Plotting Polecats or Why You Should Be Wary of Cassowaries

I was recently searching for some information on wildebeests and found myself seriously sidetracked by a lurid illustration of a European Polecat – a relative of our Skunk. This depiction of Mustela Putorius was looking out from behind its black mask with an expression that clearly said, “Oh, you would, would you?” I received the impression that it would just as soon bite something as look at it and, according to the information on the page, I was right.

Polecats, who are kind of like weasels on steroids, kill their prey with a single bite, according to “The Encyclopedia of Animals” from Amber Books. That statement led me to ponder whether – if by some mischance the first bite doesn’t kill the prey – the polecat just gives up and goes looking for another rabbit or mouse or rat to bite? Or does it look around, embarrassed, and take another chomp at it if no one is looking?

We’ll get to wildebeests later, but before we do, I need to say something to my UK readers who may be complacently reading this and thinking that this has nothing to do with them, because in England and Scotland, at least, gamekeepers eradicated polecats long ago.

Well, don’t look now, Brits and Scots, but while your backs were turned, Mustela Putorius was sneaking across the border from Wales, where it regrouped and no doubt hatched evil schemes against the gamekeepers and their descendants. I’d do some genealogy research and find out if Great-Grand-Uncle Yorick chivvied polecats off the local lord’s estate, if I lived in the United Kingdom.

As if things weren’t already as black as the feet of the rare Mustela Nigris or Black-Footed Ferret of the US, I suppose I should mention that escaped domestic ferrets (tell me that phrase isn’t an oxymoron) are apt to become rather close friends with polecats and their offspring are very often fertile. Worse yet, my polecat experts tell me that the “kittens” born from these unions, like all polecat babies, don’t have to be taught to kill. It’s instinctive to the breed even at the toddler stage.

It may be of some consolation to the UK citizen who finds polecat adults or kittens surging ’round on every side, to consider that things could be a lot worse. Instead of polecats, they could be confronted with a surprised double-wattled cassowary – considered by many to be the world’s most dangerous bird. One blow from its sharp inner toes can kill a good-sized dog! Who knew?

These bizarre (at least to humans) birds can jump into the air to the height of their head and have many strange features. They have a horn-like casque on the top of the head, possibly to impress other cassowaries or, maybe to help them force their way through dense vegetation. Then there are the wattles which hang from their necks – brightly colored tassles of bare skin that also impress other cassowaries – we think.

About the cassowaries’ family life, the least said the better. Males and females hang out every couple of months, then she lays eggs and takes off, leaving the male to bring up the kiddies. (Lends new meaning to the term “brooding”, don’t you think?) The Dwarf Cassowary has a darker, smaller casque and lives in the mountains of Papua, New Guinea where it is known as the Moruk, of all things.

The only good thing I can say about European Polecats and Cassowaries is that they don’t live in the same places. So, it’s very unlikely, barring a circus train derailment, that you’ll be bothered by both of them at once. If you do run into one in its natural habitat, there is absolutely no chance that there’s a wildebeest within a hundred miles, because – as fans of PBS’s Nature know – wildebeests are found only in Africa where they exist solely as fodder for lions, tigers and every other large carnivore to feed on.

This fact leads to why I was looking up wildebeests in the first place. The kids and I wanted to know why, when they have a set of pretty good horns, these large members of the Hippotraginae subfamily of the Family Bovidae don’t turn around, put their heads down and toss their attackers with those horns. Instead, they panic and try to run away instead. Invariably, at least on Nature, one of them doesn’t make it.

Why they take this approach is still a mystery to me, because The Animal Encyclopedia simply reports it as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, although they do make mention of the Black Wildebeest’s horns being used occasionally to defend against predators. I hesitate to question why Mother Nature has given the wildebeest horns to fight with, but neglected to provide the gene for fighting back as well. It seems rather short-sighted to me, but maybe the focus was more on getting carnivores fed than saving large bovine animals on that day in pre-history.

I had hoped to get away without dissing the wildebeest any more than I already have, but in the interest of responsible journalism I must say that the breed’s instincts do make me wonder if evolution isn’t breaking down in the Bovidae family just a bit. It seems that the migratory instinct is so strong in wildebeests that they’ll even cross very wide rivers, thereby drowning themselves in large numbers. What this accomplishes is anybody’s guess, unless this is a way of insuring the survival of the world’s crocodile population, and I am absolutely NOT going to look up crocodiles, so you’ll have to do that yourself.

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Daughter’s Day

The year my daughter was 8 years old, Mother’s Day did not go as planned chez Hawkins, let me tell you. We were all set to take off for the standingwomen.org event, when Daughter said her throat hurt. She opened her mouth and I looked at her throat and her tonsils were like boulders. And red. So was her tongue and the surrounding oral real estate. The thermometer said her temperature was 100.9 and she didn’t look at all well. So the male contingent went back to reading their books and Daughter and I went to the pediatric practice where her doctor is. He wasn’t there, but when I phoned, the doctor on call said she’d meet us there.

