Saturday, November 17, 2007

Article: The garage of the brain

Cartoon from around 1980

After my car which was parked in the garage had a rat infestation, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the garage needed some serious cleaning. Each weekend and for an hour or so after work every day, I’ve been knocking things down from the rafters or moving them from the huge pile of junk at the back and throwing them into the truck for my now weekly trip to the dump. I throw away almost everything.

I’d gotten used to tossing stuff without looking at it when one dilapidated cardboard box caught my attention. Hey, this was my stuff! Stuff I wanted to keep. Stuff I’d looked for over the years and never found. Stuff that could not survive the hostile environment of the garage with its extreme temperatures, high humidity and rat and raccoon populations. Against all odds, most of the contents had survived.

A flood of memories washed over me as I opened a once-familiar lab notebook. This was my notebook from my Chem 5 Quantitative Analysis lab course at UC Berkeley. Wow, did I ever have neat writing back in those days. I couldn’t write like that now to save my life. Neat rows of numbers, precisely charted data, careful analysis. Come to think of it, I did pretty well in that class. Still, why keep such a thing? The data means nothing to me now. But my fingers stopped on a page showing a drawing of the laboratory apparatus used for one of the experiments.

I was surprised at the detail and care my younger self took with that drawing. What motivated me to be so detailed and meticulous? It’s not perfect but, if I had to, I could recreate that exact setup using that drawing. It made me remember how much I used to love to draw. I don’t do that anymore. Looking at the drawing I wondered why.

I pulled out a yellowed sketchbook with a missing cover. What a strange feeling to remember doing, feeling, thinking, something you’ve completely forgotten. I found a pencil sketch of a coyote dated July 3rd, 1972. I was only sixteen then. I made the drawing from a photo in an issue of National Geographic. It had taken me hours. Those hours, that drawing, that feeling of creation and satisfaction had disappeared from my memory as if they had never happened. And now they were back.

I picked the box up, this one would go into the house for closer examination. As I carried it, a brightly colored paper dropped out and floated on an imperceptible breeze to land under my car. I set the box down and gingerly picked the ancient sheet out of the dust. It was a felt-marker sketch of a red-and-white Pegasus, highly stylized. There was no date. Back in Junior High I was in a club that met at lunch once a week. The only thing I remember about that organization was making drawings like these to be used as greeting cards for nursing home patients.

Back in the house, I rummaged through my early years as immortalized in artistic endeavors. Amazing how things disappear into the past and don’t reach the surface of your mind again for years and years. And yet they are still there, tucked away in the mental equivalent of a garage rafter. I remember drawing that cartoon about a magician snake who could pull a rabbit out of its hat being compared to a dog that could roll over. It appeared in the newsletter for a reptile club I used to belong to. I remember all that now looking at the drawing. I didn’t remember it yesterday.

What a weird thing the mind is. This weekend I am going to try to sit down with a piece of paper and see if I can draw something. Not just the stupid doodles I do these days but an actual drawing. I wonder if I can still do that, if my mind retains not just the memory but the knowledge.

Photo: Diagram of experimental apparatus from my Chem 5 class at Berkeley.

Photo: A pencil drawing of a coyote I made when I was sixteen
Photo: A felt-marker drawing of a Pegasus, probably from junior high school.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Article: Miniature donkeys and giant rodents

Coral and Caplin meeting some adult miniature donkeys

Now that I’m back at work, my capybara is getting lonely. Since my husband works from home, this loneliness impacts him more than it does me. He suggested we get a small dog to keep Caplin company. While I like dogs, I’ve never wanted one. They are loud, demanding and they scare off the wildlife.

My daughter Coral suggested a miniature horse. Caplin’s breeders had a pair of miniature horses. They looked like horses that had been mashed down forcibly, oddly deformed and rather hideous. I know not all miniature horses are like that but I think the ones that aren’t are expensive. Maybe I’ll look into that some time in the future. In the meantime, what about a miniature donkey?

All of the mini-donkeys I’ve seen have looked just like big donkeys, only cuter. Ponies, such as Shetlands, and mini-donkeys were bred to their current size over hundreds of years to fit into places where their bigger cousins could not, but they did the same work. Shetlands worked in the mines. Miniature donkeys were beasts of burden mainly in Sicily and nearby islands.

Searching the web, I discovered that miniature donkeys make very good pets. According to Robert Green, who imported some of the first miniature donkeys to the US, “Miniature donkeys possess the affectionate nature of a Newfoundland, the resignation of a cow, the durability of a mule, the courage of a tiger, and the intellectual capability only slightly inferior to man's." That sounded good so we headed off to a local donkey breeder to see some of these little wonders.

Coral, her boyfriend Carl and I headed out to Small Pleasures Farm ( in Elgin. We brought Caplin with us to see how he reacted to the donkeys and how they reacted to him.

Susan and John Baker met us at their gate. They were instantly taken with Caplin but warned us the donkeys might be aggressive toward him. Three adults came to the fence to check Caplin out. They seemed friendly enough. However when we went into a pasture with jennets and foals, the mother donkeys seemed bent on attacking Caplin. The Bakers said donkeys view small animals like Caplin as predators. That certainly fit their attitude.

The donkeys were incredibly cute though and they were affectionate to their owners. We decided to try to introduce Caplin to two youngsters, a jack and a gelding, each about 7 months old. These two were very curious about the capybara. Caplin however appeared just as afraid of these guys as he was of the older donkeys.

