Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday 5: Hazards in insect photography

This Friday, tribulations I've suffered because of my incessant need to photograph bugs.

I'm smart enough to avoid rattlesnake and black widow bites, to almost always use sunscreen, and I'm never without water. I'm also pretty photography-savvy. There are real issues with photography, like legal considerations; and very real hazards involved with wilderness activities, like wildlife safety and dehydration. These aren't those things.

1. Bites

Bug bites, mosquito bites, bee stings, ant bites, ant bites, ant bites, and - oh yeah - ant bites. I've had them all. A necrotic bite that got all gooey and whitish. So many mosquito bites that they glommed together in a big amoeba-like mass and impeded my vision. I currently have two socks of ant bites, acquired after I got away from the anthill. Apparently they diverted their path just to snack on me.One of the most frequently Googled terms on this computer is "treatment for [name an insect] bites." All of this, while they're leaving my husband and son totally alone.

2. Trespassing

And going off the tour path. And creeping out playground patrons. I'm a huge follower of "Leave No Trace." I never trample off-trail wilderness. And I would never purposely trespass -- not much, anyway. However, I have no such qualms about wandering away from a tour group without warning, lying on the ground, walking over to a park bench (while it's occupied) to stare at its underside, or maybe sort of inching into what might be someone's property. In every case there's no evident reason for my actions, unless others also notice the tiny damselfly or spider clinging to my target. Usually, people probably just think I'm nuts.

3. Stupid-looking sunburn

I'm pasty white. I live in the desert, with something like 350 sunny days a year. You'd think I'd put two and two together by now. But no; at least once a year I forget the sunscreen and end up burned in the most ridiculous patterns. The worst part is, it always looks so dumb. I'm never lying out or even walking upright, so it's not an even tan burn. Camera-strap line is a given. Once I had the silhouette of a butterfly net memory-burned in my thigh. Last time, I not only had a farmer's tan, I had candy-stripe arms from the folds in my skin, as I'd crouched for hours holding my camera out under a harsh sun and over a reflective pond. Real smart.

4. Foot leeches, hair spiders, eyeball gnats, and more

I'm absolutely myopic when I'm photographing insects. I think it's one of my favorite things about the practice -- the full-scale world shrinks down to a single inches-long red damselfly, perched on a blade of marsh grass. It gazes down the length of the blade at me, and if I angle myself just right, it looks like a massive green path leading up to some big beautiful alien. Or the hairs on a dragonfly make a silver forest, shooting up from a powdery blue terrain. I'm so close I actually have to shift my focus to see the giant compound eye, all thirty thousand facets slowly turning my way. And then, in a second, the whole scene vanishes.

I'm so focused on this hidden world that I tend to forget the real one still at work around me. Ironically, it's usually other parts of the microcosm that get me. One time, I'd been crouched in the lake so long, my feet buried in the silky mud, that I had to uproot them with a wet, sucking, vacuum-release sound when my husband finally dragged me to the shore. I sat down to put on my shoes, and realized that the bits of "mud" all over my feet were actually dozens and dozens of tiny leeches, busy hooking themselves into my feet.

Another time I was focused on a dragonfly a few feet away, and failed to notice the network of spiderwebs inches away. There were probably twenty spiders in the huge web, most of which went for a brief but exciting ride as I danced around and flung them from my hair. (Evidently I have a talent for this sort of thing.) The other night, two gnats landed on my eyeball. Prying my eyelid open only seemed to work them even deeper in. I fished around with my finger for some time and extracted part of a carcass. So there's still a gnat body in my skull somewhere.

It's never the really big things -- I never lose track of my son, I remember to drink water occasionally, and I've yet to wander off a cliff. I guess my brain has a fail safe in there somewhere.

5. Having people think I'm totally insane

I've been mistaken for a Dumpster diver (flies), someone abnormally interested in the variety of drugstore condoms (camera waterproofing), a night-stalking weirdo (moths), a loiterer (parking lot lights have the best bugs), or just generally a crazy person, as I crawl around, pockets bulged out with insect paraphernalia, sometimes through the mud or dirt, sometimes at night, often in front of others. I've had to explain why I wanted the thin-lidded food containers (air holes!), why the middle of summer in Arizona rocks (dragonflies!), or why, again, no. I just heard they make good, inexpensive water proofers, OK? Also, I actually considered a fanny pack once. I think that cinches it.

