Friday, December 17, 2010

Lumpy Vanilla Extract Pie

I've been on a cooking kick lately. This happens in cycles. I'll cook dinner for a few months before losing the mojo, get lazy and stop cooking. Inevitably through these cooking phases, I attempt to "bake" something. And without fail, I am reminded that not only is there a difference between baking and cooking, I am not a good baker.

I had a Christmas volunteer luncheon to attend today and I found what I thought was going to be an easy chocolate peanut butter pie recipe. So I thought I'd contribute to the luncheon with this pie.

I usually walk away with a valuable lesson after one of my baking disasters and this incident was no exception. I will preempt this in telling you that I try my best to buy organic food items. Organic fruits, vegetables, jams, cereals etc. While shopping for the ingredients, I was happy to find organic peanut butter. I noticed all of the jars had at least 2 inches of oil at the top. Upon examination, I found the statement Oil separation occurs naturally. To prevent, stir and refrigerate or freeze

"Ok", I thought, "Not a problem. I can do that."


I went home with my ingredients and began to bake. Everything about the pie was made from the scratch, the crust, the filling, everything. I knew the crust was going to be a failure. I know few people who can successfully make a crumb pie crust. What I wasn't prepared for however, was the difficulty in making the filling.

The directions said to whisk the milk, corn starch, eggs and a few other ingredients together over medium heat. Does that mean I dump it all in at once and then whisk? Or gradually add each ingredient as I'm whisking away? I opted for the later and whisked until completely blended.

Then the recipe directed me to begin stirring to prevent lumps once the mix took on a pudding consistency. I peered at my bubbling concoction uncertainly before looking at my whisk. Did I stir with the whisk, or grab a spoon? And how would I know for sure when the mix turned from liquid to pudding?

In the time it took me to grab a spoon, the liquid did turn into pudding and the lumps began to form. I furiously stirred but the lumps multiplied and I couldn't keep up with the multitude of lumps that suddenly appeared in the pot. When the pudding began to boil and I was scraping pudding from the bottom of the pot, I gave up and figured the pie wouldn't LOOK pretty.

Then the recipe called for the addition of a few ingredients, one of which was 1 tablespoon of Vanilla Extract. That seemed like a lot of Vanilla Extract, so I double checked the list, but there was no misreading 1 tablespoon. Maybe that's not an unreasonable amount of Vanilla Extract, I don't know. Again, I don't bake very often.

Anyways, the second inkling of disaster began to dawn when I had to divide the lumpy filling into 2 bowls and add the peanut butter to one of the bowls. I had the unpleasant experience of peanut oil running down my hands when I opened the jar and the horror of finding more oil sloshing around in the jar. I dumped the oil and half the peanut butter into a different bowl and went for the last half of the jar, hoping that took care of the oil problem. There was still a bit of oil swimming amongst the peanut butter, but I could work with it. The consistency and taste of the organic peanut butter was different as well. The peanut butter was extremely thick and wasn't as sweet but the jar did say no sugar was added, and it wasn't a bad taste, just different.

After thoroughly mixing the respective chocolate and peanut butter bowls, I taste tested each one. The peanut butter filling was actually pretty good but the chocolate filling had a strong aftertaste of vanilla extract. It competed with and almost overtook the rich chocolaty taste. Danno offered the thought that perhaps the chocolate filling would taste better once it was combined with the peanut butter filling. Hoping he was right, I went ahead and finished the recipe. The pie looked terrible. Very lumpy and unlike the picture of the pie in the cookbook, which was firm and neat.

I refrigerated the pie overnight and pulled it out this morning for a small sample. Yes, there was a small bit of oil on top of the pie (sigh) but the worst was when I couldn't even cut a slice. The pie sloshed around the knife and I couldn't pull out the perfect pie piece. Instead I had to glop lumps of it on to my plate. The pie still had the vanilla extract after taste, but it wasn't nearly as strong as it was the previous night.

I decided to save myself the humiliation and left the pie at home. But if you want the Lumpy Vanilla Extract pie recipe, let me know.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bird Feeders + Me = OCD

Sometimes I don't realize how neurotic I am until I stop in the middle of the very thing I'm doing that makes me crazy to notice that it makes me crazy and I had that very thing happen this morning. We have had over a week of bone chilling, teeth chattering, cold weather and I have been worrying about keeping the birds outside fed.

We've discussed my Christmas ornament issues, and for those who weren't already aware, the flu season unleashes my germaphobe, hand washing idiosyncrasy (although I'm fairly certain those in the healthcare field would tell me I'm not crazy with all the hand washing). But perhaps the icing on the neurotic cake is my compulsion to keep the bird feeders full during those cold days when the thermometer hovers around the freezing mark.

The fretting doesn't begin until the forecast calls for highs in the mid-30s. Then I begin thinking about the birds in the neighborhood, most of which are insect and seed eaters. The worry kicks into overdrive when I think of the majority of insects that are dead and those few that aren't dead are in diapause and safely overwintering in some remote spot far from the reach of hungry beaks. My thoughts travel to the neighborhood gardens and how the seed supply must be pretty low or nonexistent at this point. Then I think about how much energy it takes for a bird to function during the day and survive a cold night. For example, did you know on a cold winter's night, a Black-capped Chickadee can lose up to 10% of it's body weight? That's OVERNIGHT people. So each day, that tiny bird must eat that much to compensate for what it lost overnight.

This is the point when I try my best to cater to the eating habits of my feathered friends. For example, Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows are exclusive ground feeders, meaning they will not fly up and eat from a feeder. They will only eat what is on the ground. Cardinals, Blue Jays and most Woodpeckers do not like tube feeders and their tiny perches (well, they're also too big for them as well). American Goldfinches strongly prefer thistle over other types of seeds (although I have seen them eat sunflower seed in very cold conditions). Black oil sunflower seed, peanuts and suet are high in fat which is important for the birds during the winter so I keep a steady stock. Woe is me if I let the supply run out and I see a huge flock of hungry birds pecking at seed crumbs in the feeders.

Every morning I go outside and fill a big feeder with a sunflower seed mix, throw out a few millet sprigs on the ground, check the suet and thistle feeders before tackling the peanut feeder (Picture of this feeder is in this entry). The Blue Jays have a habit of pecking the peanuts to get at the meat and leave the empty shell in the feeder. So I have to throw out the peanut shells before filling the feeder with fresh peanuts.

My neurosis is worst after it snows. All that seed under a layer of snow and/or ice. How are my ground feeding birds going to eat?? That's when I make it a point to scatter seeds on the window ledges and on the steps just outside the sliding glass door. Yes dear readers, I am that crazy. You may wonder what the payback is from all this fretting and feeding and for the non bird lovers, I'm sure it's difficult to understand. But I love watching the Blue Jays swoop down on the peanut feeder and make exaggerated pecking motions as they work to get their food. I enjoy listening to the chips and off-key tune of the White-throated Sparrows. And it's amazing to see at least a dozen or more Cardinals scattered through the yard.

I also like to think I'm contributing somewhat to the survivability of these birds during a time when some of these species struggle to compete for space with habitat fragmentation and urbanization. They need all the help they can get.

I know I'm a worrywart, but I figure this is a productive thing to worry about. I worry, I fill the feeders and the worry disappears...until the feeders are empty or it snows. Then we repeat the cycle.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Oh Christmas Tree

I put my Christmas Tree up Wednesday afternoon and before I launch into the details of this story, I must tell you that I have been struggling with the decision on whether or not to put the tree up since November. I didn't put the tree up last year, or even the year before and I had this odd mixture of guilt for not putting the tree up and relief for the same reason. I like Christmas and the decorations that accompany the holiday. It's just that truth be told, I'm kind of lazy in the housekeeping department. I don't dust or vacuum as nearly as often as I should, the dishes stay in the sink a little longer than they should and I'm embarrassed to let my friends see the clutter that has accumulated on nearly every surface of the house. Putting a tree up means that is one more thing I have to put away.

