Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dear Arizona

Happy belated birthday, Arizona. By this time next year, many of us will have recently celebrated your centennial. How exciting is THAT? Yes, it's true, a good contingent of your residents will probably figure it's not worth it, what with the end of the world upon us and all. (That is, if we're even still around after May 21 this year.) Those people will probably miss your 100th birthday, barricaded as they'll be behind armaments and emergency provisions and stacks of credit bills they amassed when they figured the world was done for. But not most of us. Most of us are still trying. Most of us are still sane.

We've gone a bit crazy, haven't we, Arizona? We're sorry. Don't worry, you're still a great state. You're hot and dry and extreme, and your people are even more so. Your landscape is rocky, and your people even more so. Your critters and plants are rough and prickly and deep rooted and real pains in the asses, and your people? Yeah. You know where I'm going.

This has led to some bad stuff, for sure.

That's what's come to define you to the rest of the country lately, but that's not what defines you for Arizonans. I wanted you to know we remember that.

You, Arizona, are two-hundred-year-old saguaros, home to countless birds, with big waxy flowers that open at night. The first saguaro bloom I remember first blossomed the evening of my seventh birthday and attracted bats. I'd never seen a bat. I thought I was magical or something. I thought this place must be.

You're the dirt-caked undersides of upturned silicate rocks, scorpions clinging fast and flat. You are arroyos cut through the dry landscape by decades and centuries of flash floods ("washes" for those of us who grew up sustaining countless lacerations playing in them). You're turquoise waterfalls and deep blue pools; you're rushing rivers that churn up sediment until they resemble chocolate milk. You're lazy rivers and the lazier tubers who get sunburned on your rivers, trailing tubes of beer behind. You're a sandwich my mom packed for a fifteen-mile hike, and the perfect boulder that exists somewhere in the Superstition Mountains, which cradled me while I ate the sandwich. (You're not, however, Ramen Noodles and instant oatmeal, which comprised my entire diet while I camped in the Grand Canyon, and which I cannot stomach to this day. I don't blame you for that.)

You're foxtail seeds in our socks and desert breeze in our hair. You're speckled cactus wrens with their raspy calls, fourth-generation cotton farmers, modern-day pioneers, and the guy I know who sells cactus jelly and has a million unbelievable (in both senses) tales. You're cholla cactus forests so big the ends reach the horizon. You're the Grand Canyon, ancient cliff dwellings and the OK Corrall. You attract everyone from learned geologists and historians to fanny-packed, trucker-hat-wearing tourists, and somehow you manage to make them all feel welcome.

You're the event invites in my inbox, to (staged) cowboy shootouts, horse and burro auctions, skydiving, cave treks, spider feedings, salsa tastings, and chili festivals. You (along with my son an an abnormal, innate curiosity) are the reason I will never be bored.

You're spring training, wineries, the olive mill, and trail rides. You're artist enclaves and private household arsenals. You're the most progressive environmentalists I'll ever know, and also hunters and rodeo cowboys. You're what made me acquire, and later shed, my cynicism and stereotypes. Honestly, you're really damn hard to live in sometimes, and while I'm never ashamed of my state, I have been ashamed of individual Arizonans. But you've forced me to deal with the world and people as they truly are; nuances, compromises, bullshit, and all; and I am stronger for it.

You're conservative, sure, on balance, but most of your people are just ... people. We rightfully pay extra attention to borders here -- the state's boundaries and our own ideological outliers. But this isn't about that. This goes out to the heart of Arizona -- and as someone living (geographically) south of center and (politically) left of center, I'm still not so far from the middle that I can't see that it's where most people live, ideologically.

You're the Grand Canyon State, but you're also the Copper State, Apache State, Aztec State, Sunset State, Baby State, State I Used to Think I Hated, State I Now (Usually) Love, State to Which I Don't Deserve to Lay A Claim Despite People Thinking I'm An Expert for Some Reason, State of Which I've Seen Far Too Little, and the State the Rest of the Country Seems to Think is Backward and/or Exotic.

It seems most appropriate that one of the most maligned and misunderstood states should celebrate its birthday on such a maligned and stereotyped holiday. I guess, given your own propensity for being behind the curve in most things, Arizona, it's appropriate that this goes out late. I know you'll understand.

