Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Winter Sunshine

This is living in the moment.

I know Harry looks really...diminished. He may be old but he knows where the best napping spots are.

Where's Mimi? She's curled up on top of a puffy pad in a crate by my feet, her favorite place to keep an eye on me when I'm studying.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Four Big Exams in Four Days

Thursday, Friday, Monday, Tuesday. My brain is going to explode.

The dogs are driving me nuts because they want...play, walks, attention. I shave a bit here and there out of my studying but it isn't enough for them. I keep telling them, quality over quantity. We try to live in the moment at CircusK9 (when we can) and when I spend time with them, they get 100% of my energy and attention.

I did poorly on the Friday exam--sometimes it's hard for me to stop considering all possible hypotheses when I read complex questions, and simply plug in the numbers the prof wants. I have been rewarded for doing the former for 20 years--all that operant conditioning can't be jettisoned in a day. Of course the latter isn't realistic at all out in any real world you might choose, but it's what is required in an exam covering three weeks of very complex material that must be completed in 50 minutes or less.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Learning French

French class is an interesting counterpoint to the heavy science classes that I'm taking. I get to use a different part of my brain. While I know that the brain isn't a muscle, it appears to be the case that using more of your brain allows you to use more of your brain.

The instructor has us regularly engage in small-group conversations, submit original creative writing assignments, and read texts and watch videos and song. There are some pretty sharp young people in the class, but it's painfully obvious that to use the vocabulary of a foreign language, you need to have a reasonable vocabulary in your own language. For example, I wanted to use "poor people" in one of my writing assignments but in the same sentence I had already described an individual as "neither rich nor poor". Even if I was writing in English, I wouldn't use "poor" twice. But I happen to know other words to describe "poor people": needy, destitute, and so forth. And French has a wonderful word for the destitute: misereux. It's frustrating that some of the students don't seem to have much of a vocabulary at all, in any language. It's hard to have conversations with them.

Our writing assignments have been a small source of stress to me. You might find this surprising since I write here fairly often. But there's a process, you see. I don't write here until I have something to say (it might be stupid or boring, but that's not the point). The blog doesn't have due dates so I can mull over ideas until one appeals to me. And I wouldn't really characterize the blog as creative writing, which I define as mostly fiction. I embellish and combine true events for effect, and I try to use language creatively, but what I write here is not created out of whole cloth. Turns out that's pretty difficult to do on command! I've managed the first three assignments okay, writing about a yeti chasing a boy and his dog off a mountain, a "fairy tale" about a widow selecting someone to marry using the moral "il veut mieux du pain sec avec amour que des poulets avec cris" (translated exactly, it means "it is better to have dry bread with love than chickens with drama/crisis") which I found on the internet, and a greatly abbreviated recounting of our grand trip to Burgundy a couple of years ago.

The instructor has also arranged for us to Skype with French students at an engineering university outside of Paris. We have to have at least two one-hour conversations with our partner then write up our experience and what we learned as another writing assignment (thankfully, not another creative writing effort). Half of each conversation is to be in French and half in English since the French students want to improve their proficiency. I've had one conversation with my partner so far--it was interesting and rather challenging. His English is much better than my French.

I was asking him about the sports he liked to play (rugby, an oddly British choice) and the job he expected to have when he finished university. One of his first questions to me (in French), was how Americans viewed the French people. I had to laugh. Not only was that so typically French, a complete and honest answer was far beyond my ability to provide in French. I gave it my best shot though.

Even though these activities take time nearly every day to prepare and complete, they are fun and help me clear my mind for the rest of my studies.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Pack Dynamics: Harry and Azza

I keep a pretty close eye on Azza when she's around Harry. I no longer fear her going Cujo without warning, but she's young and rambunctious and still mostly made up of crazy, flailing legs and tail. But he does a pretty good job on his own, growling at her when she gets too close. There's no question that she understands that special rules apply to him and around him. But I'll probably never completely relax my vigilance. Dogs are animals, after all.