Why do I go to such ridiculous lengths? Because these guys are ridiculously gorgeous. If there aren't many other takers then, sure, I'll muck around and show off the results. And! Come see me tomorrow at Veteran's Oasis Park for their second annual Dragonfly Day. I'll have some photos, and there should be a lot of other cool dragonfly-themed goodies, crafts, and (if you come early) walks. The festivities run from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., and the last walk departs at 9.

I'll hog insect loving if I must. But you should get out there too. Dragonflies are still in season, and they're great "gateway" insects!

I'll even help with de-leeching, de-spidering, or drugstore visits if you want.

Monday, July 25, 2011

School's (not) out

Well, it's over. Summer vacation officially ended last night (a little too late, despite the "strict" rule that late nights ended Saturday night), after one more cuddle, one more X-Men episode, one more pizza slice and giant homemade brownie.

The end of summer vacation sucks, and not just because it's over. It's because it's almost over, and all of a sudden you realize all the things you haven't done, like some weirdo who goes to San Diego and only realizes on the last day of the trip that you forgot to visit the zoo, Sea World, and the beach. We didn't go to the pool. We didn't take as many hikes as I wanted before weather got too ghastly to walk even in the evening. We missed thunderstorms, stuck inside as I worked and he stared at a video game. We didn't even take our camping trip (as luck would have it, my husband's first streak of multiple days off is - you guessed it - this week, while school's in session).

So at some point I decided, enough with multitasking my son. I dropped everything else for a while. The second half of summer break, as brief as it was, was packed. We went to the arboretum and the preserve and the mountains (a few different ones). We went to a pond and spent all day staring at damselflies. We actually got into an argument about what species a particular breeding pair might be. (We were both wrong, but I think we were mostly tickled that someone else in this world wants to even have that argument.) We went to the wave pool, where he braved the water slide for the first time and we rode the waves until I was motion sick. We went ice skating, which is one of the first things I've seen him really suck at -- and persevere anyway. He improved. We went again yesterday. I got blisters from ill-fitting skates, but it was worth it.

We went to the lake and the park and the water park. We began to know when the light's going to be right -- just exactly perfect -- even if we're cooped up inside, just from how the backyard wall glows an intense rosy orange. We used those times to dash outside and sit on the swing set in the fiery light. He'd swing against the sunset while I weighed the wobbling apparatus down with my fat ass. How is it I never realized how cool it is to own our own swing set?

He came with me to my photography gallery opening and was genuinely thrilled. We did sparklers in the backyard and stood in the dusty night wind to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. I watched his independence grow. He can walk alone to send the mail, which here is a few blocks away. (Our upstairs window is pretty good for spying, but he doesn't need to know that.) A herd of sweaty, noisy kids stampeded through our house more than a few times. He read a few books, and I'm not talking the little kid ones. I steal his books when he's not looking, these days. He's getting kind of cool now. He made up a smart-ass, gloomy "School's Back From Summer" riff on "School's Out." I didn't even know he knew that song.

Still, vacation can't last forever. Nothing gets done. It was getting ridiculous, how little time and space I had. My son and I would be going all day, until he went to bed, at which point my husband got up. We were together until he went to work, I went to bed (very late), slept far too few hours, and I was up at the crack of dawn (even in summer), with the kid ready to go again. Rinse, lather, repeat, crash from exhaustion.

Now, he's back in school. I can think. I can have a few minutes to myself. No more herd of sweaty kids eating all my food and throwing my electronics at one another. No more demands to go to ten activities a day, and can we stop at the park on the way home and also can my friend come over and if he does can he stay the night and can we have pizza and when are you going to bake the cookies, anyway? No more sunsets at the park, at least until the weekend. I can breathe a bit. Time to get stuff done. Yes. Finally.

Does it have to be over already?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday 5: Five Arizona things not found on Arizona Writer

OK, so I know I said I'm starting a Friday 5 feature, in addition to getting my butt in gear on the Species posts, but seriously, have you met my kid? Add to that the fact that it's summer break, and here's a breakdown of each day's time:
In "Working" you have to include my published writing and photography, all the background work those both entail, the occasional attempt I make toward housework, and blogging. Since deadlines and the garbage collector don't wait for me to get my act together, Friday 5 took a break. But it's back, because I've been asked a few times about the scope of "Arizona Writer" ("Why didn't you cover X?"), so I decided to make a post about it.

