Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Picking up returnables for fun and profit

(Please do not crush your cans before you toss them from your moving car.)

My wife was a dutiful, frugal girl when she was young.  In primary school, she would routinely bring her dime or quarter every Tuesday on banking day, and have that money deposited in her bank account.  (You young people will not know about this, but back in the day, we actually had such a day at school.  But apparently, these programs are making a come-back.  Click on my title to learn more.)  At the end of several years of this kind of weekly deposits, she had saved several hundred dollars, which was quite an impressive sum in the 1950s.  When she went off to nursing school in 1965, her parents gave her $5 as spending money.  Months later, she still had that same 5-spot.  During three entire years at this school (she went year-round), during which her room and board were prepaid, she didn't spend more than about $25, although she used a Lazarus Department Store credit card to buy one dress for a Homecoming dance and a slip in preparation for our wedding shortly before she graduated.  That was it!

Those of you born to a later generation can not possibly believe what I am saying, but the appraisal above of what my future wife spent in college is the absolute truth.  We dated during most of that time.  We almost never went out, we never drank alcohol, we bought next to nothing.  We simply did not have the money to spend and, of course, a dollar went a lot farther than it does today. 

It should, therefore, come as little surprise that my wife collects empty soda and beer cans that she finds along the side of the road in rural New York.  Coke cans, DrPepper cans, Bud Light cans, plastic ginger ale containers.  Each one is worth a nickel.  The similarity in her mind between saving pennies each week at Dover Elementary School and picking up discarded nickels today is no accident.  As a child, she saw what that kind of regular saving could accomplish, and she never forgot that important financial lesson.

The problem is, the cost-benefit ratio is very different today than it was five decades ago.  To collect these nickels, we often stop the car in hazardous locations.  We have almost had our driver-side door taken off by a passing car, we have come close to putting the car in the drainage ditch in our attempt to move the car to a safe location off the road, and we have both twisted or sprained our ankles as we negotiated these same ditches.  Once I jumped into one of these pits to fetch a nickel or two and I ripped a hole in my $30 pants (= 600 cans).  Not a good deal.  Then, after you put the containers in the car, they invariably leak their remaining contents onto the seats or carpet and, for days, the car smells like you held a frat party in there. 

If the cans were crushed before being discarded by the side of road (data: about 5% of cans), they need to be straightened out enough so that the bar code can be read by the machine into which you feed them at the grocery store.  If they can not be straightened to the satisfaction of that contraption, you do not get your nickel.  I have fed some cans into that machine 8 or 10 times in an attempt to get it to read that code, only to have it belch out the can as if it was spitting on my torn pants.  The same thing happens if the can has been laying out in the weather for a couple of years; the bar code is so faint and unreadable that the machine gets the last laugh.

But this slow but sure strategy of accumulating wealth can pay off.  A few years ago, my wife was able to fly our two sons home from Denver without my knowing with pop can money to celebrate my 60th birthday.  And this is all with the return deposit at only a nickel.  There is discussion of raising the deposit to a dime in New York state.  If that happens, we might buy a second home in Costa Rica.  If the deposit ever went to a quarter, I would buy a fleet of used vehicles and hire a team of picker-uppers to scour Tompkins County for its booty.  Entrepreneurial opportunities abound. 

But already we have someone else picking up cans on the road in front of OUR house.  This is our territory, our grub stake, our can domain.  My wife has been hiding in our woods next to the road two days a week in hopes of ambushing the person.  She baits the shoulder of the road with 2-3 clean, Bud Light cans (I helped by emptying the cans) placed in a neat little bunch.  Irresistible.  We must stop this can poaching.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The secret to living longer, or at least thinking you are

(Times flies when you are having fun, but it is no fun trying to watch it fly.)

This month is a particularly weird month for DrTom.  (Sometimes I refer to myself in the third person.  After all, some of the greatest writers of the English language have used this technique.  It hints that the anecdote you are about to read will be a bit deep, even sinister.  Or, that I have bipolar disorder.  You be the judge.)  September has always heralded the beginning of the year for me.  January is not the first of the year, September is.  I am sure I feel this way because I commence the school year with this month, as many of you do also.  Even the Day Planners I buy begin with the month of September, not January.  January is one of those months that is just buried in the middle of the year, part way between the Xmas and the Easter holiday vacations.  For the past 56 years, September has meant the beginning of classes, either as a student or as a teacher, except for a couple of years in the army and a couple of sabbatic leaves from the university.  But September 2009 is the first September where none of that is true.

I'm not doing any of the activities that I normally do at this time of year and I am finding that I, well, I absolutely love it.  It is weird that I am not stocking up on pencils or notebooks or yellow sticky pads.  It is weird that I am not arranging field trips for my class, or writing a syllabus, or ordering books for courses I teach.  It is weird that I am not giving lectures, or making up exams, or trying to act all wise and intelligent.  It is weird that I am not trying to memorize the names of several dozen students.  This is probably a good thing, because I forgot the name of my dog yesterday, although I remembered that it rhymed with "goose".   This lack of doing "useful work" does make me feel guilty, like I am a lazy bum, or playing hooky, or just goofing off with no serious purpose in life.  What would my hard-working father say if he could witness this?  It has felt like one long episode of Ferris Bueller's Day Off .  Is it ok to feel this good and to have this much fun?

But there is a downside to having all this free time and doing exactly what I want to do every day, and enjoying every moment of it.  The time is going by too quickly.  Summer zipped by, autumn has begun, and every month seems to go faster and faster.  If someone is watching the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado, I am convinced it has sped up over the past few months.  Please fix that thing.  Slow it down.  Even stop it.  I have more free time than I have ever had in my life, but I am getting farther behind on everything I want to do.  I didn't even have time to smoke a cigar yesterday.

They say that time flies when you are having fun.  Is that the phenomenon I am experiencing?  When I was teaching, September seemed to take forever to end, with all the planning, and worry, and attention to details required to present courses that students would find interesting and useful.  I liked that work, but it wasn't exactly what I would call fun.  So the time went slower then.  My old friend Paul Ehrlich was once quoted as saying in an interview for Playboy magazine, "Move to New Zealand.  You won't live longer, but it will surely seem like you do".  So that is one way to get through, I suppose.  Live a life that is a bit tedious, uncomfortable, or boring to give yourself the illusion that you are living a long life.  Is that the answer?  Long and boring, or shorter and fun.  Geez, what a dilemma.

Maybe the solution is for DrTom to do something one day a week that he absolutely hates.  That might slow down the clock just a bit and allow him to really appreciate the days when he is not doing that hated thing.  Every Wednesday morning, I could dust the shelves in my den.  I would remove each book and journal one by one, dust the shelf with Pledge, and return each item exactly where it had been, alphabetically by author.  I could follow this chore by raking the gravel in the driveway to make it smooth.  Then, I could watch several hours of reality tv about people I don't know who are trying to lose weight, build a house, or get a mate.  Yowsa!  That is a good formula for living to be 120, or at least feeling like you did.  But maybe you have a better approach to maximizing enjoyment while minimizing the quick passage of time.  Let me know; we could make a fortune.  If people are willing to pay $8 for a product that claims to reduce belly fat, they will certainly pay big bucks for a formula that makes you feel like you are living longer and enjoying life more.

But I think I have constructed a phrase that captures how I want to proceed: "Live long and prosper."  Isn't that great?  Very clever of me.  You just watch.  Some television series will pick that up and use it, and I won't get a lick of credit.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Should I get off my high horse?

(DrTom sometimes has trouble getting off his high horse.)

