Squirrels Delenda Est

So, I go away for a couple of weeks and come back to some squirrel-caused destruction inflicted on my garden.  Just one example:


A partially-eaten tomato in the gutter on our garage.

The morning after we got back, I saw a squirrel nosing around the garden plot, so I opened the back door and tried to make some noise to scare the beastie off.  Sure enough, 15 minutes later the little monster is sitting on our deck, happily munching away on a nearly-ripe tomato.

Since I was still on leave, I took the opportunity to try and squirrel proof the tomato plants the best I could.  The plants, which I thought were determinant (that is, will grow to a certain height) seem to be indeterminant (that is, will keep on growing and growing, which gives rise to the “vine” terminology for tomatoes).  In spite of not actually being watered for the time we were away (before we left, the forecast predicted at least one good rain shower for that time period.  It was wrong.  We wound up with a heat wave and no rain.), the plants had kept growing and setting some massive fruit (which squirrels got to).  My first task was to separate the branches as much as I could so that I could tie up and otherwise support the now-massive tomato vines.  That took a good couple of hours to accomplish.  I bought out all the hardware fabric (metal mesh with, in this case, quarter inch openings) from the nearest hardware store, and still had to run to another to get more to make it all the way around the plants (they were pretty short rolls).  I also got some bird netting (plastic netting with one-inch openings) to throw over the top of the hardware fabric enclosure, on the theory that it would make it easier to harvest when more tomatoes ripen.

The growing season is shaping up pretty nicely already.  We already picked couple of ripe tomatoes (which went on pizza) and fried up a few green tomatoes that had gotten so big that the branch ripped off the main vine.

So far, I haven’t seen evidence that the squirrels have been able to penetrate the squirrel-proofing, but I have no doubt that they are taking notes, plotting, and designing the seige engines to get through the barriers.

Squirrels delenda est!



DSC07208Last Sunday, the cats were enthralled by a couple of squirrels that were racing across our back deck and up on to the roof of our garage.  They sat this way for a good five minutes.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the camera in time to catch both of them with their front paws on the windowsill and their hind legs on the table, as if they were going to spring through the (closed) window to get the little rodents.

Life with cats–always amusing.

Helpful Toddlers

Thumbkin is about 14 months now, and very much a toddler.  He’s still not yet verbal, really (most things sound like variations on “up” or “cat”–maybe “car,” or even “more.”), although he is certainly communicative.  He is starting to use very simple ASL for things like “more” and “finished” at the table.  It goes to show that pre-verbal children are capable of far more than you might otherwise expect or imagine.

The other day I caught an article (I’m not certain, but I think it was in the New York Times) about some anthropological research that was done into why indigenous Central American adolescents willingly, or even cheerfully, did so many chores around the house without prompting or nagging.  The researchers “discovered” that that the mothers in these families started their children out doing chores very early–in the toddler years, when children seem to have an innate desire to help.  At least they have an innate desire to imitate.  Whereas in the U.S. we might sweep the floor, then let a little one sweep it again, or let them pretend to beat eggs for breakfast, in these indigenous cultures, the mothers let the kids do actual work, appropriate for their age, and that gives a real sense of contributing to the family.  The idea is that kids very quickly pick up if you are giving them pretend work, and lose interest.  They want to do the real thing.

I’m not certain it’s about a desire to help the parents, although there is some of that drive evident.  I think it really is more that the child wants to do the same things that mom and dad (or bigger siblings) do.  Imitation is how they learn.  Thumbkin is on my lap right now trying to type–not because he thinks it will help, but because 1) the keyboard is cool and 2) it’s what I’m doing.

I will admit that I’ve used this inner drive of toddlers with all my kids (but apparently not enough).  Sorting and folding laundry has always been great fun for toddlers.  They start by just taking out clothes, but you can eventually convince them to pull out socks (or shirts, or whatever), then to match socks, then to fold.  Thumbkin is absolutely fascinated by vacuum cleaners.  We have an old-fashoned push vacuum that he can use, and last weekend I had him actually use the hose and floor attachment on the ShopVac to vacuum under our table.  He was thrilled because he got to drive the vacuum, and did his vacuum imitation for hours afterwards–probably telling everyone that he got to vacuum.