Adult miniature donkeys are almost as small as Caplin will be as an adult. Adult capybaras stand about 24 inches as the shoulder and weigh around 130 pounds. The miniature donkeys we were looking at would probably mature at under 36 inches and around 250 pounds. That might work. Right now though Caplin only weighs around twenty pounds though and even these young donkeys must weigh at least 100 lbs. That’s a five fold difference. We decided it makes sense to wait for things to even out a bit more before mixing him with a donkey.

It was hard to pass on those cute little donkeys. That must be what the Bakers thought in 2000 when they bought their first mini-donkey. Looking around their manicured property, diced up into small pens and paddocks with mini-donkeys scattered throughout, I was amazed to learn they’d gone from two donkeys to fifty in just seven years. That’s good reason not to get the first one. My husband isn’t happy that I have four horses.

For more information:

The National Miniature Donkey Association:

The American Donkey and Mule Society

Two mini-donkey foals and a jennet. How adorable those babies are!
These two mini-donkeys are about seven months old and were potential Caplin playmates.
Coral and Caplin get to know Jackson, a very curious stud colt. Caps was a bit frightened.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Article: Car trouble

Over the years, the unused 1/3 of the garage has become a pile of trash.

On Saturday my husband and I prepared to attend a friend’s birthday party. It was a fancy affair requiring Rick to wear a suit and me to wear a dress. I seldom dress-up and it almost seemed like too much trouble. But it was a long-time friend of Rick’s and the food promised to be good.

I went to pull my Prius out of the garage while Rick finished getting ready. With his disability, Rick finds it hard to navigate in the garage. This is at least partly due to the garage being such a mess. Cleaning it is on my long list of things to do this month but I was letting it slide off the bottom. I punched the Power button and the car came to life with a low hum. I shifted into reverse and started to back.

The car didn’t move. I looked at the instrument panel, it was still in neutral, I must not have shifted correctly. But even after a more deliberate shift, the Prius refused to back, remaining steadfastly in neutral. I noticed a warning light in the shape of a red triangle with an exclamation mark bisecting it. On the navigation display was another red warning, this one shaped like a car with an exclamation point.

Rick came out of the house and wanted to know what was going on. I explained the situation to him. He panicked. Suddenly he was scrambling around trying to figure out how we were going to get to the party. Apparently it was more important to him than I had realized. He insisted I turn the car off and on again to see if the light would go away and the car would shift. Predictably, this didn’t work. Then he went to his car and started clearing out the front seat.

I never ride in Rick’s car if I can help it. It’s a nice car--or it was when it was new.--roomy, leather seats, everything electric, fancy. But Rick is one of those people who eats in his car and he’s not very neat about it. Plus cleaning the car is hard for him because of his disability. Not-quite-empty food wrappers stay in there for long periods. So I wasn’t eager to take that step.

I decided to read the Prius’ owner’s manual to see if the red car warning had a simple resolution. When I opened the glove compartment to retrieve my manual, I was greeted by quiet squeaking. Nestled amid the shredded remains of my proof-of-insurance form were eight newborn rats. I sat back in my seat and stared in disbelief. Clearly the appearance of the rats and the car’s malfunction were related.

I went into the house and returned with a plastic bag and some paper towels. No use letting the rats go to waste, they’re just the right size for feeding to my little rainbow boas. I packaged them up and put them in the freezer. As I pulled the baby rats out, I realized that the nest was not composed solely of my proof-of-insurance. There was other stuff mixed in and that stuff was most likely insulation from engine wires. Looking at the glove box, I noted that when closed, it would be easily accessible from the engine side by an animal the size of a small rat. It didn’t seem that my Prius was going anywhere soon.

Still, I didn’t want to ride in Rick’s car. Luckily, Saturday night was one of those wonderful, warm, Central Texas evenings. That meant we could take my Jeep even though I can’t put the top up. The wind ruffled us and hay blew in our faces but we got to the party on time.

Monday morning I called the service department at the dealer and explained my problem. I’m pretty sure they’d never heard it before. A tow truck came and hauled my Prius in. He’d never heard it before either.

The next day the mechanic called to give me the good news, “only” $300 to fix the wiring although it could have been much worse. Especially, he continued, considering that they discovered two more rats’ nests, one in with the spare tire and the other in the engine for a total of fifteen more baby rats. Sadly, I did not get to save these for snake food.

Today I started cleaning the garage. Although there is some evidence of rats, I haven’t actually found any, dead or alive, adults or babies. I don’t get it. I mean, I kind-of expect some rats to be around. We’ve seen the small, brown native rats around the property before. And the horses’ grain is just outside, plus the horses are sloppy eaters, spilling food everywhere. In that way they’re like Rick.

So why were the rats in my car and not Rick’s? I keep my car clean. It’s just not right.

Photo: Before his paralysis Rick stored all kinds of junk in the rafters in the garage. It's still there but now I think it's full of rats.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Article: Buzz's surgery

Buzz walking with vet students down the halls of the Texas A&M Large Animal Hospital

I had never been up to College Station before this week but I knew Texas A&M had the only veterinary school in the state. It’s not close but it’s not too far, which turned out to be lucky for me since my twenty year old gelding Buzz was diagnosed with a thyroid tumor requiring surgical removal.

I’ve never had a horse that needed surgery before. They get their share of cuts and scrapes, sprained joints and infections, but horses are resilient animals. They recover from almost anything with a few antibiotics and a good rinse a couple of times per day. And it’s very difficult to tell when something is wrong with them. Unless it’s their legs or feet, horses are incredibly stoic. The only way I knew Buzz was sick was that he lost weight. That’s not to say he stopped eating, he ate better than ever, but the pounds melted off him.

