29 September 2010

Where Did I Go Wrong?

Tuffy started her junior year at UW today. She's an English major.

Nothing wrong with being an English major. Some of my best friends were English majors. I just never expected my daughter would be one.

Looking back, I guess I should've seen it coming. She has always been a relentlessly verbal child. She had rules of grammar, even for made-up words. Instead of 'forget', for example, she used to say 'getfor.' But if it happened in the past, she would say 'gotfor.' Perhaps I should've realized it was a bad sign for a toddler to conjugate made-up verbs.

Instead, I was encouraged when she referred to a pair of objects as 'two ones.' I thought it reflected a sound understanding of basic mathematical concepts. And she always did fine in math and science -- at least as well as I ever did.

So where did I go wrong?

We always spent family vacations outdoors; camping, hiking, birdwatching. We bred and showed dogs, and more recently worked with retired racing greyhounds. How could she not grow up to be a little naturalist? A mini-me?

I held out hope last quarter when she took a comparative psychology class from David Barash. Animal behavior is fascinating, and if Barash teaches anywhere near as well as he writes, it should be a great class. How could she not be sucked in?

She liked the class. She did fine. She's still an English major.

It's not the prospect of dire job prospects that concerns me. A zoology degree doesn't buy you much, either. I spent the majority of my working life as a tech writer. She'll find something to do. That's not the problem.

It's just that whole nature-nurture thing. The idea that a child is a blank slate.

Nope. No blank slate here. Some behavior must be hard-wired. My daughter is an English major.

It could be worse, I suppose. She could be majoring in psychology. Or philosophy. Or she could be dealing drugs. Or voting Republican.

I'll deal.

28 September 2010

Last Chance

For the past week or so it seems like I've been inundated by e-mail inviting me to donate now and help end MS. Well, that would be cool, wouldn't it? Right now, they say, we are closer to ending MS than ever before! (The exclamation mark is theirs.) They couldn't say that if it weren't true, could they? The missive I got this morning says if I donate by midnight tonight I will help accelerate their efforts to end MS forever. Imagine that. I'd better hurry. Wouldn't want to miss the midnight deadline; maybe they stop accepting donations.


I don't mean to rag on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. They do a lot of good stuff, and I've taken advantage of their services on several occasions over the years. I realize that if they want to accomplish anything, they have to raise money. I know that. Services cost money. Research costs big money. They obviously don't know that MS already costs me plenty. How could they? How could they know that every nickel I spend on this stupid disease feels like money down a rat hole? And that apparently bottomless rat hole, my friends, has taken a lot of my nickels.

Although it totally hacks me off, I can almost ignore the tone of their communications. Some marketing/PR person probably spent a long time on the wording of those solicitations. They were probably reviewed and scrutinized and tested on focus groups. They can't help it if I don't belong to their target audience. I never liked writing that stuff, I was never any good at it, and I really don't like reading it. It sets off my manipulation detectors. Exclamation marks make me suspicious.

I'm waiting for the point of this post to become apparent, and starting to think it's not gonna happen. I don't know why this makes me so cranky. It just does.

The MS Society wants me to donate?

Nah. I don't think so. I spend enough on MS already.

27 September 2010

Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head

As weird MS symptoms go, I was thinking this one had to take the cake. It almost felt like... a drop of water on my face. But it's the middle of the night, and I'm lying in bed. How crazy is that? Maybe I dreamed it.

In the morning, there was a smallish puddle of water on the windowsill above my head. OK, so I didn't imagine it. And it had rained that night. But it wasn't windy, and even if it had been, the window is under a broad eave. The outside of the window -- a brand-new window, by the way -- was dry. There's no water anywhere else. Why was there water on the windowsill?

The next night it rained again, and yes, we did indeed have a leak in the roof. It was dripping right through our brand-new sheetrock ceiling, onto the head of the bed. Scarecrow set out buckets to catch the worst of the drips, and moved the bed away from the drainage. We went back to sleep as best we could, listening to water plink into buckets.

In the morning he went up in the attic to find our roof perforated by a tree branch about 18 inches long, maybe 2 inches in diameter. Yeah, that would do it.

