Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: The Year in Books

Every year on New Year's Eve, I post a list of the books I've read that calendar year, and every year, the list seems to get shorter and more pathetic. I used to read way more than this and I enjoy it so damn much; seeing my slide into illiteracy actually makes me a bit sad. I need to find a way to allot myself more time to read in 2009. So I'm going to post this list, thin as it is, to keep myself honest. Here are the books I read in 2008:

  • Windfalls [fiction] by Jean Hegland
  • Remains of the Day [fiction] by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The House on Mango Street [fiction] by Sandra Cisneros
  • Girls in Trouble [fiction] by Caroline Leavitt
  • Chrysalis, Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis [non-fiction] by Kim Todd
  • The Wonder Spot [fiction] by Melissa Bank
  • The Stand [fiction] by Stephen King
  • Lost Mountain [non-fiction] by Erik Reece -- See my review here, and find links to numerous other reviews over at The Blogging Bookworm.
  • Messenger [fiction] by Lois Lowry
  • In Defense of Food [non-fiction] by Michael Pollan -- I won this book from a giveaway over at Crunchy Chicken. Thanks again, Crunchy!
  • The Back Road to Crazy [essays] edited by Jennifer Bove
  • For Love [fiction] by Sue Miller
  • Bait and Switch : The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream [non-fiction] by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • The Road [fiction] by Cormac McCarthy
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames [essays] by David Sedaris
  • An American Childhood [memoir] by Annie Dillard
  • Coming Back to Me [fiction] by Caroline Leavitt
  • Silence of the Songbirds [non-fiction] by Bridget Stutchbury -- I read this book based on Hugh's excellent review over at Rock Paper Lizard.
  • The Midwife’s Apprentice [fiction] by Karen Cushman
I highly recommend Lost Mountain for anyone looking for a captivating non-fiction read; Remains of the Day was the fiction stand-out. What about you? What were your favorites reads of 2008?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

On Opting Out

Every year my company hosts a minimum of two or three separate Christmas parties. There is the formal affair, which is held a few weeks beforehand, at various fancy off-site establishments, with staff from both offices. It is the one time a year when everyone meets face to face, and after two years, there are still unfamiliar faces. Then on the last day before the holiday, each office has a Secret Santa potluck.

When the sign-up sheet was posted in the kitchen last year, I casually ignored it. I am generally opposed to Secret Santa type gift swaps on environmental grounds. In my experience, people are buying for recipients they don't know very well, with spending guidelines that pretty much guarantee that everyone just trades crap that no one wants. But my boss who organizes the party is really into the fun social aspect of it, and when she came around to my desk with sign-up sheet I succumbed to the pressure.

It turns out the culture of this particular gift exchange leans even more heavily towards useless garbage than most. The gifts are supposed to be stupid, or comical, or humiliating. [An example is a whole line of "Boss Lady" toiletries someone purchased for one of the partners last year, which was all packaged in pink, but had a manly scent. Racy calendars are also a recurring theme.]

Because it was "secret," I wasn't exposed as the guilty party, but the gift I purchased, a Rishi fair trade organic tea gift set with a ceramic diffuser, was roundly dismissed as being "too nice." It must have been a new person. Luckily there were several of us new people, including my recipient, who seemed quite pleased with her gift. She came and thanked me privately later -- she figured out it was me because there aren't many of us tea drinkers there, plus the aforementioned newbie failure to buy a gag gift. The funny thing is, she had drawn my name, and bought me organic lotion and lip gloss, another gift dismissed as unworthy by the old timers.

This year I decided to opt out.

With several successful performance reviews under my belt, I figured I should have enough personal capitol and recognizable value by now to escape the obligatory gift exchange. I still brought a dish to pass and attended the party, socializing and watching co-workers open their embarrassing gifts. It was much more enjoyable for me this year without the stress of the dreaded gift exchange. As the party was wrapping up, the partners passed out merit-based bonus checks, a welcome uncertainty in these times. [My company has not been immune to this economic downturn: our health care rates will skyrocket in January, and several co-workers have been laid off or had their hours dramatically cut back.]

Most staff leave shortly after the party peters out, but I returned to my desk for another hour and a half of work, trying to wrap something up I am scheduled to work on next week. When I was leaving at 5:30 pm, the only other people left were partners. As I was putting on my coat and getting ready to leave, I went around to say goodbye and personally thank each partner.

I was in Party Organizer Boss's office when Boss Lady Recipient Partner came in with her coat to say goodbye, too. We all ended up walking out together. They started lamenting how there seemed to be less participation this year in both the Secret Santa and the potluck. Since they knew I didn't participate in the gift exchange, but the food all gets lost together on one big table, I was quick to point out in my defense that at least I brought a dish to pass. Redemption of sorts? That was my hope. Then Party Organizer Partner joked that perhaps they should tie Secret Santa participation to the bonuses.

While it was just a joke, the comment gave me pause. Obviously I know enough to keep my big mouth shut and not tell my bosses what I really think of these gift exchanges. But is that enough? Are there political consequences to opting out? What do you think? Do I have to suck it up and participate in future Secret Santas for reasons of professional development?

I hope everyone has a terrific holiday season, and if you are celebrating Christmas today, that it is very Merry indeed!

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Since my last post, I've attended several NCAA basketball games, gone to the company Christmas party, and best of all, saw David Sedaris read at a local theater. I've already written about basketball (several times) and don't really want to get into too much detail about my job, but I haven't ever blogged about David Sedaris. The man is hysterical, and dreamy, too: I always swoon a little when I see him. He's like a rock star. So I thought I would compile a list inspired by Momma Val's Ticket Stubs post. So here they are, the various concerts and lectures I've attended:

Kurt Vonnegut
Margaret Atwood
Amy Tan
John Irving
Oliver Sacks
Michael Moore
David Sedaris

Timothy Leary
Oliver Stone
George Carlin

Rock Concerts
Tom Petty
Phish (also, Oysterhead and the Trey Anastasio Band)
The Grateful Dead (also, the Jerry Garcia Band and Rat Dog)
The Allman Brothers
The Rolling Stones

All these events were highly entertaining, and I enjoyed them enormously. However, I do have regrets about missing a few... There was that Pink Floyd concert back in '94 -- I waited in line first for a bracelet, then again to buy tickets, but ultimately took a job out of state and couldn't go. REM and Neil Young are two other bands I've always wanted to see, but never had the chance.

A few regrets with the authors, too, unfortunately. Stephen Jay Gould apparently gave a lecture in my town, but I didn't find out about it until several years after the fact, so obviously did not go (and of course now will never have the opportunity). I also inexcusably missed Jane Goodall when she was here, although the venue was a graduation speech, and not a straight-up lecture or reading that would have been more to my liking. Then there are the authors I would love to see, like Michael Pollan, who never seem to come to my area.

As odd as it may sound to those who don't love books, the author lectures are a rollicking good time, and they've all been local, as opposed to the concerts. I never exactly toured with any particular band, but the list of concerts above occurred in seven different states and provinces. What about you? Seen any great events? Who do you regret missing?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Stumbling Along

Sorry for my sporadic presence around bloggyland of late. November was really super busy for me. When it got about halfway through the month without me posting, I started thinking, maybe I should just take the whole month off. Sort of like the anti-NaBloPoMo. [Yeah, 'cause I'm a rebel like that.]

However, December has turned out to be just as busy around here, possibly even more so than November: all the same shit, plus the addition of the looming holiday hoopla. It's hard to get back into the swing of blogging, particularly when there is so much other stuff that needs doing. Not surprisingly, I am not feeling especially festive this year, and haven't even begun the inevitable holiday preparations.