I've posted before how tempting the forbidden is--how the very restrictions on Azza when she's around Harry make him all that more fascinating to her.

He's been sleeping a lot these days, particularly in the mornings. Why should he get out of bed when all I'm doing is taking a shower? Not much chance of breakfast (they've already had it), treats, a walk, or play, so it's perfectly logical from Harry's perspective to sleep in for a while.

Since Azza has been showing signs of having a couple more neurons than before, she's been allowed the privilege of being loose when I'm in the shower (I used to crate her if I couldn't see her).

This morning, I got out of the shower and went to check on what Azza was up to. She wasn't in the front room by the stove. No, I found her in the bedroom.

She had (apparently rather quietly) gathered a selection of toys (rubber ball, plush squeaky) on the bed along with her favorite nylabone, and was curled up next to Harry, quietly chewing her plastic bone. He was sound asleep, tucked into his fleece nest in the same position he'd been in when I got up, just the tip of his nose sticking out.

Was she there to keep an eye on the fragile elder of the pack? Is that anthropomorphizing too much? Whatever motivated her, it gives me warm fuzzies to know that she chose to keep him company.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Eyeballs on the Blog

I usually put some effort into selecting post titles. On web devices, that is usually all that you see, so I want them to be relevant, and funny if possible.

Well, I got 40 views of my "First Day of School" post--and I know perfectly well that it was because of the title. I only have about 15 regular readers (no potential for ad revenues for CircusK9). It certainly wasn't because that was a brilliant bit of writing either.

Here is where the problems of the unexamined Google search arise. I guess some people type in a search term then click any link instead of examining it for its suitability. But you can pretty much assume from the name of my blog that it isn't a mommy blog nor is it about politics or gender issues or human rights or freeze peach.

Still, I suppose I should be happy with the exposure, even if it is accidental. Perhaps I'll pick up one or two more regulars as a result!

Larry, Moe, and Azza--A Visual Aid

Yeah, I know you can tell that it took me all of five minutes to make this.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Larry, Moe, and Azza

I should be studying. But the house was a mess and it was making me quite twitchy. I folded laundry. I dusted. I vacuumed, even under the bed, and I mopped.

Azza was sulking in the kitchen as I was finishing up the floors. It was past their dinner time and all the animals were getting restless. I came in with the mop to rinse it one more time...and Azza panicked. She tried to shoot out of the kitchen, slipped on the wet floor, and in her attempt to right herself, she landed in the water bowl. Of course, she kept flailing, flipping the bowl over and spreading the puddle across the floor.

She at last made it to the relative safety of the dog beds in the living room where she's still curled up nursing her wounded pride.

The Three Stooges could not have pulled off better slapstick.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Becoming an Oregonian

These days, most cities and towns, even wide spots in the road, have some sort of coffee shop. But Oregon has some particularly good ones, local companies trying to set themselves apart from the bloated, megaglobal chains like Starbucks. Oregon also has a lot of drive-thru coffee shops, usually with two-sided access.

I don't have many choices with my routes between home and Corvallis so I drive up and down the same road quite often. The grocery store I use is on this road. And so is a drive-thru kiosk of one of the local coffee companies. This chain has maybe four kiosks in the area, so it is particularly small. They open this particular shop every day at 4am, hoping to entice early morning truck and commuter traffic coming into Corvallis from points west. The owner must pay his baristas well. The same bright, young girl has been working at this particular shop since I arrived in the area back in April.

I am trying to stick to a budget and drinking coffee out is rather a luxury. For the price of a small latte, I can buy a box of 20 teabags--almost three weeks' worth. For the price of two small lattes, I can buy a pound of ground coffee, enough to make at home for months. It's hard to justify spending so much money on one cup of coffee. But I don't have an espresso machine at home and I quite like the taste of fancy coffee. Every so often, I simply have to get a small mocha on my way into to campus in the morning.

