Monday, October 31, 2005

This one's for you

It's always difficult to chose which charities to support out of the many worthy causes out there.

Except for one.  There's one charity I always donate to every year -- The United Way Gas Assistance Fund.  Every year, I get a little insert in with my gas bill, asking for contributions to help needy people pay their gas bills -- so that they'll have heat during the winter.  And here's why I give them money....

When I was in Law School, I had an opportunity to work in one of our Clinical Programs.  The Law School Clinical Programs gave students an opportunity -- under the supervision of professors who were also licensed attorneys -- to actually practice law.  With real live clients.  There were maybe a half dozen clinics to chose from -- for example, there was a Prison Program, where law students helped inmates who were challenging prison policies (for example, seeking better access to current law books).  Or an Immigration Clinic, where students helped immigrants seeking asylum.

I worked in the Landlord/Tenant Clinic, representing, as I liked to put it, "nice people who didn't pay their rent."  I didn't sign up for this clinic out of any particular desire to defend tenants from illegal evictions -- I signed up for it because, out of all of the possible clinics, it offered the most opportunities for the law students to actually go to court and argue stuff.  And, for me, as a first-year law student, the idea of going to court and arguing stuff was, y'know, cool.

The next year, I stuck around the clinic as a "supervising student," helping the new students in the clinic work their way through the complex eviction laws that I, by then, knew something about.

Each year, they gather up all the first-year law students who are interested in working in the clinics -- and each clinic is then given a few minutes to make a "sales pitch" to all the first-year students, so they could better choose among the different clinics.

At the last minute, the professor in charge asked me if (as an incoming "supervising student"), I would make the sales pitch for Landlord/Tenant.  And I said, "Sure."  And I walked over in the corner and I put together a quick outline ofall the points I wanted to make about how great the Landlord/Tenant Clinic is.  And I itemized things like how every student in the clinic got to make at least one court appearance, and how we had a perfect record of never (completely, anyway) losing a case, and how you got to write motions and argue them, and engage in settlement negotiations, and everything else that aspiring litigators want to sink their teeth into.

And the professor came by and asked me what I was going to say about the clinic.  And I quickly ran through all those points I'd planned to say about what a great experience the Landlord/Tenant Clinic is for the students who participate in it.  And the professor thought that was all good, but he also wanted me to at least mention that what we're dealing with here are real people, who are living in real poverty, who are being kicked out of their only real shelter, and have nobody else to help them, and it looks like it's going to be a cold winter.

And I felt ashamed that I'd sort of overlooked our clients in my haste to point out what working in the clinic had done for me.

And every year, when I see that little United Way Gas Assistance Fund envelope in with my gas bill, I always think back to that day -- when my professor reminded me that our work was important because "it's going to be a cold winter."  And I send them a check -- as a sort of quiet, personal way to honor him.  I think if he knew, he might think he actually taught me something.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Follow up re: scale (see entry below)

So, I thought I'd follow your advice and investigate whether my scale is accurate.  I decided to keep weighing myself repeatedly, to see whether it changed its mind.

Were it an actual conversation, it would've gone something like this:

Me:  What do I weigh this morning?

Scale:  4.

Me:  Are you sure about that?  You said 4 last night before I went to bed.  What about that 2 pounds of weight everyone drops at night while sleeping?

Scale:  I said "4."

Me:  Y'know, the folks on the internet said you might not be accurate.  Said you might just change your mind if I step off and step back on again.  You want to try that again?

Scale:  4.

Fine.  I shower.  I get out of the shower (wearing towel around head as per usual).

Me:  So, what is it now?

Scale:  5.

Me:  5?!  Are you kidding me?  This big wet towel has to weigh more than a pound.  That 4 earlier is starting to sound pretty fishy to me.

Scale:  5.

Me:  Oh come on.

Scale:  (in its very best Monty Python voice)  Five shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be five.

I dry my hair.  I wait a while.  I get back on the scale.

Scale:  6!

Me:  You're shitting me.

Scale:  OK.  2?

Me:  Sold!

The vultures are circling...

At the mall today, I saw one of my favorite things -- a store going out of business.

OK -- I'm not completely heartless.  I feel bad for the people who will be out of work, the investors who lost their money, and everyone else who is being economically screwed by the store shutting down. 

But I'm talking about how it affects me as a shopper.

Some years ago, I lived in Philadelphia.  I lived a few blocks away from my office, and I walked to work every day.  My path to the office -- particularly when it was cold or rainy (which was fairly frequent, it being Philadelphia and all) took me through an indoor mall. 

An indoor mall where a Department Store was going out of business.

The first day, it said something like, "Everything Must Go!  10% off!"  And between then and the final day when they were pretty much selling the bare shelves, the price would adjust downward a bit until the end, when it was 90% off.

Since I passed by the store each day, I got to see the prices at which stuff actually went.  It was quite an education.

For example, the tea kettles.  When I went into the store on 40% off day, they had a huge stack of tea kettles.  Floor to ceiling.  Must've been over 50 of the little buggers, just standing there boxed up in the middle of the store.  And nobody was buying them.  On 50% off day, I bought a tea kettle.  So did everyone else.  By 60% off, you couldn't find a tea kettle in the whole darned store.  Apparently, a half-priced tea kettle is just too good to pass up -- even if you don't really need a tea kettle.

