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Forty Years with Birds and Dogs 

The Power of Story--A Whole New Mind Set

Bobbi, Lucy and Ms. Khaki

It sinks in gradually--the power of your daughters' stories, as they approach and cross society's invisible line at 50. Suddenly you realize they see you as an elder citizen, one who needs to consider what to do with all the scrapbooks, the geese and ducks that will probably outlive you, the closets that have accumulated too much forgotten Stuff.

And the dogs are failing. Scooter still enjoys patrolling the yard while the birds are out, but DeeDee can barely manage the back stairs. She still enjoys her biscuit and licking the pan after dinner, so she isn't ready to quit yet. Neither are we, but we have faced that fact that we will not live forever. time to downsize.

Okay, says I, get moving. Research the options for Life Care (link to CCRC guidelines), update the will to include goose care, and Throw Out Stuff You Haven't Used in Twenty Years. Thirty? Forty already?

What fun--the cleaning-out-closets bit. I found some great stuff to give the granddaughters, had lovely moments of discovery with daughter Shawne pouring over old news clippings she didn’t know existed. One day I found Treasure True. I tried on all the shoes in one closet and discovered most of them still fit.
Out went the ones too tight on my big toe. I focused on why I hadn’t worn this sweatshirt of that pair of pants, and came to the conclusion they were not the old friends I thought they were. They had shrunk or something. They were clothes I didn’t much care for, had never worn, ad would not fit into the closets of potential life care retirement homes.

What a relief this new mind set is. We’ve given ourselves five years to make the transition to a less-frantic older age, and I can with glee look forward to the next closet. How much useful stuff will I find to give away to people who might really use it? Then there’s the satisfaction of showing off my garbageing talents to a long-patient husband, hoping for fifty years that I would one day be able to shut my bedroom closet door. It’s so beautiful. He “ooed” and “awed” for at least ten seconds at the cleanly neat look of it.

Now—don’t ask me about the file cabinets and book shelves. Enough is never enough. I feel I must sit out while the small ducks take their morning bath. Hawks can probably spot an ageing dog. And these gorgeous blue sky mornings are not to be missed.

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The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain--1. No Other Animal Wantonly Destroys

Today I’ll begin a series that may not be entirely fair, since the author can’t fight back (at least not directly). The writings I’ll cite were not published until Mark Twain was long dead. His daughter Clara finally allowed DeVoto’s 1939 edition to be published in 1962, says Henry Nash Smith, Editor at Berkeley.

I’ll begin by quoting from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.” In this ten-page article, Mark Twain (MT) lays out the evidence—thirteen horrendous reasons why humans are inferior to all other animals. MT’s tone is serious, usually, and seriously distraught at times. The satire is nearly gone. Now, fifty years after this writing was resurrected, I’ll review the thirteen faults he finds in Homo sapiens and test them against our modern perspective from the Hen House.

According to MT, given a choice of many calves, an anaconda ate only one, refusing all others, [with] “...no disposition to harm them,” but an English earl, with “charming sport...killed seventy-two of those great animals [buffalo]; and ate part of one of them and left the seventy-one to rot.” The excess calves offered to the anaconda were perfectly safe while shut up with him.

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Emergence in Story and in the Hen House Flock

Emergence in complex systems in defined as a group of things becoming something more than the parts of that group can explain. A complex system can be any group of things that interact in nonlinear (not straight or direct) ways with each other, like an organization of human beings or birds sharing a Hen House.

If the mission for all the employees of an airline is to get the traveler to his destination with the most comfort in the least time possible, but the employees insist on sticking to their job description, what emerges is something not as friendly as intended. In many businesses, producing a reliable product can be forgotten in the name of making a larger profit.

What you do as a group, not what you say, is what you become. The soul of the group emerges, like the Hen House flock of geese, chickens, and ducks. The rules are simple: move over when I come to the feed dish or the pond and let me have a turn. If you don’t give way, I’ll give you a gentle nip with my beak.