I wanted to get a tree this weekend, because the lovely aroma of balsam always cheers me up, but that hasn't happened yet either. I did sleep late this morning, though, which I absolutely needed after a truly exhausting week. Then we went out for an inexpensive lunch at a local pizza shop that has been in business since the 1920s (SodaBoy discovered they have fantastic clam chowder), then home again for an afternoon of chores. Speaking of which, I should go check that laundry...

Maybe we'll get a tree tomorrow.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Trick-or-Treat Live Blogging

I worked past 6 pm tonight so I missed the beginning, but we get a LOT of trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood. We decided to keep a tally this year. Here's what we've got so far:

6:37 62 kids*
6:59 81 kids
7:09 94 kids
7:16 114 kids
7:23 150 kids
7:48 165 kids**
8:24 173 kids

* including the heartwarming family that stopped to take photos with our Obama yard sign after collecting their candy. Awww!!
** our neighborhood is getting darker and darker as the neighbors one by one run out of candy and turn off their lights.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

At Work Today

I often have to rent a vehicle when traveling for work, due to the need for four wheel drive at some of our more remote field sites. I know it's still October, but I sure hope the rental car agencies start including snow brushes soon.

This is the same site where I saw the cutleaf grapefern last month. It looks a little different now, eh?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Skywatch Friday: The Black Beam

I've never participated in Skywatch before, but I recently saw this weird black beam in the sky and just had to share it. My husband and I were hiking in a local park a few weeks ago. It was late afternoon and we were almost back to the car when we noticed it. We made some irreverent jokes about how someone was being smote, and decided to try photographing the incident, to see if it was "real." Two separate cameras clearly captured the beam. A dirty contrail? A shadow of a contrail? This first shot is completely un-edited.

In the shot to the right, I cranked the contrast way up so the beam would be more visible. If you look closely at the high contrast version, several more dark parallel beams become visible in the distance. Any ideas what we were seeing?

Head over to Skywatch to see more celestial photos.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Jig Is Up

As I've written about before, we don't normally turn on the heat until November. This year, we'd been planning to hold out until election day, when depending on how things turn out, we might hopefully feel a bit celebratory. Maybe a bottle of wine, maybe turn the heat up to 62? Woo-hoo!

Yeah, we really know how to party around here.

However, we've had a bit of a cold snap lately that has really put a crimp in our plans. The lows temperatures have been in the 30s every day since Friday (except when they've been in the 20s). That's six days in a row. Plus, it's been overcast the much of the last few days, with little opportunity for passive solar heating. The icing on the cake? It was snowing this morning as I drove to work.

When I got home from work, with outdoor temperatures in the 30s, SodaBoy confessed he'd run the heat for a while this afternoon. Not for long: just to get the internal temperature up to 60, and then he turned it back off. Not to worry... we'll still be participating in the Freeze Yer Buns Challenge this winter.

I'm just a bit disappointed to be starting so soon.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

On Riding the Bus

My car was damaged by a quickie oil change facility: they cracked the oil pan, and I noticed the leak last Saturday at the farmers market. I immediately took the car back to the shop, and because it was clearly their fault, the business has agreed to install a new oil pan free of charge. I was actually surprised not to have to fight harder; I guess customer service is not entirely dead. The whole process is dragging out, though, because they have to get the check to purchase the oil pan from a regional district manager, and then order the part, and then wait for it to come in. The latest update suggests the part will arrive Saturday, and will be installed for me on Sunday.

Despite the protestations of the automotive staff that my leak was no big deal, and it would be fine to drive as long as I keep adding a quart of oil every other day (they even gave me a few quarts), I haven't been driving the car. I don't want to be spewing oil all over the city -- that stuff is nasty. I am not too happy having the oil pool up in my driveway either. I talked my way into some absorbent pads that I have placed under the car, and that helps, but it is still icky. Does anyone have any tips for how to safely clean the film off the driveway once my car stops leaking? Because there is still a bit of a sheen under the pads.

But the bus... I have been riding the city bus to and from work the last few days, and I am loving it. The stop is right around the corner from my house, and I get off one block from the office. It takes 20-25 minutes each way, slightly longer than it would were I to drive myself, but it is so much more interesting. The overheard conversations, the sociological observations, the stimulating sights, sounds, and smells. It is truly fabulous! I am so glad for this opportunity to find out how accessible and convenient the bus routes are in this neighborhood.

Although I will definitely use the bus more often even after my car repairs are complete, especially in bad weather, I may not continue to use it every day. The sad truth is the bus is more expensive for me than driving. At 2.9 miles from my driveway to the fifth floor of the parking garage, my roundtrip commute is just under 6.0 miles per day, or 30 miles per week. Using round numbers again for simplicity, my car gets about 30 mpg. This means I use approximately 1 gallon of gas per week for my roundtrip commute, a cost of about $4. Riding the bus is $1 each way, so my total expenses for a week of commuting would be $10.

Of course there is the hidden cost of wear and tear on the vehicle, extra maintenance costs and such. However, I can't see those expenses equating to $6 for 30 miles. Part of the discrepancy comes because my employer covers my parking expenses, providing us each with an entry card to a covered parking garage, a value of $90-100 per month. If I had to pay that myself, the bus would certainly be more economical. The bus service offers weekly and monthly passes, but at $10/week or $40/month, it doesn't save riders any money unless we ride more often than just commuting.

Now of course I must solve the dilemma: be cheap and drive my car, or be green and take the public transport? So many choices.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday Fern Blogging

Botrychium dissectum, cutleaf grapefern.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Football Quandary

Yesterday I did something very un-dude: I went to a football game. To be clear, I am not generally a fan of football. I find it only slightly less boring than baseball. I never even went to a single high school football game, that all-American ritual, and had in fact only been to one previous football game in my entire life. However, SodaBoy got free tickets from a co-worker, and the venue where Hometown University plays is walkable from our house. It seemed to be a not entirely unreasonable way to spend an autumn afternoon.

Although I am to understand Hometown U has traditionally had a respectable football team, with standout history-making players, and long runs of success, the current team is widely regarded as dismal. They lost their season opener, which was supposed to be a cupcake game, to a team from a lesser division, and have lost all other games this season as well. I feel sorry for the whole franchise, the coach who will almost certainly be canned at the end of this season, and especially the kids who work so hard in practice every day.

But yesterday HU won! It was to another "lesser" program, but given the downward spiral of the last few years, such victories cannot be taken for granted. Attendance has dropped significantly. There were only maybe 30,000 guests in the 50,000 seat venue, which wasn't such a bad thing for our personal comfort. We had plenty of room to stretch out, instead of being crammed in, like at basketball games, our shoulders pressed awkwardly against those of neighboring fans. At one point, part of the marching band filed into the empty seats behind us, and stayed for the entire third quarter, blasting out little bursts of noisy pep at every possible lull in the action. Deafening, but definitely entertaining.

In my opinion, the main drawback to an early season sporting event at this venue is the beverage situation: outside drinks are not allowed. As I mentioned, we regularly attend basketball games at the same venue. However, the climate in my area is such that during basketball season, we are always bundled up in bulky outerwear, and it is easy to smuggle in a reusable water bottle (me) or a can or two of soda (SodaBoy). Another family friend has been known to bring his own beer. Yesterday, with the temperatures in the mid-70s, and both of us wearing t-shirts, bringing our own drinks was not an option.

We made it through the first quarter sans refreshment, but then SodaBoy broke down and hit a concession stand. Football games are interminable, after all, and we had walked there, perhaps a 20 or 25 minute walk in the sun. There was thirst to be quenched. I still felt pretty bad about the disposable water bottle though. So bad that I carried it with me all the way home so that I could recycle it. [Full disclosure: there are recycling containers available at the Hometown U sporting facility, but I did not pass any on the way to the exit.] I also picked up and carried home another empty water bottle that had been discarded along the sidewalk.