Then there's the size of the tree and the volume of ornaments. My mom worked for a large department store chain for a while and at least twice a year they would have a "Sample Sale" where employees got dibbs on the merchandise before the public did. Anything that could fit in a large shopping bag was $5. You can fit a LOT of stuff in a bag for 5 bucks. So at least once a year (sometimes more often than once a year) my mom would bring me 2-3 bags filled with ornaments. It got to the point that I needed to buy a bigger Christmas tree. The last time I put the tree up, (which is a 7 footer) I had so many ornaments that I almost ran out of room on the tree. I think at that point I snapped and didn't put the tree up for 2 years.

This year I decided to only put up one box worth of ornaments (as opposed to the 4 boxes of various sizes) and rotate the boxes in the future. The first thing was lugging that huge tree upstairs. I swear that box gets heavier each year. Putting the tree up itself wasn't so bad because the tree is divided into 3 sections with the branches already attached. You just connect the sections, the branches fall into place and viola, you have yourself a tree. The only thing you need to do is fluff the branches and move them around.

The next biggest chore is putting up the lights. This is the part I hate the most because I'm somewhat of a perfectionist and can't just put the lights ANYWHERE on the tree. It took me an hour-and-a-half to string the lights. After putting up the tree and lights, I stopped for the day.

Thursday was ornament day. This is a big production. Each ornament is carefully wrapped in tissue or wrapping paper and must be unwrapped before being placed on the tree. But again, placing ornaments on the tree is no simple endeavor. The tree is divided into sections and each ornament is assigned to a section. The ugly ornaments are relegated to the back section (the one that faces the window to the world outside) of the tree while the iffy ones are in that tiny spot located next to the back of the tree. My prized ornaments, the ornaments that are beautiful or hold great sentimental value go on the front of the tree, that section that is easily seen from a seated position while those that come in a close second are off to the side. For simplicity's sake, I won't go into which ornaments go towards the top, middle or bottom. But yes, I am that neurotic. This took another hour-and-a-half, but I was finished.

So the tree is up and every evening at dusk, I turn the tree lights on and open the window blinds so everyone driving or walking can admire my beautiful tree.

Let's just hope I can get motivated enough to take the dang thing down before spring.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Mutant Cricket

It's funny the stories your brain can create when half asleep. 3am this morning I was rudely awakened by a very loud trilling noise. Within a minute I was about to drift back to sleep when the trill resonated within the room again.


WHAT was that? And where was it coming from? It seemed like it was from the left side of the room near the bathroom. It only seemed to sound every 30-60 seconds, leading me to believe it was an electronic device. Maybe Danno's ipod or his phone?


No, it definitely wasn't electronic in origin. It almost sounded like


I had never heard a cricket make such a loud or long noise. In my cricket-listening experience, their chirps were short and rapid, not long and loud like this one. But then most of the crickets I heard were during the summer, when it was hot. This was late October and it was cold outside.


Wow that was loud. Maybe it was a mutant cricket, big and black, at least 3 inches long (the average field cricket is 1/2" to 1" in length). I laid there and wondered how he got in. I was at the Ecology Center on Thursday exploring the woods and prairie with a group of kindergarten-aged children. Did he slip into a pocket while I was outside? When I returned home that day, I threw my uniform into the laundry hamper, which, incidentally sits on the left side of the room near the bathroom. But how could I have slept through him trilling Thursday night? And how in the world would I have not noticed a huge cricket like that jumping into my pocket? I could feel ticks crawling across my skin. Surely I would have noticed that behemoth of an insect jumping on me.

I pictured the cricket on the bathroom window, inside looking out, or maybe he was on the mirror. After another ear-splitting trill, I jumped up and turned the light on and all fell silent. Not another sound was heard. I laid down and stared up at the light that was burning through my pupils into my retina. I was not going to be able to sleep with a light blaring down on me.

I got up and turned the bathroom light on. That was better although there was still a light on in the room. But at least I could close my eyes and not have the light shining through my eyelids. As I laid there, I swore I could hear the patter of the enormous feet that belonged to that mutant cricket. He was on the mirror, tapping the lights with his long antennae. He was looking for something to eat, he was...

I jumped up and looked in the bathroom. No enormous cricket crawling on the window or tapping the lights above the mirror. I left the light on and closed the door. Not 5 minutes later I heard another trill, although the closed door brought the decibel level down to a manageable setting. The next time I looked at the clock it was 4 am.

That mutant cricket managed to steal an hour's worth of sleep from me.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Things overheard at a Brownie meeting

A few months ago I took the plunge into the world of Girl Scouts. Bug Lady undertook leadership of her daughter's troop but needed a co-leader. I happily agreed as it would be a fun way to hang out with Bug Lady and her daughter.

Our troop began with 8 girls, but has recently grown to 13. It has been interesting, entertaining, frustrating and educating. There have already been a few interesting highlights, a few of which are hopefully, more to come.

At the end of one meeting, we were playing shadow charades. The girl creating the charade stands in front of a light and creates her charade, which is projected as a shadow on the wall behind her. Some of the girls were getting very specific with their animal charades, creating Labrador Retrievers or their aunt's calico cat and the like, prompting Bug Lady to create a few rules for the game.

"Let's keep this simple. No specific dog or cat breeds ok? No Labradors or Collies or Persian Cats. Not everyone knows what these dogs or cats are. And no using Uncles or cousins dogs and cats either. Maybe some of these girls don't know your Uncle or Cousin or know they have a dog or a cat." she said.

It's E's turn and she gets down on all fours and begins walking around.

"A spider?"

"No." E replies before pretending to eat.

"A dog!"

"Nope." This time E begins to lick her hand.

"A cat?"



Bug Lady and I looked at each other before I whispered "I think she's imitating a specific dog breed." She nodded but allowed the guessing to continue a bit longer before speaking up.

"Ok E. We give up. What are you?" Bug Lady asked.

"My Grandma's Boston Terrier Oreo." she replied.

Well, at least she wasn't her Uncle's Labrador Retriever.

At another meeting I was passing out Cheez-Its for snack time when one of the girls attempted to grab the box out of my hands.

"Excuse me." I said, holding the box just out of her reach. "That's not polite. What do you say?"

"Please may I have some Cheez-Its." She grunted.

C leans over and bumps shoulders with the offender before loudly saying "Did you say PLEASE? Or did you say CHEEZ?"

I roll my eyes and poured Cheez-Its onto both the girls plates.

Same girl, same meeting. One of the activities at the meeting was for each girl to lay on a piece of craft paper, have their outline traced before she decorated and colored her body outline. It was adorable, watching each girl, their faces serious with concentration, busily coloring with their little butts in the air. I started taking pictures of the girls but as I approached C, she sprang up like a prairie dog and flung her hand out to block my camera.

"NO! I'm not ready yet!" She protested.

"Ok, Ok." I replied, moving on to other girls.

Five minutes and across the room later, C bellowed "I'M READY!"

C sat next to her artwork and smiled before waving her hands around. "No! Wait! That's not right. Let me pose again."

She switched from a sitting position to laying on her side next to her decorated paper self. "That's better. Ok you can take my picture now."

At least she's not camera shy.

Yesterday's meeting focused on the Manners try it. Saying "please", "thank you" and the like. One of the other suggested activities is to throw a party that includes proper place settings on the table. We're throwing a party for 4 other Girl Scout troops in the school for the Manners try it and this was the first meeting to lay the groundwork for the party. Bug Lady gave each girl a place mat sized piece of paper on which they had to correctly set a paper plate, plastic fork, spoon, knife, cup and napkin. The girls were to draw or trace the setting on the paper once all the dinnerware was in the correct spot on the paper mat. The girls had correctly set their plates, utensils and cup and only the napkin remained.

Bug Lady wanted the girls to figure out the answer so rather than tell them where to place the napkin, she asked "What do you do before you eat?"

"Wash your hands!"


The answers prompted a smile from Bug Lady and she conceded that these each were true. However, when one sat down, the napkin usually went on the lap.

"I don't put a napkin on MY lap when I eat." M said.

"I do!" C piped up. "I always drop mashed potatoes in my lap, chicken on my lap, gravy on my lap."

The party is November 3rd. I can only hope we make more progress at the next meeting. But that being said, it sure has been an entertaining ride so far in the school year. Wonder what the next several months are going to bring.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

It's that time of the year again

Each year as Fall approaches I begin to change some of my birdfeeding habits as Summer gradually turns in to Fall. I swap the safflower seed to sunflower seed when I know the Grackles have left the area (Grackles are bullies and will scare away most of the birds and have been known to kill the young bird not fast enough to hop out of their way. Grackles are unable to open Safflower seed with their bills and will give up on a feeder filled with the white seed) and put out suet for the Woodpeckers.