There is more to Valentine's Day than misanthropes would like to admit, and there is much more to you, Arizona. We just don't always do a great job of reflecting your better side. Completely our bad.

Happy belated birthday. Happy belated Valentine's. Here's to hoping we make it to 100.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bird Count and self promotion (plus pretty pictures!)

First, a big thank you to The Magnifying Glass for featuring me yesterday! I get to talk about my son, birds, and myself. Also, pretty pictures. Hooray! Go read it. Stick around and explore the whole site. Good stuff.

Second, and related, who's gearing up for the Great Backyard Bird Count? ...anyone? Bueller? No? If not, get thee to a backyard, or a park, or, well, anywhere, and participate! It takes about fifteen minutes, though of course, if you're like us, you can take considerably more time. If you're in North America and you like birds, or you think citizen science rocks, or you have a budding naturalist in the family, or if you want to learn what kinds of birds live in your area and maybe tell a certain husband that "cactus wren" does not encompass all brownish small birds -- whatever the reason, tell me if you're doing it, and where. It's super easy. Go here for instructions.

As an early Bird Count post, here are just a few of the birds in my neck of the woods.

Osprey (with unfortunate fish):

Red-winged blackbird (red shoulders hidden):

Yellow-headed blackbirds (one of which dropped a missile shortly before I snapped this -- now THAT'S dedication on my part):


Mourning dove:

Anna's hummingbird (male):

Inca dove (with saguaro in background):

Great-tailed grackle (male):

I think I'll add a few more throughout the day. Stay tuned, next, for a belated Valentine's/birthday letter for Arizona.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Black Widows, Part II

(See Part I here.)

I uploaded a picture of a backyard critter to Flickr, named it one thing, and an online viewer said I was wrong; it's a different species. Naturally, the only course of action was to hatch an egg sac of highly venomous spiders to see who was right. So now, I raise black widow spiders.

This hasn't, at any point, seemed like an unusual or ill-advised exercise. It certainly doesn't seem, as my husband has suggested, like an absurdly elaborate effort just to find out if I'm right. Not only because there's no such thing as going to far to prove myself correct (there isn't), but because there's no such thing as pushing the boundaries of empirical investigation too far. There's really no convincing me that any truth, no matter how trivial, is too trivial to pursue. The more atypical, the better.

We've had a cluster (the proper group name for spiders, or, if you like, colony) of black widows living in an old apple juice jug for some time. Much to my husband's dismay, I rescued a slightly squashed egg sac from our garage and stuck it in the jug with a twig. For several months, I've tended the cluster, tossing in crickets every day or so. The tiny, translucent, yellow-white spiders emerged from the sac and quickly formed a messy glistening web in the jug. I'd estimate we started with about fifty spiders, but their numbers began to thin almost immediately. Until very recently, they preferred siblicide as a method of procuring food, no matter how many fat crickets I supplied.

Every week or so, if they've eaten enough, the spiderlings will outgrow and shed their old exoskeletons, leaving the fragile husks behind in the tangled web. They almost have personalities. I've come to identify certain spiders individually. A clear front-runner has emerged, and she (the abdomen is swelling, and her mass and ever-emerging hourglass have me calling it a female) hangs at the top of the communal web, chasing away any passerby. She's given a wide berth. A second female is fairly large, but seems to have molted only three times to the alpha female's four molts. A few smaller females seem to have trouble getting enough food, and have only molted twice that I've witnessed. There is just one that looks male, more spindly than his fat sisters. He is cautious, eating when the other spiders are far away.

All the spiderlings have learned to use the web as a fine-tuned machine. The black widow web is not ugly, not "messy," although that's how it's differentiated from the more-popular orb webs. The crisscrossing lines shoot in all directions, forming an efficient three-dimensional detection and pulley system. A hungry spiderling will explore the threads of the web, moving a front leg in clockwise motions until it reaches a foothold, picking carefully along the strands and occasionally plucking at them. When it finds prey, it swiftly reels it up, using its back feet to blanket the insect with web before rushing in to deliver several small bites. It eats from several angles to drain the prey of as much sustenance as possible.

