Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Commuter Hawks

Also known as "Lucky Strike Hawks" (Caimuponus unexpectedlii).

There are three or four places located on or near my daily commute where I have been fortunate to find interesting or unexpected birds on occasion. On the rare morning when both the weather is clear and I find myself running early for work, I will swing by one of these haunts for a "spot check" to see if there are any visitors worth watching or photographing.

Last Friday morning was one of those rare mornings. The kids had gotten up early for a change and we'd headed out the door before the glow of the dawn sun even began peeking over the tree line. There was so little Friday morning traffic that by the time I neared the office I was half an hour early, so I swung into one of those special places to see what I might find.

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And what a find it was! I haven't seen hawks in this area in years, and never close enough to photograph! And here I found two of them perched together, just waiting to greet me.

I had to wait for the sun to rise a little higher before I could even make an educated guess as to what species I had found.

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As the two moved together from tree to tree along the field and then behind a short row of houses, I was gradually able to pick out enough telltales to determine these were Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus).

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I understand they can be found pretty much year round in Bear Creek Park, just southwest of this area. But with all the apartment and business complexes that have been built in this area in the last ten years, I was quite surprised to find this couple hunting nearby.

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I wasn't able to get close enough to get any good detail shots of the pair, but in these blow-ups you can see the black and white bands on the tail and the reddish-brown bars across the breast.

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As they ran out of trees, the pair found perches on street lamps and then telephone lines, always staying within a few seconds of each other as they settled and waited for a time, then moved on to find another location.

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Only a couple of times did I see them actually swoop down as if at potential prey; unfortunately, they never seemed to find anything worth eating. In a matter of minutes they had left together, hopefully to a location with better hunting opportunities.

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One last reminder of those rich red shoulders that gave this hawk its name.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Career Day

This is Homecoming week for the high school and junior high, so the kids' elementary school decided to celebrate by having special "daily theme" dress-up days all week. We decided to allow each of the kids to pick one costume to purchase for the week, with the stipulation that this costume would also be used for Halloween next month.

Today is Career Day, on which all the students were asked to come in the uniform or dress of a career in which they are interested. Cowboy was bound and determined to dress as a police officer. ("With handcuffs!" said he.) So we ran around to several stores on Saturday until we finally found a really good policeman costume (complete with hat, whistle, cuffs and an empty holster) for a pretty decent price.

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Meet "Officer Cowboy." He was pretty bummed that we wouldn't allow him to take the handcuffs to school, but he got over it. I have to admit he makes a pretty handsome officer, naturally standing at attention like a good cadet.

Cat got a little more creative with her Career Day outfit. She had a little trouble making up her mind at first. We looked at scrubs until she decided against going as a doctor or nurse. She considered a few other options as well. But when we got to the costume store, she spotted a (toddler-sized) zookeeper's outfit, and her idea was hatched!

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Here is "Safari Guide" Cat. She borrowed her mom's hiking vest, a plastic toy pith helmet from her brother, and an old army surplus belt and canteen from my camping gear. Add a baby gorilla from the toy bin and a "Houston Zoo / Safari Guide" nametag that I whipped up on the computer, and she was ready to head for the savannah.

We were all suffering from bad allergies over the weekend, and by yesterday Cowboy's asthma kicked in full force. But he was feeling well enough to go on to school this morning, and to have a little fun with big sis while they waited for lunches to be made.

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I don't remember what tomorrow's theme is, but there were a whole lot of giggles coming from their rooms yesterday as the kids and WW worked on getting all their outfits ready for the week. Hopefully I'll be able to get some more good pictures to document the entire week!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Motivational Poster of the Day

Hope this helps get you motivated for the weekend!

Oh, well, maybe next weekend...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

'Twas the Night before Ike

(SkyWatch Friday - 9/26/08)

The day before Hurricane Ike arrived — just two short weeks ago — we were starting to wonder if he was really coming our way or not. The skies had been clear and beautiful all day long, with hardly a breeze to stir the leaves in the trees overhanging our back yard. It was simply another typical hot Texas summer day.

