Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bring on the Rain!

Photo Courtesy of C. Clark, Wikimedia Commons
More uncertainty on the "where will we be living next month" front, but today was another very productive day on the submissions front. (You gotta have your priorities, you know??)

I checked my email at lunchtime and found another full request in my inbox--bringing my grand total to four fulls under review (!!).  I'm so excited that I can hardly stand it, and this agent is... amazing.  They are ALL amazing, actually, and I'm kinda so starstruck by the idea that my lowly manuscript might accidentally touch the work of a genius in their offices somewhere... that... well, I just don't know what to do.

The short answer is, of course... Get my head out of the clouds and start looking at some houses on Craigslist... ;)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When it Rains, it Pours...

Photo Courtesy of Ralph Kresge, Wikimedia Commons
Well, my week has only gotten progressively worse / better. On the worse front... My new job (Education Director at a nature center in Denver) is growing increasingly hectic with Earth Day events, spring field trips, outreaches and the stress of our upcoming summer camp season. (A nice job, just CRAZY right now, and it's been almost a month since I had a full weekend off.)

My husband and I are currently splitting the distance between my job in Denver and his school in Fort Collins, which means I have an 80-mile daily commute through rush hour traffic. (I know... Awful, right??) We were hoping to relocate to Denver this fall after he completes his summer EMT ranger position at Rocky Mountains National Park, HOWEVER, we learned yesterday that the terms of our rental home's lease aren't flexible like we were hoping. That means we are either out on our butts in June, or we are roped into another year living here. (We love this house and neighborhood soooo much, but the thought of commuting like this for another twelve months is enough to put me on the verge of a nervous breakdown.)

On the better front... It looks like I will soon be working Sundays at an amazing wildlife rehabilitation facility nearby (assuming we aren't homeless), so I will be back with the squirrels, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, swans, geese and songbirds soon. (Whew! We left Alaska six months ago, and this hands-off animal stuff is freaking me out!)

And on the EVEN BETTER front... During the past 24 hours, I have received another full request and a partial request from two more of my dream agents!!! My grand total is now three fulls and one partial, and now I'm so excited that I just can't stop grinning.

A huge accomplishment, considering I might be homeless next month... :)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Blindfolded dolphins can detect and imitate each other's behavior using 'sixth sense'

An article about a groundbreaking new dolphin intelligence study from the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys. (The most entertaining part, I'm sure, was teaching Tanner the dolphin to wear the opaque latex goggles... :))





Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A new study reports a blindfolded dolphin can detect and imitate the fin splashes, swimming movements and other behaviour of fellow dolphins even when it can't see them.

Dr. Kelly Jaakkola at the non-profit Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys says the study involved a male bottlenose dolphin named Tanner who was blindfolded with opaque latex goggles and able to detect the movements of its companions.

Jaakkola says it's still unclear if dolphins use sonar or naturally emitted sounds to detect fellow dolphins, a form of navigation called echolocation. But she says the research is pursuing new insights about dolphin intelligence.

The study, called Blindfolded Imitation in a Bottlenose Dolphin has been published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology.

As part of the experiment, in a lagoon in the Florida Keys, trainer Emily Guarino blindfolded a male dolphin named Tanner with special latex goggles.

At a command, another trainer told his dolphin companion Kibby to say 'hello' by flapping his fins on the water, splashing noisily in the enclosed lagoon at the Dolphin Research Center, which houses 22 dolphins and is one of the leaders in dolphin cognitive studies.

When asked to imitate Kibby, Tanner was within seconds splashing back a greeting - a seemingly extraordinary feat given the blindfolded dolphin appeared to only be using sound to perceive and imitate the actions of his fellow dolphin.

The research suggests dolphins are master imitators that somehow can 'see' their environment despite blindfolds. But exactly how such a dolphin can mimic another's action is a matter of ongoing scientific study.

The centre's director, Dr. Kelly Jaakkola, said the research to better understand dolphin intelligence will surely help further their conservation. She said such study may also be helpful in better grasping the complexities of human intelligence.

'It's human nature to care more about animals we perceive as intelligent. So the more we can showcase that intelligence we give people a way to connect, to care and therefore conserve,' she said.

Just how blindfolded dolphins can pick up on the actions of other dolphins - whether through echolocation, sonar or other means - is still unclear. Echolocation refers to the sounds dolphins and other animals naturally emit to locate objects and navigate.

'Dolphins have this ability to echolocate by sonar, very similar to bats. And so one possibility is he is echolocating on that and he is 'seeing' the behaviour with sound,' Jaakkola said. 'However there is another possibility as well. Maybe he's recognising the characteristic sound of the behaviour, like if I asked you to close your eyes and I clap my hands, you would still be able to imitate that by recognising the characteristic sound.'

