Sunday, December 23, 2007

Drama in the mealworm dish

Chilibelina the leopard gecko, visiting during college winter break, lay sleeping with her head propped on her water dish. She sleeps with her front legs extended, their undersides turned up like a person lying on her stomach on the beach. I can’t figure out how she can be comfortable without upper-body support, letting the rim of the water dish press into her throat. Any of us humans would be choking.

I was also watching the mealworms because one woke up and raised its upper half as if trying to see over the edge of the food dish. Mealworms appear to have legs only on the front half, starting behind the head and extending under the next three segments. My son tells me that when not covered with white vitamin powder and looked at through a magnifying glass, they appear to have goofy smiley-faces. I find them creepy because they’re more like caterpillars than real worms. Real worms are very good things and do not turn into moths.

Anyway, this one mealworm decided to move and went plowing, albeit very slowly, into the side of another worm that lay crosswise in front of it. Worm #2 woke up—if they even do things like wake and sleep—raised its head, and lay back down again. Now # 1 and 2 are lying with heads side by side, asleep or in conference, while a third worm who is underneath worm 1 lifted its upper end and, legs flailing, tried to crawl out from under 1 by heaving itself over worm 2. He got half-way over and stopped to rest. Then he got started again, disturbing worm 1 who shifted slightly. It’s like watching the mealworm version of Desperate Housewives.

Friday, December 14, 2007

matilda update

Matilda has been getting ready to shed, turning dull and gray, spending her days curled in her Kleenex box (the variety printed with roses and a green background). Yesterday she poked her head out but couldn’t have seen much because even the keratin over a snake’s eyes becomes thick and dull, obscuring their vision. It must be like trying to see through fogged glasses. I check her frequently, hoping to catch her in the act of peeling out of the old skin. I’ve only managed it once.

The snakes I’ve seen at the zoo, pet stores, or biology labs are generally busy doing nothing. By contrast, Matilda is quite active. When not waiting to shed, she comes out of her box every evening to explore her tank. When I take her out and let her slide around my arms and shoulders, she seems very intent on going somewhere, though I doubt she knows where any more than I do.

I like tree boas and vipers for their bright green color and I think boas are not particularly attractive, to put it tactfully. They have clunky heads and grim expressions. Corn snakes like Matilda have sleek heads and round pupils that make them appear more like us. Try looking at the narrow, vertical pupil of a viper’s eye and then look at a corn snake’s eye. With the latter, you’ll feel a sense of recognition. This has nothing to do with the snake and everything to do with us, which is why I can also say that corn snakes have a cute, amiable expression, when they technically have no expression at all. They are among the prettiest of snakes. I hope Matilda sheds soon. She looks very uncomfortable right now. I can only compare it to that pre-menstrual feeling of bloat and irritation that female readers, at least, will understand.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

the teeth of an Airedale

People who walk Airedales get used to cars stopping in the middle of the road and people shouting, “Airedale!” after which a conversation ensues. Generally the other person has an Airedale or used to and both of you agree this is the best of all possible dogs. Today when I was walking my dogs, a car pulled up to a stop sign and from it came a different shout: “The biggest teeth of all dogs!” Being several yards away by that time, I just turned around and waved.

It happens to be true that Airedale terriers have very large teeth, along with very strong jaws. Being deep-chested dogs, they also have loud, deep voices. When they play, their growls sound to the uninitiated as if they are killing each other. The time you want to worry about an Airedale is when it’s being quiet.

Which brings me to my confession. A few weeks ago the silver-laced Polish hen got out of the coop, Keeper the Airedale bitch immediately grabbed the chicken, and I grabbed Keeper. Darwin hopped around barking, as he does when anything exciting is happening. I tried the trick where you fold the dog’s lips over its teeth and press down so that the discomfort will make the dog loosen its grip. Nope. Also no hope of prying the dog’s jaws apart. So I gave her a good smack on the butt and wrested the chicken away when she opened her mouth. You are not supposed to hit dogs or children.

Other than losing a few feathers, the chicken was fine but I think she could have used a few drops of whiskey to perk her up. After I put her back in the coop, she stood there in shock, beak agape, panting. It took her a while to unfreeze and go back to pecking at her crumbles.

I felt guilty because this was my fault. Yet it was also just part of the perilous life of a chicken. Chickens can live fifteen years, yet few do. It’s a dangerous world.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sharing space with the local wildlife

I am not surprised to be sharing chicken feed with a rat. It dug a nice little tunnel under the wire on the south side of the coop. I’ve contemplated putting out a trap during the nights when the chickens are locked up.

