Sunday, February 28, 2010

Animal news

My friend C has been having problems with bats. They wrangle their way into her house at night and fly around her bedroom, waking her up. What will they do, where will they land, if she falls asleep again--or if she stays awake? Sometimes she sleeps with the lights on.

Back in January, a bat visited C in the middle of the night. She called the pest control company the next day. She kept her friends posted, reporting that "today an amazing man with very few teeth, three missing fingers, an impenetrable NC accent, and an extensive knowledge of bats tried to figure out how the bat got in: through the tiny gap in the door to attic crawl space, he thought, 'cause they don't got no bones in them.'" The company later performed their bat-proofing service on her house.

Two weeks ago, another bat visited. C heard it scratch its way inside, and then she heard it squeaking as it flew around her dark bedroom. She slept on the sofa. In the morning, her youngest son told her there was a bat on his shelf. They locked the animal in his room, putting a towel along the bottom of the door so it couldn't squeeze out. The pest control bat tech came back. He assured C she didn't need to worry: the scary bat in her son's room was made of rubber. He promised to check for gaps in the bat-proofing.

This past Tuesday, another bat dropped in around dinnertime. C was determined to "be brave for the children." As she and her two sons stood outside the house with the front door open, waiting for the bat to fly out, she beleagueredly explained all the reasons the bat should be more afraid of them than they were of it.

In an effort to be sympathetic about the bats, I told C about our occasional mice. Even when you're 3000 times heavier than a diminutive, fluffy rodent, there's still something disconcerting about having one skitter along the floorboards at night.

Generally, our mice hang out inside the wall in our study, just above the north-facing window. We haven't had any inside the house since 2007, when our cats proved to be useless hunters. "Here kitty kitty," I called when a mouse and I surprised one another on the stairs late at night. The cats trotted over, observed the mouse, and then moved on to more important things like sleeping.

To the cats' credit, several years ago they did manage to wound a mouse in the kitchen. The injured mouse escaped to a dark sheltered spot, breathed its last pitiful diminutive breaths, and shortly thereafter started to decompose, its odor eventually guiding us to its earthly remains underneath the refrigerator.

Apparently, the ghost of that dead mouse overheard me talking sympathetically to C about bats. To avenge its death years ago, and in home-invading solidarity with its winged cousins, it guided a descendant out of the walls and into the house.

The new mouse arrived two weeks ago--the day of the rubber bat--skittering past the radiator next to the front door. With macho pride, S caught it with his bare hands and tossed it outside.

It came back. Last weekend, E found it next to the catfood dish in the kitchen. He and S threw a towel over it and took it outside.

The third time's the charm. Last night, as I was sitting quietly in the kitchen, cutting holes in a Klein Bottle, our geriatric black cat, Homer, leapt with feline ferocity into the gap between the oven and one of the cabinets. I listened to adrenaline coursing through his veins. After a few minutes, I heard a sudden banging from behind the appliance, and then--silence. Homer emerged with a dark gray mouse dangling from his mouth.

My response, of course, was to skedaddle. When I returned to the kitchen, there sat Homer, nonchalant, his job done. There was no sign of the mouse. Presumably we'll smell our way to its corpse in a few days.

In other animal news, with the onset of warmer weather and sunnier days, my friend R's chickens have started laying eggs. R has loved and nurtured the chickens from the moment she picked up the hatchlings in a big peeping box at the post office months ago. Now all grown up, the nine chickens roam freely in her rural back yard, relatively oblivious to all the hard work she and her son Ie have put into building them a coop, feeding them, watering them, and bravely defending them from the jibes of Ms. Crazy Lady, the next door neighbor who doesn't understand the meaning of love. Oblivious though they may be, the chickens have thrived from all this doting attention. The first two eggs--warm brown and pastel blue--arrived on Saturday and will head to school with Ie on Monday so he can show his buddies the rewards of months of serious chicken husbandry.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Diatomaceous earth

Call me uninformed, but I had never heard of diatomaceous earth until S observed that my little hole-poked Klein Bottle reminded him of it. Diatomaceous earth, also known as diatomite or kieselgur, is composed of the fossilized remains of diatoms, which are a kind of algae. It's used as a potent organic insecticide and also as something to mix into your lemonade if you're in need of deworming or a good colon scrub. "The ladies love it because it grows longer, stronger fingernails!" declares one Nebraska enthusiast, even though he admits it's "not endorsed by the [pesky] FDA" or "cleared for actual human use."