I must drink coffee and tea and eat chocolate in moderation; too much caffeine triggers migraines for me, so no matter where I get it, my caffeine intake is strictly measured and limited. Still, a small cup of fancy coffee is within my daily caffeine allowance!

I probably visit this particular shop on average one or two times every couple of weeks. That's not a lot, certainly it's not a daily occurrence nor is it predictable as I could fancy a fancy coffee just about any day of the week. And as I said, the same young woman is always the barista when I go there. I always order the same thing, a 12 ounce mocha (with no sugar), the perfect combination of warmth, coffee, and chocolate.

This morning I decided was a good morning for fancy coffee. Heavy fog developed at dawn and it was damp and chilly. So on my way to school, I pulled off the main road to the coffee shop. I had to wait behind one car. I was listening to some jazz on the radio (Louis Armstrong) to pass the time. When the car left, I pulled up, rolled down the window, and the young woman leaned out, smiled, and said, "small mocha?". I said, yes, and she handed me the mocha already made up. I laughed and said, did you make this just now? She smiled again and said, yes, I saw you through the windows. I tipped her extra, of course!

This must be a rite of passage for becoming an Oregonian. You find a favorite coffee shop, become a regular, and after a while, the baristas don't ask you what you want. They start making up your order when they see you arrive!

I would offer up the second piece of evidence for my possible increasing Oregonian-ness. It's only a few minutes more of driving to go from "my" coffee kiosk to the parking lot on the edge of campus that I use, not enough time to even get started on that mocha. I park, unload my bike, put on my backpack, grab the coffee, and pedal across campus to my first class holding my coffee in one hand. I rarely spill a drop.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

College Campuses

There is a religious zealot (xtian, of course) standing up on a ledge outside the library ranting about how all of us are going to hell and how gays are not real men. He's drawn quite a crowd. Some of the hecklers are rather clever but the zealot won't be deterred.

This being a college campus, there's another guy, a student, standing on a ledge a few feet away, echoing the xtian's ravings about his judgmental xtian god with rants about Arceus being the only true Pokemon god. Since I'm not up on Pokemon subculture, I can't comment on the veracity of this statement, but it's pretty damned funny nonetheless.

And behind the two ranters are a group of students who recently formed a new campus club, Humans versus Zombies. They are holding up hastily lettered posters claiming "Free Hugs!" and they are making good on that, hugging one and all who want one.

Christian bigots, role-playing game geeks, and free hugs. What an interesting place to be!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Musings on Sleeping CircusK9

I'm spending the weekend studying biochem and animal genetics, with a bit of French thrown in. I'm pretty much caught up with animal nutrition at the moment. When I add up the hours I spend in class and the hours I spend studying each day, it comes out to far more than I spent going to work these past few years.

The dogs are not happy about this new arrangement.

Harry has been nursing a soft-tissue injury in his left shoulder for a couple of weeks so our normal walking and play schedule have been even further restricted. But he's been showing signs of improvement the past few days so this morning I decided we needed to make our regular trip to the Bald Mountain recreation area for our trail hike.

I've talked about our walks there before. We cover around 3 miles, a little over half of that on single-track dirt trails. The trails are moderate in difficulty (tree roots, embedded rocks, erosion barriers, sections that are rather steep, etc.) but they are well maintained, marked, and used by a lot of people. The dogs love their weekend trail walk--so many more smells and sounds than the usual neighborhood outing. All three of them come back nice and tired.

Here is a picture I took of them this morning as they settled in for their post-walk nap. Azza methodically gathered all of the loose toys into/around the tiny dog bed then curled up in it. She prefers the little bed, which is quite amusing--she barely fits into it. Once he was comfortable, I covered Harry with a blanket because he's old and deserves a little extra TLC.

A tired dog is a happy dog! A tired dog is a good dog who will let me study uninterrupted for the next three hours.

And here's a pic of HellBeast's new puffy bed. I may not be that fond of him but there's no reason he shouldn't have a warm napping place too.

