Archive for November, 2009

Play time with Ike and Tina…

Friday, November 27th, 2009

Our friends Mike and Susan have new kitties at home. I’m cat-sitting this weekend while they’re visiting family for Thanksgiving. When I checked on the kitties today, I snapped a few photos for the kids to enjoy until they get home:

Ike
Ike

Tina
Tina

Such sweet kitties!

Fertnal: Room Womb with a view…

Friday, November 27th, 2009

In our continuing effort to grow our family, Bill and I are teaming up with a great new doctor who’s going to help us attempt an in-vitro fertilization (IVF) cycle. The goal is to gather our oocytes and spermatocytes, and introduce them in a culture dish. If we’re lucky and they play well together, we’ll have an embryo (or two) to transfer into me, and if we’re luckier still, one will stay and grow awhile. The probability of all this culminating in a live baby is less than 30%, but that’s significantly better than we’ve done on our own.

beautiful boring uterusBefore moving forward, we’ve each had a battery of diagnostics to rule out possible challenges, including plumbing checks, hormone checks, cancer checks, STD checks, and writing checks. Most recently, I had a hysteroscopy to make sure my uterus looked healthy and free of unwanted growths. Using a tiny camera, Dr. M took a look around, snapped a few photos, and then gave me a guided tour of my uterus. She pronounced it “beautiful and boring,” which means I’m officially ready for occupancy:

Womb available to let. Limited-access, unfurnished, open-plan space with great circulation and all utilities. Roommate acceptable. Seeking short-term occupant(s). Ideal term nine months. Nonsmoker a must. No pets. Contact Bob to inquire.

I start shots the day after Thanksgiving. Here we go…

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 27th, 2009

Bill and I were delighted to host Thanksgiving for our immediate families again this year. Chuck and Jean came up from Galveston, Nancy came down from Conroe, Sarah came over from Belmont, and Chris and Shawn came from across town with their girls. Better still, Shawn volunteered both to roast the turkey and bring her famous flourless chocolate cake for dessert. Yum!

Izzy and Sierra
Izzy and Sierra (click for larger and here for another version)

Chris carried in the turkey
Chris carried in the turkey

Chuck and Izzy
Chuck and Izzy

Holzer-Blackwell family gathered
Assembled Holzer and Blackwell families (click for larger)

Shawn's chocolate cake
Shawnacy’s famous chocolate cake

chocolate cake stars

Much friendly conversation and yumminess was had by all!

While our dinner carried on long-standing traditions, our schedule was new. As Sarah’s dementia has advanced, she experiences a common effect called “sundowning.” Essentially, her cognition is best early in the day when she’s rested, and declines rapidly later in the day as she gets tired. Planning her schedule and ours accordingly is helpful for everyone involved.

So after 30+ years of evening Thanksgiving dinners, we’ve now done “dinner” at 2:00 pm twice. That means getting up earlier to finish cooking and prepping. But it also means that by 6 pm, the food was put away, the dishes were clean, the house was back in order, and Bill, Tibbs, and I were relaxing on the couch. Which was awesome. I don’t know how the rest of our family feels about it, but I’d love it if this midday timing became a new family tradition.

Thoughtful gifts for neighbors?

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

While I was cooking tonight, shortly after dark, I was surprised to hear a *knock! knock!* at the front door. When I turned on the porch light, I found one of our neighbors and his daughter. I stepped out to say hello and they presented me with a homemade sweet potato pie.

sweet potato pie

Again.

This is at least the third or fourth year of the last ten that they’ve brought us homemade pie. They’re nice people and valiant neighbors who have lived on our block longer than anyone. In recent years, we mostly encounter each other in passing, including an evening this summer when I prompted their girls to come out to enjoy a fleeting rainbow. We like each other, without quite making the effort to become friends. They’re Good Neighbors.

I sincerely appreciate that they think to give us pie, and it’s always really yummy pie, too. Yet it always catches me off guard, and I never have anything suitable to present in return. Which. Bugs. Me. There was a time when I contemplated making treats that we could have on hand to give as gifts, but there’s no place for such tasks on my to-do list as I try to simplify my life.

We can of course send them a simple thank you note. But I’d love some suggestions for other easy, thoughtful neighbor gifts. Any ideas?

Should we set aside habitat for sea polar bears?

