Nat Geo on the veranda

(Warning: If you dislike ants, you are not going to like the photo at the end of this post.)

Last night, both of my cats were enjoying the cooler evening temperatures on the veranda while I sat at my desk by the open sliding glass door. The peace was disturbed when one of the cats suddenly sprang into action, dove into a plant, and came prancing back out.

This is usually a bad sign for anything I’d like to save, so I jumped out of my chair and prepared for a rescue — just as whatever was in the cat’s mouth dropped to the veranda and began flipping wildly about.

In the darkness, I couldn’t see what it was until I was reaching out to pick it up…

…and realized that it was a tail. A small gecko tail, doing exactly what it’s designed to do: detach and flip around to distract the predator while the gecko itself gets away.

I have never seen this in real life. It is amazing how much that tail flips! And for how long! In the beginning, the muscle fibers twitched so strongly that the tail repeatedly bounced into the air. As the twitching began to die down, the airborne bounces were reduced to flips: top side, bottom side, top side, bottom side. Later still, it went to straight, curl, straight, curl.

The movement went on for more than ten minutes. I was completely goggled. That is a lot of electrical activity for a body part that is no longer getting any blood supply to power the muscles.

It was too dark to photograph the tail, so I thought I’d do it in the morning. Well…I forgot that there are other residents living on our verandas, and they found the bounty first.

Gecko tail

The ants had already stripped away most of the skin. I expect to see bone by the end of the day.

The good news is that I saw the gecko later this morning, now only about four centimeters (1.5 inches) long. She’s missing half her body length and a lot of balance, but she has lived to tell the…

(I couldn’t resist.)

Posted in biology | 7 Comments

Three minutes of art

Clocking in at exactly three minutes, this Volvo ad is really a short film about possibilities. It’s beautiful, with gorgeous cinematography and a whole life packed into one dream, and it made my vision blur at the end.

The final text says:

Sometimes what never happens is the most important thing of all.

Hat tip to Alma.

Posted in ad worth watching | 4 Comments

Portugal wildfire (we’re okay)

Portugal fire 3

I’ve had quite a few emails from readers asking if we’re okay after learning of the horrific wildfire in central Portugal. So to start out: we are fine; we live a half-day’s drive from the area where this occurred. Nor do we know anyone who was injured or lost their homes. Thank you so much for thinking of us.

It was and continues to be a terrible tragedy. Portugal is currently in the midst of three days of national mourning. So far there are 64 confirmed deaths, and 40 villages in the area have been evacuated. Forty villages!

Portugal fire 1

The fire started from a “dry thunderstorm,” which means a thunderstorm in which the air is so hot that the rain evaporates before it can hit the ground. But the wind and the lightning strikes are still there.

This fire moved horrifically fast, due to the heat wave that has gripped Portugal (and much of Europe) for the last week or so. Many of the dead were caught on a highway, trying to evacuate when the fire jumped the road. They burned to death in their cars.

Portugal fire 2

But there was one story, printed in the BBC, that really captured my attention because it so beautifully illustrates who the Portuguese are.

We found ourselves stranded in a village called Mó Grande, just off of the IC8 motorway; ourselves and others were directed there by an officer from the IC8.

As we drove up the mountain road you could see the flames jumping across from one side of the valley to the other.

The accompanying wind threw branches at the car but you couldn’t stop, you could feel the heat.

Eventually we reached the small village at a crossroads surrounded by fire. Locals and ourselves were crying, overwhelmed by the heat and speed of the fire. It was dark, so dark, among the flames.

A man shouted for us to come and take refuge in his home, along with his mother. Several of us did.

His mum had an annex flat downstairs, where it was cooler and out of the way of the fire. During the time there, more people were arriving, knocking on the door, people just congregated where there were signs of life.

The guy’s mum poured us wine, and it would have been pleasant if it wasn’t for the circumstances.

[…] As the power went off, the flames hit hard, a fiery red tornado passed the windows. We crouched on the floor for a good hour, trying to breathe, praying, crying. […] Eventually the fire passed and we emerged to see the smouldering remains of the village. Miraculously, our house and the one next door did not burn.

And that, in a nutshell, is the beautiful hospitality of the Portuguese people. Not just that they would invite strangers into their homes in an emergency — that kindness is not limited to the Portuguese — but that they would pour wine for their guests during the apocalypse! That story did not surprise me at all, but it did make me smile in recognition.

I love my adopted nation for many reasons. This is just one of them.

Posted in Portugal | 5 Comments

Alien: Covenant review

Alien Covenant 2

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW! (But not that many, really.)

Alien: Covenant is great fun!