Yesterday's post was a serious one, and dealt with the plight of eastern deciduous forests.  On rare occasions, I can not help but pontificate on some environmental issue that bothers me.  But when I do that, my wife goes berserk: "don't write that kind of post for your blog, get off your high horse, quit being a professor, and just be funny".  Well, I am trying to make the transition from an environmental educator to a Dave Barry-like humorist, but I feel I need to offer some meaty ideas or perspectives along the way.  This is a real challenge. 

My recent students know that I think the global environment is "going to hell in a handbasket", to use my favorite expression.  Furthermore, I don't think there is a thing we CAN do to change the outcome.  More precisely, I don't think there is a thing we WILL do to change the outcome.  So why talk about it if it is a foregone conclusion?  Answer: because there is a slim chance that I am wrong about this.  I sincerely hope that this generation, with their passion and commitment, can turn it all around.  In the meantime, we will return to our regularly scheduled program.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fretting about our forests

(Check out Great Smoky Mountains National Park to find some old-growth forest.)

I am a purist when it comes to thinking about habitats for plants and animals. I want it to be the way it used to be. I wish I could go back and see North America 500 years ago. I wish I could live another 300 years to see what the forest around my house will become. But there are many factors that cause a natural habitat to deviate from what it could be, or to be different from what it once was. In most of the world, we cut down whatever was there originally and planted food crops, built houses, or just abandoned the land after we harvested the original inhabitants.

I guess we are pretty lucky in the northeastern U.S., from a naturalist’s perspective. After the massive clearing of those fantastic deciduous forests, humans attempted agriculture and most of it failed economically. That process has allowed that vast area to regrow itself over the past six or seven decades in a process known as secondary plant succession. For example, the hill on which I live was a cattle pasture until 1960, so I now own a forest that is about 50 years old. This old pasture is developing as a forest mostly on its own. The trees are getting bigger and older, they flower and produce seeds, new seedlings appear and grow, develop into saplings, and so on.

So why am I on edge all the time about the biological process I am witnessing every day around me? For starters, we have a major mammalian herbivore living here—white-tailed deer. Deer eat many of these tree species, as well as various non-woody plants, and deer, therefore, influence the species composition and relative abundance of tree species in the future forest. In my forest, they seem to prefer maple, oak, magnolia, and tuliptree, and avoid ash, cherry, aspen, juneberry, and hornbeam. Given that deer densities in this region may be about 10 times their original density, they can have a significant impact on what our future forests become. Realize that I love deer; after all, I conducted my Ph.D. dissertation on Columbian white-tailed deer in the Pacific Northwest. But they have become the bane of my existence as a conservation biologist in upstate New York.

Moosejaw Mountaineering

Second, there seems to be a new tree disease in the region every time I ask an expert. Chestnut blight decimated American chestnuts decades ago, Dutch elm disease pummeled American elms, and beech bark disease infected American beech; more recently we have to worry about the woolly adelgid on hemlocks and the emerald ash borer in ash trees. All of these have the potential to significantly reduce populations of these tree species and every tree disease listed above has something else in common—none of them are native to North America. The pathogens all got to this country from Europe or Asia. Introduction of non-native or exotic organisms is a major problem for the conservation of biodiversity globally (one of the so-called “Four Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse”).

And finally, there is the “invasion” of non-native shrubs in the forests of the U.S. In my area, the offenders are usually Tartarian honeysuckle and multiflora rose. I have both of them in abundance in my woods, or at least I did until I declared war a few years ago. I have spent many hours walking and pulling, or walking and clipping, or even walking and spraying the tough ones with the herbicide “Roundup.” And with the elimination of every individual comes that feeling of satisfaction that I am putting the system on the right track. We may not know all the species that were in this habitat centuries ago, and we may not know the relative abundances of the various native species back then, but we know that Tartarian honeysuckle and multiflora rose were not part of it.

Now that I am retired, I continue to patrol for deer with my Labrador retriever, pull up exotic shrubs, and monitor my trees for any mysterious death. I’d have to live until 2309 to see if I made any difference at all. And most of the time, I feel I am just spitting in the ocean, because the forces of degradation are enormous and the majority of the public will never know the difference. It sure is getting lonely out there.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The time we save: Charcoal vs. gas for BBQs

(The way some people used to bbq, back in the day.)

I have always loved to grill food outside on our deck in the evening.  It is an age-old ritual that must go back to the time when humans first learned to build a fire several hundred millenia ago.  This discovery allowed early humans to cook meat, which would have made it more tender and safe from dangerous bacteria.  But we humans don't think much about that when we decide to light the grill and flop on a raw slab of beef, sliced zucchini, Vidalia onion, or a Portobello mushroom.  Most Americans want to flip a switch, light the gas, get the food on the grill, and be eating 5-10 minutes later.  I find this appalling, even disgusting.

Preparing a meal should be about as enjoyable as eating it, in my opinion.  After all, the enjoyment that comes with eating must be at least 50% due to the anticipation of the experience anyway.  So what is the rush?  Slow down and savor the anticipation.  For this reason, and I suppose because I reject the never-ending status race that comes with buying bigger and more expensive propane grills, I prefer to use charcoal.  It is a simple system and it is inexpensive.  For about $40, I buy a Weber charcoal grill that lasts me 10-15 years; the new gas grills can cost $5,000 or more.  When my grill finally rusts out, I buy another one.  Also, I am convinced the food tastes better when cooked with charcoal compared to gas.  But most importantly, it takes time for the charcoal to get to the correct level of burn before you cook any food with it--about 45 minutes.  It is during that time that I sip my wine, sit on the deck, talk to Management about my working conditions, and prepare the rest of the meal.  Using charcoal forces you to slow down and smell the roses along the way.

But what if I could see my neighbor's grill from my deck, and they could see my puny charcoal grill?  Maybe peer pressure would urge me to buy that Lynx 42 Inch Propane Gas Grill On Cart With 1 ProSear Burner And Rotisserie L42PSFR-1-LP for $7,168.  Maybe I would be intimidated by that professional apron he is wearing, obviously embroidered by his wife for him on Father's Day. Maybe I would go out and find a steak that is 3 inches thick, a whole inch thicker than his.  Maybe I would buy a fancy Belgian beer instead of drinking a Bud Light like him.  Maybe my wife will just go ahead and put on a tinier bikini than his wife is wearing now.  But I don't have to worry about any of that, because I can't see him.  Thank goodness for maple trees, and the charcoal that could be produced from them.

I suppose the debate about using charcoal vs. gas for barbequeing will continue until we have a new breakthrough.  When nuclear BBQs are commonplace, someone will write a post similar to this one comparing propane to plutonium for grilling food.  The plutonium grilling will only take 3.4 seconds, and the exposure to radiation will be minimal, about like getting a half dozen dental x-rays.  Certainly that would be worth the time you would save preparing dinner.  The time saved could then be used to check our smart phones for text messages from people we contact regularly but never talk to in person.  We could watch more television sitcoms about families that sit around the kitchen table and joke with one another.  Or, we could read more articles in Popular Mechanics magazine about how much more time we will be able to save in the future with labor-saving devices around the house.  It is as though we think we can put all that time we saved in a hermetically-sealed container, and then let it out to use it later, when it is more convenient.  Oh, how I wish.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Senescence sucks: Hiatal hernia (part 3)

(This man might have a hiatal hernia.  Or, he might just be in a burping contest with co-workers.)

My regular readers must think I am just making up this medical stuff lately.  DrTom could not possibly be going to doctors as much as he says, or else he wouldn't have time to write this blog.  He wouldn't have time to cut firewood.  He wouldn't have time to take photos of shrews.  He wouldn't have time to visit the little food market in Candor.  He wouldn't have time to host Jehovah's Witnesses in his garden, something he has really come to enjoy.  (I now have a sign next to my driveway that reads, "Jehovah's Witnesses: I'll be back soon.")  Who is trading stocks for DrTom when he is sitting in the doctor's office reading the May 1997 National Geographic about the poaching of rhinos in Zimbabwe?  Well, the observant will notice that this is the first post since Saturday.

