Thursday, March 31, 2005

Two dreams and a nightmare

I had two dreams last night that I can remember. The first one told me that I could find out all sorts of information about the Nikon Coolpix 4100 digital camera that I saw at Sam's Club for $179 by looking it up on Wikipedia. In the other I received a stern reprimand from one of my college Physics professors that I was wasting my life.

I awoke with a profound sense that I was wasting my life, much as I had squandered my vacation. Then I remembered that I had accomplished a major goal of this vacation: to spend as much time as possible with my dog Haley, who is dying. So maybe my life isn't being entirely wasted, either.

But I did decide to follow up on the Wikipedia suggestion...and found nothing useful. I then followed up with, which had the usual mix of one-star and five-star reviews, so I decided to do nothing until I had more information. Also, since the major determining factor in wanting this camera is the fact that it's the first Nikon Coolpix model I've come across in a retail setting, I figure it will be worth my while to shop around.

Today was the last day of my vacation. It was gray and coldish, with a curdled look to the sky. Haley and I took a good long walk. Terri Schiavo died. I got more photos around town, including one that I really hope comes out - it would be the first time I've actually lined up a landscape shot in a meaningful way.

At the end of the day I went out to fill my gas tank, pick up a birthday present for a one-year-old, and get some replacement filters for my vacuum cleaner. I came home and got a message to hurry up to see my aunt - she had just gotten home, and there was "something wrong with the house."

I jumped back in my car and tore up to my aunt's house, just a block away. I was ready to block the driveway with my car - not that that would stop any burglars from escaping, but perhaps my Toyota Tercel would get jammed in their tires and slow them down a bit. But my cousin's car was in the driveway, indicating that she and her mother were home.

I looked at the windows of their house. Lights were on, people were moving about. There was no fire, and no one seemed to be ransacking the place.

I ran to the door and their dog barked at me. OK, everything normal so far.

Inside, there was nothing wrong. They played a message for me from the tenants at one side of what had formerly been my grandmother's house ("the house", in my family's way of speaking), which had passed to my uncle, who is currently in the hospital. The message said that the tenants thought maybe there was a problem with "the pipe" on my grandmother's side of the house.

My aunt and I raced over to my grandmother's house - the call was about 7 hours old, so there really wasn't a huge hurry - and made our way to the cellar, which was full of water.

Yes. Probably the floor drain is blocked. Probably the same water which made its way into my cellar had gotten into hers as well - at least, water from the same storm that flooded my basement. More rain is expected tomorrow night. Somebody will have to do something about my grandmother's cellar before then. Unfortunately, I have work tomorrow, so it can't be me.

My grandmother wanted to keep this house in the family. She tried to convince me to buy it before she died, but I couldn't - it was her house, how could I take it from her? When she died the house passed to my uncle. My uncle is getting to a point where he has to think about what he will do with it. I am seriously considering buying it - even though I don't want to deal with tenants, and the entire front porch needs to be replaced, and the basement is currently full of water, and there's quite a lot of work that will need to be done in and around the place. Do I really want to get myself into this?

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Pumping the night away

The last four of my 2004 vacation days are not turning out the way I expected.

By now I figured that the weather would be much nicer than it was in early February, when we first got Haley's diagnosis of a rapidly-growing tumor on her lung. I also assumed that Haley would be in much worse shape - that perhaps it would be during these four days that we would need to have her put to sleep.

It hasn't worked out that way. To all appearances, Haley is in better physical shape today than she was at the time of her diagnosis. The X-ray picture tells a different story, one involving a steadily-growing tumor, but it has not had the debilitating effect we expected - possibly due to our hastily resumed exercise program, which may have allowed her to build up extra lung capacity in her good lung, buying her some additional time to live an active life.

The weather, on the other hand, is rock solid crap. It rained yesterday. All day. It varied in intensity, but it never stopped.

I monitored the situation anxiously all day yesterday - there wasn't much else I could do, 'cause it was raining too hard to take Haley for a walk and I didn't want to stray too far from home by car just in case the situation went bad in a hurry. But by 9:00 at night there was just the slightest sign of water starting to trickle in at the lowest parts of the cellar. I got the pumps set up - the one good one and the one that I thought I had broken back in January - but decided there wasn't enough water to start running them yet. (They need a certain amount of standing water to run or they will just shut down or burn out.) At 9:30, same story - but now South Park was coming on, the "Moop / Faith Plus One" episode, which is devastatingly brilliant. After the episode was over (signaled by Butters meekly saying "F**k you, Eric" to the Token-beaten Cartman) I checked again.

Somewhere in the middle of the episode, the floodgates had opened.

I fired up the pumps. The broken one was broken, so I only had one pump to work with. Fine, I kept the hoses in place and just began swapping around the single pump every 15 minutes or so, for nearly the next five hours as a region of particularly intense precipitation parked itself almost directly over my house.

It was around 2:00 in the morning that the weather radar indicated that the rain had moved out of our area and we would be in the clear. Unfortunately, it would be some time before the saturated ground around my house would give up its load of extra water, so I had to keep pumping, and keep pumping, and keep pumping. Finally at about 3:00 in the morning I decided in my sleep-deprived state that the rate at which water was coming in had slowed, the water was possibly beginning to recede, and the pump could damned well sit in a single location for an hour or two while I grabbed some sleep.

An hour or two later I woke up to find that the water had begun to recede and the pump had not burned itself out yet. I switched it around again and pumped down the less-critical side of the basement.

Today I spent washing bathroom rugs and Haley's bed - all of which had gotten wet - and the towels that I had used to sop up the puddles in the basement bathroom (including some beach towels which, I decided, were not expected to do much else throughout the year other than deal with the horrors of the New Jersey shore for a week at a time, so they really didn't have anything to complain about). I also swabbed everything down with a bleach-based cleanser - don't want to give mold and mildew a chance to form.

