Friday, July 30, 2010

In Which It Finally Rains

We have a summer rainy season out here in the Desert Metropolis that usually starts sometime between June 24 and July 4. The actual beginning date used to be reckoned by three consecutive days of a dew point at 55% or higher. Pretty simple and straightforward, but it meant the beginning date was assigned retrospectively. It used to be a big deal: Dia de San Juan is June 24, and there's a big fiesta downtown, and the bishop blesses the River, and everybody prays or hopes for rain.

However, in the spirit of the infinite wisdom that says 'if it ain't broke, let's tinker with it anyway,' the National Weather Service and Powers That Be decided to change the beginning of the rainy season to an arbitrary date, June 15 (yea, the beginning of hurricane season, a weather phenomenon that never happens out here). Dia de San Juan seems anti-climatic now somehow.

This year, the unofficial but real, reckoned-by-dew-point, start date was July 9, but it's been a pretty dry rainy season so far. All it's done was spit at my house twice since then. And I mean spit, something like 8 drops of rain have fallen. Yes, few enough that I could count. But this morning, sometime after midnight, a real, honest-to-goodness storm hit, with thunder crashing and lightning flashing and over an inch of rain in my unofficial rain gauge. [It's a big rubber storage box sitting at the edge of my patio, and thus far away from any overhanging eaves that might funnel water into it, and in which rain depth is measured by my index finger. Kitchen science!] I sleep with my windows open, so the storm woke me up. I reached up and flipped the wooden shutters closed, and counted between flashes and crashes. One Mississippi, two Mississippi...

It's a rare treat to fall asleep in the desert listening to raindrops beat a tattoo on the roof. It was lovely.

Friday, July 23, 2010

In Which I Walk to London

Well, not really, of course. But I've been keeping a walking log for years, and just went from page 24 to page 25, which means that it was time to add up my miles and see how far I'd walked.

3,585.41 miles.

Yup, I've walked over 3,500 miles. New York to London is 3,471 miles, so if there wasn't a pesky little ocean in the way, I could have walked to London from the house I grew up in. If I can multiply that number of total miles walked by 7 before I die, I'll have walked around the circumference of the earth.

If I average 300 miles a year, that means it would take me just over 83 years to walk around the earth. I probably have over 60 years to go at this rate, and I don't know if I'll be able to walk 300 miles a year when I'm over 100 (which is where I'll be in 60 years). I'd better start walking more!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

In Which I Resemble a Medical Experiment Gone Wrong

Okay, I write this to you with one hand. The other is firmly being sat upon to keep me from using it to scratch my back. My hopes were in vain. Last year, I survived the first two Chinese medicine summer herbal plasters without blisters and just some itching. That changed with treatment 3. Blisters erupted (sorry if that's too much information--apparently the Chinese are the only people in the world who think you can slap a mustard plaster down on exposed skin and survive). Life was miserable for a few weeks. And then it went away. And the memory of the horror receded.

So I wondered this year: would my skin be tougher, having survived Round 1 of The Treatment From Hell? Or would my skin be more sensitive and immediately surrender to freaky science fiction looking, medical mystery status? The latter won. Sunday night was okay, but overnight, while I slept the just sleep of the tired tucked safely in my bed with a certain little piebald kitty on my chest, my back was transformed into something resembling what was probably a common sight during the plague years.

Now, my friend T, who is undergoing this penance, too, and I are modest women of a certain age. But we have been calling each other to exchange horror stories. She stopped by on her way to the grocery store last night, and I immediately whipped up the back of my t-shirt to flash my  beleaguered back to her. There's nothing like a shared nightmare to make all modesty fly out the window. This always happens in science field stations, too. People who were complete strangers a week before will happily discuss things one normally only details to your doctor, like their gastro-intestinal tracts and a catalog of insects which have burrowed into the skin, like lifelong friends and bosom buddies. Two of my coworkers, both mothers and therefore immune to shock, have asked to see my back.

Why do this, you sanely ask? Well, because it did work. While my coworkers were sneezing left and right this spring, I had nary a sniffle. The possibility of having my allergies vanquished for good is too tempting. One coworker asked me which was worth it: enduring this for no sneezing, or just suffering through my allergies but not being so itchy and red and plague victim looking. I have such miserable allergies here, and they last months long. I've decided that sacrificing myself for science is the better option. Stay tuned next spring, when we'll see if the Return of the Allergies occurs. Will Mossy invest in pallets of tissues and Sudafed as in years past, or will she trip lightly through spring, breathing deeply and freely and pitying her snorky friends as they sneeze their way to misery? Only time will tell.