On the bright side, I at last managed to train HB to stay near my feet at night so he can sleep on the bed with the rest of CircusK9 (Mimi and Harry are NOT at all interested in sharing their bed space with an annoying cat). As you may know, cats triple their mass when they sleep so not only did I have to train him to stay at the foot but I had to train him to stay to one side so I wouldn't have to continually shove him aside to make room for me. I think we've achieved mutually acceptable compromises all around (he sleeps near Azza so she had to be willing to put up with that). He likes to crawl under the topmost blanket so he stays warm, Azza can snug up to him if she chooses, and I can put my cold feet near him when I need to. Certainly worth a nice, puffy cat bed for his perch.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Herd Immunity

I'm recovering swiftly from my head cold (Advil and a tipple of whiskey: too bad I can't patent that). Typical rhino virus, probably. Thank goodness it wasn't flu or, dog forbid, the dreaded norovirus.

Germs are everywhere on campus. I know that makes me sound like some crazy Chicken Little but consider: I use computers in the library often; then there's door handles to buildings, classrooms, restrooms; and coffee cups or dropped pens handed to you by someone else; and the list is pretty much endless. I wash my hands often, and always after using the library computers, but sometimes that just isn't enough.

Biochemistry, which I'm taking this quarter, is one of the largest undergraduate classes at OSU with around 400 registrants. The largest class is the second term of biochem with well over 400 (numbers probably swollen by those trying to improve their poor grades from their first attempt).

Close your eyes and imagine 400 people crammed into an overheated auditorium, seats still warm from some other large class that vacated them minutes before. People are sneezing, coughing, laughing, spraying germs willy-nilly. Hand washing is hardly going to help in this situation.

I did my part for herd immunity today and got my flu shot at a clinic offered by student health services. I'm a delicate flower, bruise like a damned peach when poked with a needle, even the tiny ones they use for the flu vax. My arm is sore and I'm sure I'll feel like shit this weekend. But I'd rather suffer mildly now than suffer horribly later.

The clinic was for all university folks: staff, students, faculty. The woman who took my info form looked at me, made a judgement about my status based on my age which she inferred from my appearance, and only after looking at my form and seeing the student ID, not the faculty insurance info, said in surprise, "oh, you're a student!" This has happened nearly every time I have had to claim a "student benefit". I'm okay with being a regular challenge to people's preconceptions but it does make me feel a bit old.

The flu vax clinic was packed, and the nurse who jabbed me told me it had been nonstop since they started up at 10 am this morning (I went in near the end of the day). They are offering a second one in a couple of weeks. One of the student health center employees was out on the student union quad dressed in a giant syringe costume (yeah, it was as weird as you think). They even offered me candy and a "I got a flu shot" sticker as I was leaving (I eschewed the former, took the latter). They are certainly doing their part to attract as many students as possible (faculty and staff are likely to be much more compliant since their health insurance plans cover the cost of the shot; I had to pay $15, or rather, had $15 put on my OSU account which I'll have to pay at the end of the quarter). The syringe guy did have to compete for attention with the lube-tasting event also taking place on the quad (yeah, that kind of lube; I'm all for open discussions about safe sex on a college campus).

Let's hear it for herd immunity.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Better Living Through Chemistry

Nighttime is always the hardest when you have a cold or the flu. I currently have a head cold which thankfully is starting to weaken. Still, I spent the weekend tossing blankets on and off. Mimi completely lost patience with me and decided to sleep next to Harry for a change. Even with three pillows, I had problems breathing and kept waking up snorfling and sneezing.

But I realized that I wasn't using all of the tools at my disposal. Last night, I took an Advil cold and sinus caplet (I love me some ibuprofen but taking it on its own for more than a couple of days upsets my stomach) then leisurely drank a pinky finger of whiskey on a couple of ice cubes while finishing up homework.

I slept like a baby.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Thai Curry Butternut Squash Soup

The weather was absolutely gorgeous this weekend: clear blue skies, gentle breeze, temps around 70 F. It started out a bit chilly in the mornings with some fog but that burned off quickly enough.