Three hours later, Daughter was officially diagnosed with Strep. The doctor who saw her seemed very chipper for someone who had been called out on Mother’s Day. Maybe she doesn’t like her kids or doesn’t have any. I dunno. Daughter, on the other hand, was not happy about missing out on an event we’d been planning for weeks. Having someone poke her sore throat with a stick didn’t improve her mood and she started to create as they say in Maine.

“I’m not gonna take any pills,” she said, defiantly.

“Then you won’t get better,” the doctor said cheerfully, “And your Strep could go into something worse like Rheumatic Fever.”

“I don’t care if I get Dramatic Fever,” my little curmudgeon said, “I hope I do get it and give it to everyone else in the world.”

“It’s Rheumatic Fever,” I said, “You already have Dramatic Fever, but there isn’t a pill for it. I’ve had rheumatic fever and, trust me, you don’t want it.”

She almost dislocated her eyelids, rolling her eyes and we left to get the prescription for Amoxicillin. At the store, I told her that she needed to stay away from people so that she wouldn’t give them her germs. She merely curled her lip and sighed and pulled her hooded sweatshirt up around her neck until only her eyes were showing. She looked like Little Red Riding Hood channeling Lucrezia Borgia.

As we sat in a couple of wooden chairs, waiting, a woman sat down on the far side of me and Daughter stood up and dragged her chair as far away from us as she could. The woman looked puzzled, but smiled at Daughter, who put her arm in front of her hooded face and said, in a muffled voice, “Don’t look at me or you’ll get Dramatic Fever.”

“She has Strep,” I explained to the woman, “I told her to stay away from everyone and she’s taken it to heart.” The woman said she understood. She had a daughter who’d had Strep. I wondered if her daughter could possibly have been as histrionic as my daughter while having Strep. I wondered if anyone’s daughter is as histrionic as mine. She’s the only daughter I’ve had for any length of time, so I don’t have any comparison.

I’ve had foster daughters, but none of them were with us for more than a few weeks, so it’s hard to say if they would have developed into mini Bette Davises or not. I was a daughter, of course, but I wasn’t an actor. I was more of an adventurer and amiable most of the time. Besides, my mother tended to whack us upside the head if we “carried on” as she called it, which kind of nipped in the bud any histrionic tendencies we had. Different times.

The rest of the day was interesting shall we say. Lunch was chicken noodle soup and Daughter said her throat hurt so much that she could only “slither” some noodles, no chicken or carrots, because “you can’t eat square things when you have Dramatic Fever.”
“It’s Rheumatic Fever and you don’t have it,” I said.

Then in an attempt to lighten things up, “Hey, it could be worse. You could have Instamatic Flu like Little Peggy Ann McKay in the Shel Silverstein song. Maybe some ice cream would make your throat feel better.”

“Ice cream won’t, but gelato will,” she said, “The only ice cream we have is cookies and cream and the cookie part would rip my throat to shreds.”

So I gave her a bowl of gelato and hoped that there were no ice crystals in it or cue the bloodcurdling cries of throats being shredded. Apparently there were none and the gelato disappeared a lot faster than the soup had. “Did it help?” I asked.

“Maybe. Do you think it froze any of the germs?”

“Maybe,” I answered. “Let’s hope so. But the pills will start killing them right away. In a couple of days, you won’t be contagious anymore and you’ll feel a lot better.”

She sighed heavily. “Or I’ll choke to death on a pill. I wish I didn’t have to take them.”

“You don’t want to get Dramatic Fever, do you?” I asked, smiling.

“I think I already have it,” she said. “Boy, what a kick in the Mother’s Day pants this is!”

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Yikes! It’s the End-Times. Again!

This is an excerpt from “Funny You Should Ask”, Book 1 in the Life without a Field Guide Series which is available at Amazon for $4.99 

Somehow, without me even noticing, it’s time for our end-of-year review once again. This is where I tell our reviewer, a fellow homeschooler who holds a teaching certificate, what the kids have learned this year and how they’ve made progress, which is all that’s necessary in the state of Maine, thank goodness. This is also where I suddenly realize that they haven’t learned anything or made any progress since the last review, because all they’ve done for a solid year is play computer and video games, argue and goof off.

Of course, I could always call that becoming skilled at applied technology, rhetoric and creative time-management. It’s true, but I’d like to think that I don’t have to fudge to satisfy the “making progress” requirement and I’d also like to reassure myself that this unschooling wheeze is working. So, I cast my mind back over the year and look for instances of learning experiences, but it’s really hard to pin them down and isolate them.

