Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Seals Aren't Smarter Than Leo

One day in Barnes and Noble my daughter, Liz, picked up The Dog IQ Test by Melissa Miller. This book helps you evaluate your dog's intellect and social skills. Of course, the results confirmed that our dog Rosie was extremely intelligent and socially adept, but we were shocked to learn that Leo also scored high.

You see, Leo had been keeping his IQ under wraps with clever tricks to make us think he was dumb. For example, he had the habit of swimming through the frigid Puget Sound towards a flock of sea birds floating on the water far off shore. Invariably once Leo was within 10 feet or so, the birds would fly to a new spot, and Leo would paddle after them. He would repeat this act over and over again, day in and day out, to fool us into thinking he wasn't all that smart.

Leo would also bark incessantly at the base of a tree in which a pair of great blue herons nested, as if he expected them to hop down for a visit.

Then there was the waiting room cat. Lord of the vet clinic, he quickly earned the respect of all who entered. Except Leo. Leo lunged, and I, fearing for the cat, lunged after him.

I wasn't fast enough, though, and copious amounts of blood and yelping ensued. Although this ought to have ended Leo's interest in the cat, he continued lunging. To save his life, I fastened his leash to the arm of my chair until our appointment time thankfully arrived. Clever Leo of course knew all along that I'd do this.

One incident stood above the rest, though. Liz and I used to take the dogs to Maple Hollow, a closed Department of Natural Resources park, where the ranger had given permission for the dogs to run off leash. A trail wound through a maple forest and down to a deserted beach. Rosie and Leo would take long detours through the woods and still beat us to the water, running and swimming until they got tired enough to take home. We rarely saw any land animals in the park because they fled for cover when the dogs crashed through the woods. At the beach, however, we'd often see a pair of seals, lolling on a raft off shore.

One day the seals decided to swim over and have a closer look at us.

1. The seals came close to shore.
Leo went nuts. The seals turned around and swam away. Leo followed.
2. Leo plunged into the water to pursue the seals.
After swimming out so far that I could barely see them any more, the seals disappeared under water. Leo swam in circles looking for them. "Duh, where'd they go? Where'd they go?"

3. The seals disappeared under water.
Eventually giving up, Leo turned towards the shore. Two seal heads popped up out of the water and trailed him all of the way back.
4. Leo swam back to shore, the seals close behind.
To make a long story short, steps 1 through 4 above were repeated three times. Then the seals, apparently bored with the game, disappeared for good. I breathed a sigh of relief, believing that Leo would have become exhausted and drowned before ever giving up the chase. Leo was far too smart for that, though. I just didn't know it at the time.

My sister Jenn used to say, "Leo is all brain stem and no cerebral cortex" and until that IQ test, I thought so, too. Now I know better.

Find out what happens when Leo reads the menu...

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Leo gets high marks on the IQ test, but that doesn't mean he has any common sense.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Yard Robin Liked Me Better

The house we just moved from had a large yard, and I spent many hours each week weeding it as well as planting more things to weed around. When I wasn't weeding and planting, I was making watercolors of the flowers.

The yard birds got used to my presence and generally ignored me, except the chickadees, who would start chipping as soon as I came out the back door. The chipping would continue until I'd gotten out the hose and sprayed water on the leaves of the crab apple tree. Although there was a bird bath in the yard that was always full of clean water, playing in wet leaves must have been more fun.

One yard bird, however, sought out my companionship without demanding a shower in return: a female robin. She would hop around in the garden, pulling up worms while I pulled out weeds. When she had a nest of babies, the hopping and pulling would become more and more rapid, as the frantic peeping of the nestlings grew more and more frantic, until momentarily quieted by her return to the nest with an installment of lunch.

Otherwise, the robin spent more time hopping around than pulling. As months and years passed, her hopping brought her into a smaller and smaller radius around me, until one day, as I made a painting of my Beatrix Potter foxglove, the robin spent most of the afternoon within reaching distance.

One Saturday morning, I was pulling some grass out of the garden bed, all concentration, not paying any attention to the yard birds. Bill came outside to visit, and after a few moments, pointed out a dead robin in the garden about 15 feet from me. I looked over and was horrified to see the still, contorted form of the yard robin.

"What do you want to do?" Bill asked.