So here is the latest.  I have had some difficulty with food sticking far down my esophagus on occasion over the past couple of years.  It is like part of my ham sandwich simply does not want to take a nosedive into a stomach full of concentrated acid.  Who can blame it?  But this alarmed my wife, so she had me mention it at my annual physical exam last month.  My family doc scheduled a "barium swallow" for me, which is a type of imaging used to see the esophagus.  When I got to the appointment at the Cayuga Medical Center, I realized that they had it all wrong.  The technicians that met me kept talking about me having trouble swallowing, and they were all set to do a test that looked at my throat. I thought it was weird that I was meeting with a speech pathologist.  The problem is not there, food lodges about a foot below that area of my body.  We had a nice chat about that part of my anatomy and they agreed that they were the wrong technicians.  I went home and my doc reordered the correct exam.  (By the way, I actually call my physician "doc".  I could be formal and call him DrLloyd, but he does not call me DrTom, so I compromise.  Should a physician call a Ph.D. "doc", or the other way around?  They could both refer to the other as "doc", but that would be one wacky sounding meeting in the exam room to anyone listening at the door.)

I returned to the medical center a few days later for the proper imaging.  Realize that each of these visits require that I come to town, 10 miles away.  So I usually combine errands and pick up grub, liquor, and loose women before or after my medical appointment.  At this visit, I actually ended up swallowing the highly viscous barium stuff that is needed for the imaging to work.  This material is so thick that you can not call it "drinking".  It was a light gray, very chalky substance and, of course, barium is one of the heavy metals, like arsenic or lead.  It was like swallowing liquid dry wall, if that was possible.  Certainly, one could use it to patch a small hole in wallboard.  The specialist takes the images, and tells me there appears to be no constriction of my esophagus.  He explains that with advancing age, peristalsis of the esophagus is not as robust, so food is more likely to linger there before clearing to the stomach. Ah, "advancing age"--have I mentioned that senescence sucks?  But there is one other thing, I have some "erosion" at the bottom of my esophagus due to stomach acid, which is caused by a hiatal hernia.  Just great.  Hernia and acid.  I hate everything about my body right now, and that iceberg is looking better and better.

So today, I had this follow-up appointment with my family doc.  When I arrived there, I was taken to the exam room by the nurse.  She took my vital signs and asked the reason for my visit today.  I honestly could not remember why the doc wanted to see me so soon after my annual physical, so I told her as far as I was concerned it was just a social visit.  I simply have not seen DrLloyd in a couple of weeks, and since I was chasing loose women nearby, I would just stop in and say hi.  I talk like this to amuse myself, but I am half afraid they might order a psych consult, and I don't need another medical appointment right now.

DrLloyd entered the room.  He wanted to talk to me about this hiatal hernia thingie.  Stomach acid has no place in the esophagus because it can cause that tube to become leathery, and that ain't good.  So, I either stay on this medicine he prescribed for me a couple of weeks ago for the rest of my life, or I have the hernia fixed.  So, in a week, I meet with the specialist that can fix the hernia---the same doc who does my colonoscopy every five years. I now have so many procedures and tests to do that I might be able to get some kind of bulk discount.  You know, like a colonoscopy and hiatal hernia repair for the price of one tonsillectomy.  Holy crap.  Don't even say that.  I still have my tonsils.

How many docs can I see in one calendar month?  I don't even want to know what is mathematically possible.  Realize that I am actually in pretty good shape.  Nothing seriously wrong, just lots of "rattles", to use a car analogy.  DrLloyd did tell me today that my last cholesterol readings were an improvement over the previous year, so he is not recommending meds to lower it.  I really do watch my fat intake.  But when I left the doc's office today, I decided I would splurge, so I bought a Snickers bar.  Kind of a celebration for the better cholesterol reading.  I just hope it doesn't get stuck in my esophagus.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Grandpa meets Chucky

(It can be like meeting Chucky, when you have to put your children to bed, at night, alone.)

One of the challenges we get to face when we visit our daughter's is putting our three grandchildren to bed at night.  The girls are 7 and 5, and the boy is 1 1/2.  Tonight, our daughter and son-in-law went out to dinner, so our daughter asked us to babysit.  Funny how that works.  She actually volunteered us several days ago, when it seemed like such a benign request.  "I am having you guys babysit the kids next weekend when Mitch and I go out to dinner with friends", she states nonchalantly, trying to make it sound as though she said we should pick up the newspaper on our way up the driveway.  We reply, "Sure honey.  No problem." 

It really didn't seem like a problem 10 days ago, but now we are 20 minutes away from D-Day.  I begin to freeze up, feel a tinge of a possible leg cramp developing, and pour a slightly larger scotch than my liver would have requested.  My wife laughs nervously, snatches the scotch from my hands momentarily and swallows fast when our daughter's back is turned, and glances at the clock as if to will the time to be 8am the next morning.  My daughter and her husband leave the house and drive away.  The two older grandkids smile at us in a way that reminds me of Chucky in the Child's Play horror films.  A cold chill runs up my back and I feel a bit weak in the knees.  We both feel like one of the victims in those Jason slasher flicks, where it is so obvious who will be next.  The victim walks into a meat locker, all alone, at night, as the background music intensifies.  Can't that idiot hear that music?  Get out of there!  Ah geez.  Too late.  My wife's face is now devoid of color.

We start with the 1 1/2 year old.  We carry him into his bedroom and he immediately points to his crib in the corner and says "doh-doh", which is his word for bed.  We lay him down, and in about 90 seconds he is sound asleep.  "Did you see that?", I say to my wife.  Our own kids never did that.  I wanted to wake him up and have him do that again, but my wife dissuaded me with a phrase I can not repeat here, except "dickhead" was about the 4th word in that sentence. 

The dynamic duo then turned its attention to the older girls and headed down the hall to their room.  I swear I heard the background music intensify.  We got them to brush their teeth, go to the bathroom, and climb into bed.  On weekends, they sleep in the same bed together.  And then the 5-year old uttered the words that sends visceral fear through every babysitter who has ever heard them: "I want my blankie".  Holy crap.  We forgot to ask our daughter where the damn blankie might be.  This kid has been attached to material with a certain feel since she was 1-year old, and these days it is this cotton fabric with a chamois-like, flannel feel to it.  Nothing else will do, and she will not go to sleep until she has it.  She begins to cry.

We go through every room up and down the hallway.  We look under beds, in beds, in closets, under toys.  The crying gets more insistent.  I have trouble working under this kind of pressure, but I persist in searching with the left side of my brain while trying to console my sobbing granddaughter with the right side.  I refuse to interrupt my daughter's dinner out with a stupid question about cotton cloth. I am 62 and have a Ph.D., and my wife was an ER nurse for 20 years, and this cry-baby is 5 years old and just started kindergarten.  We have got to win this. 

But then the game turns.  The 7-year old comes to the rescue.  She pulls her grandmother aside and points out that the pillow case on the 5-year old's pillow is the exact same fabric as the "blankie".  They quickly change pillow cases, rumple up the material to make it appear like the real deal, and present it to the cry-baby.  She stops whimpering, lies down, and all is well with the world. We win.  We were not butchered like cattle.  The background sound becomes elevator music.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Senescence sucks: The urologist (part 2)

(If you are young, you should stock up on these now while they are cheap.)

Today I had my annual visit to my urologist.  I get my blood drawn and they run a PSA (you know, a "prostate-specific antigen"), to help determine whether you have prostate cancer.  If that number is low and stays low from year to year, you are generally ok.  Mine was.  Of course, this test is followed up by a urine sample and a physical exam, with the urologist doing what urologists do best---by flying into DrTom's "no-fly" zone.  My "no-fly" zone is suspended only once a year so that this important medical exam can be done.