Your organization has labored over a mission statement. Finally, it says what you want it to say--more or less. It's a bit idealistic, maybe it's a compromise for everyone who contributed to the big sheets of paper you pinned on the wall, but it's done, and it sounds good. It embodies in words what you would like to see your organization be and do, at least how you'd like it to appear.

A year passes, and the mission statement still sounds good, but does it describe what the organization has become? Or is the Bottom Line, like the Stock Price, used as the measure of that soul? Has your goal been to make the best product possible or provide the best service, as the mission statement says, or has the goal really been to make the most profit possible, so the stock price will go up?

What you do, not what you say will define the organization's soul. It will emerge, based on how individuals in the organization relate, how each person looks at the whole operation as well as each member's part, how much feedback is allowed, how much communication happens, how free each individual is to do his best at fulfilling the mission. It's all in the books. Check out the work of Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science.

The Hen House gang knows where to sleep—turkey and hen on roost, geese below in the Hen House, little duck in the dog igloo, big duck in the nest box. At dusk. Not ten minutes before dusk.

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Aging in the Hen House and Elsewhere

Gwen and Puddles in her maturity

What has the Hen house been telling me lately? Something about aging, I'm afraid. Should I blog about aging? In this culture? Maybe. But I'll do it anyway.

We're all aging, aren't we? Turkey's knees are thick with rough scales, and she has quit whining for her flock, content to hang out with the geese and chicken. Lucy is still a beautiful fat white goose, but she laid only a few eggs this year. Baby duck Puddles, now one year old, has sprouted lovely dark brown patches in her feathers. She is still laying one egg each day, more than her mother Khaki.

And the miniature Mallards, Kiebler and Ms. Ritz, can no longer fly all the way up to the stock tank for their morning swim. Even so, Ms. Ritz is sitting faithfully on several eggs I neglected to collect. I haven't the heart to take them away. Maybe they'll hatch. She's a good mom, but the Hen House is quite full enough. I don't know what I'm going to do.

What do I do if they don't hatch? She once sat for eight weeks on eggs that didn't make it while we were on travel. That's why I got her Meatball, a broiler, the only chick in the feedstore.

Back to aging. The dogs hips are arthritic, but they don't complain, like the rest of us. We're cutting back and looking for end-of-life options, so we don't leave a huge legacy for our children to cleanup. There are many different options for elder care. Most people wait too long, then move when they have to--when there's no time to make a comfortable choice. Here's a few links to start working on it. NACCRA or a 2010 overview

Our problem is that the Hen House birds could easily outlive us, and most Life Care campuses don't allow geese.

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Spring Fire--Evacuating Dogs and Birds

Safe in the hills above Santa Fe

Spring is done. One heavy rain, and now just wind and blue skies. Better stay organized for another possible evacuation.

During the Cerro Grande Fire in the year 2000, all we had to evacuate were a turtle, a plecostomas and two swordtail fish. They didn't like being evacuated, but at last I convinced them to stay in the largest salad bowl I could find--all but the male swordtail. I couldn't catch him, and time was ticking away. A huge plume of black, orange and white smoke rose overhead.

It broke my heart to leave the male swordtail behind. We spent five anxious days glued to a TV set in a friend's house in Santa Fe, while our aquatic dependents swam around in a cooler on the front porch. The second week we took off for our daughter's home in St. Louis, while a generous pet store housed turtle and company.

Many homes were lost in that fire, but an alert helicopter pilot spotted smoke opposite our canyon and saved our neighborhood. When we arrived home, we found the male swordtail hale and hearty. The female promptly delivered hundreds of offspring.

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Dogs and Lost Hens—Time Is Precious

DeeDee and Scooter in their prime

I should explain that the dogs do not reside in the Hen House, but they have a lot to do with it. They have a huge pillow bed and a life-sized artificial bear rug to sleep on under my desk-door-resting-on-file-cabinets and a closet devoted to the two-dog door system husband Don invented to prevent heat loss (into the closet, then outside).