The rat doesn’t worry me as much as the raccoon in the neighbors’ yard. I first saw it at night crossing the road to the bushes at the side of their property. A few days ago, I saw it in their driveway when I went out to get the morning paper. I took a few steps closer, then stood very still. The raccoon slowly bobbed its head around, as if trying to catch a current of scent of something it could not see.

I’ve since read that raccoons’ daytime vision is good, so I was left wondering if the slow movements indicated a sick raccoon or if the animal was habituated to people. So far it does not seem to have entered my yard but it must have been close-- the dogs spend a lot of time coursing back and forth along the fence between that neighbor’s property and mine. I hope the raccoon avoids the dogs because I certainly want them to avoid it and any diseases it might carry.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Are your chickens happy?

Most people who have stood around watching chickens have seen them play what we call chicken football. A chicken finds a worm, calls out, “Wowser, a yummy worm,” and takes off running with it in her beak while all the others chase after her, trying to get it. There’s also a scientific term for it: worm running.

Scientists at Washington State University stood around watching a lot of chickens do a lot of running—17 flocks of 12 White Leghorns in each flock. They studied the chicks at 8-12 days old and at 68-70 days old. They used fake worms because all a chicken needs to trigger the behavior is an object that sticks out on each side of its beak and looks wormy.

The point of the study was to find out if there was any correlation between the bird that gets the worm and its rank in the flock. They did not find one. The study also noted that when a chick found a “worm,” she uttered particular sounds that called attention to the prize. The set of behaviors associated with worm running suggested that the chicks were not seriously competing for the prize. Instead, they were exhibiting “play behavior.”

One study cannot definitively prove that chickens play. But chicken keepers can declare that worm running is a game because we’ve seen the chickens at it and we find it very entertaining to watch them run full-out, switching directions so quickly that you’d think they’d fall over.

Given that unhappy critters don’t feel playful, the authors suggest—in more formal terms—that if you see your chickens playing football, they’re a happy flock.

Cloutier, S., Newberry, R., Honda, K., 2004, Comparison of social ranks based on worm running and aggressive behaviour in young domestic fowl, Behavioural Processes, #65, 79--86

Friday, November 2, 2007

photo of the slum

With Airedale butt.

Crested Polish Chickens

Polish chickens are like fluffy bobble-head dolls. Their heads dart around like those of regular chickens and their poof of head-feathers bobs in the opposite direction. One of mine has such thick feathers on her head that I'd have to lie prostrate on the ground and look up in order to see her eyes peering out from underneath.

For about a hundred years scientists argued about the relative intelligence of Polish chickens compared to others. Charles Darwin wrote about a crested hen that couldn't find her way back to her feeding station after he moved her a hundred yards away. Then in 1959 a scientist by the name of Requate trimmed the feathers of their crests and found that they reacted to stimuli (science talk for things like offering worms or making noises) in the same way as other chickens. I don't know if his results were confirmed. If his experiment can't be replicated, it's not valid science. He may have just been dealing with exceptional crested chickens.

So the mind of the Crested Polish chicken may still be a matter for debate. What's certain is that the shape of their heads is different. Their brains and skulls been studied extensively by two scientists at the University of Dusseldorf, Germany. Frahm and Rehkamper pose the age-old chicken-and-egg question:

"Does the feather crest eventually alter the shape of the skull and thus the brain, or are the alterations in brain shape the cause of the protuberance and the feather crest?"

Yet another profound evolutionary question to which we may never have an answer.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A slum for chickens

Several weeks ago when a woman who keeps very pampered chickens said she needed a home for her two Polish hens because the larger hens picked on them, I said, “I’ll take them. I just have to figure out some kind of housing and it’s easy to build a pen with metal posts and wire.”

It is easy to get metal posts into the ground here, unlike my previous house where you had to break the hardpan with a pick. That was the only easy part. After a few weekends and many trips to the hardware store, I have built a slum for chickens. The slum has sides of chicken wire reinforced with hardware cloth, as a normal chicken pen is supposed to. But the wire sags. The wire draped across the top of the pen sags. There’s a creative use of scrap wood and branches around the sides. The coop is a small hutch I ordered from Murray McMurray hatchery. It gives the hens a place to perch at night and is dry inside but that’s about all it offers. On the upside, the pen did not blow down in the windstorm of a few days ago that left all the neighbors’ poplar leaves in my yard with a litter of broken branches.