I was impressed when I arrived at the Large Animal Hospital parking lot of Texas A&M. The place was designed for easy parking for a whole bunch of trucks pulling horse trailers. I registered Buzz and went out to unload him. It turned out we were a few minutes early for our one o’clock appointment. To the west, dark clouds loomed, slowly advancing on our position. Luckily, the student labor quickly brought us inside, moments before the clouds burst violently open.

Buzz went into an immaculate individual exam room with all the modern facilities. The floor was spotless and slightly springy to make it easy for horses to walk. The ceiling was high to give horses the illusion of space they need to remain calm. Skylights provided natural light for most areas.

Several fourth-year vet student gave Buzz a quick physical, either they didn’t have much to do or they thought Buzz’s case was especially interesting. When they finished, their professor made an appearance. He listed to the students’ evaluation and asked me a few questions. Then he explained that the tumor was almost certainly benign and did not require surgical removal. In addition, such a tumor could not be responsible for the weight loss that made me seek veterinary help in the first place since Buzz’s thyroid function tested normal. I didn’t know what to think. I’d driven 130 miles in hopes of curing my horse. This did not sound promising.

They decided they might as well do an ultrasound of the tumor just to verify it was what they thought. The whole entourage--me, Buzz, the vet, and four or five vet students--went down the hall to the ultrasound room. There we met a vet who specialized in ultrasound and another vet tech or two to handle the machines. Buzz endured everything without a single spook as they sprayed alcohol on his neck and poked him endlessly.

Finally, the ultrasound vet said the tumor did not look good. It needed to be removed after all. He phoned another vet to find out where a thyroid tumor might migrate. Then they recommend chest xrays. No point removing the main tumor if there were already baby tumors infiltrating his body, they explained. The diagnosis had gone from the-tumor-is-nothing to your-horse-might-already-be-dead. Not a good feeling. I was glad Buzz didn’t understand. Luckily the xrays came back negative. Buzz had a reprieve.

Buzz spent the night in a special stall in a hallway that looked more like a prison block than a stable. His hour-and-a-half long surgery took place the following morning. Everything went well and the good news was that the tumor was encapsulated, making it less likely to have metastasized. The bad news was that it was highly vascularized, making it more likely to have metastasized. The tumor itself was sent to pathology which will take several days to come back with a diagnosis on the actual nature of the tumor.

In the meantime, Buzz is home again and doing well. Once his throat stops hurting, he’ll go back to eating four times the ration of grain I gave him before he got sick, still in the hopes of putting some weight back on him. Although the thyroid tumor was life-threatening, the vet still says it could not be responsible for his weight loss.

I admit, I am impressed and intimidated by the facilities and expertise of the veterinarians and students at the A&M Large Animal Hospital, but there is one thing my scientific background tells me: while it is not impossible for two unrelated potentially terminal conditions to arise at the same time, it is unlikely. From my experiences with medical doctors and my broken wrist, I know that medicine is not a science, everything is guesswork. I am hopeful that removing the tumor will restore my horse’s health. Poor horse, he probably thinks we know what we’re doing.

Photo: Clarissa Leight (age 10) riding Buzz in April, 2007, just before he got sick.

Photo: Buzz waiting for his trailer ride up to A&M--or, preferably, more food
Photo: Buzz getting chest xrays to see if the cancer has already spread.
Photo: I don't think I've ever seen Buzz more miserable than when he got out of surgery.
Photo: Poor horse!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Article: What makes a rodent a rodent?

Tequila, the pet mouse, peeks out of a "log"

I take my pet capybara Caplin everywhere. She goes out to lunch, to various flooring stores looking for new vinyl for the laundry room, to get new tires on my truck, to buy paint brushes. It’s surprising how many places you can take a capybara, maybe because she’s so unusual and people just don’t know what to think.

Wherever we go, Caplin gets a lot of attention. People want to know what she is. Of course, “capybara” doesn’t mean much so I have to further explain that capybaras are the world’s largest rodent. “Oh,” many people respond, “a giant rat.” I don’t have anything against rats, they’re smart, cute and they make great pets, but Caplin is not a rat. Nevertheless this common reaction led me to wonder exactly what it is that makes a rodent a rodent.

Over one quarter of all mammal species are rodents and several rodent species are commonly kept as pets. A hamster or a gerbil is often a child’s introduction to the responsibilities of pet ownership. When I was growing up we kept guinea pigs. Other rodents are prairie dogs, nutria, groundhogs, squirrels, marmots, gophers, beavers, lemmings, chinchillas, chipmunks and porcupines.

Most rodents are very social and very vocal, although much of their vocalization is outside the range of human hearing. The prairie dog is thought to have the most sophisticated animal language known. Naked mole rats, such as the one depicted in the cartoon “Kim Possible,” are the only eusocial mammal. Like ants and termites, naked mole rats are born into “castes” for which they develop unique physical traits. There is a colony of naked mole rats at the Houston Zoo and it is well worth a visit.

The main identifying characteristic of rodents is their teeth. Rodents have four very large teeth at the front of their mouths, two on the bottom and two on the top. These incisors grow throughout their lives and rodents must gnaw on things to wear them down. The teeth retain their edge due to a natural sharpening process. Thick enamel on the front but not on the back results in a wear pattern that constantly sharpens the teeth. Note that although rabbits have similar looking teeth, they are not rodents and belong to the Lagomorpha.

