Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Back in the Saddle Again

The tractor didn't work out all that well in the end, so I'm movin' on up. This weekend I am renting a Bobcat with TWO attachments. One is a forked bucket like this:

The other is a hydraulic shear, so I can cut cedars of up to 12" in diameter off at the base, flush with the ground. I hope I can stop once I get started ... I can see myself madly cutting off cedars, oaks, fence posts, home foundations, you name it. I will have ultimate hydraulic power. I'm going to be like one of those freaky man-machine shell things at the end of the Matrix, shouting in glee while I mow down the enemy with my mechanized ammo.

And the best part is, the tires on this bad boy are solid, meaning they cannot be punctured. This may actually be more fun than a computer game, strange as that sounds. Computer games only let you SIMULATE hacking giant things to death, with this I get to actually DO it ::insert maniacal laugh here::.

Life is good, my friends. Life is good.

Of course, in a computer game the trees can't actually fall on and crush you. Hmmm. Welp, if I don't die in a hail of shredded tree and out-of-control-machinery this weekend, I will be sure to update you all.


Sunday, February 26, 2006

Digital Music

The B-52's
I'm about as straight an arrow as you'll find -- I don't lie, cheat, steal, do drugs, drink very much, fool around, or slap babies. Well, not very often anyway.

So when I got my iPod digital music player, I immediately went to find someplace where I could buy music I wanted. You'd have thought I tore up the winning lottery ticket to hear one of my younger coworkers tell it. "You're BUYING music?!" he asked, incredulous. I felt like I'd walked into a Vegas casino and asked what time they closed.

"Well, yeah, buy music. You know, to put on my iPod."

He rolled his eyes. "Dude, I have 2500 songs. I don't think I paid for any of them."

"But that's stealing," I said, shocked.

"Oh grow up, that's why people love MP3's, you just go get music you like and download it. Record companies make plenty of money, don't worry about it."

Ah, the old "everybody's doing it" routine, I hadn't heard that since the "Brady Bunch" where they try to get Jan to do drugs (though to be frank, we'd all have been a little better off if Jan had ridden the M Train a little more often -- that chick was way too uptight).

It just didn't sit right with me. Maybe it's because of HeroMachine, but I know how much time, effort, and money goes into creating something new. It's hard. And if you don't get money to put food on the table, eventually you have to quit creating and go out and get a real job. So ultimately, music thieves are really only stealing from themselves, because eventually artists are going to stop putting out music if they can't make a living at it.

Still, I felt like a fuddy-duddy when I told him "Look, I just think it's stealing, and I'm not comfortable doing that. I like the songs I like and if I don't already have them on a CD, I don't mind shelling out $0.99 for 'Love Shack'."

"'Love Shack?!'"

"Yeah, that B52's song. Why?"

"Look, dude, it's not that you buy music. I can understand that. It's that you buy bad music."

So there you have it. According to much younger and much hipper geeks than me, it's ok to buy music as long as it's good music. Buying bad music, now that's a crime.


Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Punctured Tire

My butt felt like ground hamburger after 14 hours in the tractor saddle late on that Sunday afternoon as I crawled across the pasture behind the house. It was shreddin' time, which in my prior life I would have called "mowing the grass". When you've got 100 acres to mow, though, a Snapper just won't cut it (literally), so you've got to upgrade to one of those tractors with giant rear wheels and a huge deck on the back containing twin whirling blades of death.

I was tired, sweaty, dirty, and in a foul mood from getting jostled around like a drunk rodeo clown in a barrel at the Running of the Bulls. Shredding the back part of our property is like driving a car over a field of speed bumps. Making it worse, Annie and Jill had been riding the horses over the hill and I'd see them, laughing and cutting up, while I was strapped to this instrument of torture all weekend.

So like I said, I was in a really foul mood, when IT happened.

The "POW!!" was so loud that for a brief second I thought I'd been shot quicker than a lawyer on a quail hunting trip. Then I whipped around, panicked that I'd somehow torn lose one of the hydraulic lines powering the bucket and shredding deck. Slamming on the brakes and cutting off the engine let me hear a far more dreadful sound, though -- an insidious hissing. With a heavy heart I looked back and, sure enough, one of the large rear tires was slowly sagging.

The last thing the guy at the rental place had said before I pulled away was "Whatever you do, don't puncture one of the rear tires unless you know how to fix it. We don't give refunds and we don't repair tires, that's your job."

Do I know how to repair a giant torture-device-supporting rear tractor tire in the middle of a field out on the far edge of nowhere? Uh, no. So I just stood there for a minute like an idiot, staring at the flattened lump of rubber, wondering what in the name of tarnation I was supposed to do now.

Of course the first thing you do when a tire goes flat, much like when you trip on something, is to look around for what might've done it. I don't know what that's supposed to accomplish, although in my case I'm pretty sure I was going to kick whatever it was. The most I could find was a stick, though. I still don't know what popped that tire, but I figure "God hates me" is as good an answer as any.

In disgust, I stomped the hundred yards to the back gate. Yes, I stomped like a two year old. I went into the house, got the truck keys, and stomped all the way down the driveway to where the truck and trailer were parked. I'd get the damn tractor on the trailer somehow, I figured, and get it back to town for somebody else to fix. Either that, or I'd ram the truck into the tractor over and over, whichever way was fine with me.

I opened the door, jumped in the truck, jammed the key into the ignition, ready to peel off in disgust and ... realized I'd gotten the wrong set of keys.

Getting a tight grip on my temper, I slowly walked back to the house. I got the right set of keys. I double-checked the keys before walking out the door. I slammed the door. So much for keeping control of my temper.

Finally getting the truck started, I positioned the rig with a well-executed ninety point turn. Stupid tree and bush and WHY IS THE GATE RIGHT THERE?!!? After displaying my driving acumen, I finally got the truck pointed down the driveway and headed to the gate. Looking in the rear view mirror, I was treated to the sight of the two ramps at the back of the trailer flapping up and down as they bounced off the ground.

Crap. I'd forgotten to lock the ramps in place before whipping out. Great.

Slamming the door shut after pinning them in place, I finally got out into the field where the tractor slumped. I glared at it. "This is your fault, you know!" I shouted at it. I think I hurt its feelings but at that point I didn't care. I walked to the back of the trailer to let the ramps back down so I could pull the crippled machine onto it and ...

One of the ramps was down again. With no pin holding it in place. With no pin anywhere in sight.

I looked back over the hundred yards to the gate. That tiny little metal pin could be on the ground anywhere between me and beyond the gate. It was dusk. The grass was high. I wear glasses. The chances of me finding that stinking pin at any point in my lifetime were about as good as the chances of Clay Aiken going steer wrestling.