On the other hand, most of the electronics hit the road between 10 and 20% off.  Don't expect to get a great bargain on a TV.  By 30% off, all that remained (and they still remained at 90%) were little attachment modules for some brand of electronic organizer that (apparently) nobody had.

(And, really, you oughtta see the stuff left at 90% off.  'Cause here we're talking about the clothes that really are so ugly, they can't even give 'em away.)

So, today...  I hit a clothing store going out of business at 40% off.  I bought some wrinkle-resistant shirts.  I love wrinkle-resistant (aka "no iron") shirts but they usually cost ... well, they usually cost way too damn much to pay for a shirt.  But at 40% off, they cost just about what a normal shirt oughtta cost, so I happily scooped some up.  (Indeed, I just checked their website and saw they've already sold out of several colors -- which just goes to show that this is the appropriate pouncing price for the shirts.)

But the suits?  Not yet.  40% off still isn't cheap enough to say "Hey, I'll buy that suit, even though I don't actually need another suit right now."  But I'll keep an eye on them.  Sooner or later, they'll hit that magic price, and I'll run down there with all the other vultures and help pick the shelves clean.

My scale is messing with my head

I bought a scale.  A digital one.

I've never bothered with a scale before.  Controlling my weight has pretty much always been a matter of "hey, my clothes feel a little tight; I'll lay off the french fries this week."

Yeah, well, that one caught up with me a few years ago.  (And this medication I'm on with the side effect of "increases appetite, especially for sweets" hasn't exactly helped matters.)

I've mentioned this before, particularly for the effect it has on my clothes shopping.  But, I decided to be a good little girl and actually buy a scale. 

I've had it for maybe a month now and I'm fairly certain it is playing mind games with me.

When I first got the scale, my weight was ... let's just say it was a nice round number with 4 at the end.  So for the purposes of our discussion, I weighed, y'know "4."

Between the time I got the scale and now, my weight has fluctuated between 4 and 8 (and sometimes 10).  And when I say "fluctuated," what I really mean is "changed around with no reason whatsoever."

Example.  I wake up in the morning.  I urinate.  I know you don't really care about my bodily functions and all, but what I'm trying to say here is that I eliminated any excess water weight.  I step on the scale.  The scale says:  6.

I shower.  I get out of the shower.  I dry myself off.  My hair is still wet (water weight) and wrapped in a towel (towel weight).  I step on the scale.  The scale says:  4.

"Wow," I think, "I must have washed over 2 pounds of dirt."  Who knew?

I come over to the computer.  I sit at the computer desk (which may be responsible for rearranging the weight around my person, but doesn't involve any addition or subtraction of substances that may affect the total poundage).  I play on the computer for about ten minutes.

Back to the scale, I take the towel off my (still wet) head.  I step on the scale.  The scale says:  6. 

I gained two pounds (plus whatever the towel weighed) by sitting here at the computer for ten minutes?  Can't be.

I go back to the computer for another ten minutes.  Hair dries a bit more during this time.

Return to the bathroom to get ready for work, but curiosity gets the better of me and I step on the scale again.  The scale says:  7.


Or what about the time when I stepped on the scale before urinating -- and it said 10 -- and again right after and it said 5.  Five pounds difference!  Look, I know I may pee quite a bit, but there is no way I peed out more than a half gallon of water in a single sitting.  That would have to be some sort of record.  (I checked with the Guinness people, but apparently they don't keep track of such things.)

It isn't all bad.  One of the few times it dropped me back down to 4 was the morning after I ate a huge piece of apple pie (with ice cream) for dinner the previous night.  (Which only served to confirm my opinion that apple pie is good for you.  Because, y'know, it's got apples in it.)

Well, it was 4 again this morning.  And I had very little to eat today and even got a reasonable amount of exercise, so -- with any luck -- it'll finally break that elusive "4" barrier tomorrow morning. 

I swear, if that damn thing says 8, I'm throwing it against the wall.  And going back to french fries.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

When is a compliment not a compliment?

"I really like the way you wore your hair the other day."

smile.  beam.  "Thanks."

"It looked really nice."

smile some more.  "Thanks for saying that.  I appreciate it."

"You should wear it that way all the time."

er.  um.  no?


Monday, October 24, 2005

Science is Purty

This here photo:

(copyright Robert Anderson) was snagged from This Here Webpage, which contains the winners of the Visions of Science Photographic Awards.  This one shows how the surface tension of water supports a paperclip.  I think it's wicked cool, as are several of the others.  Check 'em out.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Homework: Story Time

For this week's homework, Scalzi asks:

Weekend Assignment #82: What was your favorite bedtime story as a child?

(I actually did an entry on this back in February, but I'll go back to the same well for this.)

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved a book called Peppermint.  See, there was this little kitten called Peppermint that nobody wanted, and this little girl took her home.  And Peppermint was so dirty, she needed a bath, and somehow she fell in a pan of bluing (which dates the story, and probably explains why the book is now out of print).  So Peppermint ended up as a pretty blue kitty.  And the girl's mom tied a big pink ribbon around Peppermint and she won first prize at the kitten show.  And Peppermint and the little girl lived happily ever after.  The end.