But the questions I must answer each year are somewhat depressing, because I assume they must herald what I have to look forward to:  How often do you get up during the night to urinate? Does it burn or sting when you urinate?  Do you urinate more than four times during the day?  Does it feel like your bladder is empty when you finish urinating? Do you have any "accidents" because you could not get to the bathroom quickly enough upon having the urge to urinate?  Get the picture?  Just put me on an iceberg now and let's save a whole lot of people a whole lot of aggravation later on.  (On a positive note, I am looking into buying stock in the company that makes Depend adult diapers, so at least I got a stock tip out of the ordeal.  On the other hand, I just checked their website and found this: "Depend® incontinence forums and discussion boards; discussion board is a place to connect with others and share incontinence stories and experiences."  There are people who actually sit around and discuss this?!!  Geez, I'll take the frickin iceberg.)

So my day was a little less than pleasurable.  To cheer myself up after the exam, I went to Staples and bought a new Logitech wireless mouse for my computer.  I followed this with a trip to Rogans to pick up some body-fattening, artery-clogging, heart-stopping comfort food---a meatball parmesan sub and chicken wings dipped in blue cheese dressing.  What the hell.  I don't see the cardiologist for another three months.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Senescence sucks: Prologue

(DrTom feels sort of like this man looks, but his body doesn't know that.)

senescence: a biological term that basically means aging. It encompasses all of the biological processes of a living organism's approaching an advanced age (i.e., the combination of processes of deterioration which follow the period of development of an organism). The word senescence is derived from the Latin word senex, meaning "old man" or "old age" or "advanced in age".

Physical work is more difficult to do, takes longer, and hurts more now than it did just 10 years ago.  How is that for a lead-off to get you to read more?  Terrible.  Who wants to read about senior citizens and their aches and pains.  I have always been a very active person, but recent years have taken their toll.  I'm a biologist, so I know this is a normal process, knew it was coming, and felt it when it started, but I hate every minute of it. 

Senescence is so weird, because in your mind you still feel like you are about 30.  When I walk across campus, I still gawk at long-legged coeds wearing short skirts, and I enjoy every minute of it.  In fact, now that I am retired and I won't be having any of these girls as students, I can gawk even longer.  Who gives a damn?  It is a challenge to see if I can gawk just up to the point where they would call Campus Security, but not longer than that.  It is a little game I play.  I do keep my hands to myself, however, but I can't promise anything 10 years hence.

But the severity of the situation crystallized for me about two years ago.  Let me set the stage for the anecdote I am about to tell.  A few months prior, my wife turned her ankle in our basement.  It was a really bad sprain; she heard a loud pop when it happened, and she could barely move for weeks.  For about a year after that, the ankle would occasionally "lock up" for no apparent reason, making it almost impossible to walk.  Then, my wife severely damaged her eye, possibly from using a commercial eye product, by chemically burning the cornea so badly that she was blind in that eye for many months.  After a couple dozen visits to the optometrist, she finally had laser surgery in Syracuse to repair the damage.  In my case, I have suffered from severe leg cramps since I was a teenager.  Whenever I do physically exhausting work, like cutting firewood for six hours, or hike a long distance, I tend to get leg cramps so badly that I double over in pain, unable to move until the cramp relaxes.  In the 1960s, I played varsity tennis for Ohio State, and leg cramps were a major issue for me during long matches. 

On the day in question, Robin and I had to go to the drug store to pick up a prescription for Robin's eye problem.  In fact, Robin was wearing a patch over her right eye to protect it from the sun.  We pulled into the Rite Aid and parked very close to the front entrance.  At that very instant, her ankle locked up and I had to help her exit the passenger side of the car.  She leaned heavily on me, given that she was half-blind and lame, as we started to make our way to the entrance of the drug store.  After moving only a few feet, I got tremendous cramps in my legs, which brought me to my knees.  I literally could not move at all.  Robin was still holding on to me and I was now holding onto her, in a mutual fight-for-life embrace that must have been pitiful to witness.  We were both in pain and completely unable to progress forward.  I tried to encourage us: "Robin, we are only 15 feet from the front door of the drug store.  If we can just get inside, I know there is a registered pharmacist in there who can help us".  She looked down at me with her good eye (still on my knees), and I looked up at her (still blind and lame), and we began to laugh so hard it incapacitated us all the more.  A passer-by would certainly think we were two drunks on our way to pick up an Alka Seltzer.

We managed to get inside eventually, my cramps subsided, Robin's ankle came unlocked, and we got her eye medicine.  It was as though the Rite Aid was some kind of healing temple of the gods.  Almost as soon as we got inside the door, half of our ailments went away magically.  If someone ever initiates Sunday morning religious services from this drug store, I will be the first to attend.

This incident was hilarious in many respects, and we have laughed about it many times.  I guess we can find it humorous, in part, because it was only a temporary problem.  We are not permanently disabled the way we appeared to be on that day.  If we were, it would not be nearly as funny.  The incident helped us to appreciate those elderly people who really are that immobile all the time, kind of like putting on a blindfold to appreciate what non-sighted people have to contend with every day.  As a result, I now go out of my way to help women cross a busy street.  However, it doesn't hurt if they have long legs and wear a short skirt.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Gulliver, the red-eyed vireo

(Red-eyed vireo)

One morning in June a few years ago, I went out onto the deck to have my morning coffee. I heard a loud begging squawk of a bird, which was quite persistent and lasted all morning.  Finally, my young son and I went into the yard to investigate.  Bingo!  There on the ground was a young nestling bird, which I determined was a red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus).  About 25 feet above the location of the baby vireo, I could see a nest on a limb of a red maple tree; obviously, the bird had fallen from the nest, which was too high for me to reach.  I always hate these decisions, but the choice was clear: either try to raise the baby by hand-feeding it, or let it die.  Lazy DrTom probably would have let nature take its course, but my empathetic 12-year old son would have none of that.  He was such a cry-baby.

We put the bird in an old bird cage that we had from our daughter's zebra finch days, and then the work began.  The bird was hungry even now, so we started the laborious process of collecting crickets and other insects from the yard, and feeding them to the open mouth of this insectivorous species.  Nestling birds can eat a tremendous amount.  How adult birds can locate and collect enough insects to feed 4-5 ravenous babies has always amazed me.  They eat so much and grow so fast that you can literally see the increase in their body size within a 24-hour period.

The vireo, which we named Gulliver, begged and ate, and we hunted and searched.  This was really getting old. Insects were getting more difficult to find for some reason, even when I used a sweep net.  So I did what most red-blooded Americans do to solve their problems--I went shopping.  I bought mealworms at the local pet store.  This solution was a little expensive, but mealworms are a nice, plump juicy meal, and Gulliver loved them.  So far, so good.  We even took Gulliver on a little trip with us to Hershey Park.  When we got to the park on a really hot afternoon, we left Gulliver in his cage in the car while we reconnoitered a bit.  We returned to the car only about 20 minutes later to find the bird lying on the bottom of the cage, with bird guano all over the car seats.  The poor thing had gone apoplectic before passing out from the heat.  Of course, our son was hysterical (cry baby), so we rushed to our motel room, and hustled the patient into the air-conditioned room.  After applying drops of water to his bill for several minutes, Gulliver lapped up the life-saving liquid and made a remarkable recovery.  Whew!

