Monday, May 31, 2010

Bye Bye Fish

It was finally time. I'd been threatening to do it for a couple years now, always derailed by something or another, notably the size of the job. Occasionally even a renewed interest trumped the bother and kept it all going for a bit longer. But now, the help I'd been getting was gone again, and it just got to be way more effort than reward, so... bye bye fish.

It all started twenty years ago, when my youngest, Paul, asked for an aquarium of fish for his X-mas present.

What on earth for?

But, I finally gave in, got a 10-gallon tank and the accessories, and, against all advice, stocked it full of fantail goldfish. It turns out the experts were right: everything died. We had no biological filter developed, ammonia levels built up, and they were poisoned. Start over, slowly, and they started to survive. The tank sat on the counter of the pass-through between kitchen and dining area, handy to watch while eating. When I started visualizing their fin motions while driving, I realized I was hooked. The ten gallon didn't really use all the space available, but a 30 gallon would, and a family hobby was off and running.

We joined Minnesota Aquarium Society, aka MAS, learned a lot, gained access to experts and exotic varieties of fish and plants. Relocating to a house gave us a basement to turn into a fish room. More tanks filled with more fish of more varieties, and we started breeding them, gaining points and awards in the club. Ponds got dug in the back yard for koi and goldfish, lotus and waterlillies, water cannas, water hyacinth, water lettuce.... A pair of 300 gallon stock tanks joined the basement clutter for wintering goldfish, and for raising babies.

Who knows where it might have gone, if it hadn't been for my puffy eyes and asthma. Asthma?!? I'd never had asthma in my life! Where did this come from? Apparently, I was allergic to something, and since it was worse after taking care of the fish, it had something to do with them. The scratch test proved it wasn't the dogs or cats, and I finally talked my doctor into a patch test. Itchy itchy itchy, but she finally took the patch off, and... everything was red! She had to place the grid over my back to sort out what I really was reacting to and what I wasn't. The first thing was the medical adhesive used to hold the patch on, and I kept reacting to that for about two miserable weeks. Can't scratch, and that makes full removal a bit tricky. But the grid sorted it all out. I'm allergic to nickel.

Apparently it's common among Swedes. I'm a quarter Swede. Lucky me.

But how's this relate to the fish? Well, it was much worse after touching/feeding out bloodworms, one of the best foods for tropical fish, especially if you want them healthy enough for breeding. Usually these are found in ponds in small amounts, and it's not the worms themselves that cause the problem. Commercial quantities are harvested from what is euphemistically called effluent, which concentrates things like nickel and other metals as well as the crud the worms actually eat. I touch worms, later touch eyes, and Poof! I pour out dried worms, they go airborne in tiny particles, I breathe, and hack-hack wheeze. (Once I spilled some in the kitchen, and Mom thought to might help to turn on the fan to clear it up. I had to leave the house.)

So, we cut way back on the hobby, keeping only the vegetarian goldfish and koi. Of course that didn't last, so we restocked one tank, the 75-gallon, with tropicals, just for fun this time, not breeding, staying away from bloodworms. Of course that wasn't quite fun enough, so we added pineapple swordtails, and when livebearing threatened to overstock the tank we added predatory fish and found something of a balance. Then the knees went bad, it got harder and harder to keep up with only one tank, and they started getting neglected.

It was finally time.

I drew a bucket half full of tank water, and started siphoning/cleaning the rest. Plastic plants came out, driftwood and "African Root" pieces got searched for hiding critters - found one! - and set aside, air and heat disconnected. The ancistrus were the first fish caught. It had been one of those wedged in a hole in the African Root, and he flopped out on the basement floor, and easy catch for me. The other one, the albino, went and "hid" in a corner, easy to net. These guys eat algae and wood, having big sucker mouths with rasping teeth on their underside.

Next to be caught were the butterfly fish, our top-level predators. They normally hang on the surface, still as a dead leaf, until prey wanders in front of their mouth, and a big gulp sucks it in and snap! Dinner. They had been raised on baby swords, until we were finally down to three adult males. Floating flake and pellets plus an occasional bug made their diet, until recently we tried feeder guppies. Since none remained at cleaning time, we drew the obvious conclusion. I hadn't thought they had grown until we went back to the fish store for the guppies, and saw they were twice the size of the butterflies for sale there.

By the time the water was down to about five inches left, it was possible to start catching the swords. They're very fast and skittish, and it takes some practice.

That left the loaches. If we still had some, that is. Years ago I'd put in three horsehead loaches and four kuhlis. They love to burrow in gravel, and for years all I had seen was the occasional horsehead sticking up from the gravel. or darting across the tank when I got too close in gravel cleaning. I thought the kuhlis died, until one day I was taking some pictures of the fish, and noticed as one picture was expanded to full screen size on my laptop that way back in a corner were four heads sticking out in a clump. They lived! The flash caught them where I'd never seen them before. Even with that kind of encouragement, I had no idea recently with the neglect whether or how many might still be alive.

What I did know, having it etched on my brain by accidentally killing a huge loach hiding in the gravel of an "empty" used tank I'd bought once, was that I'd need to pull out the gravel and go through it by hand to find every possible surviving one. Ice cream buckets make handy scoopers, and can be set next to a large pail for hand transfer and sorting of gravel. I did find a piece of polished snowflake obsidian I'd dropped into the tank which had gotten lost in the gravel, but no loaches in the bucketfuls of gravel. They were, however, starting to appear in the bit of water left in the tank, scurrying through the puddles and over the gravel to the next puddle in their efforts to escape both my net and their lowering water levels. I stopped siphoning and started netting, occasionally removing more gravel to eliminate hiding places. In the end, I had 7 loaches, two very achey knees, and an arm that decided now would be a good time to start reminding me it hadn't healed yet and was about to get even!

But the loaches had all survived!

Even if I wasn't sure, now, that I would.

After calling the pet store to verify Sunday hours and their willingness to take back the fish for new homes (I pled "tank disaster", imagine what you will), I rested, cleaned up, and had Paul load the bucket in the car for me. I also made him go back down to the baasement to turn off lights and cover the gravel so the cat wouldn't decide it was a great new location with a new style litter. It does seem to attract them. Once I had quit, it was all over and I had nothing left for a couple hours. Well, except pain reminding me why I'd been putting this off for so long.

Later that afternoon, discussing this with my brother over the phone, he asked if the store paid, even in store credit, for the fish? What I got out of it was a lower electric bill, not having to go down those stairs twice a day to feed them and turn lights on and off and do any more water changes. In other works, that would be a "no."

Saturday, May 29, 2010

That "Another Story"

In my last post I referred to remembering the Shannon family as "another story". It was all about falling in love, and it twisted through my life for over six years.

Yep, twisted about covers it. But it started so easily, innocently, by pure chance.

I was eleven, making it late spring of 1960, as I would turn twelve in the fall. The setting was the school cafeteria, waiting to go through the line for refreshments being served after the spring concert. It would have been either band or choir, though I can't remember which, and I would have been in both. This amazingly cute boy I'd never seen before in our small town stood next to me in line, and actually talked to me like I was a real human being! In retrospect I guess he can be pardoned for doing that, since he was new to town and didn't know yet that this just wasn't something one did. But I'm sure somebody set him straight pretty quickly, since it never happened again. Not really.

In the meantime, I found out his name - David Shannon - the fact that his family had just moved into town, that his dad was the new preacher in - OMG! - my church, and that he liked classical music. I had in fact just discovered it myself, when Readers Digest sent me a set of all 9 Beethovan symphonies on vinyl, and I had been listening to and liking them. I was even able to answer when he asked which ones I liked best: the 2nd and 7th. I knew the fifth was best known, but thought then it was overrated. Of course, back then I knew nothing about it being a musical joke, and appreciate it so much more now when I hear it and enjoy the joke over and over again. But I responded to the second, and especially to the 2nd movement of the 7th, which to me is all about teenaged angst.

It was perhaps five minutes of my life, but at the end of it I was in love.

He wasn't, of course. We never spoke again, except as necessary when meeting in church and for choir, when he couldn't avoid me. Mostly he was polite, at least in front of adults. But alone, meaning when there were only other kids around, he picked up on a hated nickname, "Heather-Feather", and turned it into a sing-song chant designed only for taunting and humiliation.

Heather-Feather, giggle-wiggle, cha-cha-cha!

