Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Killer Kittens and Monster Squirrels

I read an article today about how cats in the United States kill billions of critters a year. Billions. Per year. In the US alone. For reference, this is a billion: 1000000000. Multiply that by 20ish, and you're looking at how many mice, squirrels, birds, bats, and other small fluffy or feathery lives are extinguished per year, in America, in the jaws of vicious kitty cats.

Some thoughts:

1) Holy crap, we have a lot of critters out there if cats are murdering billions a year and the population of birds and squirrels still seems to be thriving (as far as I can tell, anyway).

2) I guess the loss of that many birds and small mammals is probably bad for the environmental balance, and the whole catch-neuter-release idea for stray cats isn't necessarily the best plan, although the alternative breaks my heart.

3) I wonder how much higher that number would be if my Horton was an outside cat.

4) Maybe that explains the giant monster squirrels in Mom's backyard. Evolutionary pressure.

No, really! Think about it! Obviously, the cats are preferentially picking off the smaller and weaker creatures, leaving the giant-critter-genes disproportionately represented in the population! This explains why the crows in my yard are getting so fat they waddle and the squirrels are big and strong enough to haul beefsteak tomatoes off my garden vine and eat them on the deck.

I'm in Montreal this week, and Mom likes to have her morning coffee and cigarette on the back porch even in the cold of a Canadian winter (our blood is thick up here, folks). On my second day here, I heard her yelp and race back in, slamming the door behind her. "He's back, 'stie! Jennifer! Come see this sucker!" She pointed out the window towards the biggest squirrel I had ever seen.

"He hates me," Mom told me, still wrapped in her fur coat and wanting her smoke. "He's an aggressive son of a bitch! He's the one who ate through my garbage cans and dug up my flowerpots! I put mothballs like my friend told me, but he just dug them out and threw them on the neighbor's balcony! When I'm inside at the table, he comes to the windowsill, looks me in the eye, and poops there on purpose right in front of me, the little shit!"

Good daughter that I am, I put on my purple down coat with the fluff-lined hood and stood on the balcony with my mother, brandishing a plastic shovel to defend her from giant attack squirrels. This guy came towards us once or twice, but the whoosh of the shovel scared him back to the neighbor's hanging flowerpot. I got a picture of him:

And this was one of the smaller guys.
While I was out there, I had a good look around. We were surrounded. There were dozens of squirrels hanging out in the trees behind Mom's place in Montreal, and every single one was bigger than the ones I usually deal with back in Maryland. The Canadian squirrels look exactly the same in terms of color and features, so I'm sure they're the same species, but they must weigh at least 3 pounds each.

Weight-loss-inspiration photo these guys surely have
taped to the bathroom mirrors in their nests.

I'm not kidding. Thick branches dip dangerously under their weight. The downstairs neighbor is contributing to their weight problem by throwing crackers and stale bread out for them on a regular basis. If you're quiet, you can hear them crunching from the balcony. It's surreal, hearing dozens of crackers being crunched by hundreds of tiny teeth.  I tried hard to get a picture of the really fat one, but he stayed too far away. He doesn't fit through the holes in the chain-link fence, poor little guy, so he had to climb the fence to get at his carbs.

A photo of Fatty from 2008. He's still using it in his profile.
I'll be back out there tomorrow for more balcony defense. Wish me luck. They may bring reinforcements. Does anyone have an outside cat I can borrow?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

We're on a break

I'm not likely to be updating the blog for a few weeks due to a family emergency. I'll be back soon with news, but right now I've got other critical priorities overshadowing even my own basic needs. 

Hopefully I'll be back here dishing out great posts and linking them up with my new blogging buddies in a few weeks. I just need some time to focus on family right now.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Here in America

"Here in America, we don't use a maiden name as a middle name."

Her emphasis was on "America". Reminding me where I was and who was in charge. As though the huge flag behind her and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services badge on her arm wasn't enough. With her declaration, she scratched out the name I'd printed on the document. The name I wanted.

"You can add it to the last name and hyphenate it," she told me, "but you can't replace your middle name."

"But...." I protested, "Everyone I know did it that way after they got married. I don't want my old middle name."

"You can go through the court for a name change. Did you go to the court?"

