So Here’s How It Happened

I must apologize for my last post. It left people hanging. It’s my fault. I haven’t blogged in a couple of weeks, and the new editor from WordPress was a little harder to use than I expected. I refused to switch back to the “classic” (read: “for those too old to adapt to the changing times”) editor, the post went live prematurely, and some of the changes I thought I had made weren’t saved. The post was a little confusing and incomplete. Let me fill in the blanks.

Go back in time with me 19 years, when times were simpler. Gas cost a mere $1 a gallon***, and only rich people had cell phones. My husband of two months and I went out to Carter caves in eastern KY to spend some time together before I began my last semester of college. We were early for our tour, so we took of to explore the woods. We had wandered probably a mile down the trail when we heard screaming.  It took us a moment to realize it was a cat, and probably a small one. I dug through the underbrush to try to find the source of the sound. The volume of the cries were in keeping with those of an animal with a limb caught in a trap. I found the little critter, all giant belly and eyeballs. She was not injured in any way. Her calls were a terrified version of “Marco Polo,” and once she clapped those luminous eyes on us, she wasn’t about to let us go. She followed us out of the woods, crying the whole way, begging to be carried. It was when we turned and saw this tiny kitten braving a running stream to keep up that we relented and picked her up.

Eight months ago, we said goodbye to that waif, having shared lives and home for over eighteen years. Eighteen years sometimes just aren’t enough.

My old friend

My old friend

I never thought I’d have another kitten. They’re troublesome little creatures. I can’t count the number of times I had to leave the bathtub to pull Piper off the living room drapes, and if I had a quarter for every plant our cats knocked off/turned over/peed in, I’d be a rich woman indeed. And there are plenty of adult cats who need homes.

So imagine my surprise when I felt a sudden urge to look at kittens on Craigslist. Two clicks later, I found myself looking at the most arresting face. Within minutes, I fired off an email to the rescue group’s contact person. She responded almost immediately. I asked a few more questions, and my heart sank when I got the response. The kitten was slated to make an appearance at an adoption event the following day, during hours I had to work.

There are other kittens in the world, I said to myself. And besides, it’s not a decision for me alone. I emailed my husband and included a photo of the kitten. Piper’s death hit him just as hard as it hit me, and to bring home another tiny tuxedo without consent would be wrong. I hit “send” and waited. And waited. I saw him check his email. And he was quiet for a long time. Finally, he closed the computer and left to go run some errands. I had to go to bed early, and he was still asleep when I left for work.  We never got to talk about it. Oh, well. It was never my cat. Never mine.

I thought about the kitten at work all the next day. I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Not my cat. Not mine. Never was. I tried to put the whole notion out of my head. Not my cat.

I came home that evening. She was sitting on my bed like she owned the place. My husband had gone to the adoption event just about as soon as they opened to pick her up. She’s my cat now. Always will be. She’s mine. She’s my Pixel.

Pixel. Forever mine.

Pixel. Forever Mine.

 

 

*** I can’t vouch for the veracity of that statement. I just know that when old people tell me stories, they usually reference the price of gas somewhere.

The Thing I Said I’d Never Do Again? I Did.

I swore I was done. Finished. No more for me, thank you very much. I was wrong.

I thought I was ready for all of the changes headed my way; Squish starting kindergarten, the Padawan hitting middle school, and the Girl-child commencing her senior year of high school. For the first time in my life, all my children are school-age. We have freedom I haven’t known in nearly two decades, and I’ve been so looking forward to it.

So why have I spent the last few weeks mired in suffocating grief? Squish feels like he’s been five forever. I’m ready for him to grow up a little more. And we’ve been hanging on by our toenails, trying to help the Padawan survive a disappointing elementary school experience, counting down the days until he transferred to the stellar middle school. We’re there now. And it doesn’t feel as good as I hoped it would.