In any case, there are enough images of diatomaceous earth out there on the internets to demonstrate that fossilized diatoms can be stunningly beautiful, tantalizingly symmetric, and impressively prolific in their variety.

When S showed me online pictures of diatomaceous earth, I finally had a plan for a vase I had thrown last weekend. The bulbous pot was about a foot tall, and the form annoyed me (dumpy, footless, no lift, and too evenly split between body and neck). After I made it, I contemplated squashing it, but then I remembered a friend's advice: if you can experiment on the surface, don't throw it out. So I saved the vase, and yesterday evening, the experiment began: Could I carve diatomaceous earth designs into the clay and still keep the pot functional (i.e. no hole cutting allowed)?

After I determined the answer ("go buy yourself some shellac and take a drawing class if you want to do this right"), I recycled the clay.

Stupidly, because I had forbidden myself from cutting holes, I forgot to experiment with drill bits before trashing the pot. My Kemper hole maker leaves messy clay goobers in its wake. Since I can't reach inside Klein Bottles to smooth out the goobers, I'm looking for a way simply to make cleaner cuts. Guess I have something to do with my next irritating form.

In other potting news, I'm just a few deep breaths and one phone call away from buying my very first electric kiln. Here's hoping I have enough oxygen in my brain to make that bold leap tomorrow.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How to make a Klein Bottle in N easy steps

Hey kids! Make a hole-filled 3-dimensional representation of a 4-dimensional non-orientable manifold by following these easy steps!

1. Throw a pair of toruses. You will find Klein Bottle assembly easier than I did if you make the diameter of the holes about the same size as the diameter of the cross-sections. Remember to cut the toruses off the bat and to poke a small hole in them so air can escape while they're drying.

2. Because it's a lovely, sunny, spring-like day, put the toruses outside to dry. Run out of patience after an hour or two and trim them while they're still too wet.

3. Resolve to be more patient: you will let the toruses dry until they're soft leather hard. Fail to observe, when you were trimming them, that you accidentally filled in the pin holes that the air was supposed to escape from.

4. Check on the toruses later and discover they are beyond soft leather hard. Curse.

5. Decide which torus's cross section is more likely to fit better into the other torus's hole, and cut a segment out of the former (~1/8 of the total circumference). When you insert the knife and hear the air gushing out of the closed form, be grateful that neither torus ruptured while drying.

6. Moisten the outside of the cut torus to soften it up. Because you let it get too dry to have the right plasticity, it will split open as you stretch and reshape it. Curse.

7. Observe that it's too late in the day to throw another pair of toruses. Try to reseal the split, then decide to make lemonade out of lemons: the split gives you a way to widen one end so it fits into the second torus's too-large hole (see #1 above). Success is 90% attitude. You are the boss of the clay.

8. A little algebra yields Force them thangs together. Slide the unsplit end of the first torus through the donut hole of the second until the split end reaches the hole. Score, slip, attach. Patch the gaping split with clay previously cut from the first torus. Trim the other end of the first torus to fit the side of the second torus; cut a corresponding hole in the second torus; score, slip, attach, patch, smooth, etc. Voila: you have made a 3-D representation of a Klein Bottle.

9. Observe that all that moistening, smashing, tilting, patching, and mashing has seriously dented your Klein Bottle. From here on out, rest it on bubble pack or foam.

10. You wisely understand that aesthetic defects like dents can be hidden by more prominent surface alterations. Enjoy feeding your obsession with holes.

11. Realize it's kind of tricky fitting your hole-cutting tool into all the nooks and crannies. Plan to make the toruses more bagel-like next time.

12. Note that cutting from the outside of the inside to the inside of the outside yields better looking holes than cutting in the other direction.

13. Smooth out the surface dings by gently wiping the whole thing with a damp sponge. Appreciate the silkiness and forgiving nature of the Loafer's Glory clay body.

14. Because you are a responsible potter, as you contemplate how you will fire your Klein Bottle, also ponder how and when you will get the little bits of clay goobers (the detritus of punched holes) out of it. I'm 99% certain that no one wants to eat a handful of m&ms with vitrified clay goobers mixed in.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Killing two gee whiz pots with one stone

On Thursday, in the middle of an otherwise mundane afternoon, as I was walking from Point A to Point B, my potter's mind was struck by a sudden flash of inspiration. I'm hoping that by stating my idea in a public forum, witnessed by you five or so regular readers and the occasional visiting spammer who leaves comments of an inappropriate nature in Chinese hanzi that I subsequently have to delete, I will be more likely to make it a reality.