Of course I hadn't. I thought my marriage certificate was enough, as it had been for everyone else I knew. I dug through my folder to find it for her.

"That's not good enough. You need to do it in the court. What's your middle name?"

She moved her hand to the top of the form and wrote my middle name where she wanted it to be. A few more quick scratches of her pen, and she added the name I wanted to the "aliases" section. I have aliases now. Like a spy. A criminal.

She sighed. Shook her head. "You'd be surprised how many people come in here and think they can just change their names like that. It doesn't work like that. You need to go to the court."

I couldn't argue with her. You can't argue with immigration officials when they have your future in their hands. You can't risk upsetting someone on the wrong day and having your petition denied. You go along with what they say. You do as they ask. You apologize for being so ignorant, for being in the way, for doing everything so obviously backwards, even though you followed every instruction to the letter. They are right and you are wrong.

I want to be angry. I want to be offended that I was told not just that I'd made a mistake or misread instructions, but that here in America, things are done differently. Because I know that's ridiculous. Besides the fact that America isn't a homogeneous mass, I can point to dozens of personal friends and professional acquaintances who have done exactly what this woman tells me is not allowed. Maybe it's the truth; maybe there's some fine print somewhere that says I can't change my name with USCIS on the basis of a marriage certificate alone. But this woman dismissed me outright when I protested. She held fast to an approved script, instead of listening to me and seeing me as a person who needed help understanding the process. I am Canadian. I am white. I speak flawless English. I can only imagine how much more degrading it must be to face these people if you're wearing a veil or struggling to find your words in your second or third language.

Maybe I'm overreacting. Civil servants aren't known to be the most caring and understanding of individuals, and working with the public can harden and desensitize you until you see everyone as a problem instead of a person. But it is wrong for the words "here in America" to be used by a member of the agency that every single immigrant to this country will need to work with. I am already in America, contributing to America's economy, helping save American lives with my work. Yes, I am an alien here, but I am here.

When I told this story to friends, I was reassured by some that things will improve once I become naturalized and acquire American citizenship. That thought is why I'm hurt and saddened by this experience, and not furious as perhaps I should be. To think that once I cross that line and pledge allegiance and get a tiny American flag to wave, my slate will be clean and it will be like none of this ever happened. I'll be the exact same person before and after that ceremony, but everything will change. I don't know if that's what I want. Do I want to be one of them? But I'm also tired of fighting. What does my name matter, anyway? If they say my middle name has to stay, maybe I'll just keep it.

“But it was alright, everything was alright, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” -- George Orwell, 1984

Linking up once again with other writers who blog and bloggers who write, over at Yeah Write. Please head over there and support some fantastic writers by reading and enjoying their work.


Friday, January 18, 2013


A part of our heritage.

Say those words to any Canadian in their thirties, and they will either mime a frantic telegraph operator or tell you they smell burnt toast.

No, we're not all insane. 

Years ago, when my age cohort was young and impressionable, a series of short  films were aired on TV alongside commercials for Skip-Its and Ninja Turtle figurines. These "Heritage Minutes" were sponsored by various corporations over the years and were aired on Canadian TV networks as a way to increase the amount of Canadian content we were exposed to. 

Thus we learned about Doctor Wilder Penfield, pioneer in neurosurgery and mapper of the brain, first director of McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute. 

We learned about the Halifax Explosion of 1917, where a ship loaded with explosives caught fire in the harbour after a collision. The disaster would have claimed more lives than it did had it not been for the sacrifice of Vince Coleman, a telegraph operator who stayed at his post to warn incoming trains of the danger.

While we absorbed Saturday morning cartoons, we learned of hockey heroes, war heroes, inventors and pioneers, all Canadian, all a part of our shared heritage. Those short films have stayed with me for decades now, snippets of them playing in my head, their words waiting on my tongue.

"Johnson, Sir... Molly Johnson."
I looked these videos up today because it occurred to me that I've forgotten much of my Canadian history. I will need to study American history if I am to pass the citizenship test next year, but much of the Canadian history I learned as a child is beginning to fade. I remember Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain. At least, I remember their names. I remember the Iroquois and their longhouses. I remember Vimy Ridge, and the bright poppy fields of Flanders. But I can't remember the story. I can't explain anymore what Canada is, where it came from, how it changed and grew. I am forgetting my heritage.