Sure, you have to build in more time to get things done (remember that bid about pulling clothes out of the laundry basket?), but toddlers really can be helpful, as can children, adolescents, and yes, probably teenagers, if you give them a chance.  So, lesson learned, to get helpful children, start them out small and show them how to do things.  They like it, you get to spend time with them, and eventually they can take over chores.

Happy fathers’ day.

The First Roses of Summer

My first roses for the season opened this past week.


Yes, my rose bush (Rosa virginiana) is a bit behind the other bushes in the area, as were most of my flowers this spring.  Then again, it wasn’t fooled by the very mild winter, so escaped damage from the cold snap.  Also, I think it’s pretty close to on schedule for a wild rose, so, I’m not complaining.

It also survived a pretty severe pruning this spring.  I decided I had had enough of getting snagged by rose canes when I walked by, so I cut it back by about a half, and got rid of all the canes that were aiming out over the walkway (or looked like they would).  As most roses do, it responded with some vigorous new growth, to include some new canes that are edging over towards the walkway.  Especially thorny ones, too.

Definitely not the showiest of blooms, but really fragrant.  Since these two popped open, we’ve had a steady stream of blooms, and more to come.  The challenge is that they buds are all tightly clustered, so I can’t really cut any to bring in…not that they’d last.  These all drop their petals within the day.  So, definitely worth getting out while they’re in bloom and yes, taking time to smell the roses.

Benson’s Favorite Bird

We have a number of birds that visit our backyard.  Pigeons, robins, blackbirds, blue jays, cardinals, and the occasional woodpecker flit through.  Lavash will happily stare out the window with her tail twitching whenever she sees any of them.  Benson, on the other hand, is a little more discerning.  He’ll watch most of these with some degree of interest, but the bird that gets him chattering with excitement is the common song sparrow.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for Benson, at least one pair of sparrows has set up a home base in a nearby bush.  One bird, especially, likes to perch on the telephone wire that runs to our neighbor’s house.  Benson’s favorite spot on the counter gives him a great view of where this sparrow likes to hang out, so he spends quite a bit of time each morning chittering away while the sparrow chirps its cheerful song.

It’s like a cross-species duet in my kitchen while I have my morning coffee.

Political Parties in Local Politics

George Washington certainly got it right about political parties:

All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

–Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796

What he’s saying (or at least what I’m interpreting) is that, while political parties are sometimes established for good ends and can serve the interests of the overall populace, political parties are likely to ultimately turn to serving the ends of the party, not the electorate. While our first president was talking about the national level, I’m seeing traces of this at the local level as the city I live in gears up for mayoral and city council elections—with party primaries in June.

The first annoyance is that campaigning for the primaries started way back in March, maybe even February. Maybe better to say the primary (singular) rather than primaries (plural) because it really is all about the Democrats running for mayor and for the council. There is almost zero coverage of the Republicans or the Independent running because the Democrats are 1) dominant in the region and 2) actually need the primary to winnow their slate. So, they’ve been at it since they could first file their candidacy. There have been two or three debates for candidates already, never mind the fact that there’s still some time before candidates need to register with the city to run. What this means is one of the parties is already setting the terms of the debate, before all candidates have registered. Many letters to the editor in local papers are encouraging people to vote in the primary (Virginia has an open primary, so anyone can vote in either primary, but not both) because it is when the election will be decided. I find this an affront to the practice of elections, but I seem to be in the minority.

The second annoyance is that debates are all about the party, and getting the party elected to the council. There’s very little discussion about what’s best for the city or for the people, rather, it’s about what’s best for the party. What this means is that candidates are focused on core party priorities, rather than trying to determine what is best for the city, even if it isn’t a key plank of the party. While there’s some difference in opinion amongst the candidates, the range of ideas is rather narrow. For example, there is no discussion about whether taxes (especially property taxes) are too high, but there is some discussion about whether there should be dedicated funds for affordable housing in the budget. To their credit, there is a debate over how to pay our police and fire service better, or at least more in line with surrounding jurisdictions, but I think that debate is really being forced by one of the incumbents who is a former firefighter himself.