I adored this book.  I always wanted it read to me -- or to read it myself when I was able.  It's probably what made me want a cat when I was a kid (although I never had one.)  When I was older and started babysitting, the kid I sat for had the book, and I loved reading it to her, too.

Fast forward another twenty years, and I finally got myself a cat.  Jasmine was something of an impulse adoption.  A woman had a box of kittens outside the grocery store.  They all had "chocolate" names -- there was "Chocolate Chip" and "Chocolate Cake" and "Chocolate Pudding" ... and Jasmine.  She was the odd kitten out, both name-wise, and in that she was injured.  Jasmine had a limp (I didn't know it then, but her leg was broken).  I was somehow drawn to the cute widdle injured kitten that nobody else wanted, and I took her home with me.

Last February, I got a hankerin' to read Peppermint again, and I found a copy for sale on eBay, so I snapped it right up.  I hadn't read it in at least twenty years, so my memory of the story was a little hazy.  The thing that I hadn't remembered was that all the kittens in the book were born in a candy shop, so the proprietor of the shop gave them all candy names.  I damn near fell off the couch when I read that Peppermint's brother was "Chocolate Drop."  And that nobody had adopted Peppermint because she was thin and sick-looking.

I'm pretty sure Peppermint was stirring around in my subconscious when I adopted the cute little injured kitten that nobody else wanted.  And we lived happily ever after.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


1:03 a.m.

Should be asleep but I just finished solving my very first Sudoku puzzle.  (Get them here.)

I had avoided the whole Sudoku craze until now because I knew this was the sort of thing that I'd grow addicted to.


Dude, did I just hallucinate?

Last night, went to bed late.  Had to get up early.  Knew I wouldn't be getting much more than five hours of sleep.  And I really needed more than five hours of sleep, as I'd only had that same amount the night before.

So, of course, it took me forever to fall asleep.  Much tossing, turning, going in and out of the semi-consciousness of dream-land.

Woke with a start.  As if ... as if something about the room I was in had just changed in some significant way.  Looked beside me in bed and saw my cat climb out of the covers next to me and over onto the nightstand.

OK, reality check:  When I went to bed, my door was closed and the cat was on the other side of it.  I think I would've noticed if a cat was in bed with me.  But the evidence was unmistakable.  Covers next to me had that "something was here and now it's not" look to them.  And even though my lights are off, I can see the cat on the nightstand by the light of the alarm clock.

I quickly reach over to move my glasses into the drawer (like I do when I let the cat in in the morning -- so she won't play with them).  I can hear her batting around the cap I had taken off the water bottle, so I stick that in the drawer, too.

Voice inside my head is back on the reality path:  "The cat," it says, "is not there."

"But," say my eyes, "I see her, curled up around the water bottle."  My ears come in with backup, "And I heard her bat around the cap to the water bottle."

I call in my hand to mediate the dispute.  Hand reaches out to where I see the fluffy black tail, and touches only the cold plastic of the TV remote.  Hand touches space where I see little kitty black and white furry head ... and feels air.  Hand suggests eyes take another look at the door, which is still closed tight.  Hand comes in with a final ruling:  There is no cat in this room. 

I sheepishly open the nightstand drawer and replace my eyeglasses and the water bottle cap.  

I realize now that sleep is imperative, and I manage to fall asleep -- although not without a solid attack of the heebies.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Run for the hills! It's a Lawyer!

In my non-work-related life, I often find myself asked what I do for a living.  And when I tell people I'm a lawyer (who works for the court system, rather than representing clients), I get a wide variety of responses.

All too often, it's a tirade against the legal system.  Either based on some unfortunate experience they've had with the system, or their view of high-profile trials where the wrong verdict was reached.  Sometimes both.  The point is, I meet a lot of people who have about zero faith in our legal system. 

Which is really sad -- because from where I'm sitting, the system generally works.  Of course, you don't see all the cases where the jury reaches the right answer, or where the parties settled before trial, or even where a mistake was corrected on appeal.  But the system DOES work.  It's slow; it's expensive; and sometimes it messes up -- but by and large, we get to the right answer eventually.  (And sometimes when we get the wrong answer, we do so by design -- because, for example, we'd rather let a criminal go free than convict an innocent person.)

I've met a lot of people and, therefore, have told a lot of them what I do for a living.  The best response I've ever received came from an actor.  I had interviewed a few Broadway actors for an article -- and I'd been just awed by the whole experience.  I mean, wow, these dudes performed on Broadway eight shows a week.  How cool is that?  I, on the other hand, sit in an office all day, reading cases and drafting legal memos.

After the interview, one of the actors asked me what I did for a living, so I told him.  And he said, "That's great!"  And I said -- well, I basically said, "Come on -- you're on Broadway; I sit in an office all day."  And he said, "I just entertain people; you can actually bring about change."

I was stunned.  Hell, I don't even view my job that way.  But I was amazed that I'd met someone who was so... not cynical about the whole thing that he viewed the legal system not as something where runaway juries misled by slimy lawyers issue outrageous verdicts -- but as a place where justice can be done and legal opinions can be issued that actually make the state (or the country) better.

How idealistic!  How wonderfully refreshing.