Now we remember that some weeks earlier we had been sitting around the house one afternoon when we heard/felt a huge WHUMP!!, like maybe a large tree branch landed on the roof. This happens from time to time. We have a row of black cottonwoods along one side of our house, and they drop stuff. The trade-off for this known risk to the roof is that they provide very effective and inexpensive air-conditioning during those rare spells of hot Seattle summer weather. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

When Scarecrow checked it out he didn't see anything on the roof, but there was a really really really big branch in the front yard. Maybe it just clipped a corner, made a lot of noise but didn't do any damage? We figured we'd dodged a bullet. A limb that size could have caused some serious grief.

Turns out we did dodge a bullet -- a limb that size would've taken out our roof -- but we weren't entirely unscathed. The thing that actually made the noise was a much smaller branch that punched a hole right through the roof, into the attic, where you couldn't really see it from the outside. You wouldn't notice until it started to rain.

Scarecrow cobbled together a patch, and one of the guys who worked on our house during our remodeling project came by and patched his patch. It must've worked. This was a couple of weeks ago, and it hasn't rained since.

21 September 2010

The Last Day of Summer

The sun's not up yet when the alarm goes off in the morning, and the leaves are starting to turn. The days really get shorter fast, this time of year. I'm resigned to fall.

I can celebrate winter -- even if it's gloomy, the days are getting longer. I can celebrate spring -- the trees leaf out, and everything goes green. I can celebrate summer -- the days start early and go late, and they're occasionally even sunny. But fall -- I'm resigned to fall.

Even in Michigan, where the crisp fall days were a welcome relief from the hot muggy summer, and the sugar maples in September looked like they had batteries, I couldn't help but anticipate the cold, dark days coming up. Once the leaves were down, fall was gray, gloomy, and seemed like it went on for a really long time.

Around here, the fall foliage is not nearly as colorful. The deciduous trees let go of their leaves without much fanfare. Scarecrow and Tuffy shovel them into limp, sodden piles that nobody would be much tempted to jump into.

Today is the last day of summer. I'm looking at blue sky outside my window. Fall doesn't start until tomorrow.

18 September 2010

Use Your Words

For toddlers, using newly-acquired language skills is really hard. Preschool teachers are always reminding kids to "Use your words", instead of using a right roundhouse to express their feelings more directly. Even my relentlessly verbal daughter would sometimes resort to "point and grunt", and, when her rudimentary vocabulary proved frustratingly inadequate, was occasionally reduced to smacking a schoolmate upside the head. (Some things never change. Eighteen years later Tuffy is still relentlessly verbal, and still smacks people upside the head. At least now she does it at the gym.)

On one occasion a teacher broke up a physical altercation between two little boys, telling them to use their words. One of the combatants marched up to the other, got right in his face, and shouted, "WORDS!!!"

My dad tells a story about a long-ago conversation between his older brother and a high school counselor. My uncle did well in science and math, but saw no point in studying English. When the counselor pointed out that mastery of grammar and spelling would make my uncle better able to express himself, my uncle replied, "I ain't never had no trouble expressin' myself." I'm not sure the story is really relevant, but I've always liked it. My uncle was a real jerk.

I've always thought I had a reasonable facility with words. Now that I find myself having to use words and nothing else, I'm learning that it's a lot harder than you'd think.

For example.

One of our regular weekend tasks is clearing off the detritus that accumulates on top of the desk in the office. It's something I used to do myself, because Scarecrow doesn't much care where stuff winds up. Now that I can't shuffle or file papers myself, I need Scarecrow to open envelopes, extract contents, sort stuff into piles to be paid, or filed, or otherwise dealt with, and file the papers that we need to keep. It sounds easy enough. The physical part of manipulating paper isn't something you have to think about. Until you have to do it using your words.

To keep things simple, let's assume I can actually think of the words I want to use, which is not always the case. The routine goes something like this:

"Can I see that? No, the other one... the one on the left. On the left. Put it on my keyboard, so I can see it. The first page. The one on the top. Closer. Not that close. OK, can I see the next page? No, the backside... turn the page over. You can recycle the rest of the stuff. Where did that come from? No, not that... keep the statement, the first two pages. Put it in the pile to be paid. The second pile. Second from the left. Stack it so I can see the balance and the due date. OK, that was easy. Next?"

The only reason it goes as easily as it does is that Scarecrow has developed an uncanny ability to read my mind. If I had to do this chore with anybody else, it would be a lot harder.

Situations that take a whole lot of words to do something really easy come up all the time. You have no idea. They say a picture is worth 1000 words, but I tell you what: when all you've got is the thousand words, just being able to do the point part of "point and grunt" would save me about 10 zillion words a day. And I'm not exaggerating.