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

While I have a strong personal desire never to encounter a bear up close and personal, I do think bears are awesome creatures that should continue to exist. Live and let live. I even like sea polar bears despite their tendency to eat penguins.

sea polar bear family
A family of sea polar bears, photo courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife

But the ability of sea polar bears to survive in the wild is in jeopardy because the arctic ice where they live is melting away. Regardless of whether you believe the seas are warming because of human-caused climate change, sun-caused radiation, cow-caused methane, or any other reason, the ocean is inarguably warming, and that’s leaving fewer places for sea polar bears to live. (Ocean warming is also jeopardizing fish stocks, coral, other ocean life forms, and tending to strengthen hurricanes that devastate coastal human habitats, but that rant will have to wait for a different blog entry.)

Sea polar bears (Ursus maritimus) were added to the threatened and endangered species list last year; two of the 19 remaining populations have just 2,000 to 3,000 bears left. Worldwide, there are less than 25,000 polar bears remaining.

However, under the Bush Administration, the Secretary of Interior failed to designate critical territory for the bears as required by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. According to this New York Times article, the US Fish & Wildlife Service is now proposing to set aside critical habitat for sea polar bears in Alaska and adjacent US territorial waters/ice.

polar bear territory
Polar bear range map courtesy of the New York Times

Designating this habitat as critical will mean that Fish & Wildlife must be consulted to make sure future federal agency activities do not destroy or adversely modify areas essential to polar bears. It will affect any action authorized, funded, or carried out by a federal agency that occurs anywhere in the 200,000 square mile area. Private land owners and private actions will not be affected.

Nonetheless, the state government of Alaska and several businesses are opposing this proposal because they argue that it will limit oil and gas operations and hurt Alaska’s economy. Personally, I’m not moved. I’m more concerned about protecting the bears.

submit commentsThe US Fish & Wildlife service is accepting public comments regarding the proposal through midnight on Monday, Dec 28, 2009. If you would like the government to protect habitat for polar bears, one option is to go sign the Sierra Club petition.

But I encourage you to visit the official US Fish & Wildlife docket in the regulations.gov portal, where you can submit your comments directly (docket FWS-R7-ES-2009-0042).

You can also mail comments on paper to:

Public Comments Processing Attn: FWS-R7-ES-2009-0042
Division of Policy and Directives Management
US Fish and Wildlife Service
4401 N FAIRFAX DR STE 222
ARLINGTON VA 22203-1610

Sorting out what to save…

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

As I mentioned a while back, I had more of my stuff still in Galveston than I remembered. After Hurricane Ike, about two dozen boxes that remained dry came north to rest on our porch and await handling.

kid clutter on the porch
Bob’s kid stuff cluttering the porch

Two weeks ago, I spent most of a cool, sunny Saturday going through the pile to sort and purge contents. Some of the boxes are obvious: my Barbie and other dolls; keepsakes from my senior year of high school; a game of Operation; several puzzles.

But a few of the boxes dated back to 1985, when we moved from Connecticut to Texas. I was 13 and I remember packing my room. I did okay with the obvious important things like books, clothes, and stuffed animals. But when it came to school papers, magazines, trinkets, etc… I wasn’t sure which to pack how and which to let go. When the moving van showed up and I wasn’t finished, some helpful grown up put the remaining contents of my room in boxes and loaded them on the van. A few of those boxes remained packed for 24 years… until now.

The array of contents inside was boggling: from treasures to trash and everything in between. I found a Lego set, a marker set, a Crayola art caddy, a couple of award certificates, and letters from favorite classmates. The coolest thing I liberated was my spirograph set.

spirograph designs
Some sample spirograph designs, courtesy of Wikipedia

But these “treasures” were stored amidst magazines, school worksheets, newspaper advertisements, hair scrunchies, and melty old crayons. It seems obvious now that it would have been easier to access the cool stuff if I’d expeditiously purged the junk. But that’s a skill I lacked at the time and am still improving two decades later.