It was one of those very clarifying moments. There I stood, covered in dirt and grime from shredding, a punctured-tire tractor steaming behind me, missing a pin without which I couldn't drag myself to town to have some other man fix a tire I was incompetent to repair, butt feeling like hamburger from the constant jostling as I mowed a field of speed bumps, and I just laughed.

What else can you do?

So I started walking back toward the gate, eyes glued to the ground, figuring if I couldn't find the pin on the way back I'd keep walking, get a beer, and I'd just wait for the truck, tractor and trailer all to sink right into the ever-loving ground.

And wouldn't you know it? Not three steps later, there lay the pin, right in a clear spot between two clumps of grass, just as pretty as you please.

I got the pin in, the ramp down, the tractor up, and the tire repaired the next morning by Willie the One-Armed Volunteer Fireman (that's a story for another day). I was only out $10 for the tire repair, and the rental place didn't even charge me for being late after I told them my tale of woe.

Sometimes, all you can do is laugh and get on with the business of gettin' on. I hope I don't ever forget that lesson.

Of course I also haven't been on a tractor since then. I'm optimistic, but I ain't stupid.


Friday, February 24, 2006

Foster Puzzles

Imagine trying to solve a mystery when the only witness is a mute and you have no information about their past.

That's what providing a foster home for a dog is like.

You can guess some things right away by how they act. Ashley, for instance, warmed instantly to Annie but seemed afraid of me. From that we guess that she probably had a female owner. The Pound said she was found with a nice collar but no tag, and she was in excellent health. She had been spayed and had a nice coat and good weight. From all that we infer that her owner cared for her and was fairly responsible.

How the dog behaves, certainly at first if not so much as time goes on, can also give you some clues. She refused to come in the house for a few days, whining and mincing her steps at the door. We guessed that she'd been an outside dog, but on the other hand she seems to be well potty-trained, as she hasn't had any accidents at all. We had to give up on that clue and just accept what she's willing to give.

Sometimes for "Fun with Fosters" we sit on the porch and call out different names, trying to see if they respond to any. In fact Annie made a comment the other day that Ashley didn't know her name, but I realized that was wrong. She knows her name, but we do not. Ahsley was just a random moniker assigned to her at the pound because they didn't know her real name either, we're all totally in the dark about even this most basic fact.

We're in something of a race with Ashley, as with all of our foster animals. We have to try and solve enough of the mystery to be confident that they will be good pets, but we have to find their new home before we fall in love with them completely. Otherwise we'll keep them (like we did with our dog Lacy), and that's one less spot for the next dog in need.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

Cousin Mario is Home & Has a Bronze Star

Mario receives the Bronze Star in Afghanistan

We're all very relieved that our cousin Mario has returned safely to the United States and (more importantly) Texas. He is now officially back to reserve status and no longer on active duty. I also just found out that he was awarded a Bronze Star for "... heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight, while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States...".

Of course he didn't mention any of this when he and Jill stopped by on their way home, he's too modest. I'm both impressed and humbled by Mario and just wanted to say congratulations, and thank you. It's awfully nice to have you back.

P.S. I misspoke earlier, Mario is in fact a Houston Rockets fan, not a Spurs fan. I like him anyway, but only barely :-)


The Tribble With Donkeys

Sparky the Donkey :: Photo courtesy of Cousin Jill

I love our mini donkeys. Something about them just connects with me ... I love how calm they are (most of the time), the serene way they approach life, the courage they show in facing down creatures ten times their size. I love how they line up in order of height to get fed or petted, as if a second grade teacher somewhere is haranguing them ("Get in line, GET IN LINE! Sparky, move over, make room there!").

Not only are they incredibly cute, they're also very stealthy. A good friend who we haven't seen for years came over yesterday and he put it well:

The donkeys are kind of like those Star Trek creatures, the Tribbles. You don't see them move but before you know it you're surrounded.

You walk into the field and you can see them in the middle distance, staring at you wide-eyed as if they're thinking "What the hell is THAT thing?!". You look away and when you turn back, one of them is standing a few feet away. Moving slowly, you reach out a hand and it smells you, then moves in closer.

After petting it for a minute, you look up and there are suddenly three of them right there next to you, lips quivering, wondering what you're up to. You twist and turn to pet them all and the next thing you know there's a donkey snout up your bum from another one having walked up. Within moments, without ever seeing one move, there are seven of them surrounding you, gently requesting some attention.

At no point do you see any of them move their legs, they just appear where they want to be, quiet as a church mouse. I suppose when you're a Very Small Creature, you have to be careful and deliberate about these things. Whether they move by stealth or by transporter technology, though, I'm just glad they're here. I love those little guys.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Illustration Layout II

I've posted previously about how I create the illustrations I do for gaming magazines. I came across another good example of how much composition can affect the success of a drawing and though I'd share it with you here.

This assignment was for the book "Fantasy Hero Grimoire" for Hero Games. Ultimately this particular drawing didn't make it into print, which isn't all that uncommon. Layouts change from the time art assignments are given out to when the final product is put to print and you have to lose some things.

The commission was to create an illustration of a pary in a dungeon finding a secret door via magic spell. I had in mind a blindfolded magic-user surrounded by his party. I thought having him float would be a good way to show that he was using magic, in addition to whatever spell effects I could come up with. Here was the first pass:

I liked the mixed races of the party members, especially the dwarf. I'd drawn him previously for a game I was playing, and was able to just cut and paste him in. The idea behind this treatment was that the mage was casting a spell showing where the door -- disguised as a part of the dungeon wall -- was hidden, and then a tendril of magic was touching and highlighting the door. It didn't work. It looked like two groups of guys about to fight while some blindfolded whacko was holding up a map of Wisconsin. The feline pet creature in particular looked menacning and out of place. Back to the drawing tablet.

I tried eliminating the bothersome pet and bringing in a new creature to the foreground to give the composition some balance. Better, but the other problems still remained:

I thought that the new character's axe was too threatening to the poor elf, so I tried swapping them. Because each character is on its own layer in Flash, I was able to do this without having to redraw the entire piece like I would if it were on paper.

That layout was better, but I finally decided the entire mage-door part was just too confusing and unclear. So I deleted that whole set of layers and drew a new, more active, unblindfolded mage standing there casting a spell at a more regular looking door.

This was closer, but the more I studied it the more I felt it still didn't look like a party of guys who were all on the same team. So I rearranged them all, resizing where necessary (and remember, in Flash I didn't lose any line quality by expanding a figure), and finally ended up with this:

With all of the figures facing the same direction, they felt much more like a team. It also focused attention on what the mage figure was doing, which was the whole point of the illustration in the first place.