But first, some necessary background information. The photo above shows a small portion of "Dr. Lizardo's Museum of Gee Whiz Pots (being various works of a functional, semi-functional, impractical, or nonsensical nature)."

Exhibit 1 is a model of a Möbius strip--relatively mundane. The items in Exhibit 2 are more exotic: "We're 3-dimensional models of Klein Bottles—representations of 4-dimensional non-orientable manifolds," reads the Museum Guidebook. "We’re what you get when you sew the edges of two mirror-image Möbius Strips together. You can get from our outsides to our insides without crossing any edges—meaning our outside and inside are on the same surface. If we were actually 4-D, we’d have zero-volume; being 3-D, we have volume and make handy m&m and red-hots holders."

The Museum exhibit is scattered at present: all of the Klein Bottles have been dispersed to good homes, and all of the red hots and m&ms, if not already consumed, are inedibly stale by now. So it is clearly time for me to make some new Klein Bottles, even though they're labor intensive and relatively useless.

At the same time, as I have written previously, I am somewhat obsessed with the impractical habit of drilling holes in pots whenever the opportunity presents itself. I have some lovely, very large (9 pounds untrimmed) bowls in the works over at Claymakers right now. They're made from Loafer's Glory clay--a silky smooth white clay that's more forgiving than porcelain--and I'm fantasizing about bringing them home and staying up all night poking holes in them. But then they'd no longer make good mixing bowls, which is what they were born to be. And while the hole punching usually yields interesting results, interesting isn't always a good thing. Consider, for example, the bizarre could-have-been-a-vase thing shown here. We use it occasionally for votive candles, but since I wasn't thinking of candles when I made it, I didn't provide any easy way to get a match inside. Plus, who really needs a giant glowing first-trimester votive candle holder?

So my stroke of genius is this: why not kill two impractical birds with one stone? That is, why not make a Klein Bottle that's full of holes? Imagine being able to see the m&ms on the inside (which is also the outside) from the outside (which is also the inside). I don't know about you, but I find this idea pretty thrilling. I anticipate the hole punching will be easiest if I make a Klein Bottle of the less complicated double torus variety, as seen in the Hitchhiker's Guide model above. I plan to document my progress--if such a thing as "progress" can conceivably be associated with a project like this--in future installments of this blog, so stay tuned.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentines Day

Coming from Germany, S has always had mixed feelings about Valentines Day. Around the same time it occurred to him that--even though it's a commercial holiday invented to line the pockets of Hallmark--he could nonetheless score points with his American wife by celebrating it anyway, I gave up trying to make something of the day. And so it went for several years.

Then, last year, we decided that we could do something festive around Valentines Day without going the commercial route: we cooked dinner for one another. While we eat pretty well in general, we rarely go out of our way to wow one another with food the way we did when we were wooing. It proved to be quite the romantic evening, so we've officially made it a tradition by repeating the activity tonight.

On this year's menu: Tomato soup with fried lemon parsley and homemade croutons; roasted red pepper and goat cheese tartlets with caramelized shallots and fresh basil; endive, watercress, and spinach salad with blood oranges, candied pecans, and shaved peccorino romano in a lemon vinaigrette; and tiramisu.

While we were cooking, I said (as I might have said 20 years ago), "S, since we have this time to get acquainted, tell me something about yourself that I don't already know."

"I look at shoes," he said.

I tutted. I knew that already. We can't pass a shoe store without S pausing to drool at the window displays.

"It's not like you think," he said. "I mean I look at shoes. I look at shoes people are wearing, and I judge them."

"The people? You judge people based on the shoes they wear?"

"Yes," he said.

"Goodness. What do you think of me when you look at my shoes?" I asked. About the only thing I like less than shoe shopping is clothes shopping. With the exception of running shoes, most of my shoes are either hand-me-overs or ten years old.

"I think 'there's a person who doesn't like to buy shoes,'" he replied, carressing my shoulder and giving me a kiss.