Haley and I went for a noontime walk today and I could hear the sound of pumps emptying out our neighbors' basements, so I wasn't alone in this. No more heavy rain is expected until the end of the week. That should be plenty of time to go out and get a new pump - assuming they aren't all sold out already.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Diamond's Candy Shoppe

Over on Sammie's site we got into a discussion of different types of Easter chocolates people in various parts of the world enjoy. Locally it is very common to get religiously-themed chocolates, including crosses, but this is apparently unusual enough that some chocolate shop in New England got an official scolding from some local church official over chocolate crosses, and the whole affair was reported on CNN.

Some of my friends reminded me that Nanticoke's own Diamond's Candy Shoppe had some very unusual shapes of chocolate, so I decided to go see what I could get.

Diamond's has been a fixture of Nanticoke all of my life. It is located just off our city square, in a not-very-good neighborhood. Their chocolate is, I think, the best I have ever had, not too waxy or too sugary and with a strong chocolate aroma, but I am probably biased in this regard.

Diamond's Candy Shoppe, October 30 2004 Posted by Hello

I walked into the store this morning and was greeted by the proprietor, Mr. Panagakos, who was still reeling from the Easter rush. I told him I was looking for some unusual shapes, that my friends had told me he had chocolate knives and guns and Darth Vader heads. He didn't know about these shapes, but he did show me some other unusual ones - a chocolate Empire State Building for $26.50, a chocolate dancing pig and dog, and another chocolate pig. While he was going through the comical chocolate animals he came across the chocolate handgun, which surprised him quite a bit. I also spotted a fleet of chocolate submarines on his shelf and asked him to get one down for me. I thought I spotted a chocolate knife in the front display case, but it turned out to be the blade of a pair of chocolate scissors. Near the scissors was a whole tray of chocolate American flags, with the message "PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN" barely visible at the bottom.

Some chocolate shapes from Diamond's Posted by Hello

I bought all of these, which Mr. Panagakos gave to me at the traditional discount given by most local shopkeepers (who tend to round down all of their prices), and he also threw in some cream-filled Easter Eggs free of charge ("Everybody likes Easter Eggs!" he enthused in his thick Greek accent as he shoveled them into the bag.)

I asked him for a business card as I paid for my goodies, and he pointed out that his clear plastic business card case was empty save for the one taped to the front - which he pulled off and gave to me, noting that the guy who takes care of printing his cards should be getting him more soon.

Diamond's business card Posted by Hello

If you ever find yourself in Northeastern Pennsylvania, it's worth your while to visit Nanticoke and get some delicious chocolate from Diamond's Candy Shoppe at 4 East Broad Street. You'll be glad you did!

Friday, March 25, 2005

Calling "Bullshit!"

Mike McGlynn has been my favorite newspaper columnist for many, many years. He is smart, funny, and a hell of a lot better writer than you would expect to be writing for what amounts to a small-town newspaper. His column today lambastes the hypocrisy of the Republicans who have put on such a show in the name of Terri Schiavo, yet at the same time are trying to cut $15 billion dollars in federal funding for Medicaid.

The Republicans' masks, and those of their tabnoom* supporters, are starting to slip. Any pretense of being opposed to big government has been reduced to ashes by the grandstanding of the President and his Congressional lapdogs** in the past week, and callers to FOX "News" are demanding that Federal troops be sent in to battle their way through the sheriff's deputies protecting Mrs. Schiavo and kidnap her in the name of George W. Bush. (Governor Jeb Bush is reportedly considering a similar move.)

Nobody's gonna call "Bullshit!" on the President, accusing him of overstepping his authority, of interjecting himself into a conflict he has no business interjecting himself into - well, actually, a lot of people have called "Bullshit!" on him, but he and his supporters are quick to dismiss them, and in the end, what can be done about him? You can't go back and not elect him. And Congress isn't about to impeach him, though they have far more reason than they did with his predecessor. And who is gonna call "Bullshit!" on Congress? Certainly not any members of Congress who want to stand a chance of getting re-elected - you know that the Republican character assassination teams (like the ironically named Swift Boat Veterans For Truth) are already gearing up for this.

No, the Executive and the Legislative branches of government have abandoned the rule of law in favor of the rules of political demagoguery. Which leaves it up to the third branch of government - the Judicial - to call "Bullshit!" And they have.

Again and again, judges at every level - right up to the U.S. Supreme Court - have rejected or refused to hear appeals. The Judicial branch is standing in the way of the other two branches' attempts to steamroller this issue through. Which will be its undoing.

In a few weeks, when the issue of the "Nuclear Option" in judicial nominations comes up, it will almost certainly pass on a wave of Congressional outrage over the death of Terri Schiavo - a death which could have been prevented (the Republicans in Congress will say) if only one judge had had the courage to "do the right thing". And then we will see extremist, activist judges nominated and approved, nominated and approved, until the day that one or more of the superannuated justices on the Supreme Court finally step down, and Bush finally gets to begin packing the court with his people. "Conservative" Republicans will firmly control all three branches of government, and there will be nothing to stand in the way of their agenda, and no one to call "Bullshit!" on any of them.

Except for you and me and folks like Mike McGlynn.

*Tabnoom is a word I'm trying to introduce into the lexicon. It's the same as, and the opposite of, the "conservatives"' favorite epithet for "liberals": Moonbat.