Then about an hour before dark, the clouds began moving in. As we sat around the kitchen table after dinner, this was the stunning view we enjoyed as the sun slowly set.

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Little did we know just how much power and destruction those painted clouds foretold for the rest of the night. (Whoever said, "Red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor's delight," hadn't taken hurricanes into consideration!)

SkyWatch Friday

Changes and Updates

For family and other frequent visitors, don't touch that dial! You're in the right place, I've just made a couple of changes to the blog layout and template. Let me know what you think.

Just a quick update for now. The kids are BACK IN SCHOOL! (We all did a happy dance around the kitchen when we got the phone call that the power was back on and classes would be resuming today.) WW had to report back to work on Monday, so I've been working from home and playing "Mr. Mom" for the past few days. We've had fun being together over the past two weeks, but I think we were all ready to get back to the regular routines.

So I'm back in the office today for the first time in two weeks, and I can't believe all the stuff that was piled on my desk waiting my return. Didn't the rest of the world stop functioning while we were all recovering from the storm?!?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Displaced by the Storm

Pictures of the destruction to homes and businesses caused by Hurricane Ike have been all over the local news and the internet. Many people were displaced by the storm, and some are still waiting to return to houses and property that were flooded or even destroyed by the storm.

But there were others who were involuntarily displaced from their homes by the storm — some that most people haven't even thought of as yet.

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Last week as I was driving through some of the farmland near our home, 80-90 miles inland from the coast, I was surprised at the number of coastal and wetland birds I spotted. Several times I looked up at the sound of seagulls crying overhead, seemingly lost with the absence of sand and waves.

There were also many unusual scenes of egrets and ibises, wading through water still standing in fields that were flooded by the storm.

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The majority of this group appeared to be cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis — possibly immature, with yellow beaks and dark legs), which are common to the area; however, cattle egrets are not normally waders like the other egrets and herons found in this region, so I'm not positive I have identified them correctly.

roseate spoonbill
Mixing in with these smaller egrets were at least three young roseate spoonbills (Ajaia ajaja), with their white plumage just starting to turn pink. This is the first time I have ever seen spoonbills this far inland or away from the coast or marshes.

roseate spoonbill
A neighboring field hosted yet another pair of spoonbills, along with a half dozen or so of what I believe were snowy egrets (Leucophoyx thula — black bills, yellow around the eyes, black legs and yellow feet). They were fun to watch, appearing to dance as they walked through the watery grass, shaking a foot from time to time as they stepped gracefully forward.

snowy egret and roseate spoonbill
great (common) egret
In two fields I saw the much larger common egret (Casmerodius albus), towering over and yet standing apart from their much smaller cousins.

great (common) egret
I spotted several dark forms mixed in with the fields of white waders, but at first couldn't tell what they were. Finally, just before I got back to town, I found a group much closer to the road and was able to spot the telltale downward curve of ibises.

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The brown backs and wings, white undersides and mottled necks and heads mark these as immature ibises, although I can't say for certain whether these are white (Eudocimus albus) or scarlet (Eudocimus ruber) ibises.

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White ibises are much more common along the Texas gulf coast, and I expect that is what these young birds were. However, I have heard of spottings of scarlet ibises in the coastal marshes near Sabine Lake, near the Texas-Louisiana border, or along the Bolivar Peninsula (just north of Galveston Island), so I suppose it is possible after a storm like Ike that those may have been blown a bit wayward.

