Friday, June 28, 2013

Azza's Graduation Photo

She would never have anything to do with those scary half-crates (they were mostly focusing objects anyway without any other function) but she was willing to sit beside me in the lineup!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Summer of Organic Chemistry

The university here runs on quarters, which they call terms. There are three terms per year plus summer. I'm used to 12-week semesters, two per year, plus summer. In either case, the summer courses are nearly always compressed versions of their regular offerings.

And the organic chemistry sequence I'm taking is no exception. I'm completing a full year of organic chem, the equivalent of about 20-24 weeks of lecture and 10-12 weeks of lab, in a total of 12 weeks, four weeks for each part.

It's a brutal schedule. Each day of lecture in the summer is equivalent to about 3 days of normal session lecture. We are blasting through a chapter of the textbook every 1.5 days or so. The textbook itself is enormous, clocking in at more than 1300 pages--it is literally and conceptually dense. Unfortunately, I need to haul it to campus with me every day because we have homework problems assigned out of it and it helps to have the book there to work on homework during lunch and then with the TA during the hour we have with her after lunch.

And I still spend around 4 hours each night working on the material at home.

Organic chemistry at this level isn't a computerized activity. You work problems out by hand using pencil and paper. I searched for and unpacked a specific box just to unearth my collection of mechanical pencils. 

The first "midterm" takes place on day 6; the second "midterm" on day 13, the final exam for the first lecture segment on day 20. We also have six quizzes (I made a perfect score on the first one).

So far, it's been like riding a bike. You start off a bit wobbly then all that (mental) muscle memory kicks in and you are enjoying the breeze in your hair.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Our First Night of Organic Chemistry Homework

Harry, Azza, and Mimi are exhausted from drawing Lewis structures for a couple of hours.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Azza's First View of a Dog Show

I'm doing an agility trial with Mimi this weekend. The location is very close to my house, about 25 minutes of freeway time and I'm there. Since the rings started late this morning, I decided to come early to find a place for my setup and use the opportunity to bring Azza with me and give her a look at a dog show.

She did sort of okay as long as there were no dogs to be seen. She's still reacting rather violentl, particularly when other dogs look at her. She does not like dogs that stink-eye but she reacts badly even when the dog glances quite properly then glances away.

But when we arrived we managed to make two passes through the crating area that is stretched out along one side of the arena. Nobody gets to an agility trial at 7am when it doesn't begin until 9am. As a bonus, she navigated some scary metal stairs. Then we went outside to run around on various grassy spots.

I was occasionally able to reward her for looking at other dogs but there is a threshold distance for her--if the dog is closer than that, she starts her meltdown.

Her tail was down, even tucked between her legs, for much of our 45-minute tour but I managed to get her happy ears and tail when running around outside without a dog or person in sight. So at least she was accommodating this new space, if not exactly the beings in it!

Friday, June 21, 2013

And More Stuff

My house is a chaos of boxes and packing material.

But the carpets made it! I've got carpets I've never even displayed--no room. I bought them and promptly rolled them up and stacked them in my hovel stairwell. I'm looking forward to getting some of them out.

Nearly everything is coated in fine, sticky dust. The hovel in Dhahran was so poorly sealed that it was a constant battle against the dust but I had no idea what squalor I was living in.

There was some damage to some shelves and two boxes didn't make it at all although most of the contents of one was tossed in loose in the truck, suggesting the damage of at least that box occurred on this end. I definitely lost a few things but I still have to go through the detailed inventory, not the by-the-box list, to figure out what is missing.

One thing is clear. I need to divest myself of a lot of this stuff. I don't want to continue to haul it around with me. I'm already making a pile for a garage sale and/or craigslist. I've purged so much over the past few years but I can see that there is plenty of excess still. It's interesting to learn how unimportant a lot of that stuff is, and how easily one can do without it.

However, I'm really excited to have a fully stocked kitchen again!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Azza's Last Day in Class

Today was Azza's last day of class. As usual, several amazing things ensued.

She walked from the car to the door of the facility wagging her tail. Never happened before--I couldn't believe my eyes.

During a recall exercise, the instructor held Azza's leash while I walked about 20 feet away, which was certainly a significant achievement on its own. But Azza was wiggling and googly-eye-making and eating treats off the instructor until I said "Azza, come!" in my best happy voice and she FLEW to me. The instructor almost got teary-eyed when, after getting treats from me then getting permission to leave me, Azza turned around and ran back to her for more petting and treats (I used the command "go see!" to send her away). She declared Azza "the most improved" and I'd have to agree.