Everybody picked up on it. I think it lasted for two years, at least out loud. I have never forgotten it. And yet, I still wasn't out of love. My every emotion hung on seeing him, hearing him, even the possibility of seeing him. I knew his birthday, soaked up every detail I ever learned about him or any of his family, read books about the Biblical David because they shared the same name, but it never helped. Perhaps if I were smarter, or cuter, or had better hair (frizzy-curly when pageboys and flips were the style, replaced by Mary Travers style long), or didn't wear years-old hand-me-downs, or....

But there was nothing in the world, apparently, that would induce him to like me. And apparently the whole world knew it.

Quite possibly the best thing that happened to me in high school, though I couldn't see it at the time, was my family moving out of town to St. Paul at the end of my sophomore year. I absolutely hated, hated the city! And yet, here I had a fresh start, made friends, started dating people who seemed to actually like me.

David Shannon was nearly forgotten history. Of course I had learned several things over those years, like what I couldn't expect out of relationships. They wouldn't be mutual, supportive, equal, kind - or by any means frequent. Indifference, humiliation, cruelty - those would be normal. Romance was for other people, if in fact it even existed and wasn't just a fairy tale. That mindset lasted until well after my marriage ended, and explains a lot about my choices. I simply knew I didn't have many.

I did get over him, finally, the last time I saw him. He was in the student union at Hamline University, just barely recognizable to me by that time, and deeply in conversation with one of the deep social rejects at that time. Despite her very careless grooming (dirty messy hair for example) she had a reputation for sleeping around, something in those days that was the social kiss of death. These days I think you'd call her a skank, or worse if her reputation was in any way factual. (Mine wasn't, so, hard to tell.) Something about his fond acceptance of her compared to his treatment of me dealt me an instant cure. If that was who he was.... I hadn't known him at all, just been in love with the idea of being in love. It was remarkably freeing.

Do I hate him? Am I angry with him? No to both. We were both kids, and my feelings in no way obligated him to any sort of behavior towards me. In fact, I expect my constant-as-possible presence was a bit of a problem for him, and I am sorry about that. If I could change anything, it would be to have somebody I could actually talk to about what was going on, somebody who'd listen, not judge, and comfort and advise me when I needed it. It might have helped. Or perhaps nothing could have.

Friday, May 28, 2010

How to Feel Really Stupid

I mean really, really, REALLY stupid! Now obviously, like some of the rest of you, I've done this more than on rare occasions. But a pair of occasions really stick in my mind, going back to that wonderfully awkward time of adolescence, and involving the same person both times.

Growing up in rural Minnesota back in the 50's, I didn't get any kind of musical education. At least nothing formal. My first song of memory was over the radio, Tennessee Ernie Ford's deep bass voice singing "Sixteen Tons." It was about shoveling coal: "Sixteen tons, and what do you get? A little bit older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store." If somebody has posted it anywhere online and you've never listened to it, go and do so.

We didn't have TV yet, and no record player, so the radio was our only recorded source of music. Music was also what you did with the family, singing nursery songs and X-mas carols, or singing along in church. It was playing the triangle in elementary school, learning whether notes went up or down from the previous one, and eventually singing in school choir and playing in marching band. That distinction is important: it was marching band, not orchestra, and the emphasis was on keeping step and straight lines and accompanying the local team at ball games. Music theory was strictly hands-on, keep up with the rest. In other words, there wasn't any.

I was so ignorant back then about how wide the real world was, that not only did I not know the answers to the questions, I had absolutely no idea that there actually were questions, much less what they might be. If it wasn't spoon fed to me in school, or perhaps through the Reader's Digest, I had no idea it existed. But my world was about to start changing.

We got a new minister to our Methodist Church about 1960, Rev. Edward F. Shannon. He came along with his wife, Jewel, who became our church choir director and started opening up our musical world. She taught us new music, complicated pieces that her skill and confidence in us led us to master with seeming ease, such as Cesar Franck's "150th Psalm." We grew so practiced and skilled that we eventually went to sing before the Methodist Annual Conference at Hamline University. (I fell in love with the campus at that visit and determined that I must go there, but that's another story.)

They also came with 5 children, a son a few years older than I was, David, 1 year older, Robert, a year younger, and Kathleen and the baby of the family, another son. Either the eldest or youngest was named Kevin. I surprise myself to discover after all these years I actually don't remember which it was: I had once thought I would never forget anything about that family. That too is another story.

I don't know if they all had special formal training in music, or if that just came from their mother, but "talented" describes the least of them, musically, and I suspect "genius" could be applied, at least to Robert. I was in awe of him, musically, and it was in dealing with him that I felt my most stupid.

First - in recollection, not necessarily chronologically - was the discussion where I was asking him about a piece of music by Bach. Just what exactly I was asking is not the part that sticks tenaciously to my memory cells. What followed is. He wasn't able to identify the piece by the meager clues I was offering him, and asked me "Which one?" meaning, "which Bach?"

I found that an inordinately stupid question. "THE one, of course." He just continued looking at me steadily, inscrutably, a look I now interpret as, "You are so completely hopeless, but I've been raised to be too polite to tell you so." As the silence stretched, I filled in, "Johann Sebastion, of course," thinking that ended the matter. How could he be so dense? But as he did seemingly continue to be so dense, it occurred to me to ask, "Why, are there more?"

Now that was born completely of ignorance, and my lack of a musical education, but I compounded it by my own stupidity in not realizing he wouldn't have even asked the question unless there were, in fact, more than one.


The second incident involved a performance that I got roped into by his mother. She liked to have everyone in the choir who possibly could do some sort of solo or duet in front of the whole church. I got to sing a verse of something called the "Mexican Christmas Carol" once and had a great time. I can't judge whether the listeners did also. But she got it into her head that I could play trumpet.

Mind you, I actually did play trumpet, if what I did could be called playing. I made noises, usually loudly, but with no ear to tell whether or not it was sharp or flat even if I could tell it was off. And since I'd never yet heard what kind of sweet mellow tone a real trumpet player could coax out of the instrument, that was good enough for me. A bit of practice and I didn't even fumble the fingerings too badly, but unfortunately, that's exactly what I didn't do: practice. Oh sure, I carried the case home every night, and carried it back again every morning, but mostly it sat where I dropped it until morning.

Still, she had confidence that I could actually play this thing, and I couldn't find a way to get out of it. The day arrived, the moment arrived, I picked up my trumpet where I had it stashed next to me in the choir loft, went to stand next to the organ where Bobby was playing, took a deep breath, blew, and ...BLAAAATTTTTTTTT! in a completely discordant note. He and I both stopped. He by now probably knew how musically awful I was, because he decided he needed to remind me that we were playing in the key of C. I insisted that I was, and it was true: every single piece of sheet music I had ever seen for band told me that this key and this note was middle C. We tried again, same result. The whole church was holding its breath. (In retrospect, it was better than laughter.) I wanted to crawl into a hole and haul Bobby in it with me. After all, I was doing it right, wasn't I? He looked at my sheet music, and it did indeed say C. He mildly informed me that he needed to figure out what key I was really playing in, when it dawned on me. Sometime long ago and far away, I had heard my instrument referred to as a B-flat trumpet. Did that help?

Sure it did, so now would I please just change the key I was playing in to a proper key of C?


He must have read the panic in my eyes, because he just said "Never mind" and instantly in his head transposed his part what we were doing so that the organ matched me. For him it was as easy as if someone had switched from writing with crayon to writing with pencil. I actually think he was surprised that not everybody - notably me - could do it. Somehow I managed to make some kind of sound come from the trumpet and finished my piece - or should I say our piece, since he's the one who made it possible. My contribution, most likely, could compassionately be considered barely adequate. Somehow, somewhere in my past I had been trained that you never quit and slunk away in the middle of a public disaster, that you stuck and finished it, no matter what. It's the only thing that kept me up there, and if anybody was fooled into thinking my flaming red face was caused by blowing through the horn, well let 'em!

Again, you're thinking what I told you was a story about ignorance, but the stupidity was in never once thinking about having to rehearse beforehand. After all, one note was all it would have taken.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Little Irony

This is completely speculative, but it tickles my irony bone to think of it.

MPR featured somebody talking about DNA testing, with preliminary results suggesting the possibility that Neanderthals interbred with our homonid ancestors. Nothing is definitive yet, but one thing stands out: the markers in question are not present in African populations. European, Asian, etc., just not African.