Cat Update

My kitty Jasmine is about two and half years old now -- and she's just now figuring out that if she lies on her back with her paws in the air, someone will rub her belly.

(Two and half years to figure this out.  Brain the size of a walnut.)

But now that she's gotten that little walnut around the idea, there's no letting go.  In the morning, when she comes running into my bedroom, she flops on her back.  I get out of the shower to find her on the floor, paws in the air.  I come home from work, it's all "pet me, pet me, pet me."  It's like she's taught me a new trick and wants to keep reinforci--

Hey!  Wait a minute!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Today's Lesson: The Birlstone Gambit

Today I want to give away my secret for predicting who the killer is in a great many movies and TV shows.  It works something like this:

If you didn't actually see the autopsy, they're not really dead.

OK, sometimes you don't need the autopsy.  It's going to be a judgment call.  If you see someone actually being beheaded, for example, you can safely assume they're dead.  (Unless you're dealing with sci-fi/horror, for which a whole different set of rules apply.)  But getting shot or stabbed?  Lots of bleeding?  No pulse?  Went into a building that blew up?  Car over the cliff?  Jumped overboard and not seen again?  Fall nobody could survive?  That's not good enough to write them off as dead.  Only if you're fairly certain their brain is in a jar on someone's desk -- then, ok, believe that they're dead.

Like most people, I was pulled in by the use of the not-really-dead-guy-who-is-actually-the-murderer quite a few times -- until I learned that it had a name.  I was reading an Ellery Queen novel, and the preface to the novel described this technique -- pointing out that Ellery Queen used it excessively -- and even gave it a name:  The Birlstone Gambit.  (The name is a reference to a Sherlock Holmes story, from which Ellery Queen apparently snagged the trick.)

Sure enough, I started looking for it, and it was everywhere.  (I don't want to name any movies or TV shows in which the Birlstone Gambit was used -- so as not to spoil them -- but there are many.)  Hollywood uses it a lot.  So, next time you're watching a mystery movie and you see someone who looks kinda dead, think about the Birlstone Gambit, and put that person on the top of your suspect list.

... and for those mystery movies that don't use the Birlstone Gambit, try this:  If you're watching the movie and you see a fairly big-name actor in a fairly small, tangential role, put that person on the top of your suspect list.  (And if it's a big-name actor who gets "killed off" in the first ten minutes?  SCORE.)

Monday, October 17, 2005

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the East, and Juliet the sun
Arise fair sun, and kill the envious moon
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she...

... Well, that's largely right, anyway.  I'm too lazy to look it up.  A few entries ago, I mentioned that I can do Romeo's part from the balcony scene.  Andrea asked why.

Well, you see, we read the play in Junior High School, and one of our assignments in English class was to pair up and learn the balcony scene.  There were more girls than boys in the class, so lots of girls ended up playing Romeo.

The story doesn't end there, though -- as I wasn't just a girl assigned to play Romeo.  I was actually assigned to play Juliet.  I was, however, partnered with a kid who was a lousy student and who pretty much promised me he wouldn't be there to perform.  I figured that the only choice would be to learn both parts and do it as a monologue.  (The fact that my teacher could've just had someone else feed me lines never actually occurred to me.  Besides, I was into over-achieving back then.) 

I've always had a pretty good memory in terms of monologues or speeches, but it's always something of a crapshoot as to what will end up in my long-term memory (accessible forever) as opposed to short-term memory (disappears after the exam).  Romeo's opening monologue is filed away in long-term.  Go figure.

Andrea also asked about a "scratch pin."  I've no idea what that is.  I said I can't do a scratch spin, which is your most basic figure skating spin.  It annoyed me no end that I never mastered it -- I'd thought it would be easier to spin than jump, and I ended up learning two jumps (toe-loop and salchow) and still couldn't get that sucker to go around more than two or three times on a regular basis.  (I think I hit six revolutions once, which is enough for it to legitimately be called a "spin," but I never got it again.)

And forget my last entry.  Much better than even Dove chocolate-dipped chocolate chip cookies are piping hot oatmeal cookies right out of the oven.  (Courtesy my neighbor and her new Kitchenaid stand mixer.)

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Portion Control

The latest thing I've seen in the grocery stores are "100 Calorie" versions of various snack foods.

I'm all for this.  I'm a particularly big fan of the Pop Secret 100 Calorie bag of butter-flavored microwave popcorn.  (Please go out and buy some of this so they won't discontinue it.)  In addition, I've also seen 100 Calorie cookie-flavored crisps.  They're little bags of flat cracker-like items that are supposed to taste like Oreos, or Chips Ahoy or whatever. 

While I like the idea of a 100 Calorie cookie snack, I'd like to point out the following:

One big honkin' Dove brand "Beyond Chocolate Chunk" cookie will set you back 110 calories.

So if all you're about is counting calories -- which would you rather have?  Twenty little hexagonal brown-colored chips that claim to taste like oreos or a real chocolate chip cookie dipped in Dove chocolate?

I'd type more, but then I'd get chocolate on the keyboard.

Stupid Question du Jour

I realize I'm asking out of ignorance and all, but I watched the last couple games of the ALCS and, um...

Shouldn't the White Sox have been wearing, y'know, white socks (stockings)?  I realize we're dealing with the darker color "away game" uniform, but I have a hard time reconciling "White sox" with a bunch of guys in black socks.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Seven Things...

