Monday, November 27, 2006

Thank you for shopping with Jesus

My friend Eaglewood has taken me to task for mocking Christians who think Wal-Mart shouldn’t have abandoned its “Merry Christmas” message in favor of “Happy Holidays”:

You are also mischaracterizing the "Merry Christmas" thing. It is not that we
wanted to force them to say merry Christmas any to allow their employees to say
it if they chose to without repercussions. At least that is where I came from
being someone who works in the retail industry part time.

With all due respect to Eaglewood, who is one of the most truly committed and thoughtful Christians I’ve ever met, he’s missing the mark here. The Wal-Mart “Merry Christmas” debate wasn’t just about the freedom of greeters to say “Merry Christmas.” Right wing groups also threw a fit because stores replaced their “Merry Christmas” banners with ones bearing the more generic “Happy Holidays.”

Here’s the question I have for Eaglewood and other Christians who insist that the “Merry Christmas” message ring throughout the retail world:

Tell me, please, what Wal-Mart has to do with the Christian meaning of Christmas? What does shopping have to do with it for that matter? Can any of you please explain how racking up holiday debt for DVD players, video games or other frivolous gifts honor Jesus? Is shopping a religious activity? If you see shopping as a secular rather than a spiritual activity then isn't Happy Holidays more appropriate than "Merry Christmas in a retail setting?

If you ask me, having a greeter wish you a Merry Christmas as you prepare to max out your Mastercard in the Name of Jesus just mocks the whole message Christ came to preach. People argue that removing the "Merry Christmas" message from retail stores is an attempt to remove Christ from our culture. I'd argue that it's the other way round. Associating Christ with shopping does far more to cheapen His name.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Bubble Lights!

I cannot believe I actually found some bubble lights but tonight we were at the home improvement store and there they were. Thank heavens for all this nostalgic marketing! I was so sure I'd never be able to find any that were both functional and affordable.

Every Christmas for as long as I can remember I've gotten wistful just recalling the bubble lights my grandmother used to put on her tree. I've tried to describe them to the kids - to tell them how I used to stand mesmerized as I watched the tiny bubbles boiling in thin globes tucked between evergreen branches. But they never could quite understand what I thought was so great about those lights.

Now they do, and in a way they have the cat to thank. If Piper the Cat hadn't knocked down our ancient Christmas tree today, gotten tangled in the lights, drug the whole works six feet across the floor and destroyed it in the process, we wouldn't have been forced to go out out tonight to find a replacement. And I wouldn't have found the bubble lights. So there you go. It was fate.

So tonight, we bask in a bit of early Christmas cheer brought to us by our new bubble lights. And really, it's a much better way to kick off the season than by writing about my racist nativity scene which is what I'd planned to do before all this happened. I'll save that for my next post.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these pics of John, Alex and Lucas decorating the new tree. We're quite pleased with it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Alone for the holidays?

Thanksgiving is less than two days away now, marking the beginning of one of my favorite times of the year. But then again, I’m one of the lucky ones with a family. There are so many this time of year who aren’t so fortunate. So many this year will spend their holiday season on the outside looking in:

The elderly widower facing his first Thanksgiving alone. He’s never cooked before and will end up ordering a pre-cooked dinner from the grocer. But it won’t be the same. Perhaps he’ll fall asleep looking at his late wife’s picture and clutching her pillow, trying to recall the sound of her laugh, the smell of her hair. Trying to recapture the feeling of the days when he was Most Thankful.

The young couple down the street who can’t afford to make it home for the holidays. Perhaps a job brought them to town, or the desire for a new start. They’ll eventually be OK, but this first holiday will be hard as they suddenly realize how much miss their relatives, even the annoying ones.

The single woman in her apartment with nothing but her cats and houseplants for company. She’ll haunt the blogs on Thanksgiving, but there won’t be much traffic; the only ones with time to write will be those like her - the lonely and alone. Over her dinner-for-one she’ll silently observe that another year has ticked off the biological clock as couples her age mark the growth and latest achievement of their beautiful children. She’ll want to be happy for them, but it will be difficult, even as she chokes out a short comment of congratulations. Their togetherness is a knife in her heart. In them she sees the happiness that has eluded her.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being alone, if you want to be. I know a number of people who truly don’t seem to mind or even prefer it that way. But if being alone isn't your choice, isolation can be a painful thing made only more painful this time of year. The jagged edges of loneliness poke through, causing hurt. And no amount of public denial can’t file them down.