**Lapdogs, in this case, go both ways. Bush is a lame-duck president. He doesn't have another election to worry about, so he can behave as he pleases and not worry too much about popular opinion. But many of the members of Congress whose support he needs to do what he wants to do will eventually be seeking re-election, so he must now expend much energy in convincing them that their support will not adversely affect their chances of re-election; in effect, he's being forced to make them happy to get them to play ball with him. Or, to sum it up more succinctly: Politics.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The corpses of 1,000 snowmen

Before I took Haley out for a walk yesterday morning I checked the Doppler radar sweep. It showed a slow-moving storm aimed right at my part of the state. The meteorologist on duty (all of the weathermen on that channel are actually meteorologists, not just TV personalities) assured his viewers that the storm wouldn't reach us until 8:00 AM or so, but my eyeball gauge told me it would more likely reach Nanticoke sometime between 6:00 and 7:00.

We set out at about 5:30. As we were coming back in for a landing right around 6:30, some sleet began pelting us. The storm had begun.

The weather wasn't too too bad as I went in to work. Mixed rain, sleet, and big fluffy snow, but no major hazards to navigation. Once I entered our Fortress Of Solitude - a major DVD Compression, Encoding, and Authoring studio located within a major CD/DVD replication facility - I was effectively cut off from the outside world except for telephone reports.

The reports weren't good, and were getting worse as the day went on. Around 4:00 people began urging me to get out early, but I had already come up with a plan: stay at work late, until 7:00, allowing the snow to taper off and the snowplows and tow trucks to do their jobs. Then go DVD shopping at the Best Buy a few miles from work. Then top off my gas tank (at $2.089 per gallon, the highest price I have ever paid for gasoline in the U.S.) at the Sam's Club next door to the Best Buy. Then decide how to go home: south on Interstate 81 (a major highway used by thousands or tens of thousands of tractor-trailers each day, making it fairly hazardous even under good conditions), or north on 81 to the very topmost point of the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and ride that toll road down to pick up 81 again in Pittston or Wilkes-Barre (a longer ride by about 10 miles but less heavily traveled, particularly by tractor-trailers.)

I got out of work to find my car covered with six inches of wet, dense snow.

The roads weren't bad, but accidents had eliminated 81 as an option. I did my shopping and got on the turnpike. The trip was uneventful except for the part where I managed to spill my 35mm film canister full of quarters all over the inside of my car, making it a little more interesting when I had to scrape together the money for tolls.

Getting off the turnpike and back onto 81 for the next leg of my trip was like driving through a wall. On one side, the snow had stopped. On the other side, snow was still coming down like crazy. I ran into one delay, a short backup just before the point that I was getting off 81 to begin the final leg of my trip, but this wasn't too bad.

My house looked like it had been coated with marshmallow fluff. The clotheslines were sagging nearly to the ground. (I got pictures.) We had at least seven inches, and it was still coming down when I went to bed. A snowball test indicated that this was perfect snowball/snowman snow: wet, dense, heavy. It was also perfect snow for pulling down power lines and entire trees, but neither of these things happened to me.

After a brief night's sleep, a quick breakfast and a check of the morning's blogs, I fired up the snowblower and began to attack the mess that was out there. Naturally, a snowplow had passed in front of my house leaving a wall of wet, heavy chunks adding up to about eight feet thick by two feet high. I blasted a quick path through this from my driveway to the sidewalk (I live in a corner lot) and decided to address it last.

The snowblower made quick work of the sidewalks. This was the worst sort of snow for clearing: people using shovels would put enormous strains on their hearts, risking heart attacks, while people using snowblowers would be likely to get them jammed with snow and possibly lose a finger or a hand while trying to clear the jam. (Not me, baby. When my snowblower gets jammed, I clear it by picking up the whole damned thing and slamming it off the ground a few times. Sometimes it is good to be strong like ox.)

Then came the street in front of my house, including my driveway. This was a slow, difficult process. There were snow-boulders everywhere, making the street look like the recent Huygens pictures from the surface of Titan. I realized that clearing these things would be a poor use of the snowblower, so I made like a caveman and heaved some of the larger ones out of the way, onto my lawn. Looking out at the somewhat round 12-to-24 inch chunks of snow, snow that would be perfect for making snowballs and snowmen, made me feel like I was walking in some nightmare landscape littered with the corpses of 1,000 snowmen.

After much effort I got enough of the area cleaned up that I felt ready to take a shower and get set for work. By the end of the workday today much of the snow had melted in the brightening March sun. So now I'm worried about basement flooding again. Good thing I'm off until next Friday!

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Burn, baby, burn

For a while I've toyed with the thought of putting advertising on my site. Used to be that ads were standard, a tradeoff for getting free blog space from Blogger and Google. Now ads are offered as a special program from Blogger, whereby bloggers can earn cash based on ad clickthroughs. For blogs that get thousands of hits a day (like, say, Cooking For Engineers, whose wild and sustained popularity still bewilders me) this seems like a good deal, but for poor lonely schlubs like me (no disrespect intended towards my valued readers) the potential traffic doesn't seem to justify the sense that you are whoring your site.
On the other hand, the ads placed by Google's expert programs do tend to be based on cues taken from your blog text, so they can be pretty funny and incredibly off-base. Sammie is exploiting that aspect of them on her site.

I've placed my first ad on this site. It's for a friend's soy candle business - well, he sells more than just candles, but you can get the details from his site. I have bought a few votives from him myself, and I can vouch that they smell nice and burn cleanly and last a long time. Please stop by his site and see if anything catches your eye.

(I decided to follow his lead and start my own side business. Working to my strengths, I grabbed some pencils from the supply cabinet at work, stuck them in a cup, and began to write a note that would say "PLEASE BUY A PENCIL. $5. I AM BLIND. GOD BLESS YOU." I realized that this was fundamentally dishonest, and replaced the word "BLIND" with "LAZY". I'm still waiting for my first customer. We'll just see what happens when someone tries to get a pencil out of the supply cabinet...)