When the symphony of birdsong is reduced to the chips of sparrows and the tapping of woodpeckers as they search for food under tree bark, I listen for the return of the Blue Jays in my neighborhood. As soon as I hear their raucous calls, I place the peanut feeder out. It takes them a few days to find it, but when they do, they visit the feeder several times a day, carrying off a peanut or hammering away at a shell within the confines of the feeder to reach a tasty peanut.

I don't know what it is about Fall that makes me introspective and melancholy. I waver between enjoying Fall and hating its arrival. I miss the chorus of frogs, crickets, katydids and cicadas, the lazy blink of fireflies and the competing melodies of the birds. I long for the vibrant reds, blues, yellows and purples of the wildflowers and the long hours of light. I enjoy working outside and finding unexpected treasures such as a prairie kingsnake resting under a rock, a praying mantis sitting quietly on a leaf or watching a spotted fawn bound across the prairie with his mother.

But yet I enjoy the stillness of Fall, the chips of the returning winter sparrows, the crisp air and the rusted reds, oranges and yellows of the turning leaves. Fall is also the time I return to my habit of walking on the park trail that sits alongside the river. It is relaxing, peaceful to watch the river flow and the landscape reflect the colors of a beautiful sunset.

I am sad to see the flycatchers, warblers and hummingbirds leave with the summer, but I am delighted with the return of the mockingbirds, crows, sparrows and jays. Of course these birds are here year round, but in my neck of the woods, I only see the aforementioned birds during the fall and winter.

Well, whatever the reason for my ambivalence towards Fall, the antics of the Blue Jays at my peanut feeder make the season bearable.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

M&Ms you disappoint me

Danno and I were talking about candy the other day when I said "Man, I still miss M&Ms after over a year of boycotting."

I decided to boycott M&Ms after learning their suppliers use child labor. The other bad seed in this is Hershey, who also has some serious issues in buying from chocolate suppliers that employ the use of child labor. While some of the child labor stems from poverty (their families are so poor they need all the help they can get. So the children pitch in to help on the farm) there is quite a bit of child trafficking. Those who have known me a long time know that I LOVE my M&Ms but this was a small sacrifice to make on behalf of some child halfway across the globe slaving away to harvest something I don't need to be eating.

To quote verbatim from Ethical Consumer :

A study conducted in 2002 estimated that of about 284,000 children working in the West African cocoa industry, 200,000 were in the Côte d’Ivoire and a “substantial minority” of these children were found to have been trafficked from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Togo.(2) The same study found that some 10,000 children in the Côte d’Ivoire were victims of human trafficking or enslavement, whilst 109,000 worked under the “worst forms of child labour”. Since these figures were reported, however, it seems that absolute numbers are hard to come by. An Ivoirian government survey conducted in 2007 claimed that “fewer than 2% of children who work in cocoa production are not members of the household.”(3) From this data, which is perhaps questionable, it is difficult to assess how much progress has been made, despite the claims made by the Ivoirian government and the chocolate industry. The US Department of State reported people trafficking, forced labour, forced child labour, and hazardous child labour to have occurred in the country in 2007.(4) In August 2009, an INTERPOL operation resulted in the rescue of 54 children of seven different nationalities that were victims of organised slave labour in cocoa and palm plantations in the Côte d’Ivoire. INTERPOL described the trend in child trafficking and exploitation in the area as ‘increasing’.(5)

After a bit more digging I discovered that Mars, Inc and Hershey have not changed their ways, although Hershey has since claimed to commit to "responsible"cocoa growing, though they still cannot or will not trace the source of their cocoa through their suppliers.

Since my M&Ms boycott in January 2009, I've added Kit Kats and most Nestle products to the list. Although I still eat mainstream chocolate on occasion, I have switched to eating Endangered Species, Green and Black's, and Newman's Own chocolates. These chocolates are more expensive, but they taste so much better and I eat less of it.

I'll never be the perfect consumer of FairTrade chocolate but more than half of my chocolate purchases have the Fair Trade label. I know my boycott and careful chocolate purchases are small beans compared to the rest of the world, but it's better than doing nothing.

But dang it, I still miss my M&Ms.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Keys (part 2)

Apparently I didn't learn my lesson with the car rental key incident in April. I've since had 2 more occurrences of key misplacement with the most recent event on Tuesday.

My mom went out of town for a few days, placing me in charge of feeding her cat for one day. (She has returned from her trip, allowing me to post this entry without worrying that someone who knows her will read this and break into her house) Tuesday morning I went over to her house to feed the cat. I only have 3 keys on my keyring; my car key, the house key and my mom's house key...or so I thought.

The first hint of trouble began when I inserted the key into the deadbolt and it wouldn't budge. The door is a bit older and I haven't unlocked it in a while, so thinking there was a trick to unlocking the door, I pulled the door, pushed the door and jiggled the doorknob while trying to turn the key in the lock.

I was deep in denial my friends. I wasn't mentally prepared for the fact that I had the wrong key. I shoved the key in the doorknob. I even went to the backdoor to try that lock (But the locked screen door thwarted my attempts.) After exhausting my attempts, I stared at the door, willing it to open while desperately trying to push the fact that I had the wrong key out of my mind. But there was no other alternative to veer me from the inevitable truth. To confirm I had the wrong key, I placed my house key into the lock and met the same results.

I had the wrong key.

I looked over to my left and found my mom's neighbor talking to the people who lived in the house next door to him. I was embarrassed that I didn't have mom's key and wasn't quite ready to ask him for help yet. So instead, I called my mother-in-law.

"You're never going to guess what has happened to me." I said as soon as she answered the phone.

"Uh oh." She replied.

"Do you have a key to my mom's house? I thought I had her key, but I don't. I'm standing at her front door."

"No, I don't. Is there a neighbor who may have a key?"

At this point I'm behind the bushes next to the door looking under a few large rocks in the hopes I would find a spare key.

"I don't think any of her neighbors has a key, but I know the next door neighbor. I could ask him for help." I replied.

"What about a window? Do you think she has an unlocked window?"

I hadn't thought of the possibility of an unlocked window. The chances of my mom leaving a window unlocked was pretty unlikely, but my choices were limited and I was getting desperate.

"I doubt it. She's got those new windows." I said. I pressed against the window next to the front door and it moved. "Hey! She does have an unlocked window!"

At this point Mom's neighbor was crossing the lawn with a perplexed look on his face. After explaining my predicament, he brought a step ladder that would give me an easier time climbing through the window.

I fed the cat without incident and climbed out the way I entered and closed the window.

Here's house key incident #2.

This occurred in May. I was supposed to meet 2 friends from work for an afternoon movie. I woke up in a lousy mood. I just wasn't feeling it, so to speak. I should have known the day was going to take a nosedive when I checked my car oil to find the dipstick bone dry and I couldn't open the oil lid. I tried opening it with a towel and then a wrench. The towel slipped around and the wrench was laughably small. At this point I was nearly in tears because I was already sad and not up to even the smallest challenge a day could sometimes throw your way.

I called one of the girls and told her I probably wouldn't make it because my car was out of oil and I couldn't open the oil lid. I told her I would continue to try the lid, but not to wait for me. After hanging up I went back into the house to get a different towel. A different plan was forming in my mind. I grabbed a towel that wasn't of terry cloth material and used my body for additional leverage.

"Come on you M&*F!!!" I said, pulling my body back along with the lid.

The plan worked and the lid came off. Elated, I poured the needed oil into the car and called my friend back. I was indeed going to meet them at the movies. I hung up and realized that I left my keys in the house. I went to the door adjoining the garage and found it locked. The damn door was locked. Cursing my luck, I called that poor girl back to say that I wasn't coming after all. I think this time I may have cried.

Like my mother-in-law, my friend suggested trying a window and again, I was skeptical, but was willing to try anything. The front windows were locked, but the side window was unlocked. Now here was the tricky part. The window was next to an elevated flower bed. If the window was directly under the flower bed, I would have been able to open the window and climb in.

But no such luck.