When she started the class, no person or dog could even look at her, much less make eye contact, without causing her to growl and try to spiral down into one of her little meltdowns. And here she was playing a recall game in the middle of a room filled with dogs and people all looking and laughing at her. She was loving it.

As you know from my previous posts, I never expected Azza to do this well in class. I never expected her to willingly greet strangers and deal with strange dogs without a meltdown. Tonight she approached then sat by my side within five feet of a GSD that she had never seen before in her life, looking at him then looking at me for a treat. Wash, rinse, repeat. Later, she greeted his owner and promptly rolled over for a belly rub.

As a result, I am definitely getting her into a rally obedience class. I can of course teach her everything she needs to know at home--rally isn't that complicated. But the class environment is the true challenge for my orange feral dog.


Big news at CircusK9: my shipment from KSA will be here tomorrow. I'm pretty excited--I've been limping along on a limited set of stuff since the beginning of April.

There's a good possibility that my carpets didn't make it. But I can't fret about what I can't do anything about. And there are plenty of items that could have gotten damaged during the packing, various customs inspections, and the subsequent long ride on camelback to these more civilized parts. I dread the long day of unpacking--and the moving team will be doing that because I can't make any claims for damage if I touch a single thing.

I know they are just things, but I will be thankful to have these items around me again (in no particular order):
mixing bowls
bread machine
plastic food storage containers (I have probably close to 50 of various sizes; I prefer using them to wasteful plastic bags)
trash cans for the bathroom and office
paper shredder
cooking utensils (I've been kind of jonesing for my potato masher and whisk)
Tshirts (I've been living off the 9 or so I brought and the two I bought here)
pictures and decorative bits and bobs
dog toys
desk (an enormous table, actually)
floor lamps
personal files (only so many of those could come with me)
Adobe Acrobat Pro CD-ROM (my installation got FUBARed and I need to reinstall it from scratch)
agility equipment

One of the items coming tomorrow is my bed frame. I am very excited about this because it means that I can set up the guest bedroom at last (have to buy a mattress, but that's just a detail). Give me at least a couple of weeks then start making your plans to come visit!

Monday, June 17, 2013


I did something really, really stupid yesterday.

The terriers screech their fool heads off when I work with Azza. I've tried putting them in another room, putting them in crates, putting them in crates with meaty bones. Nothing works. The very idea that I would be doing training with any dog but them is not acceptable.

So I thought that I could put them in crates on the patio where I could squirt them with a spray bottle if they barked and reward them with a treat if I could do a sequence with Azza and they were quiet.

While I was getting the crates out of the garage, I decided to work with Mimi first. I carefully measured out the weave poles and set up the jump. I got my clicker, treat bag, and the frozen beef and cheese bits from the freezer. I put Harry in one crate with the spray bottle nearby and left Azza loose.

She kept getting in the way of both me and Mimi, trying to get into heel position in order to get some treats of her own. I managed to get Mimi over one jump and through one set of weaves before I realized I'd have to do something about Azza.

So I put her collar and leash on her and tied the leash to the handle on the top of the empty crate. That turned out to be a really bad idea.

Azza has never been tied to anything before. When she moved, it moved.

That was when things went completely to shit.

Azza totally lost it and started flying around the yard shrieking like a banshee, the crate bumping and banging and dragging behind her.

This of course triggered Mimi's kill frenzy. She's a fox terrier, and just a teensy bit unstable, and her pack aggression is always simmering just beneath the surface, ready to explode as soon as there is a sign of weakness. Mimi began to attack Azza, hanging off her neck like an furry lamprey, gnawing and growling and shaking her head.

Azza nearly completed a full circuit of the yard but the crate finally got stuck behind some old crusty rosebushes. I was able to reach in and unhook Azza's leash and drag her out by the collar, Mimi still attached to her throat. I kicked Mimi off but she kept coming in for more. Azza was screaming and fighting to get away from me and Mimi and the crate and that fucked up nightmare.

I managed to drag Azza across the yard with Mimi now attached to her haunch. I kicked Mimi off one final time before tossing Azza in the house.

I collapsed on the step to catch my breath. Then I carried Mimi into the house and put her in a crate (one that is always set up in the living room for terrier use). I slowly but systematically put away all the equipment, the treats, the other crates, gathered up Azza's leash. Leaving Harry outside, I went to see what condition Azza was in.

