Monday, August 25, 2014

Dog Days

It's that time again. And, inevitably, people are complaining. Look, I want to say, you knew it was Texas when you moved here. And, as summers here have gone in the recent past, it really hasn't been that bad this year. Of course, it's not over yet, either.

I used to look at the state capitol building when I lived here last and imagine the workers dealing with all that heavy stone, laying the floors, installing the woodwork, in the depth of a Texas summer. My old house had two window-unit air conditioners and there were days when I was just immobile in the living room as the unit wheezed in cold air. The kitchen didn't have one, and as I remember I ate out a lot, or else ate salads. The refrigerator worked fine; my landlord's brother owned a used appliance store. There was even an ice machine. The electric bills were frightening, especially once I went back to freelancing. The office had the other machine, so sitting in it was okay, and it connected to the sleeping porch/bedroom, a room lined with windows that was just wonderful before and after the summer and winter weather. So life wasn't too bad once you got used to not doing too much. It could have been worse: I could have been working construction.

But then I moved to a place without air conditioning entirely. You didn't need it for the 45 or so days of summer in Berlin, of course, but really, summer in southern France wasn't so bad, except maybe for a week at its height. Which would be right about now. The French cleverly invented shutters, big wooden doors that you could close without closing the windows, so that air could circulate.

The place I live now has central air/central heat, CACH, as the real-estate listings have it, and what I discovered over the winter is that the house is very well insulated. I'd unthinkingly step into the garage and suddenly it was winter, just as now I walk in there and it's like an oven. (Well, it does face east). I've got the thermostat set for 79º, which is about right. The temperature at night slips below that most of the time so that I'm not running the compressor all the time, and the well-insulated interior keeps use at a minimum, although it steps up during the afternoon.

As it should: these past couple of weeks, we've been into the three-digit range. Today's high is forecast for 102º, low of 79º. These are the dog days, the days when Sirius the dog star is above us. Might be: I rarely go out at night, and anyway, the city illumination in the distance would negate seeing it, even if I did know a damn thing about stars, which mostly I don't.

No, boy, it's not about you.
"Cane Beagle" by Ale300885 - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This weather, though, has all kinds of side-effects. For one thing, it hasn't rained decently in some time. There's a general drought on, which has been going for the better part of the decade, although,  again, it's been atypically wet since I got here. I gave thought to starting a garden, or at least plants in planters, on the back deck, and a friend even presented me with four tomatillo plants he'd kind of impulse-bought during a road trip. They throve nicely (although the chile seeds I got from a friend in New Mexico never sprouted because apparently they don't in peat pots) until one day they didn't. This is something I remember from my previous residence, too. One day, the leaves start looking bad and no amount of watering will change that. In what seems like minutes (but is actually a couple of days), the whole plant goes from plasmolysis to death. Bang. 

Things aren't much better in the critter community. I was planning to write a post in which I was upbraided by the local blue jay family for writing about such lowly critters as bugs and turd-laying toads when there was such a splendid display of avian-Americans available to me. Which is true, even if the blue jays' latest family caused a bit of panic when the kids were learning the ropes and several times flew at the screen in the open window a couple of feet from my head here on the desk, but managing to grab the mesh with their claws just in time and take off again. I don't know which of us was more alarmed. When the lawn in the back yard was going, so were the bugs, including the first lightning bugs I'd seen in decades, and so were the birds eating the bugs. Corvids were popular: there were grackles, of course (Austin's famous for grackles: ask anyone with a car who's parked under a tree they use for sleep), but also cowbirds (which may or may not be corvids, but are structurally similar) and starlings. Grey doves made the scene, with their annoying cooing sounds, but also their ability, unique in the avian world, to suck up water through their beaks. No leaning back and gargling it down for them. My most treasured avian-American visitor, though, was a woodpecker of some sort -- I still haven't identified it properly -- with a body covered with bars of black and white, and a bright read topknot. His station was one of the trees, where he'd cleverly knocked a wound. The wound bled sap, the sap attracted ants, and the woodpecker had dinner. And I shouldn't neglect the cardinals, of whom I have two, male and female. At one point I thought I might have a wounded baby cardinal back there and went out to check. Nope: some bird had found a bright red cigarette lighter in the street, where it had been run over, and brought it into the yard. 

(Although there's sure no complaining about this guy, who may have been dead, for spectacular color. He landed in the driveway, shed a lot of the red, and then disappeared)

There are mammals, too: squirrels and a cat. An old cat. Black and white, and acts like he owns the neighborhood, which in some respects he does. I know when he's around because the jays tell everyone he is. I saw him just yesterday, walking stiffly across my front yard. So as to keep on the good side of my avian-American friends, I pay him no attention: no feeding the predator. 

But the weather in the past couple of weeks has cut back on all this activity. I suspect water is at the bottom of all of it: there just isn't any here because it hasn't rained. My guess is that most of the critters are hanging out near any creek or even backyard swimming pool that's got wet in it. Yesterday I almost hit a squirrel who was attempting to cross William Cannon Boulevard, a four-lane road with a center divider. He was walking oddly, and I think his tiny brain was kind of baked, but it worked well enough that, as the traffic came on, he changed his mind and went back to the starting place. I wondered what was going on, but again, the thought was water. There are no birds in the back yard, few bugs at night, the grass is largely yellow, the leaves on the trees contracted but not plasmolized. 

As the day ends, instead of the colorful sunsets of a few weeks back, we get a sort of annoying yellow light and then darkness. What it portends is the same thing the Weather Service tells me: "abundant sunshine," which sure is a nice way to put it. And hot. 

Well, I knew it was Texas when I moved here. Now for the electric bill. 

Photo by Stephen Wolfe Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I'm going to be looking out the window while writing anyway. He'll be back. 


  1. And I just got the electric bill: $219.71. Which is for water and garbage and other city services, too. The electric part of it is a mere $139.82. Amazing. Much cheaper than it was 20 years ago. I think I'll pay it!

    1. Music by Gishy Wildly (Wildy, Whiley??) played on Fresh Air in your Blues music review of Paramount records was also played as background in a documentary on artist R. Crumb.

      Connection knocked me out.

      Thanks and love your work.

      - barry

  2. Take pity on your avian american friends and put out a bird bath for them. No need to spend money. Just rummage around on trash day and use some imagination - you'll be amazed at what you turn up. Tip: rich people have the best trash.



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