Before I go on further, I must tell you about the state of our yard, as it will come in to play here in a minute. Our yard is an urban jungle. It is overrun with honeysuckle, rose of sharon, winter creeper and a multitude of thick, shrubby vegetation. I've been working on clearing the backyard a little at a time the last few years, but I've neglected the side yard. And as a result, the side yard was nearly a thicket of young trees and other unidentifiable plants.

I retrieved a ladder and began the arduous task of shoving the ladder over the fence and through the tangle of limbs and leaves to place it under the window. We had had a bout of rain and the ground was very spongy. It seemed no matter where I placed the ladder, it either sank into the wet ground or leaned dangerously to one side. The area to place the ladder was very limited due to the aforementioned trees and thick shrubs. I picked the spot where the ladder wobbled the least and began to climb. I had one more obstacle, or rather 3 obstacles between me and the indoors.

The room I was about to enter was our office and under the window sat 2 computers and a TV. How was I going to get through the window and into the room without knocking the electronics over? And would the table on which the electronics sat be able to support my weight?

After carefully making my way past the wires and monitors, I jumped off the table and into the room, setting off the burglar alarm. (And when did I set the damn alarm?) When the alarm company called and asked if everything was ok, I could only laugh.

I have since locked that window, thus closing any opportunities for breaking and entering into my own home in the event I don't have my keys.

But what is the possibility of me losing my house keys again?

Maybe I shouldn't try my luck.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The fall of the King

This blog has been long overdue for a World of Warcraft entry. This has been somewhat intentional, as I have been waiting until I was part of a group that successfully killed the Lich King. Two weeks ago our 10 man raid killed Lich King, and finally, last night, our 25 man raid killed Lich King.

There will be spoilers in this entry and for the few readers who read my blog, you can skip this one or for the even fewer readers who read this blog and play WoW, you've probably already killed the Lich King, or have read about it on one of the strategy websites.

But for those non-wow players who do decide to read this entry, I will try to make this as entertaining and interesting as possible.

You directly encounter Arthas in the Culling of Stratholme dungeon, where you are transported back in time to protect Arthas from the time keepers who want to destroy the would-be Lich King. However in present time, you can see the effects Arthas left in his wake during his rise as king of the undead in the Plaguelands and Stratholme (Well, Arthas wasn't responsible for the initial downfall of the Plaguelands and the city of Stratholme, but he did charge Kel'Thuzad with the responsibility of keeping the neighborhood chock full of undead things. But Kel'Thuzad appears in Northrend in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion).

Anyways, the continent of Northrend is a cold place filled with beauty, mystery, new allies and foes. The region of Icecrown, however, is a nasty place devoid of life where the Lich King rules over his undead minions. But there are members of the Horde and Alliance races who have set up camp in Icecrown that are dedicated to eradication of the Lich King and his unliving subjects.

Incidentally, the whole Arthas/Lich King thing confused me and still does to a point, but what I've figured out is that the Lich King is comprised of Ner'zhul, a dead shaman but now evil spirit and the physical body of Arthas Menethil. However, I still can't figure out exactly who is speaking and doing all the terrible things...Arthas or Ner'zhul or both?

Silverwolfe, (my druid healer) is in a large group comprised of healers, warriors and magic users intent on killing the Lich King. They storm the Lich King's castle and kill a bone wraith, undead lich, undead orc death knight, 2 flesh beasts, an undead mad scientist experimenting with poisonous gas clouds to eradicate all life in the world, a trio of conceited-even-in-death blood elves, a hungry vampire, an angry undead frost wyrm and rescue a LIVING dragon.


After all that killin', Silverwolfe and her friends are teleported up to the throne room where they see Highlord Tirion facing the Lich King on his icy throne. (Be sure to note and remember the human chained above the Lich King's throne. From the screen shot it looks like a black X. This will be important later)

Look at Lich King, he's so smug. You just want to wipe the smirk right off that cold undead-ish face.

After some smack talk, Arthas the Lich King magically seals Tirion in an icy tomb and the battle begins.

The Lich King is a mighty foe, for while he is fighting one of our fearless warriors, he is inflicting diseases, shadow bolts, shockwaves and raising dead undead things on the rest of the group.

When he grows tired of the hand-to-hand combat with our warrior (we've whittled about 30% of his health down at this point), he begins casting Remorseless Winter, a nasty winter storm spell that deals lots of cold damage. He also begins summoning Raging Spirits which are actually aspects of an individual in the group. These suckers throw a mean punch.

Then he shoves his big bad sword Frostmourne (the marshmallow mace has been long replaced) into the ground which creates a huge quake and the edges of the platform fall away. And woe to the hero who is slow in leaving the crumbling edge...

At this point the heroes fall on the King with their swords, daggers, maces, staffs and deadly spells and he gets annoyed. Turns out the Lich King has many a minion up his sleeve. He begins summoning Val'kyr. They look like angels, but don't be fooled by their white visage or those lovely wings. Their soul, oops, sole purpose is to pick heroes up and fling them off the edge into the cold abyss.

The Lich King also casts a nasty spell (Defile) that looks like an oil spill on the ground that spreads when it comes into contact with warm bodies and does a crap load of damage.

So while you're trying to not get picked up by Val'kyr or trying to kill the Val'kyr that is heading toward the edge with a friend you have to try to avoid big nasty puddles of black goo. Thanks Lich King.

But Silverwolfe and her band of hero friend persevered and really pissed the Lich King off. He casts that Remorseless Winter spell again and summons more Enraged Spirits. When the Spirits are forced back into oblivion, we fall again the Lich King, but he's having none of that nonsense. This time his sword gets in on the action. After the Lich King drops a heavy amount of shadow damage on one poor hero, the sword sucks their soul in, where the hero finds the Lich King's father (did I mention that Arthas, the Lich King, killed his own father, Terenas?) and the two battle an evil spirit before the hero is returned outside of the sword.

*Spoiler alert*

Well, the Lich King loses his temper and unleashes the fury of Frostmourne, killing the entire raid. After throwing his hissy fit, he gloats over killing the heroes and relishes the idea of the powerful new members of his undead army (us). He then begins channeling us back to (un)life

Remember poor Tirion, our Highlord entombed in ice? Yeah, we pretty much lost faith and patience with him at this point. But he breaks through the ice and opens a can of whoop ass on the king.

Tirion breaks Frostmourne during the fight, releasing all the spirits held within, including Terenas. The spirit of Terenas resurrects all of the fallen members of the party.

As you can imagine, those spirits that have been contained within the sword Frostmourne have a bit of a grudge against the Lich King. You see all those swirling thingies? Those are the spirits of all the people the Lich King has killed. They are angry. Very angry. They hold Lich King in place, allowing the group to kick that evil king's butt.

After the Lich King is slain, Tirion discovers it is Bolvar Fordragon chained at the top of the throne. Bolvar was believed to be slain during a surprise Scourge attack but he survived and the Lich King took him and tortured him up to the point of the fight. However, he is in sad shape, his body pretty much burned and broken. He tells Tirion that there must be balance between the good and evil forces in the world, and ultimately, there must be a Lich King not only to contain the threat of the Scourge but to keep the Lich King imprisoned. The helm of domination, that ugly hat Arthas was wearing, was by created by demons and bonded to the Ner'zhul the Lich King (this is the simple version of the story. It's a bit complicated) and grants any mortal the powers of the Lich King.

Tirion reluctantly agrees to place the helm on Bolvar, who becomes encased in a tomb of ice to imprison the essence of the Lich King and ensure the helm doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

It's a great victory, but bittersweet in the great sacrifice Bolvar makes for the well being of the world and it's what makes a great epic tale.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A blog entry about nothing.

This blog entry was initially going to be about my eventful but not really exciting week, but somehow it turned out to be an entry about my car that needed a jump.

Monday was the last day of my summer project. I spent the summer studying the birds on 3 different prairies. Each prairie manages their site differently in terms of prescribed burns. One site did not burn their prairie at all, but managed it by mowing every few years. Another site burned their prairie every 3 years and the Ecology Center, for simplicity's sake, burns every other year. My question for my study is whether or not the birds demonstrate a preference for the burn frequency. The methods I used to answer my question involved bird census and mist netting.

