Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sigourney is back!

Sigourney Weaver - the original Elegant Astronaut   I honestly didn't know Sigourney Weaver was going to be in the new Avatar movie. This is significant to me because the movie Aliens, which was directed by James Cameron in 1986, has been my favorite movie for years. So yesterday, when I watched a cranky Sigourney sit up out of her sleeping pod and ask for her cigarettes, I was ecstatic!

   There were many nods towards the Alien movies in Avatar. Aside from the smart, sexy, no-frills Sigourney herself (playing scientist Grace Augustine), there were also large metal robots operated by a human strapped inside. This type of exo-skeleton was made famous in the 1986 fight scene between Lt. Ripley (Weaver) and the alien queen.
   The tracking devices used by the military on Pandora, where Avatar was set, were also very similar to the hand-held motion detectors used by the marines in Aliens.
   The plot itself had similarities as well. Ripley had to thwart a sabotage attempt from a unethical colleague, Burke, who was attempting to bring back an alien embryo for military purposes. The idea was to secretly implant the embryo in Ripley, bring her back home and cash in the ultimate militant prize: a badass race of creatures who are bigger, faster and stronger than humans. One of my favorite lines in the movie is when Ripley figures out what is happening (she would, of course, die during the birthing process of the alien), and she says, "You know, Burke, I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them f***ing each other over for a goddamn percentage."

   In Avatar, the humans are merely trying to convince the indigenous race of tall, blue, cat-like people to move away from their beloved "Home Tree" because of the rich stash of minerals right below it. Augustine (Weaver) clashes with the head military guy to try and preserve the rights of these spiritual people. Negotiations fail, the tree is destroyed, and war ensues.
   The bottom line: money is the root of all evil.

   Avatar has some breath-taking scenes. I plan to go see it again, but next time in 3-D.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rum Baba - the Dessert!

   Mmmmmmm......this is a good one. In fact, I think any dessert made with rum is quite good. Rum balls, rum cake, rum anything. This lovely thing pictured here is a Rum Baba, made by Paula, my favorite local patissier.
   The Rum Baba is a yeast-based baby bundt cake. Paula added craisins to this batch (which I think are dried out cranberries.) The rum sauce was given to me in a separate container so I could heat it up and then pour it all over the thirsty little bundt cake. And then I spooned a chilly heap of Cool Whip on top.
   It was GOOD!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Don't always listen to your Dad...

   When my Dad tells me I am making a mistake, my ears perk up. Usually he's right.
   One of the worst jobs I ever had was working for a small aerospace company. My boss hired me without the consent or knowledge of my soon-to-be co-workers, and I was treated with ridiculous condescension by a few of them.    My boss seemed to really enjoy the sophomoric office drama that my situation caused, and he stirred it thicker whenever possible.
   I was devastated. I had quit my position as a West-coast sales rep for a biotech firm for this new job. I called my father almost weekly to tell him how bad things were.
   "Should I quit?" I'd ask him. It's not in my nature to quit. I try very hard at everything I do, so I really needed his advice.
   "I would've quit a long time ago," was his quick reply. (This was one of those times he was dead-on.)
   Heeding the advice of your father is not always the best thing to do, however. Consider Mr. Charles Darwin, the great proponent of the Theory of Evolution, and his relationship with his own father, a well-to-do physician in England during the 1800s.
   Many people know that Charles sailed around the world on the HMS Beagle, collecting zoological specimens and fossils, and taking notes as the ship's naturalist. This was all crucial research for the basis of his infamous book, On the Origin of Species. But did you know that his father was very much opposed to the idea of Charles taking the voyage? From Charles' journal, here are The Doctor's objections to his son's proposed over-seas adventure:

1. Disreputable to my character as a Clergyman hereafter (Yes - Charles Darwin had studied to become a minister at one time! -JL)
2. A wild scheme
3. That they must have offered to many others before me, the place of Naturalist
4. And from its not being accepted there must be some serious objection to the vessel or expedition
5. That I should never settle down to a steady life hereafter
6. That my accommodations would be most uncomfortable
7. That you should consider it again changing my profession
8. That it would be a useless undertaking

   And there you have it; Charles Darwin did not listen to his father, and he went on to become one of the most respected figures in science. He did eventually "settle down" with his wife Emma. They had 10 children all together, and when he died at the ripe old age of 73, he was buried with high honors at Westminster Abbey.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Great Brigette Bardot Quote (Favorite Quote #2)

"I gave my beauty and my youth to
men. I am going to give my wisdom
and experience to animals."

                      -Brigette Bardot

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My new little monster

This is Rum Baba. She woke me up at 5 AM three weeks ago, howling in my parking lot. Someone had apparently dumped her off, and I think she was looking for her mother.
She has a new mom now.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Big spiders, vodka tonics, co-workers and motorcycles

   I've told you about the spiders we have in Arkansas. I was driving down the road one sunny day last weekend, when I saw something with big hairy legs scampering across the road. Now that's a big spider when you can see its legs moving from your car...
   So I stopped and took a picture for you. It was large enough to be sold in a pet store.

   The best way to stop a long night is with a vodka tonic and three olives. I learned this in college. Of course, most people don't have the sensitivity to alcohol like I do, but this is my hard drink of choice. The olives are for sustenance, and they are quite tasty after soaking in the vodka and tonic water mix for a while. A good bar tender will not hesitate to load your glass with olives; a stingy bartender will claim they don't have enough olives to give you three. That means it is time to move to the next bar.
   The olives are important - they may be the only thing you have for dinner that night.
   I was walking to my classroom today, and I saw Trish, one of my co-workers, outside sitting in the sun. She said she had been praying for Tim, another co-worker of ours. She told me he had been in a motorcycle wreck this morning, and that he had apparently hit a deer. He had a head injury even though he was wearing a helmet.