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In the days immediately following the hurricane's passage through the area, I found myself reading and re-reading Kenn Kaufman's column in the latest issue of Bird Watcher's Digest. He wrote of a recent visit to Galveston Island, and of the changes that have happened there over a number of years with regards to the human disruptions that have so affected bird habitats along the Texas coast. And with the limited space that has now been set aside for bird and wildlife habitation in this area, I wonder what sort of affect such a monstrous — if entirely natural — disruption such as Ike will prove to have on the birds of this region.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Surviving the Storm

As I mentioned before, we were very fortunate during the passage of Hurricane Ike. Although we lost utility services, we did not suffer any serious damage and were never forced to leave our house.

I can't express how proud I am of Cat and Cowboy, although I have done my best to tell them several times over the past week. They were patient, helpful, well-behaved and extremely accommodating as we all tried to cope with both the lack of utilities and our house guests. As Mom reminded me numerous times over the weekend, "They're good kids!"

The kids shared Cowboy's room while Mom and her feline companion took over Cat's. Both kids came and piled in bed with us during the worst of the storm, which made for a crowded bunk, but we weren't sleeping much that night anyways. Other than that, they did extraordinarily well sharing a room — they treated it more like an extended slumber party than a major annoyance.

While the power was off and the rain continued, we played countless rounds of Scrabble Junior, Boggle and "Gold Fish" (Cowboy's name for Go Fish, the only card game they will both agree upon). We all took turns working on a massive jigsaw puzzle that took three days to finally complete. And I got both kids hooked on what were my very favorite books as a kid: The Three Investigators series of juvenile detective novels. Cat finished the first book in a little over 24 hours, and Cowboy then picked it up and started with an intensity I have never seen in him toward reading. He's already almost halfway through it, even though the distractions of cartoons and video games have resurfaced with the electricity. Cat is almost finished with book number two and has already staked her claim on the next one in the series.

Mom did surprisingly well, cooped up in a strange environment with four extra people (including two energetic kids) and no power or running water. She is used to being on her own most of the time, and spending an hour or two with the kids is often enough to wear her down. I was amazed at how well she coped, and how much she seemed to enjoy most of the time spent together. The kids were patient, eager to help, and yet subdued when necessary, and they spent quite a bit of time with their "Nana." They took her for walks around the neighborhood after the storms left the area; she spent time with them at the piano, offering helpful suggestions as they practiced; and they took several opportunities to talk to her about school and life in general.

One of the things Mom did when she needed to get away from the hubbub of "family time" was to sneak down the darkened hallway and sit down at the piano. The kids were amazed that she could sit there in the dark and play without looking at any music. It was nice to see how relaxed she became as she sat there playing — a sense of peace and calmness washed over her face as she played, a peace that doesn't often break through the confusion and tension that is such a part of her life now.

One evening after dinner, we all crowded around the piano with our flashlights and sang from an hold hymnal for an hour or more. (I'm sure the neighbors were loving it!) It reminded me of times we did that around the family piano when I was young. The kids had a ball and kept begging for more. It was a little strange to listen to Mom singing for memory three and four verses of hymns I haven't heard in years, when just hours earlier she couldn't remember whose house we were in.

I must admit, in a way the effect of the Alzheimer's was a blessing to Mom during this stressful week. We all took turns showing her repeatedly where the bathroom was, which room she was staying in, and where her cat was. But time was basically non-existent to her during her stay. By the time I took her home and got her settled back into familiar surroundings, she had already forgotten most of the time we spent together. In her mind, the hurricane had bypassed us altogether, there had been no power outage or other inconveniences, and we had simply enjoyed a nice couple of days' visit together while waiting to take her back home.

Looking back, I must admit that we survived the storm quite nicely. Now if we can just get the kids back to school next week, life will be back to the moderate level of insanity that we call "normal."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

We're Alive!

Hurricane Ike has come and gone, and we're still here! And now that we have both power and water working in the house again, we are all feeling a little more human again. We are all so very spoiled with the luxuries of modern day living!

