Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: It's Mine and I'll Write It That Way

Title: It's Mine and I'll Write It That Way 

Authors: Dick Friedrich and David Kuester

Date: 1972

Publisher: Random House

ISBN: 0-394-31155-8

Length: 238 pages

Illustrations: some one-color graphics

Quote: “It's the afternoon of the day before my first class...This will be a day-to-day account of what goes on in my class.”

This is the story, fictionalized enough to preserve people's privacy, of two young men teaching a “communication” class for adult nontraditional students in a city (St. Louis).

That's interesting for me, for obvious reasons. How was their class in 1972 like and different from mine in 2002? The answer is—very different. In 2002 nobody was paying for people returning to high school between the ages of 18 and 55 to take a creative writing class. Education had to be practical, in the sense of immediately profitable. The students had to be trained for specific jobs. Most of those jobs involved no writing whatsoever, so the English teacher's job was strictly to get them through the grammar and vocabulary part of the G.E.D. test. But in 1972 Friedrich and Kuester could afford to noodle around with writing assignments and discussions and memoirs and even poems. Oh (Asimov, anyone?), the fun they had...

Few samples of students' work are included in this book. The ones that are reprinted are so topical it hurts. There's the young female who feels compelled to tell a room full of snickering male students that writing is “an act of love” and something to do with “opening yourself.” There's the Black man whose self-introduction is “a poem...a kind of chant” explaining his name, “He got no name-- / He one of Crenshaw's slaves-- / Crenshaw,” and whose name may stick in readers' minds as he continues to submit the most quotable papers. There are writings about sex, marijuana, dodging the draft, leaving the United States, and “telling it like it is.”

Along the way, readers get some rather free-form thoughts about writing, not as well polished and tightened up as they might have been, and several writing prompts they might use for blogs or writing practice—or even full-length poems, stories, or articles. The teachers encourage a student to expand one very short story about losing a pet dog into a longer memoir about her life before, with, and after that dog. The needed follow-up assignment, where the student condenses the information in the long version back down to the length of the original short version of the story, does not appear in this book.

The class is not exactly a howling success; the teachers aren't asked to teach next term's class. Their teaching method may be just a bit too innovative, not only indulging Crenshaw when the cast of characters in a play he's sketching begins with “The President, whose name is Fascism,” but even taking the class out for a walk. When the school librarian recognizes Kuester as a teacher but asks for his ID card so he can check out a book properly, he goes into a rant about how un-American it is to have to carry an ID card and gleefully shares the story of how he marched out proudly carrying the unauthorized library book. Baby-boomers were like that, once, before we started listening to the insurance agents.

It's interesting to consider, perhaps as a topic for writing practice, what we've learned and what we've lost. Librarians can very easily become petty tyrants who need to be reminded that their little policies are at best the rules of a game; people who “liberate” library books can very easily become thieves who destroy a valuable resource for their community. Time proved that both those who hoped and those who feared that acts of rebellion like taking a walk during class time were going to lead to any kind of revolution were just plain wrong...but it does seem to me that when people are free to recognize co-workers and not demand ID cards, for one thing everybody is safer (because card-counters get bored and can be deceived by fake cards), and for another thing everybody has more fun.

What can we learn from the tale of two teachers whose intentions were probably good, who probably did succeed in making students look forward to English class, but who were not rehired as teachers anyway? In 1972 It's Mine was one of those books that polarized people on either side of the generation gap. (It didn't become a bestseller because it asked young rebels to think, practice, and communicate rather than conform, drop out, buy things, or blow things up.) For those who wanted more freedom and self-expression in what was, at the time, a monolithic school system based on the assembly line model, Friedrich and Kuester might have been seen as heroes. The Defying of the Librarian was petty, perhaps even indirectly sexist (although girls defied librarians too), and a very bad example for the students. On the other hand, silent walking—which may be best done in a group, to minimize distractions from all the non-writers one meets—is a legitimate part of writing practice; not only looking out the window but even walking out the door can indeed help students waste less paper while writing better essays.

I suspect that's sort of an example of the way most people my age remember the 1970s, Nephews. We were young, we were merry, we were very very wise, we were trying to hammer out a reasonable philosophy of life for our sleek young selves. Some of what we were doing, we should never have stopped doing (if we have stopped). Some of what we were doing, certainly more of what we were debating about doing, was more like “stealing” library books, or the way poor old Bill Cosby has confessed to having been a serious contender for the title of World's Most Disappointing Date—some things were bad choices, and we should have known they were bad choices, even if we were seventeen...or even only seven. It's Mine contains a surprisingly wide and complete sample of those things for present-day consideration.

John Holt, who did a lot to promote books about education that were rebellious in a liberating, insightful way, did not promote It's Mine. It's unlikely that he'd overlooked it. Whether he considered it trivial, considered it irrelevant to his focus on teaching children, or simply considered other innovative teachers' books better, I'm not sure.

So, it's not Natalie Goldberg's writing-practice book, nor Julia Cameron's, nor John Gardner's, and it's definitely not a manual for How to Be a Good Adult Education English Teacher—though it's instructive to consider what Friedrich and Kuester did right, as teachers, and did wrong. What It's Mine is, is a nostalgia trip with writing prompts. I enjoyed it, and so, as a blog reader, will you. It's instructive, though, that although these guys were young enough and talented enough that you might expect to find other things they've written online, you'd be disappointed--if they are still writing, they're using different names.

And it's a collector's item...and although it's not even a Fair Trade Book, buying it online will require you to support this web site with (at the time of writing) $20 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment. The good news is that you can fit at least three more books into the package for one $5 shipping charge, so please browse and order other books to go with this addition to Cameron's, Gardner's, and Goldberg's classic writing-prompts books, mention should be made of Anne Lamott's, and anyone who uses Writing Down the Bones should check out the follow-up books on Goldberg's Amazon page.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Book Review: Stories for a Man's Heart

Title: Stories for a Man's Heart

Editor: Al & Alice Gray

Date: 1999

Publisher: Multnomah

ISBN: 1-57673-479-X

Length: 294 pages

Quote: “All around...were...the Sober Riders, each one a recovering alcoholic, each one a biker...The bride had given me only one instruction for the service: 'Make sure you have a sermon,' she had said.”

With a title like Stories for a Man's Heart, the obvious question is: “Can women enjoy this book, too?” Yes, and so can children—probably from grade five or six up. These are stories, allegedly true, about men behaving well.

Not all of the stories are explicitly about Christians, although several are. One anecdote takes its punchline from a Christian phrase: The art collector instructed the administrators of his estate to open the auction with bidding on a low-value picture of his son, and close it as soon as a family friend bid (generously) ten dollars, because “whoever takes the son gets it all.”