The dogs’ job is to watch and protect the birds while they’re out in the yard. They do their job effectively, except when the hungry hawks that nest next door are on the hunt. They got my old hen Jupiter when the dogs were off terrorizing chipmunks in the woodpile. The hawk must have startled the miniature Mallards, Kiebler and Ms. Ritz. I hunted all over the yard for them. Finally I heard their quizzical quack and found them outside the back fence, waiting for me to let them back in. Some years later the hawk, probably a chicken hawk, got Butterscotch in a heavy rain, when the birds were hunched under an apricot tree. All we found was a small pile of feathers.

The dogs managed to kill a skunk one week, without getting more than a token perfuming. Poor thing. We hadn’t seen a skunk in the yard for several years. In the 80’s they lived under the Hen House, and in the ‘70’s our current dog Poncho was best friends with daughter Indra’s pet skunk Streak. Her story has been told in my weekly online column with the Los Alamos Daily Post. Search "Cary Neeper".
The gophers are also long gone from the yard, after a summer-long pursuit that left a six-inch deep trench in front of the Ponderosas that frame and shelter the Hen House. The one they caught was huge. Until this year, I haven’t had to clip the dogs nails since they were pups.

Now the dogs are aging. They don’t dig for gophers any more, and they are once again invading the yard. I’ll also have to get out the clippers soon. The dogs’ nails are long enough to make them skid and trip on the back stairs—not a good thing, for DeeDee’s arthritis is slowing her down.

So what’s the point of all this? Life is a strange mix of eat and be eaten, live and let live when you’re bonded as youngsters, survive when you can and enjoy the ride. Time is precious.

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Jealousy Amongst the Beasts

Lucy, Bobbi and Turkey Two (Little Bear)

This column is about jealousy, which turkeys are not. They simply demand attention and swipe bites of sandwich when they get a chance.

I hate to complain, but it’s only been a few short decades since animal behavior scientists could publish words like affection or empathy in their scientific papers, thanks to Frans deWaal and others on the Discovery Channel and PBS broke the ice.

All good soap operas should deal with jealousy once in a while, instead of relying on poor communications to turn the plot. I’ll deal with it right up front, right now, while Bobbi goose rapidly attains status as the dominant personality in the Hen House. Jealousy is the most prominent driving force of Hen House sociology. I watch it every day, amazed.

Dogs are the most jealous of critters. DeeDee, being the most alert of our two canine family members, can’t stand to watch me murmur sweet nothings to the birds of the Hen House.

There doesn’t need to be any food involved. If I kneel down to talk to young Bobbi goose and scratch the bottom of her neck, I immediately have two wet noses nudging my hand and wet tongues washing my face. DeeDee and Scooter can’t stand to hear me sweet talk the baby goose without getting some for themselves, and a neck massage to go with it.

Baby goose Bobbi also has a jealous streak, and it prevented my making friends with Motley and Lance, the ducks Ms. Ritz raised one spring. When Bobbi scarped the melon rind I held for her, I tried offering it to Motley. The yellow and black hybrid duckling cocked his head and looked at me straight in the eye as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Still, Bobbi wouldn’t ever stand for my approaching Motley with the leftover Honey Dew rind. With her raspy complaint she’d get between us, and sometimes Lucy would join her, as if to protect their treat from such lowly beings. Lucy acts the same way toward the chickens, so I’m reduced to squatting at the chicken wire barrier between the wet nursery and the dry hen/turkey pen, holding one melon rind in one hand for the chickens while the other hand holds a rind for the geese.

The ducks watch, but not jealously or longingly, not even very interestedly. I think they know it’s a hopeless cause. They even give way to the geese at the ponds. Taking turns, I call it.