The study used three dolphins for its tests: Tanner was always the blindfolded subject and AJ and Kibby served as demonstrator dolphins. The study titled Blindfolded Imitation in a Bottlenose Dolphin is published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Tanner, who was previously trained in wearing the opaque latex eyecups, already knew how to imitate other dolphins' behaviors without blindfolds on. Nearly every time his eyes were covered, Tanner was able to imitate his playmate Kibby's actions, the researchers reported.

The study tested 19 motor and eight vocal behaviours, from waving a fin, to bobbing up and down, to spinning and even giggling. Training took numerous trials and, at first, involved only one eye cup used to blindfold Tanner. Researchers then moved on gradually to two eyecups. After the trials, trainers and researchers tested each behaviour twice while Tanner was sighted and blindfolded. The study was spread over 19 sessions in 11 weeks.

Since researchers sought to focus on whether dolphins can imitate companions while blindfolded, all the behaviours used in the study were already known to the dolphins.

Previous dolphin studies have shown dolphins can copy companion's whistles and motor behaviours, as well as computer-generated sounds. Dolphins also have a capacity to copy humans to some extent, according to Jaakkola.

The results are not at all surprising to Dr. Robin W. Baird, a research biologist at Cascadia Research Collective based in Olympia, Washington.

'This actually demonstrates that they are able to know what is going on in their environment at a different level than what they can just see,' said Baird, who works mostly with wild sea animals - such as dolphins, whales and seals - and did not participate in the study.

Janet Mann, a professor of biology and psychology at Georgetown University, read the study but wasn't involved in the research and said it's still unclear if Tanner was echolocating or one of the other dolphins.

'They didn't localize who was echolocating, so we could not rule out that it was the model and not Tanner,' she said. She also said the authors didn't consider so-called 'kinesthetic cues.'

'That is, if someone was twirling in the water next to you, then you might be able to tell by the water movement that they were twirling or could feel the bubbles if they were kicking away from you," she added.

It was the same question raised with Clever Hans, a horse which in the late 19th century in Germany was said to be able to spell or solve any mathematical problem by stomping his hoof with the answer. Later studies determined the horse was receiving unintentional cues from the questioners.

As for dolphins, researchers say they are intent on learning much more about their nature. For one, they want to know if dolphins imitate each other naturally to learn something new. Researchers also say they want to further test whether dolphins can imitate a novel behaviour in the playful, thought-provoking animals.

Read the full story here: Daily Mail 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

My Second Full Request!!!

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
So excited I am literally dancing!!!

I've had a crappy week... A tired week... One of those weeks where I just kept asking myself, "If I had known how horrible and long and powerless this publishing process was going to be, would I have even written my manuscript in the first place?" I wouldn't have; I had convinced myself that by Wednesday night.

By Friday afternoon, I checked my email, expecting to find a standard rejection or some other reason to feel sorry for myself. (My poor husband... He's had a rough week, too!) To my surprise, I actually found my SECOND FULL REQUEST instead. From another amazing agent in NYC, and... Well, it's funny. Suddenly, I have two fulls out, and suddenly, all that horrible and long and powerless crap doesn't seem so overwhelming.

Amazing how fickle this industry is, and amazing how fickle WE are as aspiring writers. I feel bipolar all of a sudden, but I'm going to ride this high as long as I can.... :)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Areas of Cook Inlet Designated Critical Whale Habitat

WOOHOO!!!!! For the past several years (2007-present), I have been a very vocal supporter in the fight to get Anchorage's beluga whales a spot on the Endangered Species List. (Here's a great background article about the very long and very drawn out struggle the whales faced: NOAA Recommends Listing Cook Inlet Belugas Under Endangered Species Act.)

The whales were finally listed in 2008 after almost ten years of struggle, and the battle for the designation of critical habitat has been raging ever since. (I gathered up my nerve and even presented public comments during the summer of 2010... Yikes!)

I almost fainted when I saw this article in the April 9, 2011 issue of Anchorage Daily News. After years of struggle, it looks like the beluga whales FINALLY have their critical habitat.  (It's a very complicated issue--with lots of pros and cons on either side--and I'm not claiming a black and white stance on any of it.  For me, the decision came down to the science of the beluga's falling numbers, and I just pray the animals aren't already reproductively extinct.)