   Tim is probably the nicest guy you'll ever meet. He always gets to work before I do and he makes a pot of coffee in the lounge. It is always nice to come to work knowing that there's fresh hot coffee waiting for you. I had noticed this morning that there was no coffee to be found.
   I have never been a fan of motorcycles. I am even less of a fan now.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cool ride

I rode this fine horse today. His name is Prince, and he is a little more than 16 hands high.
What's more fun - a sporty little convertible, or a big gorgeous horse with a sweet temperament? I can't decide.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Singing with Emily - Lesson #2

This is what my very sweet, highly educated, and extremely tactful voice coach said to me today during my lesson:

" I have to be honest. You have a bigger oral cavity than quite a few people."


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Favorite Quote #1

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - 'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." 

                                                        - Mark Twain

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Personal Anthem

Sometimes you love a song the first time you hear it. I feel certain this is one that will become an instant classic. Below are the lyrics to "Home" by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. It has a folksy Americana sound that is haunting and sentimental. And I've spent a significant portion of my life in Alabama and Arkansas, so it got my attention right away.

Alabama, Arkansas,
I do love my ma and pa,
Not the way that I do love you.

Holy, Moley, me, oh my,
You're the apple of my eye,
Girl I've never loved one like you.

Man oh man you're my best friend,
I scream it to the nothingness,
There ain't nothing that I need.

Well, hot and heavy, pumpkin pie,
Chocolate candy, Jesus Christ,
Ain't nothing please me more than you.

Ahh Home. Let me come home
Home is wherever I'm with you.
Ahh Home. Let me go ho-oh-ome.
Home is wherever I'm with you.

La, la, la, la, take me home.
Mother, I'm coming home.

I'll follow you into the park,
Through the jungle through the dark,
Girl I never loved one like you.

Moats and boats and waterfalls,
Alley-ways and pay phone calls,
I've been everywhere with you.

We laugh until we think we’ll die,
Barefoot on a summer night
Nothin’ new is sweeter than with you

And in the streets you run afree,
Like it's only you and me,
Geeze, you're something to see.

Ahh Home. Let me go home.
Home is wherever I'm with you.
Ahh Home. Let me go ho-oh-ome.
Home is wherever I'm with you.

La, la, la, la, take me home.
Daddy, I'm coming home.

Him: Jade
Her: Alexander
Him: Do you remember that day you fell outta my window?
Her: I sure do, you came jumping out after me.
Him: Well, you fell on the concrete, nearly broke your ass, you were bleeding all over the place and I rushed you out to the hospital, you remember that?
Her: Yes I do.
Him: Well there's something I never told you about that night.
Her: What didn't you tell me?
Him: While you were sitting in the backseat smoking a cigarette you thought was gonna be your last, I was falling deep, deeply in love with you, and I never told you til just now.

Ahh Home. Let me go home.
Home is wherever I'm with you.
Ahh Home. Let me go ho-oh-ome.
Home is where I'm alone with you.

Home. Let me come home.
Home is wherever I'm with you.

Ahh home. Yes I am ho-oh-ome.
Home is when I'm alone with you.

Alabama, Arkansas,
I do love my ma and pa...
Moats and boats and waterfalls,
Alley-ways and pay phone calls...

Ahh Home. Let me go home.
Home is wherever I'm with you.
Ahh Home. Let me go ho-oh-ome.
Home is where I'm alone with you...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The ICU Waiting Room

   I don't know if there's anything that makes you feel as old as sitting in a hospital waiting room while your dad is in Intensive Care. I live 400 miles away from my parents, and I was quite startled to hear that my mother had called an ambulance for my father.

   My parents aren't that old.
   I didn't jump in my car as soon as I heard Dad was in trouble. I waited until he had gone through his emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his leg. It wasn't until after his surgery that I learned he had been Med-Flighted from the small hospital in Fayetteville to a larger one in Huntsville. He needed a vascular surgeon, and Fayetteville didn't have one.