Fighting back stinging tears, I told him to leave me alone for a while so I could think about it. Considering how to bury my dear little friend was beyond my abilities at that moment.

"I'll just go in the house and let you be, then," he said.

I turned back to my weeding with a heavy and sore heart. As the back door closed behind Bill, from the corner of my eye I noticed a movement in the vicinity of the dead robin. I turned my head just in time to see her hop up, shake out her feathers, and fly over the fence to her nest!

Now, I've heard of birds pretending to be injured in order to lure predators away from their nest but never about a bird actually playing dead. But every time Bill came into the yard, that's exactly what the yard robin did. It got to be quite a joke. "There's a dead robin in the yard," Bill would announce following a backyard tour. "Yup," I'd say, "We sure have a lot of dead robins around here!"

Dead Robin, NOT

So, isn't it obvious that the yard robin liked me better? Finally one of my pets didn't ditch me for Bill.

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Bill can't steal the affections of ALL my pets.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

On Being a Role Model

When my daughter, Liz, was in junior high, all of the kids had to take a "family life" class. I was never really clear about what was covered in it, except for that much of it was embarrassing. Other than that, course content was a secret that Liz guarded carefully.

I didn't pry because it was of no concern to me that she might learn about birth control or where babies come from, as I had already gone over these things with her. I'm not the type of person to hide facts from children who are ready to receive them.Thus, when Liz came home from school one day, clearly downcast about something, I was not prepared for what I heard about the source of it.

I was out in the front garden, vigorously chopping weeds with a hoe, green stuff flying here and there, dressed in my usual rubber boots (not fashionable back then), dirty t-shirt, and pants. I probably didn't smell that good, either. I gently probed to see if I could uncover the source of the child's unhappiness, without further distressing her, of course. The conversation went like this:

"Precious, you seem a little bit down today. Is something bothering you?"

"You know my family life class?" Liz replied.

My mind began buzzing with possibilities. Did they talk about AIDs and HIV? Had I failed to inform her about these things? What on earth could take her by surprise in such a class?

"Yes, honey, tell me what happened."

"Well, we were learned about role models today. Do you know what a role model is?"

Ah, a bit of the secret was leaking out! Maybe more would emerge. "Well yes, I studied the subject in my college psychology courses."

Without hesitation, and with a child's blithe assurance that parents are made of strong stuff indeed, she said, "Today I learned that you're my role model."


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  • On Being Friends  -  Friends broaden my perspective on things, like what makes a good pet.
  • Sharp Metal Objects - How I became a favorite great auntie.
  • Gate C  - Sometimes patience pays off, and sometimes it doesn't.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Biker Bob Goes for a Walk

This is a story about a biker going for a walk. Although that sounds pretty boring, it really wasn't boring at all for the biker in question.

Before we get into the story, though, I need to create a picture of the biker in your mind's eye. Good writers create pictures with words. Lazy writers just draw them.

Biker Bob?
No, not Biker Bob
Biker Bob
If you're thinking that "Biker Bob" doesn't seem to fit this person so well, I understand. But my friend Dolly made it up, so it stuck. Dolly is the kind of person who can overcomes resistance to anything with a huge smile that includes dimples and outrageous enthusiasm.

When I lived in Gig Harbor a few years ago, a group of friends got together for activities such as hiking, nordic skiing, and bike rides. Because we were all of a certain age, 73.8% of the men in the group were named "Bob."

In this particular scene, 100% of the men are named "Bob."
At first this was confusing. Then Dolly came to the rescue.

It caught on.

This concludes the "How Biker Bob Got His Name" part of the story.

Now on to the walking part. Bob and I used to organize bike rides for the group that were supposed to go something like this:

Instead, they went like this:

In the end, though, everyone made it to our destination, thanks to Bob and I putting an extra 60 or 70 miles on our bikes keeping people rounded up. Following each and every ride, Bob would say,

I'll bet you're wondering what this has to do with walking. Well, not very much in fact, but it does have a lot to do with Biker Bob's personality, which becomes important later in this story.