The sad thing is I'm pet-sitting for J, who is off to San Diego to do sciency things. She left me the key to her community pool. But I really don't want to frighten anyone. In general, my pale, pasty, succumbing-to-gravity body would be frightening enough, but right now my back looks like I should be in some isolation ward somewhere. Don't want anyone trying to have me quarantined.

Although more vacation would be nice...

Monday, July 19, 2010

In Which I Itch

Remember those herbal Chinese medicine plasters I mentioned a few months ago, that had really worked to keep my allergies at bay until the sirroco that blew through the Metropolis in April and nearly blew the town over made me finally start sneezing? Well, my acupuncturist emailed me last week to see if I wanted to participate in the experiment again, and like an idiot I said yes. I mean, after all, it did work, I didn't sneeze, and she had told me last year that in China they do this plaster thing for 3 successive years to treat the allergies for good. So yesterday, I went. I only left them on for an hour and a half (not the three she told me to). Today my back is itching so bad I could scream. And I would if the only coworker here in my office today and not on vacation was not here. ARGH!!!!! I must be crazy!  Please oh please, do not let these erupt into weeping blisters like the final treatment last summer. ARGH!!!!!!!!

Seriously, I must be crazy. I need a slap upside the head.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

In Which A Pretty Flower is Offered to You

My Mexican bird-of-paradise bushes are blooming. I love these flowers. My bushes are the babies of my neighbors' bush, and I hope that every year more will self-seed down the property line between our houses so that I can have a lovely row of these hummingbird favorites.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In Which I Get to Continue Celebrating

When I was back east last month, I mentioned to my dear friend L that she and Mr. JD needed to go back to Maine to vacation because my favorite tea mug, which she bought me there many years ago, had chipped and I needed a new one. Who cares if she wants to go somewhere else (Myrtle Beach--c'mon. It's hurricane season, who wants to go there?)--it's all about me. Well, sweet L went online and ordered me a new mug for my birthday! Hooray!! My subtle ploy worked! LOL  Anyway, thank you, my dear friend, for my new mug, which I will use tomorrow morning and think of you every time I use it. Here it is, with its older sibling, which will now be retired so it doesn't chip more, and the delicious-smelling wild blueberry tea that she sent along with it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

In Which I Answer the Burning Question:

How much of a nerd am I?

You probably thought I was just being coy referring to myself as the Nerdy Scientist. However, to prove my nerdiness, let me tell you what happened last night.

Lady Scientist J's intern is leaving after a year with us to attend graduate school, so we took her out to a nice pizza place (where we've eaten before. Fancier than most pizza parlors, but still a friendly atmosphere; it's across the street from the university). J had bought her a going away present. Intern L opened it up, gasped, and started blubbering "Thank you! Thank you!" and held it up for the rest of us (6 other lady scientists) to see. We all gasped and started clapping. Everyone in the pizza parlor turned to see what was going on. Then they looked at us like we were crazy. J had given L her very own set of---calipers!!

They probably didn't know what calipers were, or why anyone would get so excited about one. But L will use them as as intrinsic part of her basic analysis, so it was a way of patting her on the back while also stating J's confidence in L's future. And she's starting to build her own tool set, which every scientist should have.

We carefully passed the calipers around, each admiring them. Lady Scientist (the other) J was eying them a little too covetously, as they were 16-inch calipers, and she doesn't have any this large (she has 12-inch). Original J told us that our general support person has made Lab 8 their own set of improvised giant calipers using yard sticks with metric notations on them (the accuracy has been tested, and they are remarkably accurate). There was much sighing of envy and mental notations to ask him to make one for other labs going on while munching of delicious salad and pizza began.

And that, Gentle Readers, is how nerdy we are.