   I am a young professional, living a free life. I have no responsibilities other than myself. I love my career and I love my friends. I go to dinner parties every week. I travel as much as possible. I buy more books than I possibly have time to read. I sell Mary Kay. My parents aren't supposed to get sick.
   I canceled my classes when I heard my dad was going to need another surgery. It was Friday, so I'd have two days to travel without missing too much work.
But of course it didn't work that way. I missed the visitation hours by the time I got into town Friday night. ICU patients only have four visitation windows throughout the day, and you can only stay 20 minutes. I drove to the hospital anyway, because my mom, my aunt, and my sister were still there. They were sitting in the break room, and they looked tired. Worn out. We sat and talked for a few hours more, and I slept at a friend's house that night. My aunt convinced my mom to stay at her house while she took on the duty of staying in the ICU waiting room until morning. Spend the night in a chair in a hospital waiting room? I didn't know people did that.
   My turn came soon enough. By day five of my father's stay in ICU, my aunt said she couldn't stay another night because she needed to get some sleep for work the next day. My mother looked like hell, so I couldn't leave her there and stay in my friend's comfy bed again. I told Mom I'd stay at the hospital, so she went home for the first time since the ambulance picked up my dad.
   The hospital clerk assigned a recliner and a locker to me. I was given a pillow and two blankets. There were large plasma TVs hanging in every corner of the large waiting room. A nice lady was assigned to a recliner across from me. We took our shoes off, washed our faces, wrapped our blankets around us, and talked for hours. Her name was Nancy and her mom was in ICU. Her dad had died about a year ago, and her mother's stomach was eaten up with ulcers, presumably from the blood thinners she had been taking for so many years. Nancy looked tired and very calm. She had stayed at the hospital for several nights already. People who are that worn tell the truth. She was worried that she didn't have any vacation or sick days saved up. She had used them all up when her father got sick and died. "I can't leave her," she said sincerely. Regardless of the consequences, she was staying in that damned waiting room as many nights and days as it took.
   There were a lot of good books and magazines in the waiting room. People had taken care to donate quality reading materials. The TVs stayed on, but the volume was turned down. The overhead lights stayed on, annoyingly. I saw three episodes of The Brady Bunch in a row. One had been enough! I found a recipe I wanted in a magazine, so I tried to quietly tear it out. Tick-tock, tick-tock. It was only 2 am. The first visitation wasn't until 10:30 in the morning. It was going to be a LONG night.
   My mom and my cousin Melvin showed up soon. I must've finally dozed off. I had pulled my hoodie over the top part of my face to shield out the lights. I was tired when my aunt came and sat beside me. Icky tired. I looked like crap, but so did everyone in the waiting room. People don't wear make-up when they sleep at the hospital. I walked over to the gift store and bought some hot coffee for me and Nancy. She tried to pay me back for it but I refused.
We had all grown accustomed to lining up in front of the ICU double-doors during visitation hours. We herded ourselves like cattle, entering two at a time. Sometimes we pushed our luck and the nurses let three of us stay in Dad's room during the allotted 20 minutes.
   The man next to Dad had died that morning. The family were 7th Day Adventists, and they came in to sing after his passing. My father, who is NOT a 7th Day Adventist, was sure he was in a psychiatric ward. The morphine he was taking did not help the situation.
   He tried to free himself a couple of times. He was not able to stand or walk on his own, but he began pulling out his IV and removing the oxygen mask from his face. The nurses had to tie him down for a while.
   As I left my dad's room, I saw Nancy in her mom's room. She was wearing a hospital smock and she was walking over to her mom. I don't know what she was doing because I thought it would be impolite to watch.
   My dad had been asking for the new Dan Brown book, but he couldn't concentrate long enough to read it. I bought him a portable CD player and the Dan Brown book on CD so he could listen to it. He had asked my sister to sit and read his book to him, but that's not the way of ICU. I wanted him to think about something other than his surgical wounds and oxygen mask ("I can't drink my damn coffee," he'd say, because the mask was in the way.)
   My family and I sat and talked for a while. I saw Nancy come out of ICU and she asked me if I was staying the night again. Dad was scheduled to move to a regular room that day, so I said probably not. She said to me, "It was nice talking with you," and she looked at me for a long time. I looked back at her and smiled.
   Dad got better and moved to the vascular floor. I stayed at my family's farm that night, then came back around noon to check on him and Mom. Mom looked tired. Dad looked like a real person again. He was watching CNN and picking at his lunch tray.
   I stopped by the ICU waiting room and looked for Nancy, but she wasn't in there.
   I still don't know what happened to her mom.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Three Wise Men of Dardanelle

   Whenever I travel to Dardanelle, I like to stop at the Hobby Shop on Front Street. I go in there to visit the three old Republican coots who run the place.
There are signs posted on the wall that warn, " Shoplifters Will be Killed and Eaten." 

   Maybe you can see why I like these men?
   They usually have a small television on in the background broadcasting the news. Today was Ted Kennedy's funeral, so I couldn't resist from asking these men if they were sad.
   "I don't feel any different," said the tallest man. "I don't feel one way or the other."
   The retired pilot, sitting behind his computer, was shaking his head in a disapproving manner. "I'm old enough to remember Chappaquiddick," he said. "And they just kept re-electing him," he said in disbelief.

   I knew what the ex-pilot was talking about. I'm not old enough to remember Chappaquiddick, but it has been all over the news. At a party one night in 1969, Ted and a young female aide went for a drive. Ted drove his car off of a small unlit bridge and into the water below. He escaped, but the girl died. Ted claimed he made multiple attempts to save her, and then walked (walked?!) back to the party to get help. Sometime later that night, Ted swam back to the mainland and went to his hotel for the night.

   I looked at a map and Chappaquiddick appears to be several miles away from the mainland of Massachusetts (although one web source reports that Ted swam 500 yards. I've never been to Chappaquiddick so I don't know how far it is for sure. But I do think that it would've been a challenging swim for nearly anyone, even without it being late at night or coupled with probable drunkenness.) How did he do that? And why? Why did he leave his other friends? Why didn't he call an ambulance? Even if you are certain the person in your car is no longer alive, how can you just leave their dead body in the water? Maybe you'd have to walk a mile in Ted's shoes (or swim a few miles, in this case) to fully understand his decisions, but it is puzzling and disturbing for sure.

  The tallest Republican coot casually mentioned that his niece's husband was at that party on Chappaquiddick. "What?" I asked him. "You mean THE party?" He nods, and I shout, "Ohh! Tell me more!" The people at that party would've surely been able to tell if Ted had made an honest effort to save the girl, or if he had any motive to dispose of her. But the tallest wise man just said, "He won't talk."
   "Are you serious?" I ask him. Yes, he's serious. He tells me that his niece and her husband live in Boston, and he only likes to go to Boston when he is flying to England because it has a better airport than New York. Then he tallies up the cost of my exacto knife, plywood, saber saw and wood glue that I am purchasing and puts it in a nice bag for me, and he asks me if I want to buy another model ship like I did last the last time I was there.

   I paid for my items, and my friend Cameron and I left the store. The Hobby Shop is always an adventure.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Camelot Has Closed

My co-worker told me today that Ted Kennedy died. She said she had been crying, and when she heard that he will be buried with his assassinated brothers in Arlington National Cemetery, she started crying again.