The Polish girls have definitely come down in the world from their previous abode where they perched in a generously-sized coop that was painted and decorated like a child’s play house and had a separate nest area. They spent the day in a professionally built chain-link enclosure that no dog, coyote, or raccoon can break into. The first evening they were here, they grew very restless in their little hutch as the sky darkened, as if wanting to get out of there and go home. I understood their feelings.

Fortunately, chickens have short memories. Unlike me, they have now forgotten all about their previous quarters and spend no time at all comparing their current circumstances with the past.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK

I cut all the branches from the fallen sumac tree and made a brushpile (in the background). After cutting a section off the thick part of the trunk and seeing how green and moist it still was inside, I decided to let it die some more before I cut up the rest. It didn't seem right to cut up the part still breathing. I am not, of course, sentimental. Not sure what I'll do with the brush pile but the chunk of trunk is at the foot of some evergreens where it can become a nurse log if it wants to.

"I like to dress in women's clothes...."

Friday, October 12, 2007

the curse of the dead spouse

Some people enjoy building things or enjoy the feeling of satisfaction after building something (it feels so good when it stops). I enjoy neither when I don’t know how to do what I’m trying to do—like building a chicken pen. Outdoor work on a sunny fall day, working up a mild sweat, preferably without injury, these are great; but standing there staring at a wooden play structure and trying to figure out how I’m going to incorporate it into a secure fence with a top is almost panic-inducing. Putting together the particle board bookshelves that wanted to fall on me and the rabbit hutch trying to pass itself off as a chicken hutch were a cinch by comparison. The hutch kit, by the way, was missing a few bolts and wing nuts. Everybody knows that a building project requires three trips to the hardware store but I was naively appalled that an “all inclusive” kit required the same.

My one shot at learning construction was a long time ago. I enrolled in shop class the summer I took drivers’ training but had to drop out because the dust made me sneeze so much that I couldn’t see what I was doing. They were probably glad to see me go. In those days, girls didn’t take shop class.

When you work with words, you can figure out what you’re doing as you go along. You can change and delete. Doesn’t work that way with wood and wire. You’re supposed to plan in advance. Problem is, you have to know how to plan in advance or be able to figure out what you want to plan.

This is why, every time I have to do one of these projects, I curse my dead husband mightily. He used to do the building and, while I’d help, I didn’t have to be in charge. He had done the Boy Scout projects, the shop classes, the tool-using and cursing afternoons with Dad. He knew how to plan and build chicken coops and fences. Not to mention that, being bigger and stronger, he could wrestle the fence wire into the place where it needed to be and move the bookshelf without knocking a dent in the wall. It’s logical to be mad at him for checking out before at least showing me the way.

I was never one of those spouses who’d bring a long list of past grievances into an argument. I didn’t hold grudges when he was alive. But I do now.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The dog's chemo

We have settled into a pattern. Each morning after breakfast the dogs know they will get peanut butter on bread. Inside Keeper's peanut butter are 40 mg. Prednisone, half a tablet of acid reducer, and 50 mg Benadryl. Being Airedales, they gulp down their treats without chewing, so it's easy to medicate them.

Right now the only sign of Keeper's illness is shortness of breath within less than twenty minutes on our walks. During the walks, I worry that the tumor will degranulate, releasing histamines into her bloodstream and causing a sudden drop in blood pressure, followed by collapse. I can carry a 60-lb dog only so far.

Because Prednisone, a steroid, makes dogs thirsty, I let her out more often. Still, she has been taken by surprise a few times, leaving puddles in the kitchen and once on floor pillows she was lying on, plus a couple of accidents on the carpet. What with the two pee accidents from Keeper and two barfs from Darwin, the living room carpet has been trashed in only a month.

I had a friend whose mother kept the couch and lamps covered in plastic, taking the covers off only for company. She did this because she wanted to keep them looking nice and she feared she would not be able to afford to replace them when they grew shabby. She died young from ALS and my friend tore all the covers off the furniture, swearing she'd never protect objects just to keep them looking nice for some indefinable future that may not arrive. Better to use what you have, even if you wear it down to nothing.


Walking out in a morning drizzle, I remembered the beginning of a poem Carolyn Street brought to Nelson Bentley’s workshop at the University of Washington over thirty years ago:

“This fucking, fucking rain….”

Our esteemed professor said, “Visualize your metaphors.”