UPDATE: The ad button was wreaking havoc on the format of my site when viewed in Internet Explorer - all of the stuff that should be on the right-hand sidebar was instead in a stack at the bottom of the page. Maybe the ad was just too wide. I've replaced the ad button with a text link in its own separate "Ads!" section.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Purse snatchers and synchronicity

This is another dogwalking story. It starts on Friday, March 11, 2005, a little before noon, one of my vacation days left over from last year. Haley and I had stopped to take a photo of the cemetery with the mountains behind it, and had continued across the yellow brick road past the other long-block-filling cemetery that stands across from the ruins of Skatarama. At the end of this block we had a decision point: turn left and go south for one short block before turning right and right again to go past my grandmother's house (a milestone on almost every one of our walks), or continue west for one short block and one long block, and then turn left at the hospital, left at the church, downhill for a bit and and left again to go past her house. I was still debating this when I saw three figures approaching from the south.

They were all walking on the sidewalk on the other side of the street, along the street that Haley and I would be walking on if we turned south. Two of them looked like trouble, or like the sorts who want to look like trouble. A tall black kid and a hawk-faced white kid, both dressed in urban gangsta wear that looked a little Vanilla Ice preposterous and a lot out of place in Nanticoke. New York imports, I thought, or gangsta wannabes. They were loping along with a gait that suggested they meant business, and they were rapidly approaching the third figure.

The third figure was a little old lady of indeterminate age. She looked younger than my grandmother, who died in her late 80's, but older than my mother, who is in her early 70's. She had a sort of arrogant primness to her bearing, and a purse loosely slung over her right shoulder. Which seemed to be the side her followers were aiming for.

I sized up the situation, and once again decided to get involved.

Haley and I crossed the street and turned south. I have no real knowledge of my appearance, a mental blind spot that is part willful ignorance, part self-loathing, and part prospagnosia prosopagnosia, but I assume my size and my penchant for wearing a long black coat and clip-on sunglasses while outside during the day in the winter must make me look like an imposing and/or ridiculous figure. Haley looks like a medium-large collie/border collie mix, with piebald orange and creamy-white hair and black mascaraed looking eyes - not as threatening as most dogs, but to some people, a dog is a dog and should be avoided. Especially when she is accompanied by a big guy like me.

Perhaps the two gangsta wannabes thought so. We had no sooner gotten to their side of the street, facing them, than they decided to cross the street to the side Haley and I had just come from.

As they were doing this, perhaps the little old lady decided that the street was a little less treacherous-looking than the ice-covered sidewalk in front of her. Or maybe she just didn't like the looks of me at all. She got off the sidewalk and onto the street, placing herself for a few seconds in front of the two potential purse-snatchers.

I passed all three of them on our now-divergent trajectories, then turned and watched them all. The two lopers continued along on the other side of the street, well past the little old lady. After I had decided that the danger was past, we moved on.

That was Friday. My church, which is just a block or so from where all of these events took place, has a Saturday afternoon Mass which my friends and I go to as a way of freeing up our Saturday evenings and Sunday days. My mom goes to that Mass, too. I was driving her home Saturday after the services. We had stopped at Burger King to pick up burgers for Haley (she likes them, and who the hell am I to deny anything to her at this stage of her life?) and were weaving through town on a circuitous route.

We had just made the turn past the city park when I began telling my mom about the adventure of the day before. As I came to a stop sign and was getting to the "Two of them looked like trouble" part, a three-dimensional illustration helpfully materialized on the crosswalk in front of our car. "And there they are!" I said, as the two kids crossed the street in front of us. They were still dressed in ghetto fashions, but completely different outfits. It took me a few seconds to realize that this was the same street I had seen them on the day before, but we were about half a mile north of where the encounterr had happened.

So what was the story? Were they two chums out taking their daily exercise? Two thugs prowling the streets for unsuspecting little old ladies? I have no idea. Maybe I had prevented a purse snatching the day before, and maybe I was just judging two kids based on their appearance. I don't know. I had never seen them before, and haven't seen them since. But if their first appearance was odd, their second appearance sure was a hell of a coincidence, or a maybe even a case of synchronicity.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Dog wrangler

I got a call from a friend of mine this afternoon. "Come on up," she said. "There's a lost dog walking in circles on my porch."

My friend lives a block away, so I just pulled on my cold-weather gear and walked up. The dog - a very alert terrier-ish breed - was inside at the moment. She brought him onto the porch and put him on her dog's chain. He began to walk in a three-foot circle, glancing into the house through the front door each time he came around to it.

"He has a tag with a phone number. We called it and left a message, but there's no answer." The tag also had an address, for Shavertown. Shavertown is a good 15 miles or so from Nanticoke. The dog didn't look like he had just walked 15 miles. How did he get here?

Another friend of ours had "found" the dog when he was getting out of his car at my friend's house. He was rummaging through his trunk for something when the dog came up to him, shivering slightly. He actually tried to get into the trunk - he certainly wanted to go somewhere.

The sun was setting, light was failing. If we were going to do something about returning this dog, we would need to do it soon. It would be better to have strangers walking around a neighborhood trying to return a dog before sunset rather than after dark.

We came up with a plan: we would drive the dog back to its home. If there was no one there, we would try to determine if the residents had just stepped out, or if maybe they were on vacation or something. (In which case they might conceivably have left the dog with friends or relatives in Nanticoke, who had managed to lose their dog and were now frantically trying to locate it!) If the residents were likely to be back soon, we would tie the dog up outside of their house. If they would not be back for a while - something we would need to find out about from neighbors - then we would leave the dog with one of the neighbors. Failing that, we would drive the dog back to Nanticoke and formulate a new plan.