Ted, arguably the most scandalous of the political powerhouse of Kennedy brothers, was the one we got to keep. His long reign in the U.S. Senate ensured that some small piece of that glamorous brand of Kennedy liberalism was always lingering in U.S. government. He was a tangible, breathing legacy of his two brothers that were broad daylight while serving their nation. "How perverse," said Brian Williams on MSNBC news, referring to the inconsolable amount of tragedy that has become synonymous with the Kennedy family.
   Before last year's announcement of Ted's malignant brain tumor, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crash had been the most recent family devastation. My aunt Jackie said she was driving when she heard the news of the crash, and she had to pull off the road because she was crying so hard.
   Keith Olbermann described Ted Kennedy as, "The very definition of the word democrat." He cited Kennedy's political influence over the years, which included championing programs that help provide nutrition for lower income families, aided people with disabilities, ensured voting rights for minorities, provided rights for immigrants, and gave women the opportunity to play collegiate sports.
   Senator Kennedy never saw his long-time wish for universal health care come to pass, but he did manage to give a riveting endorsement last year to the presidential candidate who believed in "the cause of my life," (Kennedy's own words.)
Health care should be a right, not a privilege.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

What Have These Eyes Seen?

Bowling with my 92-year-old Grandma.My Grandma turned 93 today. We live in different states, so I had to wish her a Happy Birthday on the phone.
"Do you know how old you are today?" I asked her.
"I was born in 1916; you do the math," she replied quickly.
She makes me smile. She always makes me smile. She has a very German sense of humor - no frills, no fuss. And she's one tough old bird.
I recently went to California and looked at her old house in Albany. She lived there with my Grandfather for 30-something years. She remembers when the front porch railings were built, when the stairs were built, when everything was built. She was there when the Golden Gate Bridge was constructed, for crying out loud! She remembers the local movie theater showing news reels of the recent progress that had been made on the Golden Gate. "It was a big deal," she says.
She left her family's farm in North Dakota to find a better life in the West. "I don't like cows," she'd say. Two of her siblings followed her out to California, which is why I now have kinfolk sprinkled all over the Pacific Northwest.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Global Equality Has Begun.....

.....sort of. The U.S. has managed to convince our Swiss friends to disclose the private account information of more than 4,000 its American clients to the IRS, according to online news sources. The IRS has allegedly requested this information for 52,000 Americans, in an effort to collect due taxes from those who are serious about tax evasion.
One question I have is, how did the U.S. get the names of those 52,000 people in the first place? If the Swiss accounts were truly private, how did the names of the account holders get into the IRS' hands?
I may sound like I am against the IRS finding these tax evaders. (I realize it is probably not fair to assume that all 52,000 people are guilty of tax evasion, but, one has to wonder why they would bother setting up a Swiss bank account unless they really needed to hide something?) One person commented on the New York Times' website that this action by the U.S. is a "witch hunt," since there is no hard evidence that any of these people have committed a crime. What gives the U.S. the right to gain access to private financial information on a hunch? The person argued that this action is not any different than if the U.S. had successfully forced Google to disclose information about what types of websites you view in the privacy of your own home.
Does this action by our government represent yet another example of our freedoms lost, or is it just a step towards ensuring that everyone, including the uber-rich, pay their share of taxes?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Strong women, Strong girls

Could you survive alone on an island for 18 years? What if you had no choice? A woman in the 1800s actually did that on this island - San Nicolas. It's located 60 miles off the coast of Southern California.
I read Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins when I was in grade school, but I did not realize that it was based on a true story. It was haunting. It was sad. The strength of that young woman, her fortitude, her survival instinct, her love for her little brother....incredible. I remember reading the story and wondering how the girl knew what to do to stay alive. She was impressive. She was wise beyond her years. She had the grit and wisdom of all of her grandfathers and great-grandfathers somehow stored in her soul. 18 years...alone. And the worst part is that she died less than two months after she was discovered and brought back to Santa Barbara. Apparently her new diet could not be tolerated by her digestive system, which had been accustomed to a very limited range of biota on the island.
I would have liked to have met this woman. She was made out of things that I can scarcely fathom.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Death of my Childhood Icon

   When I was a kid, I was fascinated with the Thriller music video. So was my Aunt Francis. "I just looove Michael," she'd say, in her very drawn-out southern accent. I would watch her VHS copy over and over again at her house. I could not understand how Michael Jackson got his eyes to look yellow when he was changing into the werewolf. I had never seen anything like that before!
At the local skating rink, they sold Michael Jackson hologram stickers and other memorabilia behind a glass-enclosed case. I got a sticker for myself and one for my Aunt Francis.

   No one else in our family cared about Michael like we did. In fact, I proudly announced that I wanted to marry Michael Jackson someday, and one of my other aunts quickly scolded me and assured me that I would be disowned from the family if I ever married a black man.
   A black man? Michael Jackson wasn't a black man to me, even in the days before his horrific plastic surgeries and skin bleaching. He was an artist. He was the ultimate artist, with his incredible voice, his sequined military uniforms, his one glove, and the way he danced. How many hours did the neighborhood kids and I try to moonwalk like Michael? How many times did we listen to the Thriller cassette tape in our family's Suburban? Every time we drove past a graveyard, my siblings and I would squeal for our mother to play that creepy sounding song.

   I clearly remember my grandfather's spirited reaction to Michael and Lisa Marie Presley's marriage. "You know Elvis is rolling over in his grave!" he chuckled heartily, his big eyes sparkling. At the time, I wasn't sure what he meant. I thought Michael Jackson was great! Why wouldn't Elvis think the same thing?