So Monday was the last day for mist netting at the Ecology Center. It threatened to rain but we managed to get 2 hours of net time in before the sky did open up and begin to pour. We were planning on going to lunch after we closed nets, but decided on brunch instead since the rain halted our activities. Of course it stopped raining by the time we closed the nets, but by then, the nets were soaked. A wet net tends to bunch in spots, making it easy for the birds to see and avoid.

After packing up we go to our cars and figure out carpooling and the like. I hop into my car and it wouldn't start. Dead as a doornail, would not start. But I did leave the hatchback open for over an hour this morning. There was some issue over whether or not anyone had jumper cables so I suggested we just go to brunch and I could call AA towing before we left the restaurant.

It turns out Stream Girl had jumper cables in her car at the Ecology Center. Thus began the jumper cable adventure. When we returned from brunch I opened the hood of my car while Stream Girl pulled her car up. The terminals on my battery were heavily corroded. After scraping off as much as I could with my key I turned to find Stream Girl reading the directions.

"I haven't done this very many times." I confessed.

"Neither have I." Stream Girl replied, "But the directions are simple enough."

Farm Girl was there for moral support and it turns out I leaned pretty heavily on her emotionally. In the past, I was the spectator and filled the role of support during a jumping event, but this time around I was the active participant and the thought of placing cables with a current running through it (from the other car) on to my end of the car scared the bejeesus out of me. What frightened me the most was placing the negative end of the cable on a metal object on my car. What if the directions were wrong and I got a nasty shock? Farm Girl offered to place the negative end of the cable on some random metal object, but I didn't want HER to get shocked. What kind of friend would I be if I allowed her to take a freak-of-nature shock that was meant for me?

"Where should I put this?" I asked Farm Girl, looking at all the machinery under the hood.

"How about there?" She asked, pointing to one area of the frame of my car.

I peered at it and shook my head. "It's awfully close to that skinny tube." I replied, pointing to what was probably the windshield wiper fluid tube. Maybe?

"Hmm. What about here?" She asked, pointed further up the frame.

The radiator hose closely paralleled the frame, but every where I looked, there was a tube or bolt or some plastic piece that was close to metal.

"Ok." I said, staring at the metal.

I looked at Farm Girl and Stream Girl and said, "I love you girls!" before placing the negative end of the cable on the metal.

The laughter that followed my overly dramatic statement took the edge off my jitters. Intellectually, I knew I wasn't going to get shocked, but what if by some weird chance I DID get shocked? Luckily nothing happened.

I went to start my car and again, nothing happened. Stream Girl commented the directions said that if the car receiving the jump did not start to give it 5 minutes before trying again. So we gave it 5 minutes.

Nothing happened.

Stream Girl suggested we wait another 5 minutes and try again. This time she revved her engine several times. Guess what happened?


Stream Girl suggested I get the car towed to Auto Zone and have the guys there test my battery. If it was really dead, I could buy one and have them install it. I agreed and said I'd call Danno first to see what he thought. Much to my surprise, he said he wanted to come out and try to jump it.

"But we just tried jumping it." I said, "It's as dead as a door nail."

"Just let me look at it." He replied.

I will admit I was a little offended. He didn't trust me to jump start my car? I did tell him there were 3 of us present to provide a form of checks and balances in case one of us misunderstood the directions.

'Fine' I thought sullenly, 'Come on out then. You'll see.'

He came out and looked at my battery terminals and really started cleaning them. He cleaned them until they shone. Hmm, what if he did get the car started? He did go through the same set up as we did in terms of hooking the cables to his car and then to mine although he picked a different spot for the negative cable.

I will confess I experienced a certain amount of satisfaction when the car wouldn't start but I refrained from saying "I told you so".

He tried a different spot on the car, but met with the same results. Nothing.

Then he did the unthinkable. He placed the negative cable on the battery. Great. Now someone was going to get hurt.

"You're not supposed to do that!" I gasped, "That's dangerous!"

"I know, but it may be the only way we get your car started." Danno replied.

The car almost started when I turned the ignition over. On the second try, the car finally started. I don't think I've ever seen a car so unwilling to start. Danno was afraid the alternator would be involved in the problem, but time and many miles driven this week proved it was just the battery.

That proved to be the highlight of my week and well, this blog entry too.

Monday, August 30, 2010


I took a road trip late last week to see my friend Country Bird in Oklahoma. We met at the Bird Sanctuary in 99 and have been friends ever since. She's a fellow bird nerd and we've had all kinds of (mis)adventures and hijinks during our bird watching excursions. She moved in 2006 but we've managed to see each other at least once a year whether it be through a planned birding trip, a bird banding conference or a short visit.

It's an 8 hour drive from my doorstep to hers and this was my first solo road trip. Yup, you heard right. In all the traveling I've done, I've never taken a road trip alone. Usually I fly and the road trips I have gone on I've been with other people. So I was a little nervous with all the things that could go wrong running through my head.

I passed through a long stretch of tacky tourist trap signs on the highway. The billboards for Meramec Caverns began about 30 miles outside of the city. Advertisements to see the cave of Jesse James hideout and various rooms in the cavern (such as the Ballroom) were ok, not too tacky, but somewhere along the way, Meramec Caverns started sporting billboards advertising their new "caveman zipline", complete with a cartoon cave man swinging across the billboard via the zipline.

Once I passed the Meramec Caverns attraction, the billboards began advertising the Jesse James Wax Museum, the World's Largest Rocking chair, the Vacuum Cleaner Museum, the Candy Factory, the Toy Factory, Ozark Souvenirs (over 25,000 souvenirs!) and the Precious Moments museum. I knew I was within driving range of Branson, probably the mecca of tacky tourist traps when I drove past a large A-frame tin building that was the "Candy Factory" with "BRANSON COUPONS" painted in bold yellow letters across the roof. Soon I was passing billboards for a.m. radio stations devoted to information and COUPONS for Branson attractions. How does a radio station manage to give traveling tourist coupons anyways? They certainly don't print through the car radio and most people don't stay long enough in the same hotel to receive mail. I thought the whole coupon thing was rather strange. And who devotes an entire radio station to nothing but tourist attractions?

The tacky and strange billboards abruptly dropped once I hit the Oklahoma state line. I traveled across the lower half of Missouri and was inundated with these tacky tourist trap billboards the entire way. I traveled through half of Oklahoma and did not come across one sign that was strange or ridiculous.

Someone please tell me Missouri isn't the only state that has advertisements for the obnoxious tourist traps along the highway. As I stated before, this was my first solo road trip. All the other road trips I had conversation with other people in the car to keep me occupied and otherwise too distracted to look at billboards. I'll be embarrassed on behalf of the people like me, who have strong aversions to the tacky tourist traps if I find out that we're the only state that proudly advertises those awful places.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


About 4 years ago, I experienced an acute case of shoulder pain. I mean, holy crap this shit hurts kind of pain. I couldn't lay on my right side and I could barely lift my right arm above my head. But after a week, the pain began to improve so I didn't go to the doctor and I only told a few people about my shoulder pain. I am ashamed over my lack of action, especially since I'm the one who advises and nags people to go to the doctor when they are sick or need medical attention. But I was afraid of the surgery potential. The event occurred during the summer, right at the height of the mist netting season. I didn't want to be slowed down by surgery and well frankly, I was afraid of surgery.

Since then I have had shoulder pain off and on, but taking advil or alleve for a few days usually cured the problem. Until this past spring. The pain began as an ache and I couldn't lay on my right side. As in the past, I babied my shoulder, tried to stop laying on my right side as best I could (sometimes I would wake up on my right side, or my right arm would be flung over my head) but this time time around non-steroidal inflammatory meds (Alleve, Advil etc) were contraindicated with the medication I was on and I had to rely on Tylenol, which did NOT work.

During all of spring and most of the summer I was still able to participate in all of my usual activities; FitCamp, Yoga, mist netting, hiking and the like but the pain got progressively worse and was occurring on a daily basis causing me to fess up to Exercise Sunshine. I confided in her partly because she was my yoga instructor and it would be difficult to do some of the yoga poses, but mostly because she had become a friend and I knew she would keep after me to see the doctor. And that she did. I think she emailed me or got after me on Facebook on a weekly basis.