That particular story is so perfectly suited to open a sermon that I have to wonder whether anything like it ever happened. Some other stories are likely to be used to open sermons, or illustrate points in sermons, but they sound more as if they did happen, somewhere. They were told and written in the twentieth century; one story features a tintype photo, and some mention the 1930s Depression, the wars, or other period-specific details.

Length varies, but generally these are short-short stories. Some selections are only one paragraph, or even one line—the kind of fillers that appear between excerpts in Readers Digest. Often characters are identified only as “the man,” “my father,” etc. Neither the stories themselves, nor the lightweight paperback book in which they're printed, would put much strain on a sick patient; this would be a nice book to share in a hospital.

Anyone looking for “encouraging, inspirational,” and sometimes gently “humorous” stories will enjoy this book. Teachers, preachers, and youth group leaders should definitely own a copy. Students who attend church colleges where they're expected to make short devotional speeches may find that Stories for a Man's Heart serves them well. It's a good book for anyone with a son, grandson, or nephew to have around the house, too.

For women...Men often express surprise or even disbelief when we explain that, most of the time, when we agree that a man looks good, we mean that he's qualified to be a good clothing model or TV talking head, that he looks healthy if young or well preserved if old, that he's an effective speaker or actor, that he looks like a credit to our family—any of the things we mean when we agree that a woman looks good--but not that we want his body. This web site has celebrated the attractiveness of dozens of men, of all ages, sizes, and colors, to whom nobody at this web site is physically attracted...but what do we find attractive? (What do women want?)

Most of the men who've asked women what we found attractive were, of course, really concerned about the reactions of women generally, or more specifically about one particular woman—a friend, sister, roommate of ours—and the answer to their question is, of course, that it's not something a man has so much as what he does, in relation to us. I was the eldest sister so, even while being the leader, I've tended to look for a leader to follow. My depressive sister was the youngest and looked for a follower to boss around, which probably explains what she ever saw in that...never mind. Women do not necessarily have this information about our friends. We don't always have it about ourselves; we're not always sure what sort of personality mix and relationship we most want. We are, like men, finding out how life works as we go along, which is why relationships are so fascinating and so perilous.

However, men who behave like the protagonists of these Stories for a Man's Heart are likely to make favorable impressions on women. Most of the stories aren't about romance, specifically. Then again that might be the point. Men who behave in these ways in unromantic situations are the ones with whom we want to get into romantic situations.

Though neither new nor really old, this book has been kept in the collector price range. Prices may go down at some time in the future but, at the time of writing, this web site has to offer used copies for $10 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment. At least three other books of similar size will fit into one $5 package.

Friday, July 28, 2017

How Do We Show Kindness?

It's always good to see Charles Swindoll Twittering...he's written so many sound, solid Protestant books for so long, and I've bought several of them for personal use and as gifts. There is, nevertheless, one area where I think evangelical Christians really need to move toward new insights based on new information. And I hope the references to Protestants, Christians, and the Bible don't put non-Protestant readers off this topic; what I have to say here is for everybody.

I'm concerned about the objective fact that introverts' brains differ from extroverts' brains, such that we don't express or experience good will in the same way. People concerned about kindness, or even politeness, have been divided for years. Here's a typical inspirational thought about kindness...

...It's valid, in its way. That is: as an introvert I want to feel appreciated in the way I feel appreciated by fellow introverts, and extroverts want to feel appreciated in the way they feel appreciated by fellow extroverts--and, until we admit the differences and talk about them, nice little thoughts about kindness-in-general will continue to push people of good will further apart than nature intended us to be. Vague, one-size-fits-all thoughts about "being kind" may remind some of us what we ought to do for members of our families; they don't teach us what we ought to do if we want to practice kindness toward others who may be different from us.

Hence, after clicking on Swindoll's "Insight," I tweeted:

I want respect, not "kindness," from those who dislike and/or disagree with me.


But, but...showing kindness might encourage that "outgoing," grinny, gossipy behavior... via

(Other people get the Twitter buttons and pictures to show up on their blogs. Why then, oh why, can't I? Let me guess--Twitter's still using those nasty, discriminatory "i-frames" to generate buttons?)

Anyway...I see this happening every time people feel motivated to show kindness to people to whom they are not naturally attracted:

1. People make an effort to treat those who are naturally different from them the way they like to be treated.

2. Thereby they annoy each other more than they did when they were leaving each other alone.

3. In worst-case scenarios, e.g. Seventh-Day Adventist youth fellowship groups, "relationships" can drag on for weeks or months during which both parties act like the emotional equivalent of two swimmers each trying to drag the other to the opposite side of the pool.

For obvious reasons, introverts are more likely to be the ones who feel bullied, harassed, and persecuted during these spasms of misguided "kindness."

It goes like this: You go somewhere alone--to look for someone you've planned to meet at the event, or to check out people you might want to date, or maybe just to enjoy the place or event. Instead, however, you're cornered by people you don't want to date, or to know. You really feel the strain of "being nice" as they make conversation that either fails to include you, or is so completely uninteresting that you wish it had failed to include you, at all. You are being charitable. You are being patient. You are being tolerant. You are being generous. You are praying that these people will never see you alone in any public place, ever again, even if that means you have to transfer to a different school. And of course, before you can get away from the bores, you hear things that make it clear that they dislike you as actively as you by now dislike them--but they imagined that they were doing you a favor by ruining your evening!

As an introvert you are automatically what these people consider less lovable than their wonderful (in their minds) selves, because...

"Ewww, you're so quiet."

"Don't you have anything to say? Can't everybody just open their mouths and gabble the way we do?"

"Don't you liiiike us?"

And they are automatically what you consider less lovable than, well, anyone with whom you'd ever choose to talk for five minutes, because...

"Don't they ever stop flapping their mouths?"

"If they stopped gabbling, is it possible that they'd ever find anything worth saying?"

"Why am I listening to these bores instead of doing any of the other five thousand things I'd rather be doing right now, and where is my special award for doing this?"

As Jonah Goldberg documented several years ago, during the twentieth century North America was subjected to a miseducation campaign in which we were told that extroversion was normal or healthy and introversion was "neurotic" or a weakness. "People skills" was misinterpreted to mean "extrovert skills," rather than the genuinely useful "skill" of recognizing which type of people we're dealing with. Too often, we were taught that "people do" things extroverts do...although in fact introverts aren't really as much of a minority as some researchers have claimed. In fact, if about one person out of five inherits High Sensory Perceptivity and one out of five inherits a Long Brain Stem and one out of ten was born a Late-Talking Boy, that would mean that about half of humankind have inherited at least one of the different healthy traits that are commonly known to shape a healthy introvert personality (and there may be others). Introverts are people--and although "militant introvert" is obviously a joke, I do think we need to remind everyone of this fact.