Does anyone have any advice for avoiding disposables in such a situation?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Kimchi Free Coincidence

SodaBoy and I went out to eat this evening, a very rare occurrence on a week night, but it just seemed right. We had initially been planning to go to a chain restaurant with a yummy salad bar. However, at the last minute, we decided on the Korean steakhouse instead. We often drive by the place and always talk about going there, but had never quite gotten around to it. SodaBoy had never been there before, and I had only once, about a year and a half ago. My one previous trip had been at lunch, with a few work friends I was just getting to know, including S. and L.

Shortly after we placed our order for bento boxes, S. and her husband came in and were seated at the table right next to us. It was the strangest thing--she hadn't been there in over a year either, and also rarely eats out on weeknights. We don't live in the same neighborhood, and there are literally hundreds of restaurants we could have chosen instead (and almost did). How in the world did we wind up there at the same time?

The bento boxes contain small portions of lots of different things, so even though they are a bit pricey, SodaBoy and I both ended up ordering them. It made deciding what to get a little easier--everything sounded so good. Although I could have lived without the greasy tempura, the rest of the food was delicious.

I was a little disappointed not to get any kimchi though. It seems like something we should have tried, something that would be in a bento box for newbies like us to sample. Next time I'll have to make a special point to order some.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Gardening at Night

Was Michael Stipe talking about what happens when you work past dark, but still want fresh tomatoes in your salad? Somehow I think not, but when SodaBoy came out to the garden with me to hold the flashlight while I did my harvesting, we couldn't help but sing along.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Tasty Thanks

Despite my weekend of camping and the Monday holiday, this was a rough week (a rough few weeks, actually). I had a big deadline at work, which coupled with an extremely difficult client, has resulted in me working some very long hours. Last night, my boss and I were both at the office until 10 pm. We expect to have a few more days of scrambling early next week, but are hopeful things will calm down after that.

I was starting to get discouraged for a while, but light at the end of the tunnel is always a nice thing. Another thing that helps is knowing my Herculean efforts are not being taken for granted. When he was thanking me last night for all my hard work, my boss told me that he wanted me to take my husband out for a fancy dinner this weekend, and submit the receipt with my expense report on Monday.

So I had a lazy relaxing day today, a trip to the farmers market and several hours of reading on the porch. Then SodaBoy and I went out for our fancy dinner. We decided on a French restaurant we'd long been wanting to try. The food was delightful, but the prices were obscene. We won't likely return any time soon--I have never in my life seen such a high bill for dinner for two. I am not going to feel too badly though. My boss did use the word "fancy", exactly three times, and I definitely earned it. Plus, I gotta follow my marching orders!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Beaver Meadow Falls

SodaBoy and I spent our Labor Day weekend as we often do, camping in the Adirondacks. We hiked, canoed, and took in many a glorious vista. Beaver Meadow Falls was an unexpected bit of scenery.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Biking to Michelangelo

We live near the Hometown University campus, so when SodaBoy and I discovered there was an exhibit featuring Michelangelo originals on display at the art building, we were thrilled. Yesterday was the first available non-work day, so we took advantage of the nice weather, and biked over. Biking to an art exhibit was a fun new experience.

The exhibit was pretty awesome. It was all simple stuff, drawings and writings, no splashy paintings or sculptures. Still, it was pretty incredible to see these objects preserved, pieces of paper that are, in some cases, nearly 500 years old. There were sketches and studies from famous works, made all the more interesting because you could see where erasures and re-drawings had been made. I found the sketch for theThe Sacrifice of Isaac to be particularly compelling.

Note: Cameras had to be checked at the entrance, so this second photograph is not mine. I downloaded it from the Hometown University website, on the "press" page for the exhibit.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tuesday Night is Clam Night

We've started a new summer time ritual around here: Tuesday night is clam night. The process starts with SodaBoy taking a short drive to the seafood market, a specialty shop that has all kinds of great stuff and supports the local NPR station. The clams aren't displayed in the coolers with the fish, but a simple inquiry revealed they have succulent clams hidden in the back room, two dozen for under $12. We don't live in an coastal region, but are within a day's easy drive, and seafood from the specialty shop is always delightful fresh.

We steam the clams. We eat them right in the kitchen, standing round the stove top, dipping them in bubbling butter that swims with chives from the garden, sipping white wine after every clam. The air is filled with the sounds of mmmmms and ummms; the stove and counter tops become dappled with butter drips. It is so damn good no one cares.

Then we take a brief intermission, and I take the local new potatoes off the steamer, and dump the leftover chive butter over them, and top the concoction with fresh, local parsley. The second course of potatoes is accompanied by local sweet corn and more wine, and is eaten at the dining room table, while music plays. I am not normally a big drinker, but this Tuesday night ritual just might convert me. The meal is so simple, so buttery, and so good.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Old and the New

We went to an antique festival today. It was only the second such event I have attended, and just like last time, I walked away a bit confused. About two-thirds of the stuff was junk to my eyes, looking like someone cleaned out their basement, and decided to sell all their garbage at obscenely high prices. The remainder of the stuff was gorgeous, so nice that I won't say overpriced, even though the prices were mind-boggling. There was amazing hand-made furniture, spectacular stained glass, and some old muskets that caught SodaBoy's eye.

There were also beautiful, museum quality paintings from the 1800s, available for the bargain price of $60,000. They really were very nice paintings. As we browsed in awe, enjoying them vicariously (never for a fleeting moment even considering a purchase), the proprietor kept telling us to let him know if we saw one we liked, and he would cut us a really good deal. Very nice and all, but I suspect "a really good deal" on a $60,000 painting would still be light years beyond our budget.

In some ways, the pricing contrasts make shopping at such events more fun, if a bit draining. Finding something you like or need at a reasonable price can be a real challenge. We didn't buy much, but our few vintages purchases were well earned in mileage, at least. We hoofed that festival from end to end.

One other interesting bit of contrast was evident in the landscape. Location, location, location. This particular antique fair is a big event, held at the same spot every year. SodaBoy had been once a few years ago with his parents, and always wanted to go back with me. In the meantime, a new wind farm was built in the rolling hills just north of the festival grounds. It was delightful to be engaged in a celebration of the old while dancing in the shadow of the new.

Click on the photo to see the wind turbines on the hills above the Antique Fest.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Our first few tomatoes are ripening up beautifully. These are sun sugar, a super sweet orange variety I got hooked on at the farmers market last summer. These tomato plants are doing much better than the other variety I planted, a husky red. The poor husky admittedly had the disadvantage of going in the ground much later, and was then partially crushed due to a tragic accident involving a foot--it is just so tiny compared to the the sun sugars that it was overlooked. Poor thing. Several of the sun sugars are taller than me now. Assuming these first few teasers last that long, I'll toss them into our salads at dinner tomorrow night. I can't guarantee they'll make it in the house though.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Swimming Hole

We spent much of our time in the White Mountain State in this creek, either canoeing or just bobbing around in this swimming hole, which is located in the backyard of friends of our friends (fast becoming friends in their own right). We saw the swimming hole when we visited last fall, but didn't truly appreciate its glory without a few dunks. It is mind boggling that a swimming hole of such splendor could be in a backyard; if I lived there, I might never leave. It was perfectly storybook. We also attended a rock concert, ate soft shell lobster with our hands, drank wine, and stayed up late every night, watching the stars and talking all kinds of silliness. It was a great weekend.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Great Escape

SodaBoy and I are cat people--we have always had cats. We easily make friends with unknown kitties, sometimes surprising their human companions, who had expected their shy cat to hide from our intruding presence. We make friends with cats wherever we travel. I still remember the names of cats we befriended on a vacation to California in 1999 or 2000: Peppermint in Scotia, and Seymour in Port Costa; I can't remember what year we took the trip, but I clearly recall the names of the kitties.