Now skip to the centuries-long assertions that Africans are less intelligent somehow than the rest of us. Clearly bogus to anybody who doesn't need to justify slavery and other despicable acts by claiming it doesn't really matter what you do to those you claim are less human that you are. There's a whole body of "studies" to back those sorry excuses for human beings trying to justify what they've done. Those viewpoints are often put forward by folks who treat their animals better than dark-skinned folk, and don't see any contradictions in the act.

Now skip once more to the widely held assertion of the "sub-humanness" of Neanderthals, so widely disseminated that their name alone is the punchline of countless jokes.

So, wouldn't it be ironic if we're the ones with the Neanderthal genes, we're the real sub-humans, and the Africans are the "pure" race? That is, if any of it actually meant anything except that as humans we're all pretty sorry excuses for what we like to claim our species stands for.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Better Bumper Sticker

Steve, my significant other, suggested that since I was writing posts about bumper stickers, I might write one about his. It reads: "I've been fishing so long my worm gets Social Security."

I thought about it for a sec, then answered, "I could, but it would probably be risque'."

How to Keep a Garter Snake

OK, everyone out there who's afraid of snakes, skip this post. You know who you are. But if you find them interesting, I'll pass along everything I learned after several years of keeping garter snakes.

First, you need a garter snake. Unless somebody else hands you theirs, this means you need to be outside where they live. It could be your own yard, or in the tall grass next to a lake. Once you spot one, be quick. They are. Reach ahead of where they are now because that's where they'll be by the time your hand gets there. Sometimes it helps to have a child along, because they seem to know how to do this. You need to pounce firmly enough to pin the snake and gently enough not to squish it. While somewhat sturdy, they can be damaged, like any of us.

A note of caution here: be sure you know two things before you grab your snake. First, that it actually is a garter snake. Misidentification tends to cause unpleasant surprises. Second, make sure your particular garter snake is not endangered and/or protected. Those with red stripes instead of yellow, for example, are no-nos. No excuses. If you can't get this part right, you can quit reading right now because you shouldn't be having a snake.

Unless you grasp it right behind the head, it will turn and bite you. If this fact deters you, quit reading this: you are not the proper person to be keeping a garter snake. Their teeth are hardened cartilage, capable of giving a scratch, but not of inflicting serious injury, unless you let the scratch get infected! Their mouths are dirty, germ-wise, so soap and water is a good idea, as soon as possible. For you, that is. They will kill your snake. They have no fangs and no venom, and are very easily identified from other snakes if you have any sense at all, so infection is one of only two things you have to worry about.

The other is that they will poop on you when you first pick them up, and for as long afterward while handling your pet as it takes your snake to learn you are not an enemy. Well, besides the keeping it in a cage thing, but nobody said snakes are smart. Snake poop is gooey and strongly foul smelling: its main defense against predators. Like you. It's the snake's way of telling you that you really don't want to eat anything that tastes like this! Here again, soap and water is a good idea. Maybe lemon juice too, after, to cut the smell, or perhaps even salt.

Once caught, you need something in which to safely transport your new pet to its new home. It needs something completely without holes, since they are escape artists extrordinaire. A cloth sack large enough to knot at the top is ideal, something like a pillow case. Preferably an old but intact one, secured with the blessings of the owner. It's best not to get into too much trouble before your venture is even started. Another option is a coffee can with a secure lid with a couple small holes punched in the top for ventilation, although I've often found that while you are stuffing one end of the snake into the can, the other end is busy escaping on the other side.

Be gentle any time you are handling your snake, regardless of how it treats you. (Hey, you want affection? Try a puppy!) They are muscular and tough, but can be injured by squishing or in a fall. Support its body with your arms and hands, and always offer it another hand in front of it in the direction it's moving. Never poke it or try to pry open its mouth. Don't bother talking to it: snakes are deaf. While they can't hear, they do feel vibrations. They will be cool to the touch when first picked up but warm to your body temperature as you handle it. Another time to avoid handling your snake is just after a meal, unless you want that partially digested slimy smelly meal deposited all over you. (Don't say you weren't warned!)

Keep your snake at a comfortable temperature on the way home. Avoid sunshine, but at the same time, don't stuff it in the cooler with the ice to keep it cool. If it's really cool, you can tuck it inside your shirt to keep it warm, assuming you have it in that pillowcase. (Coffee cans don't lend themselves easily to that use either.) That's as warm as it should ever get.

Once home, you have a choice of homes for it. There are fancy reptile cages, but they're for fancy reptiles. Your garter snake is a temperate beastie, not tropical, so home room temperature is just fine. No need for heat lamps or hot rocks. Room lighting is also just fine, so no need for fluorescent tubes or whatever. It's a ground dweller and swimmer, so no need for fancy branches since it won't climb, unless it gets into its teeny brain that the branch might help it escape. Why tempt it? What you want is really something in which to see your snake, something easily cleaned, and something which can keep messes away from everything else. My favorite is an aquarium, either a 10 or 15 gallon size.

But don't go thinking that the standard aquarium top will keep your snake inside. No sirree! Those have "escape here" written all over them. Measure your top, add 3 inches each way, and go to the local hardware store and get a piece of hardware cloth to those dimensions. Better get a tin snips while you're there unless one is already lurking in your basement or garage. Cut each corner (one way, not two per corner) in to the aquarium top (1 & 1/2" cuts if you measured according to directions) while the hardware cloth is laying on its top. Bend all four sides down snugly around the tank, and take those extra ends that you just made by making those cuts and fold them horizontally around the corners, snugly. If it lifts off too easily, crimp those edges a bit. It it sticks too much, loosen them up. A two-fisted rock on the top will discourage any garter snake from showing off its muscles too much.

You might take a metal file and smooth off the edges so nobody cuts their fingers lifting off the top or replacing it. Tin snips can leave sharp edges. Or heck, fold duct tape around the sharp parts, decorate it a little.

Inside the cage, you will need a couple sheets of newspaper. Here's the important part: use only black and white, no colored inks. This serves as a hiding place for your snake, a place to collect refuse (poop to you), and soak up spilled liquids. Like that refuse. Or what I'm going to describe next.

Your snake needs water, not just to drink, but to completely immerse and soak in, particularly just before shedding. A shallow Pyrex bowl, about 8" x 3", is what I liked best, since I could see through it to watch the action, and tell instantly when it was dirty. Your snake isn't finicky: it will poop wherever it wants, including in its water dish. Whatever you use, fill it so that it won't overflow with your snake inside.

The time to clean it is whenever it's not sparkling clear. How to clean it, or the rest of the aquarium, is important to the very survival of your snake. Avoid soaps and all chemicals. Many of them are toxic, and the residue lasts. Really, really lasts. Clean your bowl under running water, using your fingers to dislodge whatever needs it. Roll up your newspaper and replace it with new sheets. Now, since your cage has gotten spotted and grungy, take another couple pages of newsprint - B&W ONLY! - dampen them, and scrub your glass until it sparkles! It's one of the best kept secrets in the glass-cleaning-chemical business that the best glass cleaner is newsprint.

Once it's clean, put everything back in as it was before, including your snake, and - what? You did put your snake back in the knotted cloth bag while you cleaned its cage, didn't you? Better start hunting!

Garter snakes eat three things. First, small frogs and toads, but let's ignore those completely. They're having enough trouble surviving on their own without any help from hungry garters. Second, angle worms and nightcrawlers. These are easy to dig up and keep in your refrigerator in a proper moist medium. Just try not to gross out your fellow humans by being too blatant about it. Third, small fish and minnows. Even if you don't have your own yard, the latter are easily available at a bait shop. Feed one or two to your snake once or twice a week. If you pay attention to your snake's appetite, you'll know what's the right schedule. Warmer temperatures increase the appetite, and vice versa. Remove whatever is not eaten after about an hour.

I always had the most fun with minnows. I'd put a few in the water dish, and watch the snake go crazy hunting them. Leftovers got frozen for later meals, but only to be eaten after becoming fully thawed. I also learned to freeze them individually, since trying to pry frozen minnows apart was, well, best left undescribed. My garter snakes were so crazy about even thawed minnows that whenever I opened the cage top to drop them in I had to be careful to do it very quickly and remove my fingers before they struck. In handling them my fingers smelled like fish, which is how the snake identifies its food. They also, I suppose, looked somewhat like fish. At least they fit in a larger garter's mouth the same way a fish would. (Hey. I'm the last one to try to claim snakes are in any way smart!) I can vouch that it is a bit painful to try to remove a snake from your finger after it has started working its jaw back and forth up its length with it backward-angled teeth. They are made that way to keep the prey from escaping, once bitten. Having to pry one off is a bit hard on the poor snake as well.