Introverts don't automatically have a higher I.Q. score than extroverts have, because the parts of the brain that process language and mathematics develop just fine for some people with extroversion. We do, however, use more different neurons to process information in a more complex and interesting way; we see more, hear more, smell and taste and "feel" more, and think about it all in greater depth, and generally, current research seems to indicate, we just have more complete, more fully human brains than extroverts have. Also we have a natural sense of moral right and wrong, while extroverts have to rely on their feeling about what other people feel about things they might do, such that extroverts' judgment is similar to the judgment of introverts while drunk or stoned. Our talents differ one from another, but what introverts have in common are talents.

There are introverts, including Marti Olsen Laney, who've claimed to be happily married to extroverts.

I've never been altogether convinced. For me, it's possible to like extroverts--after all a lot of perfectly decent human beings have been taught that "social skills" mean acting like extroverts, ourselves, and since extroverts are pretty numb and clueless many of us can totally fake them out. (Some of us have even faked ourselves out, or let others do that to us, such that we believe that all people are pretty much interchangeable, and noticing things extroverts don't see and hear is a neurotic tic we should ignore in the hope that it will go away.) It's also possible, even easy, to like dogs, as long as I don't have to live with them or be responsible for them. But working with extroverts--let alone living with them--is like trying to work with dogs; at best you're spending more time training them to respond to very simple commands than you are actually getting the job done, and it's almost always better just to do the job without their "help."

God made dogs, and I personally miss the dogs I've known who are no more, although I'm not sure I would have noticed anything missing from a dog-free world. God presumably made extroverts (or at least allowed their brains to develop in the stunted way they apparently did), and I miss some extroverts I've known who are no more, although I suspect I'd be happier in an extrovert-free world. My healthy introvert conscience tells me to be kind to dogs and extroverts. However, kindness to them looks and sounds completely different from kindness to the people or animals who are naturally more congenial to me...and in the case of extroverts, because so many of them aren't aware that they're not the example all of humankind was meant to follow, I often wonder whether the Highest Good for them can ever allow them to be indulged in the mistake that their reactions have anything to do with the way people are.

At the very least, if people who want to be kind smile and say "hello" to people who don't want to start an actual conversation but just feel that brain-damaged need to be reassured that they are there, we should at least make it easy for them to learn that a substantial section of humankind know where we are, usually have some purpose in being there, and prefer not to be distracted from that purpose by those craving reassurance that they're there too.

If people who want to be kind try to "draw someone out, because you looked so lonely standing there all by yourself," we should at least make it easy for them to learn that that person is looking for a worthwhile conversation, in which that person would learn something new about one of his or her many interests--and those interests almost certainly do not include gossip about Chatty Cathy's other acquaintances, whom that person probably doesn't find interesting either.

If people who want to be kind indulge anyone in a predilection for "small talk," we should at least make it easy for them to learn that we are the ones performing an act of charity. I might want to know the weather forecast, the weather conditions in the place from which you're calling or e-mailing, or whether you currently have some sort of painful medical condition, but one sentence is normally all it takes to meet or exceed my interest in those topics; I'm not interested in a whole afternoon of blather about the weather and everybody's health.

Merely being introverts doesn't guarantee that people will become each other's close friends, either. Introverts are, however, at least capable of respecting the fact that we don't have to have a lot to say to each other, or become close friends, to be good neighbors...the kind who wouldn't think twice about helping each other in an emergency, but don't talk to each other in non-emergency situations.

This web site recently reviewed a book in which a teacher, obviously failing to do his job and teach math, tries to teach teenagers that when they're talking to their own chosen friends other people are "left out, screaming for help." This web site has not yet reviewed a novel about high school students who aren't in a student clique because they're actually more interested in more adult-like aspects of life, by a writer who obviously was one of us...I obviously was not an angry young man, but Cynthia Voigt's "Runner" relates to his high school friends in a way that's much closer to the way I related to mine than anything else I've seen portrayed in fiction. It's not because he's angry that "He didn't care about people, and so people cared about him" at school; it's not even that he completely doesn't care about his school friends--he wishes them well, and tries to help them as best he can, when he does think about them. It's just that he's much, much more involved with his job, sport, and family.

So how can we tell, when someone seems to be alone in a group, whether the person is a bemused outsider with a full life of his or her own--either an introvert, or an extrovert who thinks his or her own crowd is superior to yours--or a would-be member of your group "screaming for help"? We can't. (Teenagers aren't always sure about that themselves.) Either way, though, if you want to practice kindness, it's a kind thought to remember that you're unlikely to make a friend by judging a new acquaintance to have so little to offer that talking to him or her is an act of pity. It's kind to think about what you or your social clique might gain from knowing this person before you let yourself wonder whether this person believes he or she has anything to gain from knowing you.

I've learned from experience that, the more kindness and pity a social relationship requires from me, the more essential it is that I bear in mind at all times why I respect, appreciate, am even obligated to, the other person. As long as I'm aware of John Doe only as "the multiply handicapped man who spends his days sitting in his wheelchair on his front porch, giggling and gabbling unintelligibly when people pass by," I really have nothing to offer John Doe, socially; even if I were his nurse, that wouldn't qualify me to be his friend. If his disability happened to be caused by cerebral palsy, and he happened to be a gifted writer despite his inability to speak or hand-write, and he was able to type well enough that he and I could collaborate on a writing project, then I might easily become his friend. Apart from material help with survival needs, however, John Doe really does not need to spend more time around someone who is merely trying very very hard not to be grossed out by his disability. He's had far more of that experience than he needed in the course of getting material help with survival needs, all his life.

Material help with survival needs is of course what's being discussed in the Bible passage Pastor Swindoll cited. Jesus did not, in fact, say anything like "I was feeling left out, and you chattered at me." He said, "I was hungry, and you fed me; I was sick or in prison, and you visited me." In the Roman Empire, although many polite phrases were exchanged--especially about the special "friendships" between poorer neighbors and wealthy neighbors who gained status by inviting poorer neighbors to share meals--none of the relationships Jesus described would really have been mistaken for a merely social or emotional exchange; all of them were about survival needs. People who were in prison often depended on "visitors" for food.

Some of us have heard that we're not responsible for helping our neighbors meet their survival needs, only their emotional "felt needs." To this I have to say: bosh. We can't help others meet their emotional "felt needs." We can practice civility, such that we don't aggravate their unhappiness--again, in order to do this we have to begin not by assuming that all people want more or less of our attention, but by asking whether a particular individual wants our attention. But even the people who feel that they are emotionally "screaming for help" aren't screaming for casual chitchat. The great howling emotional hole in their lives is the lack of a parent, a child, a teacher, a mate, a synergistic partner, maybe even a way to worship God...and even if we happen to be the person they most want to meet, that emotional hole will not be filled by mere social chatter.