   I was sitting at Hastings today with some of my friends when we saw people gathering around the coffee shop TV. The news was unclear at first, but Michael's condition sounded very serious, regardless of which news source was reporting.
And then everyone began reporting that he was gone. Michael Jackson, with his unmatched vocal skills, with his glittering military-inspired clothing, with his strange and exotic collection of animals, with his awesome dance moves and cutting-edge music videos....thank you. I will forever be a fan.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Demise of the Ph.D.

   "Are you going to get a Ph.D?"
I get this question a lot, since I teach at a college with only a Master's. Just a Master's. A friendly non-academic man mocked me once when I made light of my degree. I think less than 10% of people in the U.S. have an advanced degree, but, when you work at a university, it's not that spectacular.
I felt even less spectacular when one of my co-workers threw his Ph.D in my face recently. No one had ever done that to me before, and it was quite offensive. I realize that I must've offended him first, and that was his counter-strike. I don't know for sure, because it wasn't my intention to offend him.
   But there I was, standing in his office, describing this great new book I had found for a class we both teach. We rose quickly to a spirited debate, and he suddenly said "the people with Ph.D.'s will make this decision."
   I wasn't sure how to respond to that. Maybe there's really not a good way to respond to something as debasing as that, without digging out my inner redneck and calling him some words I learned from my Dad. No, I'm better than that. Really. But my respect for the guy dissolved like a styrofoam cup in acetone.

   The problem with insulting people by throwing your degree in their face is that you demean yourself in the process. I know another Ph.D guy in the building, a younger, fresher face with a witty sense of humor. He casually mentioned in conversation one day that he questions anyone who tosses their degree out for any sort of justification. "I know what it takes to get a Ph.D," he said, shaking his head. "And I'm not impressed."
I had actually never heard a Ph.D. say that before. And the guy teaches physics, so you can't accuse him of having a pansy Ph.D. or anything.

   Earlier this year, I attended the funeral for a famous rocket scientist. He was considered one of the world's pioneering experts on rocket propulsion, and his wife shared an interesting story during his eulogy. They had tried to get an honorary Ph.D. for him, but had not been successful. This must've bothered him, or why else would his wife have mentioned it to everyone? At the time I was thinking to myself, "Who cares?" The guy was in his nineties, he was retired, he was famous, he was well-loved and very highly respected. What in the world could having an honorary Ph.D. add to that?
   Ironically, I was attending that service with a man who has not one, but two honorary Ph.D.s. My mentor, my friend, my hero, the infamous Dr. Dr. Richard B. Hoover was sitting next to me as I was pondering all of this. I will have to ask him what his honorary Ph.D.s mean to him. It will be interesting to hear, partly because he wasn't the one who told me when he earned them. It was his wife, Miss Miriam, who sent me e-mails (during different years) when he received his honors.

   Will I ever get a Ph.D? I don't know, but first I'll have to actually want one.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Arkansas Chocolate Tarantula

   Look closely. I believe this is what a terrified tarantula looks like. He (she?) is cowering in a coffee can in my kitchen. We just traveled for an hour in my car from Coal Hill, which means the poor thing was subjected to my driving habits and my taste in music for that long.
   I know enough about spiders to know that it has eight eyes. And here, it is using four of its legs to cover up all of those eyes. It doesn't want to see what is happening!
   I had always heard about the Arkansas Chocolate Tarantula, although I had never seen one in the wild. I was at a barbeque at a friend's house today, and the volunteer grillman came over with this thing in his hands. He said he found it crawling on the sidewalk, so he scooped it up to show the kids. I asked him if he had ever been bitten by one. He said they don't usually bite you unless you squeeze them. But he's never squeezed one, so he wasn't sure if that was true.
   I may take this little guy out the woods and let it go tomorrow. But I just wanted to let you know - Arkansas really does have tarantulas!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Kindred Spirits

   How can you meet people throughout your life, fall in love with some of them, and become enemies with others?
   I am lucky that I have good friends. I have wonderful friends, who spend time with me and support me, who listen to me and guide me. I have friends who are the absolute epitome of what human beings are supposed to be. I admire them, I love them, I am thankful for them. I worry about them, and I get sad when they are hurt or ill. They are living things, biological in nature. Subject to the same growth, metabolic needs and age restraints as other living things. We all must face our mortality at some point, and yet it doesn't make me sad to envision our enemies facing their mortality. I wonder why I feel this way - this "lack of remorse" for my enemies' mortality. Is there some evolutionary explanation for this? Why shouldn't I be sad that another human being will eventually crumble to dust?
   I went to the Hobby Shop on Front Street today. I didn't need a model airplane or boat, but I really went in there to visit the three eccentric old men who run the place. The eldest of the three greeted me in the aisle and asked if he could help me. I told him that I had been in earlier and bought a lot of stuff, so I had just come in to say hi. He said proddingly, with his eyes big, "Let's think about the future, not the past!"
   Once when I had been in the Hobby shop, two of the men were watching YouTube videos of an airplane approaching a landing strip that was near a public beach. People on the beach were knocked over by the back wash from the plane. The men were laughing and telling stories, and I could tell one of them used to be a commercial pilot. He said the pilot of that aircraft probably had no idea what had happened to those people because "you can't see what goes on behind you." He had such a dry sense of humor, he reminded me of my late friend and flight instructor Don Langford. What was it about these men that seemed so familiar? They were smart, they were very experienced pilots, and they had the same style of cracking jokes. No nonsense. No bullshit! I liked the man instantly. He was definitely a kindred spirit to my late friend. I was sad that they would not be able to meet each other.
I visited with my friends tonight at our usual Friday night gathering. We all have a lot in common. Tonight I wondered about all the people we've never met, who have come and gone, who maybe lived in a different state or a different country or even a different time, who would have fit in nicely with our motley crew of concerned, thoughtful citizens. Books and journals may be the only way you can get to know someone who lived before your time. I felt a need to scour through as much literature as possible, to try and connect with people who would hold special meaning to me, if only I could've met them in real time.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Coastal Ecology Field Trip - 2009

The view from the south side of Horn Island. Tech students in the water.