Changing weather with changing seasons makes me think about big pots of beans and roasted root vegetables and other post-harvest foods.

I've got a nasty head cold and that makes me think of spicy foods.

Put those together and you get Thai Curry Butternut Squash Soup. As I've mentioned here before, I believe that limes and red Thai curry paste, and fresh ginger when it's available, should be staples in any adventurous cook's kitchen. They are strong components of this nice alternative to the butternut soup standard.

I used this basic recipe that I found on this blog, but as usual I made some changes. Here is her recipe:

Thai Curry Butternut Squash Soup
Yield: serves 4
Total Time: 1 hour

3 tablespoons coconut oil
1 sweet onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
2 tablespoons red curry paste
3 cups low-sodium vegetable stock
4 cups uncooked butternut squash (1-inch) cubes
1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk
1 lime, juiced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup torn fresh cilantro for serving
1/3 cup chopped roasted peanuts for serving

Heat a large pot over medium-low heat and add coconut oil. Once it's melted, add in the onions and the garlic with a pinch of salt and stir. Cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add in the ginger and curry paste and stir until it is incorporated. Cook the curry and onion mixture for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour in the stock and add the squash cubes. Cover the pot and increase the heat to medium. Cook until the squash is soft, about 20 minutes.

Once the squash is soft, turn off the heat and very carefully pour the entire mixture into a blender. Blend until the soup is smooth and pureed. Pour it back into the pot and turn the heat on to medium low. Add in the coconut milk, lime juice, salt and pepper, and stir. Cover and cook the soup for 10 minutes until it's completely warm. Taste and season additionally if desired. Serve the soup with a garnish of torn cilantro and crushed peanuts.

[adapted from the cooking light recipe shortcuts magazine (page 18), out until november]

First, I used olive oil instead of coconut oil (which is solid at room temperature). I don't care for the taste of coconut oil and wasn't going to buy a container of it just for this dish.

Second, I eschewed the cilantro and peanut garnish, mainly because I forgot to buy cilantro at the store yesterday.

Third, I added the garlic with the ginger and red curry paste. Garlic will get bitter when overcooked and if you add it at the beginning when you are cooking the onion, it will get overcooked very quickly. I also first smashed then coarsely diced the garlic cloves. Smashing them brings out more of the flavor, in my opinion. It makes it easier to peel them too.

Fourth, as an experiment, I cut up the two butternuts into eights or thereabout, cleaned out the seeds, tossed the squash chunks in a plastic bag with olive oil, and roasted them in the oven for about an hour at 350F. I don't know if this changed the flavor substantially since my head is too full of snot to detect something this subtle (all I can taste is the curry paste and lime, really). But I figured it couldn't hurt. As a side note, this pre-roasting didn't affect the total cooking time significantly.

Finally, I used about twice as much red curry paste as the recipe calls for. You will need to determine what level of spiciness you prefer. I also squeezed in two limes, not one. The acidity of the lime juice perfectly meshes the sweet, creamy coconut milk and the bright spice notes of the red curry.

The soup is smooth and warm and spicy, perfect with a piece of hearty, seedy bread. The rain is moving back in tonight--I'm ready!

Friday, October 04, 2013


There was ice on my car windshield this morning. Ice! No wonder Mimi, who is convinced that she'll melt in the rain or its close cousin, wet grass, was reluctant to take that final pee before I left for class. Wet, icy grass must seem to her the ultimate insult to injury.

I'm sitting here wrapped ankles to ears in a lavender fleece robe. I didn't even bother to unpack it when I was in Dhahran. But my throat is scratchy, it's going to be another cold night, it's the end of the first week of classes, and it just felt right to pull the robe out of the closet and put it on.

Because of all of the above, I'm feeling a bit curmudgeonly at the moment. So I think I'll blow off some steam with a rant. They don't come along too often so I ask your forbearance.