Looking back on it now, years later, there are still some things I'd do differently. I think I needed a definite floor and walls instead of the black background -- it's not easy to tell they're in a dungeon. And the door still doesn't really look like a hidden door, it could be a wall or mirror or force field or who the hell knows what. Still, it's much better than it started out being, and for that I am happy.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Overseas Adventures

As weird as making the transition from country to city life is, I've got nothin' on people who go from America to live in other countries. One of those people is my nephew Nick, who has trotted around the globe living in places from Spain to Taiwan. He's charted a very unique life for himself.

His last message to all of us as he headed out for a two week "vacation" from his stressful life of DJ'ing on the beach in asia reminded me of a web site I'd visited last year. It tracks the adventures of an American who went to Japan to teach English in a Japanese city on the "wrong side of the tracks". I was sent a link to it again today and checked back in, and all I can say is they call it "foreign" for a reason. Those people are WEIRD ...


Check it out if you get a chance, it's pretty amazing stuff. Warning -- some of the content is a little racy. Ahem.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

More Winter

We had to hike over half the property to find where the donkeys had holed up for the bad weather, carting two big tubs of feed along with us. We had the new foster dog, Ashley, along as well, so it was a bit nerve-wracking -- you never quite know how a new dog will react to hoofed creatures. She did fine. She's very loving and was obviously well-loved by someone -- she had a nice leather collar, was in good health, isn't afraid of people, knows how to "sit" on command, and has been spayed. It breaks my heart knowing there's someone out there devastated over the loss of their family pet. Hopefully we can reunite them, or if not at least ensure that their dog finds a good home where she'll be just as loved.

We finally found the donkeys, and distributed our room service delivery. No donkey babies yet, despite the cold snap which can apparently cause instant baby-dropping. Which is weird, because if I was a baby there ain't no way I'd leave a warm womb for freezing temperatures. I'd be hanging on to that umbilical til August, screaming "I ain't ready, I ain't ready!!"

Along the walk back to the house, we saw cedar trees with frost riming their northern halves. It made for an interesting contrast, the dark green on one side and the icy white on the other. I was also surprised to see ice sheathing the ropes we've used for various small purposes around the place. I don't know why, but for some reason I didn't think rope froze. I imagine if they were made of hemp they would still freeze, they just wouldn't mind so much (and pass the Doritos, dude).

I needed to drive in to work today, there are a couple of hundred photos of body jewelry I need to doctor and get into shape for use on the new site, but I was defeated by the weather. In Texas if the temperature goes below 40 the entire region gets locked down. This is a good thing, because driving on ice didn't make the "Things Texans Are Good At" list.

Of course that didn't stop Cousin Mario, newly a civilian, from stopping by with Cousin Jill on their way back to San Antonio from Fort Hood (the big Army base where most soldiers stop on their way to and from their postings). He said that besides Cousin Jill (his wife), the thing he was most looking forward to upon returning to America was authentic Tex-Mex food. Yo Quiero An Honorable Discharge, Sergeant!

So that's the news from the ranch on a cold and blustery weekend. Yankees are welcome to this stuff, ice sucks. As our friend Russell said, this is the kind of weather you just kick back by the fire and catch up on old movies.

I sure wish that Corona truck had gotten stuck a little closer. As long as I'm cold anyway, a cold Corona would be just fine.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Texas Winter

A run-in shed at our old house on a real winter day
We have two of our twelve federally mandated days of winter this weekend. We even had to put coats on the horses; I think they look rather distinguished, but they suffer through the fitting session with an air of offended sensibilities. You have to duck under and around them to fasten all the hooks and straps, and it's never far from my mind that they could kick out and crush my skull with fairly little effort. Luckily their fashion sense is not outraged to the point of physical violence, but if Joan Rivers ever rolls out the red carpet and starts critiquing them, I'm sure all bets would be off.

The donkeys don't seem to like the horses' coats too much either. They huddle at the back of the barn, staring doubtfully out at Toby's blue blazer with particular disgust. I can't tell if they're afraid or if they simply have a keener sense of style than we do.

We've also shrouded the house and all outside faucets with snug winter wear, and the interior sinks are dutifully dripping. At our last house, we got hit several times with real winter weather, including snow and everything. It was my first time to ever actually see snow falling, so it was pretty neat. At least, until the pipes froze, thawed, and promptly shattered. For some reason the guy who built our last house thought that running the water supply tight up against the uninsulated metal roof through uninsulated pipes would be a great idea. Of course this is the same guy who had the brilliant innovation of running the washing machine's gray water outlet pipe uphill so I shouldn't have been surprised.

Hopefully we'll weather this cold snap in our new house a little better. Green grass has been popping up over the last few weeks and the occasional leaf has emerged, lulled into a false sense of security by the 80 degree temperatures earlier in February. They're done for now -- old man winter has snuck in a sucker punch just when they felt safe, and they'll be forced back into hibernation for who knows how long.

I know how they feel. Frozen water makes me want to snatch a few cubes, plunk them into a glass with some Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola, and crawl under the covers until it's shorts weather again. I imagine the horses feel the same way, though they'd probably settle for just taking the coats off, and weather be damned. An animal has to have pride, after all.


Friday, February 17, 2006

It's What's For Dinner

The dogs' menu last night:

Roasted duck, stuffed with sweet potatoes, with a light demi-glaze of strawberry-infused yogurt, over a crunchy base of lamb and rice.

Our menu last night:


Remind me who's in charge again?


Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Abbeville Animal Rescue Trip

As I blogged about earlier, my wife Annie recently took a load of supplies to Abbeville, Louisiana for an animal rescue group. She's just gotten final approval on the article she wrote about it, and I present it here after the "Read More" link.

Roll on, Annie!

Cajuns Put Their Lives on Hold to
Help Neighbors Near Abbeville, LA

By Leann Phenix Hebert

How a Central Texas cowgirl ends ups up sleeping a night in a FEMA trailer
in Southwest Louisiana is a story into itself, but it's the not the story
that needs to be told. The vital story is how countless Cajuns are surviving with no homes, few trailers, little feed for their pets and livestock and dim hope of things improving in the future.

After a nine-hour trek from Bertram, Texas to Abbeville, LA with a 2,000-pound delivery of donated feed and supplies for Vermilion Animal Aid (www.Vermilionanimalaid.blogspot.com), a 501-3c nonprofit, I was tired and grateful to have a place to sleep. My Shiloh Shepherd and I tried to get comfortable in one of the few FEMA trailers in the region.

As I was swatting the mammoth mosquitoes that were sharing the trailer with us, I heard a mother coyote howling and barking just outside my trailer door. Her puppies answered her, and I was relieved to hear them. The wild animals are very much present here, hungry but surviving, and so are the people. A handful of Louisianans are making sure those in need in Vermilion Parish don't go hungry, and they are just as protective of their own as the mother coyote is.