…as long as you don’t bring your brain into the theater with you. Scientists and logical folks (hereafter referred to as SALFs) will be nearly as horrified with this film as they were with Prometheus. I say nearly, because the crew in this film aren’t quite as stupid as in Prometheus (can anyone forget the supposed trained biologist facing a brand new, hissing, cobra-like life form and saying, “Oh, you beauty, let me see you”?). They die because they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, not because they’re freaking idiots.

Although we have a lot of idiocy as well. For instance: Armed Dude 1 says “I have to take a pee” and instead goes off to smoke a cigarette — on a brand new, pristine planet they’re considering for colonization, mind you — and then FLICKS HIS CIGARETTE BUTT INTO THE BUSHES.

I said, “That dude needs to die.”

He did, and quite spectacularly. I was pleased.

The second death wasn’t nearly as pleasing, because that poor person did (almost) everything right and was trying hard to save a life, but…did I mention the snowball’s chance in hell? And for the third death, we were rooting for the human to make it out alive, but see aforementioned snowball.

The general plot of the film is: A ship carrying 2,000 colonists in cryosleep, about 1,400 frozen embryos, and 15 crew members is lumbering through space on its multi-year journey to the planet they’ve targeted for colonizing. Android Walter is the only active crew member while everyone else sleeps, but when he deploys the solar sails for a power recharge, the ship is hit by a sudden neutrino burst that rips up the sails, damages the ship, and messes with the cryosleep tubes. Subtract one crew member: the captain, who burns alive in his tube. Ugh.

After repairing the sails, nobody is eager to go back into their tubes for the several years it would take to reach their destination, because if they did, the movie would be over. Instead they make the bad, bad decision to check out this neat little planet two weeks away. Because (and here is our first groaner for the SALFs) it makes much more sense to divert course and land on a planet they didn’t even know was there, rather than continue to the planet they spent 10 months studying and preparing to colonize.

So they go to said planet, tracking an intercepted communication, and then pull a repeat of one of the worst Prometheus groaners when they don’t fly a single reconnaissance orbit but instead send out the landing shuttle immediately. Brilliant! (All SALFs groan.)

Upon landing, the new captain sets foot on the promised land and 42 seconds later brightly says this would be a great spot to colonize. Never mind that they have no idea of weather patterns, or whether winters last for 12 years, or whether this area is prone to earthquakes or tornadoes or hurricanes — you know, like the one they had to fly through to land there?

But it doesn’t matter, because the moment these poor saps landed, they were doomed. Here There Be Monsters, and the worst one isn’t even the ugliest.

Alien Covenant 1

Honey, you forgot to let the dog back in.

The rest of the film involves Android Walter meeting Android David (from Prometheus) and having some nice, philosophical sibling chitchat while various crew members die around them. At one point the new captain demonstrates why he was not chosen to be the original captain when he follows a character he knows is evil down a dark flight of stairs and into a room with some large, mysterious-looking eggs…and somehow manages to miss every nuance of menace in such dialogue as, “They’re alive, they’re just waiting” (for you, dude!) and “Go ahead, look in, it shouldn’t be missed.” At that point I threw my hands in the air and said, “Okay, he deserves to die.”

There is the usual action sequence involving an orbital lander attempting to escape the monster and the usual heroine trying to kill the monster before they go back into orbit (and it is all kinds of awesome that in this series of films, I can say “the usual heroine”), and the usual “surprise” once they get back to orbit and their colony ship…so I can’t say this film involved anything unexpected. If you’ve seen Alien and Aliens, you know what’s going to happen.

But that isn’t the point. The point is, this movie is fun. The cinematography and special effects are glorious. I’d watch it again just for those. The dialogue between the two androids is spooky and fascinating and has a couple of deep pockets of thought. The heroine is awesome and tough as nails (literally, in one instance) and makes all the right decisions. The action sequences are edge-of-seat exciting and the poor crew members die really disgusting, awful deaths with rivers of blood, so…the usual Alien fare.

So leave your logical brain at home and go enjoy yourself, and remember: litterbugs die first.

Posted in entertainment | 2 Comments

A must read: “My Family’s Slave”

The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.

Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola.

This is a long read, and not an easy one. By that I mean, it’s impossible to draw any simple conclusions. I wanted to hate the author’s mother. I wanted to judge the author for not acting sooner. But those are simplistic reactions to a very complex set of relationships.

I think this article, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon, should be required reading for all Americans. It’s beautifully written and draws you in even as it describes a lifetime of servitude and choices taken away — and love, given and received.

What made it resonate even more for me is that I recognize so many of the place names. The author and his family — including their slave Lola — lived in Salem, Oregon at the same time my family lived there. His mother worked at Fairview Hospital, where my mother had a temporary job during tax season. They took trips to Lincoln City, a coastal town I’ve stayed in and driven through more times than I can count.