Well, no more postponing it.  Nearly a month ago, Olddog299 (in his new incarnation) tagged me with the Seven Things meme.

You'd think that having had three weeks to think this one through I would be able to come up with decent answers.  Yeah, that'd be wrong.

Seven Things I Plan To Do Before I Die

-Write my will

-Go to Alaska on a cruise with this company.


-Become a part-time Sherlockian

-Finish that one-act play I was writing eight years ago

-Revise and publish that article I was working on in Law School

-(This one's for you, mom.)  Marry the perfect guy.

Seven Things I Can Do

-My job

-Proofread and edit

-Algebra, Geometry, Trig, Calculus, and Linear Algebra

-Twist my elbow in an (apparently) unnatural direction

-Troubleshoot my parents' computer/VCR problems by telephone

-Romeo's part in the balcony scene

-Act as my own internet travel agent

Seven Things I Can't Do

-A scratch spin


-Suffer fools gladly

-Differential Geometry

-Sing (although that doesn't stop me)

-Play a computer game without becoming totally obsessed by it.

-Waste my time on a bad book.

Seven Things That Attract Me To The Opposite Sex





-Common Interests

-Mutual Respect

-A body that makes me drool

Seven Things I Say Most Often



-"So, OK..."


-"... not so much."

-"And how does this affect me?"

-"That's ok.  Really.  If you don't have enough work for me to do, I'm sure I can find something to fill my time."

Seven Celebrity Crushes

-Johnny Depp

-Josh Holloway

-Viggo Mortensen

-Hugh Jackman

-Naveen Andrews

-Gabriel Byrne

-Halle Berry.  (Yes, she's that hot.)

Seven People I Would Like To See Do This

Is there anyone left in J-land who hasn't?

Finishing up the Grand Canyon Trip

When we left off, Kathy and I had finished the mule ride and returned to the Bright Angel Lodge.  We were staying at the Grand Canyon for another full day -- we had planned to do some hiking along the rim.

Ha ha ha ha ha. 

Kathy was feeling fine, but I was walking real slow -- especially when stairs were involved.  That night, we revised the plan -- we chose a couple of bus tours to take the next day.

Here's the thing about the Grand Canyon.  You know how some people say Microsoft and/or Disney are taking over the world?  Here's a company to look out for in the area of world domination:  Xanterra.  Xanterra has an exclusive contract with the National Park Service to run the hotels in Grand Canyon National Park.  (And, if you look at their website, they're in many other national and state parks as well.)  But Xanterra doesn't just run the hotels.  They also run all the restaurants, the gift shops, and the tours -- up to and including the mule ride. 

The unanticipated result of this was that, on each of the bus tours, the tour guides were totally plugging the mule ride.  And Kathy and I ended up being mini-celebrities on our busses, because everybody had all sorts of questions about the ride.  (One woman was going on the one-day ride the next day.  She seemed quite nervous about the experience so I made every effort I could to not walk gingerly while I was in her line of vision.)

The first tour we took drove for a ways along the rim to the East, stopping at the Desert View watchtower.  Our guide encouraged us all to walk the steps up to the top of the tower.  (Yeah, right.)  I stood on the observation deck at the bottom and practiced my photography skills, trying to catch the crows (ravens?) in flight.  Here's a couple:

There were also more breathtaking views, including this one where you can see the river at the bottom of the canyon.

After that tour, we took an evening tour -- a so-called "Sunset Tour" which went along the rim to the West.  We stopped at a viewing area for the sunset and everyone snapped a billion pictures.  (OK, fifty.  But still.)  The thing was, the sunset itself didn't seem all the impressive.  Compared to the big honkin' canyon it was above, the sunset was a clear second.  But, when I got home and looked at the pictures, the canyon seemed hidden in shadow, and the sunset ended up looking much more impressive.

And that's pretty much the end of the story.  The next morning, we packed up the car and headed back to civilization.*


*"Civilization" here being defined as a place with good cell phone reception, supermarkets large enough to carry ThermaCare wraps, and broadband internet connections.

Friday, October 7, 2005

This week's homework: The clean joke

(We interrupt the ongoing tale of my Grand Canyon trip, for a humor break.)

For this week's homework, Scalzi asks:

Weekend Assignment #80: Share a favorite joke. Keep it clean, of course. Otherwise, go nuts.

I've been told that it is necessary to always have at one's disposal one clean joke and one dirty joke.  I here present the clean one:

So there's this burglar who breaks into a house.  As he starts gathering up all the valuables in the house, he hears this voice say:

"Jesus is watching you."

He looks around, but has no idea where the voice is coming from.  He goes back to what he was doing, throwing more stuff into his bag.

"Jesus is watching you."

Looks around again.  Still can't figure out the source of the voice.  He's a little weirded out, but he continues with his theft.

"Jesus is watching you."

He has just about HAD it.  He puts the bag down and takes a good long look.  Finally, he sees it -- a parrot in a cage.  He walks over to the bird and sees a little label on the cage reading, "Moses."  He laughs.  "What kind of a moron names his talking bird 'Moses'?"

The parrot replies, "The same kind who names his pit bull 'Jesus.'"