The third annoyance is that, once we get through the primary race, there’s going to be an absurd amount of state and national-level party funds coming in for the election. Fine, no problem with putting your dollars behind a political party or a particular campaign because you agree with what’s being said, but when the national party is pulling the purse strings, the local issues get obscured. It is, in my opinion, a violation of the principle of subsidiarity, in which issues should be resolved at the lowest possible administrative level. A corollary of that principle is that the more local you get, the less political issues are. People in a neighborhood ought to be able to resolve common issues without reference to a national political party for guidance. Likewise, in my opinion, city counselors should not necessarily be tied to a political party because the national level politics may or may not be aligned with what the local issues are. As President Washington said, the party takes advantage of the mechanism that got it into power in the first place, and perverts it to perpetuate staying in power.

I would much rather see local elections either be sorted out through caucusing, where at least the candidates need to connect with the electors on issues of importance, or be completely non-partisan so that you don’t have the higher leadership of any political party dictating the issues and terms of the debate for particular jurisdictions. Either one is probably too much to hope for, especially in this neck of the woods where national politics is part of the air we breathe.

Deceptive Averages

Well, maybe not intentionally, but I recently read two articles where averages were used in such a way that the real, underlying issue was completely obscured.  In short, I feel like I wasted my time, and am feeling a little bitter about it.

So, first off, it’s been rainy and wet in these parts the past week or so.  Really, really wet and rainy, with flood watches (for my immediate area) and warnings (for parts a little farther north) almost every day, to include coastal flood watches pretty much nonstop.  So, yep, it’s been wet.  Now, this is actually welcome because we had a fairly dry winter–I just wish it hadn’t come all at once.  I believe it was on the edge of drought conditions based on the low precipitation (not that it’s ever dry here like the West gets when they have a drought).  Still, this rain has definitely taken care of it.  Still, I was reading a weather forecast where one of the commenters noted that we were still very much in a rain deficit from September 2016.  Yes, 2017 was comparatively dry, but…sorry, rain deficits don’t really matter once you go through a growing season.  Plants only care what’s fallen since this spring, not what happened two years ago.  The longer perspective is interesting, but, if you’re a farmer or rely on rain for any reason, not terribly useful.  The other problem with this approach is that an average evens out those annual fluctuations, so to try and calculate a rain deficit over two years against the 30-year average is…highly suspect, at best.

The other article that made dubious use of averages involved the cost of owning a home in each state.  OK, I should really know better by now, but I got sucked in because I thought it would be a discussion about the mix of jobs in each state, what those pay on average, and how that translates into being able to afford a home.  Even this would require many levels of extrapolation and waiving away regional economic differences within a state, but it could be an interesting study.  Instead, it was a comparison of the median salary for each state to the average cost of a home.  I don’t even think the article specified what kind of home was under consideration (one bedroom?  Two?  Single family or condo?), and there certainly wasn’t any effort to explore how urban and rural areas within a state might be different and to what extent this would throw the average home cost or median salary.  At least they used the median salary, rather than an average.  I still don’t know what their methodology was or what sources they used for salary data.  So, again, not actually a useful article, especially since for most states the median salary was actually well below what they said you would need to pay the “average” home cost.  At least they had some pretty pictures for each state.

Of course, it should go without saying, but any time someone uses an average to support his or her argument, there’s likely to be some deception going on, whether or not it is intended–you just need to be able to ask the questions to get at what those averages represent in truth, rather than what they are purpored to present.

Jesus Ascended so We Would Follow

Thursday, we celebrated the Ascension (on its proper day, 40 days after Easter, 10 before Pentecost) with high mass in the extraordinary form (we also celebrated it today, on Sunday, as an “external solemnity”, since, as our parish priest said, we’d rather celebrate it twice than not at all).  The key theme of the homily was that Jesus ascended into Heaven so that we would want to follow Him there.

