VanHaren: Robins provide fascination and curiosity to the backyard

I spend a lot of time sitting on my porch watching the birds. One of the most curious of them is the robin. They hop along the ground, cocking their heads from side to side, and then they’ll suddenly stab at the ground and come up with a worm. How do they do that?

So you know what, I decided to do a little research and find out. I found out that robins have exceptional vision (I guess most birds do) and that they can spot the tiny end of a worm as it pokes through the soil. They can also see small changes in soil and grass as worms move about just below the surface, movements that indicate where a worm is located.

Robins are also known to use visual, auditory, and possibly vibrations or tactile cues to find prey, but vision is predominant. The way the robins turn their heads when searching for food suggests they could be using visual or auditory cues, but it wasn’t until scientists tested robins in the lab that we really knew for sure how they find worms.


Column: Father sometimes stares back from the mirror

Sometimes — not always — but sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I see my dad’s face where my face used to be. Mind you, I’m not complaining when I see my dad’s face there; after all, I am my father’s son.

There’s a line from a rock song (but I’ll be darned if I can remember who it’s by) that says, “Though my friends mostly don’t see it, I see my father in my own face.” When I was a kid I used to look at my dad, and I’d think,“I don’t resemble him at all.” I always thought I looked more like my mom. To be honest, I sometimes still look at myself and see a little resemblance to Mom. I think that the older I get, the more I’m reminded of my dad.

My dad had beautiful white hair; mine is greying and not very distinguished-looking like his. We have the same dark eyes. There are a few physical resemblances, but I don’t think that’s exactly what I see when I look at my face in the mirror and see in its place my dad’s face.


The Eclectic Mind: Four-plus years living with the Big C

Many of my readers are aware that I was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic prostate cancer 4½ years ago. The cancer had made its way via the bloodstream to the fourth vertebrae in my neck.

After many different treatment regimens, including radiation, several different kinds of chemotherapy (both infused and oral), and three different clinical trial studies at the Carbone Cancer Center at University of Wisconsin Hospitals, I am happy to report that I am, as a friend once said, “still vertical and able to take nourishment.”

I am not telling you about my ordeal as an appeal for your sympathy; rather I want to share some of my observations since I was diagnosed. Some people would say there is no upside to having a life-threatening illness, and, for sure, I would never have voluntarily chosen to go down this path. But life is unpredictable, and we don’t always get to choose what direction it will lead.


Column: It’s fun to know what’s in a name

I recently read a strange little book called “The Department of Sensitive Crimes.” The author, Alexander McCall Smith, is from Scotland, but the book is set in Sweden. The protagonist is a detective named Ulf Varg and he works to solve “sensitive” crimes. For example, his first case is one in which a man is stabbed in the back of his knee. Another involves the disappearance of a non-existent boyfriend. Weird little book, but kind of funny.

At one point, Ulf is questioning a man named Ahlberg. Ahlberg says: “Of course. I noticed that when I saw your name. Both (Ulf and Varg) mean wolf in old Norse, don’t they?”

Ulf nodded. “Some people find my name repetitive,” he said.

Ahlberg laughed. “Names are odd, aren’t they? Some people talk about nominal determination, but I find it a bit of an odd idea, frankly. Do you think one’s name can be one’s destiny.”


Column: Spring is for the birds

I don’t qualify as a “bird watcher” in the strictest sense. I don’t go out with binoculars searching for rare appearances of birds (or appearances of rare birds), and I don’t know all the calls and habits of native species. I have several good friends who do. But I love to watch the birds who come to the feeders we have in our yard.

I feed the birds year-round because I like having them in the yard, but the “winter birds” are not as varied as the “spring birds” I attract. Two pairs of cardinals, a couple of pairs of goldfinches, a few house finches, and a variety of sparrows visit every day in the winter. There must be at least eight or nine different kinds of sparrows that live in Shirley’s cedar windbreak next door. My favorite is the chipping sparrow, a pretty little bird with a reddish brown cap. They sing very loudly.

So I always look forward to spring because I like the bigger variety of visitors who frequent our feeders. This has been a wonderful spring.


Column: A big hug is good for the soul

My late good friend Bob used to talk about “skin hunger.” Bob was an educator, and he maintained that kids need to have physical skin-to-skin contact with other people on a regular basis in order to be pyschologically sound. He thought it was one of the reasons that kids often punched each other or wrestled around with other kids. Maybe they weren’t getting enough “touches” at home.

You know what? I think skin hunger is a condition that applies to later life, too. It’s not just kids that need touches. Lots of adults may have received adequate contact as babies, but, for various reasons, no longer receive that same level of touch. I’m not a doctor, but I think sometimes these adults become isolated and defensive, or suffer intense feelings of loneliness.

There’s a lot of hugging and kissing in our family, even among the older kids — a 20-year-old and several teenagers. We like to hold each other, hug each other, kiss each other. We’re lucky, I guess.


Column: To all the moms out there, with love

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there. Sunday, May 12, is Mother’s Day in the United State.

The holiday of Mother’s Day began in 1908, when Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her mother at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Her campaign to make Mother’s Day a recognized holiday in the United States began in 1905, the year her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died. Ann Jarvis had been a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War, and created Mother’s Day Work Clubs to address public health issues. Anna Jarvis wanted to honor her mother by continuing the work she started and to set aside a day to honor all mothers because she believed a mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”


Column: Dad’s second jobs taught this farmer’s kid

Ten years or so ago, I read a poem called “The Poem Where I Say Thank You” by Jack Wiler. I don’t recall the entire poem, but one line the speaker says has stuck with me all these years. The speaker mentions “a farmer who has a second job so he can afford to bring in the hay each summer.”

My dad had a number of “second jobs,” most of them full-time jobs, which he worked in addition to doing his regular full-time job on the farm. Some were seasonal, like working the night shift at the canning factory, or unloading pulp cars at the paper mill. Hard, physical jobs. He worked at the Sankey Dairy, and he worked in the quality control lab at the paper mill.


Column: There actually was some science to mood rings

Remember mood rings?

Back when our late daughter Jill was in middle school and high school, mood rings were a fad among young girls – and maybe some adult women, too? The mood ring was created in 1975 by two New York inventors, Josh Reynolds and Maris Ambats, who bonded liquid crystals with quartz stones set into rings. They initially retailed for $45 for a “silvery setting” and $250 for gold, and were first sold by New York jewelers Bonwit Teller. They rapidly became a fad in the 1970s.

The mood rings that junior high and high school girls were wearing were nowhere near that expensive, or for sure our daughter wouldn’t have had one!

Did you ever wear one of those groovy mood rings in your youth?


VanHaren: The Bazooka-like power of olfactory memory

Marilyn and I volunteered to be part of the Beaver Dam Eye Study over 30 years ago. Since that time we have participated in several follow-up tests, as have many other city and town of Beaver Dam people in our age bracket. And in the last several years, our sons have also been included in the study. Interestingly, the study, which started out to study eyes, has evolved into considerably more than just an eye study. In the last several follow-ups, we have had our carotid arteries checked by ultrasound and have been tested for our senses of hearing and smell as well.

This is not going to be a commentary about the eye study – although that could make an interesting story because the Eye Study has gotten a lot of national recognition. A granddaughter of some good friends is a pre-med student at Emory University in Atlanta, and she was recently introduced to this now world-famous study.

No, this is about bubble gum. How do they connect? Well, I’ll tell you.


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