Camera used was a $11 water-resistant disposable Kodak

I was quite impressed with the people and facilities at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. A co-worker of mine teaches a summer Coastal Ecology class at Arkansas Tech, and my boss was kind enough to let me tag along with him and his class of budding biologists during their field trip to the Gulf.
   We spent a week on the campus, briefly sleeping in the dorms and eating cafeteria food when we weren't seining for fish and crabs. We had learned how to use the nets in a creek on the Tech campus, but that was in no way adequate preparation for the challenge of holding a seine steady in the ocean.

   The boat trip to Horn Island was definitely a highlight for everyone. During the two-hour trip to the island, several water-spouts were popping out of the dark lingering clouds. In the middle of our journey, the captain stopped the boat and I asked what was going on. Captain Larry said, "That water-spout has the right of way." The dang water tornado was directly in front of the boat, and you could see the bottom swirling out much wider than the middle and top of the spout. I had never seen anything like it before in my life.

   Several dolphins appeared unexpectedly, chasing the trolling net and jumping out of the water alongside the boat. We squealed every time one jumped out of the water.

   The island itself was a pristine and vacant looking piece of paradise. It was also a refuge for the Osprey birds, and there were wicked looking trees scattered about with humongous nests at their tops. It looked like a scene from natural history in years past. Many, MANY years past!

   A few of the students and I had brought our fishing poles, and we caught a fish every time we threw a line in the water. I only caught a catfish, but one student caught a ladyfish. Another student caught something much larger, and we all crowded near him in the water as he fought it. The fish pulled free before he could tow it in, but we had seen it jump out of the water a couple of times before it was liberated. It was white with black stripes, and Captain Larry told us later is was probably a Sheepshead.

   During the trip back, we used the trolling net to catch a multitude of strange sea creatures. I was so fascinated by the Atlantic Brief Squid that I picked one up and help it in my hand. The small pigmented spots on its face, called chromatophores, faded and reappeared so quickly it looked computer-animated. I watched the squid closely, and it began to move its tentacles to reposition itself in my hand. I could feel the tiny suction cups take hold, and then it bit me! I screamed and shook it off my hand. I'm not sure where the poor heavy-headed thing landed, but I wish I had tossed it back into the ocean. Now, it will surely remain pickled in ethanol on the shelves of the Arkansas Tech zoology lab for eternity.

   I had been told there was a famous invertebrate zoologist who taught at the research facility, so I grabbed two of our students and gathered a few jars of unknown jellyfish and we walked over to Dr. Heard's lab. He was incredibly nice. He looked at our jellyfish - which were translucent-looking blobs floating in ethanol - and identified most of them at first glance. He talked nearly non-stop, showed us a few parasites with his microscope, and drew out life cycles of creatures we had never heard of. He let me borrow an expensive plankton net and gave us an armful of posters featuring beautiful line drawings of some of the different shrimp species he had described over the years. The students said he was the most intelligent person they had ever met.

   I did not want to come home. I wanted to go back to Horn Island, with my fishing pole, and sit for a very long time.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Magic of Spring

   I left work late, much later than I had planned, and went to Margaret's house for a walk. I had never walked around her neighborhood before, and I was pleasantly surprised by the leafy green remoteness of it.
   It had been raining for over a week now, and things were incredibly lush around the country side of Arkansas. And the weather was still Spring-like, cool and light, just perfect for long walks.
We came across a little snake warming itself on the paved road. My first impulse was to catch it and bring it as a gift to the herpetologist in my department. Margaret stopped me because she was concerned that it might be venomous. I didn't think it was large enough to carry a significant amount of venom, but it was too small for either of us to tell what kind of snake it was. It slid right under the arch of my tennis shoe, and we watched it slither away into the tan pine needles next to the road.
Margaret took me to see a beautiful house up a pebble-stone driveway. The yard had been wonderfully landscaped with roses and peonies and many other types of flowers. We walked around the house, smelling all the different flowers and looking at the view across the valley below. The owners were sitting on the back porch, sipping wine and watching two baby foxes that were perched on a rock facing the back of the house. I had never seen a baby fox before! They were fiery orange in color, with black legs. They were not afraid of us, and they were so adorable I wanted to pet them.
   Margaret and I joined her friends on the porch and we were given wine glasses of our own. The sun was almost completely gone, and the foxes eventually slipped away into the brush. We sat for a long time, talking, sipping our wine, until the full moon came up and we decided we should probably head back home.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Evolution and iPhones