We returned home that day and decided that it was time for Gulliver to try his wings.  He was now about 12 days old, the time at which he would normally fledge from his nest anyway, so I banded the bird with an aluminum leg band, and set him free.  We didn't know what to expect.  Would he zoom off, never to be seen again, or what.  Quite the contrary.  Because we were his sole source for a well-balanced meal, he was not about to leave the cafeteria.  He stayed very close to the house for several weeks, mostly on the deck railing.  Whenever any of us went outside or came home from work, he immediately flew to us, landed on our shoulder, and begged incessantly.  As the summer continued, he spent more and more time in the forest next to our yard, but I could call him to the deck to feed him.  He was adult size by now and eating quite a bit, so I decided to adopt an economy of scale and order a box of 2,000 crickets from Rainbow Mealworms of California.  On the very day the crickets arrived, Gulliver apparently moved into migration mode and was gone.  Red-eyed vireos spend the winter in South America, so I figured his ancient instincts had kicked in or he had been picked off by a predator during the night, leaving us with beaucoup crickets and no mouth in which to insert them.

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Throughout that winter we often discussed our experience with Gulliver, this interesting little bird that had befriended us.  Had he made it to Argentina?  Did he even know that he was a red-eyed vireo?  Had his instincts developed normally so that he could function as he should?  Our answer came the following spring.  I was standing on the deck one May morning, when a red-eyed vireo landed on the railing for only 1-2 seconds, and then returned to the woods.  Vireos are common in our woodlot, but they never land on our deck.  In addition, I saw the unmistakable glint of a shiny metal band on one leg of the bird.  Gulliver had survived his first migration and returned to the location of his birth.

We never saw Gulliver again after that brief encounter that May morning.  It was almost as if he was signaling to us that he had made it, and to say thanks, and now I'm an adult, and I'm nearby.  I usually hate that anthropomorphic stuff (i.e., making it sound like animals have human emotions), but even DrTom is allowed to slip once in a while.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The taming of the shrew

(A nest of Northern short-tailed shrews, only a few days old.)

Yesterday I found the first nest of northern short-tailed shrews (Blarina brevicauda) I have ever found.  I was transferring some straw from one pile to my compost pile, you know, the one that never reaches 170 degrees.  Beneath the straw were two nests.  One contained 4 or 5 babies, with gray fur and eyes still closed.  I did not measure them, but I estimate that they were about 40mm in length, minus the tail.  The other nest was empty and was about a foot from the babies' nest, but I am sure it was the nest for the mother.  I had no idea that she kept a separate nest from her babies, but she was close enough to detect what was going on with them.  I have captured this species in Sherman live traps many times, and I have watched the adults moving in the woods from time to time, but this was a novel event for me.

Moosejaw Mountaineering

When I uncovered the nest, the babies began to scatter immediately.  I quickly gathered them up and put them back in the nest.  Shrews have a high metabolic rate, and I am sure these babies would die outside of the nest in short order, and it was a cool day.  I returned about an hour later, and they were all gone.  When I left them, they had been sleeping in the nest, all cuddled together (see photo).  I am sure the female returned, realized that the site had been compromised, and moved them.  She probably did this by picking each one up individually in her mouth, and moved them to a new location.  I was unable to locate this new site.

Whitaker and Hamilton's "Mammals of the Eastern United States" give many details about the life history of this interesting mammal.  This species feeds on numerous invertebrates, especially earthworms, slugs, and snails.  They have been known to kill mice and even small birds.  This species is one of only two shrews (and the only one in North America) with venomous saliva, and they are the only mammals in the world to have this feature, which they use to subdue their prey.  The idea is that they are able to paralyze an earthworm and then place it in a food cache for later use; the food item does not die and decompose and yet is unable to crawl away.  Young are born from early spring to late September, and a litter usually numbers 4-6.  Copulation between male and female may last 25 minutes, with the pair locked together, and with the male seemingly inactive and dragged around by the female all the while.  (No wise-crack comments, please.  We are talking real biology here.)  In addition, short-tailed shrews use echolocation (clicks in the range of 30-55 kHz) to navigate their environment, given their extremely small eyes and probable poor eyesight.

I have always maintained that there is still a great deal to learn about shrews and moles, given their relative secrecy and the difficulty observing them.  I also tell students that no matter how much you have seen in nature, I can guarantee there is much more to be seen.  I have been poking around fields and forests for 50 years, and the discovery of this nest taught me yet again that there is much I have to learn.  So get out there and make a new discovery for yourself.  And if you have children, take them with you.   If you have a spouse, you can bring them also, as long as they leave their iPod, and cell phone, and any other electronic thingamabob at home.  Cameras and binoculars are permitted, however.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Let's talk about the word "data"

(The data show a downward trend.)

A pet peeve of mine is the abuse of the word "data", and it has been bugging me for years.  Specifically, commentators on tv and radio, websites, and magazines almost never get the agreement between subject and verb correct, when the subject of the sentence is the word "data".  (From a Google webpage: "There is no data for this view").  The word "data" is plural.  So, for example, a correct sentence would be, "These data are not very interesting".  It is incorrect to say, "The data is foreboding".  I watch CNBC, the business channel, several hours per day during the week when the stock market is open, and those people happily get it wrong all day long.  I'm sick of this!

All scientists know that the word "data" is plural.  Our fear is that our research will produce only a single piece of information, which would be a "datum", the singular of the word "data".  I am sure all economists know the same.  But those who report on science or economics continue to get it wrong.

Wake up media!  Correct yourself!  Set an example!  Be the first in your profession to get this right.  And, by the way, the word is pronounced "day ta"; don't pronounce it like it was spelled "datta".  But that is another subject.  Let's just start with baby steps.

(Addendum: I now have a Cause on Facebook called "The Word "Data" is Plural".  Please join it if you want to support this important movement.  Among my FB friends are many tv commentators (Joan Lunden, Michael Wolff, Ron Insana, Amy Robach, Peggy Noonan, George Stephanopoulos, Contessa Brewer, Alexis Glick, Craig Crawford, Charlie Gasparino, etc.).  If any of them actually pick up on this Cause, maybe we can make an impact.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

DrTom's first Rosh Hashanah

(Adam Sandler.  This guy wrote and sang a song that can help you understand the Jewish holiday that is NOT Rosh Hashanah.)

Next Saturday Robin and I are invited to the home of our son-in-law's relatives to celebrate Rosh Hashanah for the first time in our lives.  Our son-in-law Mitch is Jewish; we are not.  We know nothing about this Jewish holiday, so we feel a bit intimidated, as we will be the only ex-Lutheran and ex-Congregationalist atheists in attendance. 

My wife and I were raised with the custom that when you are invited to someone's home for a meal, you bring an appropriate gift or item to contribute.  What the heck would that be in this case?  Is there a Rosh Hashanah cake we can buy at the bakery?  A Rosh Hashanah pickle or pretzels?  Maybe there is something growing in DrTom's gardens or woods that would work.  Is there anything screaming "Mazal tov! Eat me for Rosh Hashanah"?  Do I have any kosher fungi growing on a log, or kosher fiddleheads (no, that would be in spring), or matzah balls (do they grow in the woods?).

Discover China

We have been to numerous Jewish ceremonies since our daughter married Mitch, so it is not like we know nothing.  Her wedding was great--all that dancing with chairs and stomping glasses on the floor.  Baby-naming ceremonies with good food.  A somber funeral.  Even the briss for my helpless grandson, with all that cutting and blood and wasted foreskin, was bearable.  So much Hebrew spoken at all these events that I now feel so completely at ease with the language that I even utter a couple of remembered words when I smash my finger with a hammer or drop a log on my toes.  The beauty of using Hebrew when you are angry or in pain is that if anyone hears you, they simply think you are breaking into a verse of "Fiddler on the Roof".  But we have no experience with this particular Jewish holiday.

