The sparrow and the bat

Since about Sunday, a sparrow has been frantically chirping, for hours on end, outside our kitchen window. It’s that brief period of transition from spring into summer in Minnesota, when having the windows open is ideal, so the sparrow’s apparent distress extremely audible inside our house.

On Tuesday morning I decided to investigate the issue, mainly because we were concerned it was building a nest in our gutter. So I got out the extension ladder, made my way up to the second story of our house, and peered into the gutter.

Lots of muck. We really should have opted for the gutter guards when we had these new gutters installed last summer. But no signs of a nest.

Then I noticed where the sparrow always seemed to go when it was most agitated: the kitchen fan vent on the side of our neighbors’ house. The vent has three large louvers, with an opening that is definitely large enough for a small sparrow to fit in. But not large enough for a plump, ready-to-lay-eggs sparrow.

Now I think I understand why the sparrow is so agitated. It built its nest inside the vent. Now it needs to get back in there to lay its eggs, and it can’t. I’m not an ornithologist, so that’s just a guess. Maybe it already laid the eggs in there, and it’s gone out and fattened itself up for an extended period of incubation. Either way, it seems desperate to get into a space it can’t physically fit into, and is freaking out about it. Sparrows are not the smartest birds.

We’ve had run-ins with sparrows before. A decade ago, when I was renting a small storefront in our old neighborhood as an office for my web development business — back when I thought having employees and an office were things I wanted — a sparrow built its nest in the store’s awning. The chirping was incessant, as was the… uh… window washing.

Assured that the sparrow’s problems, poor thing, were not also about to become my own as a homeowner, I put away the ladder. Then, about a half hour later, my wife informed me that there was a bat trapped inside our deck umbrella.

We’ve had run-ins with bats before, too. A few years before I started renting that storefront, we came home from a week of holiday travel to discover a bat in our closet. That turned out to be a full-blown infestation that required contracting a wildlife control expert to seal all of our exterior gaps and install “exclusions” to get rid of the bats.

I do not like bats.

I do appreciate bats. I know they serve an important role in the ecosystem. And I know that contrary to common misconception, most of them are not rabid. But you never know. That’s why, if you come into physical contact with a bat, you have to get rabies shots. Also the skin of their wings creeps me out.

So, while my primary objective was to get the bat to leave the umbrella, avoiding contact with the bat was a close second.

This bat most likely was not rabid. Yes, it was daytime, but the bat was sleeping inside the closed umbrella. Nonetheless, we wanted — needed — it to be gone. So I timidly opened the umbrella, and the bat woke up and flew in my general direction. It’s movements reminded me of the muppet bats that are always hovering around the Count on Sesame Street.

I recoiled and staggered backwards, trying to avoid it. I lost my balance and fell, hard, slamming my back, just to the left of my spine, on the vertical edge of our patio door. The pain was instant and overwhelming. I couldn’t breathe for about 20 seconds.

I called the triage nurse at my clinic, and was reassured that I probably didn’t need to come in for an X-ray. And I mean, even if I did break a rib, the only real course of treatment is time. That, and opioid painkillers I wouldn’t want to take anyway. So, I may have a broken rib. Or I may just be having ongoing back pain and muscle spasms. Either way, I haven’t slept in a bed, or much at all really, since Monday night. (It’s Thursday as I write this.)

I turned 50 a few months ago. Not “old,” but definitely not “young.” I’m in good health, running regularly (until this week, that is), and way more fit than my dad ever was… at least since his discharge from the army in 1964. But these past couple of days of pain and limited mobility have given me a greater understanding of what he was going through in the final months of his life, last summer. He had fallen too, and broken ribs. He had been on blood thinning medication for decades, so his entire torso was one giant bruise. He refused to go to the hospital.

He fell a few more times. A year ago this week, while my sister-in-law was visiting us, I got a call from my dad’s cell phone. The voice on the other end wasn’t his, but that of an EMT, who informed me he was in my dad’s apartment. He had fallen in the bathroom, and was on the floor for hours before he managed to drag himself to his bedroom, reach for his phone and call 911.

He spent a week in the hospital. After that we moved him from his apartment in Rochester — the apartment my mom had only gotten to spend a couple of months in, the previous summer, before her cancer led to a hospitalization she never came home from — into an assisted living facility in a Minneapolis suburb, so we could see him more regularly. It was pretty much a steady decline for the next three months.

A couple of weeks after we moved him in, he had us buy him a lift chair. I had no intention of keeping it after he was gone. But I’ve wished the past couple of nights that I had it. We don’t even own a recliner. I’ve been sleeping awkwardly in an armchair with my legs up on an ottoman and a pillow behind my back. It’s not great.

What does this all have to do with the sparrow? Maybe not much. But I’m just thinking about the simultaneous fragility and resilience of life, and the ways that our poor choices can come back to haunt us.

Also, I think the sound of an agitated sparrow is probably going to trigger a Pavlovian response of back spasms and visions of bats flying at my face for the rest of my life.

Postscript: About an hour after I wrote this, my daughter noticed there was a wild turkey sitting on our fence, then it jumped to our neighbors’ garage roof. The wildlife adventures continue.