I love spiders. Even black widows. Especially black widows. I seriously, abnormally love them. But I think one of the things I love most isn't even exclusive to the black widows themselves. It's the careful investigation they inspire. Even the first encounter with a black widow calls for it -- Does she have the red hourglass? Is it really a black widow? Everything about them begs deeper investigation. Do they really eat their mates? How often? Have you seen it happen? If you're not looking closely, you won't even see their homes, most times. I've found black widows under corners of old playground equipment, in rock crevices, and in piles made beautiful by a glimmering web lacing together a heap of litter in the desert. I'll capture them if they're in dangerous (people-adjacent) areas. It's not hard, and I've never been bitten. Each time, I am certain I was the only one who knew they were there. No one else looks.

Their reputation, as well, begs for deeper inquiry. Any time anyone says to me; of a phenomenon or creature or, well, anything; "Everyone knows that...," the first thing I do, the very first thing, is attempt to falsify the common wisdom. Nearly the only things most people know about black widows are the "everyone knows" bits. There is much more to the story.

I first encountered black widows not in real life, but in fiction, while loitering in the elementary school library, waiting for my dad to write lesson plans and head home. In some obscure, ancient anthology -- sandwiched between stories about a girl's pony and a boy who couldn't read -- was a story about a put-upon misfit who captured a nest of black widows and ground them into paste, intending to bake them in brownies or something and poison his classmates. At least, I think that was the setup. I never read the ending, and even then, I knew it got much wrong. Were there really "nests" of black widows? Where? Did their ability to inject venom mean that you could grind their bodies and use them as poison? Would cooking ruin the poison? Had anyone tried such a thing? Weren't there animals that ate black widows?

"Just make sure you leave them alone," the librarian advised when I asked, before handing me the brand-new Encyclopedia Britanica CD-ROM (with a MOVING PICTURE of a volcano!), which had no information about black widows, probably as a distraction. Naturally, I considered her advice, and resolved from that point forward to seek out as many black widow spiders as humanly possible.

In the meantime I read, and in no time at all I learned enough basic black widow facts to bore my family for years to come. Common wisdom had a few things right, but only just: They may eat their mates, but only sometimes; and their venom can kill humans, but will probably just make them very miserable for a few days. (Small kids, pets, and the elderly are much more vulnerable. I kept our animals at bay and naturally I didn't, as a child, consider myself a child.) I'd be lying if I said the danger element didn't further excite me. I was hooked for life.

The female is the dangerous one. Her venom is supposedly fifteen times more potent than a prairie rattlesnake's, though she injects it in much smaller quantities. A glossy black marble on pointy, sleek, claw-tipped legs, she's most easily identified by the a vivid red hourglass on her underside. She only occasionally eats the male, who cautiously plucks at the web of a potential mate, sort of like a lyre, upon approach. Sometimes, she'll eat him without mating. She can save sperm from a single mating and lay several egg sacs, each with hundreds of eggs. She typically lives up to a year.

Still, at 12, I had seen just one or two in real life. I needed some serious field knowledge. I began to hunt black widows.

That's my problem. Someone says "Don't do X. X is very dangerous," and the first thought in my head is never Gee, maybe I should stay away from X; but rather I bet there's more to it! Imma go check it out right freaking now!

Only I don't think it's a problem at all. Rampant curiosity. It's the antidote to close-mindedness, to intellectual stagnation, and to being too much like all the other kids in the class. It certainly gives an introverted tomboy much with which to occupy her time. Years later, it's made me the coolest mom ever. (To eight-year-old boys, anyway. Sorry, parents.)

As a child, I began to find the occasional black widow. One thing I learned that no one wrote about: Sound is the best way to find them. The widows usually build their webs against a hole or shadowed nook and hide, which can make identification difficult. So I would check the web. I'd find a good strong web where a building met the ground, in a pile of debris, under a branch. I'd take a sturdy stick and pull apart a small section of the web. The black widow webs all had a distinctive rip and crackle. You just don't get that from boring old orb weavers. (An easier test: take a broom and sweep gently across the web. If the web doesn't break, you might have a black widow.)

Decades later, as a parent, I'm still fascinated. Our group is down to five now (it was six, but I'm pretty sure the smallest one was just wrapped up by the large female). They seem to have staked out their own "territories" -- the alpha and beta females near the lid, nearly always hanging upside down, the spindly male on the opposite end, and the two smaller ones foraging among the cricket husks or hanging a small distance from the male.

