want to miss. It seems to me that these once-in-a-life things happen often.

Super-Blue-Blood Moon
Super-Blue-Blood Moon – Another once in a lifetime event that we enjoyed on our walk this morning.

At the stroke of five, I did my duty by cracking the bedroom door and tossing a shoe in. When I didn’t hear bear growling, I entered and announced, “It’s started,” then I returned to my computer. Almost immediately, she was at my office door with her jacket on. “A walk? You want to go for our walk now?” I asked.

“Sure. Didn’t you?”

I put on my shoes and grabbed my coat and flashlight and we set off for our morning lap around the park. Venus was high in the east and Scorpio was rising out of the glow of the Phoenix lights. By this time, the moon already had a good bite out of the top as it began to enter earth’s shadow. As we walked, we watched the illuminated section shrink. It takes us about forty-five minutes to complete the two-mile trip and in the dark, I would shine the light before us checking for vermin. It was interesting to see how much light pollution our little community added with many LED ropes placed under trailers being the biggest culprit. They’re supposed to keep rodents from chewing the trailer’s exposed wiring, but I think their effectiveness is suspect.

By the time we got home the moon was only a red glow in the black sky. Rightly named the blood moon, I can see how our ancestors would have feared its omen. Anne grabbed a couple of lap blankets and me, a cup of coffee from the house. We pulled chairs out to the edge of our rear deck and watched while listening to the hoot of a great horned owl coming from nearby trees. We wanted to watch the moon emerge from the shadow, but it lost a race with dawn and to soon disappeared into the trees along the horizon. After it disappeared, we went inside and made breakfast so we could see instant replays on the morning news. All in all, it wasn’t a shabby way to start the day.

Until next time — jw

Observations on a Winter’s Morning

After listening to the radio reports of sub-freezing nation-wide temperatures, I donned my blue light-weight jacket and straw hat as protection against the 48º (F) biting chill and left the house for my daily dawn walk around our compound. The sun was lurking behind the Weaver Range and it turned an overhead cloud into a streak of crimson. I couldn’t decide if it was the Arctic Blast or the red sky that stole my breath.

I’m of course telling you this with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, but it’s an Arizona law commanding us to brag about our winters just like our law that says we have to tell out-of-state relatives that we’re having Thanksgiving by the pool, regardless of having one. I’m just a law-abiding citizen.

On this morning’s walk, however, I did notice a couple of things that concerned me and another that brought joy. Unlike last year’s wet winter which brought snow to the mountains flanking our east, this winter has been warm and dry. The last measurable rain in Phoenix was August 23rd. That’s not good even though our RV Park is packed with northern people. Octogenarians partying in shorts and loud shirts late into the night dancing the Limbo next to a roaring campfire (do they know we don’t do that here?). All fun I guess, but winter rains are important for us. We count on them for spring wildflowers. More importantly, the mountain snowpack’s feed the streams and rivers where we keep the water Phoenix needs.

The first example I have is this brittlebush. It has flowers which is something that happens in early spring—not at the beginning of winter. In spring the daisy-like yellow flowers cover the brittlebush and they carpet the desert floor, then the heat sets in and the plants shrivel into dry sticks—hence the name.

Brittlebush in January
January Brittlebush – Brittlebush normally sends out daisy-like yellow flowers carpeting the desert floor in early spring.

At the south-east corner of the park, down by the water treatment plant is a large ash tree where our resident Cooper’s hawk nests in the spring. Ash trees in Arizona are always late to turn color, but this one is still green. I don’t know if something in the leach field keeps it green, or the unusually warm weather is affecting the leaves from turning. In either case, it’s not the norm.

Winter Ash
Winter Ash – Ash trees (background) are always late to turn color in Arizona, this one may have missed the bus.