Vermilion Parish's Best Friends

I found Vermilion Animal Aid through animal welfare contacts in Austin. In normal times they serve Vermilion Parish, a large costal community west of New Orleans, by housing unwanted animals at their sanctuary and by investigating animal abuse cases.

They now serve as the last thread of hope for the hundreds of people and animals who were thrown into chaos thanks to Hurricane Rita. Daily they care for 2,500 head of cattle, 400 horses, 200 dogs and many cats, sheep, goats and chickens. Beth Trahan, the President of the organization, works side by side with Larry and Joelle Rupert and Brenda Hebert (no known relation to my in-laws).

Flash (the dog) and I drove into Abbeville after dark. We were met by Joelle, a charming example of why I love Cajuns so much. She's a self-pronounced Mother Hen, and her caring nature extended immediately to me.

"Have you had anything to eat?" The first words out of Joelle's mouth made me feel right at home. "How was your trip? Don't worry about anything, we'll take care of you."

I followed Joelle to Brenda Hebert and Cindy Greene's farmstead. Or what was left of it. We all went into Brenda and Cindy's cramped RV where they told me the story of their 18 hours stranded in hell.

The Night of the Flood

Brenda and Cindy told me they stayed in their home for simple reasons. Human reasons. They thought they were not in Rita's path until it was too late to get themselves and their animals out. They had lived through many hurricanes in the past. Mostly, they stayed to be with their animals.

"We fled to our large, heavy tractor when the flood waters got too high in our farm house," Brenda told me. "We were joined there not only by our friend Chip, but by snakes trying to get out of the flood. All of us were in the tractor cab for seven hours, watching helplessly as many of our horses drowned in the flood waters."

One factor made the group even more nervous: Brenda couldn't swim. When the flood waters threatened the tractor, Chip roped Brenda like she was a calf and then he and Cindy pulled Brenda behind them as they swam to reach the rooftop of a nearby house. "We got into the attic alive and even found our dogs swimming in the wreckage. We spent 11 hours or more up there until a rescue helicopter swooped down and the three of us became another image shown over and over on TV," Cindy said.

The Red Cross visited. Apparently they handed out bologna sandwiches and oranges. Then they left. The local authorities donated one item – bales of hay that were so wet that few animals could eat it.

Luckily, Vermilion Animal Aid kicked it into high gear and became one of the parish's bright spots. Brenda and Joelle teamed up to store feed and supplies in a large trailer outside Brenda's RV. Donations come in and are usually dispersed in less than 24 hours. The supply truck stays empty for days on end. Brenda shared with me that she hasn't worked for a paycheck in five months. She has worked all day, every day, to help her neighbors and their animals. She fields as many as 60 calls a day from neighbors looking for help.

How to Help

As I sat alone in the FEMA trailer that night, I felt that humanity failed these people and the ones they love and have a responsibility to care for. Animals depend on us for everything and thousands of pet owners did just what Brenda, Cindy and Joelle did – they stayed put to stare down a Category 4 hurricane in order be there for their animals.

I thought of the homes, fields, fences and lives washed away. But I also had undeniable images of neighbor helping neighbor -- the kind of people who show up on your doorstep as you sift through the devastation of a flood-ravaged home, and they tell you everything will be alright. And then they help you get back to alright.

Be that kind of neighbor. Help Vermilion Animal Aid help those who are struggling to get a foothold towards being okay.

Students, teachers, community and civic groups can all help by raising much needed cash or by purchasing gift cards to nation-wide chains. Farming communities can help the farmers of Vermilion Parish put up thousands of acres of fencing that washed out to sea.

As I was leaving I promised Joelle that I would do anything I could to help people know about their plight. I said I wanted to especially help the animals. She reminded me of this truth: we cannot help the animals until we help the people who care for them.

To help the good people of Abbeville, call Vermilion Animal Aid at (337)893-7388 or visit their web site at http://www.vermilionanimalaid.org.

# # #

Leann Phenix Hebert lives in Bertram, Texas with her husband on a ranch filled with four rescued dogs, seven donkeys and three horses. Her email address is Leann@Texas.net


"It's Not a Sport", Olympic Edition

Annie and I are having our biennial argument, prompted by the Olympics, about what is and what is not a sport.

For me and for most men, it's simple -- if there's a chance of someone dying while doing it, the odds are good that we're looking at a sport.

To be more technical about it, I would definite a sport as an athletic competition in which a winner is decided primarily by being the best at achieving an objective set of criteria.

So it has to be athletic, meaning there's at least a chance someone will a) sweat, b) get injured, or even better c) die doing it. It has to be a competition, which means someone has to win and someone has to lose, at least most of the time (hockey ties, I'm lookin' at you). And the most important part is that there's an objective set of criteria. If the winner is decided in large part by subjective judging, it ain't a sport.

With that in mind, let's look at some popular events and I'll tell you if they're a sport or not. You can even print this out if you like to help guide you in your television viewing. I'm helpful that way.

Figure Skating - The definitive Non-Sport. Flinging waifs across the ice like a drunken Russian catapult is fun to watch and definitely athletic, but artistic merit is the deciding factor on who wins, and that means it's not a sport. Imagine if they decided touchdowns in the NFL by how pretty the spiral is. Blasphemy!

Luge - First one to the bottom of the mountain wins. Risk of bloody dismemberment in the event of a sled failure. Sharp objects bolted to a cart hurtling down a frozen tube. Definitely a sport.

Snowboarding - Anything that has been part of the X-Games is automatically not a sport. Anything you do better at if you smoke weed is not a sport. Anything that has "tricks" as an integral part of the event is not a sport. Three strikes and this one's out.

Biathlon - First one across the finish line who also hits the most targets with a gun wins. Not just a sport, but a manly sport, because there are guns involved. Now if they armed figure skaters with firearms we might have a sport on our hands.

Curling - In contrast to the guns of the biathlon, the fact that there are brooms in this event bring it perilously close to the "Not a Sport" category. However, people do sweat and there's always the chance that one of those giant blocks of granite will crash through the ice, dooming the entire team to a frigid and watery death. Definitely a sport. Getting to smash into something owned by the other team counts for a lot.

Speed Skating - First one around the track wins. Blades fastened to the bottoms of the competitors' feet hints at the possibility of a deadly ninja-style karate-kicking deathmatch. Definitely a sport.

Ski Jumping - This is a tough one. On the one hand, there's a high degree of possible death resulting from hurtling through the air. That's cool. And the guy who jumps the farthest usually wins, so that's good. On the other hand, if you break form you get disqualified, which seems lame given that you're flinging your body down a mountain without a parachute. That should count for something. I say if you want to fly down that hill in the fetal position, more power to you. The dealbreaker for me is that some contestants -- Olympic level contestants mind you -- have anorexia. Any event that an anorexic has a chance of winning shouldn't be considered a sport.

