Complicated is the New Simple

It seems as if nothing I try to do is ever as simple as it seems. Lately, I’ve been happily reveling in the fact that the days are getting longer, or to be more precise, the amount of daylight in our days is more than it was the day before. So, fool that I am, I decided to quickly look up exactly how much they’ve lengthened since December’s shortest day of the year.

Can of worms. Don’t go there. Not without a scientific calculator, a dictionary, ephemeris and at least a casual relationship with an able bodied seaman, which sounds more risque than it probably is. But I digress. I started with my favorite weather site, Weather Underground. It’s as reliable as these sites ever are and simple to navigate, which is a big plus for me. In the Astronomy section, there was, indeed, an entry for Length of Day. For May 31st, it read 16h 02m and I should have read that and returned to working on the research project that will pay the bills chez Hawkins if I finish it on deadline. But, I didn’t.

Above that entry, there was another that read, “Length of Visible Light 17h 27m. What the heck was this? Was some of the daylight invisible light? And, if so, why? Well, both of those entries were clickable, so I clicked on Length of Day and that’s when I opened the can of worms. Their story is that Length of Day is the time between Actual Sunrise and Actual Sunset. They were mum on how to determine when Actual Sunrise and Actual Sunset occur, so I clicked on Length of Visible Light, foolishly thinking that it might hold the clues to this puzzle. Big mistake.

Length of Visible Light, according to WU, is (and I quote), “The time of Civil Sunset minus the time of Civil Sunrise.” Okaaay. And how, I wondered, do we know when Civil Sunset and Sunset are when we don’t even know WHAT they are? Well, I didn’t see anything on the WU site about Civil Sunrise and Sunset, but I did spy an entry for Civil Twilight, so thinking it might shed some light on the whole thing, I clicked on that and got this definition, “The time period when the sun is no more than 6 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The horizon should be clearly defined and the brightest stars should be visible under good atmospheric conditions (i.e. no moonlight, or other lights). One still should be able to carry on ordinary outdoor activities.”

This didn’t help much with the sunrise and sunset wheeze, but it did draw my attention to two other Twilights, Nautical and Astronomical. As any seaman can probably tell you and ascertain with his sextant, assuming he has it with him in the bar or tattoo parlor, Nautical Twilight is “The time period when the sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The horizon is well defined and the outline of objects might be visible without artificial light. Ordinary outdoor activities are not possible at this time without extra illumination.” Well, unless you’re catching fireflies or fishing for horned pout or a raccoon investigating garbage cans, that is.

And what about Astronomical Twilight? Well, Astronomical Twilight is “The time period when the sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon at either sunrise or sunset. The sun does not contribute to the illumination of the sky before this time in the morning, or after this time in the evening. In the beginning of morning astronomical twilight and at the end of astronomical twilight in the evening, sky illumination is very faint, and might be undetectable.”

So, there you have it…whatever IT is. All I know is that today is shorter now, for me, because I wasted so much time trying to find out something that I could have figured out around 3:45 tomorrow morning when the “morning chorus” as Robert Lurtsema of Public Radio used to call it i.e. the thousands of furshluggener birds that lurk outside my open window start yakking at each other loud enough to wake the dead. And me.

Every morning the chorus gets earlier and every evening they say goodnight to each other or have their last word with their mates later and later. Around the middle of June, they’ll start to get up later and go to bed earlier and so will the sun. Me, I’ll still be lying awake right through Civil and Nautical Twilight. But without the birds, maybe I’ll get lucky and fall asleep before Astronomical Twilight rolls around. I can hope.


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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 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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