I even listened to that Adam Sandler song several times to get some guidance about Rosh Hashanah, but then realized his song is about that OTHER Jewish holiday, Hannukah.  How does one dress for Rosh Hashanah?  Formal or biz cas?  Should I obtain a yarmulke (pronounced yamaka) to wear?  Maybe you can find one of those at an army-navy surplus store.  And, do I have to drink Mogen David wine at this event or can I order a single-malt?  Does my cigar have to be kosher, or can it just be Nicaraguan?

I have so many questions and I feel so ignorant.  But I guess I will just follow one of my mottos in life for this event, and "Just show up, and be prepared to have a good time".

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The scorpion house

(A scorpion under UV light.  Would you take a shower with this critter?)

Let's go back in time a bit for this anecdote.  I find all organisms absolutely fascinating, from elephants to the malaria parasite. Their morphology, behavior, and physiology are incredible manifestations of natural selection. They are all interesting, often beautiful, and sometimes obnoxious. In my book, scorpions are one of those animals that cause immediate repulsion, with their pair of claws at the front of their brown or black body, and that ominous stinger that they hold over the body in strike readiness. For about a year, my wife and I and our three children rented a farmhouse in Monteverde, a small community in the Tilaran Mountains in Costa Rica. Months after moving there, we passed a local resident on the dirt road who asked where we lived. After describing the location to him, he immediately said without fanfare, “Oh, you live in the scorpion house.”  It turns out that the house was also home to a family of Watson's tree rats, a whistling mouse, some fruit-eating bats, and dozens of species of moths, ants, wasps, katydids, and spiders.

Of course, by that time we had already discovered the fact that the house had a healthy population of a species of black scorpion about three inches long. Why was this fact not advertised by the landlord? Why did the multiple listing book not inform us of this? Why wasn’t the house cleared of this hideous looking invertebrate by Acme Pest Control before our arrival with a 5-year old child? I guess we were not in Kansas anymore.

This stingy occupant of our home could be found almost anywhere in the house, but scorpions like to be in a dark place during the day, and then to move about after dark. We regularly checked the cushions of the sofa, our shoes, the shower curtain, bed pillows, clothes, and closets for the sneaky critters. We acquired a house cat during our stay there, and the best thing about this feline friend was his proclivity to hunt down scorpions in the house. In fact, on Christmas morning 1986, we found a freshly killed scorpion placed carefully on the white sheet beneath the tree where there were precious few gifts that year. Just what I always wanted!

But what about the biology of this 8-legged arachnid? From the DesertUSA website: “Scorpions are predatory. They often ambush their prey, lying in wait as they sense its approach. They consume all types of insects, spiders, centipedes, and other scorpions. Larger scorpions may feed on vertebrates, such as smaller lizards, snakes, and mice if they are able to subdue them. They capture their prey with their pedipalps, paralyzing them with their venom as well if necessary. The immobilized prey is then subjected to an acid spray that dissolves the tissues, allowing the scorpion to suck up the remains”.  Sounds just great.

Scorpions often appeared at night and would crawl on the wooden ceiling or open rafters of this rustic house. One night, my wife and I retired to bed, turned off the light, gave each other a kiss, and then turned our heads in opposite directions to settle in for the night. At that very instant, I felt a light “thump” on the pillow between our heads, in the exact location where we had kissed about 10 seconds before. I just knew from the heft of the thump, what it had to be.  I jumped out of bed, turned on the light, flipped up the pillow, and there was a large scorpion that had already hidden itself beneath the cushiony refuge. I was happy it had not fallen from the ceiling a few seconds earlier. Damn, this is disturbing.

Several weeks later I was taking a shower. I always checked the shower stall thoroughly just to make sure that it was free of “friends”. All clear. I started the water, shampooed my head, and while I was scrubbing away with my eyes closed due to the soap, I felt something crawling up my leg. You guessed it, and I knew it again. I opened my eyes to see the forward progress of a large scorpion, now at knee level and moving rapidly. Another 18 inches higher and this thing would be in DrTom's "no-fly zone".  The scorpion must have been in the drain, and when the water began to flow, it crawled out of the drain and up the nearest vertical structure, which was my left leg. I flicked it off quickly. Geez, is nothing sacred?

During all these close calls, only my wife ever got stung. She was folding clean clothes and patted a scorpion she did not see. The sting is much like a wasp sting, but has a burning sensation that lasts for several hours. Other scorpion species in Arizona and New Mexico are apparently more toxic than this Costa Rican relative. About 10 years after we returned to the states, I visited friends who were living in the scorpion house in Monteverde. In the morning, I put on my jeans hastily and was immediately stung on the inside of my thigh. I ripped off the pants, which I had left on the floor overnight, to find a scorpion inside the leg. I had forgotten what had become a daily routine when we lived there—the vigorous shake of the clothes before you put them on.

I often say that bad memories are better than no memories at all. I am, of course, overstating the case, because our year in Monteverde was truly magical, and it changed our family forever in many ways. But I can do without the daily vigilance that comes with living with an unwanted guest that can inflict pain. Now, when a mosquito or black fly lands on my arm in upstate New York, I look down at the puny wimp and think to myself, “You’re nothin”.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Canning pears as a senior citizen

(A counter full of canned pears.  My kitchen will look like this soon, right?)

Today I intend to can as many of the pears from our pear tree as is humanly possible.  I have been waiting for this day for weeks, as I watch the greenish fruits become more succulent and yellow with every passing August day.  I pruned the tree in January when you are supposed to, enduring bitter cold.  I tried to keep raccoons from climbing the tree and eating the fruit.  I picked up ripe fruits that dropped on the ground before Zeus could eat them.  I have done everything right, and now the moment of truth is here---today---right now.  I can't help it that my wife's sister is visiting; she will just have to peel pears until this important work is done.

I have been checking on our supplies for this job for about a month.  Wide mouth jars-check.  Wide mouth lids-check.  Wide mouth rings-check.  Sugar-----shit.  Holy crap, we need sugar, and lots of it.  And ascorbic acid to prevent spoilage and browning of the fruit.  On my way home from the airport the other day, I stopped at the Candor market and beat out a more elderly lady to load the two remaining bags of sugar from the lowest shelf to my shopping cart.  One disadvantage of aging is that you can not bend over as far or as fast as a younger, 62-year old retiree.  I don't think a woman of her age should be eating sugary foods anyway, so I probably did her a favor.  She might even be a diabetic. 

So with Management's guidance, I carefully went through the steps for proper and safe canning.  Washed the jars and rings in the dishwasher, sterilized the lids in boiling water, mixed up a light sugar water solution, peeled pears, cut them in half, hollowed out the core, placed the pear halves in a clean jar, poured the solution into the jar to within a half inch of the top, put the lid on, tightened down the ring, placed the full jars in the pressure canner on the stove, and waited for it to boil for 10 minutes.  When the boiling was over and the pressure was relieved (these pressure cookers scare the hell out of me), I removed the jar of pears to cool, and waited for the lid to snap down due to the vacuum formed inside the cooling jar.  And voila!  Four beautiful jars of pears.  Four?  What the heck??!!

It turns out that only the pears on top of the basket were ripe, so I could only can a few jars today.  Now I need to wait until the rest of the fruit turns.  I've picked up and squeezed each piece of fruit to check for softness so many times that my hand is cramping.  How long can I sit in this chair watching that basket of fruit?  Does it take longer for paint to dry or for fruit to ripen?  How many more hours will this take?  Will it happen at midnight or early in the morning?  Maybe tomorrow, but I'll be ready.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A brief anatomy of a 41-year marriage

(I don't think I have ever kissed my wife on the beach under a setting sun.  Real life is better than that.)