My friend whose house we were at would drive, since she had a roomy SUV. Our other friend would navigate, and I would put my experience with Haley to good use as the dog wrangler.

We found the neighborhood without too much difficulty, and Spooky (the dog) grew increasingly excited as we got closer to home. But the address could have been either of two unnumbered houses in the right part of the street. We pulled into the larger of the two driveways and decided to start knocking on doors.

We must have made quite a sight: a small, curly-haired schoolteacher driving a huge SUV, accompanied by a thin man in a baseball cap and a enormous bear of a man acting as dog wrangler. No wonder the neighbor across the street watched us warily as we pulled up, and retreated into her house as we got out.

The first house was not the right one. The cute teenage girl who answered the door said she thought that Spooky was the dog from next door, but she wasn't sure. This seemed odd. The houses weren't that far apart. Could she really not know her next-door neighbors?

We tried the house next door. It was dark, but there were two cars parked in the driveway, which seemed promising. As we walked up the driveway, the dog began to yip and yelp - even more when he managed to get one of his feet under one of mine. We had stupidly forgotten that the boxy plastic thing on his collar was probably an "invisible fence" shock collar - and we had just walked through the virtual fence. (Was this why the dog had developed the habit of walking in circles?) All for nothing, as no one responded to repeated rings of the doorbell.

Next we tried the wary neighbor across the street. She was much friendlier that we at first had assumed, and confirmed that the dog in fact did belong to the people across the street, who were on vacation, or something. Seems that these people were the quiet types who kept to themselves - a family of serial killers, I immediately decided - and no one in the neighborhood really knew them very well. She called the teenage girl who we had first spoken to, and arranged to have the dog stay at the girl's house while the initially-wary-but-now-friendly woman across the street tried to locate some relatives of the missing neighbors. (She believed they did have some relatives in Nanticoke, so suddenly the incompetent dogsitter scenario seemed more likely.)

We left Spooky with the neighbors, and drove back to Nanticoke. Now we have to watch the local papers and telephone poles for LOST DOG notices, posted by the dogsitter who lost Spooky. Somebody, somewhere, is definitely freaking out right about now.

UPDATE, 4/19/2011:  It's weird to be writing an update nearly more than six years later, but whatever.  We never did find out what happened to Spooky, or how he came to be in Nanticoke.  The whole "left with friends in another town while traveling" scenario seems most likely, but it seemed peculiar that folks in an upscale suburban neighborhood knew nothing about their neighbors.  Anyway, this post on the amazing blog Hyperbole and a Half reminded me of this story, and I realized that I had left out two important details.  First, we later identified his breed as a Basenji, a "barkless" dog of African descent.  Secondly, I have a picture of him, which we took as we drove him back to the address on his tag.  Note the large electronic device that I totally failed to realize was a shock collar.

Like I said, I have no idea what became of Spooky.  I hope everything worked out for him.

68 pints of blood on the wall

Just got back from a Blue Sundaze show. It wrapped up early, so I've got some reserve energy built up that I can expend before I crash, burn, spin, and auger into bed.

Today (well, technically yesterday as of this writing) was a big day. Dentist's appointment at 9:30, followed by a blood donation, then a car wash, then a trip to the bank, then order Chinese food, grab some groceries (milk and a copy of MAD Color Classics #11), pick up Chinese, eat, go online, nap, go to church, supper, walk Haley, go to Blue Sundaze show 50 miles away. Whee.

At the blood center I wondered aloud how much blood I've donated over the 13 years that I have been semi-regularly donating. The answer: counting today, 68 pints. There are two pints in a quart and four quarts in a gallon, so there are eight pints in each gallon. I have donated eight-and-a-half gallons of the finest vintage A-positive blood, at least some of which has certainly found its way into the veins of satisfied customers.

Many people who have donated blood in the U.S. did it only once - in the weeks following September 11, 2001. There was a huge outpouring of first-time donors after the terrorist attacks on the U.S., followed by a huge backlash when these donors learned that blood is perishable and must be used or destroyed within 42 days - so much of the excess blood donated during this period went unused and had to be destroyed. There was great resentment about this, and, sadly, the upshot of this is many of these people have decided never to donate again.

There are chronic blood shortages throughout this country. If you can, please make an appointment to give blood as soon as possible. Go to the website of the American Red Cross to see how.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Living Will

If there's one thing we can learn from the Terri Schiavo situation, it's the importance of making your wishes for how you should be treated if you become severely incapacitated clearly and unambiguously known ahead of time. In the U.S. the mechanism for this is commonly referred to as a Living Will. Had Terri Schiavo, who is severely brain-damaged and in a persistent vegetative state, had one of these documents perhaps the religious/political circus that is going on down in Florida and in Congress might have been avoided.

Congress has actually had the amazingly ghoulish gall to subpoena Terri Schiavo, among others - according to one report, so they could see her for themselves. What scumbags. If they really want to get a good idea what a person in a persistent vegetative state looks like, perhaps they should trot off to a hospital in the regions they represent and ask to have a look. It's not a common thing, but it's certainly not a situation unique to one woman in Florida.

Don't let this happen to you. And for what it's worth:

I, the author of this blog, whose true identity is known to many people, hereby declare that I do not wish to be kept in a persistent vegetative state by artificial or extraordinary means.

Please, if you know me, please make sure this wish is respected, if it ever comes to that.

Disambiguation, part 1

All the search engine hits I've been getting for the Cathy Baker / Hee Haw stuff have now taken a back seat to the hits for Whiplash, the Monkey Who Rides a Dog. But now I've started getting hits for "Monkey's Greatest Hits". These are usually hitting "Another Monkey's Greatest Hits, Volume 1." But I don't think that's what these folks are looking for.