It was the advice he gave whenever we came up with ridiculous metaphors. In this case, he made Carolyn’s line famous, remembered by everyone who was in the class. That line couldn’t be called poetry and I don’t remember anything about the rest of the poem. It’s more like a single-scene comic: simple, obvious, impossible, yet true.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Saturday, Sept. 22

It looked like a perfect early fall afternoon, mostly sunny, cool but not cold, no breeze. I got out the electric hedge trimmer and cut back the ivy that was encroaching over the rockery onto the path. It was like giving the rockery a quick, neat haircut, and I could feel I’d made a major contribution to the tidiness and well-being of the yard in a mere half hour.

Part-way through the job, I put the hedge-trimmer down and went inside to knead bread dough and put it in a pan to rise. For the briefest instant, I remembered what it had felt like when this act had meaning, when making bread was part of a life in which my actions impacted other people. The life was changeable and unpredictable and could easily fall but it was also full of warmth and solid goodness—just like the process of making bread.

When you’re clearing up a yard or baking bread only for yourself, you have to invent meaning. You have to believe there’s something worthy and satisfying in this work. Mostly you have to invent the belief that what you are doing matters in a way that goes beyond just you. Otherwise it’s difficult to keep going.

The darkness of the day is the impending death of my 9-year-old Airedale, Keeper. She has an inoperable mast cell tumor on her right front foot and one lymph node affected. The veterinary oncologist gave me a Sophie’s choice (see the novel by William Styron) of treatments that might keep her alive for a few months with one or a few more with another—maybe--at varying high costs financially and emotionally. This is not a cancer that can be cured.

People generally ask for more life. I don’t know if dogs do because they live wholly in the present, able to accept what comes along more easily than we can and never subject to wishing they had done something differently. The question of what is morally right for the dog is more compelling to me than the question of what I want, yet it’s nearly impossible to separate out what I want. Too often when people talk about what is best for the dog, they mean what is best for themselves.

It is Yom Kippur today, a day of reckoning, of summing up the past year and resolving to do better in the next. A day, a season, a life, ending.

The thought keeps coming to me, “Just let her go.” That would be to give palliative care and let the disease run its course. The death from this kind of tumor, the vet told me, would not be painful. But I don’t know if that’s my wisdom or my fear speaking, don’t know how I’d manage the guilt afterwards. Humans are social creatures. I’d compare myself to those who spend thousands of dollars to give their dogs a few more months and feel guilty that I hadn’t done the same. I won’t know what I’ll decide until we’re back at the clinic Tuesday morning.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

fallen tree

The first gust of wind and a tree falls. There were no crack, whoosh, thud noises when it happened sometime last night, so I didn't even know until I went out back this morning. The tree didn't break--it was rotten at the base. So why couldn't it have fallen before I moved in?

I hadn't even had a chance to find out what kind of tree it is; it's not an ordinary one found in every back yard. I took a close-up of its "fruit." If someone happens to know what this is, please leave a comment.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Matilda's Dinner

Friday night I was talking to a friend on the phone when Matilda the cornsnake slid her head and a few inches of body out of her Kleenex box house. She lifted her head and opened her mouth wide in a yawn. I interrupted the conversation.

“Matilda just yawned! I never knew snakes yawned!”

“Wow,” said my friend. “Wish I’d seen it.”

We paused for a moment. I watched Matilda look around, find nothing interesting, then retreat back inside. “That’s it,” I said. “That’s my excitement for Friday night.”

Even more anti-climactic was the later thought that she might only have been adjusting her jaw the way a snake does after eating. They dislocate the lower jaw to swallow large objects—anything from newborn mouse to a pig, depending on the snake—then gape their mouths wide to resituate the jaw.

Matilda has been off her feed for nearly three weeks now, a terrible waste of mice as I offer her one each week, not knowing when she’ll get her appetite back. I tried feeding her again tonight. She’s big enough for adult mice now. I thaw one in warm water, blot it in a paper town, and lay it in her tank on top of the paper so that she won’t get aspen shavings mixed with her dinner. She always comes out to investigate, flicking her tongue all over the mouse and the paper. She really checks out that paper towel, maybe trying to figure out why it smells like mouse when it isn’t a mouse.

Smell and taste become the same thing with a snake. They smell by catching the scent molecules on their tongues and I assume we smell things by catching the molecules in our noses. We taste with our tongues but we can’t taste without smelling. A snake has all the same equipment; it’s just streamlined, sort of like tossing out all the extra belongings we don’t really need and getting by on the essentials without wasting anything.

