MacKenzie Speaks: Summer is here!

Hi. I’m MacKenzie.

I couldn’t wait for summer to get here. Bugs, garter snakes, mornings in the swinging lawn chair, lots of late afternoons in the garden…

Hot cat
Ugh… why is it so hot?

How am I supposed to chase bugs? This is all Yellow Boy’s fault, I’m just sure of it. The Mother of Cats says that this is record-breaking heat, whatever that means. I just want it to cool off enough to whap a couple of grasshoppers. Is that too much to ask?

Cat
Why do I get blamed for EVERYTHING?

Anyway, happy summer everyone. The Mother of Cats and I will be spending as much time as we can taking it easy in the swinging lawn chair…

Cat and owner in lawn chair
Aren’t I handsome?

…and when I’m not patrolling to ensure Enemy Cat isn’t in the yard I’ll be on the lookout for moths and hopping things. Hey, summer is for cats!

I’m such a good boy.

Can I have some cookies now?

>^..^<

Notes from the Mother of Cats: yesterday we set a new heat record in Denver, Colorado, and today we missed the record by a single degree; it is so bad I have to carry the cats in as they refuse to cross the hot deck. We are all outside in the mornings while I drink my latte, water the plants and do a little knitting, then it is inside for weaving, knitting, and cat naps.

Rose
Luckily the roses are loving the heat, and the tomatoes are growing like weeds.

Happy summer everyone.

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Darwin’s Garden

Over the last two weeks I have had a crazy case of synchronicity going on. Several random events, totally unrelated, unsolicited, but absolutely linking to a theme of… genetics! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. If you are a total geek of the biology type (me!!) it has been a couple of fun weeks. Here’s what went down.

The Gene
One of my favorite authors published his new book. Hello summer reading!!

I’ve been spending my mornings outside in my garden swing reading and drinking a latte with the cats. It has just become the best part of the day for me. Two weeks ago the book of the mornings was this one, and I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying the narrative that weaves genes, history, evolution and personal experiences linked to the author’s genetic heritage together. A wonderful book. A topic that is close to my heart after years of teaching cells, genes and evolution to many, many students. Everyone, in my mind, should know enough genetics to navigate safely through life. While I was reading this picture arrived in my phone:

White squirrel
Yep. That is a white squirrel for sure!

I sometimes get calls from friends and neighbors who have biology tales to share. This picture came from someone who was excited about the “albino” squirrel hanging around his home. It has been running through the trees and chasing another squirrel along the fence so I told him it was probably not an albino, but a white squirrel as it seemed to have good eyesight. He didn’t understand that there is a difference, and therefore sent a picture to provide proof. We got on the phone and finally ironed it out with a little Wikipedia help and some genetics review. Now he’s waiting to see what color the pups will be. It’s an urban experiment!!

After the call I put the book away to start on a little gardening. What garden was next on my list? The one that I call Darwin’s Garden!

Overgrown Garden
That poor little rose bush that is getting swarmed by other plants is my Charles Darwin rose. 

As coincidence would have it, I had just read about Darwin in the book. Time to start weeding! Looks to me like survival of the fittest is a little out of control at the moment…

Plant
I call this Darwin’s Garden because of the rose, but also because there is a lot of natural selection going on. I move plants from other locations to this one and basically let them fight it out. The clear winner is this plant, and I have no clue what it is!! It is spreading everywhere, has tall spikes and little purple flowers that will emerge soon. When I started weeding a lot of this plant got ripped out!
Groundcover
Well, look at this. This ground cover type plant has been growing underneath the spiky plant; I don’t like it all that much, but the plant said “whatever… this is Darwin’s Garden, bitch!” I let it stay; with an attitude like that it deserves a chance. I also found snapdragons, columbines, roses, and some iris. There is a butterfly bush that is swarming some rose plants, but I decided to let them just fight it out for now. 
Johnny Jump-ups
These Johnny Jump-ups have been growing in the rock border by my driveway out front. Since they are escapees from the flower container they belong in I decided to dig them out and move them.
Rooting Hormone
I dipped the roots into this rooting hormone and then popped them into Darwin’s Garden. Let’s see if they can take on the purple spike plant! Maybe they can slap the ground cover plant while they are at it…
Flower in new location
Here they are a week later in the garden. Transplant was successful.

Here’s the next crazy coincidence: that rooting hormone is a type of auxin, which was first discovered by none other than Charles Darwin!! No wonder the transplant to Darwin’s Garden went off without a hitch. Every single one of the plants I moved made it.