When I got to our cactus park, I was glad to see that the warmth has not prevented the columnar cacti—the ones that look like pipes—from sprouting their winter bloom. This only happens during the coldest part of the year and the cup-like flower stay until the nights warm again. Since we haven’t had a freeze this year, I worried that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the flowers. Strangely, neighbors living near the park report hearing melodic noises during last night’s (super) full moon. They all said that they heard the soft chanting of “Whip-it, whip-it good” drifting across the night air.

Winter Blossoms
Winter Blossoms – Only on the coldest nights of winter do the columnar cactus sprout these cup-like white flowers.

Until next time — jw


I spent all day making this Christmas Card for you.

Candy Cane Remains
A plate full of candy cane crumbs is a sure sign that Santa was here.
Ginger Boy's Tragic Accident
Just because it’s the Holidays doesn’t mean you can ignore safety.
Perfect Dinner
Oh boy! I can’t wait for Christmas dinner because we’re having cranberry sauce molded in the shape of a can.

Until next time … jw

Box-boy Builds A Drawer

I’ve been neglecting my social media for a couple of weeks because I was busy in the shop making my entry for the Worlds-Most-Expensive-Shelf contest. It took me a little over a week to make it—which is fast by my standards, and I installed in the closet yesterday. I didn’t make it expensive on purpose. My pocketbook just suffers because of my cabinetry skills.

I made the shelf to hold my Keith Monks Record Cleaning Machine. You probably do not know, I’m a fan of vinyl records and I have a substantial collection. Any serious collector knows the advantages of record cleaners and they care for their records by running them through washers. We geeks know that even new records sound better when you wash the mold release from them, and if you depend on the used market for new vinyl, a cleaning machine is essential.

The Library of Congress uses a Keith Monks for their records and I found mine at an estate sale at a fraction of its original price. I’ve had it in three houses now but I’ve never had a proper place for it. Our shack in Congress has an ideal spot. The previous owners replaced the original air conditioner with a version that sits on an outside slab. That left the utility closet next to the stereo empty, so I claimed it before Anne converted it into another junk drawer. The closet is wide enough for the machine to clear with a half-inch to spare, so I set the machine on the bottom shelf while I thought about the shelf design. After two years, I worked down my honey-do list far enough that I made this project a priority.

It’s possible to machine clean a record while it’s in the closet, but it’s hard to see in the dark—especially in the evenings when I do most of my listening, so my design had to have a slide, and a stout one at that. The thing easily weighs 50 lbs. At our Deer Valley house, I cut a piece of ¾ inch plywood which supported the weight, so I knew the general size I needed.

Drawer pushed in.
It’s possible to use the machine while it’s inside the closet, but space is cramped.

Last week, I set about measuring and drawing up the plans. I had a sheet of Baltic Birch Plywood and a plank of Cherry hardwood I bought for another project that’s still on the to-do list. There were two pairs of 100 lb slides collecting dust on my workbench. With plans in hand, I grabbed the wood and set out to make some sawdust.

With such a tight fit, I cut the side supports so they would just clear the opening … or so I thought. After mounting the outside rails, they rubbed, so I cut a shim out of scrap quarter-inch plywood to properly space the rails in the opening. After they were in place, I carefully measured the space between them so the drawer would be a perfect fit. I cut the piece of cherry to size and milled box joints on the corners to control the frame size. Then I cut a dado and dropped the plywood into the frame. The width was perfect, but the depth was short. To fix that, I cut another strip of plywood and glued it in place. With that done, my shelf was square and the exact size. All that I needed to complete the project was to sand and finish and sand and finish and sand and finish for the next two days.

Drawer Extended.
At full extension, it’s easy to see and work the machine so that I can get the best results.

On Friday, my shelf was on my assembly table all shiny and pretty and I was proud of how it came out. I carefully measured and installed the rail inserts and took it in the house to slide it in place. It didn’t fit. The rails would insert but they wouldn’t slide in. So I did the most logical thing; I got a bigger hammer. With a lot of pounding it went into place and now it wouldn’t come out. “Maybe the shelf is too wide,” so I sanded the sided with very coarse sandpaper. I gave up after a while and left it till morning.