We all know someone like that, I think. They’re tucked away in our own communities but are especially prevalent in cyberspace, where they seek validation and love from strangers they fancy will grow to love them back.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Perhaps, like us, you’ll have extra food or room at the table to share with someone in your community. If nothing else, fix a plate of food and take it to them. Top it off by sending an email to someone far away, someone whose primary link to the outside world is through their Internet connection.

There’s no need for people to be lonely this time of year. Not if we all reach out. So do it. You’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Chow mein, anyone?

Irrational decisions

Octavia's death must have affected me more profoundly than I realized. This morning I downloaded a Justin Timberlake song. Justin Timberlake. I hate Justin Timberlake! But now his song Sexyback is on my iPod and I can't stop singing it.

God, what if someone I respect gets ahold of my iPod? How will I be able to explain having a Justin Timberlake song on there? I guess I'll just have to tell them I was going through a period of intense grief over the death of a spider and briefly lost my mind.

Until I get over the loss of my pet spider I'm clearly going to have to refrain from making any major decisions.

In the meantime, please note that I have added links to the complete Octavia Files to my blog. To latecomers who want to read about her from start to finish, you'll find the links at the bottom left of the page.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Eulogy for a spider

I have sad news for you today, readers. Octavia, Arachnid Queen of the Greenhouse Realm, is no more.

We got in from Baltimore last night around 10 p.m. and after running a gauntlet of ecstatic house pets I went straight to the orchid room to check on my eight-legged pal. When I saw that her web was empty, I looked for the lines of silk she always spun on her way to a new location, the lines I’d follow in my own personal game of Find the Spider.

When I couldn’t find any I knew. I knew my spider was dead, even though it would take some searching to find her halfway down the wall, suspended upside down by one delicate leg, the others curled in and around her crumpled body.

Is it silly to mourn a spider? Is it silly to cry? Perhaps. But I can’t help myself. For a brief but magical period, I was allowed a glimpse into Octavia’s world - a world that snared and held my interest as firmly as the webs that snared and held her prey. Octavia was a creature with an amazing work ethic, a terrible beauty who reminded me that how one perceives something depends on how one is willing to look at it. Where some saw a brutality in her feeding behavior, others came to see a timeless, exquisite dance of life and death.

I will miss Octavia. I will miss how she blithely ignored me as I stood each morning, coffee cup in hand, to marvel at the web she’d created while I’d slept. I’ll miss the way she allowed me to occasionally brush the bottle-brush tufts of hair on her leg before either scurrying away or warning me with a threat display. I’ll miss standing on a chair with my camera, getting the shots that I’ve used to document her life.

Above is my last photo of Octavia. I had misgivings about posting it, but ultimately decided it was fitting, since her death is part of the story and as much a part of the natural order of things as the death of her victims. And since I wasn’t here when she died, writing this last chapter is how I shall say goodbye.

So goodbye, Octavia. Your egg sac is safe in the corner of the orchid room, which this morning is not quite the same. But it gives me some comfort to see it there. Next year I shall write of your daughters.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

More trip pics

These eyelash vipers are among my favorite snakes. There were some really nice one in the frog exhibit.

This fish did not look at all happy, despite his nice surroundings. I guess he just has one of those faces.

The Australian exhibit was the firt place we visited at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. I kid you not, I could have walked out after seeing these giant flying foxes and still have felt like I'd gotten my money's worth. Ever so often they'd take off and fly around the place. With their 4-foot wingspan they are jut amazing.

I got this shot of this somersaulting dolphin just as it landed in the water.

Here's another frog from the frog exhibit.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Notes from the road

I had intended to post yesterday, but as is often the case with trips that combine visiting relatives with family outings, the fantasy of kicking back and relaxing is just that - a fantasy.