The first line of argument is that Jesus had to return to Heaven because if He had stayed here, it would be rather disappointing to be in Heaven without Him.  I’m not sure it would qualify as Heaven, because our joy would be incomplete.  In some ways, this line of argument reminds me of what happened with Peter at the Transfiguration.  Peter, James, and John see Jesus transfigured, and talking to Moses and Elijah.  Peter doesn’t want the moment to end, so he suggests that they make tents for the three, and the Apostles can hang out and absorb spiritual enrichment from the discussion.  Of course, it doesn’t work out that way.  The Transfiguration was an event to strengthen the Apostles for what would come in the Crucifixion.  Likewise, the 40 days after the Resurrection, when Jesus appeared to the Apostles and His disciples, were to prepare them for the great commission, not to get them used to having Jesus around on Earth.

The second line the priest developed was an analogy with toddlers learning to walk.  This made me laugh a bit since Thumbkin is really starting to walk places now (much to the chagrin of the cats).  When a child learns to walk, the parents let go and back up a bit so the child follows.  The child follows because he or she loves mom or dad, and wants to go to them.  Our priest went on to say that sometimes, which he’s greeting little children on their way out of mass, they do not want to come to him because they do not know him.  Likewise, the time after the Resurrection was for us to get to know Jesus so that we would want to go wherever He is, to include through the Passion and death and into Heaven.  We wouldn’t want to go to Heaven if we didn’t have the chance to know Him and love Him now.

So, there you have it, we’re children learning to walk, so Jesus ascends into Heaven to make sure we want to follow Him there, even if it means taking up our own cross each day.

Milk Manipulation

Or, how to make yogurt and buttermilk at home.

We’ve made our own yogurt for several years now now.  It’s cheap and easy, especially when you don’t rely on commercial starter culture, but rather yogurt from the store as a starter.  My current batch has been going for over a year now, almost two.  In Liberia, we had a culture going for a solid two years without any problems.

I’ve used a couple of different methods, but the key is to control the temperature of both the milk and the environment for the culture to work.

In Liberia, we used whole cream powdered milk (which is nearly impossible to find at a reasonable price here).  I would reconstitute it at about one and a half strength, using water at about 115 degrees.  The goal is to have the milk between 110 and 115 degrees when the yogurt culture goes in.  I then put this container in a cooler with a damp dishtowel that I had warmed in the microwave, and leave it over night.  After a couple of hours in the fridge, the yogurt had set quite nicely.

Lavash helping check the temperature. The cats love when I make yogurt.

Currently, I use whole milk from the store.  Even though I don’t need to pasteurize it (in Ashgabat, since we bought milk in the market in 1-liter bottles pasteurization was a necessary first step), I find I get the best set by taking the milk up to 180 degrees.  I suspect that this does two things: 1) takes care of any stray bacteria that might interfere with the yogurt culture and 2) denatures and concentrates the milk proteins so that it’s easier for the yogurt bacteria to do its thing.  After the milk hits 180, I cool it to 115, and pour it into a container for a water bath yogurt warmer.  The heating element keeps the water at just the right temperature to gently warm the cultured milk.  In about four hours, the yogurt is done, and just needs to cool in the fridge for a couple of hours to be fully set.

I recently started culturing buttermilk  It started because I wanted to do buttermilk biscuits with breakfast on Sunday during Lent (rather than coffee cake).  I’ve kept some around for pancakes and other baking use, and, since it’s so easy to do, well worth it.  Again, starting from store-bought, it’s a ratio of about 1:3, that is, fill your container one quarter of the way with buttermilk, then the rest of the way with whole milk [it might work with 2% or skim, but I haven’t tried it] and leave it at room temperature, loosely covered, for at least eight, or up to 12 hours.  What you’re looking for is the milk to get thick and start to smell slightly tangy like buttermilk.  I’ve heard some people leave it for a full day, but I start to get separation after much more than 8 hours, especially when it’s warm.

Nice, thick buttermilk after an 8-hour culture time and a couple of hours in the fridge.

I also tested whether the warming the milk to 90 degrees before culturing made a difference (which I had read on a couple of sites), but I found that the straight-from-the fridge milk cultured just as fast as the 90 degree milk.

Cheesemaking is also enjoyable, but for now, the return on investment for the time and effort is much better for just the yogurt and buttermilk.  If we’re ever in a place again where all we can get is raw, unpasteurized milk from questionable sources, we’ll probably take up cheesemaking again, and add it to our regular repertoire of milk manipulation.