Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Speaking of uninvited guests...

Animal Control takes rabies seriously enough that they'll send an officer to your house to pick up the take-out container of bats you've collected. They still haven't notified us about how our own little guy tested, so we're assuming the results were negative, but if we start behaving aggressively and biting people next month, you'll know why.

Seasonal guests

"Palmetto" is such a pretty word--"palm" so tropical, "etto" so diminutive. Surely it's a lovely thing to sit under the fan-shaped leaves of a palmetto on a warm summer's eve, sipping an ice-cold freshly-squeezed limeade.

By extension, "palmetto bug" sounds pretty too. So genteel, so southern. Nowhere near as disgusting as, say, "common American cockroach." No one would mind a palmetto bug or two dropping by during limeade time, whereas the common American cockroach would be most unwelcome.

In North Carolina, after temps have been in the humid upper 90s for a few weeks, the palmetto bugs come out from wherever they hide during the rest of the year. They come out at night with their friends--the hideously ugly, high-jumping, brown-gray camel crickets, who have proliferated so extensively that their population no longer fits in the crawl space under the house--and they hang out, uninvited, all over the expansive southern front porch, enjoying the relative coolth.

Because we call them "palmetto bugs" and not "foot-long common American cockroaches," when we cross paths outside I stoically sigh, avert my eyes, and pretend they aren't there. But when they come inside and rummage around in our silverware drawer--well, that's just rude. That's when I call for backup.

It turns out palmetto bugs hold the record for "Fastest Running Insect on the Planet," so about half the time, they get away (usually with no more than a spoon or two) before the sole of S's shoe can squash their guts out. When they escape under the microwave oven or clothes dryer, there is little we can do other than move on and hope they close the door behind them when they return to their native habitat. (North Carolinians will tell you palmetto bugs live alone outside, rather than between the walls with hundreds of cousins. Thank goodness.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The cat earns his keep

I'm sitting with a clearly proud Homer Wells, purring black cat extraordinaire. In the wee hours, while we were obliviously sleeping, Homer was busy hunting down a bat.

"I got up and saw Homer next to what looked like a large turd, and then the turd moved," explains one witness. "Then Homer tried to pounce on it."

Our cats, fortunately, have had rabies shots. Unfortunately for the bat, the humans in our house have not. S trapped the bat in a plastic container, and I'll drive the ill-fated intruder to Animal Control later this morning to be tested.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I've been remiss by not including magnolias in my chronicle of North Carolina spring blossoms. Here is a picture of my friend Di with a magnolia grandiflora flower that, when fully open, will be almost as big as her head.

Magnolia blossoms are so big, in fact, and the trees so tall, that one gets the sense that they were around when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Indeed, a little googling suggests roughly 30 million years of prehistoric overlap.


About five years ago, I traded a friend a large soda-fired porcelain pear for some flowers. He was living out in the country and said he had access to an abundance of wild heirloom day lilies. He came over one afternoon, dug some holes in the ledge along our driveway, and put in about eight leafy plants, all to my brown-thumbed awe.

The lilies have gradually filled in the empty spaces, and the entire ledge is now bursting at the seams with their green foliage and (as of yesterday) bright orange blossoms. Last summer the plants apparently decided they needed even more room: we're finding lilies in assorted random places this year--along the front stoop, in the weeds on the west side of the house, amidst the tiny violets in the back yard--the fiery southern cousins of Miss Rumphius's purple, blue, and rose-colored lupines.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

S's brain

S had an MRI this morning. His doctor wanted to make sure the ringing S was hearing in his ears last month was due to having slammed into a lake while wind surfing rather than due to anything neurological. The final diagnosis: a damaged (now healing) ear drum.

We're out a few hundred bucks, but we have some swell images of the inside of S's head. I always knew he had a beautiful brain, but it's nice to have some visual proof, since people always tell me I'm biased when I say my husband is gorgeous. There are some pretty creepy images in the mix too. In all, I think it was a wise evolutionary choice to cover all this stuff up with skin and fur.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Happy birthday to E, our sunny summer solstice boy.

Before E was born, S and I made a list of potential boy and girl names. We compared each name's English and German pronunciations. S, for example, liked Leonhard (LEH-n-hardt), but I wasn't a fan of Leonard (LEN-rrd). We had settled on the name Daniel (DAHN-i-el/DaaN-yul) until the night before E's due date, when we realized whatever name we chose would be his forever. We revisited our list and returned the very first name we had written down: E, chosen for the Mendelssohn connection. In our frenzied state, we forgot that while the entire rest of the planet pronounces the name as E*, in the United States, it's E**. Oh well. It was so difficult for the adults at E's first daycare to pronounce his name that they dubbed him E-man, a nickname that has stuck to this day.