I know many of you are well-organized and know just how to banish clutter. You’d never pack a box like these, or if you had to, you’d address it soon after. But for those of you who — like me — are still strengthening your clutter-banishing skills, here are two helpful resources I’ve come across and (re)read recently:

In Organizing from the Inside Out, Julie Morgenstern recommends these tactics for prioritizing what to save as you go:

I am a firm believer in the importance of saving memorabilia; letters, photographs, and certain objects can trigger memories that bring us joy and some perspective on who we are. The key is to keep it from becoming so volumnious that you have too much to enjoy. be selective and only keep memorabilia that have strong emotional or financial value to you. Then organize them so they can be easily accessed and a pleasure to look through, not a burden.

(snip)

Many kids (and parents!) get wrapped up in memories and have a hard time letting things go. Save the best of these memories and conserve space by doing the following:

Create a childhood memory box. Select a limited number of treasured baby clothes, favorite toys, and books, and store them in a cardboard banker’s box. Add to it over the years, but always keep the volume confined to what will fit in the box. You’ll be creating a wonderful time-capsule of treasures that will someday move easily from your house to your child’s first apartment.

Open a school-and-art archive. The best of your child’s schoolwork and artwork can also be saved in a single banker’s box, outfitted with a pocket folder for every year of school. During the year, all of your child’s potential treasures can go into a plastic crate on the closet floor. Then, in June, spend an hour or two sorting through the crate, picking only as many highlights as will fit in a folder. by the end of high school, you’ll have a wonderful, hand-picked history of your child’s development.

Design a memory book. For those borderline gems that you ultimately decide to get rid of, you might appease your child by taking pictures of them before tossing and compile them in a book. This is especially helpful if you have an industrious, creative child on your hands who is churning out more three-dimensional objects than you have room to display. Let your child compose some accompanying text and give the book a title like “Wendy’s Artistic Creations” or “Philip’s Best Buildings.”

That’s good advice going forward. Then, for those of us who didn’t purge and prioritize every year along the way, and now have some catching up to do, Cindy Glovinsky suggests this approach in One Thing at a Time:

30. Rate your memorabilia.

One of the reasons we keep Things is to serve as reminders of the past. Alas, for some of us, the reminders crowd out the present, clogging up our space and, ironically, losing their meaning due to overcrowding and underappreciation. Systematically rating your memorabilia may help you to gradually let go of those items that have little meaning for you so that you can more eastily find and enjoy the ones that are particularly precious.

Go to an office supply store and buy several packages of self-sticking dots in different colors. Do a memorabilia scan throughout your home. Each time you come to a memorabilia object, stick a dot on it:

  • If it’s an item of great personal meaning to you — an item you’d try to rescue in a fire — use a red dot.
  • If it’s not that precious to you, but you like the item and/or frequently use it, give it a yellow dot.
  • If you feel nothing at all when you look at the object and rarely use it, a green dot.
  • If you feel angry, bitter, or hurt when you look at the item, use a blue dot.

(snip)

When you’ve finished rating all your memorabilia, let them be. You’ve accomplished the first stage of letting go, which is differentiation. Wait two weeks, then dispose of the green-dot Things, those about which you feel little or nothing. These will be the easiest to let go. Wait two more weeks, and get rid of the blue-dot objects, the icky reminders. Take them out on trash day and watch the truck drive them away, along with the anger and bitterness and pain. Then go inside, take off the red and yellow dots, and enjoy your memorabilia. Display or store the items. If necessary, take steps to preserve them. Most of all, feel their comfort and value, which will be all the richer because you’ve examined your feelings, and saved only what you truly want and need.

I’ve included these two excerpts because they’re relevant to my ongoing task on our porch. But both books are full of excellent, actionable strategies for organizing everything from kitchens and offices to attics and garages. If you know someone who’d like to have better access to their treasures, I highly recommend these books.

Making a great impression…

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

Back in September, I spent a Saturday morning doing one of the coolest things our Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC) does: leading our educational freight rail tour. We partnered with Rice Design Alliance to take a busload of urban infrastructure fans around Houston’s Fifth Ward and East End to show them freight rail like they’ve never seen it before.

This tour is the brain child of fellow Rice alum Christof Spieler, and he assembled the tour materials and delivers the running commentary. I recruit our guest speakers and make sure tour day logistics go off without a hitch. We make a great team, and we get rave reviews every time.

rail tracks
Rail tracks on the Englewood hump

tour at Tower 26
Three trains passed through tower 26 while we were there

Englewood yard tower
The control tower at Englewood hump yard

Christof, Ed, and Wade
Christof, Judge Emmett, and Wade Battles poring over a rail map

Previous speakers have included City Council members and executives from Union Pacific railroad and the Port of Houston. This time, I recruited Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. He’s another Rice alum, a former state representative, and a transportation consultant. He’s a smart guy and he did a super job on our tour.