Rose
This week things are looking a lot better in the garden. The Charles Darwin rose even bloomed.

Last week I worked at Camp Macusani (which is a whole other post) so the garden suffered a little. Tomorrow morning I will return to the garden swing, my book, and Darwin’s Garden. I’m thinking of moving some angelica that is out of control in there too… Maybe the purple spike plants will be blooming so I can post a picture. If anyone recognizes them, please let me know what they are… Right now I’m calling them Darwin’s Bane.

I’m finally up to the part of the book where we’re getting ready to start genetic engineering. For a biogeek with a molecular biology degree, this is heaven. I can’t wait to see what Dr. Mukherjee is going to say next.

Summer is for geeks!

 

Outdoor operations

The weather has really warmed up and stabilized this week; sun, heat and no thunderstorms; just what I needed to make my aching muscles and joints behave themselves. This week has been a good one and I took to the backyard for most of the afternoons. There’s a lot that can be accomplished outside. Let me take you on a little tour of my days.

That's right!
MacKenzie: when she says that she took operations outside what she really means is that I was forced to share the swinging garden chair with her. Does she not understand, June is for cats?!!

The shade of my locust tree covers the lawn swing and a couple of the gardens. What could be better for a person with a latte and an incredibly good book?

The City of MIrrors
The aforementioned book…

I’ve been consumed with the Justin Cronin novel, The City of Mirrors. Oh, my goodness. What a well-written, tightly-crafted book to spend the summer afternoons with. I read the first two books in this series and I wasn’t completely sure that I wanted to dive into a book of over 700 pages to learn the fate of mankind in their battle against the Zombie apocalypse, but the reviews made me take the leap and I pushed the “buy” button on my NOOK. Good decision. I keep highlighting passages that are just so wonderful I want to savor them later. I usually race through good books but this is one that I am stretching out so the experience will continue. The perfect June book.

After an hour of reading the knitting begins. Check out my progress on the Solaris shawl (by Melanie Berg).

 

Shawl
I’ve gotten through the first two color inserts in the shawl. To get a different color in the short row section I pulled off some yarn until I was at a new section. Fast, easy, simple.
Colors in ball of yarn
and I still have some great (crazy) colors in the ball to use. Project details are here.

I’ve also taken some weeding breaks. The little roses in my tea rose garden are now blooming, and I have gotten the weeds pulled out of another couple of patches. There are a lot of weeds, but everything is getting ready to bloom so I’m pretty motivated to keep at it.

Rose
The bloom on this tea rose is just great; really big for such a small plant.  This was one of those little roses that are sold at the grocery store. I put them out in the garden when they look a little worn out and they winter just fine here in the Denver area.
Mess
Here was today’s project. Do you see the rose plant in there?
Rose
Oh, there it is!!

Towards the late afternoon as things really warm up I water the flowers and gardens and head inside for food, the news and more knitting (bet that was a shock, huh!) Even the cats are ready to come in by that point. OK, they get kitty treats for coming in, but they would probably come in anyway… especially since I just watered all of their favorite plant nests. 🙂

Outdoor operations have ended for the day.

Tomorrow I am going to attack another garden!

Have a great weekend everyone!!

 

Crazy Knitting

Yep, I am totally knitting on the wild side; I hit the stash last week and pulled out some Crazy Zauberball in the wildest, hottest colors I had. Sometimes you just need to have some zing in the knitting, you know.

It seems like forever since I made something for myself. I made mitts to give to scleroderma patients, I’m still working on the PuppyPaca yarn for my friend Deb, and I have several more alpaca projects to finish for Alta Vida Alpacas. Last week I kind of snapped, found the Crazy Zauberball, and decided to make some fun things for myself. Check out these little bed socks: fun!

Socks
This yarn is Crazy Zauberall, and it is so rewarding to knit with. It is pretty light weight and knit a little loosely in this pattern; perfect for bed socks. Then there is the lace… These Om Shanti socks are from the Socktopus book by Alice Yu.
stuff
The heels and toes are knit with a short row technique that really made the toes strut their stuff. Ravelry notes are here. 

I have enough yarn left over to make a pair of mitts to wear in bed too. The colors of this yarn just make me happy. I will have to make the mitts for sure.