Another characteristic of rodents is that they are able to digest cellulose, the tough polysaccharide that makes up plant cell walls. They do this through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. Rodents have a specialized adaptation of the large intestine called the caecum where cellulose digestion takes place. Because cellulose breakdown occurs in the large intestine while absorption takes place in the stomach, rodents first eliminate the partially digested plant material in the form of pellets. The rodents then practice coprophagy which entails eating the passed pellets and returning them to the stomach for further digestion.

Most rodents are herbivores although rats and mice are omnivorous and a few species are specialized carnivores. The large incisors can be used to crack open seeds, cut tough plant stalks (in the case of beavers this even includes trees) and gain access to well-hidden human food stores.

Rodents association with food supplies and their ability to carry human disease has probably led to much of their negative image. It is common knowledge that the “Black Death,” the great bubonic plague epidemic that led to the Industrial Revolution, was spread by fleas that spent part of their lives on rats. Recently hanta virus has given the adorable prairie dog a bad name. On the bright side, rodents neither get nor carry the rabies virus.

I’m not sure how any of this information is going to help me explain Caplin to people who meet her. I’m sure they’re not going to want to know about the disease or the coprophagy aspects of rodent life. Maybe I’ll just mention she’s related to beavers. Or chipmunks, who can resist those little cuties?

Photo: Tequila's babies at the "hopper" stage.Photo: Caplin the capybara demonstrating the distinctive rodent teeth.
Photo: Prairie dogs, like this one from Big Spring, TX, have a complex social system and a language to match.
Photo: This groundhog lived in a burrow in a cemetery in Maine.
Photo: Chipmunks, or ground squirrels, are brightly colored and cute. This one lives in Yosemite National Park in California.
Photo: Squirrels, like most rodents, are herbivores. This one is eating a pear from a tree in my backyard.
Photo: There are more species of rodents than any other mammals. Notice this squirrel from Yosemite National Park looks quite different from the one from Texas.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Article: Husbands are slobs

Rick shopping for washers and driers

Sometimes I wonder how women and men ever get along together. At least I wonder how my husband Rick and I do. My month-long vacation started this week and I have been busy, busy, busy, working around the house. My first goal is to renovate the laundry room and I have diligently attacked the problem.

This weekend, I dragged Rick to Lowe’s to look at washer / drier combinations. What a struggle! In the end he only went because he wanted to buy some dumb little thing for himself. That’s not to say the washer and drier aren’t important to him, he just doesn’t want to do any work to select them. Of course, he would complain if they don’t meet his unstated criteria.

We also examined sheet vinyl options. Rick has absolutely no opinion about this except price and minimizing the disruption to his life. He also commented on the affect of various colors and patterns on the resale value of our house. This is ridiculous. We’ve lived here fifteen years and we’re not moving any time soon. Furthermore, I can’t imagine that any aspect of the laundry room would be the deciding factor for a serious buyer. It wasn’t for us and the laundry room looked terrible when we bought the house--as it still does.

Aside from that, the only contribution Rick has made is to worry about how long we might be without laundry facilities. I claim that the correct order to do things is to move the old appliances out, paint the room, put in the floor and finally get the new appliances. Rick disagrees. He insists that we keep the old appliances alive and functioning right up until the moment they are replaced by the new appliances.

This is clearly insane. It would make it much more difficult to paint the room, especially since I have to paint the ceiling. Rick says I can just move the washer and drier to the opposite side of the room while I’m painting. How hard can that be? And, after all, it won’t take more than a day to do the painting.

Exasperated, I said no. I’m doing all the work and I’m making all the decisions so we’ll just move them outside and we can go a week without laundry facilities. After all, I pointed out, he took almost a year off work and didn’t get anything done around the house. I’m sacrificing my vacation, he can take a little bit of inconvenience.

His witty repartee was that he didn’t do anything around the house while unemployed because he didn’t want to. It’s not his fault that I want to fix things up. Ugh! There are a million things that need to be done around this house but Rick takes no responsibility for any of them. For example, the laundry room is full of Rick’s junk. A lot of this is tools we don’t need in the house, for example a circular saw, or drill bits without the drill. I told Rick this stuff had to go out to the garage. Rick countered that the garage is too disorganized for him to be able to find anything.

Cleaning the garage is also on my list of things to do so I understand Rick’s contention that you can’t find anything out there. In fact, you can’t even get to areas that are too far removed from where I park my car. And why is that? It is full of Rick’s stuff, probably including the drill that goes with the bits.

So why do I have to clean his mess up during my vacation? Why does Rick get away with saying that he didn’t feel like doing anything around the house? It’s my own fault really. I knew he was a slob when we first met. He and his roommate had mold growing in the ice in their freezer. Stupidly, I thought he could be trained out of this.

I’m older and wiser now. I know it is pointless to ask him to put things away. He doesn’t even know what that means. And I suppose his argument that he is disabled gets him out of doing any of the actual work. But I insist that he participate in the selection. It’s the least he can do even if it is also the most he can do.

Photo: Floor samples. I choose the one at the bottom right.

Article: Quest for nature in Uvalde

A fritillary butterfly on frost weed

A couple of weeks ago I decided to take another stab at attending a nature oriented festival. This is one in a series of nature festivals for me. Two years ago I started this trend with a trip to the Rio Grande Valley for a butterfly festival. Then last year I went to Roswell, New Mexico for a dragonfly festival. I’m not up to anything so grandiose this year, in fact, I’d thought I would skip the whole nature-fest scene. Then my friend Elizabeth pointed me at one in Uvalde. That’s far but not too far. We could do it in a day trip.