One convenience of cats as pets versus dogs is their independence. Certainly when taking "real" trips, like the one to California, arrangements must be made. For that trip, Meshoe stayed with my grandmother. On other trips, our friend P. stayed at the apartment, looking after Meshoe and Elijah both. But for weekend jaunts, our cats have always been able to fend for themselves with little more than a fresh litter box, bowls heaped with dry food, and a multitude of water bowls perchance one should be spilled.

However, with Rhea and Reemsy, things have been different. Initially it was their tiny helplessness that caused us to dump them on my parents for a long weekend of camping, their need for constant medication. Even after they shook off the parasites and accompanying meds, there were issues with Rhea eating properly. She tricked us for a while, crunching away and appearing to eat the dry food, but when you got up close and watched her, most of it was falling right back out of her mouth. We had to start feeding her canned food, and of course you can't set out big bowls of that and take off for the weekend, so our friend M. came and stayed at the house when we visited SodaBoy's parents at Thanksgiving.

Since then, I have transitioned away from canned food (ugh) and I put warm water in dry food to make it easier for Rhea to eat. She loves the gravy train, but it does nothing for the goal of regaining our weekend independence, since someone has to be here to moisten it for her twice a day. SodaBoy insists she is eating dry dry food now, as snacks in between squishified helpings. So for our trip this past weekend, we thought perhaps we could get away with asking my sister to drop in a few times and dole out some soft food for Rhea just in case. Rhea and the eating situation turned out just fine.

It was Beemsy who caused the problem. I had closed all the windows in the house, for security and in case of rain, except one upstairs that the cats love to sit in and sniff the breeze. Sis came Thursday after work and all was well. When she returned Friday evening, however, there was only one cat. Beemsy had vanished. Sis tore the house apart looking for the cat, to no avail. She finally discovered the screen had been torn out in that one open window. Beemsy had literally jumped ship.

We have no cell phones, so enjoyed our weekend with no knowledge of the missing cat. When we arrived home, we immediately noticed the lack of the Beems, and quickly figured out she had escaped by the bowls of food and water placed on the screened in back porch. Beemsy returned to SodaBoy's worried whistle within fifteen minutes, a little wilder perhaps, but unharmed.

But my poor sister! I feel terrible about the worry she went through, she and the friend who stayed at Thanksgiving both, as M. was enlisted in a fruitless search party on Saturday. After the trauma, I am not sure I could ever ask either of them to look after our silly cats again. Obviously I learned never to leave a window open in our absence, but nothing else good came from the great escape.

These cats are trouble.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Granite State

We'll be spending a long weekend in the Granite State, visiting dear old friends and attending a Rush concert. We're departing a bit late, but that always seems to happen. Too much to do. I should remember to take a day off to be at home before heading out of town. There's always next time...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Calling All Readers

Just a quick public service announcement: my review of Lost Mountain is being featured as a guest post over at The Blogging Bookworm. This is a fantastic new site, a collaborative project born out of Green Bean's Be a Bookworm Challenge. Posts include information about treading lighter, green book giveaways, and best of all, tons of links to reviews of green books.

It's a great place to find your next read. Go now! Check it out!

Monday, July 07, 2008

I Heart Mulch

One of the things I did with my holiday weekend was get more mulch. That stuff is addictive, I swear. I had just put one of my tomato plants into the ground recently, and it just looked so sad and naked amongst all the other plants happily nestled in their mulch. Plus whenever I watered it, most of the water ran off in various directions and didn't make it to the roots. It was definitely time for more mulch.

I decided I would combine several errands. So I popped open the hatch, put down the back seat, and loaded up the two blue bins and shovel. Then I layered in the soda containers until there was no sign of the recycling containers, and barely a reflection in the rear view mirror over all the cans. My husband is down with many a green practice, but giving up his beloved soda is not a thought he would begin to entertain. In SodaBoy's world, there might be no bigger blasphemy.

So the containers pile up in the garage, drifting into corners until they start swallowing up entire bags of potting soil. I have a pretty high tolerance for such things, but every so often I'll get sick of looking at the mountains of containers, and make such a purge. [This is not simply an issue of too much space--when we lived in a walk up apartment, our elderly upstairs neighbor never used the back stairs, and we would build up huge collections there, as well.]

Now that I am blogging about the joy of returnables, I can compete with myself. The 679 containers I returned in January? Psht!! Saturday afternoon, I returned 826. Yeah, that's right... jealous? Seriously, I rock. And then I stopped on the way home and got my mulch. The only problem with my bottle runs is that they burn me out. That Christmas cactus never got re-potted, and when I got home with the mulch, I was too tired to spread it. I thought I would simply do it yesterday, but by then, the cursed foul heat had sank back over the lands, further draining my energy.

I spent the hottest part of the afternoon holed up reading In Defense of Food, then went out to do some yard work in the evening. Of course, I couldn't spread my mulch without weeding first, and then I got thinking it was about time to use the new bow saw I got for my birthday, and an hour and a half and much sweat later, I had only dispensed with half the mulch. But I had cut out a few volunteer trees from my vegetable garden, and that means more sun for the tomatoes and basil. Plus when the heat breaks, I'll have that extra bin of mulch just waiting for me. Hooray!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Friday Flower Blogging

Torch Lily (Kniphofia sp.)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lost Mountain: a Book Review

Green Bean has been running an ongoing challenge for the last two months, asking bloggers to read ecologically relevant books. I missed the first month, but signed up for June. I read Lost Mountain by Eric Reece. The subtitle pretty much says it all: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness; Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. This is a terrible and wonderful book, simultaneously fascinating and horribly guilt inducing, one of the most depressing books I have ever read. It is well written and fast paced, a nightmare of outrageous proportions. Everyone should read this book.

In September 2003, Erik Reece hiked the ironically named Lost Mountain, shortly after the state of Kentucky issued a permit for its destruction, but before the miners showed up. He documented the natural beauty: the sassafras, the warblers, the liverworts. For the next year, he returned to Lost Mountain repeatedly, trespassing at no small personal risk, to document the unnatural horrors of strip mining, and the changes wrought upon the lands and waters. The meat of the book is organized in monthly sections, where the author chronicles his ongoing observations. The frontispiece to each section is the same, a photograph taken before Lost Mountain was mined, showing misty mountain wilderness. When you turn the page to begin each new section, you are confronted with an image taken that month, showing the changes. Before, after; before, after; each successive "after" is more and more horrifying.

Interspersed amongst the observations of natural destruction, Erik Reece documents the human side of this tragedy, the social ramifications Big Coal has on rural communities. He attends public meetings, and visits local educators, clergy, and families. A local activist takes him on a disturbing tour of her town, pointing out home after home where, "everyone in that house died of cancer."

He also speaks with state regulators and representatives from the coal industry, and sheds some light on the politics of coal. It is a dirty, bloody business. Corruption and cronyism seem to rule Kentucky. There might be environmental protection laws on the books, but there is no enforcement. Regulators who try to do their jobs are forced out of office, or worse. In December 2003, on the same day the author sneaks past the iron gates on Lost Mountain for one of many documentary hikes, a state surface mine inspector died after being found beaten and unconscious in his own home, his body mutilated by human bite marks. Big Coal does not take kindly to resistance.

