Monday, September 27, 2010

For Horse-Crazy Girls Only

"No child ever died yet from not getting a pony." These were the famous last words of the cold-hearted parents in Shel Silverstein's poem "Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony." Little Abigail, of course, did expire, "all because of a pony/that her parents wouldn't buy."

I fell in love with horses sometime in my elementary-school years, and as I was not inclined to waste away due to the lack of a pony, I did what any horse-crazy girl would do and filled in as best I could with everything-but-the-horse. Horse books. Model horses. Horse posters on the wall. Horse magazines. Galloping around the yard with a like-minded friend, neighing loudly and jumping over fence poles. Drawing horses, reading about horses, writing about horses, gazing at horses from the car window. Dreaming about horses.

Well...almost everything :)
Fast-forward many decades, and today, September 28, 2010--well, no, I still don't have a horse, but I am celebrating the publication of the book I started writing, in a way, when I was ten. It's called For Horse-Crazy Girls Only, and it's just been published by Feiwel & Friends.

Writing this book was like landing a job tasting ice cream. What horse-crazy girl-grown-up wouldn't enjoy spending her days reading about, researching, and writing about horses? It was just fun, fun, fun. Hard work, yes, and lots of interlibrary borrowing, and tracking down of obscure titles--but for me that kind of work is, I imagine, just as satisfying as chasing squirrels is for my dog, Luna. (Except that I actually get the books. She never catches a squirrel.)

When you're a kid living in a city or a suburb, and horses are a rare sight, let alone an animal you could possibly own, you make do with what you've got. I vaguely recall making a life-size horse to put on the basement wall, carefully cutting its parts out of construction paper and taping them together. I made a smaller clay horse, too, as well as its barn and paddock, and dutifully filled its hay net with grass every morning and evening. My small Britains horses and the larger Breyer horses got names and bloodlines. I frequently brought carrots to Whiskey, a chestnut horse who lived alone at a camp next door to my junior high school. And I wrote a stirring saga called Diablo, all about a wild black stallion, who thundered across 60 pages in company with just about every stereotype you'll find in the world of horse and pony stories.

Me on a pony for the first time, age 10, near Lake
George in upstate New York. Yes, I know. What grace!
What style! What form! I recall being transfixed with joy.
Which would account for the generally dazed expression.
 I was luckier than many horse-crazy girls, though. My parents indulged my love of horses as best they could in a household that included three other children. Although my father wouldn't buy the neighbor's house and knock it down so as to create a pasture next door (in our adamantly not-zoned-for-horses suburb), he did sign me up for riding lessons at Stonyhill Farms and Riding School.

I can still remember nearly every horse I rode there: big, rawboned, jugheaded Harley, who had scarcely any tail and was surely part Percheron; clever, responsive Charger, a flea-bitten gray who was usually a joy to ride but got the bit in his teeth one day and ran away with me; clueless Snowflake, who reared up one day when I was completely out of control, causing me to tumble off backwards; British Sterling, a beautiful, young, dark gray horse who I don't think spent much time working as a school horse and went on to a more showy career; and beloved High Step, a willing, patient, but skeptical chestnut. High Step trod on my foot once, and I jagged his mouth with the bit once (an action I still regret; but I guess we're even).

On vacations, my parents dutifully sought out opportunities for me to go on trail rides. They also rose early on occasional Saturday mornings in summer to take me to Belmont Racetrack to watch horses work out before the morning mist evaporated. This treat was part of a program called "Breakfast at Belmont," which included marvelous swag such as booklets about racing, buttons featuring Belmont Stakes winners, and the like. I remember seeing the great Forego striding through his workout.

Aboard High Step when I was about 14. I'm wearing hand-me-down
jodhpurs from my mom's friend--the pre-Lycra-days type of jodhs
with the bulgy hips. Once another kid in the lesson persisted in riding
her horse too close to High Step and his tail got caught in her
horse's bit. That could have been an interesting scene. Thanks to
a quick-thinking riding instructor, it wasn't.
 Then came college, and career, and living in New York City, where the only horses were the ones you felt sorry for as they pulled carriages through Central Park. A move to a west coast city didn't bring horses any closer in daily life.

Ahh, but raising another horse-crazy girl--that was the ticket. Now I get to see horses every week just by virtue of driving my daughter to and from riding lessons.

I no longer feel as if I want to ride horses anymore. (Which may be the result of nearly getting bucked off by one a few years ago--I'm just saying.) But since my daughter's planning to own an equestrian center someday, maybe I'll at least have a horse I can groom--she's promised to board it for me. Mostly for free, I think.

Well, even if I have to settle for a Butterscotch Hasbro pony, I'm very pleased to have written this book. I hope it brings a lot of joy to the latest generation of horse-crazy girls.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Loopy Cat and Rainbow Swirls

Django the Art Cat seemed to go into a bit of an artistic decline over the summer. Perhaps his "mews" had departed for a vacation; perhaps he just succumbed to the laziness and inertia to which he is so supremely adapted. Or perhaps he'd just wearied of the media he was forced to work with--paper towels, hair bands, receipts, and the like. It was time for something new.

But first, something old.