Uvalde lies in the Texas Hill Country River Region. They hold both a Spring and Fall Nature Quest every year. (You can find out about the next one at: Since Uvalde is about 2.5 hours away (or 4 hours if you go the way we went), we missed the morning’s activities. We did arrive in time for lunch and the afternoon tours. Elizabeth and I opted to go on a butterfly hunt. We hopped in a van with the other tour members and headed down a dirt road toward a remote ranch.

I was impressed to find the other tour members had come even farther than we had: Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma, Mexico. I had thought we’d be the most far-flung since this festival is rather small. And they all knew each other. Their conversation focused on which was better, to be a bird watcher or a butterfly watcher. The consensus was that it is easier to be butterfly watchers and it is therefore more fun.

Fun or not, they took the whole thing more seriously than Elizabeth and I. For example one woman named the species of each of the butterflies she saw as the van drove down the bumpy dirt road toward the ranch. Maybe her view was better than mine but I could hardly even see those butterflies. We passed a group of wild turkeys foraging alongside the road but they hardly raised a comment from our fellow butterfly-watchers.

Finally we reached our destination at the end of the road high in the hills. I thought we would be in for a bit of hiking, seeking out those elusive butterflies in every nook and cranny of the rugged landscape. We started at a patch of frost weed on a sunny slope a few feet from where we parked. We spent about an hour examining every flutter of colorful wings that came anywhere near those flowers, never traveling more than a few dozen feet. It was nice. There were quite a few butterflies. But it lacked drama, no matter how our guide yelled that we should rush to see his newest find.

Later we drove about a quarter mile to view butterflies along a creek. There really weren’t many there but there were other interesting things. I got some photos of a lynx spider eating a hairstreak butterfly. That was pretty interesting to watch. And I spotted a tiny jumping spider with indigo eyes and bright blue pedipalps. A tiny frog blended perfectly with the pebbles on the bank of the creek.

While Elizabeth and I had fun on our tour of Hill Country butterflies, I think we didn’t fit in in crucial ways. We aren’t dedicated enough as butterfly watchers. For example, we didn’t even bring a butterfly field guide. Secondly, we’re more active and more interested in hiking around to see wildlife while getting some exercise. Another point is that we are not part of the butterfly clique. It’s probably more fun if you know the other people. Elizabeth and I aren’t outgoing enough to insinuate ourselves that doesn’t go out of its way to include us.

Surprisingly, the age distribution was skewed way toward the high end . Apparently butterfly watchers are all retired people. I imagined all ages would be interested but especially families with preteen children. What better way to teach children about the wonders of nature than to experience the diversity of everyone’s favorite insects? Maybe the kids were missing because school just started. There’s another Nature Quest in the Spring. Elizabeth and I may go. If we bring her kids we can at least attempt to reverse the trend.

Photo: This tiny frog blended perfectly with the rocks down by a creek.
Photo: Hairstreak butterflies were the most common types we saw.
Photo: This little jumping spider was no doubt waiting for an unsuspecting butterfly.
Photo: I have no idea what kind of bug this is but I thought it was cute.
Photo: Virtually all the butterflies we saw were feeding on frost weed, which is enormous and plentiful with all the rain we've gotten this year.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Article: Dream vacation

Something needs to be done with this laundry room

This year I managed to wrangle some extra vacation from work. I get the entire month of October off. It’s a rare opportunity that I decided to waste by working on the house.

We’ve been in this house about eighteen years and the one room I have ignored completely is the laundry room. I hate spending time in there possibly because I hate doing laundry. However, I am going to assume it’s because the room is ugly and if I change the room I’ll change myself.

At first I just thought I’d paint it a bright color. It is dirty white now and a coat of yellow paint might be just what it needs. But isn’t yellow both predictable and boring? To spice it up, I could paint the cabinets red. I stood in the doorway and stared at the coffin-like rectangular room. I could paint a red sun in the far corner and put a few red rays across the walls. It would still be mostly yellow with red cabinets. My imagination soared.

Of course the room needed a new floor. The current floor is sheet linoleum and has curled up along the edges ever since we lived here. I’m tired of that. So new linoleum. But what color? Red would be too overpowering. Yellow didn’t seem right. Maybe blue, then it would be like sun shinning on water. Or green, sun on the grass.

I started talking over my laundry room vision with my husband. I told him I want to get rid of the freezer that takes up one large corner of the room. It is full of food we’re never going to eat. We don’t need it anymore since the kids moved out. Rick agreed. To my surprise, he added that we should get a new washer and dryer.

So far I hadn’t really contemplated doing anything expensive. A new washer / dryer moves us into a different category. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there. Strangely, Rick was adamant about it. Our current set is old and functions poorly at best but they almost seem like part of the family. If we got new ones, maybe they would be more energy efficient. Maybe they would be quieter. Maybe they would be a color to match the new walls and floor. That last thing got my buy-in, we need a new washer/dryer.

The next time I had to do laundry, my mind viewed the laundry room in all its new glory. I decided to take before and after photos. I stood in the hallway snapping the photos when my eyes wandered to the hall itself. Because of Rick’s disability, he often puts his hand on the wall to steady himself. Years of this means that the walls are filthy. I’ll need to paint the hallway too.