Snakes grow by shedding the older smaller skin once the new larger one is completed inside it. The eye covering will turn milky, and it likely will spend a lot of time in its water bowl. Avoid handling it at this time, and don't bother feeding it either. Most snakes won't be hungry during a shed. At this time it will be useful to put a small rough rock in its cage to rub against to start peeling the old skin off, inside out like taking off a sock. A healthy snake will leave a single intact skin behind that you can remove and keep. You will note that they have a scale covering their eye, not movable lids or lashes, all of a single piece with the skin. Without the old worn, dirty skin, you snake will now be shiny and gleaming, and ready for a meal.

About the time of first frost you will need to make a decision: try to keep it alive over the winter? Or take it back to where you found it while it's still warm enough so it can return to its winter den? Garters don't hibernate, they estivate. Some of them don't do it very well inside a house, and die of respiratory disease. Outside they could fall to a predator or an ignorant fellow human. It's your choice.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Peculiar Bumper Sticker

I had to do a double-take, making sure I'd actually read what I'd thought I'd read. Yup, it still said. "Autism is Preventable and Curable."

Uh, Dearie, what's in that pipe you've been smoking? Your sticker is way ahead of the science on this topic. Is it denial, perhaps because one near and dear has it? Or wistful and/or magical thinking? Perhaps just supreme optimism?

Preventable, eh? Is this more of that vaccination nonsense? It shows up about the same time babies are scheduled for shots, so it must be cause and effect, right? Let's lay a supreme guilt trip on all those parents who've done the best right thing for their kids: it's all your fault! You ruined your kid! And while you're at it, let's discourage a whole bunch of fearful parents who now will let their kids be exposed to whooping cough and other deadly diseases. Yes, deadly! We've kept them at bay so long that modern generations have no clue what they're letting their kids in for out of misplaced fears.

Curable? Not hardly. Or at least, not yet. One can train coping mechanisms, improve behaviors, make someone with autism more comfortable while they live their life. None of those things are cures. They are adaptations, and certainly not to be disparaged because that's all they are because adaptations are vital, both for the person with autism and for all the people around him/her. A cure would involve actually rewiring the brain. And if that were happening, it would be trumpeted from every rooftop on the planet.

So I'm left scratching my head and wondering what would possibly persuade someone to print out that bumper sticker, not to mention mount it on their car. It may be well-intentioned, but to me, it's simply cruel.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Encounter That Wasn't

It's not every day that what didn't happen is what's news. But through a confluence of events, it could have, and thus became the topic of discussion.

First was the heat. It promised to become a 90 degree day, and in fact more than fulfilled that promise. Since we start each day with the weather report so Daddy knows what to wear and when/whether to take his scooter ride, we changed his schedule to have him take a morning ride, before it got really hot out. (As it was, he was back by 10:00, something I learned later, and already sweating from his excursion.)

Then there was my phone call with Lynn, our city clerk, formerly my employee and currently my friend. She keeps the police scanner on in her office, and while I was talking to her just after 10:00 she stopped the conversation to mention that one of Eichten's bison was reported in "downtown" Shafer, roaming loose. "Downtown" is a very loose description of half a dozen storefronts on the county road running north from Hwy. 8. Their bison farm is in city limits, on the very western end along the highway, and a great place to stop for eating in or taking meat home. Right now as you drive by if the herd is in the front of their pasture, you can see the new babies, distinguishable both by size and light brown color.

The thing is, the bike path my dad uses crosses that county road on the northern end of "downtown." I started wondering just what an encounter with a semi-wild bison and a blind geezer on a scooter would wind up looking like. Or whether Daddy would even see the beastie. And which way might yield a better outcome - for my dad, of course.

There is only one outcome for a loose bison: steaks and burgers. Lynn's next visitor was its owner wondering where his critter had been sighted. Lynn hadn't seen it, her office being located a block off the main drag. It hadn't turned and come her way, which is a very good thing, since that would involve it coming down along the bike path. When the next call on the scanner reported it on 305th Street, Lynn pointed him in the right direction and he drove off to take care of it. I didn't ask whether the ordinance against discharging a firearm within city limits would hold in this case, but perhaps it wandered the small remaining bit to the city limits before its owner reached it.

I tried calling my dad a couple times after a bit to find out if he'd seen the bison, but we didn't connect. I didn't know whether he was in the bathroom, at the table, or still out on his ride. I got busy with work, and when I finally cleared up to call later, his aide was there and he was in the bathroom. Finally when I got home I asked whether they'd met on the trail, and he said he'd missed seeing it. Which was a good thing. And why what didn't happen was the news of the day.

Just Breathe

My dad has been on O2 and a nebulizer for about a year now. It's one of the side effects of having been a 4-pack-a-day man and living to be (now) 96. His quitting smoking is a whole story in itself, which I may do later, but today I want to write about his treatment.

My brother and I had just commented over the phone on how much clearer his mind has been working lately, at least most of the time. There are fewer periods of confusion, better thought processes, more of his sense of humor resurfacing. He's still complete crap on remembering names, but you can't have everything.

So I was a little puzzled the other morning when he announced upon rising that "your gal" had told him he no longer needed his oxygen. "Your gal" is his way of referring to his home health aids, since he can't remember names, and I'm the one who set them up for him. They bathe him, clean up the house, change his bedding, and do some continuation on his physical therapy now that Medicare quit covering it. We are going through our county now, and as a result the county nurse also stops by regularly to monitor him and supervise any changes in his care. I knew she had stopped by the day before since she'd left some paperwork on the table.

I just couldn't figure out what she had to do with his taking his O2, since his doctor was the one who prescribed it for him, and had just renewed it and the nebulizer for another year a few weeks before. So I decided to call her and let her explain whatever it was she had really told him. Meanwhile we got his tubing on him for the day as usual, and I promised I would report back to him that evening on what was going on.

When she returned my call, she confirmed that he wasn't completely confused. She had been monitoring his blood O2 levels on her visits, and last week, without O2 and just sitting in his chair, they were at 96. With O2, they rose to 98. For perspective, when they drop to 88 or 89 is when folks start to worry and add O2. That was his sitting level at the doctor's office when it first got prescribed, and it dropped to 86 after walking. These new results were excellent, and an indication of very real progress in his health, not something one would suspect at his age and given his history. So she had, in fact, told him he didn't need the O2 24 hours a day.

That garnered a discussion of when he actually used it, since it was only while sitting in his chair, or using portable tanks while in the car. He didn't use it while eating, or going to the bathroom, or out on his scooter rides, or overnight. The doctor originally told him to use it whenever he was active. He'd started with it as often as possible, but that required long coils of plastic tubing stretching throughout the house, in itself a tripping/falling hazard with potentially much worse outcomes than time away from enriched air, particularly given his vision. So we compromised on his taking it while sitting in his recliner, where he spends most of his day. Then he's "stocked up" for those periods of activity, and "recharged" afterward.

His set-up is a machine back in the corner behind his chair which condenses the O2 from regular air and pushes it through the tubing to the two little prongs which sit in his nostrils. On top of that is a 2nd machine which does the same thing for filling his 2 little portable tanks. Finally, there's a big monster tank in his bedroom in a stand in the corner for emergency use, like when the power goes out. It's supposed to last two days. There's also a no-smoking warning sign about O2 use in the front door, and of course I informed the local fire department when we moved him in. His tubing comes from behind and beside his chair, long enough he can move slightly but not long enough to trip him.

I asked the nurse about his improvement, which was not just his rising O2 levels, but her now being able to hear breath sounds all the way to the bottom of his lungs, something he'd not been able to produce when she first visited him several months ago. Was it the nebulizer? She asked me what kind of meds he was on, and I told her, generic for DuoNeb. After sharing a laugh over not remembering the exact generic name for the ipr...(insert lots of letters here)... bromide, she informed me that the albuterol was a "right now" kind of bronchio-dialator, and the unpronounceable one was longer acting, and that the pair likely had made the difference.

Did the improvement mean he didn't need to take the nebulizer any more? That would be the best kind of news for my dad, since he hates taking the stuff and will "forget" any time he can get away with it. It really brings out the child in him. No, he still needs to take that. Three times a day ideally, twice if we can't force it. So, I'll continue nagging and reminding and bribing. Tonite, for example, it was a dish of ice cream as soon as he finished.