If you would like to watch more of these videos, and I recommend that you do, there is a playlist of all of them on Youtube here.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

To Those Who Wait

I arrived at the office five minutes after it opened, and every seat was already taken. People who arrived too late and lost the race for a chair were leaning against the back wall, clutching document folders and little paper tickets. I said good morning to the armed security officer at the door, who surprised me by smiling and responding in kind before handing me a little paper ticket of my own. That was the last happy moment in my day.

I found a bare spot between a poster offering the services of Spanish sign language interpreters and a pictogram instructing me not to take photos with my phone, and I joined the sullen group holding up the wall. I glanced down at my ticket. C306. The TV screen bolted into the corner displayed a row of blinking numbers: B46, C394, G30. A voice called out G31, and the screen changed. An old Chinese woman in the middle of a row stood and waved her ticket as she gathered her purse from under her chair. I wanted to hear her call "Bingo," but of course she didn't. She turned and inched unsteadily past the line of politely shifted knees to reach the aisle leading to the clerk's window. As she exited the row, a young man entered it from the other side to take her empty seat.

The numbers crept upwards in small groups. A few Bs were called. Two Cs and a handful of Gs. Then nothing. I glanced up to find the lone clerk sitting at her window and staring out towards the door. Soon, the smiling security guy came in holding a huge set of keys in one hand and pink tennis shoes in the other. He handed both to the clerk, who then changed her shoes and laced them up before calling G35.

The waiting-room musical chairs continued, with vultures swooping on abandoned seats before they could cool back to room temperature. An elderly man came unsteadily through the door with an orthopedic cast on his foot, and sighed as he scanned the full rows of seats. Only after eye contact could no longer be avoided and public shaming was imminent did the young woman with the Kindle stand to offer him a seat. The only smile in the room, besides the one on the security guard now grooving to his iPod, was George Takei's on the poster across the room.

No, George, it wasn't.

C304 and C305 must have had better things to do that morning, because they weren't around to answer when the clerk called them. After almost two hours, it was my turn. I approached the window with a smile, hoping honey would set the right tone for the interaction. 

"Good morning," I began, putting my documents on the counter.

"Ticket and application, please." Her eyes didn't leave her screen.

I gave her my crumpled C306 and my application form #SS-5, filled out and printed from my computer for maximum legibility. She impaled C306 on a metal spike and scanned my application form.

"Name change? You have paperwork?"

I took my marriage certificate from its envelope and handed it to her. Anticipating her next move, I opened my passport to the photo page and extended it towards the window just as she barked "ID." She looked at my passport photo, then at me. She flipped the passport over, read the all-caps CANADA across the front, and snapped it shut.

"Are you a US citizen?" She handed my passport back to me.

"Not yet," I replied. "I have a green card."

"Let me see it."

"The card itself expired last week," I explained. "I have a document here extending it while they process my renewal. This is the official paper that says I'm allowed to live and work in the US." I showed her the document that my immigration lawyer had rushed me by overnight courier.

She glanced at it and pushed it back to me. 

"Green card," she repeated. "I need to see your card."

I sighed and pulled it from my wallet. She took it from me, leaned it up against her computer monitor, and began typing. Her computer beeped. She looked up at me.

"We can't use this. It's expired."

I blinked. 

"I... I know. That's what this other document is for. It extends my green card until they can process the renewal."

"Sorry, the card is expired. You need a valid card."

I resisted the desire to connect my forehead with the desk in front of me. I held the extension notice out again.

"The guy I spoke to on the phone said that this counts as an official document from immigration and I could use it for a name change," I explained. "I've been married almost three years now and I would really, really like to use my married name. I had to wait to renew my green card, because otherwise the fee is almost $600 to change it. This paper is all I get for now - I won't have a physical card for another year, maybe. Are you sure you can't use this?"

She must have sensed something in my voice, because she softened. She took the paper back out of my hands and laid it on her desk to read it more carefully.

"Well, it's got your alien number on it. That's the same as your green card. Let's see if the system will accept this as an expiration date instead."

"I appreciate this so much," I told her. "It means a lot to me that you're trying to help."