Something inside me clicked and suddenly it seemed the whole house needed modification. I remembered that I originally planned to use stencils to put falling leaves near the ceiling in the family room. I could do that in October. That would require getting a really tall ladder since the ceiling is sixteen feet at its peak. While I’m up there I should change the light bulbs that have been burned out for the last year. And clean out the cobwebs in the high corners.

While I’m working in the family room, I should get the sheet rock repaired from when we had a plumbing leak two years ago. That reminded me that there is another sheet rock repair job to do in the kitchen. And maybe I should replace the wallpaper. I guess I need to take some more “before” pictures.

Suddenly a month doesn’t seem that long. I must be dreaming to think I can get all that done.

Photo: That freezer and the awful floor both have to go. And what about those dumb ladders?
Photo: We're going to replace this bland washer/dryer pair with a nice, new, brightly colored pair.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Article: A capybara on MySpace

Screen capture of Caplin the Capybara's MySpace page

I belong to a writing group that meets twice a month. All the people in the group are writing novels. It’s a big ambition, ridiculous for the most part. I can live with that. We all have to have dreams. At each meeting we have thirty seconds to answer a random question about our writing. The question is supposed to help break the ice and reveal something about ourselves. This last week, we gave our responses to, “Do you have a blog?”

I was surprised that only I and one other woman had blogs. This dearth of internet savvy puzzled me. I guess most of my writing compatriots are older but even so, this is the twenty-first century isn’t it? And aren’t blogs a type of writing? Shouldn’t people who like to write be writing blogs?

It’s true that most blogs are pretty boring. Even blogs written by people who know how to write and have written on great topics, even those blogs tend to be so devoid of meaning that you wonder how they can say so little in so many words. Maybe it’s because people think it’s really interesting to write about their own lives, as if they are special or unique in some important way, which is almost certainly not true.

My blog is not like that. I’m as boring as the next person, maybe even more so, but my blog isn’t about me, it’s about my pet capybara, Caplin.

Those who know, know that lots of pets have blogs. Caplin’s blog, (I write in her “voice”), is on her MySpace page ( MySpace is a hotbed of animal blogs. Most animal bloggers are dogs and cats, probably just as boring as people. But nearly all groups of animals are represented. One of Caplin’s MySpace friends is a snake. The snake has lots of snake MySpace friends. Caplin doesn’t have any capybara MySpace friends.

The thing about MySpace, blogs, YouTube and the like, is that you need to have something unique to say, but not too unique. For example, a pet capybara apparently doesn’t attract many readers. Most people don’t know what a capybara is, and if they do, they don’t think about searching MySpace to become friends with one. The reptile crowd is one up on the capybaras in internet presence and communication.

While Caplin’s MySpace provides information about capybaras, it could also be used by psychology students as an example of an 1obsession. Along with blog entries, I’ve got photos and videos of Caplin up there. I did a full customization on her page while my personal page has virtually nothing. Nearly every day I feel compelled to add something, a blog entry, a photo, a video. I do nothing to my own page. I want to share Caplin with the world.

The world isn’t looking. I’m not just guessing that, I know it for a fact. I can see how many people have viewed Caplin’s page and altogether it’s less than 250. Probably most of those hits are me. And she only has seventeen friends. Is it possible to be a nerd and an outcast on MySpace? I don’t want Caplin to suffer that kind of humiliation.

Maybe that’s why my writing friends don’t blog. Maybe they don’t have an animal to take the fall for them. With no pet to hide behind, their own lack of popularity would be exposed. For example, I am somewhat humiliated that, while Caplin isn’t exactly popular, she still has more MySpace friends than I do. Luckily I don’t have a delicate ego--or I’m living vicariously through my capybara.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Article: Not my birthday

The second photo out of my new camera. Caplin sitting on my lap.

It’s not my birthday but I got a present anyway. I bought it for myself, which is the best way to be sure to get something you like. I bought my present over the internet, quick and easy, and everything seems available.

What I bought is a fancy-schmancy new camera. It’s a digital SLR alot like my old one except that technology has moved on and this is the new and improved version. I bought the camera for a trip to Rick’s niece’s Bat Mitzvah. I wouldn’t actually have bought a camera for that, I don’t like photographing people. But when I decided to drive up to Denver, well, you never know what you’ll see and my old camera just did not seem up to the task.

As can be expected when ordering online, the camera didn’t actually arrive in time for the trip. It was waiting for me when I got home. I would have been more excited but the drive back from Denver took longer than I’d planned. It was almost two o’clock in the morning and I had work the next day. So the camera spent one more day sitting on the table in its unopened box.

The next day when I got home from work I was too tired to look at it. I needed to get some sleep after all that hard driving. The camera spent another day in its box.

But Wednesday when I got home, I spirited the magical package off to my room. Sitting at the chair in front of my computer, I sifted through the contents. Wow that camera looks nice. It has a lot more controls than my old camera. I’m sure I have no idea how to use it.

I’m also sure I have no intention of reading the manual. I pried the documentation from its shrink wrap and opened to the first page. The heading read, “Preventing Serious Injury or Death.” That just makes the whole manual seem stupid. How many people could possibly have been killed by a camera? I suppose it’s possible that if you swung it hard at someone, maybe a baby with a soft skull, and you hit them just right, but who can take that threat seriously?

So I set the manual down, pulled out all the contents of the box and set to work. There were a few things I figured I already knew how to do. This camera takes the same battery as my old camera, so I knew how to charge the battery and install it in the camera. The new camera is the same brand as my old one so it has the same lens mount. I knew how to attach a lens to the body and I even had a lens to attach. The memory card installed the same way also.