We can, however, help people meet their survival needs. We do this not in some ham-fisted social-worker-type manner, by snooping and finding out all about how much money they have and what they spend it on, but by exchanging goods and services with them. We can be the regular customers, or the occasional generous customers, who make it possible for businesses to survive. We can be good neighbors who barter things like baby-sitting or yard work. We can be the faithful relatives (or friends) who make sure people are properly cared for in hospitals.

Despite the existence of "dating sites" and matchmaking services, when people who aren't closely related by birth do become the kind of close friends who meet each other's emotional "felt needs," they usually begin by being good neighbors. Not by burdening someone who doesn't enjoy "small talk" with lots of "small talk," but by exchanging whatever kind of social benefits people do in fact want.

I read as a comment on a web site--I'm not sure that the person wants the comment highlighted--that, when people try to be polite or "friendly" by smiling and uttering pleasant words while they're not doing anything to meet the commenter's expressed material needs, the person's reaction is, "Your smile is a lie." I suspect the only reason why anybody has ever failed to mention this is that, when they're among people of similar physical ability and income levels, many people don't like to express their material needs...but then, when those people are aware of material needs, they down-rate their "so-called friends" or the whole idea of friendship, fellowship, fraternity, etc. Even those who choose to do it don't really like standing around making "small talk" while they're aware that their parents are withering in nursing homes or their business investments are on the verge of bankruptcy. For those of us to whom friendship means much more than acquaintance, friends talk about the things that really matter (material, then social-emotional, then philosophical-spiritual).

And smiles...don't get me started. I'm all in favor of social interactions in which people are, in fact, pleased or amused or both. But if you're not, in fact, pleased or amused, nobody wants to look at your teeth. Or, if nature intended our teeth to be bared, why do we have lips?

So, maybe people who see each other in social groups--Swindoll was thinking of churches, I suspect most people in cyberspace are thinking of schools--should be thinking less of chatting with strangers as an act of kindness, and more of "ministering to" the needs people post on bulletin boards. Instead of burdening someone with your company just because s/he "looked lonely" while waiting for someone else to arrive, try meeting people's expressed "needs" for car pools or passengers, buyers or sellers, pet sitters or errand runners. That's a respectful, unintrusive way to let those people know that your character and intentions are good, so if they are also looking for someone "to talk to" or "to hang out with," they have a valid reason to consider you for that position.

And if by any chance they're sincerely spiritual people who are still looking for a religious group to join--not that I personally have ever met such a person!--a job well and promptly done says a lot more on behalf of your religion than the sight of your bare teeth ever will.

Grim Phenology Post: More Glyphosate in the Neighborhood

Status update: I got a load of bottled drinks into the Friday Market by 8:35. Rain resumed at 9:55. During that time I recovered $11.50 toward the $13 the drinks had cost. If your problem with this link, ,

is that the Paypal payment process links Patreon to your bank account rather than your Paypal balance--I don't like that either--then I recommend what I did, which was to let Patreon have all the information it wanted about the bank account I linked to the Paypal account back in the golden days of Associated Content, at the bank that no longer exists. Patreon can even go and see who's moved into the building now.

In order to find out how Patreon worked and what might have been interfering with your support of this web site, yesterday I used my Paypal balance to send $1 to each of two e-friends. I can't afford to continue "subscribing" after the first of August but am glad to support each of them as best I can. If you like fun facts, you too may want to support Dan Lewis at

If you like knitting patterns, you may want to support Naomi Parkhurst, who (among other things) uses a wonderfully quirky mathematical system for translating words into knitting patterns, at

Why do their Patreon pages have name addresses while mine has a number? I have no idea.

Now, the actual phenology post...If you have depressive tendencies don't read the rest of this post. It's about effects of poison--'nufsed? If you're feeling tough-minded, read on:

On Wednesday I had mild hayfever. "What a bore," I said. At least it wasn't a summer cold. On Thursday morning, too, mild hayfever.

On Thursday morning I saw the explanation--roadside greenery, including box elder trees and other things that help prevent the kind of cave-ins we had earlier this summer, was looking brown, wilted, and dead along Route 23. Guess our road maintenance crew want to make sure they never work themselves out of a job by leaving the banks above the highway really stable! Some (scum is too good a word; aunts wouldn't use a word that was bad enough, if one existed, which this aunt doubts) had sprayed something, probably glyphosate, around the edges of Route 23.

Also on Thursday morning, instead of Boots and Bruno racing out to get their breakfast before I went to work, Boots walked...very slowly...out to the front yard, meowing piteously, and didn't eat, but begged to be picked up and taken back indoors after Heather had groomed the places Boots couldn't reach. Bruno was already dead.

On Thursday evening, Boots mewed weakly for attention. She didn't try to eat food or drink water while Heather was doing those things. She didn't even try to nurse, which Heather had occasionally allowed the kittens to do. She wanted to be held. She had no fever but seemed weak and dehydrated--was that only because she still had a few fleas? I offered water from a syringe. Boots drank the water gratefully, even greedily, and for about six hours she even kept it down.

But it was too late. Just traces of things that don't harm bigger animals, even medication used to treat an adult cat or dog, can kill a three-month-old kitten. Boots had just enough energy left to snuggle against me, against Heather, or between us, on Thursday evening.

Around sundown Heather and I went out again. Boots walked across the porch, saw me washing my hands, dashed toward fresh water at full speed, then collapsed onto one side, exhausted. I carried her back inside when Heather had done her business. Once again I gave Boots water from a syringe. She drank, but she never stood on her feet again.

It was a long night.

I've watched kittens succumb to infections. For them, the end of pain seems to come as a relief. I've seen kittens die nonverbally greeting their mothers, trying to help their siblings, or clinging to me; anyone would believe they had some sort of Blessed Hope of an afterlife better than the life they were leaving had been.

Boots died hard. During each of three convulsions she yowled, glared, and tried to fight something only she could see. She didn't seem to be sick in the ordinary way, so much as to collapse with her head down and just let the water she'd drunk run back out.

She hadn't had enteritis; her final bowel movement looked healthy. She hadn't had rhinotracheitis; her eyes were bright and clear, whenever she was conscious, up to the end. She hadn't had a severe worm infestation, although most animals have a few parasites; Boots had been growing and gaining weight, eating well, strong for her size, up until she stopped eating right after we'd been exposed to drifting traces of airborne glyphosate...and presumably glyphosate-poisoned grasshoppers or crickets, which are the only thing the kittens were big enough to kill.

This morning her body looked as if she'd died in a Miserific if any final judgment pronounced on Boots could possibly have been unfavorable.