As a side note, I was so inspired by the time I spent working with Karla Dutton, Program Director for Alaska's branch of Defenders of Wildlife, that I actually built an entire novel around Cook Inlet's beluga whales.  And THAT novel is the novel I am currently in the process of submitting to agents. :)


Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Areas of Cook Inlet designated critical whale habitat
ENDANGERED: Business is restricted to areas near Port of Anchorage, Point MacKenzie.


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com

Published: April 9th, 2011 10:07 PM
Last Modified: April 9th, 2011 10:07 PM

Federal fishery managers on Friday designated large stretches of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for endangered beluga whales, leading to an outcry from political and business leaders that the regional economy will be strangled.

"That means no construction, drilling or dredging," House Speaker Mike Chenault said in a statement. "We were hoping to see the benefit of state participation in (oil) drilling this summer. Now? It's out the window."

Not quite, said the federal supervisor in Anchorage who speaks for the National Marine Fisheries Service on the issue, biologist Brad Smith.

"We're the stewards of the whales," Smith said. "What we're trying to do is avoid any activity or actions that are contrary to their ability to recover. That certainly does not mean all activity stops."

The habitat designation is a requirement of the federal Endangered Species Act that was all but ordained once Cook Inlet belugas were declared endangered in 2008. It covers 3,013 square miles of shoreline and marine area, including all of Kachemak Bay, all of upper Cook Inlet north from about Clam Gulch, and the west side shoreline of lower Cook Inlet.

A sliver of shoreline and water, encompassing the Port of Anchorage and Point MacKenzie, was excluded from the designated habitat on national security grounds. Military areas north of the port were excluded because of a pre-existing environmental agreement between the Defense Department and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Biologists say the Cook Inlet beluga population is a distinctive stock of the small, toothed whale famously known for its white color, though the young are gray, perhaps for protection from predators like killer whales. Cook Inlet had an estimated 1,300 belugas in 1979, a number that had shrunk to an estimated 278 by 2005. A 2008 survey showed a gain to about 375 animals, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in one of its reports on Cook Inlet belugas.

Smith, the federal biologist, said the only known cause for the decline was over-hunting. Natives in the Cook Inlet region, using aboriginal hunting rights, traditionally took a few whales every year with no effect on the population, Smith said. But in the 1970s and 1980s, he said, the migration of Natives from western and northern coastal areas of Alaska to Anchorage led to the unregulated hunting of perhaps 100 or more belugas a year, an unsustainable number.

By the time officials realized what was happening and hunting was banned, the population had declined to dangerously low levels, Smith said.

"We expected with the curtailment of the harvest that they would recover," Smith said. "It's disappointing they haven't."

State officials argued that the numbers were increasing and had urged the federal government to back off. Environmental organizations pressed for greater protection.

Once belugas were designated as threatened or endangered, the 1973 Endangered Species Act requires "we also address its critical habitat," Smith said. "It's a pretty basic concept that animals can't live without habitat."

Because of the range of concerns, the agency took an extra year to prepare its ruling, Smith said. The fisheries service received 135,463 individual comments, though 134,959 were on form letters, it said.

The goal of the rule isn't to lock up territory but to allow the species to recover, Smith said. Because belugas historically coexisted with the Cook Inlet oil industry and with dredging for the Port of Anchorage and other areas, there's no reason to prevent that activity from continuing, though officials might increase regulation of noise, discharges and other activity that could harass whales, Smith said.

In fact, captains of large ships and dredges report that belugas don't seem to care about their slow-moving presence, Smith said. It's small vessels, even jet skis, which maneuver quickly and erratically like killer whales, that cause problems for belugas, he said.

On the other hand, the city may have to improve its treatment of the sewage it dumps into Cook Inlet from Point Woronzof, Smith said. The city's disposal permit comes up for renewal this summer, and the EPA will have to take into consideration the effect of the lightly treated effluent on belugas, he said.

Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said he didn't think the critical habitat designation would halt economic growth but feared it would add another layer of permitting and bureaucracy to an already slow-moving federal regulatory process.

Years ago, Popp said, it took oil and gas ventures three to five years from the start of a project to reach production.

"That time frame is now seven to 10 years, and now, what will this do? Make eight to 11 years, nine to 12 years? It's more unnecessary delay and impediment," Popp said

Even if the federal government is efficient in its permitting, the designation will make it easier for opponents of a development project to bring a lawsuit, he said.

In one of its economic studies, NOAA optimistically said that the designation of critical habitat could actual improve conditions for the oil industry by making the area more attractive to workers.

"Employees of the industry may be willing to work in the area, in part, because of the natural beauty, environmental quality and outdoor recreational opportunities available," NOAA said, though it also acknowledged the benefit to industry of beluga habitat protection "is likely to be relatively small."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

When do you get your best ideas?