Mostly the gardening has been on hold this week. It has really warmed up over the last few days and suddenly roses started blooming. Here are the first ones to open…

Hot Cocoa
The Hot Cocoa roses by the front door are doing great. I covered them several times this spring with blankets supported by tomato cages between the rose plants. All the attention has paid off big time! As I was leaving for a doctor’s appointment I glanced at the front of the house and there was the bloom!
Home Run Rose
My Home Run roses by the driveway are now almost 3 feet high and suddenly they also began blooming. These guys will bloom all summer!

The backyard gardens are still jungles, but it rained hard last night so I’m hoping to weed out another flower bed tomorrow morning. How lucky that plants are patient.

Cat asleep on shawl
Kitty revenge can be quite a thing: MacKenzie still hasn’t gotten over the washing of his blanket. He spends very little time on it now, and has taken to sleeping on my “Waiting for Rain” shawl. He’s so sweet I’m letting him keep it for now.

One Crazy Zauberball project just isn’t enough right now. As soon as the bed socks were done I grabbed another ball and cast on another project just for myself.

Yarn
May I present the yarn for a Solaris shawl by Melanie Berg. The shawl is supposed to use 5 different MadelineTosh Unicorn Tails (in five different colors), but I decided to use this wild Crazy Zauberball yarn for the colored sections. There are at least 5 different colors in there; I can always pull off yarn to get to another color if I need to as the colored sections are pretty short.

So why did I snap and start the crazy knitting for fun? The truth is, I’m somewhat miserable these days. For reasons I don’t understand June is the month when my illness decides to get particularity ugly on me. For the third year in a row I just feel pretty darn sick. My muscles and joints hurt, I’m dizzy, my gut is misbehaving, I’m running a fever, my arms and legs have developed edema…  I got out of breath and had to use my inhaler while winding a ball of yarn last Wednesday at my knitting group. I’ve been in to visit doctors twice already this month, and really, there isn’t too much that they can do. I’m in a flare for sure. Mostly I don’t leave the house much, but I can still knit.

You see why I broke out the Crazy Zauberball? Bright happy colors that change quickly. How can I not smile while knitting lime green and deep rose? This month I totally need some knitted hugs of happiness, and Zauberball delivers big time.

Got to go. I’m at the part of the shawl where I start knitting in some crazy color. Bright purple! Woohoo!

Have a great weekend everyone!!

 

Biology Brain

When I taught high school biology I had a sign over the door of my classroom that said “Biology is Life”. (I also had a poster with a picture of Charles Darwin and a caption that said “AP Biology: Adapt, Migrate or Die”, but that is another story…) Anyway, I thought my sign over the door was cute. And true.

This week I finally took on the task of weeding out my flower beds and getting them ready for the new year. Really, a simple and somewhat rewarding task, but for me an afternoon of rich classroom memories and an endless rush of biological trivia. It was so much fun, in fact, I thought I’d take all of you on a short trip through my garden. Ready? Here we go!

Unweeded Garden
What a disaster! This garden has several little tea roses, a beautiful English rose, and some nice perennials. Ugh. Mostly I see dandelions
Flower and Bee
Clever camera: it focused on the grass instead of the flower. (and my biology brain reminds me that the grass is a monocot and the dandelion is a dicot. Thanks bio buddy…) Oh, well. You can still make out the bee in the flower, can’t you? We think of dandelions as pests in our gardens (well, I do!), but they are actually early blooming plants and an important source of food for bees and 
Ladybug
my personal favorite (after bumblebees) the ladybug. Later on the youngsters from this beetle will help keep my aphid population on the roses under control, so that makes dandelions a good thing,
Dandelion Puff
I know that they are good for the wildlife, but I still have to get rid of these darn plants so my roses can shine. Look at this puffball of seeds (dandelions use wind as a dispersal strategy chants my brain… The seeds can survive up to 5 years and help the plant population survive fires…)
Dandelion root
and the root! I’ve been told that the root as also an adaptation to help the plant survive prairie fires. Don’t know about that one, but we all know we need to get the root out or the plant will come back. (That root is a tap root . Thanks biology brain…)
Pill Bug
Oh, wow. A pill bug! I love these guys. I would teach my AP Biology class how to make potato traps and assigned them the homework of catching 10 bugs over a weekend so they could design experiments using them in little choice chambers. The students learned how to design controlled experiments, drew conclusions about animal behavior, and the bugs had a fun outing and all the potato they could eat. It was fun, really. (Arthropods, crustaceans really, says the ever intrusive biology brain.) Over the years so many bugs were released in the flower beds at the front of the high school a robust population could be counted on to bail out any student team that forgot to do their homework.
Earthworms
Exactly the same type of thing happened at my house where yearly infusions of classroom earthworms established many happy garden occupants. (Annelids, says the brain. If you accidentally cut them with the shovel they will probably make it, but not as two new worms. ) My students loved to name and race their worms. If you put them in your hand you can feel the little bristles on their tummies (Setae! Thanks, brain.) The bristles anchor the worm as it pushes forward in the soil. Kind of like wax on cross country skies…
Rose Seeds
The English rose has a mature rose-hip with seeds in it. Look at these guys. I wonder if I can get them to sprout and grow. (…the seed is really a baby plant and the food it needs to grow. The food part of the seed is double fertilized so it has more copies of the roses’s chromosomes than the rose plant does. Roses, unlike humans, can have different chromosome numbers… shut up biology brain. Enough!!)
Finished Rose Garden
The weeding is done. You can actually see the rose plants OK now. They all came through the winter in good shape and are putting out new growth.  The largest rose is my Princess Alexandra of Kent rose, and it has started growing the first buds. All is looking good. Time to mulch, feed (plants need the elements in fertilizer to make more proteins and to copy the DNA in their cells so they can divide… yep, the brain is still going…) and get to work on the other jungles gardens.