Our group of friends would often meet at my house, so Biker Bob got to know my two dogs, Rosie and Leo. When he learned that I took them on daily walks around Gig Harbor, he volunteered to come along. This is probably Bob's idea of what such a walk would be like:

Biker Bob's imaginary walk

Instead, this is what a real walk was like:

Leo didn't always poop at the main intersection of town. Sometimes he pooped in the bank parking lot instead. And sometimes he pooped in both places.
And at the end of each and every walk (yes, he actually went on quite a few), Biker Bob would say,
BTW, did you know that seals are smarter than Leo?

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My friend wasn't always well connected with reality.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

A Review of My Watercolor Books

Like many other watercolor painters, I have a collection of instruction books that I buy when I'm in between classes and need some fresh inspiration. There are many books available that I don't have yet, so this is far from a complete list of what you might want, but it could get you started, anyway.

Watercolor Lessons from Elliot O'Hara, by Carl Schmalz. This is a foundational book. Eliot O'Hara was a modern master of watercolor, and has been called "America's greatest teacher of watercolor." He had a famous school at Goose Rocks Beach, Maine, and also taught all around the US. His student and assistant, Carl Schmalz, compiled O'Hara's lessons into this book to create a mini course that can be completed in about six weeks. The book is no longer in print, but is available used from various sources, including Amazon. I heard about it from one of my teachers, Tom Hoffman, who was a student of Carl Schmalz while at Amherst College. No matter what your experience level, this would be a great book to have on your shelf. I refer back to it over and over, and always learn something new.

Finding and Improving Your Painting Style, by Carl Schmalz. This book is designed to help you develop critical judgement about your own work. This is not in the negative sense, of course, but in the artistic sense, where you learn to discern whether your painting reflects your vision and intention for it, and if not, why. Schmalz guides you through the process of analyzing your own work to identify the definite "look" that you create, and to focus on developing your strengths and underplay your weaknesses. This is another foundational book, which I also learned about from Tom Hoffman.

Watercolor Basics: Let's Get Started, by Jack Reid. (I am compelled to make an aside here: Don't you just love how these master painters call things "basic" that it takes years to attain any sort of competence at? Not to dis this book. It's vitally important to have stellar examples to look at when you're trying to learn this skill. I just have to mentally cross out the word "basic" when I'm looking at the illustrations.) Anyway, this is a great book for learning essentially everything you need to know about to make a successful painting, from the types of materials to use and how to set them up, to brushes and brush strokes, to techniques such as washes, layering, wet-in-into wet. And if your results don't look like his right off the bat, join the club!

Making Color Sing, by Jeanne Dobie, AWS. This book inspires me. I absolutely love Jeanne's approach to color and design. I would call this another foundational book because it covers the issue of color much more comprehensively than any of my others, as it well should with color as its subject. In a whole bunch of different lessons, you first learn about the characteristics of the different pigments, then about how to select and mix colors, layer, use glazes, make your color pulsate with life, get the most from darks, so on.

How to Make a Watercolor Paint Itself: Experimental Techniques for Achieving Realistic Effects, by Nita Engle. If you're in the mood for something fun and different, try some of the techniques in this book. Nita starts off by talking about materials and how to set things up to paint. Then she goes straight into a variety of approaches for creating a watercolor painting that go beyond the application of paint with a brush, including squirting paint from a bottle, using a knife to sculpt rocks as you would working in oils, throwing paint, stamping with crumpled paper, and so on. I hold a weekly watercolor meetup group and think it would be fun to spend a session or two trying out some of these ideas together. The reason I'm game to do this is because the group meets at the Loyal Heights Community Center rather than my house. :)

Watercolor Painting Outside the Lines: a Positive Approach to Negative Painting, by Linda Kemp. No, no, no! Negative painting is not something you do when in a bad mood! It's in fact a very important and underutilized technique that you can add to your painting repertoire. It consists of defining an object by painting around it. Sounds simple, and in fact is simple. But in this book, Linda Kemp helps you attain true mastery and gives you many ideas about where this can be used to great effect in your work. There's an example of negative painting in the picture below, where I defined the tree trunks by painting around them.

Winter Barn

BTW, I review books on pictorial composition in another post.

PS: If you want to write up any reviews of your own watercolor books, feel free to post them here in comments, and I'll get them up on the blog.

Books on Pictorial Composition

Now that I've got the basic idea of how to put paint on paper and how to take a correctly exposed and focused photo, I've been giving this subject of composition a lot of attention, sometimes reading and studying rather than painting and photographing! Not that I will do this for long, but this is important enough to warrant the special focus.