Tuesday, October 4, 2005

The Ride Back

The ride back from Phantom Ranch is on a different trail.  It's shorter and, consequently, steeper.  It also has no drinking water.  The trail is hard on hikers, and it isn't all that easy on mules either.  Riding the mules back up the trail requires frequent breaks for the mules to catch their breath.  Maybe every fifteen or twenty minutes or so, we'd pull over, line up our mules sideways across the trail, and let them rest (without dismounting).  This provided numerous photo ops, although most of the pictures ended up with a mule ear in them.  Like these:

The frequent rest stops also gave me a better opportunity to document the trail itself.  Here you can see a part of the trail as it wends on down into the canyon.

Here's a shot where you can see the bridge we crossed (over the Colorado).

In addition to the short breaks to rest the mules, we also had a couple stops where we dismounted and let the mules get a nice long break without people sitting on top of them.

At the first such break, Mark (the wrangler) lined us all up and offered to take pictures before we dismounted.  So here's me and Kathy on our mules:

....on the ride back, we had reorganized ourselves somewhat, and I rode behind Kathy in the line.  The problem with this was that Happy, Kathy's mule, ate everything.  We'd been told not to let our mules graze, but Happy was pretty insistent and Kathy finally gave up on pulling back his reins, so Happy just munched at anything remotely edible whenever we were stopped (and even when we weren't).  This led to a problem with, er, mule poo.

I kept count.  In the five or so hours it took us to get to the top of the canyon, Happy pooped eleven times.  Twice, it was right in front of hikers.  Given this circumstance, I sorta loosened up on the whole "keep my mule real close to the mule in front of me" thing, 'cause my poor mule damn near got pooped on more than once.

So.  First real rest stop, we get off the mules.  My knees had started to hurt from maybe a half hour in, and it had gotten to the point of serious discomfort by the time we stopped.  So I was very happy to dismount and walk around for a little while.  When we got back on the mules, my knees were back to a manageable dull ache.

We rode for another hour or so, by which time my knees were screaming for a rest (and my mule was breathing pretty heavy, too).  We went around a bend and saw a hitching post coming up -- Cracker and I both breathed a sigh of relief -- and Mark led us right past it.  (I thought I overheard him say something about "usually stopping here," and I thought, why the hell aren't we stopping here now?)

But we continued on.  At the next mini-rest, Mark asked how we were doing.  I said something like, "I could use a real rest stop."  He replied, "Well, too bad.  We don't have another one for about an hour."

This was not good.  My knees were pretty bad by now, and another hour on muleback didn't promise anything in the way of recovery.  We got the mules moving again and I let my mind wander to all sorts of different topics.  Like that Mark isn't going to get no damn tip.  Or that $3500 for a rescue helicopter seems like a reasonable expense around now.  Or how nice a hot shower will feel once I'm back at the top of the canyon.  Actually, I got so caught up in that last one, I totally zoned out, and the rider behind me had to call my name for me to come back to reality and notice I'd let Cracker drop back about 30 feet behind Kathy's mule.

We finally got to the rest stop and I couldn't wait for Mark to help me off my mule.  He came over, I took my right foot out of the stirrup and tried to swing over--

--and couldn't.  This part of the process involves bending your left knee (while your foot remains in the stirrup) and putting all your weight on that leg, and my left knee was having none of that.

Insert mini-meltdown here.  Caused by pain, sure, but also frustration.  Mark was saying things like, "You'll feel a lot better once you get down," and I knew that.  Hell, I'd wanted off the mule an hour ago.  But by now, my knee hurt too much to take my weight, and I felt trapped on the mule.  Mark was pretty calm about the whole thing, and said, "If it's really bad, just take your foot out of the stirrup and slide off."  This I could do, and did, with Mark helping me to the ground.

One of the other ladies figured out which saddle bag contained her stuff, and she dug out some Nuprin or Advil or some such other painkiller which I tossed back gratefully.  I also felt oddly comforted by Mark's take-foot-out-of-the-stirrup-and-slide-off thing.  Not so much because it worked, but because it meant that riders having knee pain so bad they can't get off the mule was a common enough occurrence that they knew how to deal with it.  (At this point, I reconsidered Mark's tip.)

We had a long enough rest that I was able to get back on the mule and handle the last leg of the trip without any problem (although, when the stable hands came around to help us dismount at the end, I looked the dude right in the eye and said, "I'm going to need a lot of help.")

Mark gave us all certificates noting our accomplishments (" ... having faced the precipices, descended and ascended the perpendicular walls at and in the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, endured the vicissitudes of this magnificent journey, and borne the whims and caprices of her gentle, faithful, educated, individualistic, long-eared mount -- part horse, part jackass and all mule ..."), everyone in our party shook his hand (and slipped him a twenty), and we were returned to our hotel.

I took over 100 pictures on the mule ride.  This one is my absolute favorite.

Kathy, who does yoga regularly, was the only person on the trip who wasn't achy in some way.  She bought me ice cream.  :)

Monday, October 3, 2005

Phantom Ranch

The first thing you do when you get to Phantom Ranch (at the base of the Grand Canyon, just across the Colorado River) is get off your damn mule.  The second thing you do is drink some ice cold water they have conveniently supplied for you.  This is also the third thing you do, and the fourth thing you do.  Once suitably hydrated, you collect your small bag of belongings (which, most likely, got there in somebody else's saddle bag) and go to your cabin.