But the real reason the melon rinds don’t interest them is probably because their bills aren’t made for scraping out bites of fruit. It took Lucy some time to master the art, and she can scrape out a bit with the tip of her beak or chew up the entire rind with the serrated edges of the back of her beak. No problem. However, it’s taken Bobbi some time to learn the technique, and she still doesn’t get it. Or maybe her beak or jaw muscles are not strong enough yet. She can sure pick apart the little green apples that fall into the pen, so maybe she just isn’t motivated by the taste of Honey Dew melon.

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Tragedy Strikes When There Are No Dogs In The Yard

DeeDee and Scooter--prime bird-sitters

Martha’s incident was one of many that filled our lives as our three daughters grew up and left home to go to college. Soon the childhood dog Poncho died, as tradition would have it, and we found ourselves with a very empty nest.

Our suburb on the canyon is in ponderosa country at 7200

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Martha’s Belly

Selective breeding has done a real number on layers and broilers—chickens, that is. The layers I’ve had, poor things, don’t live long after a life laying a two-ounce egg every day or so, even in winter, after they reach six months. Modern chickens are living examples of how rapid evolution can be. At two years of age they sit around one day and fall over dead the next. Or they walk around like they’re carrying a load, and are put to sleep by sympathetic vets who can tell a rampaging cancer from a stuck egg, At least death comes quickly to the kindly birds.

Some vets don’t know much about chickens. I discovered this shocking fact some time back in the 1970’s, when Martha started walking around splay-legged, like a bird with a loaded diaper. I drove her, with her suspiciously balloon-shaped abdomen, to the vet ten miles down the road. The young vet extracted some clear fluid from Martha’s belly and admitted to being somewhat puzzled. I suggested I would be willing to pay for an x-ray, and the deed was done. In the x-ray, to our horror, we spotted a very clear dark object framed by the l-shaped bones of the overloaded chicken.

“How much would it cost to have that removed?” I asked

The answer was also shocking. $100 was real money in the 70’s. Sadly, I took Martha home, but something about that x-ray bothered me. When I deposited the sick chicken in the back yard, she ran off to greet her nest mates, apparently relieved at having escaped major surgery.

I ran for the bookshelf still loaded with text books from my college days and found the basic zoology text. There it was, on page 108, a simple anatomic diagram of a domestic chicken, a familiar dark spot framed nicely by the l-shaped bones of leg and pelvis. It was labeled “gizzard.”

I laughed out loud, then smirked knowingly to myself and gave myself ten brownie points for not calling the young vet with the good news. Martha lived another happy six months before she succumbed to her mysteriously bloated belly.

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#10 Encouraging Scenes from the Steady State--Money

Regarding money, the authors of Enough Is Enough point out that in the steady state "...get-rich-quick dreams blink out of existence, replaced by investment in real wealth [like chickens] that earn modest returns...[and] build low-carbon infrastructure, restore ecosystems, improve social conditions, and develop useful technologies [as on Varok in my novel The Webs of Varok]...No one becomes obscenely affluent." This is the end of the series on "encouraging scenes from the steady state."Don't miss the whole story.Dietz and Dan O'Neill Enough Is Enough.

Here's my problem. The Hen House is not a cheap hobby. Although I do hire locals to take care of the birds when we are away, thus boosting the job rate, I drive 50 miles round trip to get their cracked corn and lay pellets, alfalfa and straw for bedding. Some animal feed is grown locally. but who knows where the dogs' food comes from?

We do reuse the feed bags for garbage. And all our kitchen scraps--except onion peels, citrus, and banana peels--disappear at 4 p.m. into the Hen House pen. I carry the scraps down in a large yogurt bucket to chum in the birds from the yard. I suppose I should be making compost out of the scraps, but the birds love to work them over, and I do use their dirty straw as mulch. Maybe that counts.

The point is that we need to do better about how we throw money around—both in earning it and in spending it. On a full Earth, we need to conserve what we can and invest our precious time to produce useful goods and helpful services that enhance life, not abuse it.

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