Back when my daughter was in her final year of preschool, a favorite activity involved encouraging the kids to draw and then soliciting information about the drawing from them. This would be dutifully written down and the artwork slotted into the children's binders.

For some reason, my child decided that this was an ideal opportunity to just scribble. Scribble, scribble, scribble in loop-de-loops in multiple colors all over the page. Well, OK, that's fine. She's five, she's playing with color and pencils, plenty of time to stay in the lines or draw recognizable objects in the future. Or just scribble. Think of all the scribbly canvases anointed as Great Works of Art hanging on the walls of museums and in expensive lobbies and mansions.

Anyway, this was a preschool co-op, where a "free to be you and me" atmosphere reigned. Unfortunately, sometimes this meant "free to be a little self-centered monster" and "grown-ups should be all-accepting ciphers," but I digress. It was a fine atmosphere for encouraging creativity.

However. The loopy scrawls, which came to be known as "rainbow swirls," began to test the patience of even the heartiest of the "aren't children precious and amazing at absolutely all times?" portion of the parent squad. Because not only was my child producing page after page of swirls--many other kids began to churn them out, too. The swirls swept through the class like a rotovirus.

Even the teacher--the calmest, most stoic, long-suffering, and unflappable woman I'd ever met in a childcare setting--tilted her head during "sharing time" and suggested that my child try her hand at drawing something else. (Which she did, producing a tedious series of works entitled "Rainbow Swirl in the Grass," "Rainbow Swirl in the Sky," and the like.)

If I were really in step with the parenting atmosphere of my fair city, I suppose I would've crowed about the latent talent exhibited in the swirls: the intuitive sense of balance and form! suddenly jarred by a jagged streak of maroon! pent-up energy contained, yet unleashed but respectful of negative space! Like any sane parent, I just uttered things like "Look at all those colors" and "You sure used a lot of colors."

So. Fast forward nearly a decade, and right now the living room is a rainbow swirl of potholder loops. My daughter and a friend are an absolute hurricane of potholder-making activity, weaving loops on small metal looms while watching TV or listening to music. Stray loops are fair game for Django. They've encouraged him to try his paw at water-bowl installations again. And the results are looking a lot like Rainbow Swirls.

Sadly, his most colorful piece (which incorporated about a dozen loops) was destroyed by a well-meaning individual who cleaned it up and then refilled the bowl with fresh water before it was photographed. Perhaps Django intended for that to happen--maybe he was making a commentary on the brevity of life, the ephemeral nature of water, or something.

But here's a work in progress. You can see how the rigors of giving birth to a new concept have worn out the poor cat, who needed to have a little lie-down mid-production.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mt. Rainier: Despite the Downpour, It's "Ruh-near," Not "Rainy-er"

What is the collective noun for a bunch of stereotypes? Perhaps "a convention of stereotypes"? At any rate, a lot of them presented themselves as I enjoyed a ride across Puget Sound aboard a ferry this past weekend.

One stereotype was missing--the rain--which made it possible to enjoy the rest, such as harbor seals, sailboats, tugboats, gulls, and the city skyline glowing in the warm light of early evening, with the Space Needle standing apart from its less funky counterparts downtown. I'd perched right at the front of the ferry, in the "King of the World" spot favored by Leonardo Dicaprio, so this space-age wonder was all the way to the left of my view, with another space-age thrill capping the ultimate stereotype far to the right: UFOs over Mount Rainier.

The things hovering over Mount Rainier weren't really UFOs, of course. They were "cap" or "lenticular" clouds and looked rather like a stack of pancakes soaked in syrup.

But a little more than 60 years ago, a series of lenticular clouds may have kickstarted a UFO craze and inspired the first use of the term "flying saucer." In 1947, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold spied nine weird objects hovering over Mount Rainier and the Cascade range while flying from Chehalis, Washington, to Yakima. Back then, of course, he couldn't snap photos with a phone and tweet the news to the world. Instead, he contacted the press. In the media frenzy that followed, his description of the objects as saucer-shaped quickly morphed into "flying saucers."

Many theories exist regarding what Arnold saw or didn't see, and one of them suggests that the nine weird objects were just nine of these weird clouds.

The clouds are beautiful and strange, adding mystery to a mountain that disappears for weeks on end, thanks to the weather, then suddenly reappears, prompting people to declare, "Oh, the mountain's out today," as if it were perfectly natural for a 14,411*-foot-tall active volcano to vanish and then pop up again.

So the lenticular clouds capping the mountain over the weekend didn't augur little green men--just rain. It seems that when you see these formations, you're in for some soaking in the days ahead.

"How do these remarkable clouds form?" you ask? What a good question. Let's try to answer it, shall we?

Like the rest of the Cascade range of which it's part, Rainier blocks the flow of moist air traveling from west to east. The air is forced to flow up and over the peak. The air cools as it rises and its water vapor condenses, forming a smooth, rounded cloud. The front part of the cloud disappears as it descends because the air warms up as it flows down the other side of the mountain; meanwhile inflowing air continues to turn into cloud at the other end. So what looks like an unmoving cloud-cap on Rainier's head is actually a river of moisture-laden air briefly made visible for a portion of its journey.