Today, my wife and I celebrate our 41st wedding anniversary.  Holy crap.  Has it been that long?  We got married young and, as the saying goes, we were so green that if you put us in the ground we would have grown.  Now, we are old enough that we can't remember half of what we have learned.  But this can work to your advantage men.  I have two anniversary cards, on which I have written a very small "e" or "o".  When my wife is finished with the card after receiving it, I collect it and hide it away.  I use the "e" card every even-numbered year, and the "o" for odd years.  No way can she remember the card from two years ago.  They are, however, getting a bit tattered, so I tell her I buy my cards at the vintage store.

My wife has endured more than most wives would tolerate.  Within two months of our wedding, I received a draft notice from Uncle Sam during the height of the Vietnam War.  The biggest argument we have had in 41 years occurred that autumn, as we tried to decide how to play out this dangerous situation.  I wanted to take the military draft, which required two years of service, and she insisted that I enlist for three years in order to get some choice in my military assignment and, hopefully, reduce the chances of going to war as an infantry grunt.  I took her advice and ended up in Korea instead, where she later joined me for a rich experience.  Within 12 years of getting married, we lived in Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Oklahoma, New York, and Korea, thanks to the U.S. Army and the pursuit of my education.  A few years later, we added Costa Rica to the list.

We rented a small house in Korea (our daughter was a baby then), which would fit into the kitchen/dining room area of our current house.  It had no usable bathroom inside or out, and the only running water was a cold water spigot in the gated yard.  We relieved ourselves into a plastic pail, which our Korean mama-san emptied each day outside.  We went to bed every night hoping that the rats fighting overhead would not fall through the paper ceiling into our daughter's crib.  But we learned a lot about life, made many friends, and came away stronger than we went in.  Our daughter's first word was "sei", the Korean word for bird.  My friend and roommate from college was not so lucky, and lost his life in Vietnam after having seen his newborn daughter only once. 

After completing my Ph.D. years later, I accepted my first faculty job at Oklahoma State University.  We arrived there with two kids, an English Setter, and a cat, and had no place to live.  A friend at the university found an unoccupied trailer at the edge of campus for us to use until we found a better place.  It had not been lived in for a couple years, so it was full of dust and cobwebs and spiders about half the size of your fist.  It sat right out in the sun (it was August), and it had no air-conditioning.  That night, we went to bed and lay there with sweat rolling down our faces and I said: "Honey, we have arrived."  We laughed so hard we almost got sick.  But it was then that I realized that the following American cliche may not be as true as we are led to believe: "if you work hard, and you're honest, and you get a good education, then life will be full of tangible rewards".  It is to someone's benefit for us to believe and follow that advice, but to whose benefit exactly?

In the mid-1980s, I got my first sabbatic leave from Cornell.  We decided to spend that year in Costa Rica, so I could learn more about tropical biology.  We rented a farm in Monteverde, a remote village in the Tilaran Mountains.  Because my wife had to quit her job to go, and I had to go on half-salary, we were broke the entire year we were there.  Finding food for a family of five was a real challenge because the local pulperia only got fresh vegetables once a week, which were totally gone two hours after the doors opened that morning.  The nearest town was Santa Elena, about three miles away, but there wasn't a great selection of edibles there and we had no car.  We finally bought a horse for transportation, and that changed the mobility equation quite a bit.  Robin dealt with traumatic injuries for each of our three children that year (broken bones, horse accidents, serious infections) and kept us fed, in a house that we later learned was called The Scorpion House by the locals.  Robin was the only one stung by one of our little friends.  We returned to the U.S. after that life-changing year with $50 to our name and all our credit cards cancelled, so we drove straight through from Florida back to New York, where we lived in our Coleman camping trailer for a month until the lease ran out for the family that was renting our home.

Robin has worked every year of the 41 except for three, and always worked to within 24 hours of giving birth to each of our three children.  She invariably got a job as a nurse within a day or two in every place we lived, then sold real estate, then worked as a marketing director at a life-care facility, and now works from home as a medical abstractor.  Like most women who are mothers, she is the lioness that fiercely protects her cubs, and she has been steadfastly supportive of my goals.  She has won every major argument we have ever had about how to proceed with aspects of our lives and, in hindsight, she was right every time.

When young people ask us what is the secret of staying happily married for so long, we honestly don't know what to say.  I suppose that loving and respecting your mate as much or more than you love and respect yourself, if that is biologically possible, is a key ingredient.  In a previous post, I mentioned that my wife and I have almost nothing in common, but when it comes to the big issues (e.g., kids, politics, religion), we are on the exact same page.  And then comes humor and laughter.  As we did in that sweltering trailer in Oklahoma 30 years ago, we have laughed ourselves to sleep over some event of the day literally thousands of times.  I believe a sense of humor is absolutely essential to making it through this life.

And so now, I will give my wife a kiss on the forehead while I distract her a bit, and collect her anniversary card with the little "o" on it for use in 2011.  Then, Robin, her sister, and I will travel to the Turning Stone Casino for a day of entertainment, and to make our financial fortune.  Now that is a laughing matter.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The missile has landed: my sister-in-law arrives for a visit

(DrTom, about to pick up his sister-in-law at the Binghamton airport.)

Yesterday I picked up my sister-in-law at the Greater Binghamton Airport, whose name is larger than the airport.  The airport has one gate and one luggage carousel.  At the food counter, you can buy bagels or taco chips.  The men's urinals are so narrow and so crowded along the wall that you have to stand sideways to urinate, facing the back of the person standing next to you.  Obviously, all men should face the same direction, but very awkward, nonetheless.  There is only one car to rent there, so you have to wait until it is returned before you can use it.  Did I say the airport was small?

When I picked up Susie, I went dressed as you see in the photo above.  I went to fetch Susie alone, because my wife is on a strict deadline with her work.  I wanted to be sure she found me, and I did not want to pick up the wrong sister-in-law.  After all, I have only known her for 43 years, but I have not seen her in a few months.  She could have grown a couple of inches since our last meeting, she might have dyed her hair a different color, or she might have lost her freckles.  You just never know in this era of extreme makeovers.  Twelve people got off the plane, so it only took us minutes to find each other, thanks to the sign I was carrying with her name on it.  I spelled her name incorrectly on the sign I was carrying (I never had to write her name before), but it was close enough for her to understand. 

On the way back to Danby, I drove through Apalachin, Owego, and Candor, to give her a taste of our Southern Tier communities.  We stopped at the little market in Candor for some canning supplies.  I bought the last two bags of sugar on the shelf before the elderly lady in front of me could bend over to get them.  We also needed ascorbic acid, but "We don't sell no stinkin acid in here.  Why would you want to mix acid with your pears?"  I didn't have the energy to provide a complete answer, so we moved on before that elderly lady caught up to us.  I really needed that sugar.

We arrived home safely, but exhausted from dealing with a regional airport and the Candor market.  After our frog walk and tree identification session, I let Susie rest before we went to dinner in Ithaca.  And the trip to Madeline's Restaurant constituted another exciting adventure, which I will describe someday.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Susie is coming

(A mosquito on human skin.  Don't worry Susie, the mosquito that carries yellow fever will arrive in Ithaca due to global warming, but not for another three decades.)

Tomorrow my sister-in-law arrives from Cleveland for a 3-day weekend.  You all know what this means, right?  It means that my wife can not possibly be on the phone with her sister in Ohio, because her sister will be in New York.  The significance of this is that I could cut firewood this weekend in safety.  You will remember that my wife insists that I take the landline phone with me, which has an intercom feature to the house.  If I get in trouble, cause there are some "widow-makers" out there in the woods, I am supposed to call the ex-ER nurse for help.  Normally when I try this safety feature, the line is busy because my wife is talking to her sister in Ohio, so I would bleed to death, or whatever.

But my sister-in-law will not let me cut firewood this weekend, or mow the lawn, or weed the garden, or do any productive work.  She is coming to have a good time in Danby and, dammit, we will show her a good time. 