This may not be a pleasant book, but it is necessary. We need to educate ourselves about where our energy comes from, so we can demand better. As I suspected, "clean coal" is not the answer. Not that coal mining can't be done in a more responsible, more ethical way; it can, and the author documents that as well, describing the methods and practices that don't poison the water, where native plants will grow again. It can be done, but it is not.

This leads me to my only small quibble with the book. There is a conclusion section at the end, which contain some great information and tries to provide hope--this is where the author describes reclamation done right. In my opinion, it is still the weakest chapter in the book. To be perfectly honest, I don't like the conclusion chapter because Erik Reece uses it to take what I see as a cheap shot at science. It's that same old, tired humanities vs. science argument, "Science without compassion, science without ethics, has given us the modern war machine, the industrial farm, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the strip mine." Dude... oversimplify much? It's not science that gave us those things, it is greed, it is the market, it is simple ignorance.

I accept my share of the blame: I am ignorant and I am complicit. Due to an abundance of hydropower and nuclear power, only 18% of the electricity in my state comes from coal. But I use electricity, and my utility buys coal. In reading this book, I became a little less ignorant, and a lot more motivated.

Back at our old apartment, we paid a little extra for green power, a mix of wind energy and small hydro. When we bought this house, it was one of the details that got lost in the shuffle of moving, and we ended up with the default conventional power. Reading Lost Mountain inspired me to pull out the utility bill hanging file, and re-enroll in green power. It will cost a few extra pennies per kilowatt, but it will ease my conscious, make me feel less complicit. I no longer support Big Coal.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The No Spray Experiment

My family often gets together this time of year to go strawberry picking. Dad was out of town last weekend, and we missed the start of the season waiting for his return. However, from conversations with growers during my frequent trips to the farmers markets, I knew that berries would still be available for the picking this weekend. Since the start of the local strawberry season, I have purchased four quarts from the two farmers markets I frequent, from three separate vendors.

The one farmer who got my repeat business uses no sprays. Her berries are not organic, as she uses conventional fertilizers, but she applies no herbicides or pesticides. And since there are no organic strawberries available for pick your own in my county, I suggested to my folks this morning that we try picking at the No Spray Farm. [There is an organic farm one county over, but I knew I'd never convince my folks to drive 40 miles--they are trying to be green, too.] They agreed it was worth investigating.

Picking at the No Spray Farm was a completely different experience from the larger, more traditional farms we have gone to in past years. The photo below, showing my family hard at work, was shot in the strawberry field. There were no obvious rows, rather the berries were scattered haphazardly amongst the towering weeds. Wildflowers were blooming and butterflies were flitting. Idyllic as it sounds, it was hard work. The berries were small, and much harder to find than in a typical field with tidy rows.

Furthermore, the vast majority of the fruit was ripe, but had not developed fully, with a rock-hard cluster of seeds on the bottom that are impossible to chew, and dramatically slow down the post-picking cleaning and chopping. [The seed pockets are so hard that attempting to cut through them often crushes the entire berry.] I simply avoided picking those berries, but it took a long time to get my two quarts. My family was not so patient, picking the seedy berries and whining about the time it took to find them. Step-mom announced she wants to go back to the sprayed fields next year.

The strawberry shortcake we made back at the parental house tasted just as good as any I've had from traditionally grown berries. In fact, to my tastes, it was a little sweeter simply from the knowledge that no pesticides or herbicides were used. Unfortunately, to the rest of my family, the no spray experiment was a big failure.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Curses, Foiled Again

Our city collects yard waste monthly in the summertime, and again after the Christmas holiday. The leaves, branches, and grass clippings are chipped and blended to make mulch, which is available for free pick-up. The only two cars I have ever owned have both been subcompacts, and I never figured out how to take advantage of the free mulch before--except the time last year when a neighbor took down a tree and chipped it, putting a "free" sign atop the mound in the side yard. Then I just walked down the street with my wheelbarrow. Oh, the memories!

This year, I got inspired. Why not use my county issued recycling bins? They don't transport a lot of mulch, but both fit in my car at the same time, and that's a big advantage. Unfortunately I timed my brief spurt of brilliance with an ongoing wave of storms. I did manage to get the marigolds planted (in front of the astilbes) and the first bin of mulch spread before the storms blew in. I thought I might put the rest on my tomatoes this evening after work, but we've had a line of storms passing through all day, complete with hail and tornado warnings. Purple on the radar! We don't get that often.

The mulch is going to have to wait another day. I doubt I could lift the water laden mulch bin now anyway.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Kinksy Winksy Machine

pencil drawing by SodaBoy

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Blah, Blah, Blah

I haven't sat down and blogged in so long I think I forgot how. Blank screen, blank brain. Duh. Maybe I should try bullets?

  • Part of my problem was that pesky heat wave. I don't operate well in that heat. We don't have any AC, and I don't sleep at night, and my brain stops working.

  • I have got two decent nights of sleep now, since the heat wave broke on Tuesday, but I am still feeling foggy, like I am operating on a deficit.

  • The cats were terribly depressed about the weather as well. We restricted their access to the outdoors and that makes them miserable, but when we'd let them out, they quickly realized how lame it was, and want to come back in.

  • I think I am still so obsessed about the damn heat because it is supposed to be 90 again tomorrow. Woe is me. Sorry... I'll stop now.

  • Moving right along, we met with a contractor this evening to get an estimate on having our siding replaced. He'll be getting back to us.

  • It was really nice that he even showed up. So far we've had four separate contractors either reschedule or just plain not show up. Do they think blowing us off will make us trust them? Or do they just not like money? I just don't get it. Seems like a bad way to run a business, eh?

  • Luckily, this guy was the third to show up, so when we get the estimates back, we'll have some choices.

  • The funny thing is, when we were out walking around and talking to the contractor guy, one of his competitors who already rescheduled once called back and left a message. He can't remember if he was supposed to come on Sunday or Monday. I'm sort of leaning towards don't bother.

  • Anyone have any good information or advice about siding to share? Things to look for, things to avoid, questions to ask, anything?

  • I'm really loving the farmers market again this year. I found a new pasta vendor, he makes ravioli from scratch, hand stuffing them. They are amazing. I bought three different kinds on Saturday and they were all gone by Tuesday. I can't even decide which flavor I like best.

  • Fresh strawberries are another reason to love the farmers market. They are an entirely different creature from the odorless styrofoam-like supermarket varieties. I'm hoping to get out and pick some myself this weekend.

I might not normally publish a post like this, but today I will, in interest of maintaining the blog and all. I'm glad that you all seemed to survive the heat wave with a few more brain cells left than me.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Joining the Worm Club

I first read about Green Bean's May Be a Bookworm Challenge from Nadine over at In Blue Ink. The challenge was to read one ecologically relevant book during the month of May. I love books, and ecological books are right up my alley, but I had just started the 1990 unabridged/expanded version of Stephen King's The Stand, which clocks in at roughly 1200 pages, and I didn't think it would be right to sign up for a challenge I likely couldn't meet. I am not a big Stephen King reader in general, having only read two of his previous novels, but am a fan of apocalyptic literature, so there you go.

One could probably make the argument that post-apocalyptic stories are ecologically relevant, as they imagine futures we could very well end up with, if we don't make some pretty major changes. However, having just discovered Green Bean's blog, I wanted to respect the intent of the challenge.

Plus there are so many great books to choose from!

I finished The Stand last week, and this weekend starting reading Lost Mountain by Erik Reece. I have been wanting to read this book for a while to learn more about the evils of coal. I am so sick of hearing the greenwashing about "clean coal." How, I wonder, can coal be called clean when entire mountains are destroyed just to extract the stuff? I don't care how you burn it, destroying mountains and valleys is NOT clean. So I decided I needed to learn more about coal, and picked this book as a good starting point.