First, a quick update on our status: Surprisingly, we were hit pretty hard by the storm Friday night, even as far inland as we are. We lost power very early, and slept very little that night, but we were extremely fortunate in that we received almost no damage at all at our house. Several neighbors lost roofs, had trees that fell on their houses, or received other severe damage. There are fences, limbs and even entire trees down all over the neighborhood. Thankfully, we are far enough from the water to have missed the extreme flooding and absolute destruction that hit so many coastal communities like Galveston, Surfside, Baytown and so many others.

We did pack up Mom and her cat Jake on Friday and brought them up to our house in Tomball (far northwest Houston / Harris County). We all rode out the storm together, and with the cool front that came in the wake of the hurricane, even the lack of air conditioning for a few days was not that bad. We had water service back (very limited pressure, but enough to flush toilets) by Sunday, and the power came back on just as we were sitting down to a late candlelit dinner Monday night. Phone service was off and on until yesterday, but we charged the cell phone in the car once or twice (during scouting trips / AC breaks).

Luckily, we never lost natural gas service, so we were able to cook on the stovetop. We had stocked up plenty of drinking water and lots of canned goods, and we cooked and ate meat from the freezer as it thawed from lack of power. We never were really in bad shape, unlike so many others in the area and to the south of us. Again, we were very fortunate.

Mom's power and water service were back on by Tuesday morning, so I spent a good portion of the day yesterday getting essential food stocks for her (we had to stand in line for over an hour and a half just to get into the grocery store), taking her back home, and cleaning up her fridge and back yard. Other than some fence damage and possibly a few shingles blown off the roof, she did not have any real wind or water damage at her townhouse either. Again, we were fortunate — some in her neighborhood did not fair as well, although the damage there did not look near as extensive as what we saw further north in our neck of the woods.

Please be in prayer for the millions of people in the area who are still suffering from the storm damage. At last report, there were still over 2 million homes without power in the area. Thousands of homes have suffered severe wind and flood damage, and still more simply don't exist any more. The pictures we are now seeing of the coastal communities are heart-rending. WW's Aunt Frances and cousin Beth and her family had to leave their homes in Pasadena and Deer Park, and still don't know when they will be able to return home. There are lots of other extended family members and friends from whom we have not yet received any word — we are praying for them all and hoping for the best.

Well, the "quick update" became much longer than I had planned. I'll add another post later with some of the more humorous and personal events of our storm experience.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Preparing for Ike

A word of advice: Don't catch a stomach bug two days before a colossal tempest is expected to swamp your home.

Just a very quick update, in case anyone is checking in on us. Most of the Houston area has now shut down for the weekend, in preparation for Hurricane Ike's coming. I've spent most of the last day and a half collapsed in bed, while my Wonderful Wife has been getting things stockpiled and battened down around the homestead.

We plan on picking Mom up tomorrow (Friday) morning and bringing her here to stay with us for a couple of days. Hopefully there won't be any storm damage or flooding problems at her townhouse, but things are stressful and confusing enough for her without a weather emergency taking place. With the increased chance of power and/or phone loss, plus the potential of being stranded for a few days, we will all feel better if she and her feline protector are here under our roof. We have water and food enough to last several days, so hopefully we will all weather the storm without incident.

For anyone else in the path of the storm, please be safe! We'll check in with family as soon as we can after Ike passes through.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Flower Garden Safari

Since I don't get too many opportunities to go out for extended birding or photo excursions, I take what I can get. I made the commitment to myself at the end of August to take my camera to work with me every day for the next month, just so that I have it on hand. If I get a chance to take a "field trip" at lunch, or just happen across something interesting or intriguing during the drive to or from the office, I've got my trusty Canon at hand and ready to shoot.

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The other day on the way to pick the kids up after work, I noticed a bed of tall yellow flowers lining the parking lot of a local dentist's office. Since the place was closed and the parking lot empty, I decided to pull in and snap a couple of quick pictures. I had no idea that flower garden would end up being a two-day safari full of insect life.

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[WARNING: If you are at all squeamish about insects, you might want to stop reading right about now...]