She typed away for a moment, and then frowned.

"Honey, I'm sorry," she said, giving me back all my documents. She turned her screen so that I could read it. "Looks like they don't have your name changed with immigration yet, see? We can't do anything until that system has your new name in it. I'm sorry."

I nodded and thanked her again for her effort. I folded my documents neatly into my accordion folder and left the Social Security office, the same person I was when I arrived.

Note: Those of you who follow me on FB or Twitter may be looking for a post about the "Here in America" comment. I'm still working on that post and hope to have it ready by the weekend. 


Dude Write

Monday, January 14, 2013

Learning with my hands

I cook like my mother.

I rarely measure anything out, even though I have lovely sets of measuring cups and spoons and am always tempted to buy more when I pass by Pier 1 Imports or Williams Sonoma. I come from a "pinch of this" and "dash of that" heritage. When it was time to learn the secrets of spaghetti sauce, I stood beside the stove and watched my mother pour spices into her cupped palm until the piles of crushed leaves looked big enough to add to the simmering pot. She instructed me on proper measurements: "Cup your palm tighter for the thyme, you only want a small handful." I'm very lucky: our hands are the same.

Her recipes are frustrating, because they include measurements like a "a squirt" and directions like "until it's the right consistency." Unless you've watched the process all the way through a few times, it's difficult to do her dishes justice on your own. But I watched. I watched for years. I pinched pie crusts between my fingers and I dripped sauces off the back of a spoon. I learned.

My spaghetti sauce is nothing like hers, now. But it's incredible.

A consequence of this learning method is that no recipe is safe with me. I intend to follow recipes - really, I do - but sometimes I only have boneless chicken breasts instead of the bone-in-thighs that the recipe calls for, and the substitutions start. I'll use cheddar if I don't have Monterey Jack. I'll toss in skim milk because it's probably a better substitute for cream than my Bailey's Toffee Almond coffee creamer. I'll automatically double the garlic content of any recipe I'm following. 

Of course, the biggest drawback to the substitution game is that I never make exactly the same recipe twice. When someone loves what I've made for dinner and asks me for the recipe, I can lend them the book or forward them a website link, but the version they'll make will never be quite right. I try to explain what I did differently, but sometimes I don't even know. I added more honey to sweeten the glaze, but I couldn't tell you exactly how much, because I flipped the honey bear over and squeezed him until it tasted right. I kept adding chicken stock to thin the soup, but I didn't keep track of how much more I needed.

I've considered being more scientific about the process and trying to write down what I'm doing as I go. I should probably add the honey by teaspoons, not blobs, and I should pour the broth from a measuring cup instead of the box, so I can see how much I have left and do the math. But although I consider myself a scientist, I just can't seem to bring a calculating mentality into my kitchen. My meals are art. Not always good art, mind you, but it's a creative process more than a formula, and I don't know that I can change it. I don't think I want to.

I'd love to cook for you. I have so much fun experimenting in the kitchen, and it's wonderful to share the results with friends. I promise to do my best to give you an accurate recipe if you ask for it, but unless you've been hanging out with me in my kitchen and watching me work, you need to take those recipes with a grain of salt. Maybe two grains. I'm not sure, exactly. Stop when it tastes right.

 Linking up with bloggers who write and writers who blog over at Yeah Write. Pop on over there and read some other great stuff.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

It was a dark and foggy night

It was a dark and foggy night as we pulled into the driveway after a lovely dinner out. I stepped out of the car and shivered in the eerie quiet. The porch light cut a faint orange cone through the fog - all else was damp and grey.
"Hurry and open the door," I said to my husband. "I don't want to be stuck out here with all the scary creatures in the mist." I held my leftover French dip sandwich a little tighter in its paper bag.

"You mean Werewolves and such?" He looked up and down our silent street. "Don't they live on the moors?"

"Aren't there werewolves in London? They can totally live in cities. The important part is the mist. Werewolves live in the mist." I paused. "With the gorillas."