I’ve gotten a little weird, a little obsessive, pouring over family photo albums and baby books. But even as I chuckle over double-chins and gap-toothed grins, I grieve. I’m astounded that those oh, so familiar faces on the scrapbook page stare back at me like strangers. Who are these babies? I barely remember them. Time plays its paradoxical trick; babyhood seems at the same time yesterday and a thousand years ago.

I didn’t expect to feel this way. I thought I would celebrate our new status up one side and down the other, and I do. But I cannot deny the wistfulness. Sometimes in our grief, we do unexpected things. And I did.

I thought it was all behind me; the nights of broken sleep and all that good stuff. But we’re starting over again.

 

 

 

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Proud big brother

Proud big brother

How to Raise Gun-Free Boys

When my husband and I first started talking about having children almost two decades ago, one of our concerns was the pervasive violence in our culture. Seeing boys barely old enough to write their names pretending to blow one another up was troubling, and we decided our kids were going to be different. We didn’t buy in to gender stereotypes. Kids are blank slates. We were going to raise our boys to be peaceful. We’re seventeen years into this parenting gig. Twelve of those years have been spent raising boys, and I’ve worked with hundreds of children aged preschool to high school, so I do have at least some experience when I offer this advice.

To raise gun-free boys:

  1. Teach them new meanings to common behaviors. Children naturally extend thumb and forefinger. Teach them it’s an “L” for “Love.” If that doesn’t work, I recommend gluing their thumbs and forefingers together.
  2. Monitor their television consumption. Weapons are everywhere on TV today, so screen time must be regulated. I recommend no more than fifteen minutes a day in ten second intervals. Choose shows carefully. We limit our boys to Thigh Master infomercials and reruns of Care Bears.
  3. Monitor their video games. Violence in video games is ubiquitous. Studies have shown that video games can skew perceptions of what is acceptable behavior.  Minecraft was shown the door, for example, when our boys began punching actual trees.  Stick with Reader Rabbit.
  4. Choose good playmates. Kids are easily influenced by their peers. I suggest never letting them play with actual children. A mirror is a reasonable substitute. Animals, preferably those without opposable thumbs, are a decent choice. Store mannequins are also acceptable.
  5. Choose toys carefully. No Nerf guns, of course.  I also recommend never letting them touch things that may to their eyes look like a gun. These items include, but are not limited to: coat-hangers, Lego bricks, sticks, high heeled shoes, kitchen implements, brooms, and, interestingly, a Thigh Master.
  6. Aim for early orthodontics. Namely headgear. If their lips can’t meet, they can’t make shooting noises. Little known fact – Little Willy Wonka didn’t have dental issues – his dad got tired of hearing him say “Pow! Pow! Pow!”
They can's say "POW!" if their lips don't meet. Use physiology to your advantage!

Use physiology to your advantage! Studies show kids in such headgear are also happier, too. They’re always smiling.

 

 

Stay tuned for the next in the series : Teaching kids that passing gas is a natural act, not a comedy routine.

 

 

Lose Some, Find Some: or Today I Spill the Beans

So I’ve been keeping a secret. I hate secrets. They put so much distance between us. So today, I’m just going to lay it right out there. I think you’re going to like it.

First, let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, an interesting species of turtle became extinct. Last seen in 1908, the Arakan Forest Turtle, Heosemys depressa, disappeared and was never seen again. It seems like a sad story, but stick with me. About 100 years later, in 1994, a scientist visiting a food market in Asia was astounded to find a few of these animals for sale! A relic population was discovered, and animals were taken into captivity in the hopes of forming assurance colonies and potentially increasing its numbers.

With wild-caught animals in general, and reptiles in particular, breeding isn’t a straightforward endeavor. With dogs and cats, boy + girl = offspring too numerous to count. With wild animals, the equation can be far more complicated. We are just beginning to understand and respect the complex social signals and mating rituals many animals require in order to reproduce. Cheetahs, for example, need a choice of more than one male in order to breed successfully. In the last ten years or so, our thoughts on cheetah reproduction has changed dramatically, and zoos have moved their charges to breeding centers when trying for cubs rather than keeping specific pairs of animals.