Once again she didn’t eat it, though I wriggled it a bit to get her interested. Snakes can go a long time without eating and it’s not a problem. For them. I just wish she’d come up with some way to signal that she’s ready to eat so that I don’t have to keep throwing away mice. I hate wasting perfectly good food.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

the dreaded paint question

The basement room that is going to be my book room was a boy’s bedroom. It’s painted in an irritating combination of dark red on the lower half of the walls, bordered by white chair railing, and Laura Ashley blue on the upper half. There is one window a little above ground level. All week I’d go in there to unpack books and stare at the walls instead, give a shudder and leave. The bookshelves won’t hide all the walls unless I buy more shelves to fit the areas where the ceiling is lower. Could I live with this a few years? Which is worse, the red or the blue? Red is the most difficult color to paint over. There’s so much else to do and I’ve been really suffering without my books. But if I shelve the books, I’d have to take them all down again next year to paint the room. Maybe I’d just get used to it? (I run downstairs to take a look. Nope. Won’t get used to it.) I don’t even know anybody who has faced the same problem.

The other colors in this house are fine—the right shade of butter yellow in the living room and a soft sage green in the kitchen that looks surprisingly good. I wouldn’t have known how to choose a green like that for walls and am grateful to the previous owners for it. But they really slipped up in that boy’s room. Maybe the kid chose the colors.

I spent yesterday evening wrestling oak bookcases around in that room, having convinced myself not to paint it—some unwritten rule about living with it for a year first. I might break the rule. I needed to cut out a rectangle in the back of one of the bookcases to give access to an outlet, so I got my electric saw and realized it has been so long since I used it that I couldn’t remember how to insert the blade. Had to consult the directions. Lugged the saw downstairs. Lugged the new vacuum cleaner downstairs. Roughly figured out where to cut the opening and got a couple of vertical lines easily enough. When it came time to cut the horizontal lines, all the saw did was vibrate noisily against the backing, shaking the whole thing without cutting anything. I can cut up and down in this wood veneer and backing stuff but not side to side. The late spouse was able to cut neat rectangles for the outlets. I wound up with a pear-shaped hole with rough, ragged sides. As long as you only need access to the lower outlet, it’ll work; and its ugliness can be concealed behind books. This is not an auspicious start to “this old house” type repairs.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Meeting the house

The process of buying a house in this country is insane. You visit the house a few times, poke around—but not too much because, after all, this is someone else’s house and you were raised not to poke around in other people’s things—and then you sign over your soul and first-born child to buy a house you barely know. Marrying a complete stranger is probably less scary and expensive as long as you do a pre-nup. You can’t do a trial run with a house, can’t stay there a while to see how you get along together. You move in and you’re stuck.

You discover there are all kinds of planes and extra surfaces that will need to be dusted. You find all the little non-working things the house inspector didn’t find, like the faucet-thingies for the washing machine that need to be replaced and the fact that the hot and cold tubes are switched. I’m afraid to undo them in case I can’t get them back together. There’s the little room off the main bedroom into which I put two oak four-drawer file cabinets. It used to be a child’s nursery. After I put the files back in the drawers and know I will have to hire two strong men if those cabinets are to be moved again, I discovered the smell of urine embedded in the carpet somewhere. I restacked the boxes and sprayed all over with the enzymatic cleaner I use for the dogs. This stuff should be sold in the baby supply department, not just in pet stores. Everybody knows that dogs get house-trained faster than kids.

Then there’s the oven. I’ve never seen such a scary oven with so many controls. I’m used to cooking by turning a switch for the stovetop burner and turning a switch for the oven. Not here. I have to decide among lower oven, upper oven, convection and regular, burner size, warming zone, front burner and bridge burner, probe. So far I’ve cooked some lentils. I put the lentils and broth on the stove, brought them to a near boil, turned down the heat, and went off to do some unpacking. When I remembered the lentils, half had stuck to the pot but they hadn’t burned. That went well.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

They ran over the Animal

My purple Dyson Animal vacuum cleaner, that is. The head mover told me about it after they finished moving everything in. Compared to the mess they had already made of the move, this was a nit. The short version is:

They loaded up on Tuesday. I said to the moving company, "I have a lot of books and a very heavy marble table. Shouldn't someone come out and take a look?" Naah, since they were going charge this by transport fee and time, they didn't need to estimate weight. FYI, transport fee and time can be a better deal when you have a 15,000 pound household. Late Tues. afternoon, it was evident that the truck was too small. Head mover says, "That's why I built this 4 ft. ramp on the back." They proceeded to attach that and build a tower of objects fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. Very proud of themselves. I called the company to complain.

They set off with the tower, a birdcage (empty) and my office chair hanging off the back, looking like a large family escaping the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma. They were going to reach Seattle the following afternoon.