That worked for me. But the next time he has a late-afternoon meeting with the executive committee of the graduate faculty, I will have to ask him what he thinks of the dean.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Jury service

I spent the past two days doing my civic duty as a potential juror for Durham County. Yesterday involved a lot of sitting around, taking breaks, sitting around, going out for lunch, doing Sudoku puzzles, walking around the block, sitting around, snoozing, reading, and eventually going into a courtroom with 35 other people to start the jury selection process. The judge spoke to all of us about the trial, and twelve potential jurors were called up front. Today, after multiple rounds of questioning by the prosecuting and defense attorneys, resulting in several "respectful dismissals," five more potential jurors were called up. One was dismissed, and then they called me. I was also dismissed, because, thankfully, something about being a middle-aged white female Ph.D. recovering-academic church-musician writing-tutor neighborhood-activist hobby-potter with a Ph.D. professor husband makes me an undesirable juror for the murder trial about to commence.

I took advantage of my copious break time yesterday to enjoy the spruced up scenery around the courthouse. Downtown Durham has undergone significant renovations over the past decade, including noticeable improvements just since last summer. Parrish Street is looking especially good.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

King's Red & White

Neighborhood email groups are great things. How else, for example, would we have learned that King's Red & White recently started carrying milk from Maple View Farms? Maple View Farms is an area dairy that treats its cows well and sells milk in returnable glass bottles.

King's Red & White is a local, family-run grocery store. It's closer to our house than Kroger's and Whole Foods, but because it's small, inconspicuous, and surrounded by similarly unattractive buildings and ridiculous amounts of concrete on an over-developed, ugly stretch of road, it's hard to think of it as a neighborhood grocery store when you're driving past it in rush-hour traffic. Today, because we had read about the milk, we took our business to King's Red & White for the very first time.

At King's Red & White, the very tall, cheerful manager sashays past in aisle three, greeting you with a friendly "how're y'all today?" His employees know long-time customers by name and enjoy ongoing jokes with them with an easy familiarity.

Jars of North Carolina pickled unidentifiables (you have to trust the labels) in assorted shapes and colors line the shelves alongside local honeys, jams, jellies, butters, and preserves. There's an entire section in the sugary-junk aisle dedicated to rock candy. If you want to buy something in a can, you've come to the right place, but there's also a side room dedicated to fresh fruits and vegetables. Just outside the room, bananas hang on a special rotatable banana rack, looking quaintly old-fashioned against a backdrop of green astroturf. In refreshing contrast to other stores, everything that's out of season actually looks out of season at King's Red & White--but you can also tell when things are fresh. Bags of Georgia pecans ("New Crop!") fill a basket; shelled pinto beans ("New Crop!") come in bulk.

Alas, surrounded by all this Southern splendour, I walked with vegetarian obliviousness right past the butt rub and slop mop in aisle two. S, fortunately, was more alert, and after we left the store, he told me excitedly about seeing these icons of North Carolina barbeque. Of course, now we have to go back. And to think we would have missed it all had they not started carrying locally produced, environmentally friendly, rBGH-free milk.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


There is something bizarrely gratifying about poking holes in leather-hard pots. The process is meditative, requires little thought, and rewards the poker with clear evidence of progress. But it's addictive. You can't "stop anytime."

Your inner Freud nods and writes copious notes about you in his little book as you pierce the virgin surface of the clay. Now you're committed for the long haul. You want more: a single hole is not enough; it requires companion holes.

You used to want to stop before going all the way. You used to say "just one more hole, the next hole will be the last." But it never worked: you always kept going, finding catharsis in the repetition, in the light that begins to shine through the wall, in the weight the pot is shedding. So you don't pretend this time. The passing minutes pile up: half an hour; an hour; an hour and a half. Poof. Gone.

And then, suddenly, it's over: there's no more space to poke.

Now you have a pot that is (if such a thing is possible) filled with holes. It used to be a bowl or a vase, but now it will never hold water. What were you thinking?

I have lots of hole-filled pots, so this time I planned ahead and made a double-walled bowl. It is half full (or half empty) of holes and it will still hold water. Or maybe guacamole, because I decided the bowl needed tilting in addition to having holes, and guac is less likely to slosh out onto the table than water.

For a sense of scale, compare the bowl to the annoying bifocals resting on the table.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Yesterday was sunny and above freezing, so a lot of the snow started to melt. It refroze when temperatures dropped last night. With only a few plowed exceptions, the roads are covered in ice.

The governor has asked people to "stay home and stay safe" today. Every public school system for counties around is closed. Every college and major university is either closed or operating on a delay to avoid the dangers of early morning black ice...except Duke, the school that believes if you devote 24/7 to the life of the mind, your body will be immune to slick roads peopled with Southern drivers.