To begin, the bees were out in full force, zipping from one tall bloom to another.

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(You can click most of the images to see a close-up version of the featured critter.)

There seemed to be two or three different varieties of wasps on hand as well, although this is the only one I was able to capture on film.

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I spotted three different butterflies flitting about the garden, including a yellow one that had to have been almost as big as my palm. Unfortunately, this little Gray Hairstreak is the only one I managed to catch (in focus — gotta work on my action shots!).

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I love how the red spot and the scissortail-like extensions on his wings make it look like a two-headed creature of some sort.

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I also spotted these insects on one bulb only. They were larger than an ant, red with black legs, and little black spiky things along their backs. (Click the image below for a better view.) I have no idea what these were, but they weren't mixing with any of the other wildlife. Even the bees were staying clear of that bloom.

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Yesterday, Cowboy had a doctor appointment right after school, and we stopped back by the same garden on the way to pick up Cat. He had a blast helping me find even more bugs to photograph.

Our first catch was a couple of love bugs. With emphasis on the "love."

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We also saw a different kind of wasp than I had captured before. This one was lighter and more reddish in color, with thin bands of yellow along his abdomen. My guess is it's a paper wasp of some sort, but I can't get any more specific than that.

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We also found more of the red and black mystery bugs from my previous visit, this time with a better range of size and color.

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Another wasp, this one more of a solid brown thorax darkening to black on the abdomen. This looks more like what we have always called "red wasps" (except it's maybe a little darker), but I don't have any idea of the actual name.

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We got a better shot of the thread-waisted wasp from before. Click on the image below for an even better view of the extremity of the long, thin waist stretching from thorax to abdomen. This may be some kind of mud dauber, but I don't know for sure.

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We found another unknown, this small orange and black critter that seemed to be carrying around (and possibly snacking on) a smaller love bug.

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We almost missed this stink bug that was hiding under the dead lower petals of one of the stalks. At a different angle, he actually looked more like a dead leaf than anything else. Good camouflage.

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The funny thing is that after all those different kinds of insects, and all the fun we had looking for them, the one picture that Cowboy got the most excited about was this one:

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Go figure.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Misty Monday Morning

We got a nice break from the humidity over the weekend, but the mugginess was back full force when we walked out the door this morning. The fields and creeks all had a layer of mist hanging over them as the sun crept over the horizon to start a new work week.

We had a pretty normal, busy weekend. WW had to go in to work for a bit after church Sunday, but was back in time to comfort us on our return from the Grocery Store from Hell.

The kids and I decided to try out the new warehouse-sized H-E-B grocery superstore on Sunday, and we quickly determined we would never be going back there again. They had a special offer on items that include Box Tops (a program to help raise money for schools). To make a long story short, it would have been better in the long run to just donate the money from our checkbook directly to the school. The place was absolutely packed with frustrated shoppers, the aisles were too narrow, the placement and grouping of products seemed to have no logic or intelligent design, and fully 90% of the advertised sale items were sold out. I asked one clerk about it and was informed you often have to get there within two days of the sale sheets being circulated in order to get most sale items. Bad management! Bad, bad management! (Said with rolled-up newspaper in hand...)

I got a call from Mom's care provider today saying that Mom's fingertips all seem numb this morning. Mom has also lost about 4 pounds just since last week, so they have made a doctor appointment for Thursday morning. We had noticed that Mom hasn't been going through her groceries as quickly as normal lately, and are afraid she has been forgetting to eat again. I've been trying to talk to her a couple of times each day, checking to see if she has eaten or reminding/nagging her to get something to eat as we talk. The care provider has also gotten Mom to start jotting down a note each time she eats and each time she takes her medicines, to see if that will help both her and us to track it better. We'll see how things go this week and see what the doctor says on Thursday. I may soon need to start visiting once per week instead of just every other weekend.

That's the weekly family review from here. I hope you've all had a good weekend!