She was an extra-cute kitten, partly because of the irritation produced by a heavy flea infestation. Most three-month-old kittens either don't care about being petted by humans, or prefer not to be. Boots and Bruno always wanted to cuddle. Bruno obviously thought it was beneath the dignity of a cat to come when called or obey instructions, while Boots' adorable act included running to humans before she was called, but both kittens obviously learned to recognize their names overnight. I thought Boots might grow up to be another one of that tiny minority of Listening Cats, like Heather, who actually understand much of what their humans say, and spend their lives astonishing their humans by figuring out things humans don't expect cats to understand. Boots intended to become an alpha cat--she wanted to air-kiss me in the dominant position and demanded do-overs when I kept my nose higher than hers! She might not have coexisted well with Heather as an adult, but she had accepted Heather as an aunt, and Heather had accepted her, likewise.

Because it's so hard to tell whether a kitten is recovering or dying, Boots spent her last night in a box in my bedroom, and each convulsion woke me. After that the sound of really hard, heavy rain on the roof and windows woke me. At least the rain was washing down the airborne glyphosate. I didn't sneeze as I walked past the poisoned box elders and unsecure embankments, on the way into town, this morning. I still felt very, very tired...another effect airborne glyphosate has on me.

I didn't have time to look for robins, wrens, song sparrows, or other friends to humankind, along the road. They will no doubt be there this afternoon.

What about the roadside greenery--the "weeds" some (scum is far too kind a word) was too wimpy to try mowing or pruning? That will wilt down for a few weeks. Then it'll come back, having been selectively bred for hardiness, possibly bigger and tougher than before. Over time glyphosate does, however, seem to shift the balance of roadside greenery from useful herbs like vetch, chicory, dock, and box elders toward nasty things like crabgrass and Spanish Needles, though.

(Spanish Needles are the nastiest of the burr-weeds in the genus Bidens in the Eastern States--the ones with sharp spikes that not only attach the burrs to your clothing, but reach through the clothing and stab your skin. They're not one of the types of Bidens that are really native to my part of the world, and don't compete successfully with those species, except where the soil has been repeatedly poisoned.)

When will we-as-a-nation recover from our insanity of laziness? It's neither difficult nor expensive to mow and trim native "weeds" if you really don't want them to be able to hold loose soil and gravel on a steep embankment above a road. In fact vetch, chicory, dock, dandelions, plantain, clover, and other native "weeds" are much easier to trim (or to walk through) than crabgrass and Spanish Needles.

Nevertheless I suspect the (scum is several levels above their level) in the Highway Department will continue their insane self-destructive policy of using poisons to make their job harder, as well as harming people, pets, livestock and native animals, until glyphosate is totally banned for all use in all of these United States...and other "herbicides," whatever effects they have on me or perhaps on people different from me, are made available only by a special permit process that requires documentation of why regular mowing and trimming are not enough.

Book Review: The Beholder's Eye

A Fair Trade Book

Title: The Beholder's Eye

Author/editor: Walt Harrington

Author's web site:

Date: 2005

Publisher: Grove / Atlantic

ISBN: not printed in my copy

Length: 253 pages

Quote: “This is a book of stories by journalists writing about themselves.”

That is, writing “personal journalism” in which their research about the primary topic is part of the story. Thus J.R. Moehringer writes about interviewing an old man who claimed to be a famous boxer, thinking the famous boxer had changed a lot over the years, and finding out that the man talking to him had actually been a boxer, but...and that's what the story really has to teach us: what the reporter learned from the boxers' use of stage names.

“America's finest personal journalism,” as the subtitle claims, is hardly a suitable subtitle for a book that features a long story about the editor's family; Harrington presents his family well, but, even if there weren't a rule against including your own best in "America's finest," is a family story journalism? Nevertheless, this collection of twelve reportedly true stories contains eleven good ones. Pete Earley researches the short life of his long-deceased sister. Gretel Ehrlich goes to Greenland and hunts with the Eskimos. Stephen Hall volunteers for repeated MRI scans to map which parts of his brain are most active as he thinks about different things. Mary Kay Blakely observes the quirky married life of autistic author Donna Williams, with house rules like “We don't talk while we eat.” Davis Miller talks to Muhammad Ali; Ron Rosenbaum talks to Mario Cuomo; Mike Sager tracks down Marlon Brando and decides, after playing a sort of hide-and-seek with the retired star, to leave him alone. Scott Anderson takes us to a war zone. Bill Plaschke takes us to meet one of those strange creatures that were just beginning to be described in 2005: a blogger; like many early adopters of Internet technology, the blogger he introduces to us has a major disability.

Gross-out champion Harry Crews observes dogfights and the people who enter their dogs in those. If you're not up for a gross-out many times more intense than the insect and reptile stories with which this web site challenges readers, skip pages 57 to 68 of The Beholder's Eye.

“A Family Portrait in Black and White” is bloggy. It'd be a good blog post. It's not journalism.Good writing doesn't have to be journalistic, of course...unless it's being marketed not only as journalism but as exemplary of journalism. Inter-whatever-marriage is no longer all that unusual or interesting, I say, somewhat arbitrarily, even though Harrington's account of his family does make a point my husband and I used to make every time someone commented on our unmatched skin tones: some of your ancestors probably married across battle lines too. Beyond that, what characters in books look like is interesting as a bit of background to the story of what they do...but in this book we don't get any of the story of what the Harringtons have done. I suspect Harrington of saving that for a future volume.

So, final verdict? If you like blogs and web sites but really prefer the posts where the bloggers get out and learn something, and teach us something, beyond their own office rooms...that's what The Beholder's Eye is. Ten of the perfect plums from ten journalists' collections, a long but enjoyable family story, and one gross-out. You're reading a blog; if that's because you're a blog reader, you will like The Beholder's Eye. If you don't already have a copy, you owe one to yourself.

You can buy this book directly from Amazon, using the link above, which is mine, or the one at his web site, which is Harrington's; either of those links will add a few pennies to either Harrington's or my Amazon savings account. Or you can support this web site by buying it here, for the usual price of $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment. (At least one and probably three more books of similar size would fit in one $5 package.) From this $10 ($10 is also what this web site has left after Paypal takes its bite) we'll send $1 to Harrington or a charity of his choice. 

At his web site you'll see other collections of "personal journalism," by Harrington and other writers. The older books can be added to a $5 package, along with The Beholder's Eye, as Fair Trade Books and Harrington or his charity will receive $1 for each of them too. This web site recommends buying the newer books, which are still on the shelves in stores, as new books since that's even more encouraging to writers than buying their older work as Fair Trade Books.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Cute Phenology: Return of the House Wrens

Yesterday's phenology post was true, but it wasn't cute.

I was sitting here writing it, in the last hour of my online day, and thinking "Can't this story at least be made cute?" And actually caterpillars that aren't inchworms, but try to move like them, are sort of cute...if the story hadn't been about how they need killing anyway. (Hibiscus leaf caterpillars. Hah. They ate the flower petals too!) But I went home, and was at once reminded that I'd left out a part of the story that is cute.