ETA: Original typographic mistake labeled this one "In Which I Answer the Buring Question," which is way too close to 'boring,' as appropriate as that might have been! Okay, Nerdy Scientists like science and bad puns and stupid jokes.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

In Which I Reveal a Secret Dream

Long time Agatha Christie fan that I am, I watched David Suchet on the Orient Express on PBS the other night. (You can watch it here, online, for the next few weeks!) What elegance, what luxury! I would love to travel on the Orient Express one day. But I'm pretty sure the lowly life of a nerdy scientist living in genteel poverty will not ever allow this wish to come true. So watching this was as close to being there as I'll get. And it was wonderful! Mr. Suchet (yes, he is the perfect Hercule Poirot) was so delightful a guide, so charming. He was genuinely delighted by everything on the train, by the crew, by the food, by the elegance and luxury, by the sights, by the little things that normally escape notice. He was utterly charming when they let him drive the train: "Every little boy's dream! I can't believe I'm driving the Orient Express!" he kept exclaiming, over and over. Sweet and charming. He seemed genuinely surprised that the crew would want to meet him, that the producers of the train would arrange for a vintage car to drive him to Calais. I do hope he's as charming and delightful in real life as he was in this program, because I think I'm in huge crush with him.

How old a fan am I of Agatha Christie? My aunt and godmother used to read the books, and I remember reading her copies in the summer while we were staying with her at the shore when I was knee high to a grasshopper. Well, okay, I'm too tall to have ever been knee high to a grasshopper, and I really don't ever want to meet an insect that I'm knee high to (can you tell I watched two episodes of Doctor Who last night?). Some of my happiest memories are reading Christie when it was raining and we couldn't go to the beach, curled up on the porch, smelling ocean and salt and damp, rain drumming overhead and sometimes blowing through the jalousie windows. The books are a tie to a special time and place and wonderful lady long gone but living still in the wistful corners of my memory.

Don't worry, Gentle Reader. I harbor a secret wish that secret dreams really can come true. Lady Scientist J and I were walking the Canyon yesterday, and she told me of a friend of hers who is living in her dream house on the bluff. The dreamer in question patiently worked for 30 years or so to make her dream a reality. So I will remain hopeful. I will plug away.

I made my desk top background a photo of a dream house I've admired for years as a reminder to myself. I hope the owners didn't think I was stalking them when I took the photo...

Friday, July 9, 2010

In Which What's Old is New Again

I recently watched a 2008 documentary called "Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, and the Presidency" and was once again reminded that there is nothing new under the sun, history is cyclical, and that we've been there, done that. The problems that beset the young country in the early half of the nineteenth century, the infighting, the politicking, the scandal--if your eyes were closed, you'd have thought the narrator was talking about the 1990s or the 2000s, not the 1830s. But it was heartening to realize that we've been through this before (the Bank War sound familiar, anyone?) and survived, and will again. What a timely slice of history to examine more closely.

I love history, and I especially love history that's easy to swallow. A nice production that moved faster than it's two hours, without too much of an emphasis on dramatic reconstructions with modern actors (not my favorite production tool). I knew the sketchy outline of the Jackson presidency, but really didn't remember much of what I learned in American History classes in high school (that was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth). I thought it educational and interesting without being pedantic (and felt virtuously superior to having broadened my mind rather than indulged my usual summer evening television fare of old reruns). It's hard, when it's 105 degrees Farenheit outside, to muster up enough energy to tackle weighty scientific or historic problems, or to decide what to cook for dinner, for that matter. History light on a hot summer night is just perfect.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

In Which I Admit a Crush on Jacques, and New Found Appreciation for Squirrels

Last month, Turner Classic Movies held a day-long event, showcasing some of the hour-long Jacques Cousteau documentaries made back in the 1970s. I recorded those with any historical aspect to them, or even pseudo-historical or pseudo-scientific (yup, that includes the two-parter on Atlantis--insert cheesy wink here), and have been watching them one at a time in a glorious burst of childhood nostalgia. All I have to do is start the program, and I'm instantly transported back to my parents' living room, bad 1970s hair and all, where I sat watching these when they originally aired. I can even smell my dad's pipe tobacco.

And despite the risk of sounding like a fangirl, I think I have a slight crush on Jacques Cousteau. That cocky little red knit hat, that mauve suit worn to a museum--who but a French man would wear a mauve suit, even in the 1970s? I always thought my inspiration to grow up to be a Nerdy Scientist was National Geographic, and the many, many hours spent pouring over those as a girl (I always thought that would be a great ploy to get a Nat Geo grant--"but you inspired me to become the Nerdy Scientist I am today!" but, alas, alack, to no avail). But as I watch these documentaries, I'm remembering the thrill at hearing someone described as an "historian and explorer" when I was young, and thinking that must be the best life and I Want to Be That. So maybe Jacques and Marlin Perkins both deserve some credit for My Life as a Nerdy Scientist. I'm pretty sure my mother doesn't want to take credit for it.