At least he did.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Little Progress

I actually met him once, a long time ago, introduced by a mutual friend, who has filled me in on the major events of his life in periodic reports through the years. My mental picture of him is both fuzzy and about 25 years out of date, like those of other people’s kids who just never grow up in your mind the way your own do, so it’s a shock when you see them again to realize life happens to all of us whether we’re watching or not. To me he remains that tall, lanky, quiet guy, perpetually in his 30s.

He was still single then. In fact, he waited many years into his adult life to find The One, and when he did, it was a powerful thing indeed. They married, found a house, started their lives together as if they had just been half alive until this moment. They had met at work, and continued to work together. There were no children to distract them from each other. They also shared the same passion: muskie fishing. They went fishing together as much as they could, weekends, vacations, different lakes, different fish tales, different years. Every niche, every corner of each other’s lives, they filled. It was as perfect a life as they could wish.

But nothing lasts, especially that kind of bliss. There was breast cancer first, and they fought it together, doing whatever was needful, until they could celebrate when it went away. It brought them closer together, and, relieved by its absence, they resumed their lives. Until, that is, the brain cancer struck. It was found late, and fight as they did, there was really no hope. Suddenly she was gone.

He was completely devastated, as if half of him had been ripped away but he had to keep breathing, keep walking while he was still bleeding all over the floor. Somehow the heart kept beating, the gut kept processing food, not from any will or purpose, but from the sheer stubbornness of life. For years he was in a depression so deep he was immobilized. Pills and a shrink managed to keep him from joining her, either through an overt action or by closing himself off and walling himself away from the world until he could just fade away. He nearly did: he couldn’t work, he couldn’t function. Most of all, he couldn’t fish. There was nowhere left for him to go, nothing left for him to do that didn’t hold memories of her, reminding him of his staggering loss.

What progress that came was slow and agonizing. Eventually he was able to return to work. While he went to the same place, he couldn’t face the old job, the memories of her in every corner, the need to maintain some semblance of normal before all those familiar faces who knew them both back when. He chose to take the night janitor’s job instead. A couple years later he actually went out fishing again. It too wasn’t like before, but he was starting to reclaim some important pieces of his life.

Recently he decided he was ready for female companionship. He wasn’t looking for another wife, or even a simple relationship. Just the struggles of dating were still too much for him. And none of it, after all, would bring Her back, and would likely as not just reopen the wounds and doom the effort. So he came up with a plan.

He would take a vacation to Nevada and pay a visit to the Bunny Ranch. After all, legalized brothels have certain safeguards. There would be no rejection, no wondering if she would like him enough. Of course she would. There would be no entanglements, no recriminations, no abuses, and very little worry about health complications. It was expensive, but it was doable. It should have been very straightforward.

Of course it wasn’t. He was into his “date”, still getting acquainted, when the bug struck. A particularly nasty, unromantic bug, the kind that keeps you in the bathroom, running from both ends. It also puts you in the hospital from dehydration. Actually, he was pretty lucky it hit him while he was with her, because it hit so hard and fast that he needed someone to help him. And she did. Not what they’d both had in mind for the occasion, but simple human kindness goes a long way. An IV drip to rehydrate him, Immodium to stop up one end, and post-chemo anti-nausea drugs for the other, and he was soon back on his feet again, with enough time left in his vacation to complete his plan, at last.

He was beginning to chose life again. In fact, he chose the most quintessential life-affirming act known to man. And that was a little progress, indeed.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I Remember Jason

They were the first family to welcome us to our new neighborhood. Of course that wasn't their original intent. They came over to demand why we were ruining their football field.

I had bought one of the two vacant lots between their house and the one to my north that had been undeveloped since they'd moved in about 15 years earlier. I hadn't wanted to lose a growing season waiting for the construction to finish, and had ordered a number of baby trees from the soil and water conservation people, or from catalogues, or simply had things to transfer from my old yard. I was out in my new back yard corner with my son Paul, planting them in temporary beds. There was nothing else on the lot but what would grow into 6' tall weeds. Since they were gardeners and tree-planters themselves, I quickly gained their approval as a new neighbor, and we became friends.

They were the Vanderbecks - and the McCanns. Char had been a McCann and had two boys, John and Jason. Jason was a Downs Syndrome baby, and - possibly because of that - her husband divorced her and moved to California, leaving her on her own with two children to raise. Dick liked what he saw and married her, giving him an instant family. He was a house painter, she was a stay-at-home mom with her hands very full. Among other things, she loved Dick for how good he was with Jason.

When we met, I think he was around 20, going on three. Maybe four. He was short, chubby, dark-haired, and bore all the traditional facial and body features that mark Downs. Char had worked with him on a few basic signs for communication, as his speech was always so unclear that she almost always had to translate for him, at least to me. He remained in diapers, and never became literate. In later years, however, he showed he could count up to four with great precision, and got the kind of assembly line job that involved putting a fixed number of tiny items in a small bag. While it would bore us to distraction, Jason loved it and was proud of his ability to sit there all day and concentrate on it and do it right.

He was always a cheerful kid, never prone to tantrums, willing to be friends with - well - most of the world. If kids were mean to him as kids will be, the parents got together, brought the kids together to play respectfully, and fun took over. When we moved in, Jason had an instant babysitter in my youngest, Paul, actually a few years chronologically younger than Jay. Char told me he liked Paul best because he'd actually play with Jay, playing video games or watching video movies together rather than just supervising from a distance. Once Paul got his license, he was even able to take Jay bowling at the local alley, until Jay couldn't tolerate the smoke there any more.

He had a little streak of mischief in him too. His parents told me about a time in school where he reported getting hit by a teacher. Naturally they were ready to do whatever it took to protect their son, but when he said it in front of them, it was with such a gleam in his eye that they could tell that he somehow thought it was all a big game and that nothing had really happened to him. They quickly calmed everybody down and taught Jason that this wasn't really funny.

I spent most of my time with Jason when Char and I started going to the local movie theaters. Jason came along, enjoying his outing no matter what the movie was. We got to be quite a weekly thing for quite some time, sharing dinner together afterward at some local restaurant. I would drive, since Char didn't, yet. But after some months, she decided she needed to learn, so she set about getting her license. Sometimes she would ask me to ride along with her while she practiced. While nerve-wracking, I would be able to comment on corrections without that husband-wife interaction that seems to work just like parent-child practice driving. (You know: blaming, yelling, that sort of thing. Not particularly helpful.) She did manage to stay out of trouble, mostly keeping to the back country roads until she got more skilled and confident. Jason, of course, had no worries, just along enjoying the ride.

Once Jay got too old for the high school program, he graduated to one of those places which finds work situations for disabled people. So far as I know he worked through the rest of his life. His cling to life was precarious at times, starting when he was a baby. I first heard about pneumonia shots because Char told me he got both them and flu shots every year. They didn't keep him perfectly healthy, but they seemed to make the difference in how life-threatening such illnesses became. His lungs grew so bad that he was on oxygen for about his last ten years. The fragility, I'm told, is typical of Downs kids. Some of his problems were exacerbated by his doctors' lack of understanding about his condition. One doctor became alarmed by how much his neck angled, telling his parents that one sharp shock, like a bump in a car, could sever his spine. After he received his surgery, they found out that in fact his neck was "normal" for him, often misdiagnosed, and the painful surgery was unneeded. Like most parents of special children, they became the experts who had to educate the doctors - and other parents like themselves.

Dick was a quirkily individualistic kind of a guy, and one of his quirks was avoiding doctors until it couldn't possible be avoided any longer. When they discovered the lung cancer, he had only months left. Char took care of him as well, with hospice assistance. Movies were one of her few breaks, only now sometimes she drove the three of us in her new car. After the funeral, she sold the house and moved to southern Minnesota to live near her son John and his wife and growing number of grandchildren. Our contact became sporadic.

Jason's father came back from California, courted Char again, and they remarried. It lasted for just a few years. Jay left home for a special place where others like him lived in semi-independence. He and Char missed living together for a while, but he grew to be proud of his independence, and Mom was never far away, though now she was free to work full-time outside the home.

A couple days ago I received an email informing me that he hadn't survived his last bout of illness. He lived to reach his upper thirties. I will always remember Jason, in many ways and for many things. Above all, I always remember him with his big smile. Jason was a joy.

* * * * * *

I received an email from Char after reading this. Jason had his own garden at his group home, which he loved so much he watered it every day. They are going over to plant it and to make it a permanent garden with a plaque in his memory.

She ends, "Now he is with his Dad and they are playing ball and playing in the sand box."