Rich with life, details and memories, my gardens are once again growing.

Biology is life!!

Rocking the Week #4

It is March in Colorado, which means we are in the midst of endless weather adventure. This last week we experienced a march of weather fronts that came through the state with wind, wind, and more wind. It was sunny but still miserable for cats and people.

Cat
It was so windy the cats were afraid to go outside. I finally made Morgan a little fort by hanging a blanket over the patio table and chairs: he stayed in his fort most of the day Tuesday! Here he is under the table sitting on a chair under the blanket.

I was pretty miserable myself. Usually my joints are OK, but this week all of my tendons took to hurting. Gee, there are a lot of tendons in a human body! Not only did my hands and wrists hurt, but so did my knees, hips, feet… well, pretty much if it moves, it hurt. I finally had to resort to pain killers and spent a lot of time in bed this week.

NYPD RED 4
Hello books! I polished off the last two books in this series of murder action/thriller books. These are fast reads and aren’t literary masterpieces (the authors did not spend great blocks of time agonizing over the correct descriptive phrases to use…), but they were just the ticket for me. All right, they were actually kind of silly and predictable, sort of like a racy (and totally unrealistic) detective show on television, but exactly the type of mindless escapism that I needed with sore knees and aching hands.
Cat and book
MacKenzie spent the whole time laying on my legs while I was reading. He’s kind of like a purring, foot-kneading heating pad. What a good cat he is!!
Rose
Thursday I crawled out to the grocery store and found this wonderful little rose bush there while I was loading the cart with the essentials of life: chocolate, soup and guacamole dip. Hey, my knees hurt!!
Pantry Disaster
Cheered up by the roses I took on a little job: look at this disaster of a pantry. There was no room to put away my new bag of corn chips for the guacamole! Clearly a crisis.
Cleaned Pantry
Look what I accomplished in a half hour! OK, there were three bags of trash to take out. I really don’t think that I should eat food that is over 10 years old, do you?
Soup bowl pot holder
Friday it snowed 6 inches and oddly enough my hands felt better. Time to be productive: I made myself some cute soup bowl pot holders to use in the microwave. These are the most useful little items ever. My hands don’t grip well in the best of times, and this week they were really unhappy. These holders allow me to handle the hot bowls of soup with zero risk of accidents! The pattern was online and really easy to sew. I made two holders in about 90 minutes using fabric and batting from my stash. The pattern is from Seams Happy and can be located here.
Knitting
Last night I returned to knitting and made some progress on my “Waiting for Rain” shawl Look at that short row lace! It is much easier than it looks.
Lace
and look at how nice my new stitch markers look on the lace!
Robin in tree
Now it is Saturday, the snow is almost melted away, and the sky is blue and sunny. Look closely at the left end of the tree branch. No, not the white patch of snow, the other end of the branches. Can you almost see the beak? That my friend is the FIRST ROBIN OF SPRING! He was on the ground when I first saw him, but for some crazy reason he flew as I stalked crept up to try to get the picture. Still, I can absolutely verify that he is a robin. 

That’s right, it is now spring. We are in for weeks of chaotic weather, but the plants will be coming back to life, the birds will be arriving soon, and I can’t help but be happy. Today my hands feel fine, I’m going to heat up some soup for dinner using my new bowl holders,  and then I have a beautiful shawl to knit.