The trouble with trying to assess unschooling is that it’s such an organic process. Because we’ve gone to the extremely relaxed (practically boneless) end of the unschooling spectrum, I don’t assess the kids’ progress, except in the holistic way of being aware that they’re maturing and changing and gaining knowledge. Where some of my more “schooly” friends can tell you what reading or math level their kids are at, I have no idea if mine are ahead, behind or level with other same-age kids. All I know is that they read a heck of a lot.

I can, however, tell you that they can figure out what they need and want to figure out when it comes to math. Sit my daughter down in front of a Beanie Baby page and she can instantly tell you how much the one she wants costs, complete with shipping and how long it will take for her to save up for it at $2/wk, how much more quickly she could get it if we increased that by fifty cents and how many months, weeks, days and minutes it is until her birthday if she has to wait until then because we won’t loan her what she needs to get it now.

Son uses math of all sorts in his drawing and has been responsible for several of my longer after-lunch naps, when he’s explained the Golden Mean of Art or some such and exactly which ratio he’s used for each of the ten drawings of heads and shoulders he’s working on at the moment. As my chin hits my sprouted rye with ham and Swiss sandwich, I see that there’s absolutely no reason to worry about his grasp of fractions and I also realize that after-lunch math is still putting me to sleep, just as it did back in 8th grade algebra.

Unfortunately, or probably fortunately in some cases where sanity is something the people value, none of the folks who evince concern about my kids’ academic prowess live with us, so they don’t experience the day-to-day evidence that unschooling is working on all levels for Daughter and Son. For some reason, almost every time we run into any of these doubters, my kids seem to come all over witless.

We’ll be at the park, having a good old time, when Daughter gets a piece of grass in her eye. As another mother, who’s a former science teacher, holds her, I try to get the grass out, whereupon Daughter shrieks that it’s going inside her head and will get into her brain, thereby showing a complete lack of knowledge vis a vis the structure of the eye, which all the other kids there learned when they were toddlers, and which Daughter knows, but forgets in times of trauma.

Or Son, who is trying to be more independent, with my blessing, tells the woman at the pharmacy that his birthdate is March 29th and she asks him, “what year is it?” and he looks at me in terrified appeal. It’s only after we leave the poor woman, who is valiantly trying not to laugh, that Son explains that he didn’t know whether she meant “what year is your birthday” or “what year is this” or something completely different involving prescriptions and pharmacies that he didn’t understand. It doesn’t help that we’ve chatted to that particular clerk about how wonderful unschooling is, nor would it help to explain that it was a lack of confidence in successfully completing a new interaction, rather than a lack of IQ that was in play there.

Just to make myself feel better, I sat down the other night and made a stream-of-consciousness list of what I’m aware of that the kids learned this year. I know I didn’t catch everything, because half the time I don’t know that they’ve learned something until they surprise me with it by telling me something I don’t know. Like the time Daughter told me that Killer Whales aren’t whales; they’re Dolphins. Good thing I didn’t put money on it, because she’s right. (I still maintain that they should rename them Killer Dolphins, just to make things clearer.)

Anyhow, my list ran to several pages for each of them by the time I was done and included books they’ve read, videos and TV shows we’ve watched, radio shows and podcasts we’ve listened to, museum trips, field trips (although every time we leave the house it’s a field trip, I guess), conversations with all kinds of people and the Democratic Caucus for Son, newscasts we watch together and then discuss and probably about a million or so questions that sent one or all of us off to the library, the computer or a friend who might know the answer.

Then there’s the stuff that they’ve learned from their friends, the medieval dances and (in Son’s case) the fighting in armor from the Society for Creative Anachronism we belong to, not to mention the feasts in costume and the other SCA events which include Medieval Arts and Sciences such as fiber arts, painting and crafts. There’s the music they listen to and Son makes with his saxophone, the drawing and (in Daughter’s case) the photography and writing. Their blogs. The housework, cooking, personal care and chores they’ve learned to be responsible for, unlike most of their friends who are told that “school is your job” and who can’t cook a meal or do their own laundry without help.

I guess for people who are used to testing kids against other kids based on what a group of adults thinks they should know at a certain age, assessing my kids’ progress in life would be very difficult. It’s like the different results you get from painting freehand or painting by the numbers. You can get a nice picture either way, but my kids do much better when they create their own picture . They need more control over their lives and education than public school allows.

So, that’s why I’m temporarily flummoxed every spring, trying to put down on paper what I know in my heart. My kids are making progress, although maybe not the progress that they’d make in school where they were miserable. They’re learning all the time and as a friend of mine says, they’re more like human becomings than human beings, just like all of us. That’s progress as far as I’m concerned.

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