It was not pretty. She was hunkered down on the bed, eyes dilated, ears horizontal, growling. I'm surprised she let me in the room but I sat on the floor until she came to me. I couldn't find any serious wounds on her so I decided to leave her alone for a while.

It's now been 24 hours. Azza is much jumpier than usual but seems to be calming down. She's got a welt on her haunch from Mimi's final desperate chomp and scratches on her nose from the rosebushes, but fortunately no punctures or slashes. She doesn't appear to associate me with the scary crate that was following her but she sure as hell wasn't too happy with Mimi.

I had to keep Mimi crated for several hours after the event--her bloodlust was running high and all she wanted to do was go for Azza again. I kept her on lead in the house (a very short lead) until after breakfast this morning. I sent her outside to potty on her own--no fraternizing with the other two dogs.

Mimi is still rather wound up. She constantly tests Azza to see if there is any weakness still there by feinting at her during transitions (getting up to go outside, for example). Azza appears to have decided to let this go and doesn't appear to be holding any grudges. She isn't wary of Mimi and even tried to initiate play with her outside (I immediately discouraged it. Much too soon for that sort of thing.)

So we aren't quite back to normal yet. Vigilant management will be required for a few more days. During which time I'll try not to do anything else quite that stupid.

Thai Sweet Potato Mash

I was listening with half an ear to The Splendid Table yesterday on the radio and heard the host suggest something along the lines of this very simple recipe. Since I happened to have two sweet potatoes that needed to be cooked, I thought I'd give it a try.

Two medium sweet potatoes
One lime
Hunk of fresh ginger (about 1 tsp in volume; adjust to taste)
Jar of Thai red curry (red chili) paste
Olive oil

Wash and cook the sweet potatoes. I microwave them because it is then trivial to remove the skin. Alternately, you can peel them then microwave them.

Peel and finely dice the fresh ginger then place in a bowl. Add the peeled sweet potatoes, the juice of one lime (which hopefully you also washed), and a tablespoon of the Thai red curry paste. Add a small amount of olive oil and begin to mash all ingredients. Add more olive oil as needed to smooth out the texture.

And that's all it takes for a perfect side dish or vegetarian main. I ate mine with sliced cucumber drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

As a side note, if you do much Asian-inspired cooking (south or east, doesn't matter), limes, fresh ginger, and Thai red curry paste should be staples in your kitchen. If you don't work with fresh limes that often, select thinner-skinned, very slightly squishier ones (in other words, avoid the rock-hard ones with very thick rinds) and roll them around under your palm on a cutting board, pressing down firmly, before slicing. This makes it much easier to juice them.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Social Butterfly

Those are certainly two words that I never thought that I would use to describe Azza. But there's no other way to put it: tonight in class, she was a wiggly, tail-wagging, googly-eye-making, treat-begging social butterfly.

It was amazing.

After teaching all those basic obedience and agility classes myself, I observed this phenomenon quite a few times. Somewhere around week four or five, a shy or anxious dog will blossom, sometimes explode is the only way to put it, and start to display the social skills and bravado of a seasoned entertainer (I link to that video because NPH is utterly, jaw-dropping amazing and everyone in the world needs to watch that spectacle half a dozen times at least). Not only is this blossoming a sign that the owner is doing their homework, but it shows the power of positive training. It is also a testament to the fact that most pet dogs want nothing more than a little structure and attention from their people.

Of course, Azza's situation is rather more complex than a little structure and attention will resolve but the idea is the same. Still, I was quite surprised to see her reach this emotional state. It was so much more than I expected for her out of this class.

She is infatuated with the small dogs, and tonight's favorite was the sandy colored terrier mix. She had no time at all for the half a dozen BCs in the room. She also decided that every single person in the room was her bestest bestie ever and that she would try to beg treats from them all. The instructors gave her treats and pet her but we only allowed the other handlers to give her treats, no touching. Just in case. I completely concurred with this given her previous behavior, and in fact, a couple of the other handlers were reluctant to touch her anyway (she was quite an mess the first two weeks and I can hardly blame them).

We did a classic recall with distraction exercise where we put our dogs on a long line and allowed them to approach one of the instructors who pet them and gave them treats as we backed up then recalled our dogs to us. Azza was totally into this game, realizing that she would get excellent treats and attention on both ends if she played along. Still, I was only able to recall her with difficulty.

Let me repeat that.

I was only able to recall Azza with difficulty from visiting with a human she's seen four times and previously only taken a single treat from, and that reluctantly and not directly from the human's hand. She was pressed up next to the instructor's side (Azza's default position for rewards is the heel position), thumping her tail on the ground and eagerly eating cheese and a beef stick like she hadn't been fed in weeks.