Namely: why did I see only six caterpillars, only in the final stage before they molt? Moths don't lay one egg per host plant, the way some butterflies do. Noctuid moths lay eggs by hundreds. Most of the caterpillars that hatch are too small to be seen or identified by humans, and never grow bigger, because they are eaten by smaller animals. Those animals include microscopic parasites, other insects, frogs and toads, mice and rats, and also songbirds. They definitely include cardinals, although in summer my cardinals stuff themselves on seeds and fruits and don't eat a great number of insects. They also include House Wrens.

House Wrens, Troglodytes aedon, are found all over North and South America. They don't depend on human houses to live in, or live near--but they are attracted to human houses, and like to nest as close to their human family as they dare, because they can eat the insects that annoy humans. Here's Audubon's famous painting of House Wrens, showing an unusual but typical choice of nest site.

Now in the public domain, this painting by John James Audubon shows House Wrens nesting in a man's worn-out hat (nineteenth century style). Troglodytes means "cave dwellers," but House Wrens may choose to nest in almost any hollow object humans leave in a yard or on a porch.

Here's a closer looks a bit more gray than my wrens, but that may be a browser effect. Then again, this one was photographed in New Mexico, and different local populations of T. aedon vary slightly in color.

Troglodytes aedon NPS.jpg
Donated by S. King to

Though tiny (adult birds are usually less than five inches long, counting tail feathers, and weigh less than an ounce; you could gather a whole family up in your hands), House Wrens have a bold, cheerful species "personality" that makes them especially amusing for their humans to watch. They use a variety of sounds, including cheeps, chirps, warbles, and a raspy scolding noise, and positively gesticulate with their heads and tails, to communicate with each other. (They will also make the raspy scolding noise at humans, at cats and other possible dangers to their nest. In what wrens have in the way of minds, this probably seems to be warning all right-minded living creatures off their territory...rather than calling predators to their nest, which, in the case of cats, possums, rats, and some squirrels, is what the wrens are doing.) They will fly toward larger animals, either to swoop in and grab a fly or mosquito, or in hopes of discouraging the larger animals from raiding their nests.

Are wrens matriarchal? They can look that way in spring, when males try to impress females with their nest-building skills. A male wren may build five or six possible nests, or may merely propose even more nests that he probably knows he'll be told not to bother finishing, and invite a female to choose one. When the female chooses a nest, she is also choosing its builder. She may remove some of the sticks the male wren used to build the nest and will probably choose the inner lining on which she will incubate her own eggs, relying on the male to deliver food for about two weeks before the eggs hatch. Once baby wrens hatch, both parents keep busy feeding them--mostly on nuisance insects--for another three weeks. After that, the young wrens start to fly and hunt insects for themselves, and the parents may enjoy a bit of a rest or may, in some places, start another family.

Then again, in another sense wrens have more gender parity than many songbirds enjoy. For many songbird species the rule is "Males are disposable." Males have colorful coats and spend lots of time flitting and singing, while females quietly mind the nest, have coats that fade into a background of tree bark, and may outlive two or three male nesting partners in a season. Among wrens, males and females are equally well camouflaged, and equally noisy. Females may even be more aggressive; female wrens have been known to crack neighbors' eggs, following the universal rule that birth control is something the neighbors need more than you do, and are thought to sing to warn neighbors when they're at their nests.

In England the similar species sometimes called the Winter Wren, Troglodytes troglodytes, featured in a considerable range of folklore, apparently because they are so little yet so loud. "The Wren, the King of All Birds" was supposed to be protected from hunters except for a special ritual hunt in midwinter, which in recent years seems to have been more of a joke than an actual raid. Female wrens were sometimes used as symbols of "liberated," aggressive, or overtly sexy women; when the Women's Royal Naval Service was formed jokes about those women being "Wrens" were inevitable.

Although their name comes from their natural tendency to nest in small cavities in cliffs, both Troglodytes aedon and T. troglodytes are familiar enough with humans to have traditional pet names. Males are traditionally called "Johnny Wren" and females are "Jenny Wren." TV's Fred Rogers called a wren puppet character on his show "Trog," just to be different.

When I was growing up at the house I now call the Cat Sanctuary, a wren family was part of the household. It used to be possible to hang laundry out to dry in the open air (now, due to more trees pumping more moisture into the air, a dry towel hung outdoors in the morning will be a wet towel by sundown), and we used to save all the laundry for a sunny day and dry it on wires strung all across the yard. Laundry would be anchored to the wires by "clothes pins," actually little spring-bound wooden clamps, which we kept in a couple of hanging baskets on the porch. One year our Jenny Wren chose to rear her brood in a tiny nest in one of those baskets. Nobody wanted to move or disturb her nest--we just limited ourselves to half the "clothes pins" for six weeks. Just in case anyone might have forgotten, Jenny would squawk and rasp when we took "clothes pins" out of the basket she wasn't using. She made sure we knew where she was!

Our dominant bird family are cardinals--bold, bright, cheery songbirds, substantially bigger than wrens. Cardinals are territorial. They have thick, strong little beaks that can grip about as hard as those spring-clamp "clothes pins"; males use those beaks to tear out feathers or eve n grab the throats of neighboring birds of other species that try foraging in "their" territory. Many other North American songbirds are bigger than cardinals, but birds generally respect each other's territory, such that most birdwatchers have seen a little songbird chasing a much larger, predatory bird. If you have resident cardinals you seldom get a close look at other songbirds. But we did have wrens, because the sassy little wrens were willing to define "their" territory in space that was too close to humans to interest the cardinals.

The wrens continued to live at the house after I moved to the city...until 2006, when a particularly regrettable in-law of mine went to help with a maintenance job and, without asking, just assumed it was acceptable to spray poison at the paper wasps. Apart from the fact that anyone who behaves civilly toward Polistes fuscatus can carry these little animals around in his hands if he so chooses, and anyone my wasps sting probably deserved worse...I'll stop even more disastrous effect of this lout's stupidity was that it killed the wren family. They had been nesting in a door wreath, which I'd been planning to burn the minute they moved out, and I found dead baby wrens below the wreath. And spent the rest of the summer swatting mosquitoes the wasps and wrens would so gladly have prevented from bothering us...the native mosquito species avoid biting me, but swarm around Mother. We try not to make this lot of Nephews feel too badly ashamed of their paternal-line relatives, but they do need to know why all of those relatives are now legally banned from the Cat Sanctuary. Because those wrens were more useful than that whole wretched tribe of in-laws ever made themselves, that's why.