So yesterday was my appointment. Danno went with me because I drive a car with manual transmission and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to drive myself home. I was already assuming the doctor would give me the much dreaded cortisone shot. When I finally broke down and told my friends and family how much my shoulder was bothering me, all the horror stories revolving around cortisone shots came to the surface and they reminded me of the women I've known in my life who relate the birthing horror stories they've heard or experienced.

One friend relayed his story like a fisherman

"Chickadee, I swear the needle was this big" he said, indicating the length of the needle with his thumb and middle finger. "And it hurt like a mother&#@%er." (naughty word edited. this is a family blog you know)

My mother-in-law's story was the least frightening. "The needle won't actually hurt that bad, but the medicine will sting for about 5 seconds before the numbing stuff they give you beforehand kicks in."

With the horror stories in mind, I sat in the waiting room and was led to the examination room. I no sooner sat down when an x-ray technician came for me. After 3 x-rays, I made my way back to the exam room. I sat there wondering how big the needle was for a cortisone shot. To my left was a sharps disposal container sitting in a wire basket screwed to the wall. The container was transparent, allowing me a view of all the disposed syringes and needles in the box. There were some long needles in that box, but the needles were not as long as I envisioned. What disturbed me was the diameter of those needles. They weren't the thin needles used for TB tests, nor were they the size you're used to seeing when you get an antibiotic or tetanus shot either.

I tried to read the book I brought with me, but my gaze kept returning to the sharps container. My feelings waffled between impatience at being kept so long waiting for the doctor and anxiety over this whole ordeal. How painful was this going to be?

The orthopedic doctor finally came in and my first impression was that she was a woman suited to the job. She was thin with an athletic build and I could imagine how this field of medicine appealed to her. I could picture her playing golf or tennis.

I was sitting in the chair next to the exam table and asked her if she preferred me on the table to which she replied no and wheeled next to me. She showed me my x-rays and was pleased to report there were no bone spurs or visible tears. She then took my arm and through a series of lifting, rotating, holding and pulling, asked me where the pain was, when it began and the like. I went in to the office with my shoulder mildly aching, but by the time she finished it felt like someone was repeatedly punching it. She told me I had bursitis and proceeded to explain to me on a poster filled with illustrations of shoulders, arms, wrists, elbows what bursitis was and gave me the option of a month of NSAIDs (the aforementioned advil and alleve, which was out of the question because of my medication), a cortisone shot and a series of exercises which I needed to do daily, or, if none of the above worked, physical therapy. Since the NSAID option was out and I was in too much pain at the moment and losing sleep, the shot was the way to go.

She left and promised to return in a moment to give me the shot. But what happened instead was the nurse came in with a bottle of Lidocaine, a pair of sterile gloves and the syringe filled with cortisone. She happily chirped the doctor would be in in just a moment to give me my shot. But in the meantime, you can stare at this syringe. (No, she didn't say that last part. That was in my head)

The doctor returned within 15 minutes and explained she was going to numb my shoulder with the Lidocaine and poke the needle in. It would probably burn for about 5 seconds but the lidocaine would kick in and I wouldn't feel the burn (just like my mother-in-law said). She sprayed the lidocaine on my shoulder and just when the cold feeling on my shoulder turned into a burn, she put the needle in. The injection itself didn't hurt but oh my gawd did it burn. It burned bad, worse than the burn that accompanies a tetanus shot.

"Wow, that does burn" I squeaked, "Ow ow ow ow."

I laughed and tried to concentrate on breathing because when she pulled the needle out, I felt like I was going to pass out. I knew this might happen. I get squeamish when I have procedures done and usually its not until after the procedure is finished that I get into trouble.

She immediately started talking to me about what I needed to do in the weeks following the cortisone shot. I nodded, though I didn't hear much outside of the "Don'tpassoutDon'tpassoutDon'tpassout" mantra I was screaming in my head as she spoke. I could feel the desire to collapse but by sheer force of will I kept it at bay.

She ended with "The nurse will be in to give you that sheet of exercises and you're good to go."

When she left I let out a whoosh and rubbed my forehead. Hurry the hell up nurse so I can get out of here and pass out in the privacy of my car.

In the end I didn't pass out. I felt fine when I left the exam room.

I need to see her again about my knees. They've been giving me trouble the last year. I hope to God I don't need more cortisone shots. I don't know if my will is strong enough to get me through another episode that involves a big fat needle.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Farmer's Market

Mom, Hubby and I went to a Farmer's Market this morning. I love the atmosphere of a Farmer's Market. Local farmers offering their wares in various baskets and crates. People of all ages milling about examining the colorful vegetables adorning the tables and baskets.

I loved looking at the eggplants and all their different shades of purple. There were deep purple eggplants and this light shade of purple

Each tent had a little something different to offer. Rich red tomatoes, dark green leaves of kale and bright yellow squash. Some stalls sold flowers, soaps, fruit, homemade jams and jellies.

Next week Mom and I are going to hit a different Farmer's Market. I'm looking forward to next week's bounties!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Little Feathers of Sunshine

The American Goldfinches have begun to flock in the prairie at the Ecology Center. Two weeks ago we caught 30 golfinches in the mist nets. Yesterday I watched a few of the birds flutter around the tops of dried flowers, foraging for seed.

The Goldfinches nest later than other songbirds, sometimes as early as mid-June but breeding usually commences in July and August.. The finches time their nesting around the maturation of thistle plants and other wildflowers that bloom in mid-summer (such as the echinacea sp).

Male Goldfinches do not defend established territories, rather they defend their mate, especially while she is incubating or brooding chicks. The male also almost exclusively feeds the young while they are in the nest and will often form flocks and fly miles away from their nesting sites to forage for food.

I look forward to the mid-summer addition of the Goldfinches. They add a nice splash of vibrant color to the prairie and it is wonderful to hear their sweet song. I'll be keeping my eyes open for more photo opportunities and keep you posted on their activity.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Backyard Enemy

When I declared war on the weeds in the backyard a few years ago, I made a few enemies: Honeysuckle, Winter Creeper and Roses of Sharon to name a few, but none have proved to be as powerful an enemy as Poison Ivy. Sure, their numbers are few, but they have the big guns in their arsenal, Urushiol resin. This is the stuff that causes contact dermatitis (in layman’s terms, the God awful rash and itch that never seems to disappear).

Urishiol is indeed a potent weapon. Just one nanogram (or one billionth of a gram) causes a rash and the oil can be active on any surface, including a dead poison ivy plant, for a period of up to 5 years.

I’m convinced that I break into a rash as soon as I see a poison ivy plant. Back in the summer of 2001, when I was out doing bird work in the woodlands, I developed a rash from poison ivy exposure seven times. Since then, I’ve been pretty good about keeping an eye out for the poison ivy plants but I’ve developed contact dermatitis 3 times since I began the war against the weeds in April. The first two cases were very minor; a smattering of a rash up one arm and the around my wrist, but the third episode was a big one and I knew EXACTLY when I was exposed.

I was on the battlefront yanking honeysuckle a few other unidentifiable weeds when I pulled a poison ivy plant hidden amongst the foliage. I was ambushed and subsequently unprepared for the long vine that trailed behind the dreaded leaves of 3. I let out an anguished howl as the vine brushed across my bare legs. I glared at the enemy in my gloved hand but smiled grimly. I may have been ambushed but I knew how to neutralize the enemy…or, at least I thought I did.

I made 2 huge mistakes that day. The first mistake was wearing shorts while weeding. The second mistake was…well, read on.

Knowing the clock was ticking (you have anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours to rinse off the resin before it sets in), I quickly bagged the remaining weeds and put the clippers away. I knew cold water was the antidote to the Urishiol resin and I knew my legs were hit but I didn’t know the extent of the damage. I was hot and sweaty from the war efforts so I decided to take a shower. That way, not only would I be rinsing off the sweat and grime, but the resin as well.

I slept worry-free that night, thinking I had successfully neutralized the enemy…until I woke the next morning to find my legs covered in that all-too-familiar rash. Nooo! What happened? I was so confident in my plan that I even skipped the Tecnu application. Well Ladies and Gentleman, what I did NOT know was that warm water will open your pores and let the Urishiol soak in. I simply made the situation worse. Further reading informed me that repeated rinsing with cold water is the best treatment for poison ivy exposure. The rash lasted for nearly a month and the faded remnants from the encounter with the enemy still remain on my legs.

