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Zille has a great big brain, Tink has a great big ego, Beowulf has a great big heart.

Because Zille is quite possibly the smartest and most perfectest dog to ever come out of Blackthorn Kennel, I like to randomly pick new things to teach her. She soaks things up like a sponge and then she is all “my learnings, let me show you them!” For instance, it took her 5 tries to grasp the Window Test under the no-reward protocol[1].

Having a dog who is really bright and also really willing to work is a novel and fun experience for me. Tink, for instance, is pretty damn bright but she also has a great big ego, so she’s pretty sure that her ideas are better than my ideas. This particularly pertains to my ideas that require her to do something like sit still for more than 15 seconds when there’s a great wide world for her to sniff, or at least a cat for her to suck on. I have not been able to hit upon a single reward that she considers worth a 30 second stay, although she will go 20 seconds for the promise of tuggy with her stuffed snake.

Zille, on the other hand, is not only nearly ego-free, but she really wants the ball. What ball? Any ball. She doesn’t care. She just wants that spherical object, preferably thrown. She’s a perfect storm of intelligence, lack of ego, and an easily manipulated drive. Zille wants to be a Good Dog (lack of ego), she Wants The Ball (toy drive), and she has the brains to figure out what you’re telling her really, really quickly. So tonight we worked on two new skills during fetchy: go out! and STOP!

“Go out!” means “Move 10 feet away in the direction I’m pointing, and then face me for further direction.” “STOP!” is pretty self-explanatory, it means “Freeze in your tracks.” So far I’m just working “STOP!” when she’s approaching, because then I can use body language (lean forward, put a hand out like a traffic cop) in addition to my voice to cue her. I’d like to work it until I can use it to stop her motion in any direction, though. You can see how it can come in handy, especially combined with “go out!” and at some point I intend to add “right” and “left” in there. I don’t have a deep need per se to be able to direct my dog around like a radio controlled car, but Zille’s big ol brain needs SOMETHING to do and I can see situations where it would come in handy.

I wish I could find a way to make Tink as thrilled about learning things as Zillekins is, with Tink’s horrible vision and the likelihood that one day she’s going to quite suddenly go blind entirely when her right retina detaches, it would be fantastically useful to be able to give her verbal cues on where to go.

I don’t know if these differences are breed differences (Doberman vice German Shedder), breeding differences (a breeder who does not focus on mental soundness and ability vice one who does), or personal differences (Tink vice Zille); it’s likely that it’s a combination of all three. And it’s not that I don’t cherish my clever, hard-headed, dramatic Tink for who she is. She will always be my best buddy, but it’s nice to have a dog who doesn’t constantly ask me “why?” when I ask her to do something.

Beowulf doesn’t ask why, but he doesn’t have a great big brain, just a willing heart and the same lack of ego Zille has. He is, however, way more sensitive to disapproval from people than Zille is, and she’s pretty handler-sensitive. He will learn, but you have to break things down very small and be very patient with him, and if you sound anything but pleased then he wilts and gets confused. He’s a Good Dog and an easy one to get along with, but at the same time it’s great to have a dog who mostly grasped “STOP!” in one fifteen minute session and never once wondered if she were doing things wrong or looked as if she were getting confused.

I supposed I’ve rambled enough. I couldn’t really help it, it’s been a great week with the dogs, who have been exceptionally well-behaved and pleasant to live with. I’m probably jinxing myself saying that, and tonight and tomorrow they will decide to be absolutely awful because even the best relationships have their rocky periods when epic games of Bitey Face Ruler Of The Futon are played endlessly at all hours, but what the heck. I got some Good Dogs, y’all.


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Science never ceases to amaze me

Cat Brain: A Step Toward the Electronic Equivalent. Science discovered cats are 83 times faster at cognitive tasks than our current best supercomputer, and decides to build a computer that works like a cat’s brain.

This can only end in tears. I’m picturing success, after many years, only to find that the computer only does what it wants to do, when it wants to do it, and demands food, sunbeams, and petting before it will even consider ignoring your request.

Tip of the hat to Rinalia at For the Pit Bulls, who found the article.