Here are two books on composition that apply to any type of pictorial art. Although they're written with the painter in mind, these principals are just as important in planning and executing a fine art photograph. Composition makes or breaks a painting or photo. No matter how good the application of the paint is or how beautiful the objects in the photo are, the picture will fail without a good composition. 

Pictorial Composition, An Introduction, by Henry Rankin Poore. If you really don't have a clue about the classical rules of composition, this book will help. It's the kind of thing that every serious artist should at least know, even if they choose to ignore it in their work. It certainly helps you understand why some arrangements in a picture work while others clearly don't. I didn't many of the explanations to be all that clear, but by looking at the illustrations and thinking about them, I got the drift. Then I moved on to the next book.

Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting, by Ian Roberts.This is a beautifully done book and includes a 40 minute instructional DVD. ( I couldn't raise the volume on the DVD on my computer, but it probably works fine in a regular DVD player.) Roberts teaches a five-step approach to creating powerful compositions:
  • Choosing good references and create a range of thumbnail designs
  • Identifying the structures at work within a composition based on eight common armatures
  • Using a viewfinder to determine framing and cropping
  • Analyzing color shapes or value, hue, and intensity
  • Directing the eye through the picture plane

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Peanuts for Two, Please

Since last fall Bertram has bravely swooshed down each morning and afternoon to retrieve the peanuts I set out for him, while his mate, Corvina, stays on the power line and caws. In the last few days, this has changed, however. Corvina has been getting to the waiting spot on the power line before Bertram, and when I set out the peanuts, she comes down to get some of her own. This could mean that she's learning to trust me a bit, but I expect it's more due to the prospective mother's ravenous hunger.

You see, there's been a flurry of nest-building activity in the tall fir across the street, clear preparations for some little ones. From here, the crows will be able to monitor all my comings and goings, so they'll know exactly when to come down to the power line and remind me of my obligations.

I'm sure looking forward to having young crows around again. At our last house, a family of crows lived in a nearby tree, and the youngsters were fun to watch as they tried to learn to fly and get their own food. That group of crows wasn't afraid of me and would hang out in our yard while I was gardening. Until, that is, I found one of them sitting on the grass in our side yard. He remained there all day, and was clearly either injured or sick. After making a bunch of calls to find an animal rescue center that would take him, I finally connected with the Sarvey Wildlife Center. Bill and I gently picked up the crow and put him in a box, then drove him to a local vet clinic where a Sarvey worker came and got him. I never followed up to see what happened to him because I wouldn't be able to bear hearing he hadn't made it. The rest of the crow family stayed away from us after that, which made me very sad.

While writing this post, I decided to revisit a PBS special about crows. You can watch it here: A Murder of Crows. (BTW, a Murder of crows is a group of them.) It covers some research that shows how highly intelligent crows are and also tells about the crows social and family life, which is closer to that of humans than any other species on the planet. At one point, it showed a crow using its private family "talk," which is used only within it's own circle. I was amazed to see it because that is what Bertram was doing the day I thought he was choking. Now I feel so flattered. At least on that day, he must have been feeling pretty good about me.

(OK, this really burns me. Bill was just reading this post over my shoulder and said that Bertram talks to him with the special family talk, too. Bill is stealing another one of my pets, and he NEVER EVER gives Bertram peanuts! THIS IS NOT FAIR!)

Well, that's all the crow news I've got for today. Except, to save my sister, Jenn, from having to send me a comment about how I should have properly dressed the crows for my blog, here is how I imagine that Corvina and Bertram would have met and fell in love IF they were in fact people dressed up as crows dressed up as people.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

One Time When Leo Was Good

Boy, are people in my life ever ganging up on Leo since I wrote the post about him wanting to be good! Jenn says, "I didn't ever get the feeling that he really, really wanted to be good. It was more fun to be bad from what I could see. I think he had a certain smirk while appearing to be so contrite. You know - the 'butter couldn't melt in my mouth' expression. On the side of his face which was facing you." My daughter Liz says, "If I had to explain the meaning of incorrigible to someone, I would introduce them to Leo."

I feel like I need to defend Leo a bit here. He really was good at least once.