   Consider the Pacinian corpuscle. This is very specialized type of sense receptor, called a mechanoreceptor, located deep in your dermis. It is only 1 mm in length, and it is responsible for detecting deep pressure sensations. It is oval-shaped, displaying concentric circles of a type of insulated cell called Schwann cells. In the center of the Pacinian corpuscle, there is an uninsulated, or unmyelinated, nerve that, upon stimulation, will send signals to your brain.
   The usefulness of this type of receptor is not difficult to imagine. The skin provides a critical barrier against the constant barrage of microorganisms in our external environment. An invasion of certain types of bacteria or viruses, perhaps by a splinter or some other undetected vector, into our body can cause a nasty infection. If the infection is severe enough, it could potentially kill us.
   So, where did these interesting little pressure detector instruments come from?
   All humans have them, so presumably, they were the result of a mutation, or many mutations over the course of thousands or millions of years. And since we all have these corpuscles of touch in our deepest layers of skin, we must all be related to the one individual who was born with the precise genetic make-up to code for these wonderous little receptors.
Do other animals have Pacinian corpuscles? Do amphibians have them? How common are these things, and could they themselves indicate a common ancestry amongst the animal kingdom?
   I was sitting in my office today, trying to understand this hypothesis when a student worker walked in. She had a beautiful shiny white iPhone in her hand. I stared at it, and asked her about some of the features. She effortlessly checked both of her e-mail accounts, searched a map for the quickest route to a Florida beach, and taught me how to "shady button" someone undesirable who was trying to call her at that moment. Cell phones have evolved, I thought. I looked at my own little flippy-phone in disgust. It had no Internet capabilities. It did not have the effortless, gliding-touch software of the iPhone. Soon, I thought, little cheap flippy-phones like mine will become the market minority. The buyer's market will select for all cell phones to have user-friendly access to the web.
Like the Pacinian corpuscle, a mechanoreceptor with a useful enough function to contribute to the survival rate, and therefore the reproductive success of humans, which ensured the survival of the corpuscle itself, the iPhone and its vast capabilities will be selected for by the hungry market of cash-bearing individuals in constant need for access to information, immediately. Could having an iPhone directly contribute to the survival rate and reproductive success of humans? I don't know about that, but I am going to test my hypothesis. :)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

New Orleans - Proud to Swim Home!

   I just got back from my fourth trip to 'Nawlins. I must admit, I was a little scared the first time I went. It was post-Katrina, and the city had quickly made news as one of the most dangerous places in the U.S. Now I love it!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Scary Movie Memories

The Poltergeist doll

Who hasn't had nightmares about that creepy little clown doll from Poltergeist? My brother and sister and I watched that movie endlessly when we were little. It was important to us because it had scared the crap out of us! My grandma even made me a Poltergeist-like jester clown doll for Christmas one year. And my sister and I had lots of fun planting it in each others' closets and car trunks, just to try to catch each other off guard.
   I just had my Friday night dinner party with Margaret, Russ, Brandon, Jenna and Greg, and somehow the conversation turned to scary movies and gross stories.
   You know there's something impressive about a movie if there is a strong reaction in the theater. The most overwhelming response I remember is when Star Wars was re-released for its 20th anniversary. When the theater went dark, and the infamous golden letters popped up on the middle of the screen with that glorious triumph of music from John Williams, the theater erupted in applause. We were ready! We were MORE than ready. This was a movie that had molded many of us from childhood. To see it again on the big screen was an absolute thrill.
   Russ and Margaret remember seeing Alien when it was released in 1979. When the alien started bursting out of Kane's chest at the dinner table, Russ said everyone in the theater took a step back, like a wave throughout the room. Margaret said the alien creature was the scariest looking thing anyone had seen; nothing in the movies prior to that could compare to the fear that the dark skeletal villain elicited.
   Jenna said she noticed a similar response when she saw The Ring. She said people were trying to move up out of their chairs when something on the screen started coming out of the television. It sounded like it was crawling on the floor towards the people, so everyone was trying to get away from it!
My friend Amy remembers seeing The Blair Witch Project before the news had gotten out that is was a fraud. She thought the film was a true documentary, and she was absolutely terrified by the end of the movie.
   I knew the movie was a fake when I saw it, and it still scared me!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I met a Holocaust Survivor tonight

   Agi (pronounced "Aug-gie") Geva brought the crowd to their feet at the end of her presentation. I am so thankful that my office mate told me there was a Holocaust survivor coming to town. "They're dying off," my office mate had told me. This was a rare opportunity to meet a piece of living, breathing history.
Agi was only 14 when she and her younger sister and mother were sent to Auschwitz. She showed me the tattoo on her anterior forearm that started with an A (for Auschwitz) and a dash followed by numbers.
   The prisoners were transported in stuffy cattle cars to the concentrations camp. They had to remove their clothing and all the hair was shaved from their bodies. They were "humiliated" by being sprayed with disinfectant, and put into showers. "We were lucky that water came out of our showers," Agi said. Others, as most people know, were gased to death in some of those showers.
   Agi was fortunate enough to have a super-sharp mother who quickly picked up on survival tactics to keep her small family together. First off, they had to act like they weren't related. Agi's mother had seen that the Nazi officers made a point to break up families in the camps, so Agi and her younger sister Zsuzsanna were told to act like they were on their own.
   The also girls lied about their age, as their mother said to do, and claimed to be 18 and 19 (instead of 13 and 14.) Daily screenings were done at the camps, and people who appeared too weak to work were murdered. Agi became sickly-looking and sunburned at one point, and she was asked by a Nazi official to move to an area away from her mother and sister. Agi, quick to say the right things, claimed that she wanted to go with the other group so she could work. The Nazi, none other than Mengele himself (the doctor who performed horrid medical experiments on the prisoners) said, "You don't look well enough to work." She claimed that she was indeed, and she wanted to prove it when Mengele realized that she was speaking German to him. (Agi's father had insisted that his children learn multiple languages when they were growing up.) He agreed to let her work, and she was reunited with her mom and sister.
   The family of three were moved to another camp called Plaszow, and eventually back to Auschwitz. They were beyond distraught. Hardly anyone got sent back to Auschwitz a second time.
   They had to do ridiculous tasks like move big rocks back and forth to keep their physical strength zapped, and for a while they worked the grueling night shift at a factory in Austria making parts to support the war.
   Agi wore glasses, and before the physical health inspections, her mom would take her glasses and hide them in her shoes. She did not want her daughter selected against for having "weak eyes."
   One day 199 of the factory workers were rounded up and told to walk to the train station. This was the beginning of the Death March that became written into history. The prisoners had no idea what was going on, but the Germans had just been defeated by the Allies and were attempting to hide the evidence of the prisoners. Many people were marched into the woods and shot. Agi and her family had to walk 400 kilometers of rough terrain, over hills, through creeks. It was in February, they were poorly dressed, and it was very cold. They were "scared. Cold. Hungry. Tired. Desperate," she said. It was one of the very worst things she experienced, aside from the first day they were captured and indoctrinated into the camp.
Eventually, one of the prisoners looked around and noticed there were no guards around. They began talking amongst themselves to try and figure out what to do. They were "199 people with 199 opinions," she said. Before long they heard soldiers talking, and they were speaking English. They were greeted by American soldiers, who said they'd never seen such dirty, ugly women! Agi claimed they were very nice to the band of prisoners, and took them to a nearby ski lodge. They were allowed to take down the curtains to make dresses for themselves, since their clothing was so shabby. The soldiers took their requests for things like food and schnitzel, but Agi asked for a tube of lipstick after looking at herself in a mirror. She could not believe how bad she looked.
   Agi moved to Israel after the war. She said it was "great!" because "there were Jews everywhere!" She lived in Israel for 53 years, and she currently resides in Washington D.C. where she works as a volunteer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
   Her sister is still alive today, but does not like to talk about her own Holocaust experiences. Their mother, Rozsa, lived to be 97 and a half before she passed, but never shared her own thoughts about the imprisonment. Agi said her mother's opinion was, "You are out. You survived. Forget it. Move on!"