Even so, we're till having a great time. We went to the aquarium last night, taking advantage of an off-seaon special that got us all in for eight bucks apiece. The downside was the low light in some of the exhibits that made my photographs come out a bit below my high standards. But some did come out OK, so here are are some shot from our visit to the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

The dolphin show was spectacular. I've seen it several times and the quality of the show depends on the enthusiasm of the dolphins. They were very enthusiastic last night. John enjoyed the show most of all, I think.

There's a new frog exhibit at the aquarium. It's really nice. Below is a type of poison arrow from called a Tinctorius, and a tomato frog.

Many people think that even in captivity poison arrow frogs are dangerous, but because they get their toxins from the ants they eat in the wild, the ones born in captivity are perfectly harmless.

I have other photos of fish and of the amazing, amazing giant fruit bat we saw in the Australian exhibit. I'll try to post them later, but for now have some other things to do.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Traffic Court

Well, that was easy enough.

Although court wasn't scheduled until 9 a.m., I arrived at 8:20 and sat in my favorite seat which - considering my number of appearances - should rightfully be reserved for me, and proceeded to read a book while I waited. I've learned from experience that the earlier one arrives for traffic court the quicker one will be able to leave, and I always feel smug when the administrative stuff is over and I walk past the long line of people who I know will probably still be standing there at noon.

Because I live in an agrarian county that's also experiencing a lot of development, we have a growing population of Latin American immigrants. I will, for now, withhold my opinion on the obvious need for immigration reform and only say that the influx has resulted in one good thing locally - the hiring of a Latin American assistant district attorney. He's tall, has a moustache and goatee and sounds exactly like Antonio Banderas. At the sound of his voice, the eyes of every female in the courtroom glazed over with undisguised passion. Well, almost every female. I'm not sure about the lady with the crewcut who was sitting beside me; the burly female bailiff by the door seemed more to her liking.

As all us poor traffic offenders sat there waiting, the assistant DA stepped up to explain the process. He told us that we'd be divided into two groups - those with last names beginning with letters A through K and those with last names beginning with letters L through Z. Then he said the most beautiful words: "If you had expired inspection or operator's license and can supply proof that you have corrected those things, those charges will be automatically dropped." Only he said it with an accent, which made it even better.

That left me with just one charge to worry about - the seatbelt violation which, according to my ticket, should have cost me $60 plus $110 in court costs. Because I arrived early enough to get my near-the-front-row seat, I was one of the first to gain an audience with Antonio Banderas, who was handling everyone with the last name beginning with the letters L through Z. I cast a sympathetic glance across the room those poor, deprived females whose names ended in A through K - the ones stuck with a pinch-faced female assistant DA who did not look like she was having the best of days.

Antonio Banderas looked over my tickets and proof that I'd indeed renewed my license and registration, bantered with me for a moment about what sorry luck it took to get three tickets in one stop, and then dismissed those two charges. He then scribbled something on my third ticket - the one for the seatbelt violation - and that was that. I'm not sure what he did, but when I went to pay the fine it wasn't the $170 I expected, but $100. In the end, I walked out paying about $200 less than I feared I'd have to pay, which was awesome, because I'm quite sure I need the money more than the state does.

So that's my traffic court story. And I'm off now to prepare for a Weekend Away, which I'm now actually starting to look forward to. I shall be taking my camera and laptop, and since I'm going to major city with hotel that no doubt will have a wireless connection I shall perhaps have a chance to blog from my trip.

Until then...

PS. Bobb, thanks for the traffic court meditation; I believe it made quite a difference in the outcome. :-)

Monday, November 06, 2006


I shall have nothing interesting for you today, due to illness. I woke up this morning to find that while the cold that pressed me into the couch most of the weekend has weakened, it's still hanging on with enough force to slow me down.

I rarely get colds or viruses. Everyone in my home at work can be heaving and hacking and I'll remain unscathed as I stroll through them surrounded by my invisible anti-viral force field. I wasn't so lucky this time. So I suffered and woke up this morning dreading what is probably going to be a Bad Week consisting of traffic court on Wednesday and a trip out of state later this week that I do not want to take but will be forced to take nonetheless.

So all I really have to offer you is a few recommendations of a book I enjoyed during my semi-conscious weekend. It's called The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and is Susanna Clarke's follow-up to her wildly successful Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Both books are fun, witty, magical and fantastic.