Every article I’ve ever seen about modern slavery says it happens right next door. It feels different to read that in the abstract than to know it.

Maybe her life would have been better if she’d stayed in Mayantoc, gotten married, and had a family like her siblings. But maybe it would have been worse. Two younger sisters, Francisca and Zepriana, got sick and died. A brother, Claudio, was killed. What’s the point of wondering about it now? she asked. Bahala na was her guiding principle. Come what may. What came her way was another kind of family. In that family, she had eight children: Mom, my four siblings and me, and now my two daughters. The eight of us, she said, made her life worth living.

None of us was prepared for her to die so suddenly.

If you can read this and not get sniffles at the end, you are a stronger person than I.

Posted in culture, history, life | 2 Comments


A friend sent this on with a sniffle warning, and she was right. But it’s a good kind of sniffling, accompanied by laughter. If you don’t mind the potty mouths of a bunch of Brooklyn natives, with an occasional Spanish cuss tossed in (“Pendejo means handsome,” lawd, that cracked me up), this is a sweet, heartbreaking, and beautiful short film that shows it’s never too late to love.

(Hat tip to Alma.)

Posted in humor, life, video | 1 Comment

Dia da Liberdade (Freedom Day)

Last night, I was brushing my teeth when our flat was rocked with a deep BOOM.

“Fletcher!” my wife called. “Come here! Fireworks!”

I dashed down the hall and out to our smaller veranda, where Maria was already watching the show. We hadn’t expected this, because it hasn’t happened for several years due to lack of funds.

“It must be midnight,” I said as a huge ball of green sparks expanded over the southwest sky.

And it was. 12:01 a.m. on 25 April, meaning it was now the Dia da Liberdade, the anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution. The 1974 Revolution ended the 40-year Estado Novo (New State), a right-wing dictatorship that suppressed civil rights, jailed political dissidents, and waged a 13-year war to maintain control of its colonies. That war proved to be the last straw for opponents of the regime, who saw their nation spending a staggering 40% of its budget on the Colonial War — with no end in sight.

The Revolution was a military coup, but what gave it so much strength was the involvement of the people.

It began with two secret signals, both aired on the radio. First, at 10:55 p.m. on 24 April 1974, the rebel captains and soldiers were notified to get into position by a station playing that year’s Portuguese entry into the Eurovision Song Contest, “E Depois do Adeus.” One hour and 25 minutes later, at 12:20 a.m. on 25 April, a different Lisboa station played “Grândola, Vila Morena,” by Zeca Afonso. This was the signal to attack and take over strategic points of power.

The significance of the second song is that Zeca Afonso, a well-known folk singer, had seen many of his songs banned from Portuguese radio because the regime viewed them as Communist. Ironically, “Grândola, Vila Morena” was not one of the banned songs. But one month earlier, at a Lisboa concert on 24 March, Zeca performed this song and the entire audience joined in, creating a memorable moment of unity in a suppressed population. For this reason, the coup organizers chose this song as their signal to begin the revolution.

Despite radio broadcasts pleading with citizens to stay home and not get involved, thousands of people poured onto the streets of Lisboa, mingling with the insurgents and turning the coup into a people’s revolution. One of the spontaneous gathering points was the Lisboa flower market, stocked at the time with carnations, which were then in season. Many people took red carnations and held them aloft, because red symbolized socialism and communism, ideals of “power to the people” that the regime had brutally suppressed. Some of the insurgents put carnations in their gun barrels, signifying that they would not use force against the people. Photographs were taken and sent around the world, and the coup became known as the Carnation Revolution.

The spontaneous involvement of the people made it clear that the insurgents had the power of the population behind them, and the Prime Minister — who had taken refuge in a Lisboa police station, which was then surrounded by insurgents — ceded power to a popular general he had previously tried to remove due to his opposition to the Colonial War.

The entire revolution had taken six hours. The only known fatalities were four insurgents killed by the regime’s political police before the surrender. It was, in essence, a bloodless revolution. A Carnation Revolution. And it all began with this simple folk song.

Posted in history, Portugal | 1 Comment

Nat Geo moment

I miss my Oregon birds, some quite desperately (such as Anna’s and rufous hummingbirds, and Swainson’s thrushes), but there are compensations in the fabulous birds of Iberia. One of my favorites is the European bee-eater, which winters in Africa but nests in southern Europe and Asia. When I hear their distinctive purring call in the skies, I know spring has sprung.

All bee-eaters are gorgeous, but European bee-eaters are so beautiful that they seem like an exuberant painter’s idea of what a bird could be. Add to that their confident flight — they are insect eaters, catching prey on the wing, and are thus acrobats of the air — their large size, their mellow calls, and their fascinating life history, and you have the total package.