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One of those days…

I have spent a good chunk of the day arguing with FedEx, who by the way is so totally useless it’s absolutely amazing they manage to stay in business but anyhow. What with one thing and another, I forgot to buy dog food on the way home. Which I discovered when I tried to feed the dogs at 1730. Whoops.

Time to improvise! Luckily I had two chunks of rabbit from Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow[1] in the freezer, so there were Beowulf and Zille taken care of. Rabbit, however, gives Tink the runs and I have been negligent in ordering other chunks of raw animal. But poking around in the fridge, I did find two little filet mignon my Dad had sent along with Mom last time she came up.

Well, I couldn’t let Tink go hungry, now could I? So yes. Tink had two little filet mignons for dinner, still frozen, and a raw marrow bone from Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow while the other two got their big chunks of rabbit. And hopefully tomorrow I will remember to stop and buy dog food. But since I was thinking about it, I’ve just ordered more rabbit, meaty beef bones, and turkey necks and turkey chunks for emergency dog food or those times I need to buy myself some Good Dog Time.

I’d say I fail as a dog owner, but they’re getting chickenrice for breakfast, which they love, and they thought rabbit and steak made a FANTASTIC meal tonight. So I guess it’s a win, really.


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Another happy ending

I didn’t make it to Appomattox today, sadly. I have however gotten some stuff done around the house, including playing with my shiny new toy letterpress setup, but that’s not the real news.

The real news is that SpareKitty has made it to her new home safely. The last update from her new person’s Twitter: “Home! She’s actually *thrilled* with her new, huge, room–ALL for her. She’s run around it and marked everything as HERS, Fuck Off!”

I was sad to let her go but definitely happy she’s gone to a good person and a good home, and she will be safe and warm and have her kittens somewhere I won’t have to worry about keeping newly mobile kittylings away from very large, very inquisitive dogs. It’s a good feeling all around, and I can’t wait to hear about her babies.

So far that makes the score Andrea 3, Forces Of Chaos Contributing To Keep Sweet Cats Who Find Andrea Homeless: 0.

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Kitty is traveling tonight on a plane. I can see the red tail lights…

Although she’s not headed for Spain. In about an hour, Spare Kitty MC03F and I will depart for Dulles to meet up with her new owner. He is a kind-hearted soul and also possibly just as much of a nutbar about critters as I am, given that he is flying in around 1800 and departs around 2200 with his new kitty, who will hopefully not give birth en route to her new home.

It’s bittersweet because on the one hand I know she’s going to a great home where she will get the best of care and I won’t have to rehome her kittens, but on the other I have of course become attached to her (it doesn’t take me long) and I will miss out on kittens.

She’s put on a little weight while she’s here and I swear gotten bigger, not just more massively pregnant. Her coat feels better, and even massively pregnant she’s willing to play a little bit. Her litter box habits have been impeccable, and she auto-purrs if you touch her. She’s really a fantastic kitty, and I will miss her a bunch. But I know in the end I can’t keep every friendly cat who comes asking for shelter. I’m just glad this one has found a good and safe place to go and have her kittens.

Keep your fingers crossed, meanwhile, that her trip to her new home goes well. I’m sending her off with a harness and leash, some toys, some treats, her food, a towel, and some puppy pads in case she has a desperate moment in her carrier.

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Six Word Stories

Six word stories are just that: stories, told in six words exactly. No more, no fewer. Here’s how this all started. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it involves Hemingway, and not being fond of his works I am inclined to agree that his six word story is the best ever.

At any rate, my contributions to the genre, or “My Evening: A Multi-Volume Work”

Vol. 1
No time for the ball: homework.

Vol 2
Whining does not get you fed.

Vol 3
No, really, it does not work.

Vol 4
Whiney cat for sale, dirt cheap.

Vol 5
Silence is purchased with cat food.

Vol 6
Time to throw the Chuckit Squirrel.

Vol 7
Stop barking at the neighbor children.

Vol 8
Fine, they are obnoxious. Bark more.

Vol 9
You had dinner. No more food.

Vol 10
Still no kittens, fingers are crossed.

Vol 11
That is my bed, lazy dogs.