I recommend reading Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell first, as The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a collection of short stories that contains characters or references to characters from her first book. Oh, and did I mention that The Ladies of Grace Adieu is illustrated by Charles Vess, who also illustrated Neil Gaiman's classic Stardust? And did I mention that Charles Vess is amazing and Neil Gaiman is brilliant and if you haven't read Stardust you should? And while you're at it, pick up Charles Vess' The Book of Ballads, which is a collection of old English ballads translated into graphic art form. It's one of my favorites.

And thus concludes this mediocre offering. Sorry it's not more exciting but it's been my experience that even when things seem glum, a good book always brightens the picture a bit.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Blob Zombie

So a couple of weeks ago I purchased this book called The Biology of Spiders. It's been a good read and one of the things I've learned is that spiders don't just suck the insides out of their prey, but some spiders also chew.

Last night, after the Great Locust Massacre was over (details and links to photos can be found in the post below) I went into the orchid room to fetch the cat who knows she's not supposed to be snooping around in there. While I was looking for my errant feline I kept hearing what sounded like chewing noises in the vicinity of Octavia's web.

I passed it off to imagination. If spiders can chew, I thought, it's likely a function performed in tiny, silent nips. So imagine my horrified fascination when I found this hanging in the web, like something out of the Night of the Living Insect Dead. Apparently, the sound I heard was chewing. Eeewww!

Not that it diminishes my admiration for Octavia. My sister emailed me this morning to comment on my latest Octavia photo spread. Here's a little of what she wrote:

The pictures of Octavia or absolutely INCREDIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The best
you’ve done yet. I must admit I feel for the poor grasshopper, but that’s
nature. The picture showing the webbing coming from her body is awesome. In most pictures Octavia looks so menacing, but in one shot, she’s so delicate, and
I think she hit on what I like best about Octavia: her duality. I told my sister the spider is like a velvet warrior, beautiful but still capable of Terrible Things.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Octavia's Victory Wrap

Blogger is being wonky and won't let me upload pictures. Again. So if you'd like to see the photos that go with today's post just click this link to my Photobucket Slideshow. The photos load at three second intervals. If you enjoy being creeped out by the ongoing Octavia saga, these shots won't disappoint.

It’s days like yesterday that make me glad that I'm a writer. Because if I had a real job and was out doing that instead of being here writing then I would have missed the Spectacular Nature Drama that unfolded in my greenhouse.

Octavia - the giant golden silk spider who lives in my orchid room - feeds about every other day. She’ll eat anything, and her diet has even included other spiders. Recently, another spider - after laying her own egg sac - tried to eat Octavia. But the Reigning Arachnid Queen of the Greenhouse Realm wasn't having it. Instead, Octavia raised her legs in a truly intimidating threat display and vanquished her would-be opponent, who went away and - too weak to build another web - died.

After Octavia eats, she leaves her web and just spins enough silk to hang out in the corner. When she’s ready to dine again she builds an elaborate prey web. Yesterday she built one in front of the door between the orchid room and the playroom. When Larry came home for lunch, he brought Octavia lunch, too - a giant locust.

Octavia has had locusts before, but none this large. Or strong. This one refused to go gently into that good night. Pardon the pun, but it got the jump on her and bit her just as she bit him. If you’ve ever seen a locust you know what big mandibles they have, and Octavia was clearly wounded. If you look at the photo of her biting the locust, you can see a droplet of spider blood on the side of her head.

I almost had a heart attack, for I adore Octavia. But I didn’t feel that intervening was the right thing to do, since if she didn’t vanquish the grasshopper she’d likely refuse to eat again.
Octavia retreated and waited as the locust slowly succumbed to the paralyzing poison. As she sat there, ocasionally she’d raise a graceful leg to wipe away the droplets of blood that kept oozing from her wound.

Ever so often she’d stop and go tap her victim. If he moved too vigorously she’d back up. And wait some more. She's very patient. Finally, when the locust could only barely wiggle one leg, she descended on him.

Over the next hour or so, she fed, stopping occasionally to wrap her meal in silk, and each time I checked in I noticed she was in a different position. Sometimes she was under her prey, sometimes on top. slowly draining him. And there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.

Is it me, or is there something sexy about spiders in a female vampire sort of way?