Sometimes I just want to whap somebody upside the head.

09 September 2010

Weenie Whippet

The other morning I was lying in bed, trying to pretend it wasn't morning yet. Scarecrow, having fed the dogs and started the coffee, had progressed to the bathroom phase of his morning routine.

Suddenly, from the other end of the house I heard a prolonged, agonized SCREEEEAMM!! followed by chesty, I Am a Very Big Dog!!-sounding barking.


Scarecrow obviously didn't hear it, couldn't hear me, and there wasn't a darn thing I could do about it besides imagine a rat... or a squirrel... no, an opossum... no, maybe a raccoon! coming through the dog door. I have a very active imagination, but none of the things I was imagining would be good. Scarecrow was still in the bathroom.

Presently, everything was quiet. Jasmine trotted down the hall and jumped on the bed. No sign of copious blood loss. I know Bareit was in his crate, so unless our local vermin are very determined and exceptionally talented, he was OK.


I never realized how long Scarecrow spends in the bathroom in the morning.

Anyway, when he finally came out, I told him what I had heard and suggested he might want to go down and check it out.

He found a mouse in the kitchen sink. Munched.

Apparently Jaz encountered the mouse in the course of her usual morning inspection of the kitchen counter. The mouse, being outweighed some 300 to 1, got the worst of it, but didn't go down without a fight. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the mouse I heard screaming. It was our weenie whippet.

So far, the effectiveness of various mouse eradication systems we have implemented stack up as follows:
  • kitchen trash can     4 (that I know of)
  • mousetrap              1
  • whippet                 1
If we were to award a score for drama, however, the whippet would definitely win. it's a good thing she's cute.

04 September 2010

Doc Ock

It might not be quite as cool as this, but it's pretty close.

TinMan (Scarecrow's senior sibling) was pretty sure he could design and build a better hands-free cupholder than the one I had. I needed something that would attach to my chair or a table, and hold a drink where I could get to it without needing to use my hands. To my surprise, there weren't a lot of commercially available devices that would do this. The closest thing I could find was a bright yellow plastic baby bottle holder that worked, kind of, but broke the first week I had it.

TinMan was all over this. Scarecrow sent him photos and measurements of my chair, and the two of them had lengthy discussions about various design and material options. He contacted the chair manufacturer (Permobile) for dimensions of possible attachment sites. He put his son, who was home from summer session for a one-week summer break, to work building it. (Sorry, Tin Jr. This was not my idea!)

It arrived Thursday, and I've got to say it's pretty cool. There are brackets to attach it to either side of my chair so it reaches around over my shoulder, and it's quick to install or remove. It can also attach to a plate that slides under the seat cushion. The gooseneck is flexible (duh), swings out of the way, and is attached to a telescoping rod for height adjustment. The cup holder part snaps onto the end of the gooseneck. Designed for use on a boat, it's self-leveling, so tilting my chair back doesn't dump the contents of the cup in my face. It's no uglier than the rest of my power chair, in fact, it kind of blends in. And it's sturdy. It may just be a cupholder, but this puts the durable in durable medical equipment.

Although in my past-tense day job I've been through lots of software development cycles, this is my first experience with hardware development so I don't know if you'd call this a prototype, or an alpha, or a beta, or what. Anyway, I expect software and hardware development are similar in that having the first example be perfect in every way would:
  1. be a miracle, and
  2. take all the fun out of it
So, yeah. I'm having to take back what I said about engineers being impervious to user feedback. TinMan and Scarecrow have already been modifying the attachment bracket, so installation and removal will be quicker. The gooseneck needs to be able to support more weight without sagging (hence the tasteful and stylish lightweight plastic cup in the photo, a relic of the days when Tuffy, who is now 20, could order from the kids' menu in a restaurant). The self-leveling cupholder is a brilliant idea, but it turns out, in practice, that you want more control over the position and angle of the cup than this allows. I expect this batch of fixes is only the first of many rounds of tweaks and adjustments.

But you know, for now, I can drink (from a lightweight cup) without pestering anybody for help. Scarecrow doesn't have to keep handing me my drink at meals. And the utilitarian design, far from detracting from its appeal, makes me feel like Doc Ock. How cool is that?

TinMan said he could build a better cupholder than the one I had. And he was right.