Late Wednesday morning I received a phone call. "I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news," said the dispatcher, "but the truck was 2,000 pounds overweight. The weigh station fined them $600 and won't let them continue until we send up another truck and redistribute the load." Then we renegotiated the fee and thus begins a long, dreary fight with the moving company. Fortunately, because they were recommended by a realtor who does a lot of business with them, I was able to sic the realtor after them and she is going to work on the problem. Her nickname is "The Pit Bull," bless her.

After calling with progress reports, the movers decided at 9:30 pm that they were not going to get here until the next day, which they finally did. Every time I move, I hear, "Gee, you have a lot of books," and/or "You have a lot of stuff." I have a lifetime of stuff and still have a lot of my late husband's lifetime of stuff. I get along well with the men doing the punishing work of carrying heavy objects because I don't get upset with them and I tip nicely. (Pizza helps, too.)

Only as the last papers were signed did I hear about the box that fell off the truck and got backed over. The clothes in the box were OK, just dusty; but the hat rack, hair dryer, and expensive vacuum cleaner were roadkill. He would forward an insurance claim form. It says on the Dyson website that their vacuum cleaners are made from the kind of plastic used in helmets. This means that your Dyson can survive a fall off the truck but it will be crushed if you run over it.

That vacuum cleaner was the most frequently used tool I owned. During its short life, it sucked up many pounds of dog hair, cockatiel and parrot feathers, seed hulls, bird food thrown on the floor, house dust, and about half the backyard dirt. I never measured the height of the backyard dirt but I am sure the dogs lowered the level by a good inch from tracking it into the house.

R.I.P., Dyson Animal, Rest In Pieces.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Moving day(s)

There's no such thing as moving day. It's moving weeks, the weeks of packing and increasing aches and mental confusion while you forget what day it is. If it means one day, is it moving out day or moving in day?

This is moving out day after weeks of packing days. The only good thing about packing is that you have to finish off all the ice cream and the only good thing about unpacking is that you find the liquor bottles (unless you finished them off while packing in the interest of streamlining the operation).

Dogs hate packing, all that running around the house and swearing. They try to follow the people--by walking in front and glancing back, of course--and just get yelled at. Their bed--yours--gets heaped with boxes and the floor beds they normally disdain get moved so they never know where they'll sleep next. Then this crowd of men comes to the house and takes away all the boxes and the dogs have to spend the day in their crates instead of being able to lead the running back and forth. My dogs should be expert movers by now, considering this is the fourth--I think it's the fourth--time in seven years.

The cockatiels' cage is now sitting on the floor of the bird room because I took away their cage stand, which was a large box. Imagine my joy when I discovered another box inside that one. If you haven't moved lately, you might not be able to imagine it. Soon the two Amazon parrots will be cowed and grumpy because they'll be inside their carriers. Even Matilda the snake is probably as grumpy as a snake can feel because she's inside a small carrier. Or maybe she finds it cozy?

You can be damn sure I'm grumpy. Soon I'll lose my internet connection and will be without it for at least 36 hours. Some people rely on cell phones to keep in contact; I could happily do without a phone for days. But going without email makes me shudder.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Impractical Chicken Keeping part 2

Our first dozen chickens were the beginning of a sixteen-year habit that only ended by mischance instead of choice. During that time we moved once, selling the flock with the house to like-minded people, who later even bought the same kind of dog we had. At the new house, we built a coop and attached run as quickly as possible, becoming oddities in this upscale neighborhood. To us, the oddity would have been life without chickens (and dogs).

There’s something about chickens. It’s hard to frown when you’re saying chicken a couple of times quickly. They have become fashionable in small city yards where the coop is as much a necessity as the garden. For children, the egg hunt is like having the Easter bunny visit daily. Then there’s the look of them, the rounded, fluffy bodies with big feet and tiny heads. The amazing thing about those heads is how fierce the beaks look. They’re curved and pointed especially for picking up bugs too small for us to see and they move quickly. The eyes can look really serious when coupled with the beaks or just glassy and silly, being perfectly round and fixed in their expression. The iris ranges from gold to pumpkin orange to nearly black. Like most animals, chickens express themselves with their whole bodies, not just their faces.