The cardinals are permanent residents (unlike many cardinals, who go to South America and continue eating mostly fruit all winter) but they don't do much to earn their keep in summer, so they survived the poisoning of the wrens. So did enough of the paper wasps that they came back and cleaned up the mosquitoes in 2007. But the Cat Sanctuary was wrenless until 2017. It was early July, during my ten-day vacation from cyberspace, when I heard that once-familiar scolding rasp from the hedge. Many birds make the rasp noise (pet parakeets do, and I once witnessed a mockingbird doing it to imitate a cicada)...I looked, and there, making no effort to hide its well camouflaged self, in the privet hedge was a wren.

Sigh. I didn't properly prune the privet last summer because of the weird weather. It really needed pruning this year; instead of spreading and maintaining a nice dense soil-holding hedge, unpruned privet grows tall and unwieldy. But I don't want to disturb the wrens' nest. I'm delighted that another wren family has moved in.

The Rose of Sharon bushes are directly below the privet bushes in which the wrens are nesting...and that is undoubtedly why I found only the six hibiscus leaf caterpillars eating the Rose of Sharon bushes yesterday morning. (I looked again, this morning. I didn't see any more.) In nesting season wrens, like most birds, will eat almost anything, but their primary protein source is thought to be small, well camouflaged caterpillars. They are one reason why so many insects that can eat the plants in your garden so seldom do eat enough of them to affect the plants' output of fruit or flowers.

The cats...due to their recent life changes, the cats would have been spending more time indoors in any case. Wrens need protection from other pets only while helpless babies are flopping about in nests, and they deserve that much protection. The cats complain bitterly about being left indoors all day while I'm in town, but when I'm at home, and they go in and out with me, they seem to enjoy all the extra attention and grooming and food treats they get, so it's a trade-off for them too.

Book Review: The Other Boleyn Girl

A Fair Trade Book

(Fair disclosure: What I physically have is the older, smaller paperback edition.)

Title: The Other Boleyn Girl

Author: Philippa Gregory

Author's web site:

Date: 2001

Publisher: Harper Collins

ISBN: 978-1-4165-5653-4

Length: 735 pages

Quote: “My dear Mary Carey's sister has come to join our company. This is Anne Boleyn.”

If the stereotype of the sweet blonde-haired sister and the tough, shrewd black-haired sister hadn't been so old already, it might have been based on the history of Mary Boleyn-Carey-Stafford and Anne Boleyn-Tudor.

Both were considered beauties in their day, despite evidence that neither really looked like anyone likely to be cast in a Hollywood movie. 

Natalie Portman as Anne, Scarlett Johansen as Mary...cute, but not what the Boleyn sisters actually looked like.

Anne boleyn.jpg
The most controversial face in sixteenth-century England...either the portrait has faded, or it's been mislabelled for all these years, or Anne Boleyn's hair was only really "black" or even "dark" by contrast with her sister Mary's blonde hair...or because those adjectives had murky connotations. If that dress be black, that hair is brown.

Mary Boleyn.jpg
And this was Mary, according to Wikipedia and the British Museum...if you're thinking "Little Dutch Girl," yes, the Boleyns had Dutch connections.

In addition to having "black" hair, Anne was also described as “sallow” and “swarthy,” but what really seemed to bother people about her was her extra finger. The superstitious English didn't even recognize this as the effects of a gene most commonly found in Africa. They thought it might have been a “devil's mark” identifying Anne as a wicked witch. She did much to promote a fad for extremely long sleeves that hid the fingers.

Mary was content to be a “king's leman,” in older usage, or “mistress” in the newer style. In feudal Europe, the king and his noble attendants were supposed to be Christians, each married to one wife, but any noble lord selected for the favor was supposed to feel honored if the king commandeered his wife as a sort of unofficial secondary wife of the king. By way of compensation the husbands often received gifts and promotions--especially to positions a nice long way from the royal court. Such (un-Christian) intimacies were sure to move the family higher up the status hierarchy, especially if the queen didn't have a son and the king's leman did.

Thus, politics in Merrie Olde Englande were not a matter of communication between the rulers and the ruled about policies, but a squalid mess of personal gossip, reminiscent of recent political correspondence received by this web site...urgh, don't get me started, and thanks again to Congressman Griffith for showing us a way out of that muck. The royal family themselves were usually rich, famous, and admired—by way of reward for living the lives of pedigreed livestock.

Mary might or might not have loved William Carey, to whom she was married at fourteen. Their ambitious relatives wanted to breed those young people for their pedigrees alone. Then she caught Henry VIII's eye. She might or might not have been attracted to him. That made no difference. It was her duty to her family to seduce him if she could, again for his title and pedigree alone. Her children were generally thought to be his, partly because Henry had enough respect for Carey's feelings to make sure Carey travelled a lot while Mary stayed close to the royal residence. If Mary didn't like being used this way, plenty of other women were willing to take her place.

One of them, urged on by family members, was Anne. Bolder than any medieval English lady had ever been before, she wasn't content to be merely a sexual convenience for Henry. She wanted to be Queen of England. She offered Henry only safe sex unless and until she became his wife. So she did. A lot of influential figures in the church and state had to be pushed out of the way before Henry could marry Anne. Elders are supposed to be old, but a few of the deaths were untimely enough that some suspected poison.

Anne got her royal wedding and paid the price for it. Raising her own individual status disturbed the system that gave other women what status they had in feudal society; as the poster girl for no-fault divorce Anne was deeply hated. She gave Henry a daughter who turned out to be a better leader and protector for England than any number of sons might have been, and even inherited Henry's red-blond hair. That wasn't enough for Anne, for Henry, or for their greedy relatives. Anne had to have a son.

What sort of son did she have, anyway? Records aren't clear. He was born prematurely and dead; nobody wanted to paint any portraits. Aghast at the idea that such a son could be his, Henry accused Anne of committing adultery with every man she might possibly have seen that year, including her brother George Boleyn, and of witchcraft. The European aristocracy was already so inbred that the consequences of Anne's having a baby with any of the courtiers might have been as ghastly, in genetic terms, as if she'd had one with her brother. Gregory describes the poor little “monster” as having both spina bifida and hydrocephaly. Spina bifida still occasionally pops up in descendants of Anne's relatives today; it's one of those diseases that are caused by inheriting on both sides a gene that, when inherited on only one side, boosts immunity to other diseases. It could easily have been what caused Anne's self-aborted son to be described as a monster. It seems to be caused by a different gene than the one for polydactylism.

Well...everyone knows how the story ends, but some readers consider Gregory's version a regular page-turner anyway. We know Anne's for the chop. We may wonder at what point in the story she gets it, but what we're reading for has to be the romance Gregory spins for Mary and her second official husband, William Stafford. Stafford was a commoner, though successful enough to have worked for the king and met Mary at court. What is known about his relationship with Mary is that she married “for love, this time.” So there may have been a real romance as juicy as the fictional one in this novel.

