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.