To complicate matters further, getting the first generation of wild-caught animals to breed doesn’t mean the species is automatically saved.  The offspring of these wild-caught animals are noted in the studbook as F1, the first generation born in captivity. Since it is no longer desirable, or in some cases even possible, to continue to take animals out of the wild, it is important that the F1 generation reproduce themselves. Breeding programs for many different species are in a race to produce the next generation, the captive-bred’s captive-bred, the elusive F2.

Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Take the white rhinoceros, for example. Animals taken from the wild, even as juveniles, have bred fairly successfully in zoos. The two older females at our zoo, for example, have produced an impressive ten calves apiece over the last 30 years or so. There are plenty of F1 calves in zoos around the country. But for reasons poorly understood at this point, there have been precious few F2s. The offspring of the wild ones are not having babies of their own.

Producing an F2 is a pretty big deal. It means that the diet and care given to the animal are more or less correct. It means that we’re moving in the right direction, and that we may be able to save some critically endangered species.

The Arakan Forest Turtle, an animal whose life in the wild we still don’t fully understand even 20 years later and whose diet and husbandry has been educated guesswork, has been bred in captivity several times. That’s great news, of course. But zoos and private breeders have been working with that F0 generation and producing  only F1s. Until now.

Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the first f2 Arakan Forest Turtle in the world, hatched at Knoxville Zoo about three weeks ago.

I looked in the incubator one afternoon, and this guy was looking back at me.

I looked in the incubator one afternoon, and this guy was looking back at me.

Click the images to enlarge.

This development is especially exciting because, unlike species who are endangered due to habitat destruction, there is still wild habitat for these animals to return to. If they continue to be bred in captivity in reasonable numbers, they may one day be able to go home.

So here’s  a shout-out right here to Brad Moxley, dedicated keeper at my zoo. Congrats, Brad! Your hard work  is paying off! It’s an honor to work with you, sir.

The One In Which I Confess

I could have, and I should have, and I would have. I really would have. But I didn’t. There. Now you know. I did not like Game of Thrones.

I wanted to. I have been looking for a new series to dive into, and Game of Thrones was primed to fit the bill. When I finish a book I love, there is nothing better than the knowledge that there’s another one waiting right there in the wings, another opportunity to immerse myself in that world and meet the characters I have come to love. I’m not just looking for a good read, I crave all the trappings of a rabid fandom, too. I want to type on message boards in the middle of the night, attend midnight book releases where I may or may not show up in costume.

Trelawney. Don't say you're not jealous.

Trelawney. Don’t say you’re not jealous.

I want the whole enchilada. All of it. Game of Thrones was my next hope. Several books to read? Check. More to come? Check, check. Fans out the wazoo? Triple check. So I gave it a go. And then a second go. And now I’m done.

Why didn’t I love it? I wanted to. I really did. But this series has more flaws than I can overlook, not the least of which is an insufferable author who has as little respect for his fandom as he does for the characters he writes. When an author laughs scathingly and says he should make them wait 20 years for the next book, I lose a little interest. But it’s about more than the author.

Martin writes cardboard characters. I guess he has to because he’s going to kill all of them, but it’s hard for me to engage with one-note wonders. I hate spoilers. Hate them. I don’t even read blurbs on dust jackets. But when I finally gave up on this series, I collected spoilers from lots of sources. Turns out, some of the characters are not as one-dimensional as they seem at first. And I might have even liked them eventually. But it shouldn’t take an author 1500 pages to show me. What if Han Solo and Greedo had dropped their breadcrumbs 10 lightyears apart when they made their trail in the woods? Their dad would never have found them. Wait. Back up. Hansel and Gretel. There we go. When it takes too long to develop characters, I get really bored.