The TV show / musical group "The Monkees" is spelled with two "e"s and no "y". I've added a note to this effect on my Greatest Hits Volume 1 entry, as well as a link to their Wikipedia entry. So, if it's "The Monkees Greatest Hits" you're looking for - well, there ya go!

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Seeing Mercury, and a smoky sky

Last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were beautiful days - during the day. But as the sun sank in the west the clouds began to gather. It even snowed sporadically Saturday afternoon. The net result: no chance to view the planet Mercury, particularly during its spectacular pairing with a very young New Moon Friday night.

The past two nights have been a different story. Yesterday I had a big afternoon planned: race from work to Sam's Club to get some photos developed. Kill the next hour with some shopping, including picking up an Adirondack chair at A.C. Moore and getting a big ol' box of wine from the liquor store (5 liters of Cabernet Sauvignon - for my heart, dontcha know.) Then hurry back to Sam's Club to get the photos. A lot of this urgency had to do with the fact that the parking lots of Sam's Club and A.C. Moore have prime views of the western horizon, obstructed by nothing but the mountains in the far distance. So each stop at a parking lot was an opportunity to check for Mercury.

The drive from work was interesting in itself. I left before the sun was below the local horizon - the mountains are a lot closer where I work, and the sun dips below them well before the advertised sunset time. The ride home, while nominally south along Interstate 81, is actually more west-by-southwest, which means that these days the sun is usually in front of me or off to my right - depending on which particular geological feature the highway is swinging around. About halfway along my trip the sun finally passed out of view and was replaced by the oddest sun pillar I have ever seen - a stocky, wispy thing, seemingly made from clouds hanging low in the west, it looked more like a good-sized fire on the horizon than the red searchlight beams I'm used to.

By the time I got to Sam's Club the first time - around 6:10 P.M. - the sky was beginning to darken, but there was no sign of Mercury. Ditto when I exited the store a few minutes later, having dropped off my film at the one-hour processing desk. I drove the half-mile or so to the complex housing A.C. Moore and the liquor store, but couldn't see anything from their parking lot, either. I even moved my car to an isolated, poorly lit section of the lot probably intended for employee parking, which happened to afford the best view of the western sky, without the worst of the glare of the lights from the rest of the lot. In this case the glare and skyglow were working in my favor: Mercury is marginally brighter than anything else currently low in the west just after sunset, so if you could see anything, it was probably Mercury. But still, nada. Zip. Nothing.

My purchases made and my hour killed, I made it back to the Sam's Club parking lot at about 7:15 and scanned the sky one last time. And now - success! There it was, low in the west, glittering with a fitful brightness. Pretty. I went in and got my pictures. (I posted some of them last night.)

This evening was a little more straightforward. I got home about 15 minutes after sunset and the sky looked weird. There was a sort of smokiness to it, even though it had appeared very clear just a few minutes earlier. The west especially seemed kind of smoggy, and even well after the sky had gone dark the blackness in the west seemed to retain a reddish hue. (Hey hey hey, I've sussed it! Maybe. I was just thinking - what could cause that appearance? A distant forest fire? A volcano? Oh, yeah. Mount St. Helens just spewed out some stuff last week on the other end of the continent. Could that be it?)

I checked on the sky every few minutes after I got home, and finally worked out where I would probably see Mercury - in a small region framed by a tall evergreen, a corner streetlight, and two telephone wires. And damned if it wasn't there! Ka-ching! Another check in my mental I-saw-Mercury tally. I think that brings it to, like, five or six times.

Now I'm more interested in whether the smoky-looking sky was the result of volcanic activity. I wonder if anyone else took note of it?

Monday, March 14, 2005

Cemetery with mountains

Cemetery and Mountains Posted by Hello

This is a view over one of several adjoining cemeteries that fill the middle southern part of Nanticoke, looking south by southeast*. In the background are the buildings of Luzerne County Community College (L.C.C.C., sometimes referred to as the University of Nanticoke) and some of the local mountains that form part of the northern Appalachian range. (Invisible in this picture are Interstate 81 and Route 309, both of which run along the mountains in the background, affording wonderful views of Nanticoke and the entire Wyoming Valley.)

I've always liked photographing cemeteries. I've got pictures of cemeteries in Ireland and Salem, Massachusetts, and I took photos in this very cemetery for a high school project on World War I.

There's something special about an old cemetery that is still actively taking on new residents. There's a confluence of the ancient and the modern, of the natural and the manmade, of the seeming permanence of nature and the transience of human existence. Markers set to memorialize loved ones are worn by weather and toppled by vandals or sink into the ground due to settling, or even due to the constant activity of earthworms who churn the soil. Trees grow, flowers die, vigil lights flicker, and every once in a while the ground is broken for a fresh grave. Some of these graves go back a century or more; some are probably just a few days old. Some of them are visited regularly by grieving relatives, and some of them hold the bones of people long dead and forgotten by their children's children's children. Birds and rabbits and squirrels hunt and hide and play, using the natural landscape and the man-made additions to their advantage.

Someday I'll have to gather together my other cemetery photos and publish them. The ones from Ireland are majestic, with great Celtic crosses marking many of the graves. The ones from Salem are beautiful, taken in the old cemetery in town the morning after a snowfall. But for now, I give you this.

*Sharp-eyed readers may notice that the fence in the foreground, the mountains in the background, and everything in-between seems to be sloping down to the right. This is in part because this photo was taken during one of my walks with my dog Haley. Her leash was wrapped around the wrist of the hand that was holding the camera, and she was probably tugging on it as she was quite eager to go and sniff something interesting.

