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.