You can probably guess that bee-eaters love to eat bees. During courtship, a male will offer a female tasty morsels to prove his suitability as a mate. Often, the meals he feeds her are what give her the nutritional edge she needs to produce eggs.

Here is a male sorting out a bee before offering it to the female (left):

Pair of Merops apiaster feeding.jpg
By Pierre DalousOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

As you can imagine, eating bees is not without its dangers. Bee-eaters neutralize the sting by orienting the bee with its stinger facing outward and then whacking it on a tree branch to knock loose the sting and venom sac.

Most bee-eaters are burrow nesters, excavating burrows by breaking up the (usually hard) soil with their beaks and kicking it out behind them with their feet. Ours prefer vertical banks, which are prevalent in road cuts. There are quite a few burrows along my regular 5K hill route, so I see “my” bee-eaters every year when they arrive and happily watch them all summer long.

Which brings me to my National Geographic moment. On a walk last week, I noticed a bee-eater land in a tree about 30 meters away, holding a twig that extended several centimeters on either side of its beak. This didn’t compute, since bee-eaters don’t build nests and don’t bring any nesting material into their burrows. As a second bee-eater settled beside the first, I wondered if the twig was some sort of offering.

I stood and watched while the first bee-eater tossed its head again and again, apparently trying to reorient the twig. Then it bashed the twig on the branch it was perching on. A second later, it bashed the twig on the opposite side of its body. The other bee-eater got bored and flew to a different tree higher up the hill (the better to spot passing insects from), while the first continued to whack its twig.

Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack!

And the twig bent. In one of those “oh, of course!” moments, my vision reoriented and I realized what I was seeing. This wasn’t a twig at all, but a large grasshopper with wing covers extended out to the sides. The body was not visible, being held in the bee-eater’s beak.

Over and over, the bee-eater whacked that grasshopper into shape, knocking the wing covers back so that the whole shebang could be swallowed. Keeping in mind the size of the wing covers relative to the bird, it could only have been an Egyptian locust (Anacridium aegyptium). Males of that species grow to 55 mm (2.2 inches) while females hit 70 mm (2.8 inches). It was a huge meal for a bee-eater, but that bird was determined.

Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack!

The wing covers were eventually bent back in a delta shape, and the joints were probably nicely softened in the process. The whacking behavior also kills the prey so it won’t struggle while being eaten. With a meal of this size and strength, struggling would have been a real issue, but the bee-eater took care of that quite handily. At last it tilted its head back and swallowed — once, twice, three times, until the locust went all the way down.

I was impressed. That would be like me folding a large pizza several times and then shoving the whole thing down my throat. I probably wouldn’t be able to walk afterward. The bee-eater, however, gracefully took flight and joined its buddy up in the higher tree. They chattered together and I resumed my walk, happy to have lucked into that Nat Geo moment. These are the sorts of things that make my whole week.

Posted in Portugal, wildlife | Leave a comment

Song of Saturday

Before I could relax, I had to hang the laundry

Before I could hang the laundry, I had to water plants

(because the laundry rack blocks access to the plants)

Before I could water plants, I had to wash the dishes

(because I can’t fill the watering can in a sink full of bowls)

Before I could wash the dishes, I had to sweep the floor

And this is why it took an hour to hang the laundry.

But at least I had help.

Micah laundry

Posted in life | 4 Comments

Innovative teachers (subtitle: Ryanair is the Scrooge McDuck of airlines)

Ryanair 1000x600

Three teachers at our son’s school have been arranging a class trip to Scotland. They contacted Ryanair and asked for a group rate for 20 seats. The response was unbelievable: around €300 per seat.

This is for a short, nonstop flight from Faro to Edinburgh. It should cost nowhere near that much, especially for a group rate of so many seats.

So the teachers abandoned that plan and instead hopped on the laptop of one instructor, from which they bought six tickets. Then they opened up another laptop, using a different ISP, and bought a few more. By their third attempt, the prices were already going up.

They waited a few days, giving the Ryanair algorithm time to respond to the lack of purchases and lower the seat pricing again. Then they bought a few more.

In this way, and spaced over the course of several days, these three teachers purchased 20 seats on the same flight.

Their average price per seat? Around €140.

I applaud their savvy and persistence in getting rates that Portuguese parents can afford. After all, we work for some of the lowest wages in the EU while paying some of the highest taxes — a killer combination that doesn’t allow Portuguese to travel much. For most of these students, this will be the first time they’ve ever seen another country besides Spain.

But what the hell is wrong with you, Ryanair? Schoolteachers call you for a group rate of 20 seats and you highball them? Have you never heard of a group discount? How about an educational discount? Or basic decency?

This is how your airline became the punchline for so many jokes. You earned it.

Posted in travel | 10 Comments