Starting fresh on Saturday, I shaved each side .05 inches. The slides inserted but they’d stop with a clunk, so I looked closely at them and I saw that during my bout with the big hammer, I had damaged them. They were bent and some ball bearings had come out of their races. Then I saw that the right side was not parallel; when I put the ¼ inch shim in, I misaligned the track so it was binding.

After installing the second pair, the rails worked smoothly, but now the shelf was too narrow from all the trimming. Now I had to take the rails off again and use shims to space them correctly. It was late morning before I slid the shelf in place and worked it in and out. For a millisecond I thought about pulling it apart to finish the sides, but I decided to save that for another year when I get a round-two-it. I’m looking forward to next Friday’s music session when I get to relax while listening to clean records.

Till then … jw

Night Creatures

We don’t have pets. We settled that quickly in our first year of marriage. Both of us had dogs before, but Queen Anne prefers yappy purse-dogs and I’m partial to working breeds. Neither was willing to compromise. What ended the debate, however, was that we weren’t willing to clean up after a dog, so we settled on houseplants. It’s worked for us so far.

When we had a fenced back yard, we had no worries about stepping on a surprise package, and we like being outside when the weather’s nice. The Congress house doesn’t have fences and in the past month, we’ve found good size turds in the yard. Our association has a strict dog policy mandating that they don’t run free and the owner must pick-up after them, so I deduced that it was the work of a loose cat I see from time to time. I call him Lucky, because we also have coyotes that move through the neighborhood, yet he’s still alive. Even more of a puzzle is that on our morning walks, we noticed that everyone has presents in their yard. Even the streets have droppings. That’s one hell of a busy cat.

When I got home after a meeting last Monday, I saw a large toad hopping from our driveway into the neighbor’s yard. I forgot about the Sonoran Desert Toads because I hadn’t seen one since I lived in Scottsdale thirty-five years ago. They hibernate most of the year and only come out at night during the monsoon season. Their backs carry poison glands that can kill a dog if it bites into it. You shouldn’t try to pick one up because they’re also toxic to humans. After they mate and lay eggs in standing water, they crawl back into a hole and sleep for another year.

It was our neighbor—Jane— that told us about the toad scat. “It couldn’t be, it’s too big for a toad! It’s gotta’ be a dog,” I thought.  She was right because the poop easily breaks down in a light rain leaving only the undigested insect exoskeletons which look like a handful of dry oatmeal. Damn! You learn something every day, I hate picking it up, but I can’t blame the neighbors anymore.

When we drove home from the Herberger opening reception last Friday, I put on the high beams and slowly turned into the driveway. I hoped to show Anne one of the toads. We lucked out because she spotted something by the porch stairs. Except it didn’t hop, it crawled. “Is there a flashlight in here,” Anne asked.

“Sure,” I answered and dug around in the console to fish it out. I turned it on and got out of the truck and went for a better look. When I was close, I turned and shouted, “You got to come and look.” She walked over from the truck and saw what I had in the light; she ran up the porch stairs without her feet ever touching them. It was a tarantula, about the size of my hand … If I had LeBron James’ hands. We followed it for a while—me from the yard and her from the porch—until I got bored and handed her the light so I could put the truck in the garage.

After I put Fritz away, I walked through the house and joined her on the front porch. Mr. Spider had made it around the porch as she silently watched. The giant spider acted like it was out for an evening stroll and seemed a bit annoyed in the spotlight. It stayed next to the house as it moved south. When I saw enough, I handed the light to Anne and went inside.

Soon the screen door slammed and Anne bellowed, “There’s a tarantula in my front yard. We’re moving.” Then she went to the desk and put new batteries in the flashlight before going back outside. I don’t know when she came in, because I went to bed. When I asked the next morning, she told me that she watched it until it disappeared into the neighbor’s yard. Then she explained how we were going to seal up the house so they couldn’t get in. Now, she’s an old tarantula hand, they don’t faze her, but she won’t venture off the porch when it’s dark.

Till then … jw