If I can smell your Glade Plug-Ins/air freshener/scented candles from the street outside your house, you are doing it wrong. You've managed to destroy the smell receptors in the noses of every creature living in your home; why are you assaulting passers-by as well?

The much-discussed millenials don't seem to have much of a grasp on the concept of planning for the future. This morning before French class, I was talking to one. He seems like a nice enough young man. He's in the Marine Corps reserves. Plans for after college? Try to get into the Marine Corps. But they are dumping nearly 30% of their current numbers. I said, what's your plan B? He said, the Army. You baby boomers have your children, that is, me and my peers, to look after you. My generation? We are fucking doomed.

The pre-vet undergraduate population is dominantly female (sort of like those feral cat colonies), and I mean 75-80% female. They seem to fall into three main types.

Here I must make a small digression. The following observations aren't very nice and purists can certainly accuse me of judging on appearance, etc. My rant. Get your own or leave a comment.

The first type is the cute girl who was in the popular set in her small town high school. She wears a bit too much makeup and likes flashy, cheap jewelry and often colors her hair, which is usually straight. She is usually thin. She may even be sporty at least in dress. This type will glom onto any males present but in the absence of that, as in the pre-vet undergrad community, she will sit next to others of her type, usually in groups of at least 3-4.

The second type is the large (by which I mean obese) girl who may have also been somewhat popular in her small town high school simply by virtue of her being loud and obvious. She rarely wears makeup, may also color her hair in weird shades of red and black (in an attempt to be edgy), and dresses in hoodies and jeans no matter the occasion. This type nearly always flocks together. Some of these women are so large that they can't sit in adjacent seats in the classrooms. That's kind of sad.

As an aside, may I say that overweight women really shouldn't wear low-rise pants? There's no way those pants are comfortable for them.

The third type is the quiet, plain girl. Some of them are smart and some of them are not. They also tend to wear minimal makeup. They dress plainly and usually don't color their hair. They often sit in pairs or by themselves.

The proportions of these three types seems to be about equal.

That's pretty much all I have to offer on that particular topic. There must be some social/cultural factors that cause these three types to select a pre-vet program in equal numbers. I'm sure there is a master's thesis in there somewhere. I have other goals to pursue at the moment.

Moving on, I also must wonder how some undergrads think that taking certain core sciences classes two, three, even FOUR times, in an attempt to pass them is okay. All of those attempts show up on their transcripts. Vet schools have orders of magnitude more applicants than they have slots for. Chances are good that they notice this sort of thing.

Plurals are made by adding an s to the end of the word. That's all, just a simple s. True, English is a language of exceptions (the linguistic offspring of the cultural melting pot). However, if you follow this rule, you'll be okay more often than you will be if you use the construction apostrophe-s ('s) to make a plural. Apostrophe-s is used to denote possession. If you use apostrophe-s to make a plural, you are pretty much always wrong (there are, of course, exceptions).

Fewer and less. Gack. I throw things when I hear these two misused. It's becoming a daily occurrence. Fewer refers to things you can count. "Fewer people were at the mall"--you can count people. Less most often refers to qualities. "It was less hot today than yesterday" (which is weird as you'd probably say "it wasn't as hot today as yesterday" but you get the idea). You can't count "hot"--that doesn't make any sense. However, you also say "ten is less than twenty". Even though ten is a number, in this example it is a general quality. If I said "he has ten fewer books than Uncle Bob" then I'm using ten as an adjective to modify a countable noun, and in that case fewer is the right choice. Can you count the things you are talking about? Use fewer. Please.

I've heard and read a few rants about the overuse and misuse of "literally". I've been trying to purge it from my own vocabulary for some time. But I've noticed that "actually" is taking its place. Listen to any media stream. Count how many times people say "actually". Most of the time it adds nothing to the idea being expressed. "He was actually going to the mall with less people." Jeebus on a cracker. Not to be a grammar nazi but it would be nice if we could all try to keep up a working relationship with our mother tongue. Otherwise, public discourse will end up sounding like the babbling of infants.

Had enough? So have I.