According to Cliff Mass, whose beautiful book The Weather of the Pacific Northwest resides on my books-to-buy list, lens-shaped "mountain wave clouds" may also stay intact long enough to string out for miles on the mountain's lee side.

Not that we're seeing any more of them this week. The mountain was right. Rain!

*Give or take a few inches. Rainier was remeasured in summer 2010 using the latests GPS technology. Back in 1988, it was the first major mountain peak to be measured using GPS, and its height came in at 14,411 feet. However, it was thought that Rainier may have shrunk or grown in the interim (not a stretch for a mountain that can become invisible or give rise to UFOs). But luckily for Rainier, it won't need to buy a new wardrobe anytime soon. The measurements varied by mere inches, so the overall height remains the same.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Spied: Spiders

The spider who's staked out the tomato patch
as her website
It is impossible to walk along the path beside the house nowadays without running full-face into a spider web. The sticky, gossamer strands are everywhere. They lace the shrubs and stretch from tree to window. They link the vegetable bed to the tool shed and the birch tree to the Adirondack chair. There is even one persistent spider who insists on stringing her web across the driveway, attaching it to the car at its midpoint.

A wonderful article in last week's Seattle Times indicated that this web siting isn't evidence of an arachnid invasion. The tiny young spiders of spring have simply matured and reached full size. Accordingly, they're building bigger webs.

The webmasters themselves are European cross spiders, named for the pattern of markings on their backs as well as their original range. I knew they were cross spiders but hadn't realized they were European imports. It made me consider just how many of the animals in my garden aren't native to this area. The list includes European leopard slugs, the bane of the garden; honey bees; cabbage butterflies; starlings; and the English house sparrows who line up by the bird feeder, one bird per fence stake, waiting to hog all the food. To be completely honest, I'd have to include my family, too.

The cross spiders don't venture indoors, so we don't end up with webs flung across our faces like burst bubble gum when we mindlessly wander about inside the house. But we do jump out of our socks because the spiders that scuttle across the floor at this time of year are humongous things. They're the appropriately named Giant House Spiders, which the Seattle Times article gleefully notes are sometimes "as big as your hand."

These outsized invertebrates (which are also European imports--thank you, Old World) are actually quite harmless. The ones clattering around the living room are simply male spiders seeking mates. Sadly, they are looking for love in all the wrong places (e.g., under the coffee table, in the bathroom, on the dog bed). They are also relentlessly dispatched by our cats, despite how quickly they can run: a giant house spider in a hurry can cover nearly 10 feet in a second. Their speed plus their size adds up to a truly terrifying encounter when you're caught off guard.

The cross spiders are probably very cross spiders after we've facelifted their webs, but since they eat the strands every evening and rebuild their webs every night, we're really not putting them out too much. As for putting out the house spiders--literally--apparently we are doing them no favors. Catching them and putting them outside, as I've done in brave moments over the years, is like kicking kittens out into the snow. "What part of 'house spider' do you not understand?" this species would scream at me if it could. I would counter by pointing out that it conveniently omitted the "giant" part of its name.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Edward Scissorbill

Edward Scissorbill is a local crow who stands out from the crowd even if you're not inclined toward crow-watching due to his deformed beak. The upper and lower parts of his beak (the maxilla and mandible, respectively) cross over each other, rather like a red crossbill's beak. Considering how cleverly crows use their beaks to manipulate objects and access food, you'd think such a bird would have a very difficult time surviving.

But I suppose a smart, omnivorous bird like a crow, living in a tree-filled urban enclave where the only predators are free-ranging domestic cats and cars, isn't stymied by a little deformity like this. (Yes, it's true, a bear and a cougar have both been spotted in this part of town in the past two years, but neither of them kept the same hours as the crows.)

I first spotted Edward Scissorbill during a dreadful winter about two years ago while walking the dog up an icy hill a block from home. He was scuttling about in the street with two other crows. I thought, there's a crow that won't survive the winter. But the following autumn, walking up the same hill, I encountered him again. He was sitting on the roofbeam of a garage, fat and glossy and totally unafraid even though the dog and I were only about 10 feet from him.

By this time I'd become aware of a scientist in Alaska who is studying deformed bills in chickadees, crows, and other species, thanks to a tip from a scientist at the University of Washington who studies crow behavior. So I started keeping an eye out for Edward and bringing along my camera while walking. I finally snapped a picture of him as he stood on a rain barrel outside a neighbor's house.

He appears to be thriving and even has a mate--I spotted the two of them perched in a tree a block away, close to their shaggy, basketball-sized nest. There were a lot of young crows squawking and learning to fly in that area a few weeks back; I assume they are his kids. That may be assuming a lot, but then again, I'm assuming he's a he, for starters.

At any rate, he rules the roost in this little area--I often see him sitting on an overhead wire, surveying his domain, and he even occasionally stands on the street sign as if to make it clear exactly what his address is. I know he recognizes me and the dog, too, as he calmly and carefully watches us go by without shouting at the dog or fluttering out of our way. Crows are famous for their facial-recognition ability, so this isn't too much of a surprise. But I wonder what his nickname for us might be.