Our midsummer lad is proud to know his name derives from that of the Greek sun god, Helios. Indeed, there's a narrative connection between the names Helios and E***, as both traversed the heavens in flaming chariots.

This morning, E stuck Abbey Road into his CD player and soon started singing along: "I'd like to be [dooh-dooh-dooh] under the sea, in an octopus's garden in the shade." There are few things cuter than overhearing your nine-year-old getting down with the classics. Then he sang along with "Here Comes the Sun"--a good song for an E, that's for sure.

Senators and grammars

When E was born, we called my parents and told my mother she was a senator again. She first became a senator when my brother became a father. He had asked her what she wanted his children to call her. She was thinking of words like grandmom, grandma, granny, etc. and said she didn't really care, so he decided to call her senator.

For better or for worse, senator didn't stick when E came along. For us, she became Grammar Jean.

Grammar Jean and Gramper (by extension) Hiram are visiting us this week. Thus it is that we get to hear poetry from Walt Kelly's Pogo, which my mother committed to memory in her earliest youth and is inspired to recite as occasions demand.

"Do you herd sheep?" my gra[mmar] said;
My grandpa leapt in fright.
"That grammar's wrong to me!" he cried.
"'Have you heard sheep?' is right."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lots o' pots

We unloaded the wood kiln this afternoon, and the results were among the best I've ever experienced at Cedar Creek, with excellent flashing and carbon trapping and good soda distribution throughout. One likes to imagine that the extreme heat, humidity, and rain helped. Even the pots in the bottom front (persistently the coolest spot of the kiln) and on and in the bag wall (which had collapsed during the firing preceding ours and had to be rebuilt last week) turned out nicely.

And yet...the time has come to start fantasizing about building a plain old soda kiln closer to home--something smaller, cleaner, and less labor-intensive than wood. Of course, at the rate I fantasize, it could take a while...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Möbius strip joke

I was at Claymakers last week, gently chiseling bisqued clay goobers out of the holes of one of my Klein bottles before glazing it, when a gentleman asked me what a Klein bottle was. I explained that it is basically what you get when you sew two Möbius strips together.

After we talked topology, he said:

"Why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip?"*

I thought the best answer was "KABLOOIE!" (the sound of a brain self-destructing when faced with the oxymoronic contradiction of anything getting to the other side of a Möbius strip), but he said "to get to the same side," which is almost as good.

Other interesting questions are why a chicken is on a Möbius strip in the first place, and what happens to it once it reaches the same side. According to Frederick Winsor, author of The Space Child's Mother Goose, animals don't necessarily do well in Möbius environments:

Flappity, Floppity, Flip!
The Mouse on the Möbius Strip.
The Strip revolved,
The Mouse dissolved
In a chronodimensional skip.

Incidentally, in Winsor's world, my high flying chicken*** might have enjoyed a happier ending:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
At three o'clock, he had his great fall.
The King set the Time Machine back to two.
Now Humpty's unscrambled and good as new.**

*And to think that we hadn't talked about chickens at all!

**The Space Child's Mother Goose, verses by Frederick Winsor, illustrations by Marian Parry (1958; first paperback edition, 1963).

***Consider the amazing power of punctuation: compare a high, flying chicken to a high-flying one. You won't find this example in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (2004).

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hotter than hot

Here's what the wood kiln at Cedar Creek looked like on Saturday before we bricked the door. Remarkably (though not unusually), we got all but one of our pots into the kiln.

Laura and Lisa started firing at 5am Sunday morning. By the time I arrived at 12:30pm, Teresa, Di, and Rob were also there, cranking up the heat. Lisa and Laura headed home, Deb arrived shortly thereafter, and we fired until 6:30pm--13.5 hours total to get the kiln up to cone 9, +/-.

Di and I started planning this firing on a cold, rainy day in February, considering possible weekends in April, May, and June. It's hard to remember, in February, quite how stinking hot and humid it can be in North Carolina in June. Sunday was about 97oF in the shade, and we added wood and raked coals until the kiln was ~2300oF. We all wore long pants, long-sleeved shirts, leather welder's gloves, and closed shoes to protect our skin from the heat.

Thus it was that I learned about the powerful magic of otherwise cloying sports drinks. We all became liquid processing plants, converting a steady intake of water and Gatorade into several gallons of sweat. We froze wet towels to wrap around our necks, and found occasional brief respite in front of an AC unit in a nearby studio workspace. I know I have a tendency to exaggerate, but I think we were lucky that no one keeled over.

Around 4pm, a thunderstorm suddenly blew in. Never has a change in the weather been more welcome in the entire history of humankind.

Despite the heat, it was still mostly fun, as hard work with industrious goal-oriented friends tends to be. Plus the misery of excessive temperatures fades in the cool air-conditioned comfort of the next day.