Friday, May 21, 2010


I've finally decided the worst of the rotator cuff tear is behind me. I have cut way back on the Ibuprofin levels, without the bone-deep ache in the shoulder, penetrating the elbow, and extending to the wrist. I can raise the arm straight forward to horizontal without grimacing - much. Armrests on chairs or in the car, while always in just the wrong spot, no longer cause pain as they make me move the shoulder. I can start doing things with the left hand again, sometimes even parting and brushing my hair after the shower. Of course, that's after standing so the hot water hits the shoulder during most of the shower, and raising the arm, elbow bent, to overhead at least once. Just today I started closing the car door with the left arm again, although I've perfected the art of reaching across myself with the right to do so. It involves hooking the knee under the steering wheel while I overbalance. I wouldn't want to land nose down on the asphalt.

There's still much I can't do. I can't roll over in bed to lay on that side, so sleeping is still a progression from bed to recliner to bed to recliner as I need to change position from the pressure on one spot. Needless to say, I'm sleep deprived. (However, the dog is adapting well to my movements, no longer thinking each signals an opportunity for him to get to go outside in the middle of the night.) I can't tuck a box under the left arm and carry it, though I can support it from underneath in conjunction with the other arm, or just for long enough for the right arm to reach up and pull the hatch shut. And I can't lift the arm, not well. Not hardly at all, in fact.

That's important. I recall clearly the Doctor's instruction from the first time, telling me to finger-walk up the wall until the arm was straight up, for if I didn't, the shoulder would freeze in place. I don't want that. But there's another reason, and that's my skin. The left arm has been down so long that my armpit doesn't get a chance to dry out.

Sure, go ahead and laugh! I would. Except that the skin is getting irritated, rubbed by the elastic in the bra, and staying gooey from the antiperspirant even after I get home from work and change. It itches, It needs air. And did I mention it itches?

Problem is, I need help getting it up. The arm, of course, what did you think I meant? So I asked Paul to help me lift it, twice a day at least, first straight out to horizontal, then to vertical, and back down again. Slowly, stretching everything. It's easy when he does it. On my own, I can raise it to about the 8:00 position, to the side, or 9:00 straight forward. So we'll stretch it, and I'll start working the muscles again, and I'll get my arm back.

Mostly, anyway.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Take Other Route?

It's construction season again, this year exaggerated by federal stimulus package funds. I-35 splits just below Forest Lake into east and west, reuniting again on the south side of Burnsville, where you can continue all the way to Texas, should you be of a mind to do so. You can take your choice through the cities of going through either St. Paul or Minneapolis. Southbound 35W has been down to one lane now for a week, and just before the split, signs inform you of that fact and advise you to take 35E instead. It fails to mention that 35E in down to one lane also.

Friday, May 14, 2010


I gotta wonder: how much does it cost to get one of those banners made that you haul around behind an airplane?

I also gotta wonder: how much fuel does it take to keep one of those planes up a couple hours? And what's its carbon footprint?

I also gotta wonder: how much does it cost to have one of those planes fly your banner over the freeway during rush hour while everybody's hurrying to escape up north for the fishing opener?

Most of all, though, I wonder: Who is the stupid idiot who commissioned the whole thing with tiny print in a busy busy sign that nobody can actually read even while they pull off and park for a moment, much less while they're driving in heavy traffic? Because however much it was, it's a complete and utter waste!

A Very Confusing Day

It actually started night before last. I heard my dad rattling the pills in his cup at the supper table, but it turns out he didn't follow through as usual and actually take them. As a result, he spent a very restless night, since his sleep aid is in that evening dose.

The next day went fine, as far as I knew, until around 12:30 I got a call from Meals On Wheels. Their driver had stopped by and couldn't get any verbal indication from my dad that he was in the house. Was he supposed to be home? Since he had no medical appointments, and it was cold and rainy so his scooter stayed inside, the answer was yes. I thanked them for the alert, informed them his grandson was in the house and could check it out, and started to worry. Of course. At that distance, worry is what I do best.

Rich came upstairs and found that his grandfather had gone back to bed. By that I don't mean gone in to lay down, but gotten into his pajamas as if it were night time. He woke Grandpa and informed him that his lunch was there. Whew! So I called Meals on Wheels, explained the situation, and we had a nice relieved chuckle about it. (Since I had them on the phone, I told them how much he liked their service, much better meals than he'd gotten in Vadnais Heights, and ordered them for Fridays, now that Paul has the opportunity again for overtime.)

Last night when I got home from work, I got the fallout from the morning's confusion. First my dad started explaining how he'd gone to bed when his watch said 10:30 PM, but it was very strange outside. He could swear that sunlight was trying to come in his east window. I told him about his morning's activities, thinking that was all that was needed, and we watched Gunsmoke from the DVR.

When it was over, he asked to have a serious talk with me. He was concerned that three days had gone by without me being there to help him get up, have breakfast, or be around in the night before he went to bed. And one of those nights was most peculiar. He'd waited for me to come home until 10:30, then given up and gone to bed, although it was hard to sleep because there was sunlight pouring in his east window. I wasn't there when he'd gotten up, and he'd gotten no breakfast. He thought I should be around more to take better care of him than that.

First, I asked him whether he realized that none of that had actually happened, except for the part about him going to bed with the sun coming in the window (although with the rain, I wondered about actual sunshine). It hadn't happened days ago but this morning. I had actually gotten him up every morning and gotten him breakfast before going to work each day, although I wasn't in fact there this noon when he "got up" the second time for the day. And I had seen him every night except the "night" at 10:30 this morning, when he got confused and went to bed. We talked about how his memory sometimes plays tricks on him, although at other times he's sharp as a tack. I also reminded him he's just turned 96, a bit of a contributing factor.

After quite a long discussion - about 20 minutes, which is long these days - he seemed to understand finally what had happened, although I had to repeat some things a few times and tie them in with other things for him. I'm not sure it's entirely settled in his mind, since I know his feelings of confusion and abandonment make those "memories" much clearer than the explanation for them. But it's nearly time to get him up for the day, and I'm about to find out.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Manatees of Homosassa

Until I had seen one in person, I had always thought of manatees as something like a slow moving walrus or elephant seal in body shape. Rounded. Even the artwork at Homosassa Springs, like a stained glass window next to the front door, depicts them like that. So I guess I can be excused for not recognizing them when I first saw them. From the top they resemble flattish mossy rocks, so still that ducks walk on them! I'd say a better description of a manatee would be a fat pancake with stubs for legs, snout and tail. They're easy to distinguish from a rolling stone because of the mossy tops, actually algae.

Likely their vegetarian diet contributes to their general lack of movement, soaking up sun and wasting little energy. It also helps that they can hold their breath for very long periods. When they do move, at speed for them, they barely leave a wake. But they can, apparently , be trained to come to a certain location at regular intervals for food handouts. This is called putting on a show for Homosassa visitors, and benches are set up so they can watch the trainer enter the water in waders and carrying a bucket of carrots which he distributes along with a canned speech. We saw six at once, maximum, as they come and go - slowly - and he named them as he fed them. For all the differences I could see in size and shape, he could have been making up names on the spot and we'd never know the difference.

Two things happen after the presentation ends, besides most of the crowd moving on. Ducks come in to eat the bits of carrot left behind, and lots and lots of lettuce and other leafy greens are dumped from the railing of a deck over an underwater viewing platform where one can wander over and see them from below water level as they eat.

The area they are in connects to the Gulf, and this is what concerns me right now. As the oil spill grows and spreads, the projected route is eastward to Florida, down to the keys, up the east side, and then presumably the Gulf Stream will carry it out into the Atlantic and over to England. Long before that happens, however, it will invade their sanctuary at Homosassa.

What then will happen to these gentle giants?

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Say that word, and everybody thinks honeybees. Fewer people think of other varieties of bees, or other insects. I have very few honeybees visiting my small-town yard, but everything seems to get pollinated just fine. Combing through a couple years worth of pictures, I learned something about just who was doing all that work. And in at least one case, it didn't stop at just pollinating the flower!

Owl in the Rain

What does an owl do in the rain?

This was the teaser question posed by the lecturer to pique our interest in his presentation. He was offering a lecture/photo op on a rainy weekend day a couple of years ago at Crex Meadows. He invited us and our cameras outside to find out for ourselves. There was a wide overhang of roof over a concrete pad and benches, plenty of room for those of us who followed him out, both to get the information he offered, and pictures without getting our cameras wet.