Afterward, Ed Emmett stayed for lunch with us at Ninfa’s on Navigation. We talked through a ton of transportation topics, but he also asked me a couple of pointed questions about how I earn a living and whether I would consider working for an organization other than CTC. I knew from Christof that Emmett’s director of transportation initiatives was retiring soon, and I was positioned well to go after becoming her replacement. A subsequent email from Emmett made it clear that he was considering whether I might be the person he’s looking for.

What a quandary! I’ve no doubt that I’d be effective in that role, and I’d learn a lot from a seasoned pro like Emmett. Further, working for county government is recession proof, and I wouldn’t have to worry about fundraising anymore.

But I’d have to give up a lot in order to work for the county. As a leader of CTC, I mostly set our agenda; if I worked for the County Judge, he would. Worst, my ability to advocate against the Grand Parkway, a proposed fourth ring road around Houston through mostly vacant and environmentally sensitive land, would be compromised. The Parkway is a county project and Emmett is it’s most-vocal booster. It actually occurred to me that Emmett might be considering me solely to neutralize his opposition. Finally, I’d have to wear a suit everyday and resume commuting downtown.

I’m really gratified that Emmett was interested. It felt good to be sought! But I concluded that the drawbacks outweighed the benefits and decided not to pursue the option. This week, I ran into the guy Emmett ultimately hired: a young, eager Republican politico who’s worked for both city council members and transportation consultants. Rich isn’t as transportation savvy as I am, but he’ll fit the county culture well. Better him than me! Further, he thinks of me as a knowledgeable ally, which will serve CTC a lot better than if I’d gone to work for the man.

Sierra outing to Columbia bottomland forest!

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

One key element of the advocacy work I do relates to sustainable land use: enabling people to live close to where they work and vice versa reduces the energy requirements of daily living. Focusing new development near existing development centers also reduces encroachment on natural habitat nearby, which protects wildlife and creates beautiful places to play.

But living in the center of Houston — one of the sprawliest cities in the nation — I don’t get out into the woods very often. That’s why I joined my friend Brandt on Saturday for a Sierra Club outing to go explore the bottomland forest near the Columbia river in Brazoria county Texas, and took my niece Sierra along, too.

Columbia, Texas

In-car entertainment
Neither Sierra nor I especially enjoy long car trips, and it took a while to traverse the 65 miles from our neighborhood out of the city and into the country. But we had fun singing along with the Lilo & Stitch soundtrack on the way down, and interjections of “Are we there yet?” were soon replaced by “Look! Cows!/Deer!/Hawk!/Mare and foal!” etc. We had even more fun singing along with Trout Fishing in America’s “Big Trouble” album on the way home, which made Sierra giggle out loud repeatedly, much to my delight.

Otto tract
When we got to the site, we were met by Mike Lange, a land manager with the US Fish & Wildlife service. Mike has spent the last 15 years acquiring large, unspoiled parcels near Houston to add to the National Wildlife Refuge system. He led our group into the Otto tract, a forested site he has been working with the family to acquire for ten years and closed just two weeks ago. The Otto tract is now public park land, but there’s no sign, no parking lot, and no trails save those made by deer and feral hogs. We just parked off the road and followed Mike in.

hiking into the Otto tract
Aside from this powerline easement, we were in forest

Sierra and Brandt
Sierra listened eagerly to Brandt and the other naturalists


Sierra unabashedly handled this toad and other critters

The 1,110 acre site is crossed by Linville bayou, a wooded waterway that’s home to pretty cypress trees and loads of wildlife. Further downstream, the Matagorda County drainage district has been systematically clearing the bayou and turning it into a channelized ditch, which is terrible. Trees and grasses improve detention, improve water quality, and lessen downstream flooding; removing them makes things worse, not better. Fortunately, this mile and a half of bayou is now safe. Sierra spotted an anhinga (which is not a crane), found a turtle shell, and we all got to see an aligator.