It turns out that this was a pretty good week after all.

The Golden Hour

It’s here! It’s here! The most wonderful time of the autoimmune disease year. Fall colors, cooler (but not cold) temperatures, sunshine levels that won’t make me sick, pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks, and wood smoke. Pumpkins and autumn squash soup. New yarns at the yarn store and patterns for warm sweaters. Ugg boots!! Without fail I have a surge of joy and energy at this time of year. Just like the golden hour in photography, that time in the evening when everything is softened and has a glow of light to it, this is my golden hour of the year.

Sunset
Look at this sunset! I took the picture while sitting at the stoplight. Doesn’t it make you happy? The golden hour is the hour before this as the sun was just dipping down towards the mountains in the west. Here is Colorado it makes the Rocky Mountains look softer and plush; there are sunbeams and everything looks wonderful.

What’s wrong with the rest of the year you ask? Well, let me tell you: winter is a beautiful time of year, but for a person with systemic sclerosis and Raynaud’s disease, it is a miserable battle to keep extremities warm an opportunity to rock the wool socks, shawls and fingerless mitts. This year I plan to roll out some exceptionally warm longish sweaters; I have the yarn all ready to go. I have patterns for fingerless mitts that will go up to my elbows. I bought fleece Cuddle Duds. I am really going to try to handle the cold better this year; last year I rolled out of winter with more severe symptoms than I had in the fall.

Rose
Look how great this rose looked last spring. It should be a wonderful time of year for me, but…

Spring is a time of gardening, hope and struggle for me as I try to get the garden’s flowers (and roses!!) going while slowly accepting that new debilitating symptoms that I thought were related to the war against cold, but which remained in the balmy days of April and May, were actually real things. Darn! No wool sock or hand warmer will fix my problems… by the time I make appointments or call for help it is already summer.

Ugh! Summer! I was a teacher, and summer was that wonderful time of renewal and rebuilding that kept me going year after year. Now summers are so fraught that they seem to pass in a blur of lawn watering and visits to Kaiser. Really, I am just a mess all summer long. Here’s the highlights of this year:

  • Summer started with me just a few weeks into the drug methotrexate (which I got after making a call for help in early May…) I was losing hair and taking it easy two days a week because of the drug’s side effects. Still, by juggling the drug schedule I was able to work a summer camp teaching kids how to spin and felt fiber. So fun. The camp was only 2.5 hours a day so it was perfect.
  • In July I developed rare bone complications from the drug (well, don’t I feel special!) and ended up at an acute diagnostic facility. That was the end of the methotrexate.
  • Icky symptoms reappeared with a vengeance. I had to wait a few weeks before I could start the new drug. It’s called purgatory drug holiday .
  • UTI strikes. Seriously!! Antibiotics, barfing and yogurt happened.
  • Rheumatology appointment: he starts me on CellCept with some reservations about whether my gut (which basically hates me…) can handle it.
  • I start the pills.  Woohoo! No problems except after two days…
  • …UTI strikes again. Oops! I stopped the CellCept, gobbled antibiotics and yogurt, and skipped the barfing. Take that you ill-behaved gut!!
  • Started CellCept again the next week. Hello heartburn, my old friend.  Middle of the night vomiting and belly pain?  Nope, nope, nope. My gut has definitely vetoed this drug! I didn’t even make it a week before I emailed my rheumatologist to ask for something else from the land of pharmacological wonders.
  • Well, what do you know. There is another version of the CellCept that is a time release version that I should be able to stomach (see what I did there?). My rheumatologist and I had an email chat and he ordered it up for me.
  • …and the insurance declined to approve it. What?!! I wanted to send my gut on over to have a chat with them. Two visits to the pharmacy, two phone calls and an invocation of the gastroenterologist did the trick. I scored the pills on the last Friday in September. Yep. That was the end of summer and it is now time for the golden hour.

I started the time-released version of CellCept 10 days ago. You know, I think that I feel better already. My knees have stopped hurting! I seem to have more energy. I think that there is less edema in my arms. I have started cleaning out cupboards and stuff. I am happy.

Maple leaves
Look at these leaves! This is the maple tree in my back yard.

This is my year of systemic sclerosis (scleroderma): cold, pain, hope, struggle, persistence, and wonder. And this, my friends, is the best part of the whole dang year. I am full of joy with every red leaf and pumpkin that I see. I know that the snow is coming, but what the heck.

Today, today I am in the golden hour.