Piñatas from Hell

Piñatas from Hell Posted by Hello

Another photo from the Ruins: as described in a previous post, chunks of concrete dangle by wires from the collapsed roof and ceiling of the old Duplin/MacGregor's/Skatarama building. Bear in mind that I don't have a zoom lens, so this photo was taken from the sidewalk that runs in front of the building, 10 or 15 feet from the base of the wall in the picture. Not, I think, the safest place in the world, but one that has been safe enough for the 13 years since the fire which gutted this old building: the wall has not collapsed onto the sidewalk* in those 13 years. Or, should I say, has not collapsed yet.

*The piles of rubble visible in the linked photograph are actually the result of some cleanup operations from a few months ago. The owners made some noise back then about finally dealing with the old wreck of a building, and had some crews very actively clearing and gutting the inside. That lasted for about two weeks. When it starts again, there will probably once again be much fanfare and little actual work.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Mercury, the moon, and more links

For as long as I can remember I have been an avid watcher of the skies. But until a few years ago there was one thing I had never seen.

Mercury is the closest planet to the sun. It orbits the sun in just under 88 days, but rarely strays far enough from it in the sky to escape the glare of sunrise or sunset. There are only a few times each year when you have a good chance to see Mercury, and then your chance lasts only a few days. Now is one of those opportunities.

For the next few days Mercury will appear low in the west just after sunset. Jack Horkheimer talked about it on this week's show, and here is a graphic used on the show that depicts the western horizon shortly after sunset on Saturday, March 12th. On that evening the moon will be a thin crescent, a slim fingernail of light about a third of the way between the western horizon and the Pleiades (that little, dipper-shaped group of stars near the top of the picture - not to be confused with the Little Dipper!) Watch for the faint, ghostly image of the entire moon to appear as a result of earthshine, the reflection of sunlight off of the side of the Earth facing the moon.

With a little luck, a clear sky, and an unobstructed view of the horizon you may actually see a very thin crescent moon very close to Mercury just after sunset on the evening of March 11th. Go to the Heavens-Above website, punch in your location, go to the Whole Sky Chart, set the date to March 11 and the time to about 17:30, and get a sense of the relative locations of the sun, moon, and Mercury. And I hope you get to see it! If you don't...well, it is said that Nicolaus Copernicus never managed to see Mercury in his entire life, so you're in good company!

By the way, I've added a "Site Links" feature to the bottom of the right-hand margin, with links to non-blog sites that I visit (and reference) fairly often. Check it out!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Yesterday minus 50

Degrees, that is. Was it just yesterday that I wrote about the weather being beautiful, nice and sunny with temperatures in the 60's and bugs flying all around? Last night I heard a weather report that called for up to seven inches of snow today. Can't be us, I thought. Must be for someplace up north.

This morning I woke and turned on one of the local news stations' weather report. Rain changing to snow, heavier towards the afternoon. The changeover came early, around seven in the morning, and fine snow started to accumulate. There's something insidious about fine snow. Big, wet snow doesn't present much of a problem, because it tends to allow tires and boots to bite into it. Light, fluffy snow generally parts or packs down quickly. But fine snow creates a dense, level layer, with little more traction than solid ice. This was what caused such a problem during our first significant snowfall last December.

I left early for work, but everybody was going very slowly on the roads, and after 33 miles that adds up. I didn't see any major accidents, but that doesn't mean there weren't any.

The light, fine snow continued throughout the day. Temperatures dropped into the teens - about a 50 degree difference from yesterday. And the wind, as Messrs. Dylan and Hendrix said, began to howl.

Coming home was interesting. Following my rule of late in, early out I left around 5:30, shortly before sunset. The sun was sinking majestically, gloriously, brilliantly, blindingly in the west, which happened to be the direction I needed to travel to go home. I saw a series of amazing sky scenes over the first few minutes of my ride. For a little while a healthy sun pillar threatened to form, but it quickly dispersed. At one point the wind whipped up loose snow into a near-whiteout, colored golden by the setting sun. I would have enjoyed the beauty of the scene more if I had not been so desperately trying to keep my car from being blown off the highway.

I got home fairly late and had dinner before wandering out to attack the two to four inches of new accumulation on my sidewalks. This consisted of a one-inch crust of partially melted and refrozen snowdrift (melted by the sun, which is getting stronger in these latitudes) over a fluffy layer of fine powder on top of a thin densely-packed bottom layer. The wind was strong and the sky was crystal clear, so I did my shoveling under the gaze of Orion and the Big Dipper and managed not to freeze to death while doing it.

Tomorrow I have an early meeting. I'll try to get there in time for it. Of course, early in, late out, and who wants that? Maybe it will snow some more overnight. This time of year, there's no telling what tomorrow's weather might be.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Cornell plus 32

It has been just over a month since the doctors at Cornell informed us that, if the tumor in Haley's chest continued to grow at the same rate it had been growing since December, it would probably kill her in two to three months.

Haley and I have been walking again most days since then. Not every day, and not as far as we used to, although the shortening of walks is a necessary adjustment to her new habit of sniffing everything - walking the same distance as before takes twice as long because she is stopping to smell the roses along the way. In her case it's piles of dog doo and traces of dog pee, but to a dog, those are the things to be smelled.

We just went for a visit to the vet who referred her to Cornell, and he was quite pleased with her general health. He said that if he did not know she had a tumor in her chest, he would say that she appeared to be a perfectly healthy dog.

Before our trip to the doctor we went for another walk through town past Skatarama. The sun was much more cooperative today, so I think I got some interesting pictures aiming through the ruins. The building really is a wreck, and I was amazed at how it's remained standing in that condition. I could see through the holes in the wall to where many large blocks of concrete hung from the tattered ceiling by strands of wire, looking like so many piñatas from hell.