Feel free to post your own analysis of what is and what is not a sport, I look forward to hearing it!


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Making an Illustration

Ever since I started drawing as a kid, people have looked at work I've done and asked "How did you do that?" I think most want me to answer "Magic!" because the true answer -- hard work and time -- is pretty boring. However, driven by the continuing inquiries and inspired by this post by a truly brilliant artist called "Olduvai George" (whose brushes I am not fit to rinse) about how he creates his masterpieces, I thought you might like to see how I went about creating a cover for a role playing game magazine.

Because this is a lengthy post with lots of large images, I've put it after a "Read More" link so those of you NOT interested don't have to sit through the download.

The Project

The first thing you need is an idea. That can be intimidating if you're just goofing off, but usually if you're drawing for money the client has already supplied this for you. In this case my client, Hero Games, wanted a cover for the premier edition of their online magazine, "Digital Hero". Sometimes you get a lot of art direction ("I want a woman in a red dress with a matching Gucci bag who looks like Mariah Carey in front of the New York Deli on a sunny morning holding a white poodle ...") and sometimes, like here, you get something a little more vague ("Several heroes all together, something having to do with creating characters for the game.")

When I have that much liberty, I try to get a quick sample of my idea to the client for their approval before I go nuts and spend weeks creating something that they're ultimately going to reject because it wasn't at all what they had in mind. Because even when they tell you they don't have anything in mind, they do. So I quickly did this rough digital sketch:It's a good thing I did, because they hated it. "Too computery," was the main comment, and "It's a pen and paper game, not on the computer, character creation can't look like it's done digitally."

So, back to the drawing tablet.

I decided that grouping four characters together on a page of the game manual would be kind of neat. I could have representatives of the different genres of game the client's company produces -- realistic pulp fiction, four-color super-heroes, advanced science fiction, and fantasy -- and still reinforce the idea that this is a pen and paper game.

Once that was decided, I started drawing. I'll make another post at some point about all the steps you have to go through to get a final line drawing, but for now I'll skip all that. Suffice it to say that I ended up with my final four drawings, each one a complete figure on a separate layer. One of the nice things about Flash and PhotoShop is that you can have as many layers in your drawing as you want, kind of like they do for classic animated cartoons. Here are the four character layers I had:

It's more time consuming to draw the full figure, especially since some of each will be hidden by one of the others. For instance, the robot figure ends up in the back of the group and you can't even see his legs. With the whole figure drawn, though, I am free to move them around however I want without having to worry about missing limbs preventing me from putting it where I want it. For instance, in this illustration the robot was originally in the front, but I thought he was better as a looming presence in the back. Because I had the whole figure, I was free to put him wherever I wanted him. And because it's in vector format, I was able to scale him down a bit, since he was now further away at the rear of the group.

Anyway, now I had my main grouping of characters, but I still needed a stage to put them on. I scanned a page of the rulebook, and saved the scan as a JPEG image. I brought that into Flash and put it on its own background layer, then distorted it so it looked like it was laying at an angle, flat on a table as seen from above, kind of "Star Wars" opening-credits style:

After I studied it for a while, though, I decided that the shadow was too regular and it didn't really look like they were casting it. It looked like just a blob rather than a real shadow. Also I thought that the page in the background was too distracting -- there's another character illustration on the bottom right, and I felt it distracted from my far more glorious figures.

After a bit of thinking I decided to make a screen capture of one of the pages of a prototype edition of Digital Hero. That seemed more appropriate somehow.

I also grouped together all the figures onto a new layer, combined them so they were all one big undifferentiated mass, filled the entire mass with black, and set its transparency to 20% so I could have a cool drop-shadow behind them.

The final step is subtle but I think really added to the final product. One of the key parts of the game the magazine is for features hexagonal grids that form the "Game board". So I created hexagons in Flash using lines, duplicated them into a whole page, then colored the lines white and set their transparency to 50% or so. I had to create a mask that exactly matched the silhouettes of the characters, like so:

That way, the hexagons would appear only over the characters (everything black in the image above) and not over the page or background.

Finally all the pieces were ready. I put everything in its proper place and output the page at the size the client needed. Although Digital Hero was available online, you could also download and print it locally, so I had to output the image at a fairly high resolution. That wasn't a problem, thanks to creating the file in Flash.

So here's how the final version came out:

I was very pleased with how it looked. My technique creates a very four-color (that means classic comic-book style) look, whereas later on they wanted a more "painterly" feel for the covers. But it's still one of my favorite illustrations I've done.

I hope you found this interesting! If you'd like to see more samples of my freelance work, you can go to http://www.heromachine.com/portfolio.

If you'd like to see the original Flash file I used to create the illustration, you can click here to get it. Note that you will need the full version of Flash (i.e. lotsa money), not just the free Flash Player, to use it.

Tools & Methods

I prefer to work completely digitally whenever possible. That means not only that I work with my fingers, but that all of the illustration work is done on the computer. I used to sketch out ideas in pencil, trace them with tracing paper, transfer the tracing to a nice piece of Bristol board, ink it by hand with a brush, scan the finished ink drawing, then color it in PhotoShop. Now I skip all of the preliminary stuff and do all of the sketching from beginning to end on the computer.

I use a small Wacom graphics tablet and do almost all of my drawing in Macromedia Flash. That's fairly unusual -- most digital artists use PhotoShop or Illustrator, reserving Flash strictly for animation. But Flash feels very organic to me, I feel like I am drawing on paper rather than drawing on a computer like I do with Illustrator. This method is best for black-line drawings like you see in newspapers or in comic books. It wouldn't be as good for more painterly projects that you want to look like, well, like painting. And of course the biggest advantage Flash has over PhotoShop is that everything is in vector format instead of bitmap. That means that your lines will all look exceptionally crisp no matter how you stretch or shrink them.

That's particularly important when you're working for money, because I can output my final drawing at any size and any resolution the client needs without having to do anything special. The same file can be used to print a giant billboard or just as a spot illustration on a web page. It gives great flexibility.

:: UPDATE :: Some of you HeroMachine users might recognize the Uzi the soldier character on the right is holding. It's a direct cut and paste from the HeroMachine "Ranged" genre of items held in the left hand. That's another reason I work in Flash for my freelance illustrations -- I can steal from myself. If there's an item I think would work well in a given drawing, I can cut and paste it, then customize as needed instead of having to come up with the entire thing from scratch.


Too Much Corona

See, the thing is, you're supposed to just drive the Corona, not drink the Corona ...