Phantom Ranch is billed as an oasis nestled at the bottom of the canyon, and that's pretty accurate.  Kathy and I had our own cabin, which contained two bunk beds (we both chose to sleep on the bottom bunks -- for my part, I didn't think I was capable of climbing the ladder), a small table, a toilet, and a sink (cold water only).  Our cabin was located right next to the shower building.  (I actually had my first hot shower in days at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Go figure.)

We arrived at Phantom Ranch with plenty of time before dinner.  Kathy decided to walk down to the Colorado (it was about a three-quarter mile hike).  My knees were hurting quite a bit (and had not recovered within the first half-hour, as they had at the rest stop), so I decided that hiking was a bad idea.  So I slipped on my swimsuit and went for a dip in Bright Angel Creek -- which runs alongside the ranch (and feeds into the Colorado).  The water was clear and cool and beautiful.  I found a conveniently placed rock and just sat there, enjoying the cold water and the warm sun.

(I here omit the details involved in dressing for dinner.  Let's just say that, with the extremely limited amount of stuff I had shoved in my small plastic bag, it turned out to be quite serendipitous that I'd brought a pair of underwear in the exact same shade as my sarong.)

The meals at Phantom Ranch can be described in one word:  hearty.  They serve a dinner of steak, corn, potatoes, veggies, bread, and chocolate cake.  (I understand that they charge hikers $31.95 for it, to which I can only reply, "Location, location, location."  The steak itself might not be a $30 piece of meat -- but when you realize that the steak-- like everything else you get at Phantom Ranch -- had been carried down there on a mule, well, the price sorta seems justified.)

After dinner, Kathy and I walked around the premises a bit.  We ended up on a bench near the creek looking up at the stars.  They have amazing stars out there.  There's no ambient light around there at all, so you can see zillions of them.  Every time we looked up, we saw hundreds more.  Eventually, we even saw that faint cloudy stripe across the sky that is our view of the damn galaxy.  This was, y'know, astonishingly cool.  We must have stayed out there for a couple hours, just chatting and looking at the sky.

We went back to the cabin and turned in for the night at a reasonable hour.  I wrapped my knee in one of them ThermaCare things I'd brought with me, and went to sleep.  (Memo to the nice folks at Phantom Ranch:  get a mule to carry a box of ThermaCare wraps down there.  They'll sell.  Trust me.)  The materials for the mule ride tell you not to plan anything too strenuous for the day after your mule ride.  Problem was, given the overnight nature of our trip, we'd planned another mule ride.


For Scalzi's Monday Photo Shoot, he asks for pictures of critters.

As it happens, I saw plenty of critters on the Grand Canyon trip, so I here pause in the retelling to post this here photo of some ... sheep?  goats?  I don't know what they heck they are, frankly.  (They're not deer -- that's just an awkwardly placed branch, not antlers.)

We also saw a male ... whatever the heck it is


Clearly, zoology is not my strong suit.

Sunday, October 2, 2005

The ride down (with pics!)

Ah, finally back at home.  Hot water works; pictures have been uploaded; cat is fascinated by my canteen -- I guess she's never smelled anything mule-scented before.

Our pal mom23nca has requested a photo of me wearing the ugly yellow spray jacket.  There would be such a photo, excepting I refused to put mine on.  I give you, however, Kathy, modelling her spray jacket in front of the Bright Angel Lodge.


So.  Bright and early Sunday morning, we go out to the corral at the top of the Bright Angel Trail, ready to meet our mules and get this show on the road.  Trail.  Whatever.

We meet the other people going down to Phantom Ranch, as well as the people taking day rides.  (You can spot the overnighters -- we're all clutching small kitchen-sized storage bags with one night's worth of belongings.)  Most riders are wearing their yellow jackets as a wind-breaker; it's pretty cold this early.  I am not wearing the jacket.  I'd rather freeze.

The one thing we're missing is MULES.  We stand around the empty corral for probably a half-hour, and then, all of sudden, mules appear from around the corner.  They're driven in a few trains -- there's one person riding the front mule, and all the rest are attached to the mule in front of them by a rope.  The muleteers start untying the mules from each other while we get our instructions.

Our instructions are pretty simple.  We have one task -- keep your mule within two and five feet of the mule in front of you.  We are to do this by using an item euphemistically known as a "motivator," although it could also be described as a "whip," "switch," or "stick."  It is necessary to keep the mules together, it seems, because if a mule gets too far behind, it will run to keep up.  And if each mule is some 20 or 30 feet behind the mule in front of it, the guy at the end will ultimate be tearing around a switchback at a pretty speedy run as his mule tries to make up the distance of a football field. 

Got it.  Keep mules close.  The guy goes on and on about this -- apparently, they are used to having people who have trouble hitting their mules.  We're told that if you can't hear the motivator whooshing through the air, you're not hitting it hard enough.  We're told that you can't really hurt 1100 pounds of mule with this itty bitty motivator.  We're told that some mules will go just at the sound, while others like it so much you'll have to keep on "motivating" them all up and down this canyon.  Most important, we're told the mules will "have you figured out" within the first five minutes -- so it's extra important not to let the mule get the upper hand from the start.