Not long after exposure to that poison ivy fine, I came across this giant.

(Reconnaissance photo taken with my BlackBerry phone)

That’s the biggest poison ivy plant I’ve seen to date on the battlefront. I do believe long sleeves in addition to the pants and gloves are going to be needed.

The intense heat and humidity has suspended the backyard battle but when the weed pulling resumes, that plant will be the first to go.

Sometimes during the evening, I’ll go outside and look at that poison ivy plant, assessing the dangers and plotting my course of action. The wall of protective weeds will need to be removed first and I may have to attack from behind. I’m also convinced that that plant is measuring me as well, devising a way to slip in between the armor of a sleeve and glove, perhaps even springing up to brush a cheek or a bit of hair before going into the yard waste bin.

I know that plant isn’t going to go down without a fight. Let’s hope I can keep the personal damage to a minimum.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Photos from the field: The Bugs and Blooms edition

Checked nest boxes today at the Ecology Center and was just itching to take photos with the new camera. Yes, it's finally growing on me now that I'm figuring out the advanced functions and the peculiarities that have accompanied the camera in its age (Very much like a used car).

I consulted with my entomologist friends on insect identification. As we all know, there are thousands of insect species and I am mostly unfamiliar with WHERE to look a bug up in the field guide. Speaking in bird terms, if I see a small bird with a thick bill, I think that bird is mostly likely a Vireo species, so I know to look in the Vireo section of my book. With bugs, well, I have NO clue, but thankfully, I know people who do know which section of the field guides to scan first.

Once my friends and colleagues responded with the species, I went a step further and did a little research on the internet. So without further ado...

I first came across this large moth on the edge of the woods.

It is most likely a Beloved Underwing (Catocola ilia). As with most moth species, the female Underwing emits an airborne pheromone and the males use their large, brushy antennas to pick up and follow the scent plume. The eggs are deposited on tree bark and hatch the following spring. The caterpillars eat the leaves of White Oak, Burr Oak, Northern Red Oak and Black Oak trees. Adult moths are found June - September.

On the edge of the north side of the prairie, I found a Bumblebee resting comfortably on the leaf of a Cup Plant. I love the way the wings shimmer in this photograph.

There is a small patch of prairie on the southeast corner of the property and I came across a section that was alive with buzzing wings. I spent a long time taking pictures.

I originally thought this to be a Thread Waisted Wasp, but I've been since told it is actually a Thick headed Fly (Conopidae sp). Now that I've seen photos of both, I can tell the difference.

As you can see, the Thick headed Fly mimics the appearance of a wasp and there are 70 species in the Conopidae family. The mimicry protects these insects from predators and they deposit their eggs into the abdomen of their hosts in flight. I found this insect among several bumble bees, honeybees and other flying insects and I learned this is common behavior. When the larva hatch they will eat their living food, from the inside out.

After reading all of that, I can't help but wonder how many of the bumble bees I photographed have little Conopidae eggs inside their abdomens, just waiting to hatch...

Let's end on a positive note, shall we? I found this little skipper, most likely a Fiery Skipper, resting on a Slender Mountain Mint plant.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Fit Club

July marks the first year anniversary that I began FitCamp classes. FitCamp is a mix of cardio and resistance that meets for an hour in a city park twice a week. The class is lead by Exercise Guru, a sprightly woman who is a personal trainer and lover of boxing. It all began when I reconnected with a friend from High School through Facebook. For several months she had been talking about this class and curiosity, coupled with the desire to get in shape prompted me to attend the classes.

The first month was rough. Soreness was a constant companion, especially the first week when going down stairs and sitting down was a painful chore. But my stamina grew over the months and my muscles adjusted. Exercise Guru quickly grew on me and I marveled over the countless creative ways she found to make the park where we exercised our outdoor gym. We lunge-walked up hills, ran up steps, used park benches to tone our triceps and biceps. We sweated through the summer and fall in the park before moving inside to an Activity Room at a nearby grade school for the winter months.

The torture, er, “fitness”, continued as Exercise Guru proved again we didn’t need the fancy provisions of a gym. We just needed our trusty weights and exercise mat. There were the “mountain climbers” (body in an “A” position as you jogged in place) followed by push ups, the “kayak” (you sit up straight on your bottom as if you’re in a chair, with your legs extended and you “paddle” with your weights), jumping jacks and jogging in place. Before the end of the month, I was exercising at the back of the room next to a wide open window. Exercise Guru would work me up into such an awful sweat that I came to look forward to the brain numbing cold during class days because it make the indoor exercise more bearable. Minus 5 degrees you say? Great! That meant the sweat would turn into little ice cubes on my forehead when I stuck my head out the window.

About a month or so into FitCamp, I began exploring other exercise possibilities to add to my class and found Yoga. I went to yoga classes at the Yoga Center for about 2 months. While I immensely enjoyed the calming effects of the poses, the class was too big for my liking.

When Exercise Sunshine (Guru’s substitute instructor for FitCamp) began her HardBody yoga classes in the late fall, I was elated. I was always happy to see Sunshine filling in for Guru and felt an almost immediate kinship with her. Sunshine’s HardBody Yoga proved to be a challenging class that incorporated strength training, stretching and breathing. We always began with modified Sun Salutation before doing such poses as Bridge, Dolphin, Tree (my favorite!), Warrior, “Froggy” or Downward Dog (and Sunshine, Downward Dog has finally grown on me!). And just because you’re on the mat doesn’t mean the work is easy. Try balancing one side of your body relying on just one hand and foot for support, or holding the plank position (starting position for a push up) while kicking one leg higher than your waist, then the other leg and doing this for 30 – 60 seconds.

Through these 2 classes I’ve learned quite a bit about myself. I’ve learned patience with my physical limitations and imperfections. I can only do a limited amount of cardio. Running, jogging, and skipping still leave me standing in my tracks. But I can run, jog and skip a little further than last year. Push ups are still a bitch and I still can’t grab my big toe with my fingers when stretching. But just because I can’t do as many pushups, run as fast or stretch as far as the woman next to me (or most of the other women for that fact) doesn’t mean I’m out of shape. Exercise, as most things in life, is not an all or nothing endeavor. I still get impatient and frustrated with myself, but I’m in class and doing the best that I can.

Both classes have proved to be an integral part of my routine. Classes are a must now, not an option. I talk about the class often, not only to provide accountability for myself (I want to answer “yes” when one of my friends asks me if I went to class) but to spread the word…these classes have made a huge difference in my life and maybe that enthusiasm will spark the desire in someone else to incorporate some form of exercise in their life. Because if I can exercise, anyone else can too. Fitness of body and mind is not out of anyone’s reach.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Pictures from the new camera

I started taking pictures with the new camera last night. I played with some of the options (exposure bracketing and shooting mode). Focusing was a bit of a problem under poor lighting but I had the same issue with my Rebel G.

This is the best picture I took last night

This morning I took some pictures out on the prairie. There were a few incidents where the subject wasn't in sharp focus.

I took the following photos this afternoon in my small garden bed in front.

Plan to take lots more pictures this weekend.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I know it's just a camera but...

My camera broke last week. The auto focus stopped working on all my lenses, but I could still manually focus and take photographs. I’ve been going through the 5 stages of grief from the moment the auto focus shut down.

Stage One: Denial

I played the “I can still use the camera, it’s just the auto focus, I’ll just manually focus when I take pictures. No biggie” like a mantra in my head.

I wasn’t ready to accept the fact the camera was broken. After a few days of manually focusing, I tried the auto focus and it still would not work. I tried another line of thought. Maybe the camera wasn’t really broken, maybe it just needed to be cleaned. After all, I was constantly changing lenses outside and it was possible that dirt, dust and pollen could have entered the camera body during one of those times. I knew Creve Coeur Camera and Video cleaned cameras for $50. That would be an acceptable option. I could afford $50 and a week without my camera.

The next 2 stages were kind of meshed together and they both hit on Tuesday when I went up to Creve Coeur Camera to see what the staff could do about my camera.

Stage Two: Bargaining

“Hi. The auto focus on my camera isn’t working for any of my lenses.” I said to a young salesman.