You don’t see it coming until it’s here. The day you realize that you’re not going to be arranging any more funerals. You’re the one who’s next. It may not — you hope and believe — be for years. Decades! But it’s coming. And it’s coming for you.

You see the fading memories of the ones who went before you differently in that light. When you realize you’re the only person left who remembers the things you experienced together. And when you’re gone, that’s it. Those events never happened. At least, not to anyone who is still alive to care about them.

And what did your time amount to, anyway? What impact have you left on the world, and is it a good one? Bad? Or, most likely, utterly inconsequential. You never existed.

Maybe it’s melodramatic. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. So if all that matters is the moment, while you’re in it… how are you going to live it?

The curious case of my covid-induced loss of taste and smell

I’m writing this mainly for my own future reference, as I’m sure my memory of some of these details will vanish, much like my ability to smell onions has vanished this month.

I’m not sure how I (finally, after avoiding it successfully for 3 1/2 years) got covid. I know it’s more likely that I was exposed first, even though my wife tested positive several days before I did. It was probably the last weekend in June, when I subbed in a pit orchestra for a musical theater performance on Saturday, and then had a big band rehearsal on Sunday. I was in the presence of a lot of people over those two days, whereas my wife had not interacted with many people in the previous week.

On Monday I had an achy, fitful, mostly sleepless night, and was feeling run down for most of Tuesday morning, but by afternoon I was fine, and thought no more of it. Then on Thursday night, my wife got knocked out with a sudden fever and fatigue that we foolishly did not assume was covid, but the next morning she tested, and it was positive. She started isolating, but we both knew it was probably too late.

Although I felt totally fine, I started testing daily and was repeatedly negative. But that Sunday night I once again was achy and fitful, this time with chills added to the mix. I thought for sure I must have covid, but I still tested negative the next morning. On Tuesday I finally did test positive, even though — other than those two random nights, six nights apart — all I was feeling were the mildest imaginable cold symptoms. Those lingered for about a week, and that was pretty much it.


I believe it was that Thursday or Friday, a few days after I first tested positive, and was mostly already feeling fine again, that I noticed that most distinctive and curious of covid symptoms beginning to appear: I was rapidly losing my sense of taste and smell.

Mostly smell, honestly, but of course the two senses are linked. I noticed initially that I basically couldn’t smell anything, but I hadn’t completely lost my sense of taste. Sweet and sour were both maybe around 30% of their normal levels, and bitter (hurrah) was pretty much entirely unaffected. (Salty and umami were, for the moment, gone.)

It has now been over two weeks since I noticed the problem, and to some extent my senses have returned. I can now smell some things, and I can taste pretty much everything. But I am realizing that the loss has been very selective. In particular, I can smell many mild scents almost as normal, but strong odors, like raw onions, are almost completely undetectable.

Put it this way: I am the type of person whose eyes normally burn painfully and water copiously when cutting raw onions. But last week I cut an onion in half, put it right up to my nose, and inhaled as deeply as I could, and… well, there was an ever-so-slight suggestion of “onion.” But not only could I not smell it at all if it was more than a millimeter from my face, but I didn’t get any of the eye watering, either. My sensation of that particular volatile compound is just totally dead.

My sense of taste has fared better, as I can now pretty much taste everything — again, except onions — but I’ve noticed that certain things don’t taste like they’re “supposed” to, or that the tastes I perceive are only vague and indistinct. I can tell I’m tasting something, but I’m not sure what it is.

I think that comes back to the deadening of the “volatile compounds” sensation. It’s the complex flavors made from combinations of ingredients that are being affected. I’m only getting the broad strokes. Indian curries still taste good to me, but all the nuances of the layered spices are missing.

Which takes me back to about 10 days ago, when I first noticed there was one thing I could taste fully, just as it has always tasted to me.


I guess ketchup is essentially a fairly simple blend of sweet and acidic, without much nuance. (That’s probably why kids like it.) And since those senses never totally went away, it’s not surprising that would be something I could taste fully. For a few days, I put a lot of ketchup on most of the things I ate.

I haven’t spent a lot of time investigating other people’s stories of their covid experiences, but I’m wondering if most people who reported loss of taste and smell had this kind of “selective” loss the way I did. I assume that’s the case. And then, of course, I wonder why covid causes this loss of sensation of, most specifically, the kinds of odors that are more or less nature’s warning bells for things that are possibly dangerous to consume or be exposed to. It’s not like covid has a “plan,” but I wonder if this particular symptom has manifested because it gives covid some kind of environmental advantage that helps it spread, or if it’s just a random quirk, a side effect of the chaotic nature of viral mutation and evolution.

Anyway… I am thankful for the vaccines, which I am sure contributed to how mild my case of covid was, and probably prevented me from catching it at all before July 2023. And I’m thankful that other than a couple of bad sleeps, my symptoms were extremely tolerable. This smell/taste thing has been, more than anything, a curiosity to observe and study. But it is starting to get a bit old, so I’m hoping my senses fully return sooner rather than later.

I do realize of course that, although I think it’s unlikely, the loss may be permanent or semi-permanent. And so there, too, I am thankful that I have not completely lost these senses, because I can certainly live with things the way they are. I just might die early from eating something that’s gone rancid and I couldn’t tell. Ç’est la vie.