UPDATE: I left work right after saving this post on Monday, and didn't realize until Tuesday morning that it hadn't published to the site. Ah, well, Monday's must be Mondays.

Friday, September 5, 2008

TGIF Sunrise

The kids and I got out of the house right on time for a change this morning, so we made up for it by stopping to watch this beautiful Friday morning sunrise together on the way to school.

sunrise over tower field, 9/5/08
sunrise over tower field, 9/5/08
sunrise over tower field, 9/5/08
It only lasted about four or five minutes in all, but it was definitely time well spent. What a way to start a Friday and end a week!

SkyWatch Friday

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Brain Cells and Alzheimer's Advocacy

It's been an extremely busy couple of days trying to catch up and finish a new feature on one of our apps at work, so I haven't posted substantially. But I did want to pass on a couple of Alzheimer's-related links.

First, for anyone in the Houston area that is interested, Tallowood Baptist Church is offering a ... seminar? ... on memory loss and dealing with Alzheimer's disease:
The Mystery of Memory Loss
September 25, 2008
9:30 am - 2:30 pm
Cost: $5 (includes lunch)
Click here for more information or to register for the event.
I don't know anything more than what is on their web site at this time. If I can find out more details, I'll pass them along.

Also, the New York Times had a fascinating article today about an experiment that "is likely to open a new avenue in the investigation of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia."
Scientists have for the first time recorded individual brain cells in the act of summoning a spontaneous memory, revealing not only where a remembered experience is registered but also, in part, how the brain is able to recreate it .
And finally, Houston media guy and blogger Mike McGuff has an excellent post up about his experiences caring for a parent with early onset Alzheimer's, and an idea he has for an online Alzheimer's advocacy resource. I look forward to hearing more from Mike on the subject and, hopefully, seeing the idea take off as a real service.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Double-Checked for Accuracy

double-checked for accuracy
That's the bold declaration that was stuck to my Sausage Biscuit w/ Egg this morning. The only problem: I ordered an Egg McMuffin. And the drink was wrong. And they didn't include any napkins. I'm sure glad they didn't triple-check it!

We had a pretty good weekend. Didn't get all the chores done, but we had some fun. The girls snuck out to do some dress shopping for Cat, so Cowboy and I picked up the slack and worked on laundry and cleaning for a couple of hours. (Yeah, right.) Actually, we headed down to the park to fly airplanes and romp on the playground for a while.

Yesterday, the four of us headed down to Alief to see Mom. The kids showed off their mad piano skills for her (Cowboy just had his second lesson last week, but was proudly demonstrating his newfound mastery of the chromatic scale), and then we took her to Luby's for lunch. We learned quite some time ago that a cafeteria is the perfect "out to eat" destination for someone with Alzheimer's — otherwise, we tend to spend half an hour or more turning back and forth through the menu. At a cafeteria or buffet table, you just point at what looks good and keep moving.

Mom had another rough weekend. I think she really enjoyed seeing the grandkids, but even when subdued their energy wears her out. After lunch, WW and the kids headed back home and I stayed at Mom's for a few hours to visit and get some things done at the house. After a while, the "weepies" (as Mom calls it) kicked in, so we sat on the couch for a while and had a quiet crying session. She has been trying for a couple of weeks now to figure out what "special day" was occurring or coming up, and I think we finally decided that her wedding anniversary was sometime over the past week. (Dad has been gone since I was eight, and neither of us remembers the actual anniversary date now.) I'm not sure if that's what set off the crying spell, but we worked through it. She seemed to feel better by the time I left yesterday evening.

Seems like the mind is wandering more than usual on this non-Monday. I ran across a flock of cattle egrets one day last week, and managed to take a couple of decent shots. I'll try to post some pictures in the next day or two.

By the way, the ramblings in this post have not been double-checked for accuracy. Read at your own risk.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Happy Labor Day

Have a happy and safe Labor Day.

Go easy on the marula fruit...