The weather was really nice today, with lots of sunlight and temperatures in the 60's. Insects wasted no time becoming active - fully-fledged insects, big ones, with wings and stuff. What the hell? It was just freezing yesterday, and for the whole week prior to that, and for much of the month prior to that. I would think that it would take insects a few days to hatch, become active, and so on. Where did these guys come from, and how did they survive the cold?

After Haley's appointment we went to a pet supplies store where we bought all sorts of stuff, including a sock monkey dog toy. Then we stopped at a car wash where I scoured much of the salt from my car while Haley hid in the footwell. Finally we stopped at Burger King, because Haley likes their burgers.

I recently told a friend that I'm worried that I'm developing an all-is-well attitude towards Haley, which can easily lead to taking her for granted. I don't want to do that.

I keep reminding myself to try to consciously savor each moment without becoming overly fixated on the moment. As I told this same friend some time ago, I'm looking at the situation with Haley like this: so many times death takes us by surprise, even when we're expecting it, and we find ourselves crying and begging for just a little more time together. Well, this is our little more time together, and I'm trying to squeeze everything I can out of it - without placing undue stress on Haley, of course. And maybe things will develop differently than the initial diagnosis suggested, who knows?

The vet said today that he doesn't want to do any more X-rays of Haley because they wouldn't really provide any new information. I suggested that we should plan on new X-rays on the one-year anniversary of Haley's visit to Cornell. And, hey, if we all live that long, maybe we'll do just that.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

"A monkey...riding a dog?!?"

About once a month I'll get a search engine hit from somebody looking for pictures of monkey riding a dog or something like that. This morning I saw a brief clip on TV of Whiplash, the monkey who rides a dog, who has apparently been at it for 15 years. So for those who are searching, your quest is nearly at an end. Here is the website for Whiplash, the dog-riding monkey, and here is the photos page from this site, showing pictures of Whiplash the monkey riding his dog.

(The title of this post comes, I think, from an episode of The Simpsons, where the monkey riding a dog on television has just distracted Homer or somebody else. I can't remember the episode or even the exact circumstances, and Google doesn't help much. Can anybody else remember?)

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The world through my eyes

Like many people, I have quite a few floaters swimming about in my eyes. I think I have more than most people, and I have had them all my life. Mostly they look like small, well-defined spots or chains that resemble images of cells seen through a microscope. Some of the longer "chains" of floaters appear to have become knotted, forming larger, darker regions. As the floaters are actually bouncing around the liquid in my eyes, different floaters will move in different directions at different speeds.

Floaters will generally move with the movement of my eyes with a slight lag; if I quickly glance from left to right and then left again, a small gaggle of floaters will suddenly race from left to right across my field of vision, skid to a halt as they seem to realize that they have been faked out by the quick reversal of my eye movement, and then reverse course themselves. If I then hold my gaze steady, the floaters will sail past the center of my view, gradually slow down, and then resume their semi-random movements in response to the semi-random movements of my eyes.

Some of my friends have never experienced floaters for themselves, and I haven't found any really good illustrations online. So, with the aid of some heavily modified microphotographs of spirogyra and other microorganisms, I have come up with a rough simulation.

Here is a shot of the alley that runs behind the Bowl-O-Rama/Skate-A-Rama complex. (These are apparently the preferred spellings, based on the existing sign for the bowling alley and a single online reference to a concert at the skating rink.) From this angle the building appears undamaged. This is the main entrance to the bowling alley side. The bridge over the alley in the distance is actually a second entrance to the bowling alley from a small parking lot on the next street up. (Literally up; the next street is a good 10 feet or so above the alley.) I don't know if the bridge is still used, but I do know that many pigeons roost there.

Skatarama (alley view) Posted by Hello

Here is a simulation of the same image as seen through my eyes. As in real life, the floaters are most easily seen against the sky and the blank wall.

Skatarama with floaters Posted by Hello

There is no surgical cure for floaters, although my optometrist once told me about a possible bleaching process. If you've never experienced them, count yourself lucky. If you are afflicted by them, know that you are not alone.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

More of the white shit

There was a joke that made the rounds years ago and probably still does today, about someone who had recently moved from the sunny south to the wintry north and was keeping a diary. Early entries expressed delight at the magical beauty of the first snowfall, but as time went by the diarist's attitude toward the snow became less appreciative, finally decaying into the phrase "More of the white shit fell last night."

A version of this joke can be found here. This one is tailored for Minnesota, but I have found others where the setting is Maine, Canada, and even Pennsylvania. (This is one of the cleanest versions I've found, but if you want to find more extreme versions it's not very hard.)

I think this joke predates the common use of e-mail. It may have been from that ancient time in the late 80's and early 90's when such things made the rounds by fax machine. (Can you imagine? Fax machines played a huge role in spreading these tidbits once upon a time. My Physics department received a fax of a fax of a fax of a fax of the Pons and Fleischmann Cold Fusion report back in 1989. I remember hunching over a photocopy of it with a magnifying glass, trying to decipher the distorted blobs that had once been letters many generations before. By the time I got through it, I believe the entire thing had already been denounced.) In any case, this story was a favorite of my grandmother, who died in 1998. For years before she died, she would refer to any new-fallen snow as "more of the white shit", and then laugh. It was pretty funny, coming out of the mouth of a clean-living 80-something churchgoing Polish grandmother. I miss her.

Anyway, that's what we're dealing with now. Another seven inches last night, on top of the five inches that fell last Thursday night, on top of the remnants of the three inches that fell the previous Sunday, on top of the inch or so that fell the Thursday before that. (I think I missed another overnight squall somewhere, but at this point, it doesn't even matter!) It seems like only two weeks ago that I was talking about how all the snow had melted away. It's back, if only for a little while!