I have many activities planned; I hope she likes them.  First, we are going for a frog walk late Saturday morning.  I have a nice variety of species on the property, and they are quite interesting.  Then, we are going to work on our tree identification.  My sister-in-law only knows a few trees, but we have several dozen tree species native to the Danby area.  I have an extra field identification book, Susie, so don't bother to buy one in the airport. Saturday night will be very special.  I found a dead raccoon by the side of the road a couple of days ago.  Because Susie is an Operating Room nurse, I thought she might enjoy comparing the internal anatomy of this common mammal to that of humans.  Should be very instructive, and the raccoon was not all that bloated.  Sunday morning, we go birding in a nearby swamp followed by a breakfast at Dan's Diner, where eggs, bacon, grits, and home fries only contain 52 grams of fat.  This "fuel" will give us plenty of energy to take a leisurely hike through Poison Ivy Hollow in the evening.  Just before our walk, I will show her the site where our gas station used to be before it burned down, and we will visit the abandoned IGA store a short distance away.  It is fun to look through the big window at the IGA; I can show you where the ketchup used to be stocked on the shelves.

Best of all, you don't need to bring anything special, Susie.  I have plenty of calamine lotion, tick repellent, and iodine for scratches.  Then, at the end of the day, we can sit in our woods and enjoy a nice cold V8 together, and see who can find the Big Dipper first.  I can hardly wait to begin!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Results of an unreplicated sweet corn experiment

(The scientific method can be applied to some things that are practical in everyday life.)

The other day I reported ("Corn and crust") that I bought six ears of sweet corn at Iron Kettle Farm, and we ate four of them.   They were great, and I can only assume that the two ears we did not eat would have been just as good.  A couple of days after that, I bought a dozen ears at the same farm, and fixed them for students that very night.  They were not nearly as good as the six I had purchased earlier. Tonight, five days after buying the first batch of great corn, I ate it for dinner.  The two ears I ate tonight were not as good as their siblings of five days ago, but they were definitely better than the second batch that was eaten the day I bought it.  Are you following this?  I just gave you the Introduction, Methods and Materials, and Results section of this scientific paper all in a few sentences.  Try to keep up, especially if you received a C in my Field Biology course years ago.

Conclusion and Discussion: that while eating corn as soon after picking is important to its taste, that is not as important as the exact stage the corn was in when it was picked.  Picking at the height of its sweetness is the main factor in quality.  I have no idea how to determine this perfect time for harvesting; perhaps, corn farmers can explain.  An alternative explanation is that the second batch of corn was NOT picked the day I bought it, although the sign at Iron Kettle said it was "picked this morning".  So there you go.  Use of the scientific method applied to something very practical.  Who said my education was esoteric, irrelevant, and nerdish? Oh, that would be my niece, Andrea.

Literature Cited:  none.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Birding "au naturelle"

(A Sean John underwear model.  Now, this man is dressed appropriately to go birding in DrTom's woodlot.)

I like to sit on my deck in the nude on a warm, sunny day.  Nothing wrong with this.  It feels great and no one can see me except the Management and Zeus, although low-flying aircraft that circle overhead make me wonder sometimes.  I hate having a "farmer's tan", so either get a complete tan or don't get one at all.  On occasion, I will even venture out into the yard to check the garden donning nothing except a pair of Crocs.  Pretty bold for an old guy, but I've earned the right.  After all, it is not like I am strutting around naked in a national park or anything.  This is MY property, and no one can see me from the road.  But there is a potential glitch in the security of this activity.

A few times, I have even gone further from the house than my psychological tether normally allows.  Once I crossed over the driveway and a little wooden bridge over a drainage ditch, and entered the forest 150 yards from the house, walking along a path I keep mowed there.  On this particular occasion, I had taken the hand-set phone with me, thinking I would call one of my sons and brag how I am bird-watching in my birthday suit.  They think I am half crazed anyway, so why not really give them something to talk about.  It is always enjoyable to me when I can shock the younger generation, who thinks that senior citizens sit around and listen to polka music all day.  But at that moment, I heard a very disturbing sound--a car was coming up the driveway, which is located between the house and me.  The path to my pants was disrupted big time, but the flow of adrenaline was not.

The car drove up to the house, and three people got out.  I saw clearly through my binoculars that it was some former students of mine, two females and a male.  Ouch!  What to do?  Think MacGyver, think.  The problem was that Robin did not know I had taken this little safari nude, so when she saw the students, I was sure she would just tell them I was in the woods and to go find me.  I had only seconds to figure this out.  I got it.  I used the intercom feature on the phone (please do not be talking to your sister in Ohio), called my wife, and told her to take a pair of my pants and a shirt and to throw them down the basement stairs.  I would explain later.  Then, take the students onto the deck at the back of the house and keep them there until you see me.

I waited a couple of minutes for my wife to complete her assignment.  As long as my wife did not do something dyslexic, like throw my clothes on the deck and take the students into the basement, I should be ok. I sneaked through the woods to the side of the house opposite the deck, avoiding thorny raspberry bushes at all costs, zipped into the basement, got dressed, and came upstairs as if I had been organizing my tools down there.   Fortunately, Management had executed her instructions properly, and we lived happily ever after, although the students wondered why I appeared from the basement with a phone in one hand and binoculars around my neck.  Since then, I don't take excursions around the property without, at least, wearing a pair of my Sean Johns.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The big sting

(My friend Ida Lydiya, a Latvian immigrant who allows me to cut firewood on her property.)

For nearly 30 years I taught a course titled Introductory Field Biology at Cornell.  The course had many field trips to local natural areas where we could find amphibians, bog plants, and other features or organisms of natural history interest.  Near the end of the semester, I would bring the class to my property for our afternoon 3-hour lab.  I would talk about the birds' nests I had found the previous summer, woodlot management, forest ecology, control of invasive woody plants, etc.  But I always told the students when we arrived at the site that the property belonged to a widow who lived there named Ida Lydiya, who, I told them, immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s to escape the Latvian revolution

I explained to the students that Mrs. Lydiya and I had an agreement.  I could cut firewood on her property, but I would give her 1/3 of what I cut for her to use in her wood stove in the winter.  This is a common agreement here in upstate NY, and is referred to as cutting firewood for "shares".  When we visited my property, it was always in October, the time of year when I had numerous piles of cut firewood scattered around my woodlot, often 100-200 yards from the house.  And October is the month I move firewood to the back of the house in preparation for use in November.  So the wood needed to be moved, and it is a huge job for one person, and I was getting older, and my children had left home, and my wife was not interested in this activity, and the wood was not going to move itself.  So I told the students that it would be a nice gesture to Mrs. Lydiya to move her share of the wood behind the house, in payment for letting us visit her property for this field trip.  Every year, the students would dutifully drop their notebooks and backpacks, pick up an armful of wood, and march to the house with their booty.  The class usually had about 40 students, so 3-4 trips per student resulted in a significant amount of work accomplished.  Isn't this the way the Pyramids at Giza were constructed?

When it was nearly time to board the bus for the return to campus, I would stop the wood-moving.  At that point, I explained that the name Ida Lydiya could be pronounced "I'd a lied to ya".  To watch the expressions on their faces at that point was worth every minute I had spent teaching these sophomores and juniors the previous two months.  There was always the danger that they could have become an angry mob at that point and turn on the old man, but they laughed and admitted it was a pretty good joke.  In addition, I opened the garage door at that instant, revealing a table full of donuts and apple cider.  Nothing calms down a 20-year old like the prospect of receiving a slug of sugar.  But the amazing thing was that one class apparently never revealed the secret to students who would take the course the following year.  They were naive about this subterfuge every single year for over a decade.