Going home on Friday I saw this truck, stuck on the driveway of our shopping center at work. The trailer got hung up on the hump coming out of the driveway onto the access road, basically making a see-saw out of an 18-wheeler. Neither set of tires were making contact so the poor guy was totally jammed up. Naturally this made me laugh, and I had to take a picture or two.

OK, to be honest I called back to the office and made the assistant product manager go and take a picture because I'd already passed it. Thanks Emily!

See, out in the country we'd have a solution for this problem right away, wouldn't even have to think about it. You just drink all the beer and that truck'll come right up with all the weight gone. Problem solved.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Uncle Howard

My Uncle Howard is in very poor health. His daugher Mary has started a very moving Blog called "At Home with Dad", chronicling her experiences after moving back home to help take care of him.

It's extremely painful for me to read.

You see, my father (Uncle Howard's brother) died of lung complications after a long illness, also tied to an oxygen tank. I was lucky to be with him on the day he died, but I still feel guilt that I was the child who lived too far away to be there with him much. My other siblings and in-laws and of course my saint of a mother were his nurses, helping through all of the complications and heartaches that are part of a lingering illness. I could only keep him in my thoughts, come in when possible, and wish there were more ways I could've helped.

I'm jealous of Mary in a way, because she gets to be there with Uncle Howard in his time of need. I also know how incredibly difficult and trying it must be, to see someone you love so much in so much pain. If you get a chance to read her blog, please do -- it's honest and moving and well worth the tears.

But reading it has also given me a glimpse into an alternate universe, one where a man who looked like my dad, who sounded like my dad, who even smelled like my dad, was kind to his children. Who left his daughters little Valentine's Day gifts. Who talked to and laughed with and hugged on his children. Growing up (and I've never told anyone this), Uncle Howard was always the Dad I wished I'd had. I didn't see him very often, but I vividly remember hugging him and hearing his smoke-graveled voice rumbling in his chest, desperately wishing that my own father could be as kind to me. I felt loved by Uncle Howard, even though we barely knew each other, in a way I never felt loved by my own father.

So while I am terribly saddened that he is so ill, while my heart goes out to my aunt and my cousins that a great man is being betrayed by his own body, while I share the pain they are feeling, I also feel joyful that at least they have a father who loves them so much, who cares for them so deeply, who gave them happy memories of treasured days. When the time comes (as it will come for all of us one day) that he is no longer here physically, those memories and feelings of being cherished will remain.

We should all be so lucky.


Cousin Mario

Cousin Mario (he's the one on the right)

Amid the sands of Afghanistan
Our cousin Mario (married to Cousin Jill) has finally returned from Afghanistan today. I can't say enough about Mario's service to our country, and the bravery and skill with which he has served. Originally in a Reserve group that trained medical military personnel from a base in San Antonio, once Mario got overseas he quickly found himself actively hunting Taliban soldiers. Yes, with real bullets and everything.

I get the feeling that out in the city, military people are somehow looked down upon. Oh, not overtly or even consciously, not any more than most people would think of themselves as racist, for example. The unspoken assumption seems to be that only those with no other options go into the service, that soldiers are all uneducated slobs whose only recourse in life is to go into the military, that they're redneck idiots who like to kill for the fun of killing.

Out in the country we know that's not true. I think that's one reason country music is so often patriotic and pro-soldier, because we see up close what good, honest, smart, caring, competent, kind-hearted people are serving in the Armed Forces.

People like Mario.

Mario's a graduate of Texas Tech University who volunteered for the Army and has had a distinguished career, both militarily and in the civilian world. He referees college basketball games in addition to holding a very well-paying job in the pharmaceutical industry. He's funny, smart, loves his wife and his San Antonio Spurs very much, and is deserving of the utmost respect and thanks for being willing to fight when his country asked him.

No matter what your political position on the war, or the President, or Michael Moore or Ann Coulter, each of us should salute people like Mario who serve with honor and distinction. We wouldn't have the right to be Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, dog lover or hater, without the dedication of our Marines, soldiers, airmen, and sailors.

Thank you, Mario.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Bad Headlines

Writing headlines is hard, I know -- both my parents and my in-laws owned newspapers, my wife used to write tons of press releases, and I worked on the school paper in college, and it's nowhere near as easy as you'd think. Sometimes you mean to say one thing, and then when you go back and re-read what you wrote you've actually said something quite different.

Even the Big Boys get it wrong.

For instance, MSNBC.com is the largest news site on the Internet. And yet, sometimes even their headlines are really, really bad. Here's a sampling from today's edition that made me laugh, along with the alternate interpretation I had when first looking at them:

  • American Cheek 'blew everybody away' in 500M - You would think it would be American Lips doing the blowing, but apparently no, it's just the cheeks.

  • Cheney's accident victim stable - He needs a whole stable to keep his accident victims in?! I thought it was just one guy he shot!

  • British soldier held in videotape beating - When, oh when, will the military quit abusing videotapes? I could see it if they were beating DVD's but video?! That's just cruel.

  • Hurricane homeless lose hotel battle - I find it sad that so many homeless hurricanes are wandering the streets without a hotel.


More Fun With China

Here's the latest from an e-mail by a Chinese vendor:

What's more, we price cheapness.
I wonder what cheapness is going for these days?


Sunday, February 12, 2006

Why You Don't Name Pets After Relatives

Annie: Wow, Jill's nipples are really engorged!
Me: ::blink::
Annie: No, not COUSIN Jill, DONKEY Jill!
Me: Phew!


Friday, February 10, 2006

Pivot Point

I read a great blog article the other day at Opinionistas.com about Pivot Points, which in movie terms is "an instant where you realize precisely what you’ve gotten yourself into". It reminded me of my own Pivot Point, when I realized just what working at Dell Computers was all about, and which directly led to my quitting to work full-time on HeroMachine.

I'd been working at Dell Computers for several years. The corporate culture there basically dictated that the employee with the least life outside the office wins. Put in a ton of hours on a project, bail right before it collapses and move on to greener pastures while someone else cleans up the mess, never let on that you're not at the office, on and on, your typical "Climb the Corporate Ladder" stuff.

Our team had just merged with another group in software development (one of the favorite corporate games at Dell is "Shuffle the Org Chart") a week before. It was time for the yearly "Attaboy" party, so the new fused team held the party together. They were handing out awards, and then the leader of the group stood up to make a special presentation.

"This award for the best team player goes to Tim. Tim's wife had a baby towards the end of the project, when things were really heating up. But Tim didn't let that stop him, he was in the office first thing in the morning and was the last man out. He practically never saw his new daughter, and in fact didn't get to spend any time with her until after she'd already taken her first steps!" Delighted applause and cheers from the others, appalled slack-jawed amazement from me. "So way to go, Tim, good job!"