I take this seriously.  It's kinda like when I'm white-water rafting -- I understand that my first duty is to safely and efficiently paddle that raft according to our guide's directions.  Same with the mule -- my first (and only) duty is to keep my mule within two and five feet of the mule in front of me.  All the rest is gravy.

They mount up the day riders and send them off.  There are about 16 of us left -- the overnighters.  We'll be separated into two groups and sent off.  Kathy and I end up in a group with two groups of three.  One group is three adults -- two women and a man -- they're nice folks, but I never really got how they were related to each other.  The other group is two parents and their adult son, Patrick.  Patrick is 35 (he was coming on this trip for his birthday) and developmentally disabled. 

Traditionally, they put the wrangler in front -- then kids, then women, then men.  In our group, the wrangler (Mark) made an exception -- he put Patrick immediately behind himself, then Patrick's dad, then me and the rest of the women, with the other man bringing up the rear.  More than that, Mark had a rope attached to Patrick's mule, which he held all the way down the canyon (and all the way back).  I was really impressed with how easily the wrangler accomodated Patrick's limitations.  With Mark leading Patrick's mule, and Patrick's dad right behind him being real encouraging, Patrick had a great trip down into the canyon. 

Patrick's dad, however, was not real big on "motivator" use, and, from the start, was about 10 or more feet behind Patrick's mule.  Every so often, Mark would yell back for Patrick's dad to keep up, and Patrick's dad would "motivate" his mule (about half the time, he'd whack the saddle bag rather than the mule -- once or twice I commented that "that saddle bag is getting real motivated" -- until I did the same thing myself).  ANYWAY, when Patrick's dad got 'round to motivating his mule, it wouldn't take much for me to get my mule to step on the gas, and we'd trot right on up.

I got ahead of myself there.  First, I met my mule.  My mule's name was "Cracker."  See if you can pick him out from our little line of mules all lined up at a hitching post.

Correct!  The white one.  Yes, I was assigned the racially-insensitively named mule.  I decided to have a sense of humor about this.  Kathy's mule was named "Happy."

Mules are tall.  (You get a mule by mating an itty bitty boy donkey with a great big female horse.)  You get on a mule the same way you mount a horse -- left foot in left stirrup, then jump right on up and swing your right leg over the mule.  Excepting that, this time, there's a wrangler helping to boost you up over this critter.  I mean, I couldn't even reach Cracker's saddle horn from the ground, to get a good a grip.  But the wranglers are real good at this, and I got on Cracker, got my last minute instructions, and we were soon off down the trail.

It looked a lot like that.  (Actually, it looked exactly like that.)  Bunch of mules going along the trail, with big beautiful vistas all around.

... at the end of the ride, you're given comment cards to fill out.  Mark told us that the "funniest" comment they'd ever received was one that said they didn't have enough "scenic stops" along the way down.  Mark said they all laughed like crazy over that one, because, hey, there's scenery at every turn.  I understood what the commenter had meant, though.  On the way down the canyon, there's no actual "photo stops."  You just keep riding, aim your camera in the general direction of something pretty, and hope it turns out.  I kinda liked this shot -- for the sheer scope of it -- even though it wasn't entirely in focus.

Cracker was a very good mule.  Well, I don't know if it was Cracker just being the bestest mule out there, or me taking my job seriously, or some combination thereof -- but I didn't have to hit Cracker that much.  By the end of the ride, I'd just talk encouragingly, tap him with the tip of the motivator (or just make the wooshing sound in the air) and Cracker would be keeping right behind the mule in front.  (It wasn't till we got to Phantom Ranch that I found out Cracker was a male mule.  All the way down, I'd kept calling him "Good Mule," because I didn't know if he was a boy or girl.)

There was only one stop on the way down, at Indian Gardens.  There's potable water there, so it's a good stop for refilling canteens.  There's also toilets there.  We dismounted the mules and had lunches that the wranglers had pre-packed for us.

As soon as I got offa Cracker, my legs hurt.  I immediately tried to walk up the steps to the toilets, and could barely accomplish this without using my hands for balance.  A couple hikers sitting there laughed, although not without sympathy.  (We passed a lot of hikers on the trail.  Near the trail head, the hikers we met were either just getting started or just finishing -- either way, they seemed pretty happy.  There was a point somewhere further along where the looks we got from hikers were downright jealous.  But everyone was friendly, and we exchanged lots of "good mornings" as the hikers stepped aside waiting for the mules to pass.)

After the half-hour rest, my legs felt fine, and I was all ready to get back on Cracker and back on the trail.  We continued through the "inner canyon" -- ultimately crossing the Colorado river (on a suspension bridge) and ending at Phantom Ranch.  Here's some other random shot I took from muleback.

When it was all said and done, we'd ridden some 10.5 miles down the Bright Angel Trail (and a touch on the River Trail and South Kaibob) into the canyon.  We'd lost about 4500 feet in elevation and gone through a 30 degree increase in temperature (due to the change in elevation and the fact we'd started out so early), all in about five and a half hours.  It was beautiful and I loved it -- but by the time I got off of the mule, I was hoping for my legs to do their same half-hour-off-the-mule-and-I'm-good-to-go recovery routine.