Relatively little is known about George Boleyn but it must be mentioned that his fictional role in this novel is likely to have generated much of the publicity the movie versions received. Gregory, following up on one recent and speculative historical study, casts him not just as unhappily married for money (which happened to young men as regularly as it did to young women) but as a fairly overt homosexual, “gay” but not effeminate. Her portrait of George, not as the stereotypical woman-hating English homosexual but as a rarer type who just might have been infatuated with his sister, fits strangely but not altogether implausibly into the historical record. There's no solid evidence that George was homosexual, though he was accused of that, and incest and satanism and treason and anything else anyone could think of. Whenever a man scrupled to attack either of the Boleyn girls, he hurled an accusation at their brother. Most historians imagine that only a few of the accusations could have been grounded; they don't agree about which few those were.

Although Philippa Gregory hardly needs a dollar from this web site (and cheers to her for that), our policy is to encourage living authors by sending them ten percent of the price of any secondhand books this web site sells online. So, when you buy The Other Boleyn Girl here, you send $5 per book plus $5 per package plus $1 per online payment to this web site, and we send $1 to Gregory or a charity of her choice. That "per package" business means "as many books as we can cram into a package"; I'm not sure whether the Post Office has a package the right shape to hold all six of Gregory's Tudor novels, but if it'll accept the publisher's packaging, I'll send you the six-book set for $35 (postal money order to P.O. Box 322) or $36 (Paypal payment to the address you get by e-mailing salolianigodagewi), and from that Gregory or her charity would get $6. That would be a lot of lively reading, but you should know that Goodreads online readers rate Gregory high and have boosted The Other Boleyn Girl up there with Gone with the Wind, ahead of The Good Earth, ahead of Jubilee, ahead of The Name of the Rose...if your tastes are typical of those who read both historical novels and the Internet, you'd probably enjoy the whole set of Tudor novels.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Phenology: Caterpillars Attack Rose of Sharon

(Status update: On Friday afternoon, on the way home, I made another $10 sale. I have $1.55 of that left. Go here and follow the instructions to support this blog. )

Earlier this month I mentioned that the Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriaca, my mother planted in the 1990s were really growing and blooming this year. For several years the weather hasn't seemed to suit them; growth has been sluggish, and each shrub has produced one or two blooms (one white, one purplish pink) at a time for a few days before giving up--if that. This year, though, the shrubs grew a couple feet taller and produced a couple dozen blooms apiece.

Then I went out this morning and...their leaves were gone! The poor little shrubs had hardly an entire leaf left on any branch. In a True Green garden you don't have conniption fits every time a plant loses a leaf, but these shrubs had gone from being leafy and flowery to being stripped almost bare, overnight. That got my attention.

Caterpillars are the usual suspects when this kind of damage occurs. Young caterpillars are very small and do little damage. Most of them don't live long enough to grow any bigger, either. However, during the final week or so before caterpillars pupate and turn into moths or butterflies, many species eat voraciously, aggressively, as if they were trying to destroy the host plant. Most of them still aren't big enough to succeed...but now and then, most often when Manduca caterpillars get into tomato plants, they do kill host plants.

I looked, and it didn't take long to find six greenish-greyish caterpillars, slim, bare, and about an inch and a half or two inches long, munching on the remaining leaves of the hibiscus plants.

What were they? They were the size and color of baby Tuliptree Beauty moths, which can be gluttonous too, but they were not Tuliptree Beauties; although they moved by hunching up their midsections, they did have the full caterpillar complement of legs, rather than the "inchworm" body shape. They were well camouflaged to look like the greenish-greyish twigs of the shrub. If I'd been looking before the shrubs had been all but defoliated, I probably wouldn't have noticed them among the leaves.

Bing turned up a splendid, clear, slightly magnified image of the caterpillar moving quickly, photographed and copyrighted by Bob Moul, which you can see at . That image, and also a top view showing the caterpillar's back, are also at , which gives the scientific name Rusicada privata

Whether scientists classify the moth in the genus Anomis or the genus Rusicada, they do apparently agree:

1. These insects aren't usually listed in U.S. field guides because they're basically an Asian species.

2. Nevertheless, they turn up fairly regularly in North America, and have for a long time, wherever they've found a Rose of Sharon. They're occasionally found as far north as Canada.

3. They're host-specific; their English name is "hibiscus leaf caterpillar moth."

4. They're in the "owlet" group in the Noctuid family--medium-small moths that look basically triangular when at rest. 

5. The moths have reddish to yellowish brown forewings and drab brown hindwings, and are about as long as the end of a man's little finger. The usual rule applies: the wingspan is close to the length of the final-stage caterpillar.

6. They attack northern H. syriaca more often they attack the subtropical hibiscus plants. They're reported as far south as Mexico, but mostly in the Northeastern States.

7. H. syriaca being an ornamental plant of no great economic value, little is known about these moths.

Here's a recently deceased moth, pinned to graph paper for scientific purposes, from Wikipedia:

Anomis privata1.jpg
From Flickr, posted by Hsu Hong Lin:

At least it's nice to be able to identify the caterpillar and find pictures of the moth, online, in half an hour. I'll know which Noctuid not to allow to live if I see this little menace again.

True Greens don't poison caterpillars. We pick them. I had a pair of shears handy and used them to nip each caterpillar off the twig it was on. For their size, those little hindmost legs have quite a grip...but no match for the garden shears.

I learned that H. syriaca can also host nastier pests, including two of the "stinging" caterpillar species, the Io and the Saddleback Caterpillar. Io moths are a little bigger and more colorful than Buck Moths; the caterpillars are similar. 

Saddlebacks, Acharia stimulea, also locally called Packsaddles, are at least amusing to look at, although they have venomous little barbs.

Acharia stimulea 0795036.jpg
In real life I've never seen the colors quite that vivid, and suspect Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University,, of having enhanced the color separation for a sharper image. They are quite colorful, though, in real life. They are a native North American nuisance that feed on many things, including corn and sorghum, where they can make themselves very tiresome. Image at .

The knobs at the corners of the "packsaddle" are stings. Final-stage Saddlebacks are about an inch long and are likely to be found in August or early September. 

However, most of the insects that attack the Rose of Sharon usually prefer other food...I've seen several of them in the garden, all eating other things, none disturbing the Rose of Sharon. There's a Hibiscus Sawfly whose much smaller larvae often attack the big southern hibiscus plants, but the only creature that specializes in eating Rose of Sharon bushes seems to be Anomis (or Rusicada) privata.

Effective means to control this species include sticks, flyswatters, and garden shears. Noctuid moths do have mouths, but they don't bite or sting; the caterpillars' tendency to freeze in position and clutch a twig for dear life helps them as long as they're hiding among leaves, but makes them easy to hunt down once they've done some damage.