I couldn't believe that missing your daughter's birth and first steps, ignoring your wife and newborn, spending more time at the office than with the two most precious people in the world, was a GOOD THING. A distinction deserving of engraved awards. A model to be held up before the entire community as a paragon of corporate achievement.

I left the company two months later to work full-time on HeroMachine, vowing I would never become a corporate whore like that poor bastard Tim, grinning like a slack-jawed moron as my life was slowly sucked out of my veins.


Animal Inferiority?

So let's recap:

It seems to me that the line between "us" and "them" is getting blurrier and blurrier every day. Every time an argument is made that trait x or ability y "sets us apart" from the "lower species", someone finds an animal that can do it.

We used to think it was language, but clearly other species can use language to communicate. We used to think it was tool usage, but even bird-brains have now been shown to make and use tools. We used to think it was our moral sense, but clearly animals express and feel our same range of emotions, both positive and negative.

Inevitably we retreat each time another conceit is knocked down, hiding behind more and more desperate rationales, deathly afraid of losing our moral superiority, until finally we have to resort to a flat declaration of unimpeachable faith to justify our domination of and superiority over other animals. "We're better becase we have a soul and they don't, even though we're alike in every other way" is pretty thin justification for how we treat them.

I've never understood the kind of person who only feels worthy by putting others down, as if insulting and degrading someone else inevitably raises their own value. It doesn't. All we really succeed in doing, like cruel sorority sisters demeaning the rejected pledge, is harming ourselves.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

METAPOST: Commenting

I've unfortunately gotten hit with a spate of comment spam, which is when some automated computer system posts a "comment" on your blog that's actually an advertisement for some product. To keep from having to delete all of those, I have turned on the feature that says you have to be a registered user to leave a comment.

We'll try that for a bit and see how it works. My apologies for any frustrations this may cause.

UPDATE: That didn't work. So, now I've turned on word authentication. Hopefully that'll do it.



Photo courtesy Hope Davidson
From the "That's Gotta Hurt" Department, I present this photo of my nephew, John Davidson. John recently ran in his first marathon. While waiting in the starting area, a more experienced runner next to him glanced over and asked "Is that a new T-Shirt?" "Yes," answered John, "Fresh from the store, why?" The man just shook his head.

26 miles and 2 bloody nipples later, John now knows why you don't wear a brand new T-Shirt while running a marathon.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Power of Tivo

Here's why I love Tivo.

Horses have to be fed more or less on time, and so do dogs and donkeys. The rhythms of the country have their own insistent timetable, and cannot be denied. Marriages are the same way, they need to be nurtured and cared for in their own time. Earlier tonight Annie and I were having a great conversation -- nothing major or deep but good and satisfying -- when it was time for American Idol to come on.

Yes, we love American Idol. Deal with it.

But we didn't have to stop talking to watch it. We finished our conversation and, when we were ready, cranked up the Tivo to start watching the show. We were enjoying it, but it got to be time to feed the dogs. You can't just ignore that kind of thing because "your show" is on. So we paused it, she got their food ready while I got some dinner together, and when we were ready, we picked Idol back up where we'd paused it.

Later during the program my sister Diane called. I love my sister and don't get to talk to her very often. Normally though I'd be distracted, trying to follow the TV and the conversation and doing a piss-poor job of both. But thanks to Tivo, I just paused the program, Annie went up to check e-mail, and I had a great conversation with Diane. When we were done, Annie came back down and we finished the show.

Tivo is liberating. I don't feel like the TV is in control of what we watch and when any more. Now WE are in control. It's cut way down on Annie's obsessive news-watching and on my rabid following of sports. If we feel like watching TV, we watch what we want when we want.

I think that's particularly important out in the country, where you can go for days without interacting with other people. Feeling that you're not totally cut off from the rest of the world is key, and Tivo helps with that, all while ensuring that both your animals and your marriage get the proper care and feeding.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

What We Grow

When people ask me, "What do you grow on your farm?" I like to answer "We grow fat on our farm. The donkeys grow fat, the dogs grow fat, I grow fat, basically we're a fat farm and it's a bumper crop every year." Nicole Richey and Paris Hilton stopped by once and doubled in weight after just ten minutes. Now they each weigh FIFTY pounds. Weight Watchers is petitioning the government to pay us subsidies to close up shop here so they can get a grip on obesity.

Every time some celebrity staples their stomach and loses weight, where do you think it goes? That's right, it goes straight here, to Bertram, Texas.

It's like we have some kind of Caloric Enhancement Field around the place, any living creature that steps on it starts to pork up. That's why we can't raise pigs, if we brought a hog onto the property it'd explode in about ten minutes.

Hell, I sent a letter to Oprah once and she gained five pounds just opening it.

Anyway, that's what we grow here. Fat. Come on over some time, we'll serve you up a nice tall heaping stack of pancakes with syrup for breakfast and end your day with a giant plate of biscuits and gravy with pot roast on the side and pecan pie for desert.


Monday, February 06, 2006

I Have No Responsibilities Here Whatsoever

We use an online project management application here at the office. Here in living color is proof that I am utterly blameless if anything goes wrong (click for a larger version):


The Whisky PC

Now THIS guy is the true definition of a country nerd. A PC in a whisky bottle? He's my hero!


Sunday, February 05, 2006


A funny thing happened as I researched a post full of fire and brimstone about the "Scourge of Central Texas", the cedar tree, and how it invaded the state from outside and drained all the water from us. How it crushed the other species that were here before, destroying the landscape and native wildlife. The danger posed by its pernicious and explosive reproduction that outpaced all attempts to rein it in.

The funny thing that happened as I researched all this was, I discovered none of it was true.

  • They're not even really "cedar" trees, they're Ashe junipers.

  • They're not an exotic species, they're native to Texas at least since before the last Ice Age.

  • They don't drink water at the prodigious rate they're advertised as. They choke back in dry months and ramp up in wet months, but the rate of consumption isn't that different from oaks.

  • They used to be restricted to the highlands, but they've moved into every niche because humans have over grazed and over cleared the other species out.

The first few months on this property were spent in the relentless pursuit and destruction of these trees. We were out there with chainsaws and hand blades hacking them down, determined to bring the water table back up because we believed the prevalent sterotype.

I hate it when I do this kind of thing. I consider myself a skeptic, demanding some kind of evidence before believing in something, and trying to remind myself at all times that I could be wrong about most everything. That I bought into the cedar myth for so long makes me angry, especially when it would have been so easy to check it out.

I still plan on clearing out the fields, because they do take relentless advantage once they get a foothold, and the horses need room to run. But I'm going to leave quite a few on the ridges and among the denser growth in the back of the place.

Hopefully every time I see Ashe junipers from now on (which is every day because they are, literally, everywhere around here) I can use it as a reminder to think before I act and to confirm before I believe.