He brought along a great horned owl and a red-tailed hawk, both on stands out in the yard, in the wet. We could shoot to our heart's content, provided we could find a space between two other people and nobody was rude enough to walk in front of our lens. Picking your background was another issue. If you wanted shots of a crowd of people looking at and shooting a couple of birds, here was your big chance! If you wanted evil-looking bird with red and yellow eyes, just leave on the flash. Apparently lots of people did. If you wanted woodsy and natural looking, well, that called for more patience and the ability to block flash.

So what does an owl do in the rain? He gets wet, of course!

Updating with Pictures

Since I finally got my pictures organized, I'm going back through my old postings and filling in some pictures. You can check out the following old posts:

Of course, on the latter, the bees involved are bumbles, not honey. The pictures were taken either in my yard or (purple) out at Crex Meadows in Wisconsin.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Where's the Balance?

It's a week after the fact now, and if you've been awake at all you will have heard about the guy who tried to set off the car bomb in Times Square. You've surely heard over and over that he is a naturalized citizen, here from Pakistan, who returned for a vacation over there and learned to make bombs. You've heard how he was caught, sitting in the plane, expecting them to come for him. You've heard how stupid he was in so many ways. He used the wrong kind of fertilizer. He used tiny legal fireworks - like if you plan to set off a bomb, the legality of the fireworks is an issue. He bought the car off Craig's List, leaving an email trail. He left the keys to the getaway car and his apartment in the bomb car.

Above everything else, and over and over, you've heard he is a Muslim.

You will have heard also about the street vendor who spotted the car smoking and called it in. You'll have heard his name, whether or not you can remember it. It is foreign, after all. You've heard how brave he was, going closer to the car to check it out while it was smoking. You've heard that President Obama called him to thank him for his actions. You may have seen or heard him being interviewed, listened to his accent, and been informed that he is an immigrant.

But have you also heard that he too is a Muslim?


I suspect I first saw it crawling from place to place and picked up the stick, put it in the spider's path, picked it up when he climbed on his obstruction, and brought it close to see what he would do. It was what we'd do for any crawling bug, easier than trying a direct pick up and kinder to the bug than getting pinched by clumsy fingers.

We lived on the resort at the time, Pleasant Ridge Resort on 2nd Crow Wing Lake, in Hubbard County, MN, just east of the town of Hubbard. I recall myself being four at the time, which is likely correct, since we owned the resort from about when I was three until late in third grade. I was old enough to (mostly) mind Mom's restrictions, and was pretty much given the run of the place as long as I avoided the lake, avoided the cabins since other people were staying in them by the week, and I came promptly when Mom called. If I followed the rules they were confident I was safe, since the biggest hazard those days was poison ivy.

Well, it probably really was me, but that's another story or two.

There was a path which ran all around the lake. At some later point in my life I would follow it in both directions to each of the neighboring resorts, but this day I was down in front of a couple of cabins on our own resort, unafraid, watching this little black spider as it crawled up the stick to the end, then with nowhere to go, down the stick toward me. Oh cool! (Except we said, "Neat!" back in those days.) It climbed onto my hand. OW! Not so cool, as it "bit" me right on the tender webbing between two fingers! It hurt, and continued to hurt for some time. Eventually the pain went away and I forgot about it, until some weeks later a big chunk of skin fell off between those fingers and I remembered what had caused it.

I was fine, but one thing had changed. I was now deathly afraid of spiders. All spiders, even spider look-alikes like daddy long legs. If I so much as saw as spider on the wall or ceiling, I would leave the room. Unless, that is, it was coming down its thread from the ceiling somewhere in the middle of the room. In order to leave my chair I would have had to actually move closer to that spider, and that I simply could not do. I was a prisoner of that chair until I yelled for somebody else to come and kill that horrible spider and clear the way for me to move.

They jump, you know.

One thing I could do, occasionally, was kill them. But only if there were some way I could assure myself that there was absolutely no way that spider could get away and come and attack me in the process! Often that took a big towel or newspaper, or even - sacrilege! - a book.

It was still bad enough when I was raising my own kids that I couldn't even bring myself to touch the pictures in a child's book about spiders while I was reading it to the kids. It was part of a great set that was offered in grocery stores, buy a volume a week for a cheap price with a $___ purchase. They covered cats, wild ponies, dinosaurs, and a whole plethora of topics about the natural world. Unfortunately for me, the kids liked the spider book rather more often than I liked reading it to them. But I couldn't let them know how I was feeling. I had to clamp down hard and pretend nonchalance each time we went through it. After all, I had a PLAN.

That plan was, simply, to get my kids to kill or remove all spiders that came to visit our house so I wouldn't have to deal with them. In order to accomplish that, I had to persuade them that spiders weren't scary, just a nuisance to squish and flush, or - best case - deserving of an outdoor home where they could find proper meals for themselves. It worked for years, and in the process I managed to actually conquer my phobia, getting it down to the level where I find them distasteful but can manage to dispatch them myself without a full-blown case of the screaming meemies.

I actually managed a pair of encounters with black widows when we lived in Georgia and I worked at the garden center. Even after being called over to examine one as an alert from the owner that here was something new to be careful of while handling stock, and days later moving a bush by grabbing the stems and feeling one under my hand (Toss! Fast! Nevermind if you kill the bush!), I managed to come away without a case of PTSD.

Pretty amazing, really.

Occasionally I can even appreciate them - usually with a long zoom lens.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Haircut

"Oh, that isn't good."
"Oh, your hairline goes that way."
"OK, maybe if I cut off more over here...?"
"Say, would you object to a quick fade?"

None of which are good things to hear while someone is giving you a hair cut. And all of which I heard last weekend while I was getting mine cut.

Other than once a year, sometime in summer when I want it really short and looking good, often just before taking a trip so it's maintenance-free, I cut my own hair. Right now I can't lift, much less hold, my left arm high enough to do it. And the hair was getting really really shaggy. So I made a decision. I tried to teach Richard how to cut my hair. After all, he cuts his own.

To be fair, he got the top and most of the sides just right. OK, right enough. That's the part where it stays longer, where you can hold a section between two fingers and cut along the fingers for a straight line. Of course, like everybody else who cuts my hair, he took a wee bit too much off. I do not understand how "remove one third" translates to nearly half gone, or leaving a third, which is how one cut in a salon turned out. When she was nearly finished she told me how much she admired my courage at having such a radical cut!

Whoa! What?

Post-chemotherapy is not really my style, but I learned then how to style it to minimize the radical appearance of it. In my case, combing forward to work with the cowlicks works better than trying to brush it back against them. I'm combing it forward again, thank you very much.

And curly hair hides a lot of mistakes.

It was the back that caused such trauma while Richard was cutting it. Just to give you an idea, when I showed it to one of our friends, she asked me, "What does he think you are: a boy?" As if I don't have enough problems that way!

There are two good things about the cut.

It was free.

It'll grow back.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

And More Timericks

It seems I can't write just one. Or two. Especially when some significant news comes down from the state supreme court on Pawlenty's favorite tactic for settling budget issues without having to actually talk with the legislature. But that's not the only issue.

Two Governors tour with their speeches.
The job they both covet a peach is.
Both rail against taxes
And hope support waxes.
Will the winner wear skirts or wear breeches?

Unallotment became Timmy's tool.
"I'll not compromise," he said, so cool.
"I'll just slash here and there
At whatever I care.
Lookie here: I'll just start with this school."

His authority Timmy exceeded
When the budget to balance he needed.
He'd never raise taxes
So brought out his axes
And he chopped, yes he chopped with such glee did.

Unallotment was Timothy's tool,
He who righteously used one-man-rule.
The court said, "Oh no,
You can't budget so!"
Making Timothy look like a fool.

The decision our Timmy protested.
But the court it does seem has him bested.
Now our Tim he did pout
But that so wore him out
At the Twins game that day Timmy rested.

I think I'm getting addicted.


I came up with several of these years ago while driving around with nothing better to do than listen to the radio, watch traffic, and hunt addresses. And, of course, fume about our Governor's latest doings. I'm not sure what happened to them, and I'm having to recreate them, with a few updates, so I'll post them as I come up with them. This one stuck in my mind, probably because the syntax had to be bent so much to come up with things to rhyme with Pawlenty. Because it's bent so badly, and because I had to listen to somebody mangle it and give up midway through, I'm showing you where the accents are.