I don’t have to like all of the characters to enjoy a book. ***Spoiler*** Draco Malfoy was an irritating prat for five-and-a-half books in the Harry Potter series. BUT he was a great foil for the protagonists. His interactions with the other characters evoked something, be it laughter or outrage. He made me feel something. Heck, I don’t even have to like the protagonist to enjoy a book. I could not STAND Lincoln in Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments. He was a spineless little clownfish. Every time he looked out into the world and appeared like he was about to mature a little and stand on his own , he’d dart right back into that anemone. I did not like him. You know why? Because I know people just like him! He was a real person. He made me angry. He evoked emotion. By and large, Martin’s characters don’t.

Yep, this is Lincoln. Will I ask her out? No. I'm gonna move out... Nah... Photo credit amazonaws.com

Yep, this is Lincoln. Will I ask her out? No. I’m gonna move out… Nah… Photo credit amazonaws.com

There are too many characters, as well. There were four characters whose story-lines I kind of wanted to follow. That sounds like a lot, right? But they represented less than 10% of the population of the first book. I didn’t even encounter many of them in the second book, or their chapters weren’t big enough to matter. I tried skipping the characters I was bored by and just reading the ones I liked, but that meant skipping the majority of Clash of Kings. Too much work.

There’s almost no subtlety. Martin’s bad guys are mustache-twirling evil dudes. They’ll tie that damsel-in-distress right to those railroad tracks. But there’s no hero, either. Not only will the train run her the heck over, it will cut her into three equal pieces, and it will take her two weeks to die. Wow. Didn’t see that coming. Not the first three times, anyway. Eventually it becomes predictable. Imagine the very worst thing that can happen to a character. Then multiply it by five, and you’ve got Martin’s plot-line. Basket of puppies? Don’t look now, but those puppies are going to get put in purses and carried around by rich ladies. Poor, poor dogs. Are there little babies? No, not the babies! Is nothing sacred? Martin would write them having to watch six hours of Baby Einstein before being fed M&Ms and getting dropped back off with mom and dad. There’s your plot twist. You thought it was the kids who were being punished, didn’t you?

There were good parts. I loved the Others. I couldn’t wait for them to take over the whole world, actually. I liked Dany. Her storyline in the first book was the best part. She was the one character that was truly developed, and I was taken by surprise by how things turned out with Khal Drogo. I wanted to like the dire wolves. I hear they were pretty awesome later on, or at least had a great story. But again, there was too little of any of these to keep me engaged. If anybody wants to email me the story of the wolves or what happens with Dany, I’m game. I am just not invested enough to find out for myself.

What series do you absolutely love? I’m up for something new.

The Secret Keeper.

I know something you don’t know. I think. Maybe. Unless you’re my boss, and then you already know. But that only accounts for one of you. The rest of you are in the dark. I’ve got a secret. A cool one. And I can’t tell you. Maybe tomorrow, or next week. Soon. Very soon. It’s killing me. I want to blab. Since I can’t yet, I’ll share some pictures instead.

Many of our animals at the zoo are maintained in breeding colonies. Most of them produce eggs in their season. We have a big incubator to house all the eggs. There’s a reason, though, that we don’t count our tortoises before they hatch. Sometimes, for whatever reason, they don’t hatch at all. Sometimes embryos don’t ever complete their development, or they never actually develop at all. Sometimes they weren’t fertile to begin with. Things go wrong, and it’s just a part of the job.

And sometimes we get surprises. We were surprised this week. There was this egg, see. And candling… Remember candling?

Candling a snapping turtle egg. Note that it is vascularized. The shadow on the right is the developing embryo.

Candling a snapping turtle egg. Note that it is vascularized. The shadow on the right is the developing embryo.

When the light was shined through the egg, there was a lot of empty space. It appeared that the embryo just didn’t make it. There’s a reason we hang on to eggs for months beyond their expected hatching date. I took a quick peek in the incubator the other day and saw this:

See  the little nose peeping out?

See the little nose peeping out?

It’s a pancake tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri)! So cute and flat! The next morning, I checked his progress, and he was still hiding out in that egg, probably absorbing his yolk before he made his way into the world. Later in the afternoon, I noticed he was on his way out!