Linville bayou
This stretch of Linville bayou is still natural and undisturbed

turtle shell
Sierra found a hollow turtle shell and several of its scutes

aligator
This alligator stirred to get a better look at us but didn’t approach

cypress tree knees
Elegant cypress trees show their knees amidst duckweed

About 90 minutes in, we gathered at a fallen tree for (first) lunch, a potty stop, and a group photo. While I considered turning back at this point, Sierra said she wanted to keep going, so we stayed with the group. Before we were done, we saw myriad tree fungi, giant burr oak acorns, grasshoppers, feral hog wallows, crawfish chimneys, and I finally learned to recognize poison ivy.

Our wonderful hike had only two downsides. First, it was impossible to avoid crashing through spider webs — which invariably made Sierra squeal — except by walking directly behind someone else who crashed through them before you. We talked about the difference between “scary” and “annoying” and whether another web really warranted another squeal or just a simple “blech.”

golden silk orb weaver spider
Golden silk orb-weaver spiders like this one were huge

Second, we did a lot of stooping and bending which was hard on my back. Constructing a trail would address both of these challenges, but would make the place less special. I’m glad we got to hike it as is.

Big Pond
For (second) lunch, we got back in our cars and followed Mike into the Big Pond unit of the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles away.

Sierra in a Big Pond field
Sierra munching apple and enjoying butterflies in the field

After lunch, Sierra borrowed my camera and snapped several great people shots.

Brandt
My friend Brandt is a Sierra Club leader

Bob
Bob at Big Pond

Mike Lange
Mike is doing fantastic and underappreciated work for US Fish & Wildlife

Hudson Woods
Before we headed back to the city, Mike took us over to the Hudson Woods unit on FM 521. Mike acquired this site in 2004 and unlike the places we spent the morning, Hudson Woods is now open to the public, so we can come hike here without him. It includes a cool oxbow lake with an ADA-compliant and stroller-friendly boardwalk up to a viewing platform. There’s another 5 miles of trails around the lake, and there’s an island in the middle that’s home to lots of migratory birds in season. It also has a restroom.

Hudson Woods pecan tree
Hudson Woods includes some huge pecan trees as well as oaks

oxbow lake
The oxbow lake is home to bass, other fish, and migratory birds

Duck stamps for acquisitions
As I said above, Mike Lange works for the US Fish & Wildlife service, acquiring unspoiled parcels like these to add to our national wildlife refuge system. I would love to see a lot more places like this set aside for us all to enjoy. But because of encroaching development, this land is ever more expensive for the government to acquire and protect for future generations. For example, the Otto tract where we hiked fetched $2,500/acre or $2.8 million. Mike expects the next parcel he’s working on to cost upwards of $3 million.

federal duck stampUnfortunately, the revenue stream is not growing similarly. Acquisition of wetlands for the National Wildlife Reserve System is funded by the Federal Duck Stamp program, created in 1934. Even though 98% of stamp sales go to the program, that only generates about $45 million a year nationwide, which is great but doesn’t go very far. So while I have no need of a license to hunt birds, I will nonetheless visit the post office and pick up a 2009 duck stamp, which will convey free admission to any US wildlife refuge and add $14.70 to the pot. I hope a few of you will consider doing the same.

Out of Africa, and NO stimulus for golf carts!

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Thursday night, Bill and I visited his mom in Conroe for a potluck dinner and a recap of Nancy’s recent trip to Africa. She spent three weeks in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa with Overseas Adventure Travel’s Ultimate Africa tour. She visited Victoria Falls, slept in open air huts, and saw an astonishing array of wildlife… all with just 26 pounds of luggage. It sounded amazing!

Nancy recaps Africa
Nancy talked us through her recent Africa trip

After dinner and photos, we chatted with Nancy’s neighbors. They all live in a suburban golf course development, and most of them own electric golf carts. One of her friends told us gleefully that they would soon be getting a new golf cart, and that our grandkids would have to pay for it, thanks to Obama’s stimulus. Bill and I listened in skeptical horror as she explained that as long as her new golf cart had side mirrors, turn signals, and seatbelts, it would qualify for the electric vehicle tax credit, and they were eager to get their $5,400.

Thankfully, she was misinformed. As this guy explains, golf carts and neighborhood electric vehicles aren’t the same thing. Golf carts are designed primarily for off-road use. Neighborhood electric vehicles are engineered primarily for on-street use. And the IRS regulations make it clear that matters. Phew!