Vol 12
Lazy dogs for sale, dirt cheap.

Vol 13
Buy now and get free cat.

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Come squee with me, baby trees edition

The weather has been pretty good for baby trees lately. While I’m worried about the persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) that I planted, and the red mulberry (Morus rubra) that I planted last year is almost certainly dead, the baby pawpaws? They are growing like gangbusters. Also thriving are the trash pines (I really need to thin them) and the sassafras is doing spectactularly this year, for reals.

The main reason I have pawpaws is, let’s face it, the fact that when I was a wee girlchild my grandmother used to sing me a song:
Where oh where oh where is Andrea?
Where oh where oh where is Andrea?
Where oh where oh where is Andrea?
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!

Come on, girls, let’s go find her
Come on, girls, let’s go find her
Come on, girls, let’s go find her
Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!

It’s got the same tune as “Ten Little Indians” and it’s the sort of repetitive song that little kids like to sing endlessly to drive their parents nuts but for me it is warm fuzzy memories of getting to spend the night with my grandmother.

And now, I have a pawpaw patch:
A shot of a clear space, with some tall oak trees in the near background.  There may, if you squint just right, be some saplings in there that are pawpaws.

All right, fine, they’re not huge yet, so here are some individual pictures. Please keep in mind that healthy leaves on a pawpaw look all floppy and wilted.
A baby pawpaw tree, slightly out of focus and maybe 18 inches tall, but even with the poor photography you can see it is bravely putting out leaves and growing its little heart out.

This baby pawpaw tree, about a foot tall, is a straight stick crowned with a little clump of longish, floppy green leaves.  It looks like the tree equivalent of a muppet.

This baby pawpaw tree is shot from above and arches up toward the camera.  It is pretending to be a dead stick, but if you look down near the ground you can see it has put out two branches with brave little leaves on them.
That’s the one I planted last year, and it looks as if it’s opting for the “shrub” version of pawpaw growth patterns. I’m OK with that, just as long as it doesn’t die.

Then there’s the baby sassafras trees, which I deeply adore as their little leaf clusters look like green rose buds. Also you never know what kind of leaves you’re going to get from a sassafras tree, they come in solid, “mitten”, and trefoil shapes, often in the same leaf cluster. If you happen to bruise their leaves (which I try not to do on the babies) then the sweet smell of root beer wafts into the air. Before the link between safrole (the aromatic oil the tree produces) and liver cancer was discovered (although it is disputed by some), the roots of the sassafras tree where what gave Root Beer its name.

Here’s leaf clusters that haven’t opened yet, plus flowers, on an adult sassafras tree (only adult trees think about grown-up tree things like flowers):
A collection of branches against the sky.  The branches are studded with what look like green rosebuds, about 2 inches high and tightly furled.  At the base of these clusters are rings of little non-descript flowers.

Here’s a baby with just a single leaf cluster that’s just starting to open:
A leaf cluster, shot from above.  The center is still tightly furled into the faux-rosebud, but four leaves have opened enough to see that they're all the solid kind, shaped like an almond, sort of.

Here’s a slightly older baby sassafras, unfurling its leaves. You can see all three types of leaf in this particular cluster:
A cluster of six sassafras leaves.  The three outermost are all solid.  Two of the innermost are trefoil, with a largeish central point and two smaller points, one on each side.  The other inner leaf is a mitten shape, but you can't really tell because the photographer got a crappy angle.

Oh there we go, the photographer got her act together.  This is the same cluster of leaves, this time shot from above so you can see the mitten-shaped leaf more clearly.

Finally, I could not resist this gang of juvenile sassafras trees, all hanging out together. They’re probably skipping school or something:
Four adolescent sassafras trees hang out together.  They look, if it is possible for trees to have an expression, as if they are up to something shifty.

There’s a saying in the south, used to refer to land exhausted by farming or other maltreatment: too poor to grow sassafras. Sassafras grows anywhere, and is often the first tree to move in when land is clear-cut. If your land is too poor to grow sassafras, you are in deep trouble. So it gives me a little thrill to see that the back acre, though damaged and blighted, is at least not too poor to grow sassafras. Get on with your bad selves, little trees.