That was the end of the easy tasks. The next thing to do was put the shoulder strap on. The mounts on the camera body were obvious. The straps themselves seemed pretty straight forward. And yet, it was not so. I was forced to open the manual again. Naturally that didn’t help. It turned out one of the little plastic keepers had to be used in a particular orientation that was not obvious. Given a 50-50 chance, I’d chosen the wrong way.

Then I turned on the camera. It came up with a screen for setting the date and time. I fiddled with the controls. I want the date and time to be right so I couldn’t move on to actual photography until I fixed this. Sadly, I realized I would have to open the manual and start reading. Annoyingly, the information on setting the date and time doesn’t appear in the manual until page 39. I didn’t read those first 38 pages but they got in my way.

All that done, I was finally ready to take my first photo. Caplin, my two month old capybara, was sleeping on my lap so she provided the obvious subject. It was hard focusing on something so close so I had to lean back in my chair to get enough distance. I snapped the shutter and examined the image on the LCD. Blurry. I put the lens on autofocus and tried again. The second image came out much better but still nothing to write home about.

I hope I’m not actually going to have to read the manual before I can get good photographs. For some reason I have all the time in the world to take pictures but absolutely no time to learn how to do it.

Photo: A giant praying mantis made from car parts that I saw on the way to Denver. I wish I'd had my new camera for this photo.

Photo: View from the Texas panhandle. If only I'd been able to take this with my new, higher resolution camera!

Article: Total eclipse of the moon

Lunar eclipse during initial partial phase

Seems like everyone is always complaining about how hot it is in Texas during the summer. But that’s one of the things I love about Texas, especially the summer nights. What could be better than standing in the warm night air and drinking in the star light? Central Texas is great for amateur astronomers.

Actually, I’m kind-of lying, the warm air is not really that great for astronomers. Cool air holds less water and is therefore clearer than warm air and better for stargazing. However if, like me, you are not willing to stand outside in the cold, then it doesn’t matter how clear cold air is. That is what makes Central Texas summers perfect for people like me.

I was standing outside in the warm, moist morning air at 4:30 Tuesday morning to view the total lunar eclipse. I had my camera propped up on some pillows on my husband’s car since I wasn’t able to find a working tripod. The horses were out for the night and had nothing better to do then poke me with their muzzles to see if food would appear. And slowly the moon disappeared. The horses were completely unimpressed.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the shadow of the Earth falls on the surface of the moon. Since the moon is visible to half the world at any time, it’s about the easiest celestial event to witness. As the shadow moves, the bright face of the full moon gradually darkens. When you think about it, that’s amazing. You can actually view the relative movements of the Earth and Moon.

Looking closely as the eclipse progressed, I noticed that the boundary between light and dark was not a clean, sharp line. This fuzziness provided a mental contrast with memories of stark images from lunar landings. Even though I understood the phenomenon was due to diffusion of sunlight passing through the Earth’s atmosphere, it was still surprising to see.

Gradually, the entire moon fell into shade and the full glory of the eclipse manifested. The shadow of the Earth is not completely black. Some sunlight is scattered as it passes through the thin veil of the Earth’s atmosphere. If viewed from the moon, the Earth would appear to be ringed in fire, the red-orange color of infinite sunsets and sunrises. That diffused light falls on the darkened moon making it shine a dim but beautiful firebrick red.

The next lunar eclipse that will be visible in the United States is in February of 2008. Since the sun and the moon are on opposite sides of the Earth every month during the full moon, you might wonder why there isn’t an eclipse every month. This is because the orbit of the moon does not lie exactly in the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the sun, it’s about five degrees off. This is just enough to cause the moon to slide above or below the Earth’s shadow during most full moons.

One of the great sites of the internet is There’s a wealth of information there for anyone interested in astronomy. Go to for some excellent images from this week’s eclipse. Another good site is That site includes tables showing when and where to expect both lunar and solar eclipses and tips for photographing eclipses. None of the tips includes using pillows, pushing horses out of the way or living somewhere where the night air is like a warm blanket rather than a slap in the face. Obviously the tip section could use some expansion.

Photo: Lunar eclipse during totality.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Article: Lessons from the Austin Zoo

Prairie Dog at the Austin Zoo (looks a little fat)

I often drive the stretch of Hwy. 290 leading from Dripping Springs to Austin. Along that road is a sign that always catches my attention, an arrow pointing down Circle Drive with the words “Austin Zoo.” I love animals and I love zoos but somehow I never had the time to stop. This weekend, I decided to finally go and to bring my son and his family along.

Celeste, who is eight, was excited about going to the zoo. She’s a cat person and really wanted to see the big cats, especially the tigers. The rest of us wanted to see the pair of adult capybaras the zoo was reputed to have.

Zoos these days all have missions. Of course one mission is to educate the public about the beauty and diversity of life on Earth. In addition to that mission, the Austin Zoo is a rescue zoo. Over 90 percent of their 300 animals have been rescued. A sign at the entrance admonishes visitors not to keep exotic animals as pets. Well that put a stop to me telling them I have a pet capybara.

Still, I understand their point. The zoo gets around 200 requests per year to take unwanted animals. People don’t always consider the long term commitment they are entering into when they get a pet. Even with dogs and cats, few consider whether the animal will fit into their lives in the five, ten or even fifteen years that the animal will live. Local animal shelters are full of abandoned pets who have outlived their owners’ interest.