During the down exercise, Azza didn't just go into the down, she went into her spider dog position, chin on the floor, paws splayed awkwardly, patiently waiting for me to toss her another treat.

At one point, she flopped over onto her side and went into a little trance, just chilling on the floor.

In a room with FOUR unleashed dogs (BCs all) and four other dogs of uncertain affection towards her. We all stopped and stared.

I'm quite certain that Azza misses her BFF Nellie in Dhahran and is starting to figure out that other dogs and other people might be a similar source of attention and play and treats that Penny and Nellie and Moya and Boodle did.

We've learned a few new behaviors from the class but this social lesson is by far the most valuable for Azza.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dried Catfish Skins

My friend Gosia sent us a housewarming gift box and one of the items in it was a package of dried Icelandic catfish skins (here is a really good article about this North Atlantic fish). The treats look like flattened, silvery grey sticks. With effort, you can cut them into smaller pieces with a pair of heavy kitchen shears or give them to your dog as is (everything in my house gets divided into three parts to make them last longer).

Terrier Toy Testing Institute (T3i) gives them an enthusiastic review! Even HellBeast enjoyed the small flaky bits from the bottom of the bag.

If your local specialty pet food store carries these, buy a bag and surprise your pups!

Monkeys in the Zoo

When I'm out walking with the dogs each morning, we see joggers and bikers and other walkers. Without fail, everyone gives us a smile and often a "good morning!". Who can help but be in a good mood when you live in such a beautiful part of the world? And be out in the glorious fresh air of the new day? Fairly often, we also receive this compliment: "beautiful dogs!".

Of course they are beautiful dogs. They are groomed, in good physical condition, and, most importantly, trained (i.e., heavily rewarded) to behave themselves, more or less, on lead and in public. Even Azza has learned how to accept these compliments gracefully (she usually growls at people who speak to me).

But the larger issue is contained in the smiles and the greetings--such a pleasing social custom. See, in Dhahran, I might see other people while out walking the dogs but unless I knew them, there would be no eye contact, no smile, no greeting. Definitely none of those things if they were Saudi or Asian.

Bizarrely, there were some rather specific times in Dhahran we generated a response in passers-by. On multiple occasions when I was walking the dogs, an enormous SUV would pull up next to us, heavily tinted windows coming down to reveal a car crammed with fully veiled women and half a dozen frenetic toddlers and children, none of whom were in car seats, pointing and gibbering at me and the dogs.

Like we were monkeys in the zoo.

I nearly always had a baggie of dog poop in one hand since pooping was a primary reason for walking the dogs. I quickly began to tap into the zoo monkey umwelt because after the fifth or dozenth time this happened, I found myself overwhelmed by a desire to fling that bag of shit right into that car.

We are not exhibits in the zoo anymore.

Sleeping With Dogs

There's already been a lot said about sleeping with dogs, from the maudlin to the medical to the stupid (and rebutted nicely here) to the far, far fringe of reality (here and here, although that isn't the "sleeping" I was referring to), but nonetheless I thought I'd add my two cents.

The primary source of heat in my house is in the living room. It is a propane-sourced gas stove with ceramic logs and a blower wired to a programmable thermostat. The house was designed with this stove and it works well. Still, it can get chilly in the bedrooms at the back of the house farthest from the stove, particularly in the early mornings when I open the curtains to watch the rising sun, in the process letting out all of the accumulated nighttime warmth.

I certainly enjoy good wine, thoughtfully cooked food, a diverting book. But by far the most fantastic luxury available to me is being able to curl up in flannel sheets under a feather duvet surrounded by my dogs. Mimi's preferred spot is curled up under the covers next to me. Harry takes the coveted spot on my other side (on top of the covers), easily within reach of my hand. He is usually covered with a small fleece blanket and a corner of the duvet (not too much covering, and never his head; he gets hot). Azza curls up in a tight ball in the corner between my legs and Harry, as close as she can get without annoying either of us. She stuffs her snout into her belly to keep warm, although she too is learning how to enjoy being covered with a blanket.

I get up around 4 a.m. to let the dogs out to pee then we all troop back to bed and arrange the tableau I've described above. And with a hearty doggy sigh or two, we drop back into warm, fuzzy, early morning dreams.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


I got about 100 gallons of good soil out of the compost pile (around 20 fillings of a five-gallon bucket). Dirt for free! You can see my setup in the photo below. It was time consuming but not particularly difficult work.