Even a novice chicken keeper, like Kaye in Portland, Oregon, perceives different personalities and expressions among her small flock. She got into chickens almost by accident. A gardener, she was picking up straw for sheet mulching from an acquaintance when she made an admiring comment about the person’s chickens. The acquaintance had just built a better coop and needed to get rid of the old one. Kaye took it home along with the straw. “My partner and I decided we’d better get some chickens to go in the coop,” she said, so they went to Pistil’s Nursery in north Portland where in the spring customers can find chicks being brooded at the front of the store and the banty hen mascots keeping bugs in order out back with the pots of plants. They picked out three pullets.

The first was a Black Australorp, an excellent laying breed. Kaye describes her as dim, even for a chicken, but sweet-tempered. “If she goes a certain distance from the coop, she can’t find the door to get back in.” The distance is not very far, since this is a city lot. Big Red, a Rhode Island Red, is easygoing and playful, though not likely to initiate the play. The leader of the flock is a bantam Silver Leghorn named Chipmunk. “She’s always the first to get out of the coop or get into something, like flying over the fence into the vegetable garden.”

People get hooked on chickens and the habit is spreading. In urban settings where the rule is three hens or less, they become pets even though they are honestly not interested in or attached to us, not in the way of a dog or even a guinea pig that recognizes familiar people. Lorna found another benefit. She lives with five other people in a rented house. Since some of the residents have severe allergies to fur-bearing animals, but they still wanted some animals around, they bought a selection of chicks. While brooding the chicks indoors until they grew their adult feathers and could go outside, Lorna and her housemates discovered a common bond. “We sat around and adored them!”

Although they found the chickens to be fairly low-maintenance once established in the coop, the people had to organize themselves to make sure the work was done. “Otherwise, with six people, you tend to think someone else’ll do it and nothing gets done.” They made up a schedule and divided the work. They have a sign by the back door like Lucy’s in the Peanuts cartoons: the chickens are in/out. The chickens eat all leftover food scraps from the kitchen. While bug-hunting, they break up the piles of straw mulch and fertilize the garden, getting it ready for spring planting. “It’s a closed loop,” Lorna says. “We feed them; they feed us. They help with the garden. They home us into the ecology of where we’re living.”

I still have the first Murray McMurray catalog that came with our first batch of chickens. Anyone who has ever looked at a seed catalog understands the pleasure of looking through it and dreaming of all the different kinds of flowers and vegetables, or chickens, they would like to grow. My catalog has reached an iconic status, representing the life I had and never thought I would have to give up. I’m headed that way again, though. Once you start visiting other people’s chickens clucking and humming in the back yard, your own yard looks bare without them, bereft of the daily dose of serious silliness. Excuse me, people; I must see about some chickens

Monday, August 13, 2007

Impractical Chicken Keeping

There’s an anecdote my mother tells to illustrate how Aunt Tillie was afraid of every living thing. One of the last of the family to emigrate from Rhodes to Seattle in the early 20th century, five-year-old Tillie encountered chickens on her way to school. She knew just enough English to recite, “Excuse me, chickens. Excuse me, chickens,” as she edged past them. By the time my mother was born in the 1920’s, chickens were outrĂ©. The family assumed only farmers and other country folk kept chickens.

That was until my husband and I moved our computers and graduate degrees from the city to the outer fringes of the Redmond suburbs in 1982. It was a mixed area of modest homes on acre or third-acre lots where a dog down the street trotted home with porcupine quills in his nose and the people with a few acres on the corner kept a flock of sheep. Our place happened to come with a combination chicken coop and storage shed larger than a child’s playhouse. It looked like destiny.

As a child I had wanted a chicken, not just the cute little fluffball chick sold at Easter time but a real chicken to peck around in the flower garden. My mother said no, chickens are dirty. For some reason a dozen guinea pigs in the house were OK but an outdoor chicken was not. We all have our prejudices. Over the years I, too, developed the idea that chickens were ugly and stupid. It lasted until the chickens arrived.

My only warning was my husband’s saying, “Gotta get some chickens.”

“I thought we were going to get a dog,” I said. (The dog came a few months later, then the ducks and the rabbit and the geese.)

John and a friend from the high-tech company where they both worked ordered the Heinz 57 chick mix from Murray McMurray Hatchery, sharing a grab bag of twenty-five chicks called the Special Assorted Bargain, the least expensive order. I discovered this meant an unknown number of meat chickens vs. layers and an unknown number of roosters. John assured me that all extra roosters would go to the friend and his wife, who were apparently made of hardier stuff and would deal with the birds accordingly. We—or I should say the roosters—were lucky. The two roosters of our flock of twelve turned out to be mellow types. They did not turn mean, as many roosters do, attacking everything that isn’t a hen; and they got along with each other. They stayed.