Have you read the brief article earlier this week in the Science section of the New York Time about gray squirrels? Squirrels are not common out here in the desert. so when I was Back East last month, I enjoyed watching their antics. And I've always liked Squirrel Nutkin. The article reports on some fascinating recent research into squirrel life and behavior. You'll never look at that little guy the same way again. In fact, he may even earn a smidgen of your respect for his adaptability and indestructivenss.

And, if you like gardens, you must read Adam Nicolson's appreciation of living in Sissinghurst (yes, that Sissinghurst).Wonderfully evocative, with phrases like "an orrery of beauty" and "hymn to transience."

Monday, July 5, 2010

In Which We Unplug

Last year my older sister asked me to participate in an Unplugged Day on Memorial Day. I asked her this year if she wanted to do it again, and as we'd missed Memorial Day, we chose Independence Day as our Unplugged Day. Declarinng our independence from electronica, cyberspace, and immediacy.

I almost feel guilty agreeing to these days with her. It's so very easy for me to unplug. I do it often. Nothing good on tv? I read a book or crochet. I never read my email on the weekends. I don't text message anyone (I can't make my thumbs do that, and besides, I'd rather talk for 15 seconds or listen to a voice mail message).  The only thing I missed, and not even that too strongly, was reading the NY Times over breakfast. I am no slave to gadgets.

I unplugged by eating breakfast outside (the temperature was less than 85 degrees Farenheit--gotta' take advatage of that). Then I had a Fourth of July picnic with my friend T and M. No grilling--too hot as M had asked it be a lunch picnic instead of dinner. I served flank steak soft tacos, a peach and tomato salad, and an eggplant, tomato and zucchini salad. The salads were delicious! (You can find the recipes on the Cooking Light website.) M brought a cucumber salad, and T brought over her new ice cream maker and made soft serve vanilla ice cream with mangos and strawberries. My word, how I love good food!

I also read Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James. Well written and erudite, as you'd expect from Baroness James. I do disagree with her assertion that the Golden Age type mysteries are out of vogue. Modern examples that mimic that subgenre may not have the same class and social distinctions that characterized detective fiction in the Golden Age, but today's cosies emulate their structure--amateur detective, closed social and physical settings, little to no blood or violence. Her examples of the best of today's detective fiction were all titles that have been critically acclaimed, and often transcended the genre to fiction. Admittedly she was only concerned with English books (and yea for me, I'd read many she mentioned specifically), but there are plenty of modern English cosies. Personally, my reading and movie-viewing habits have definitely changed since September 11. I don't read or watch violence; I just can't. I don't read anything in which harm is done to small children. Life is very hard out there--I want to escape that when I'm reading. Ms. James discusses detective fiction as escapism at length, but feels the modern detective fiction reader will not accept less than realism. I disagree. Regardless, we both love our mysteries.

Baroness James did, however, make one assertion at the beginning of the book that made me sit up with a start. I quote "But perhaps the most interesting example of a mainstream novel which is also a detective novel is the brilliantly structured Emma by Jane Ausen." She laid out her support for this statement in the rest of the paragraph. It's been about 4 or 5 years since I reread Emma. I think I must read it again with her argument in the back of my mind.

I confess to being a slave to my animals, though.

Friday, July 2, 2010

In Which I Hike the AT

A small portion of the Appalachian Trail crosses the northwestern part of New Jersey, some of it through High Point State Park. While I was on vacation last week, I hiked a short length of it. Gorgeous! Overwhelming verdure for this desert dweller. Silence, except for a few birds twittering invisibly in the canopy somewhere. Solitude, not a single person for most of the time. I met two brothers who were walking the New Jersey section of the AT, from the Delaware Water Gap to the New York State Line. I also walked sections of two other trails, including the Iris trail. I do so want to return and hike some more. It was so peaceful, so relaxing. I felt as if I'd stepped back in time into the late 1700s, when New Jersey was a beautiful paradise of small farms and woodland, stretching as far as the eye could see. What a beautiful jewel tucked away in the corner!