Don't LOOK in our STATE for PawLENty.
CamPAIGNing aGAIN this week WENT he.
A BRIDGE could fall DOWN,
He WON"T be in TOWN.
From BIGger amBItions is BENT he.

I also remember a middle section of one, but it needs the ends. I'll try to work on those today.

It's no tax, plain to see,
If you call it a fee...

I always figured it'd be a lark to get a radio station to have a contest coming up with them - clean ones, of course. He so deserves the ridicule.

* * * * * *

I finished this one in the shower. I think that means I'm as clean as it is.

"No new taxes" our Governor screams.
So I guess that is just what he means.
It's no tax, plain to see,
If you call it a fee.
But is everything just what it seems?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Rae's Story

One of the results of spending many years in a confidential support group is that you meet a lot of different people and hear a lot of stories. You meet the highly sociable and the lonely, abusers and their victims/survivors, the strong and the weak, the alcoholics and addicts who still use and the ones in recovery. They come with their pain and their anger, their resolve and their struggles, their grief and sometimes their joy. You learn not to flinch. Sometimes you learn how to cry. Once you’ve learned how to listen, people continue to come to you to talk.

I’d like to tell you about one of them. Although she’s not shy about sharing her story, I’m going to change her name to Rae. She deserves some privacy and compassion. She tells me it's Ok to do it this way. People who already know this part of her story will recognize her. The ones she hasn't confided this part of her life to don't need to know exactly who she is.

I didn't meet her in a support group. We struck up a friendship based on mutual interests, and one day she opened up to me. Rae told me about her history this way: when somebody introduced her to heroin at the age of 14, she suddenly knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

While she’s been recovering and “clean” for many years now, a respectable member of the community raising her own family, her years with the drug did some serious damage to her body. (My sheltered life led me to believe you either died from a heroin OD, or didn’t but forever craved the stuff. End of story. Nobody ever told me about other damage.) Liver damage is just a part of it. She needed a non-cardiac pacemaker to regulate a body function after its nerves sustained damage. A few months ago that pacemaker had to be removed because an infection settled in that area. Nobody knew quite where it had come from, but it was likely from an unrelated surgical repair several months previous to that. The infection likely lay dormant for a few months, then found a home and started to grow. With her liver damage, she can't fight infections well anymore.

At first everybody was terrified that it was MRSA, but testing showed it to be “just” a stubborn staff infection. She was given a course of antibiotics and all was well. For a while, that is. If all were truly well, there’d be no story.

The infection reappeared, this time in a toe and in an ankle. Rae has been told the ankle will need surgery to rid it of infection, but the toe presented a more immediate problem, and was partially amputated. It was considered a success that part of it was saved. She had been told she was to be put on IV antibiotics after the surgery, but was sent home with a prescription for pills instead. She was also sent home without a prescription for Vicodin for the pain.

Her doctor knows her history. He also apparently fears the new law regarding drug registry that tracks all restricted painkillers and the doctors who prescribe them as an attempt to keep them out of the hands of drug-seeking patients, aka addicts. Rae had to argue with him for her pills, the only thing that actually controls the pain for her. She’s taken Vicodin before, while recovering from both earlier surgeries. She’s never abused it or gone back for more after she recovered. He finally agreed to give her a very limited amount in an unrefillable prescription, which was all she needed or wanted.

In fact, she still has some left. She started to feel her body adjusting to the drug and decided to live with the pain instead of risking a new addiction. She demonstrated how much her hands were shaking after she'd implemented that decision.

But on Monday, more than two weeks after her partial amputation, her toe got worse. It started swelling and the pain levels increased to worse than before the surgery. She knew the infection was back, but when she called and complained to her doctor, he brushed her off, calling the pain and swelling “normal.” She’s convinced all he heard was “pain” and gave in to his preconceived notions of what recovering addicts do.

By Wednesday she managed to get an appointment with him to actually show him the toe, demanding he look at it, challenging him with, “Is this what you call ‘normal’ ?”

Thursday the rest of her toe was amputated. Her foot was opened up toe to ankle, irrigated to clean out the infection present, and bandaged, unclosed for drainage. The infection had indeed returned and spread. She still hadn’t gotten that IV antibiotic, but a new scrip for pills. Stronger ones this time.. Nobody knew whether all this had taken care of the infection, now diagnosed after a second look to indeed be MRSA. Her husband decided to seek an attorney.

Is this an isolated case? Or have the new laws actually interfered with the proper practice of medicine, creating such fear of prosecution in doctors that addicts, whatever their current status of recovery, can no longer receive proper medical treatment?

For that matter, can any of us expect proper pain management now?

* * * * *

I first wrote the above a couple months ago, hoping it would appear in another blog. It hasn't, and I'm not waiting any longer for it to do so. I would like to say that some things are doing better for Rae now. The MRSA seems to finally be gone, although that took so much out of her that it's very hard for her to fight garden variety bugs these days, and she tires very easily. The condition of her liver already made that difficult. Now it's more than a challenge.

She needs a couple more surgeries, one already known to be needed months ago, the other to re-implant her pacemaker. She's not in a big hurry. She's really hoping to become well enough to be able to hold down a full-time job and be able to do more to take care of her family rather than having them have to take care of her.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


There have been many different kinds during the years. Some have been over relatively minor things like moving from the country to the city, or having a childhood pet put down. Later they happened over the ending of a relationship that I'd invested in emotionally and he hadn't.

I've had to put up defenses. I learned that some things can be replaced or fixed. New pets arrive and are loved in turn. One can move back out of the city, take vacations to even more remote and scenic places. A new, more steadfast love makes previous ones insignificant. Different things now break my heart.

Many years ago, after fighting to obtain legal visitation rights for my granddaughter, she started coming to my house over weekends. She was around five or six at this time. Several visits into this routine, she made a statement that shocked me, though from her history I could understand why she thought what she did. It was her matter-of-factness about it, her belief in the truth of it, that broke my heart. Paul (my son, her uncle) and I had had a disagreement about some now-forgotten thing. We simply discussed it calmly, presented different viewpoints, and settled whatever it was. My granddaughter then calmly announced to me her superior knowledge of what had really been going on. She "knew" that we were just putting on an act for her benefit, and that as soon as she was gone, we'd start screaming at each other as a way to really settle the dispute!

I could only hope that after she spent much more time with us, she'd come to realize that what she saw when she was there is what really was. It also reinforced my reasons for fighting for visitation, giving her an alternate, saner, more loving version of what family life could be like. I was constrained from telling her what I really thought of her mother, but I could let her come to her own conclusions and hopefully make better choices for herself as she grew up.

I find my heart breaking now in a different way. In the Gulf an oil rig exploded and sank, killing several on board. It is not for them my heart breaks, though perhaps if I knew them or their families I'd feel different. No, it aches for the ruined coastline, destroyed habitat, decimated animal populations to come as the oil inexorably reaches land and coats whatever it finds.

Clean-up doesn't.

Containment won't.

Recovery may never happen.

Of course it will, you argue, just taking so many years that we won't still be around to see it. At least, not at my age. The problems with that long-view optimism are two-fold. First, critical habitat means entire species may be lost. Second, global climate change may prevent any recovery in a meaningful way. Will oyster beds recover when ocean acidification destroys shells? Will habitats grow back when their conditions change? Food chains will be interrupted, famine and wars will ensue. The Gulf disaster is merely a reminder of bigger disasters to come. If one is to take the long view about recovery, then that view must be very long indeed.

Boobquake: Afterword

What? You've not heard of it? What a shame. You're too late to participate in it, now. Except....

It started with one of those radical Muslim clerics claiming that the recent spate of highly publicized earthquakes was caused by women dressing immodestly. (He failed to show any awareness of the constant nature of movement in the earth's tectonic plates, leading one to think science is not his forte.) This statement of course caused some reaction. One young woman made a suggestion for testing this statement of cause and effect. It was called Boobquake, and it went pretty viral, even garnering mention on some national radio shows. My attention was first called to it when my daughter blogged about it.

The idea was that every woman should dress immodestly on a certain day, showing as much boob or leg as possible, and see whether an earthquake occurred. Hence the catchy name. The day came, it went, no quake, case closed. The cleric is a wacko.

Well, except....

I have tended to notice that when the earth moves for me, it's always preceded by immodest dress. Most often by no dress whatever, in fact. I'm even willing to go so far as to suggest it works much the same way for you.

Perhaps our weird little cleric needs to be taught about the difference between earthquakes and orgasms, eh?

Not that I'd volunteer.