(more later)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Terrier TV

I learned that term from someone who'd put the gerbil cage on a table in front of the grooming table while grooming her Airedales. It's an excellent method of keeping the dog on the table, attention focused forward.

There are two terrariums in my house, one with Matilda the cornsnake, the other with Chilly-Billy the leopard gecko. The Airedale with the low prey drive, Darwin, likes to stand and stare at whatever is or is not happening inside. But now with crickets still chirping in Chilly's tank, Darwin wanders over several times a day and just stares with great concentration. I'd like to know what's going through his head--if anything.

what I now know about hair

A couple of people have asked about the photo, so perhaps it could use a bit of explanation. My hair is not straight; it’s naturally messy-curly. While I was getting my hair cut that day, Miranda the stylist (think Shakespeare, The Tempest) asked if I had ever straightened it. Too much bother, I said. So she proceeded to bother. Those chairs are like dentists’ chairs, you know; once you’re in, you can’t get away until they release you.

I learned that the professional procedure for straightening curly hair involves at least three different glop products, a large round brush and blow dryer, followed by a flat iron. Since I figured this might be the only time in my life I’d have straight hair, I asked my son, home from college for the summer, to take a photo. In the first set of photos, I looked like a nut-case dork with a strained smile. Nobody would want to believe she really looks like that and certainly nobody would want anybody else to think she looks like that, with or without straight hair.

Inspired with sudden brilliance, I fetched Matilda the corn snake from her afternoon nap in her terrarium and voila, as natural a smile as you’ll get from me when there’s a camera nearby.

Another observation about straight hair: recently I attended the Willamette Writers Conference. Lots of native or naturalized Oregonians went to this conference to pitch their work to editors and agents, most of whom come from the east coast. It was not difficult to spot the female out-of-towners; they were the ones with the professionally straightened hair that acquires a polished, precise look. It’s very attractive and, by comparison, the rest of us looked like slobs. But that’s the Pacific Northwest for you.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

ambitious cricket & gecko

Buying flea stuff yesterday at the local pet supply store (no chain stores, if possible), I picked up some crickets and mealworms for my son's leopard gecko. He gave her a mouthful of a name, Chillibilena, so I call her Chilly-Billy. Chilly prefers crickets over mealworms. She stalks them on her long, translucent orange legs, then lunges so quickly that you'll miss the movement if you blink. Tongue flashes out, gulp, she smacks her lips, and it's on to the next.

We buy a dozen at a time and she eats them in a couple of days. Important note: crickets go stale quickly, so you don't want to buy more than your reptile will eat in a short time. Some of the crickets commit suicide in the shallow water dish, so it's best to check back frequently to remove them. Dead crickets apparently lose flavor. Actually, if they're not moving, they won't get the gecko's attention.

One cricket has been steadily chirping since yesterday. He reminds me of one of my cockatiels, who goes into these long arias of sound and then suddenly stops. This one noisy cricket climbs to the top of the coconut shell that is Chilly-Billy's boudior, looks down at the others, and chirps. Antennae vibrate back and forth, so you really have to wonder if they're communicating about something. It's like those movies of revolutions when one guy stands on a platform exhorting the crowd to insurrection or riot. Crickets are not smart enough to unite their forces in this manner but I'll let you know if that changes.

Meanwhile, Chilly-Billy doesn't seem to mind the noise and sleeps right through it. If it were me, though, I'd eat that particular cricket first.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

just dogs

I've always lived with assorted animals, except for a brief aberration when I was a college student and it was better not to have pets because who knew what time you'd get home (or how many days later)? Most animals like routine; they like to know what's going to happen when, especially if you're talking breakfast. They like to know where things are and they like those things to stay put, except for their toys, which they want to be free to throw around the house. Which brings me to the current chaos.

I'm packing to move from Portland back to Seattle, where I'm from, and the dogs watch me constantly because they're not sure what's going on. A human running around the house, moving things from one place to another and swearing, generally means vacation time when the dogs either come along in the car or go to doggie camp. They're Airedales, outgoing types who enjoy camp. But the running around and swearing just keeps happening without anyone getting out the door with a suitcase. So they watch. And they follow my every step, which they do by walking in front of me and stopping every couple of steps before glancing back. I believe that's a general dog trait--following you by walking in front. It makes things more difficult, especially if you're carrying something and have a certain momentum going and there are two dogs milling around you and a box in front of them and a table over to the right.

Every time I move, which has been much too often the past seven years, I accumulate bruises. That's about as close as I'll come to being a kid again.