The pile was full of enormous worms, most of which I returned to the bin. The dirt has been scattered around the yard, filling many of the annoying holes. The volume of the pile is reduced by over two-thirds. The stuff that is left is too wet (bad hippies for not turning the pile often enough) or too coarse--not ready to use yet. But getting everything turned and adding some fresh material will take care of both problems.

While I was screening the pile (I am wearing rubber gardening gloves and simply rubbing the stuff over my spiffy screen; if it's dirt, it falls through, and if it isn't ready, it doesn't), I extracted a few pounds of peach pits, corn cobs, whole potatoes, and enormous squash stems, none of which will readily break down in this kind of compost bin. Seriously, whole potatoes. Some of them were even sprouting. What the hell where those hippies thinking? Composting is an amazingly simple yet powerful biological process but there are limits to what you can accomplish with it in your backyard.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Our Back Yard

I haven't been posting much because we've been doing a lot of this:

Now before you get the wrong idea, I will say that I have been doing a lot around the house: organizing the garage, putting weatherstripping around the front door, weeding, removing all of the window screens and sweeping off the spiderwebs and cleaning the exterior glass, doing a deep clean of corners that I didn't get to in the initial move-in clean (white vinegar is the most amazing all-purpose cleaning tool--and cheap too!).

Two large, ongoing projects are the back yard and the compost pile.

As you can see in the photo, the backyard looks pretty ratty. Partly it's a lack of TLC but the hippies that lived here before me made some rather odd choices. They were really into gardening. They build up a large garden plot, perhaps 300 square feet in size, at one end of the yard. It is mounded, rising up a good 6 inches or more above the ground level. The soil there is of much better quality than the rest of the yard and it has obviously been amended by compost (more on that below). But you can't make a garden out of compost alone--you still need a lot of dirt too. Where did they get the dirt? They dug it out of the rest of the yard! No, not from a single, large hole. That would have been too sensible. They took shovelfuls from the rest of the yard in a checkerboard pattern. Ah! Now the shitty yard begins to make a bit more sense.

So one of my projects is moving the soil from the garden mound back to its original location in the rest of the yard, bucket by bucket. This is not the Sisyphean task that it sounds like. In the areas where I started the dirt relocation, the yard is already looking better. In the fall, when it begins to rain again, I'll scatter grass seed and fertilizer. Perhaps by next spring, the yard will begin to look halfway decent.

The hippies also set up an open compost pile in a "box" created by three wooden pallets nailed together. They took fairly good care of it but it hasn't been turned since they left and the landlady dumped a bunch of large, chunky crap in there when she did a clean up before I got here. There's probably a solid three cubic feet of cured compost at the bottom ready to go, but there's a similar volume of crap on top that hasn't been composted yet.

Turning an open compost pile like that isn't trivial. And if you aren't too picky about what you toss in there (the hippies weren't--I've encountered entire and unrotted potatoes, eggshells, avocado rinds, etc., which means whenever I approach the bin, the dogs get very interested because stuff like that is fricking treasure, I tell you), then you need to screen the large chunks out before you use it (you return them to the pile; they aren't wasted). When turning it, you need a place to put the uncomposted stuff from the top layer, another work location to do the screening of the bottom layer, and a screen. I've got a trip to Home Depot planned for the afternoon to pick up a tarp, some 1" x 2" wood for a frame, which I will build, and metal mesh, and I'll be in compost business by the weekend.

Getting more raw material for the bin isn't a problem. I cook most of my meals from scratch and I eat a lot of vegetables. Pretty much the only prepared products I use are tomatoes and tuna. Just in the process of my daily eating schedule, I generate a lot of organic matter--good, clean bits ready for the compost bin. Think of all the lovely stuff just waiting for a new life in the composter: garlic clove paper, onion tops, ends of zuccinis and carrots, spinach leaf stems, mango rinds, tea bags. I've got plenty of yard waste too, like grass clippings and leaves. You have to have the right balance of things, can't just toss in anything (like whole potatoes, sheesh, silly hippies). It will be good to put all that stuff to some use rather than throwing it out with my non-recycling trash.

Unfortunately, you can't put dog poop in a household compost bin. It doesn't get hot enough to kill parasites and harmful bacteria. Don't want to be scattering E. coli around the yard now, do we? Poop, and cat litter cleanings, have to go out bagged in my curbside trash bin.

Of course I spend plenty of time dozing in the fresh air of the back yard with the dogs, but only after I spend a morning of hard work making this place a little more comfortable.