Responsible pet ownership also involves selecting a pet that you have the time and facilities to care for. Most people can accommodate a dog or cat but not many could care for a bear, a tiger or an anaconda. Surprisingly, according to the Austin Zoo web site, there are more tigers in Texas than anywhere else in the world. Some are in zoos, some in “roadside attractions,” some are pets and others are at game ranches waiting to be “hunted.”

Those are the obviously bad choices for pets. There are less obvious ones. I might as well go through my own pets as examples.

Firstly, I have horses. Horses aren’t like most pets, they retain value throughout most of their lives. But horses live a very long time and toward the end they typically can’t be ridden. I lost a horse this summer who was twenty-nine years old. She’d had only very light use the last five years of her life, occasionally taking small children for short rides. I have the land to retire a horse. People who are spending $300 per month for board are much less likely to keep a horse past its useful life. Those horses end up going to slaughter.

I also have reptiles. For my son Philip’s first birthday, I got him a young leopard tortoise. It’s a gift that lasts a lifetime. Leopolda is now at least twenty-eight years old and weighs fifty pounds. I have structured my yard around a large tortoise. I have a good sturdy fence she can’t see through, a nice pond for water, no poisonous plants, and several fruit trees. In 1989 I gave Philip a Florida kingsnake. I still have that snake eighteen years later.

Before I bought my baby capybara, I considered whether I have the facilities for her. I have the nicely fenced yard that I built for Leopolda, including a pond. I want Caplin to be an indoor / outdoor pet but if that doesn’t work out and if she can’t just stay in the yard, I have a couple of pastures with wire mesh fence that I can configure for capybara use.

So we went to the Austin Zoo to take a look at their capybaras and compare their behaviors to Caplin’s. We wondered if she’d still be as friendly when she gets big and will she still make the cute noises. We ran into the general curator, Jim Carroccio, out at the tiger enclosure and asked about the capybaras. Jim told us that the zoo’s pair had died of old age a couple of years previously. We asked about capybara personality and Jim characterized them as “cow-like.” I think Caplin is going to prove him wrong. She’s already got a ton of personality

Photo: My baby capybara, the instigation for the zoo trip.
Photo: Leopolda, a leopard tortoise I've had for 27 years.
Photo: Many of the zoos animals are rescued, like this blind leopard.
Photo: Celeste taking a turn at Duck, Duck, Goose.
Photo: Austin zoo scenic.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Article: Taking the long way

The AmerScot Inn, a B&B where I stayed in Stow, MA

I have a saying most people might not agree with but which suits me fine: if it’s worth going, it’s worth going the long way. Application of this motto provides glimpses into local culture and scenes that are completely missed when traveling direct routes or suffering confinement to major highways. It also makes me late.

This past weekend, I had the chance to put my travel paradigm into action. I found myself staying at a nice little bed and breakfast in the small town of Stow about an hour outside Boston. I travel quite a bit for work but seldom end up someplace that’s not completely urban. Stow is decidedly non-urban.

The AmerScot Inn ( provided a nice jumping-off point for my little adventure. Friday morning I had an excellent breakfast prepared by Doreen Gibson, the innkeeper, and followed by a short meeting with a potential customer. Then my day was free. All I had to do was get from Stow, Massachusetts to Bangor, Maine, a trip that takes about four hours on the major highways.

My natural proclivity in the area of indirection was given a boost when the customer advised me of a beautiful route along the New Hampshire side of the Maine / New Hampshire border. He warned that it was considerably longer. But I had all afternoon! So what if I got there at 6:00 instead of 4:00? Still plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely dinner and a long chat with my nephew in Bangor when I arrived.

Of course there’s no point taking a scenic route unless you stop to admire the scenes. Which I did. There was the adorable little town of Sandwich about half-way up the state. I stopped to look in a local art gallery and found a wonderful watercolor of marine invertebrates that I am going to regret not buying for years.

A little farther on, a sign pointed me to covered bridge #54. I had never seen a covered bridge so naturally I had to go. Number 54 turned out to be the Durgin Bridge, originally constructed in 1844 but apparently the current incarnation dates from 1869. Still, you don’t find bridges like that in Texas.

Near the New Hampshire / Canada / Maine intersect lies the town of Conway. That place must be a major tourist destination because I hit stop-and-go traffic well outside of town. When I parked my car to take a photo of some flowers with tree-covered mountains for a backdrop, a little tourist train put a stop to the go part of stop-and-go as it crossed the road between the tightly packed cars. I eyed the train enviously. If only I had time to ride it. Yet by this time I realized my arrival in Bangor was going to be a little later than six o’clock.

On the Maine side of the border I encountered a giant statue of Paul Bunyan in Rumford. The largest Paul Bunyan statue is actually in Bangor and I’d already seen that but this one nice too. Still no Babe the Blue Ox, which seems like a shame.

I didn’t make it into Bangor until after 10:00 pm, much later than I expected. Still, I saw a lot of things I never would have otherwise. Tired as I was, I did not regret my route. However, if I ever get a chance to do that particular drive again, I think I’ll take two days. And I’ll buy that watercolor in Sandwich.

Photo: Durgin bridge in New Hampshire.

Photo: The town of Conway, NH with traffic and a little tourist train.
Photo: Somewhere in western Maine.
Photo: Giant Paul Bunyan statue in Rumford, ME
Photo: Taken from Cliff Island off the Maine coast near Portland.