Imagine my pleasure to discover that Green Bean has extended the reading challenge through the month of June. And this time, when stumbling on the challenge a few days late, I actually happen to be reading a qualifying book? Good times. I'll let you all know how Lost Mountain turns out. Hint: it's not looking good for this mountain.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Woodsy Recap

I got back late last night from another trip out of town, too tired and hungry and covered with bug slime to do much but eat dinner and shower and collapse. I probably hiked 10 miles or more yesterday, and delineated eight wetlands, taking turns carrying the backpack GPS unit, then rode an hour and a half back to the park and ride lot where I'd left my car. A solid 13-hour day, which might sound bad, but it's not really. Thirteen hours in the office would slay me, but fieldwork? It's a lot like getting paid to hike.

One particularly rewarding thing about the last few weeks is that I've been returning to the same general area, watching the phenology progress. The buds I saw last week on the blue bead-lily, Canada mayflower, and sarsaparilla have burst, and they are flowering for the first time this week. The leaves on the ephemerals, such as trout lily and squirrel corn, are turning yellow and beginning to wither. June is nearly upon us... if I hadn't just listed the evidence, I might not believe it. Time is really flying lately.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Day Tripping: A Garden Photolog

SodaBoy and I took a photographic expedition yesterday to a state historic park, which contains the mansion and grounds of a late 1800s philanthropist. The grounds are extensive, the gardens both numerous and lovely, and the particular philanthropist near and dear to me, since she donated the land for a favorite state park, the one closest to my home. There were greenhouses

filled with lovely orchids

and lushly verdant growth.

There were magnificent roof lines, complete with fairy tale chimneys,

and ample statuary.

And while it wasn't in the tourist brochure, and we may have been the only ones admiring it, we also saw this totally awesome lace wing. (I think it's a lace wing, anyway. Any entomologists out there?)

The return trip featured a stop to eat dinner outside, on a patio overlooking a lovely Digit Lake. It was grand, I tell you, simply grand.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Friday Flower Blogging

wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Fringe Benefits

This line of work may not pay much, but there are some definite perks. I wasn't terribly thrilled to be going out at 7 am this morning, to give a tour of invasive plant species. It was drizzling, with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees. The dread in such situations is always worse than the reality; I do have decent gear, and properly layered I was neither cold nor wet. Plus I'd already decided that since it was a local site with such an early start, I'd return home afterwards and shower before heading into the office. This worked out well, allowing me to safely remove a deer tick before it got too attached.

It also allowed me to bring home and wash up these morels. First I rinsed off the dirt, then while I showered, I let them soak to be sure to get all the crud out of the folds. Patted them dryish, then threw them in the fridge, and headed off to work. They made a delightful side dish with the veggie pizza SodaBoy cooked for dinner. I sauteed them in butter with a clove of garlic and a few splashes of white wine, throwing in some fresh spinach to wilt shortly before serving. There are no photos in situ, due to the rain, and no photos of the final dish, due to the hunger.

You'll just have to take my word for it: these babies were tasty.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Laptop Advice, Please

Field season is back in swing, and I have been traveling for work several days a week, staying in hotels across the region. Last year, this meant I would be out of touch with friends and family for days on end (not to mention apart from bloggyland). My Mom lives out of state, and we email regularly. This past Christmas, she got got me a laptop, no doubt in part so we could could stay in touch while I am traveling. I thought that would solve the incommunicado issue once and for all.

However, it hasn't really panned out like that, at least not consistently. I took the laptop with me out of state for several nights, and got online in my hotel with no problems. But that was doing visual fieldwork, driving around taking pictures all day. I never had to leave the laptop locked up in the vehicle, because I was always either in the car myself, or in the hotel. However, the majority of my fieldwork is environmental in nature. Basically, I park the vehicle on the side of the road and hoof off into the woods or fields, often not returning for many hours.

I am afraid to leave the laptop in the car because I worry the extreme temperatures would be bad for the computer. That means during weeks like this, I'm back to being out of touch a lot. Monday morning a co-worker and I drove out to a field site, and it was nearly 8 pm before we checked into our hotel. Then we checked out first thing in the morning, and headed back out to the woods for another full day. Had I brought the laptop, it would have to be locked in the hot vehicle for two days straight. This scenario will repeat itself exactly tomorrow and Friday.

My fear is not based on any knowledge, just instinct. I won't leave my camera in the car to bake in the sun either. Extreme heat doesn't seem like it would mix well with electronica. Can anyone debunk this theory for me? Offer any advice? My laptop is new and shiny and I like it a lot; I don't want to destroy it. On the other hand, if a car hot enough to kill the hordes of black flies is harmless to a computer, maybe I should bring it along.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Lilac Quandary

I haven't been reporting all of my Project Budburst phenological observations here, as I know everyone does not share my botanical obsessions, but the lilacs are pretty enough to warrant a photo. Despite the lovely and rather unusual hue, our lilac bush doesn't seem too terribly thrilled. As you can see, there are just a few blossoms in the cluster open, and we never get more than three or four racemes worth of flowers. Other lilacs in my neighborhood are just laden, sagging under the weight of their own fertility. Perhaps my backyard simply doesn't get enough sun? I don't know, but I enjoy them all the same.

I have another lilac quandary to ask you all about. I took an unusual route home from work today, detouring through the old neighborhood to pick up catfish burritos for our anniversary dinner. The lilacs in Stormwater Park are in full bloom, but I was horrified to see a woman boldly cutting a herself a bouquet in a broad daylight. I was so enraged I almost stopped to confront her, but then I started to wonder if that would be justified. See... on occasion it has come to my attention that a truth I thought was gospel is not widely held. For example, I was brought up indoctrinated that turning around in a private driveway is rude, that one should always use a public roadway. I have since learned from SodaBoy, friends, and co-workers alike that no one else but my family, apparently, subscribes to that particular theory.

So back to the lilacs in the park... Stormwater Park is a city park, paid for with taxpayer dollars, for the public to enjoy. I view those lilacs as being there for the public benefit; I see cutting them for private use as downright thievery. However, I doubt the woman doing the cutting sees it that way, as she wasn't being the least bit furtive. She probably also views the lilacs as a public resource, there for anyone to take and enjoy as they please. Does that old park mantra, take only photographs, leave only footprints only apply to national parks? Or should state and county parks enjoy the same protections? Or is it only natural areas that deserve respect, leaving my humble city park free for the hacking? What do you think?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

I'm a Winner!

All week long, Crunchy Chicken has been hosting a series of green book giveaways. Being the book whore that I am, I greedily entered each separate contest. [Except the Green Chic giveaway, because I am so far from chic, the concept doesn't even appeal to me--no doubt a sour grapes coping mechanism from the uber dorkiness of my childhood.] Crunchy has hosted book clubs for several of these books, and although I wasn't participating, I read her reviews and the ensuing discussions with much interest. They all sound like really great books.

Crunchy announced the winners today, and I am the lucky winner of Michael Pollan's latest book, In Defense of Food. I am so excited! I very rarely enter giveaways or contests, but as I mentioned, I have a serious weakness for books. I have read several of Michael Pollan's earlier books, and loved them. I am definitely interested in eating healthy, nutritious foods, and have been eagerly anticipating the paperback release of this book. Crunchy, thank you! You have spared me the wait.

And if you missed this round of giveaways, don't despair. Crunchy has already announced plans for another green book giveaway later this month. Like many of us, Crunchy is trying to reduce her impact on the environment. Despite being utterly sincere about changing her life and inspiring readers to do the same, Crunchy keeps things fun. It's definitely good stuff.