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Remembering Konrad Dannenberg

Photo: Konrad Dannenberg and Jennifer Lewter

   Konrad Dannenberg loved rockets, first and foremost. He also loved sweets, chocolate, beer, and music by Lawrence Welk. But rockets were his true love. He was 96 years old when he passed away this week, and I was very grateful to attend his memorial service and learn so many things about his life.

   I first met Konrad and his son Klaus at a space conference in Washington D.C. several years ago. Konrad, walking with a cane, was able to deliver a powerpoint presentation about his experiences with the infamous German rocket research and development at Peenemunde. Their accomplishments, including the efforts of the better known Wernher von Braun, became the technical foundations of the American and Russian space programs. I was simply amazed at this man - a living piece of history that was sitting and talking before me.
Klaus, during his Dad's memorial service, said that Konrad had walked through the Udvar-Hazy segment of the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum and was largely unimpressed. There were so many aircraft, but not many rockets. "There's not much here," Konrad had said to his son. (?!)
   Each family member who spoke mentioned the same theme - Konrad's focus was on rockets, but not much else. Most were tearful, and I myself cried through most of Klaus' talk. They were so honest and sincere, you may not have known that hundreds of people were in attendance, sitting quietly, respectfully, in the new Davidson Building of Huntsville's Space & Rocket Center with a gargantuan Saturn V rocket in the next room.
   One family member said Konrad was often asked about his involvement with Hitler, who would come to visit the young rocketeers at Peenemunde and check the progress made on their research. Konrad would say that he had also met John F. Kennedy, so why didn't people ask him about JFK? (How many people do you know who've met both Hitler and JFK??)
Klaus also spoke of Konrad's mid-life crisis, which was apparently a very difficult time for him. In Klaus' words, "When as a boy you set going to the moon as your goal, and you make it, then what do you do?" Konrad decided to "pass on the passion," and he became very involved with the youth programs at the Space & Rocket Center. It is estimated that he spoke to 250,000 young people during his years of service.
   It was also very important for Konrad to feel connected to the outside world. He was an adamant e-mailer, up until the end. His family testified that he liked to design his own birthday cards for them on his computer, and he never missed a date.
His body is what failed him, not his mind, said Jackie, his wife of 18 years. He never lost his sharpness, and he grew annoyed at the simple questions ("What is your favorite color?") the hospital staff would ask him to test his mental competency. Jackie joked that he should ask them what the ISP of the Space Shuttle engines were.

Godspeed, Konrad. It was such an honor to have met you.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Armadillos and Costa Rican Coffee

   I had my Friday night dinner party with Margaret, Russ and Brandon. The food was excellent, as always, and Margaret had even prepared two homemade pumpkin pies for dessert. The guys finished dinner before me (I am ALWAYS the last person eating, regardless of who I am with) and started in on the pies. Margaret laughed when she realized she had forgotten to add the sugar to the pies. The guys quietly took turns covering their pieces of pie with whipped cream from a can, like some sort of necessary and solemn ritual that would make the pie bearable to eat.
   The after-dinner conversation turned to animals and veterinary practices and mercy killings, and Brandon told a very disturbing story about an experience he had many years ago. He was working as an attendant at a gas station, and someone had run over an armadillo. It was severely injured and ran towards the gas station, leaving a trail of intestines behind it. Brandon said it was making a horrible noise, and he tried to find something around the shop so he could end its suffering. Unfortunately, the only thing he could find was a baseball bat, so he proceeded to go outside to beat the poor thing to death. He splattered blood all over himself in the process, and at that inopportune moment, a customer pulled up to buy gas and saw, of course, a blood-spattered man holding a baseball bat. Brandon said he never came back!
   We had coffee after dinner, as we usually do. Brandon said he wanted to try to grow his own beans. Fresh coffee, just picked and served within hours of being roasted, is apparently as good as it gets. Margaret said she had some fresh coffee in Coasta Rica and it was unbelievably smooth. She said Costa Rica never exports their best coffee; they keep it for the locals. Which means it is time for me to go to Costa Rica!