Friday, January 11, 2013

The pits

I scored a clementine hat trick today by consuming three clementines in a row without encountering a single seed. Don't laugh at me. This is a big deal. I remember a golden age, not so long ago, where all the little crates of clementines Mom bought came from "Maroc" and seeds were a rare annoyance. Then I moved here to Maryland and had to adjust to new purveyors of produce. Clementines here are "Cuties" or "Darlings" - still sold in crates made of splinters - and look exactly the same as the old ones did. But they're not the same. They are evil inside. You would think that a small citrus treat marketed as the perfect snack for children's school lunches wouldn't have hard nuggets of doom lodged within them, ready to chip teeth and block lungs, but there you have it. I had to develop a new clementine-eating strategy that involved eating them in a room with a good light source, so I could hold individual peeled segments up and X-ray them with visible light.

I can't handle putting the whole clementine segment in my mouth when there is a real and present danger of seed content. Somehow, I'm supposed to magically get the sweet juicy fruit away from the hard seeds, and then spit the seeds back out. I am to do this without choking on them or cracking a tooth. I can't figure out how everyone else is managing to perform this trick, so I have to put my clementines through the full-body-sunlight-scanner to detect seeds and pick them out.

That's why, when I got three sweet seedless Darlings in a row today, I pulled one of these:

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

A Wish is a Dream Your Heart Has

I have a university education. I have a reasonable grasp of statistics, probability, causality, and reality. I'm a little ashamed to admit that despite all this, I am a remarkably superstitious person.

Don't be thinking I'm one of those strange creepy folks who doesn't change undies and refuses to shave during the playoff season. I always smell lovely and my legs are only furry when it's winter and I need the warmth. I just like to participate in silly little rituals that are supposed to being me good luck, despite knowing better.

I don't buy into bad luck omens. Black cats are adorable and as good for petting as any other kitty, and spilled salt is just a mess on the counter and a sad waste of seasoning power. But I don't dare laugh in the face of possible good luck and miss out on anything fun by ignoring lucky charms or mocking good-luck rites.

I pick up pennies. I poke at the lawn and count leaves on clovers. I have a beckoning cat figurine in the kitchen to bring us prosperity. More importantly than all these, I make wishes. So many wishes. I eagerly use birthday candles, coins in fountains, and wishbones as vehicles to get my wishes out in the world where they have a chance at coming true. There's also the game of touching something blue when all the numbers on the clock are the same (with bonus extra wish strength when it's 11:11), and wishing under a train bridge while a train is whizzing by overhead. A folded chip, a stray eyelash, a white fluffy dandelion - wish, wish, wish!

Lucky Cat looking for a high-five

Somewhere along the way, I became very particular about my wishes, wording them very carefully to avoid a Monkey's Paw situation where the wish comes true with a horrible twist. Sure, I'll be a millionaire after the accident settlement, but I'll be a vegetable and never get a chance to swim in my new money bin. To avoid any sneaky loopholes like that, my wishes end up sounding like the fine print in contest rules, so I need to have them thought out and ready ahead of time, or I may panic and flub my chance when a wish opportunity arrives.

Of course, there's not really any such thing as luck, good or bad. I know that the world rolls on thanks to chemistry and physics and biology, and tossing a penny down a well isn't going to affect the course of my life in a tangible way. It's worth doing, though, because it gives me hope. As long as I'm wishing, it means I have something to wish for. If I ever reach a point when I can't even think up a wish for the morning star, it will mean I'm too depressed to even hope for better, and that will be a dark day. Playing the little wishing games, looking for four-leaf clovers; good-luck rites give me the feeling that maybe if I hope enough and collect enough good in my life, then I'll have a little bit of control over the uncontrollable. Because in the end, all I can control is myself and my attitude. Looking for the lucky things is like looking for the good in the world, and that has to be a good philosophy.

Linking up with the writers who blog and bloggers who write at Yeah Write.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

In My Blood

In most other workplaces, a blood-spattered desk would be cause for a police investigation.

For me, it was just Friday.

Let's just say that if blood or other bodily fluids and excretions bother you, you probably don't want to pursue a career as a medical laboratory scientist.

But maybe you do want to pursue that path. Maybe you love medical science but aren't masochistic enough to put yourself through medical school. Maybe you love helping sick people but don't want to be anywhere near them while you do, because, frankly, they're a little needy. Maybe you love biology and lab work, but don't want to spend a lifetime begging for grant money to keep your cell cultures or graduate students fed. There's hope for you yet! Stay tuned to find out how you too can have a vibrant healthcare career!