If you haven't visited her blog, go check it out.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

New County Record

On numerous occasions, I have walked past a few diminutive specimens of this plant growing in the woods behind my house. Never seeing it in flower, I didn't take particular note, just assuming it was a stunted holly. Had I been paying closer attention, the compound leaves would have been a dead give away. However, in my defense, the plants in question are all very small, with just one leaf, and well off the trails I typically follow.

Today SodaBoy and I walked up to the quarry, and hiked the rim trail all the way around. We stopped for a break at the highest point of the cliffs on the northeast end. Growing not far off the trail, I saw these pretty little yellow flowers:

It turns out the plant is not a holly, but Mahonia aquifolium (also known as Berberis aquifolium). Native to the Pacific northwest, holly-leaved barberry is the state flower of Oregon, and is also known by the common name of Oregon-grape. The plant is collected from the wild for medicinal use, harvested to the point where there is some concern over the long-term viability of the species in its native range. It is also used in landscaping and is known to be adventive, especially in the east, where it is not native.

The species is not documented from my county, and in fact, is only known from one county in my state, quite a long distance from here. The population I saw today was small enough that were this a native plant, I absolutely would not collect a voucher specimen. The plants behind my house are hardly thriving either. I do not think this species is a big threat in my area at this time. But who knows what the future will bring? This could be important information.

Unfortunately, the quarry rim trail is not a hike that can be managed in the evening after work. Our spring has been late but hot, so accelerated that plants I saw just starting to flower last weekend are in fruit already. If this trend continues, I'll have to collect an Oregon-grape voucher specimen later in the season. At least then I will be able to see the "grapes" for myself.

Sources: PLANTS Database, NatureServe, Flora of North America.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Gas Station Cozy

I want to alert everyone to the International Fiber Collaborative, because it is just so freaking cool. Fine arts graduate student Jennifer Marsh conceived the idea to cover an abandoned gas station in fiber panels, to make a statement about our dependency on oil for energy. First she got permission from the property owner, and then got permits from the Town. People from all world contributed panels they crocheted, knitted, quilted, or otherwise created; Jennifer assembled them all into this truly glorious installation.

Head on over to the official site and check out the additional photos there, including shots of the installation process and close-up shots showing details on individual panels. Also, if you have an abandoned gas station in your area, take a photo and send it to Jennifer. She is always looking for other possible sites... maybe if you are lucky, the International Fiber Collaborative will come to your town.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Flower Blogging

We are enjoying a stretch of amazingly beautiful weather here, and I've been kicking myself for not planning ahead better and requesting a day off this week. Inspired by rumors of bloodroot flowering locally, SodaBoy and I hit up a local state park after I got off work yesterday. The park is a geological and botanical wonder, one of the best spots in my immediate area to see spring wildflowers. The phenological rumors proved true. Witness:

wild ginger (Asarum canadense)

bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Judge and Jury

The kids these days... they are really smart. By kids I mean undergraduates, and by smart, I mean freaking geniuses. Today I served as a volunteer judge on a panel of fellow alumni at Small Green College. Our job was to review student research posters, and to select and rank the top three. When I signed up, I didn't know exactly what to expect, I just knew it sounded fun. It turned out to be very serious business indeed.

There were only four of us judges, and approximately 70 posters to be reviewed in under three hours. The event coordinator arranged it so each poster would be rated by two judges, assigning us each a unique list. Many students were present to discuss their research, but unfortunately, presentation was not part of the ranking criteria. This makes sense, because many students had class to attend, but it was hard to be impartial and not favor those students who were actually there. Especially in the disciplines outside my comfort zone, where an explanation could make a huge difference.

It was so hard! I only had about 5 minutes with each student poster, which isn't very long to talk to a student, read the poster text and figures, and complete an evaluation form. The posters were fantastic, for the most part, given that they were prepared by undergraduates. Sure, there were errors of inexperience: too much or too small text, too much jargon, unlabelled figures, undefined acronyms, spelling mistakes. But this was original research, and these kids were for real. They know their stuff.

It is a self-selected group; the research and the posters were voluntary, and not a class requirement. I certainly never presented research at a poster session as an undergraduate. Now I wish I had. I walked away from the event very impressed. They just need to have a few more judges next year.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ben & Jerry's: Cinnamon Buns

This post could be subtitled, "the best ice cream in the world." Because it is just that good. Seriously. Unless you are vegan, are allergic to dairy or other ingredients, or are trying to eat healthily, I simply insist you run straight out and pick up a pint. And hurry!

First a disclaimer or two: I have no involvement with B&J. I don't eat eat that much ice cream, and furthermore, I don't care for many of B&J's varieties, mostly because I don't care for the texture of the "extras" when frozen. For example, I love the pistachio ice cream base of their Pistachio Pistachio flavor, but can't stand the icky frozen nuts (even though I like pistachios). One exception that I do enjoy in pint form is Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, and in the scoop shops, I like the Mint Chocolate Chunk. So that should give you an idea of my tastes... pretty simple really.

Label Information
Ingredients: cream, skim milk, water, liquid sugar, sugar, wheat flour, corn syrup, egg yolks, soybean oil, brown sugar, butter, palm oil, molasses, cinnamon, guar gum, salt, baking soda, soya lecithin, carrageenan, natural flavors, inert sugar, vanilla extract.

Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc.
30 Community Drive
So. Burlington, VT 05403-6828

We can't remember who said what when about cinnamon buns, but that's all it took for us to roll out the cinnamon dough, swirl in the streusel, and make this flavor happen. Our cool salute to cinnamon buns is sensationally cinnamon-sugary, irresistibly streuseled, and so deliriously dough-loaded, there's no telling where the cinnamon buns end or the ice cream begins. That's because it's one fun flavor all the way through. Enjoy!

We oppose Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. The family farmers who supply our milk and cream pledge not to treat their cows with rBGH.

Ice Cream Review
OK, so I've already revealed my hand here: I love this ice cream. I really, really like it. In fact, I think it raises the bar for ice cream; there is nothing out there even remotely comparable. Unfortunately for B&J, I love it so much that I've stopped buying it. I had to, though--I was starting to develop a problem. It got so I was eating an entire pint in two sittings. I was emailing home from work on days I knew SodaBoy was going grocery shopping, demanding an update. Did you get Cinnamon Buns? I knew it was time to step off. I've seen for myself how these things can work out when not nipped in the bud.

See, when I was in college, my friend J. had an evening ritual involving B&J. Every night he would ride his bike a few blocks to the local bodega, and return with a pint. He would then proceed to eat the entire thing in one sitting. There was even a special oven mitt he used to keep his hand warm while he clutched the ice cream. After he graduated, he moved to the west coast, and a few years later SodaBoy and I flew out to visit. J. looked amazing. We asked him what was up, if the climate agreed with him, if he was working out. The answer: he'd given up the daily Ben & Jerry's ritual.

Even though I'm scared straight, I am glad that B&J's Cinnamon Buns ice cream exists. As Tennyson said, 'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

See My Stamens

Every day this week, I have eagerly examined the red maple tree that grows in the yard next door. The weather has been mild and sunny, quintessential spring, and each evening I've been certain that it would finally be the day: the maple would flower. Tuesday I had a long field day, arriving home from a day trip to another state at 9:30 pm. Murphy's Law would suggest that would be the day the tree would flower, but a Wednesday morning inspection revealed otherwise. I started to get impatient: the crocuses are blooming, as are the Siberian squill. What the hell?

Finally! Today was the day... I got to report my first observation. First flower is defined on the phenopause page as the date the first flowers are completely open. "You must be able to see the stamens among the unfolded petals." Full flower is a separate event to report, which is probably good in this case. I didn't traipse too far into my neighbors' yard, but I only saw two flowers that were completely open. No matter--I see stamens. What is flowering in your yard?