These images are best viewed as a slideshow. Click on the first one to enlarge, and then click the right arrow that appears to see them in order.

So you want to see something crazy? Of course you do!

And does he still look like a pillbug? You tell me:

Nope! All resemblance to pill bugs was your imagination!

Nope! All resemblance to pill bugs was your imagination!

 

In case you didn’t get to read all the captions, this is the first tortoise I have ever seen emerge from its egg entirely. I’ve caught dozens in various stages of hatching, but never like this. Amazing. I love my job!

Good Morning, Zoo!

Most mornings, I am on the early shift. It’s my responsibility to open up our department and get us ready for the day. Every morning has its familiar faces and routines. Sometimes I have to stop what I am doing and take a moment to appreciate how lucky I am to spend my time with amazing animals.

Remember Al? He's a bit sleepy in the morning. That makes sense because he is essentially solar powered. He's most active once he has warmed up a bit.

Remember Al? He’s a bit sleepy in the morning. That makes sense because he is essentially solar powered. He’s most active once he has warmed up a bit.

Our outdoor turtle marsh bustles with activity on a warm spring morning.

A wood turtle peeks out from his night-time hiding place under the leaf litter.

A wood turtle peeks out from his night-time hiding place under the leaf litter.

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An eastern box turtle hits the snooze button in her leafy bed.

And sometimes we find a surprise guest.

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Hey, you’re not a turtle! A five-line skink takes advantage of a sunny spot and basks in the warmth of the morning sun.

 

I have some surprises to share with you in a week or so. I can’t wait! As soon as I can tell, I will. Until then, I’m keeping secrets…

Happy Monday! I have not drawn the winner from the giveaway. I’ll work on that later tonight. In the meantime, you can still go here to vote if you’d like. Entries are closed, but I’d still appreciate the vote. Unless we just won. Which we might have done. I’ll keep you posted!

I’m signing up for Camp NaNoWriMo, it’s a little less crazy than the November event because we set our own goals. I’m starting my first new project since getting my full-time job. Anyone want to join me? Go here to sign up! 28 days until the writing begins. I can hardly wait!

Up and Out

Last year, a mother Carolina wren made a wonderful nest on my back porch. For two weeks, we watched the parents tend to their youngsters. I don’t know a lot about this species, so those twelve days of observation taught me a lot. For example, in that very short period of time, the chicks grow tremendously. At the end of twelve days, they are almost as big as their parents. But though they are adult-size, mom and dad don’t expect them to behave like grown-ups. Even when the babies are so large that the nest is literally bursting at the seams, the parents tend them carefully. Then they bring them from the nest and begin teaching them to fly, letting them take little flights from branch to branch to strengthen their wings. Now this process has a whole new meaning for me.

Tiny, helpless, impressionable. They need their parents to teach them how to be who they are.

Tiny, helpless, impressionable. They need their parents to teach them how to be who they are.

My house is quiet this morning. For the second time in three days, I made a pre-dawn trip to a rendezvous point to drop off a child for a trip. The girl-child went on a mission trip to the inner-cities of Philadelphia, and the Padawan left this morning in a convoy of 41 buses to visit our nation’s capitol with the Safety Patrol. My chicks are making their test flights, stretching their wings and discovering the world beyond mom and dad. It’s exciting, it’s terrifying, it’s expensive. Since big brother and sister got to take big trips, Squish’s grandmother invited him to her house for some adventures of his own. He left last night. Suddenly my nest that was so cramped feels big. It feels empty.

I’ve been reminded lately of how brief my time raising kids actually is. The oldest is a year away from being on her own. Today, with the house so quiet I can hear the refrigerator hum, I have a glimpse of what my life will be like in a few short years. It’s my day off, and I am alone. Now I am asking the inevitable question. What do I do when there is no one asking for a hug or a lightsaber duel, no one to take to the zoo or to the park, no one looking to me to meet a need? What do I do?

And the answer is: Any ever-lovin’ thing I want. How about popcorn and a MoonPie for breakfast?