He took the camera, turned it on and tried the auto focus with both my 35 mm and telephoto lens. After about a minute of fiddling, he placed the camera on the counter and stated the obvious. “Yup. The body of the camera isn’t working.”

“Does it just need to be cleaned?” I asked hopefully.

“No. But I’m not sure what’s wrong with it.”

He proceeded to tell me a $250 deposit was required to fix the camera and it would be shipped to the manufacturer for repair. He mentioned the store sold used cameras for less than the price of the deposit to fix my broken camera. I wasn’t quite ready for the idea of buying a new camera, but I followed him to a glass case filled with cameras of every make and model. He pulled out a Canon Rebel G (my model) and another upgrade. I stared at the cameras, feeling sad as the reality of what I needed to do began to dawn on me.

I told the salesman I needed to call my husband. The cameras were well within our budget and I knew Dan didn’t really care one way or the other if I bought another camera, but I think I needed the reassurance and comfort. Reality was proving to be an ice cold slap in the face.

Stage Three: Anger

When I called my husband, the salesperson did not give me any privacy. The man did not move. When I moved 5 steps to the right, the salesman followed me and even leaned across the counter as I told my husband what he told me. I stared at the man expectantly but either he was oblivious to the significance of the stare, or he chose to ignore it. I did not have a favorable opinion of his intelligence or tact, so I’m thinking he was just an idiot.

When I got off the phone, the salesman showed me the Cannon upgrade and claimed that the lenses from my Canon G would fit on this newer camera. The telephoto lens did fit, but the 35mm lens did not. He said there was one 35mm lens that did not fit on this model and obviously I had that 35 mm lens. I also told him I had a macro lens and I was concerned that lens would not fit so I wanted to go home and bring the macro lens back at a later time.

“What kind of macro lens is it?” He asked.

Sensing the hungry wolf on the other side of the counter, I replied “I don’t know. That’s why I need to go home and look at it. It was given to me as a gift and I don’t use it very often.”

“I could look it up in the computer if it was bought here.”

The anger that was simmering just beneath the surface was coming to a rapid boil and threatened to spill out of my mouth with that “suggestion”. He was being pushy. I was nothing more than a commission check in his eyes. He didn’t review all the bells and whistles on the camera. If he cared about my satisfaction and loved photography, he would have pulled out all the stops on this camera. He had no idea what was on that camera and that was obvious when he was surprised that my 35mm lens didn’t fit on the very camera he was trying to sell me.

I politely thanked him, went to my car, called Dan back and just let it all spill out. While I was angry at the salesman, deep down I knew I was more upset about my broken camera. Dan suggested I take the camera to Schillers Camera on Manchester. He also mentioned he emailed me a thread on a forum on Rebel G’s and the problem I was having with the auto focus. Evidently this was a common problem and not an easy fix.

Stage Four: Depression

I didn’t want to read that article because it would have made my impending loss all the more concrete. But the visit to Creve Coeur Camera started the reality ball rolling and there’s really no stopping the facts once they get going.

So I had a broken camera. The camera that was an extension of my eyes, my soul, was broken. The camera that captured breathtaking sunrises, the vivid colors of landscapes through the seasons, recorded the countless birds, bugs, smiles and memories of good times with friends and family was dead. I knew it was just a camera, but it was so much more than just a tool. It gave my creativity, my memories, even my thoughts, physical form. This camera recorded my personal history, captured plants and invertebrate subjects in photographic form for me to examine later in a field guide. It also gave me the opportunity to share my love of birds and nature with other people.

So went the depression phase.

Stage Five: Acceptance

Last night I went to Schiller’s Camera with my precious, broken camera in tow. Dejectedly I went through the same dialogue with a different salesperson. But where the Creve Coeur salesperson was indifferent to his trade, the Schiller’s person was enthusiastic and although he did try to sell the more expensive used camera, he respected my budget constraints and went to town showing me all the options on a Canon 20D. He took photos in the store, showed me a few tricks and let me take some photos with the camera as well.

I left the store an hour later with the Canon 20D. I’m still sad and not 100% excited about my new-to-me used camera, but I imagine once I start playing with it, I’ll be won over. I’m going to test it out tonight.

As an aside note, I do plan to keep the Rebel G. It is still functional. If I go out to a place where I know I will use both my 35mm and telephoto lens, I may pop one lens on one camera and the other lens on the other camera. Logistically speaking, this will be cumbersome, but I know this practice is the norm with other photographers. I'll make it work.

Monday, June 14, 2010


I’m a loser of keys. If I am not looking at my keys when I put them down, chances are likely that later I will forget where I placed them. Fortunately the episodes of key misplacement are usually short, but there are the times when the few moments of searching turn into several minutes of frantic, panicked searching. Sunday was one of those days.

I was already running late for my yoga class when I couldn’t find my keys. I looked in all of the odd spots where I sometimes place my keys when I’m not paying attention: the table next to the love seat, the pants I was wearing the previous day, the bathroom (don’t ask), the bed and the dining room table. I even looked in my car. After 10 minutes of searching, I called Exercise Sunshine.

“I can’t find my keys. I’ve been looking for them for the last 10 minutes and I can’t find them!” I was talking a mile a minute and I recognized the slight panic in my voice that always accompanies the extended key searches.

“Take a deep breath. You will find your keys. Where was the last place you remember you having your keys?” She asked.

“Well, I remember what pants I was wearing. I checked my pants.”

She laughed and offered a few suggestions before I found them. They were in their usual spot next to the kitchen door that leads to the garage but I had placed a cloth bag over them in a moment of inattention.

Last year I couldn’t find my keys and they were right in my face. Again, I was running late, but this time for work. I called Bug Girl in a state of panic. I raced around the house picking up papers, looking under tables, out in the car and everywhere in between while the 2 of us brainstormed on where my keys were. I finally sat on the floor, nearly in tears when Dan walked in, looked at me and said “Are those your keys right there on the loveseat?”

Yes folks, the keys were right at eye level, in plain sight, on the love seat.

A few years ago I had to cancel a doctor’s appointment because my keys were in the passenger side door of my husband’s car. He was at work.

But the best (or worst) key misplacement happened just this past April during my trip to Texas. My rental car was a 2010 Nissan Altima which did not require keys. The car was started by pushing a button on the steering column. However, you did need the accompanying remote to be within the car to be able to successfully start it. I arrived Sunday afternoon and by the end of that night, I had lost and found the remote(s) at least 4 times.

Monday morning I met up with a colleague on a Walmart parking lot at 5am to carpool to his workplace. He worked with the endangered species Black-capped Vireo and I spent the day in the field with him banding the birds and searching for nests. He drove me back to my car 4:30 that afternoon and my keys were gone. We pulled everything out of my backpack and his car. No keys. Gone. They were just gone. I told him I probably lost the keys somewhere in the field when I was pulling my camera out of my backpack.

After 30 minutes on the phone with the rental company I learned that it would cost me 200 dollars to replace the lost remote (they had no spare remote. I had the spare. Why do these rental agencies not keep any spare keys? ) and the cost of towing the car back to the rental agency. They also regretted to inform me they did not have any spare cars to give me for at least the next few days. The news went from bad to worse when I called AAA and the man on the other end of the phone wasn’t sure if he could safely tow my car without its remote.

By 5pm my options had run out and I was in a state of panic. I was stranded in a Walmart parking lot in the middle of nowhere with a car that may not be tow-able. I walked to another rental agency and got in the door just before they closed for the evening. Just as I walked out with the keys to my new rental car, my cell phone rang. It was my colleague. He found the keys to the Nissan on the passenger side floor in his personal vehicle (He dropped me off in the company truck because he was going back to work). I must have dropped the keys on the floor instead of into my open backpack. It was dark and I was still sleepy. I didn’t think to double check my backpack once we were out of his personal car.

You would think that after that horrible ordeal I would have learned my lesson. 30 minutes on the phone, the threat of being stranded in the middle of nowhere, the panic…apparently my memory is short-term. But my keys aren’t the only items I lose on a regular basis. I lose my phone, debit card and flash drive. I just came off a 7 year library hiatus because I lost 2 library books.

As I stated before, if I’m not paying specific attention to the item that is in my hand when I put it down, it’s as good as lost. But my keys are the worst. Not sure what I can do to rectify this terrible shortcoming. I’m just glad my head and appendages are attached to my body.