First, some background for the story: Rosie and Leo had baths about every week with special shampoo to help my dog allergies. They were not fond of baths, probably because this removed all of the great smells they had so painstakingly gotten onto their fur all week. Rosie would resist the bath by making me drag her into the bathroom. This was accomplished without too much difficulty. Once at the edge of the tub, she resigned herself to a miserable fate and allowed me to help her in.

Leo, on the other hand, would willingly trot into the bathroom, and then go completely limp on the rug. If you're wondering what it's like to lift 60 pounds of completely limp dog into a bathtub, try it with 60 pounds of cooked spaghetti. 

By completely relaxing his muscles, every part of Leo's body would get contact with the floor except for his right ear, which was held up by cartilage. 

This operation generated a lot of business for my chiropractor.
Anyway, on to the story. Leo had a enormous amount of energy that was going to be expended somewhere, so to keep it out of the house, I took the dogs on a good long run outdoors every day. One day on our run, Leo made a quick side-trip into some bushes and reemerged smelling like something really, really bad. I mean REALLY REALLY REALLY bad. And there was disgusting goo all over his fur. As payback for every bad thing I've ever done, I had to get this awful slimy, stinky dog into the back of my Jeep and home, where I could wash him off.

As an aside, I believe that dogs actually understand every word we say, but pretend they don't, so they have more control, similar to when my son Brian was little and used to get plugged ears. I could tell whether they were really plugged or not by standing behind him and whispering, "Brian, would you like some popcorn?" 

Anyway, while muttering and cursing on the drive home I undoubtedly used the word "hose." When the dogs got too gross to allow in the house, I'd wash them off with the outdoor hose, which they hated even worse than a tub bath because the hose water was cold. Never mind the fact that the dogs would readily swim in the 45-degree Puget Sound, and I seriously doubt the hose water was ever that cold, they really really hated being washed off with the hose.

On arriving home, I pulled the Jeep into the garage, pushed a button to close the automatic door, and pulled a lever to pop open the back of the vehicle. Before I could get out and grab him, though, Leo jumped out of the Jeep and raced into the house. 

Panic set in. I could see several days of deep cleaning ahead.

After frantically searching absolutely everywhere else in the house, I looked in the bathroom.

And there was Leo in the tub. 

So, you see, Leo really was good one time, and possibly even more than one time. I'll think about it, and get back to you.

Biker Bob Takes a Walk
Seals are Smarter Than Leo

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Leo, the Occasionally Good Dog

This is the first installment of what will likely be many about my dog Leo. Although he's been gone four years, his memory lives on and on and on.

In case you're curious about the title of this post, I should explain that I didn't want to start right off calling Leo a bad dog. Besides, sometimes he wasn't. Plus he really, really wanted to be good. It was just extra hard for him, due to his having 50 percent German shorthair pointer genes and all. That's why I thought up a title with "good" in it rather than "bad."

I'm writing this post because of Paula's comment that I must be very sad about the dogs' worshiping Bill when I was the one doing all the grunt work. Paula, just between you and me, it wasn't always bad. For one thing, Leo's favorite display of affection was to get a gulp of water and then come over and drool it into your lap. Once Bill came on the scene, my lap stayed a whole lot drier. Although Bill did get awfully jumpy whenever Leo was around. If you know Bill, you know that it is extraordinary for him to be jumpy. He is usually one laid back guy.

But there was at least one time when Leo was good...

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I wasn't altogether heartbroken when Leo preferred Bill.

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Another Thing About Bill

When I met Bill, he had no pets. I had two dogs, Rosie and Leo. I divided my time between Bill and dogs somewhat evenly. After all, it takes a lot of time to walk, potty, bathe, brush, pat, and feed two dogs, never mind go to the store and pick up dog bones and huge sacks of dog food. Bill was fine with that, but assured me that he didn't know anything about dogs, and couldn't be much help.

This didn't bother Rosie and Leo a bit. They ditched me, and worshiped Bill.
Bill didn't have to do anything. He could just sit on his hands, and the dogs would still worship him.

The same thing happens now with the chickadees. I've set up bird feeders and keep them filled. I've made the yard impregnable to cats. I've installed bird baths and put fresh water in them every day. I lug around huge sacks of bird seed.

But when Bill comes home, the chickadees fly over to the bird feeder next to the front walk and sing pretty chickadee songs for him that they never sing for me.


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