Of Cookies and Books

Ever bake something amazing from scratch? Something so good, so rich, so satisfying that you can’t wait to try it again, but the next time you tweak the recipe to try to make it just a little bit better. Sometimes it works, and you produce the most deliciously gooey double chocolate chip cookies, but other times, you’re left with a pile of dried out, brittle briquettes are more suitable for acts of vandalism than human consumption. Books are like baking.

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When I come across a story I love, it’s natural to want more, but sequels are a risk. Sequels change the story, for better or for worse. At its best, a sequel strengthens our relationship with a character and gives the author an opportunity to explore and develop larger plotlines. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a great example. But a poorly written sequel has the power to turn readers away from a burgeoning series, and even characters they love forever. Jan Karon’s Father Tim series falls into this category for me, and Jim Butcher is headed down that path with his Dresden Files. Sometimes it’s better to stop while you’re ahead.

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When I was offered an ARC of the sequel to Justin Robinson’s Mr. Blank to review, I didn’t hesitate. I loved the first book so much. It was fast-paced and hilarious, and Robinson’s writing style is so engaging I had to quit trying to find quotes from his work to fit the title because every time I try to find one, I get carried off in the story again. I was eager to read it, but I did have to wonder if he could do it again. Just in case you’re wondering, he can, and he did. And you wanna hear something really crazy? Get Blank is even better than the original.

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It will come as no surprise to some of you that I am not always the sharpest crayon in the box, and it’s not hard for me to get lost among the twists and turns of a gumshoe novel. I’ll be the first to admit that I got tangled up a few times in Mr. Blank, but Robinson deftly set me back on the path every, single time. I never stayed lost for very long. This time around, I had no trouble at all in keeping up, and I could see where I was being led without anyone spelling it out for me. That is not to say the ending is predictable. It is not. But I could connect the dots on the significance of each event this time all by my own self.

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Robinson knows how to develop his characters. Even when they aren’t human, even when they’re pretty much identical to every other one of their species, Robinson manages to make them stand out, to make me care about them. And maybe even cry over them.

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The book isn’t perfect. The resolution was a bit abrupt, and the pursuit of the identity of “Mr. Blank,” the thread that ties this book to its predecessor and is the premise of the series is weak. But the writing is so solid, the story at hand so well developed that I look forward to other opportunities to revisit this world. And while it is a sequel, Get Blank really does stand on its own two feet.

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I devoured this book in a weekend, in one fabulous, children-raise-yourselves-because-Mommy’s-not-putting-this-book-down kind of weekend. It’s urban fantasy, it’s noir, it’s bizarre, it’s a delight. I give it 4.5 stars. I haven’t given an ARC a rating that high in a long time. It was my pleasure to do so this time.

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Want to win it? You know you do!  There are two ways to enter. I recommend both! Go here to learn about and participate in tomorrow night’s drinkalong. Go here to the contest’s main page.

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And what goes better with books than cookies? Nothing. Here’s the recipe for the double choco-chip cookies I made to eat while I read Get Blank. I futzed with the recipe so you don’t have to. You’re welcome!

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2 C bread flour
½ C cocoa powder, unsweetened
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 sticks salted butter, softened (not melted)
1 ½ granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs

6 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

 

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Preheat oven to 375F. Combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl and set aside. In large bowl beat butter and sugar on high for 1 minute. Add vanilla. Beat to blend. Add eggs one at a time, beating for one minute between each. Slowly add dry ingredients to butter mixture and beat. Batter will be thick. Add the chocolate chips and mix until evenly distributed.

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Place batter on ungreased baking sheet in heaping teaspoonsful. Bake for 9 minutes. Remove from oven, allow to cool for 1 minute, then remove cookies to a wire baking rack.

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Makes: not nearly enough

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Now, make some cookies and read this book. It’s my top pick for summer reads. And don’t forget to click here to vote for my zoo to win $5K. Comment on yesterday’s post to let me know you voted.