My son helps me feed them. We take them out each day, watch them in the sunlight, before he places their home gingerly back in the dark. He's cautious, but not scared. He's in love with black widows. He has questions now to which I have no answers. Questions I'd never considered. I am exceedingly proud.

I'd say "My work here is done," but you know it isn't.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

GoodyTwos Toffee

(Full disclosure: I wrote an article about this same shop this month. The business did not pay me, unless you count candy, which I guess you totally should if it's this good.)

More black widows soon, but first, something a little more palatable. OK, a lot more palatable, quite literally. Candy!

I didn't used to like toffee. I didn't really care one way or the other about it, I guess. I like the flavor, but the crunchy stuff sticks to the teeth so unpleasantly. It has that sort of texture, that profile, that just sets my teeth on edge (pun intended).

At least, I thought so until last month. I did a brief story on Scottsdale's GoodyTwos Toffee Company that's out this month, and they may have sent me home with enough toffee to feed several football teams. Or, you know, me, until I pulled into the driveway.

Because this stuff was in a new league. (I did manage to share, but it was a sacrifice.)

I remember when I was very young, after tasting semisweet chocolate chips for the first time, I wondered why couldn't they just make a whole candy bar out of THIS kind of chocolate? You can imagine my rapturous delight and shameful degree of indulgence when I discovered Hershey's Special Dark bars.

This was kind of like that. Wouldn't it be great, I always wondered, if they could make toffee, but without it cracking your teeth like, well, toffee?

"They" totally did. GoodyTwos mother-daughter team, Donna Gabrilson and Stacey Barnes, that is.

They won't tell their secret -- it has something to do with bringing the mix to just the right temperature -- but the toffee is crunchy but also kind of soft and delicate. Insert more superlatives here, if you like, but seriously, try this stuff if you get a chance. Their flavors are amazing. My husband favors the traditional and their peanut-butter-cup-topped one. My son loves their nutty twist toffee, made with macadamia nuts and almonds and covered in white chocolate. (I'm pretty sure he also loves telling anyone who will listen that he partakes of something made with tequila, but don't worry. It adds lightness to the toffee but not tequila-ness.)

The shop is just fun. Even the look. I never thought chartreuse walls could be so awesome. (My husband says I should say "bright green" for readers who, like him, recognize about six colors. Whatever. It's chartreuse.) The color blends so strikingly with the chocolate-brown and white accents that it's only after doing a 360 that you register the smells -- and oh. my. god. Before you know it you've scarfed down at least five tons of free toffee samples.

The ladies themselves are an absolute delight. Bubbly but smart, easygoing but professional. And they play off each other in a phenomenal way that struck such a chord with me, and I think I know why. In a million ways (they can cook, they run a business, they're not likely to be the first mother and daughter duo featured on What Not to Wear), Donna and Stacey are nothing whatsoever like my mom and me. Still, do you know how, when the chips are really down and you need a second opinion on a big-time decision, someone who will totally respect and get your take on things but will also tell you how the cow eats the cabbage? Someone who will be, for that moment, not your mom? You know how for most people, those people are not their moms? For Stacey, it totally is her mom, and she's that person for Donna. They haggle out business decisions as business partners -- and then they're right back to mother and daughter.

Countless times I've had a piece of writing I wasn't comfortable showing to anyone -- not my husband, not my writing friends -- but I needed an honest, smart person to argue with me and be right. That person is my mom. All-business, not mothery, but never really not my mom either. I'm not sure how Donna or my own mom do it, but it's a pretty cool trick.

Maybe I'll bring toffee next time I force ask my mom to edit something. I could eat a pound of their Sweet & Salty toffee each day and not tire of it, and I bet she could too.

Go get some toffee. (It's on on Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd. south of Via Linda, or you can use their website.) Or just stand in the shop and inhale. Tell 'em I sent you. Well, maybe not if you're just standing there smelling stuff. I wouldn't want people to think I'm weird. (OK. Yeah. I totally don't care about that. You can tell them then too.)

If you ever need to butter me up for some reason, this works. Just sayin'.