Oh and because a) I can’t possibly walk around my massive 2.5 acre property without a bodyguard and b) she needs the practice standing still while I take pictures, Zille came along. I think she had fun.
Zille, a sable German Shedder, smiles into the camera with bright eyes, ears up, and lolling tongue.

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Decisions, Decisions

The 145th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox is coming up this weekend. I can’t make it on Saturday because I have class in the morning, then in the evening I will be taking the spare kitty to the airport (provided she still hasn’t given birth, so far so good). So I’ll be going down on Sunday and hanging out for about half the day.

The question is, which dog do I take with me? My choices are Tink or Zille.

Reasons to take Tink: Handles crowds of people well, including re-enactors. Is not terribly bothered by gunfire. Knows the ropes as far as keeping the leash slack while I pause to take pictures, and standing still being quiet and respectful during remembrance ceremonies. Is my best buddy. Will stand at the side door staring pathetically out after me and Zille if I don’t take her.

Reasons not to take Tink: Has hysterical barking meltdowns at the sight of other dogs who do not resemble dogs she already knows, which means if they don’t look like a German Shedder or a Doberman, she’s going to have a fit. Pulls on the leash while walking. Will attempt to mug re-enactors for food since one once gave her a piece of beef jerky out of his haversack TWO YEARS AGO. Refuses to poop on leash unless she feels she has a sufficiently large audience, bonus points if I have forgotten to carry poop bags. Joints are iffy and she may not be able to handle a 4-hour trip with lots of walking without being ouchie later.

Reasons to take Zille: Great leash manners. Does not have hysterical barking meltdowns at the sight of other dogs, although she might quietly gruff at one who looks really funny to her (like Corgis). In fact, the only thing she will have a hysterical meltdown about is me leaving the house with Tink and not taking her, too. Since she is not mostly blind, will not require as much vigilance on my part to keep people from sneaking up on her blind side and startling her. She will be the Emergency Backup Dog for Sesquicentennial Madness and thus needs the training.

Reasons not to take Zille: Crowds make her a little nervous, and she doesn’t have as much experience with gunfire, so I will have to concentrate on her at times I would rather be listening to historians or watching guns fire. Occasionally pulls on the leash while I’m trying to take pictures. Being a dog of obviously high quality, will attract more attention than Tink and require me to answer more dog questions when I would rather be chatting with historians and re-enactors. Gets car-sick.

Taking both is unfortunately not an option since I want to be able to take pictures. Hrm. I may just flip a coin Sunday morning.

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Cat-related miscellany

1) The Spare Kitty is still pregnant. This is good news, as her new owner is flying in to collect her on the 17th. She needs to not go into labor until he has at least gotten her through security. I’m pretty sure that the arrival of kittens on board does not represent enough of an emergency to divert a flight, so if she wants to give birth in the air then that’s just fine and dandy — as long as we get her stripey self on that plane!

She is very mightily pregnant, though, and kind of uncomfortable I think. She spends her time lying stretched out on her side or eating and drinking, with the occasional trip to the litter box. If you cradle her swollen tummy you can feel a kitten kick you, sometimes.

2) After two years of having the thing taking up space in a box in Roo’s room, I have finally installed the Cat Veranda. It turned out to be way easier than I thought it would be, which accounts for why it was sitting around in a box for two years. I propped the door open so the kitties could take a look, and of course it was the intrepid Rooney Lee who tried it out first:

Rooney Lee, an orange and white Cornish Rex cat of amazing handsomeness, sits in the cat veranda and looks like he thinks he might be getting away with something, being in THE GREAT OUTDOORS like this.  The cat veranda is the size of a very very small window-mounted air conditioner, and mounted in almost exactly the same way.

I think he at least will enjoy it, he made another visit to it later in the afternoon when it was full of sunbeam, so he could take a bath in the sunshine and fresh air. I installed it as part of major renovations I was doing with Pagenstecher Group Remodeling to the two cat rooms, which now have fresh coats of paint and Pergo laminate floors, on top of which we’ll put some lovely jaipur carpets, to replace the grotty brown carpet (here’s where we got our carpets from: Next up, putting all the furniture back in them!