Update: Of course, after writing this, I did research the matter a bit, and it affirmed that I should never do that. I hadn’t considered, until now, that I am on a journey of recovery of these senses, and that possibly, months from now, I will enter a stage where I do regain my sense of smell, but everything will be distorted and unpleasant. Ugh. On a more helpful note, that Scientific American article does talk specifically about chemical sensing, which is different from sense of smell. This seems to be the essence of my loss; I could not sense the minty freshness of toothpaste at all for a few days. That is starting to come back, as well as my ability to sense hot peppers.

Victorinox Mini Champ Alox “Swiss Army” knife feature guide

I’m not really a “knife guy,” but for most of my adult life I have carried some variety of Victorinox “Swiss Army” knife around in my pocket almost everywhere I go. I just find that very often I need the blade to cut open a box, or the small scissors to cut hangnails, or the screwdriver, and having an unobtrusive object in my pocket that can handle these tasks is very convenient.

“Unobtrusive” is key. When I’m not using it, I want to forget it’s even there. It can’t be too heavy or too big, so I really like the smallest knives they make… usually a variety of the Classic SD. But when I (once again) misplaced the latest in a string of those tiny knives, and decided I needed to buy (yet another) replacement, I splurged on the Mini Champ Alox.

Most Victorinox knives have an outer shell made of plastic, but they also make slim profile variants with this “Alox” outer shell… embossed aluminum with anodic oxidation — hence the “Alox” name. Since these are thinner, they usually lose a couple of features — typically the removable toothpick and tweezers (and in some cases, the ballpoint pen or flashlight). I owned a Classic SD Alox that I really liked, but then I realized that with the thinner shell, the Mini Champ Alox was exactly the same size as the Classic SD, but instead of three tools, it had eight. Yes, it also costs 3 times as much, but it was too intriguing not to buy.

I really do love it and would feel lost without it. But I’ve come to realize that I pretty much actually only use the three tools on one side, and almost never touch the five on the other side. In fact, I have trouble even remembering the purpose of some of those tools. So for my own future reference, I’ve checked online sources, and documented their functions in the annotated image below:

So… yeah. Some of these, I really just don’t get. I don’t know how many people use a cuticle pusher; personally it is not something I have ever used or wanted to use (in fact, pushing my cuticles back is something I find so unpleasant that it’s nearly a phobia). And yet, one entire blade of this pocket knife is apparently devoted to that sole function.

Likewise, I don’t ever really need an orange peeler — the only oranges I eat semi-regularly are mandarins, which peel very easily without a tool. That particular blade has two functions; the tip is apparently a “scraper,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. My understanding was that some part of this was supposed to be a fish scaler but again… not something I need. (Update: the flat edge between the hook and the pointy tip is sharpened, so I suppose that edge, not the point, is the scraper.)

Then there’s the tool that is alternately referred to as a “letter opener” and an “emergency blade.” One of those functions sounds extremely banal and the other gives me visions of… well… this:

Dr. Hibbert makes use of his trusty pocket knife. Source:

I do actually use the nail file/cleaner and screwdriver/ruler from time to time. But for sure, it’s those three bottom tools that make this an essential daily “carry” for me. (Yes, I hate the “nouning” of verbs… almost as much as the “verbing” of nouns.) And the funny thing is, two of the three are also on the Classic SD.

That last tool does a lot of heavy lifting for the overall utility of this knife, with its 3-in-1 design. The bottle opener… works. The wire stripper… probably works. I actually do need to use a wire stripper from time to time, but not often enough to remember it’s on here. But the Phillips screwdriver… oh man, is that handy. Except…

Except, the way the flathead screwdriver is designed, it actually works on just about any Phillips screw you may come across. And it’s part of the regular Classic SD. There’s also one problem with the Phillips screwdriver on here. Last night I needed to use it, and I couldn’t open it. Today I investigated, and the issue seems to be that at some point I used it on a screw that must have been made of a harder alloy than the screwdriver itself, and it nicked/bent the tip slightly. That was getting it stuck in the closed position. I was able to pry it open (using, of all things, an iPhone SIM card remover tool), and then I filed down the edges of it using… the file on another, larger (knock-off no-name) Swiss Army knife. Now it works again.

Anyway… my day started off just trying to figure out why the Phillips screwdriver in my Mini Champ Alox was stuck, and now after writing this, I’ve come to realize that this entire tool is kind of a waste of money and a failure of design. In the future, if I lose this knife, I most definitely will not be getting another one. The extra tools are kind of useless and the extra expense is unjustifiable. Stick with the Classic SD, or maybe the Rambler. It’s basically the Classic SD with the 3-in-1 blade added.

Sports commentary quote of the year

“Tadej seems to — along with Eddy Merckx — have torn that script up and tossed it in the bin, and lit the bin on fire and threw the fire into the mouth of a volcano.”

—Bob Roll, during yesterday’s broadcast of La Flèche Wallonne, talking about how Tadej Pogacar seems to be defying all understanding of what’s possible for a rider during the course of a cycling season