Stay tuned: we unload the kiln on Thursday.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Mental Hygiene Anti-Drug Movies: A Reminiscence

Back in the days when I was an impressionable young teenager who watched tons of television, I saw a show starring Helen Hunt and Doug McKeon called Desperate Lives (1982). "Who's killing young kids with drugs and crime?" asks the tagline. You know these teens are headed for a bad ending when Helen Hunt jumps through the second-story glass window of her high school right after her boyfriend successfully pressures her to try LSD. You can't trust drugs--not even once--and you can't trust boys either.

Desperate Lives was one of several mental hygiene made-for-television films that came out before and during the "just-say-no" era. Who could forget Scott Baio as high school hockey star Buff Sanders in The Boy Who Drank Too Much (1980)? "He's 15. A star athlete. And an alcoholic." Or Robbie Benson as a sensitive and confused teenager who turns to drugs in The Death of Richie (1977). You didn't even have to watch the whole thing to know he was doomed. Both of these films also starred Lance Kerwin, who had a successful run playing a string of blond "The Good Boy" characters. You could trust Lance Kerwin.

I thought of Desperate Lives this afternoon because, as we were loading the wood kiln, one of my Loafer's Glory chickens fell from a ware board and crashed onto the bricks below. It broke into pieces, and its eggs fell out. Always the optimist, my friend Dianne said, "well, she had a good life, and then she decided she would fly!" Di did a joyful little balletic leap to illustrate her point. But I know that when clay chickens think they're flying, they're really just high, like Doug McKeon and his girlfriend at the end of Desperate Lives. The wayward teens are driving and smooching (no! no! Don't take your eyes off the road! Rule #1 in Drivers' Ed!) while high (no! no! Don't do drugs and drive! Never mentioned explicitly in my Drivers' Ed class, but it's surely a stupid thing to do!), and they go flying off a rocky California cliff. "Wheeee!" they shout happily, thinking it's way cool to sail above the scrub, but then gravity kicks in, and when Doug McKeon, in his hospital bed, learns that his girlfriend died, he goes insane and has to be tied down. So I prefer to think the chicken just fell.

Race for the Cure

This morning I got up pre-dawn and drove down to Raleigh with a friend for the 7am Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure competitive 5K. I learned that it's much easier to run with a few thousand people who are mostly running than with 20,000 people who are mostly walking, so even though I'm not really a pre-dawn person, I will probably stick with the competitive 5K next year rather than going back to the recreational 5K.

Celebrating BC, CB, TS, and LF, and missing LC and JF.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

That's more like it...

...other than the middle cone tipping over.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cone geekitude

The kiln--filled to the gills with pots by Teresa, Rob, Lisa, and myself, in anticipation of this weekend's wood firing--is clicking away on the porch, slowly making its way toward that magic number, "cone 06." "Cone 06" is more or less ceramic-speak for ~1824oF--in this case, a comfortable mid-range bisque firing.

Why the word "cone"? In theory, my kiln automatically measures temperatures with thermocouples, but in practice, thermocouples and computer controls are only so accurate. If I really want to know that the kiln is doing its job, I have to use pyrometric cones--slender little pyramids of specially formulated clay. The cones are designed to melt after a given amount of heat work.*

Industry conventions number cones from 022-01 and 1-42, although most studio potters don't fire any lower than 019 (~1249oF) or much higher than cone 11 (~2361oF). Cones were originally numbered from 1 to 20, until people started inventing cones that measured values lower than cone 1. Cone manufacturers could have taken the same bold initiative displayed by the physicists who said "to hell with -273.15oC, for goodness' sake let's just call absolute zero zero Kelvin (after our pioneering colleague William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin)."** Alas, instead of resetting the scale, cone manufacturers chose to put zeros in front of the cone numbers and to count backwards from 01 to 022, so potters are stuck with this odd pseudo-negative labeling convention.

To get a sense of how well my kiln's computer is measuring heat work, I included a cone pack in this firing. The cone pack includes three pyrometric cones: 07, 06, and 05. If the kiln reaches cone 06, the 07 cone should be bent over; the 06 cone should be about halfway down; and the 05 cone should just be starting to bend. If I had put multiple cone packs into the kiln, I could observe differences in heat work in different parts of the kiln.

I had a cone pack in the previous bisque firing too, but I forgot that in cone-speak, 07 is a smaller value than 05. Order matters.

*Heat work is a function of not only temperature but also time. Consider the difference between a tray of brownies baked at 325oF for 40 minutes and a batch baked at 275oF for 90 minutes, or [oh dear] 325oF for 5 hours. Time matters. Of course, the depth of the brownie batter also makes a difference, as does the density with which pots are packed into the kiln.

**That's a liberal paraphrase.