Five Totally Relevant Things You Probably Won't Read About On This Site:

1. Politics
If you know me, and definitely if you've shared a meal, drink, or Facebook thread with me; you know I have political opinions. On some issues, I have Opinions. Seriously. However, I just don't (usually) see them as the purview of this blog. Immigration. Guns. Education. These are insanely important issues, but they aren't "Arizona" issues, even when we're in the unfortunate glare of the spotlight. They're everyone issues.

2. Stuff everyone else is covering
If I do a post about Antelope Canyon, or the Grand Canyon, or Sedona, you can bet I'll find something weird and dorky and cheesy with which to be obsessed. I'm the kid who went to the African veldt exhibit and spent half an hour watching the anthill on the sidewalk. I see things differently, which I think is probably my strength and weakness. So, go find the popular literature about the Grand Canyon to plan your trip. I'll tell you about the tiny purplish frogs, secret waterholes, or the story my friend shared about hiding from a horror-movie noise that turned out to be a bison licking a fireside guitar.

3. Celebrities
Yeah. I really just don't care.

4. Sports
See #3. I got home from a day at ASU the one day, and complained at length to my husband and his friend about the insane -- insane even for Mill Avenue -- traffic. Where were all the people coming from? My husband and his buddy just about throttled me. Apparently there was a game against U of A, and a few people thought it was kind of a big deal. Psh. I was meeting with some astronomers. Waaay more important, if you ask me.

5. Bad news
I won't say never on this one. But I seek out things to explore and love about my home, so even when I do write about bad news, I usually have a "how to preserve the good stuff" slant to it. Finding the diamond-in-the-rough (OK, turquoise-in-the-dirt) good bits I think really is something that's particularly well suited to Arizona. It looks rough and harsh and dirty ... and the land too, not just the people. But then you round a bend on a road you didn't mean to take (and trust me, I'm a master at that technique) and all of a sudden cliffs and mountains peel away on either side of the car, and huge bluffs loom in the distance, and a veritable sea of saguaros looms in a canyon right beneath you ... this is Arizona. And, OK, so some of that stuff is in other states too. It's everyone issues, just like the politics. But the things here are usually the things that Arizona does best -- bugs, clouds, mountain drives, murderously high heat, incredible views. That's what I had in mind when I named the site.

Well, that, and funny stories about my Arizona-based foibles. Next up: Either the time I got lost in the mountains and ended up drinking leeches, the time my husband and I ran away from an elk, or the time I pushed my mom off a cliff by accidentally imitating a rattlesnake.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Polar Ice, or The Day We Managed Not to Injure Ourselves Spectacularly

If you know me, you know I come from a clumsy family. A pathologically clumsy family. I've shut my head in a car door multiple times. My brother did that rake-in-the-head thing for real. My sister fell out of a tree and slashed her leg open. (I fell out of a tree too, and broke my arm into a bunch of pieces, but I already made fun of myself.)

Sadly for him, my son is continuing our storied tradition of brain-body miscommunication. Nevertheless, I decided to go ice skating with him last month. Our experience, published in this month's Times Publications, follows.


This month, I thought it would be a good idea to take a mother-son trip for a little exercise, cool temperatures, bruised legs, and bruised egos. We went ice skating for the first time.

Every family has a legacy. Some families or bake. Others are great story tellers. In my family, we have a legacy of supreme klutziness. Skating of any kind brings it out. My two main memories involving skating as a kid were shuffling slowly forward in Fisher Price skates, and my dad “helping” my little sister skate by falling on her as he tried (ineptly) to skate, all six and a half feet of him towering (and running) over her.

Ice skating? Please. Adding a hard slippery surface to what's already a gamble of an outing at best -- right. My one and only real attempt to ice skate, while visiting family in Western New York, treated me to the demoralization that is watching three-year-olds zip by on ice skates while I barely remain upright. (OK, fine. I didn't remain upright.)

Still, it always looks so fun, and it’s an awesome way to cool off. I figured, maybe I’ve magically gotten better! And I was sure my son, David, would love it. We dug out some warm clothing, and set off for Polar Ice Gilbert.

The ice rink, located in Gilbert’s Crossroads Park, is one of the chain’s three. They have locations in Chandler and Peoria as well, and all three have regular public skating hours in addition to parties, school trips, hockey camps and more. We checked the calendar before heading out, as public skating hours vary, and nabbed an afternoon session.

Walking from a 107-degree-day to a blast of air in the 50s was nearly worth the price of admission on its own. Still, David looked dubious as we got our skates and headed for the South Pole (their public skating rink; the “North Pole” had a hockey team practicing).