For more about the Ashe juniper and how the misunderstandings about them became so prevalent, see http://members.toast.net/juniper/Ashe%20juniper.html.


Saturday, February 04, 2006

Don't Slap That Ass!

Something that surprised me when we got our animals is that equine skin is a lot like ours in many ways. Horses and donkeys don't have thick fur like on a German Shepherd dog, or thick skin like a rhino. Their hides are covered with a relatively thin layer of hair and it's even more sensitive then yours or mine.

So when you're on a horse, or petting a donkey, don't slap at it like you see too many actors do on film. Rubbing is much more pleasant for them, or at most gentle patting. Think of them as four-legged human babies as far as their skin goes and you won't be too far off the mark.

Remember -- don't slap that ass! Or that horse for that matter. They'll appreciate it!


Friday, February 03, 2006

Once a duck ...

I had my most surreal country experience while driving to a (very) small town outside of Austin to interview for a job. I knew nothing about the town of Taylor, but I started getting a feel for it on the drive in as I passed a meat-packing plant featuring a line of cows going in one door and trucks packed with packaged meat pulling away from another.

As I drove down the main street, I came to a banner hanging above the road. It was the kind of banner you see in small towns advertising an upcoming festival or somesuch. This one had no identifying markers on it at all, no "Kiwanas Club Presents!" or "City of Taylor Says!" or the like. No, all it had written on it, in very large, very red letters, was the simple message:


This bit of country Zen has stayed with me for lo these many years. Once a duck always a duck, indeed, my friend. Indeed.


Crap, This is Dangerous

We just found out that last weekend, a woman riding on the property behind where we used to live fell off her horse and broke 3 vertebrae and 2 ribs. They had to have one of their group gallop back ten minutes to the house to call 911 ... all told it was probably 30 to 45 minutes from the time of the accident before help got there. Eventually they had to fly in a medical chopper to evacuate her, because the ambulance couldn't get through the rough terrain to where she lay.

They were in a sizeable group, and were pretty much done riding for the day. It was on the way back that her horse -- normally a reliably old hand -- spooked at something and reared up, throwing her. It can happen just like that, one second you're secure and confident and the next you've got a broken neck. And it happened right behind our old house, with our old riding group. I can't help but think that could've been us.

I worry about that every time Annie goes out. I try reminding myself that she's a good rider, that the odds are very low that anything bad will happen, but I can't help but think about Christopher Reeves and what a great rider he was and now what's happened to Judy.

Oy. I hope Judy gets better soon, all of us who have anything to do with horses will be thinking of her.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

That's It In a Nutshell

I sat down at my computer and wide-screen LCD monitor after driving to the office (which is right across the street from Dell, the largest computer maker in the world), turned on my high-powered PC so I could log in to the 'Net to start cranking out HTML and designs with my Wacom tablet, then reached into my shirt pocket to pull out my super-compact Cingular cellphone, and I came out with ...

... a handful of hay.

That pretty much sums it up.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Vermillion Animal Aid

Vermillion Parish after Hurricane Rita

The truck loaded up with supplies.
Annie leaves in the morning for a weekend trip of mercy to the Vermillion Animal Aid group in Abbeville, Louisiana. These folks have been providing rescue services for horses, cattle, dogs, cats, and many other animals in the continuing devastation of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. They are currently providing aid and/or shelter to 400 horses, 2300 head of cattle, 200 dogs, and countless cats left homeless by flooding and the collapse of their previous owners' entire financial lives.

Although Hurricane Katrina got most of the national attention due to the loss of New Orleans, one of America's ten largest cities, in many ways Hurrican Rita was far more devastating to Louisiana. It was a direct hit over more of the state, and mile after mile was left under water.

The flooding and winds blew away the homes and barns of hundreds of ranchers along the La. Gulf Coast. With no fences to hold the livestock, no barns to shelter them, and no houses to live in, all too many ranchers have simply had to abandon their herds and homes. But the animals have to go somewhere, and that's where Vermillion Animal Aid has stepped in. They're struggling heroically to provide help for these homeless creatures.

Annie heard about the group, and the trouble they were having getting basic supplies now that the national attention has wandered on to other things. She called her horse and dog friends in central Texas, and is headed out to Cajun Country tomorrow with a truck full of fencing supplies, dog and cat food, carriers and dog houses, and much more. She'll probably be making more trips in the months ahead, because with Annie, animals matter.

When the hurricanes hit Louisiana, we were frantic, wanting to help and not knowing how. My family lives in Baton Rouge, and they all told me to just wait. Eventually the flood of aid from around the country would slow, and that's when the state would really need help. And they were right.

There's a lot still to do in Louisiana, but Cajuns are tough people. They'll bounce back. But every little bit helps, so if you're reading this, please check out Vermillion Animal Aid or some other group helping Louisianians, and see what you can do.


We Might Be Pregnant!

Cousin Jill, Donkey Jill, and Daddy(?)
Photo courtesy Cousin Jill
Now that my mother's had a heart attack, it would be more accurate to say, "One of our jennets (female donkeys) might be pregnant. Actually up to three of them could be in a family way, but it's hard to tell with donkeys. They have a gestation period of up to a year or so, and they don't really show much until 6 weeks or so before delivery. But we have our suspicions, prompted by the sudden emergence of teats and a suspicious bulging around the belly.

Of course the whole situation reminds me of my mom's reaction when I first told her we were getting miniature donkeys:

"You're not half-ass enough for that house?"

Ya gotta love your mother.


The Best Part of Waking Up ...

There's something about waking up to the sensation of a dog licking your nipple that gets your whole day off to a surreal, and profoundly disturbing, start. Guarantees you take a shower that morning, that's for damn sure.



If you had told me I would one day buy a $35,000 vehicle with at most 3 horsepower, I'd have laughed in your face. And yet, behold -- the Incredibly Expensive Pain In The Ass (or the IEPITA as I call it).

That's our living-quarters-built-in, tack-room-included, three-horse-stall gooseneck trailer. It has leather seats on the inside, sleeps up to four (or five if you're real friendly), has a shower and toilet for people, Texas-star cabinet pulls, and just about everything else you need to camp out in style while you ride horses.

It also has the undocumented power to drive me insane.

Ever week it's something else with the IEPITA. The winch breaks. The batteries drain. The solar panel for recharging the batteries fails. The pull-out canopy is moldy. You have to drain it for winter storage or the water lines explode. The generator needs testing. The butt-bar for the last horse stall is busted.

On and on and on and on and on ... Not to mention the difficulty of just hooking and unhooking it up to the truck. And driving it -- oy. It's like driving a bus.

But then, a bus has more than 3 horsepower, and the city has to foot the bill. I wonder if I can get a Cap Metro pass for the horses?