Monday, March 31, 2008

Lesson Learned

After posting about it twice already, I figure I should at least disclose the events of my Saturday evening Earth Hour. SodaBoy and I lit some candles and played Trivial Pursuit. We didn't end up turning the lights back on until almost 10 pm, because that's how long it took to finish the game, despite our acceleration techniques. When we play with just the two of us, we modify the rules: instead of the standard one question, we allow for two (except for the final question). Since neither of us are sports literate, we use wild card for that category. And we allow the player to choose their own category for the last question.

SodaBoy and I met in 1992. We've played a lot of board games over the years, especially during our undergraduate years. The old Trivial Pursuit edition had all those impossible 50s entertainment questions, and we couldn't exclude sports altogether with fans around--that just wouldn't be fair. So we would often play in teams to make it more balanced. In all those years of solo and team play, I never once beat SodaBoy at Trivial Pursuit, nor a team on which he played. In fact, there is only one person I have ever seen beat him, our college friend J, the exception to many a rule. Until Saturday night, that is. During Earth Hour, sweet victory was mine.

I think the moral of the story is that board games should always be played by candlelight. No, seriously... I'm not just saying that because I won.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Reminder: Earth Hour Tonight

Yesterday afternoon, a co-worker asked me if I had any big plans for the weekend. I told him, casually, I am going to turn my lights off for an hour. Imagine my thrill when he told me that he, too, was planning to observe Earth Hour, studying by candlelight. I wrote about Earth Hour last month, and but no one seemed interested at the time. I think I was a little bit ahead of the game, posting so far in advance. It just seemed so exciting to me.

Now that the timing is more appropriate, Earth Hour is finally getting some attention. The Google page is all black today, with a link to Earth Hour; it is one of the top stories on Yahoo news. The event has already come and gone in Sydney, where the movement originated last year, and by all accounts was a huge success. So please consider participating. It is simple, really. All you need to do is turn off your lights for one hour, starting tonight at 8 pm.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

My New Head

I work for a small company, and the administrative assistant hand delivers our pay stubs every other Friday. Yesterday afternoon, as she made her rounds at 3 o'clock, she got to pass on a little bit of good news as well. The owners had decided to send us home early because of Good Friday. Of course, I was in the middle of something and didn't actually get out the door for another half hour, but it was welcome news nonetheless.

The first thing I did when I got the notice was call home. I wanted to suggest to SodaBoy that we go and get haircuts and coffee drinks, but he didn't answer the phone. When I got home, his car was in the driveway, and looking inside, I could see him in the back room, talking on the phone and looking out the window. I ran around back and tapped on the window. When he came around to the back door to let me in, there was no phone--it turns out he had been listening to my office voicemail greeting, which I made obnoxiously long to deter people from actually leaving a message.

The first thing I noticed upon seeing him was that he had gotten a haircut. Further questioning revealed that he had also enjoyed a coffee drink. I won't go as far as to suggest we are any great minds, but we sure think alike.

SodaBoy accompanied me back out for support, and I obtained the dreaded haircut. I am kind of a freak in that I don't like haircuts. I know many people feel pampered or something and actually enjoy the process, but to me it's an awful lot like going to the dentist, with someone I don't know getting all up in my business and chattering away the whole time. My friend T. gave me a haircut last summer, but it's been over two years since I was in a salon. As far as I'm concerned, the best thing about a haircut is how much quicker it is to wash and rinse short hair.

I hadn't really intended to blog about the haircut, but I was taking some pictures on the self timer to send to my mother and sister when Rhea jumped up, demanding attention just while I was posing, causing my hair to obscure my face as I looked down at her. It's not a great photo: Rhea's face is blurry because it was a long exposure, and she had been looking up at me until the shutter engaged. However, blogging has re-trained my eye, and now a portrait with hair blocking face translates to instant bloggability. So here it is: my new head.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Phenology Brief

When I lived in the midwest and worked for Woodland Agency, I would often send emails to my Mom with the subject line, "phenology brief." Luckily Mom is a bit of a geek, too, because the messages would be lists of plants I'd seen in various stages of development for the first time that season. Phenology is the the study of periodic biological phenomena, and how the timing of such events relate to climactic conditions. Mom would then write back and tell me what was blooming back home.

This is probably why I was so excited when I stumbled upon Project Budburst. In the tradition of great citizen science programs like FrogWatch USA and Christmas Bird Count, Project BudBurst relies upon the participation of the public. Observers from all around the country report back with data revealing the appearance of spring. Phenological events of interest include first flower, first leaf, full leaf, and seed dispersal.

I signed up at the Project Budburst website this weekend. Address is optional, but latitude and longitude are required fields, with links provided to help participants figure that out. There is a list of approximately 60 target plants that are common and easy to identify, although observations are accepted about other plants as well. I plan to submit phenological data on the red maple, paper birch, and lilac, all targeted plants, and garlic mustard as well.

These plants all grow in my yard, so I will be sure to notice events of interest, but you can submit data from anywhere you choose. Other common landscaping plants include forsythia and flowering dogwood, and even the lowly dandelion made the list. Native trees and wildflowers are also well represented.

Do you have kids? This would be a great activity to do as a family. There is a "for students" section on the website. Are you a teacher? There is a page for you, too.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Bio Bits

I've got a post about phenology simmering, but no time to do it justice. Instead I'll share with you some related observations from the last week:

  • Monday was unseasonably warm, and I dragged SodaBoy on a forced march to Stormwater Park after work. It was a bit of a mud wallow, but I did see my first red-winged blackbird of the season. Actually, I heard it long before I saw it, although that's probably not uncommon.

  • I went for a walk around downtown yesterday at lunch. I found a dead bat on the sidewalk, which gave me quite a pause in light of the white nose syndrome that is plaguing area bats. I squatted down and visually inspected the bat, but saw no evident fungus. However, I couldn't help but wonder what the bat was doing out this time of year, when it should still be hibernating.

  • Then, in the mid-afternoon, I glanced out the window to see not one, but two bald eagles riding the thermals. When I worked in Minnesota, I saw bald eagles every day, but I work in a northeastern rustbelt city now, right downtown. It was thrilling. At first I tried to explain it away, they must just be black-backed gulls, but a quick peek through the spotting scope proved otherwise. Eagles! Downtown!

  • Why do we have a spotting scope lying around the office? For the peregrine falcons, of course. Their nest box on the tall government building is also in the viewshed from my desk. The pair has returned to the area, and I am now seeing them again daily.
I may have scraped the windshield nearly every day this week, and we may have a winter storm warning in effect as I type this, but spring is in the air. It's coming. Just ask the red-winged blackbird and the peregrine falcon.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

You Gotta See the Baby

A friend from work had her baby a few weeks ago, and I went over for a visit after work tonight. Ostensibly I was there delivering gifts from the women who work for our company in another city, but mostly I was there to squeeze the baby. The little one is not yet three weeks old, tiny and perfect. She slept the entire time I was there, sweet putty in my hands. I am pretty sure women of my age should not be allowed to clutch babies for that long. Oh my!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Earth Hour 2008

Organized by the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour started last year in Sydney, Australia. To raise awareness of climate change, Sydney residents were asked to turn their lights off for one hour at 8 pm on March 31, 2007. The response was overwhelming: 2.2 million people and 2100 businesses flipped the switch, plunging Sydney into darkness. For that hour, the energy consumption in the city decreased by 10%.

This year Earth Hour is going global. At 8 pm (local time) on March 29, people all over the world will be turning off their lights. Imagine the view from space, as urban centers voluntarily dim, a global wave. Let's redefine rolling blackouts... Watch the video. Join the movement. Turn off your lights.