I shoved his feet in the skates and buckled them in. He stared at me, unmoving.

My son is a trooper. He can hike, rock climb, swim, and help me catch scorpions. However, the prospect of standing on two blades strapped to his feet was too much for a moment. I strapped on my own skates and walked around to show him. He slowly stood up. I exaggerated how easy it was to lope around in skates. (This may have been a mistake, since my little display nearly sent me careening into a group of small children. At least I'm not six and a half feet tall.)

He took a few hesitant steps.

Figuring that was the best I would get for the moment, I stowed our things in a locker and dragged/led him to the ice. We stepped out on the ice, I slowly glided forward, and he clutched the wall, refusing to move an inch.

There were skaters of every skill level imaginable around us. Kids about three or four zoomed by like pros, groups of teens and adults skated by in a cautious glide, a girl in the center of the rink showed off Axel jumps. And, perhaps because this is the desert and we’re not all born ice skaters, several other skaters clutched the wall or their companions. Nearly everyone -- except those kids and the figure skater -- fell at least once that I saw.

David decided he would venture out in phases. First, it was all wall-clutching lurching. Then, he let go of the wall, but only if I held his hand. (I tried to tell him holding MY hand wasn’t exactly his best bet.) Finally, he shuffled, incrementally, until he’d skated a full revolution on his own. He was ecstatic.

Then he fell. I cringed.

Amazingly, this made him feel better. He fell -- the thing he’d be dreading -- and he was perfectly fine. From there, he took off.

Well, he did if you can call “gliding forward at the speed of a geriatric tortoise” taking off. The point is, he loved it. He ending up completing ten full revolutions on his own (he kept careful count). He fell three times. I fell once, much to his delight. And we had a blast.

So, fine, we probably won’t start a family tradition of grace and figure skating prowess. But, in the words of my son “This was just as fun as the water park, and even more exciting!” I think that’s a ringing endorsement.


Ice skating in the Valley

Check out one of the rinks below for a fun break from the heat. (Pubic skating times vary at many locations, so call ahead or check the website for hours before visiting.)

Polar Ice

$8.50 ages 13 and older, $7.50 ages 12 and under; skate rental $3.50.

Chandler: 7225 W Harrison St.
(480) 598-9400

Gilbert: 2305 E Knox Rd.
(480) 503-7080

Peoria: 15829 N 83rd Ave.
(623) 334-1200

Alltel Ice Den

$7 adults, $5 seniors/ages 6-15 (skate rental extra), $5 ages 5 and under (includes skate rental); $4 skate rental; $3 skate trainers for children.

9375 E Bell Rd., Scottsdale
(480) 585-RINK (7465)

Oceanside Ice Arena

$7 adults, $5 ages 17 and under; $3 skate rental.

1520 N McClintock Dr., Tempe
(480) 941-0944

Arcadia Ice Arena

$8 adults, $7 ages 12 and under; skate rental included.

3853 E Thomas Rd., Phoenix
(602) 957-9966

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My gallery, and other things to see at BTA

Good news, everyone!

Not really. I just wanted an excuse to use this.

Decent news, anyway: My gallery exhibit, though it opened in 5,000,000-degree heat, saw a good handful of visitors, including many of you, which makes me super-giddy-happy. Even better, folks are asking questions about my photos, and even better than THAT, they're questions I can answer and whose answers interest people. Selling a handful of photos + geeking out about spiders, dragonflies, and camera equipment = good times.

You can still come! The photos are up all through July and August at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. If you see something you like, but you'd like it in a different size, contact me, and we can definitely make it happen.

If you do go, check out the events first: It's hot, but the arboretum's got a few cool ones lined up. Try July 9. If you don't want to move much in the heat (it's cooling all the way down to the low 100s, maybe, but it's not quite sweater weather yet), they have a bird sit coming up, rather than the usual bird walk. Sit in the Demonstration Garden, and let the birds come to you. There has been a yellow-breasted chat there for some time, they're sure to have some Lucy's and yellow warblers, and there's sure to be a bunch of others I'm not thinking of at the moment. It's from 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. Check it out.

On the same day, the ever-popular "Wild Man Phil" Rakoci is leading another Learn Your Lizards guided walk. The walks are always popular, and for good reason. The walk is at 8 a.m., so the heat won't be killing you quite yet.

And, if you're there, maybe check out some photos in the Visitor's Center. Just a suggestion. It's not like I'm going to drop any visual hints in this post.

H I N T !