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Someday I will breathe through my nose again.

It is definitely spring in Virginia. You can tell because everything that has been outside for more than two minutes has turned yellow under a thick coating of pollen. There’s flowers all over the place but mostly it’s the trees doing it. I have been living on Zyrtec for a month now, y’all, and am anxiously awaiting actual summer when the trees will stop with their airborne romance.

Speaking of trees, I have planted three more here at the Manor: two pawpaws (Asimina triloba) and one American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). One of the best places I have found for baby trees is Edible Landscaping. I’ve bought several from them, including two pawpaws that were casualties of a buck whitetail that lives or lived in the area, and they’ve all arrived in great condition and established themselves with a minimum of tending from me, which is exactly what I want in a tree. This is also, not so coincidentally, why I strongly believe in planting native species of tree, and did the research to find out what snack-producing varieties are native to my particular neck of the woods. Many of these native trees are also having a hard time, because their fruits are not commercially popular, or invasive imports are taking over their habitat, or in the case of the red mulberry (Morus rubra) the invasive white mulberry (Morus alba, from Asia) is taking over its very genome, since they can hybridize.

So here I am on the Manor, doing my part to save obscure native trees like the pawpaw. Odds are you have never heard of a pawpaw, unless a) you live overseas where the word pawpaw refers to another fruit entirely or b) your grandmother used to sing the pawpaw song to you like mine did. However, it is a nifty little tree that lives in the understory of the forest. It’s endangered in New Jersey, threatened in New York, and “vulnerable” in Ontario, Canada. The leaves contain a natural pesticide that keep bugs off them with the notable exception of the zebra swallowtail butterfly and the pawpaw sphinx moth, for which it is the larval host (find more details about the control of bugs outside the house and termites East Brunswick NJ). The fruit feeds birds and small mammals. Weirdly, it is pollinated by blow flies, which normally feed on carrion, which means its flowers smell like dead rotting things, and if you want to improve your fruit yield you can hang chicken necks from the branches of the trees to rot. Yum. has great information on the pawpaw and lists it as a PlantWise native alternative to Russian olive. Compounds in the seeds of pawpaws show promise for chemotherapy against prostate and colon cancers. How much more useful and cool do you need a tree to be, seriously? The problem, of course, is that the fruit does not ship well, and therefore it doesn’t have much commercial potential. As an understory tree, it’s also losing habitat as Americans cut down forests and put in housing developments.

You may have seen fruits of the Asian persimmon varieties in grocery stores. American persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) produce much smaller fruits that are horribly bitter and sour until after the first frost hits them. It is a hardy little bugger of a tree, able to handle high sun and low water conditions. Abraham Lincoln had one at his home in Illinois, even! Like the pawpaw, it’s a hardy native tree whose fruits just happen to be not as commercially viable as the agricultural conglomerates would like, so it’s listed as “special concern” in Connecticut and “threatened” in New York. Confidential to New York State: WTF are you guys doing to your native trees, yo?

Still in the plans for this year are a couple red mulberries (Morus rubra) as I think the one I planted last year did not survive the apocalyptic winter, and some hazelnut bushes. I also need to replace my butternut sapling that got mowed down by the neighbor I pay to do my lawn last fall. Meanwhile, I also need to go savage some damn Paulownia that have sprung up on the back acre, thin out the pine saplings from around the sassafras seedlings to give them room, and otherwise continue the grand re-treeification project.

Also, confidential to the person who got here googling “how to sneak up on a spring peeper”: If you find out, let me know! But I am inclined to say that it is impossible, because the little buggers will always hear you coming and shut up. The only way I’ve found to get a good look at them is to be out driving in the rain in the spring and summer, in the dark just before dawn. You will often see them hopping across the road and if you’re very swift and conditions are safe you can stop the car, leap out, and intercept one before it disappears into the ditch on the side of the road. But please don’t take them from their natural habitat, frogs are having a hard enough time out there. If you’re in an area where there are Spring Peepers and you’d like to have some around, may I suggest constructing them a little pond to hang out at?