I know, I'm a ridiculous infomercial, but I feel like it's my duty to promote my profession, because there are too few of us out there, and we're not well understood or respected. I want that to change. Everyone knows about doctors and nurses, but the third vital side of the healthcare triangle, the medical "techs", live in relative obscurity.

The Board of Certification for medical technologists here in the US changed things up a couple of years ago and tried to give us more respect by changing our title from "Medical Technologist" to "Medical Laboratory Scientist". It was a lovely gesture, but it didn't really help. I mean, I didn't get a raise or a talk show or anything, and I still get a blank stare and polite nod when I tell folks what I do. Although I think people picture a lab coat and some test tubes now, which is a little closer to right.

I write about my work sometimes on this blog, and last year, I wrote a series of posts here for Medical Laboratory Professionals Week. Some of them explain the science and techniques behind laboratory tests, and some of them are about my experiences in the various labs I've worked in. I would very much like to do that again this year as a way to raise awareness about the profession. I never heard about medical laboratory science careers until I was already through university with a Bachelors in Physiology and couldn't find much to do with it. I hope that by writing about it here, I can make the profession just a little more visible, and maybe inspire someone to look into it as a career.

Even if I can't inspire anyone to get into a lab career, maybe I can help people understand what the job is about. Why do you only have to fast sometimes before a blood test? What happens to a blood donation? How does blood tell the doctor how sick someone is? I'd love to make Medical Laboratory Professionals Week into a sort of Q&A session, but for that I will need your help. Does anyone have any Qs that I can A?

What do you think the job is? Have you ever heard of it before? What would you like to know about labs, blood, and medical tests? I'm getting started early this year because I want to collect questions and get to work answering them well. I want to give myself time to draw diagrams and take pictures and maybe even interview folks in different types of lab positions, so I can really do right by my profession and show off my colleagues as the caring, intelligent, dedicated people they are.

So, hit me with your questions, and I'll do my best.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013


Last week, a post on a message board made me angry.

That's not unusual. But this post didn't involve my usual trigger subjects of homeopathy, Ryan Seacrest, or teen paranormal romance. The post was about words. I love me some words.

This guy, this... troll, claimed that some words are "unnecessary". The words he chose to accuse of superfluity: copacetic and discombobulated. His argument: they're hard to pronounce, "sound stupid", and other words can easily be used in their place.

Okay. Come on. First of all, they sound fantastic. Saying "discombobulated" out loud just now is the most fun I've had all day. Give it a shot, you'll enjoy it. Secondly, if you think "copacetic" is hard to pronounce, try some of the easy beginner words on for size, like "lamb" and "knife".

As for those other words that could be used in their place: forgive me, but isn't that the entire point of synonyms? Having slightly different ways to say the same thing? If you kill off synonyms and antonyms, you end up in a world of emotionless Orwellian Newspeak, devoid of nuance and tone. That's a boring damn world and I don't want to live there. We're talking doubleplus ungood here, folks.

Yes, I could use "bewildered", "taken aback", or "rattled" in the place of "discombolulated" and the meaning wouldn't change. The words all have a very similar denotation in that they all mean "confused and upset". But they've each got their own connotation, which is the connections your mind makes to other words and feelings when you read them. When I'm writing a silly story and a character is approached by a wizard who hands him a magic hat and tells him he's destined to save the world, I may say he's discombobulated by the encounter. If I'm writing a serious story and someone's being told that the man she's been married to for a decade has a secret life and a second family overseas, I may say she's rattled by the news. I know I would be!

I will grant that sometimes fancy-pants words get used unnecessarily in the place of simpler ones. Not everyone in every novel needs to have creamy alabaster skin, and sometimes the sky is just blue. Not cerulean or aquamarine or azure. Sometimes blue will do. Simplicity is generally the best rule. That's not to say that fancy words don't have their place. I use many a highfalutin word when the mood strikes and I feel like it conveys what I want it to. Sometimes you need to break out some discombobulation, and that's just copacetic with me.

But people who utilize "utilize" when they could totally be using "use"? Beatings. Beatings for all.