I've been participating in some fun discussions over on QueryTracker.net, and it got me thinking...

I seem to get most of my creative ideas in the middle of the night...  Sometimes, I bolt awake and awkwardly grope to send myself a text message, but most of the time I simply percolate through the night, tossing and turning and not really "sleeping" in any sort of substantial way.  I wake in the morning feeling jolted and inspired (and groggy!), and I do my best to send my self-text message then.  (I have about a 50% success rate for the validity of those early morning ideas, and I'm usually surprised when I read them later...  confused)

Do you have a specific time when YOU get your best ideas?  I've created a poll in my left margin...  Let's see if most of us "creative types" have a pattern, or are our ideas as random as we are?

GoodReads, Anyone??

Photo Courtesy of William Hoiles, Wikimedia Commons
I have recently discovered the magnificent obsession that is GoodReads.com and I'm looking for some GoodReads friends to rate books with me and suggest their favorites.  Do you have a GoodReads page?  If so, I'd love to see your book list!  My user name is "Lisa Chickos," and I will be steadily plugging away at my book lists for awhile... :)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Trip Down Memory Lane

During the fall of 2007, I started my first grown-up attempt at a full length novel--an untitled "returning to your roots" project about a girl who rediscovers the quirks and beauty of her hometown while she arranges her estranged grandmother's funeral.  It was a beautiful idea--and I'd like to potentially return to it someday--but I began the project before I knew anything about structuring a novel.  As a result, the story petered out after about 40 pages.  

There are some fun parts, though, and today's overcast weather is making me feel sentimental, so I thought I'd post a random sample.  It's a bit rough, but I still think it's kinda fun.  I hope you agree... :)

Photo Courtesy of Masahiro Hayata, Wikimedia Commons
Thinking back, I can remember the exact instant I realized my mother wasn’t taking me to Disney World.  Careening down Interstate 10 on that humid June afternoon, Violet began fumbling with the radio and shifted uncomfortably in the driver seat.  The scrub pine forests of Northern Florida were brilliantly hot outside our windows.  Since the VW Rabbit’s air conditioner had conked out somewhere in Louisiana, we were stuck to our vinyl seats like tar on pavement.

“Evie, um...”

Interrupted from the pages of my Archie comic book, I lifted my head and at once felt my stomach tightening. 

Good news has never been delivered by a hesitant “um.”  Divorces are preceded by hesitant “um’s.”  Layoffs and abortions and interventions are commenced with hesitant “um’s.”  Almost every bad thing that has ever happened to me before or since this moment has somehow been traced back to a hesitant “um.”

This conversation isn’t going to end well.

“Evie, I called Steve at the last rest stop...  His wife hasn’t signed the divorce papers yet, so she’s still living in his house in Orlando, you see.”  My mother’s knuckles were white against the peeling grey steering wheel.  “He’s staying with his brother at that trailer park in Kissimmee, and well, it isn’t really a big place.”

“So, what?  We don’t need a big place, Mom.”

Violet ran her fingers through her short, dark hair.  “I know we don’t, sweetie, but if I get this job at Disney World, I’m going to be working all the time.  And, it’s...  Steve’s brother isn’t exactly...  Well, Steve thinks...”

Brace yourself, Eva.

When my mother didn’t lead with hesitant “um’s,” she almost invariably began her bad news with “Steve thinks” or “Billy thinks” or “Bo thinks” or “Johnny thinks.”  Mentioning a boyfriend was her way of removing herself almost entirely from a situation.  Any resultant grumblings or complaints on my part could therefore simply be dismissed with an, “I know, sweetie, but it’s really not my decision.  Don’t you see?”

I felt my throat tightening.  Outside, the Rabbit made groaning sounds reminiscent of dying livestock.  

Violet took a breath.  “Well, I’ve had the most wonderful idea.”  Her forced smile and still-white knuckles betrayed her suddenly chipper tone.  She grabbed my hand.  “Instead of spending the summer in a boring old trailer in Kissimmee, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you spent the summer in Panama City Beach with your Nana Delphine instead?”

My heart dropped.  “Nana Delphine?  Mom, I’ve never even met her!  No, no, no, no!  Mom, this summer is supposed to be our summer!  We’re gonna go to Disney World every day.  We’re gonna drink pineapple juice by the pool.  No, no, I don’t want to stay with Nana Delphine in Panama City Beach!  Mom, no!”

“Evie.”  My mother’s tone may as well have been a period at the end of a sentence.  “Evie, there isn’t room for discussion here.  Steve says there isn’t enough space for both of us, so there isn’t enough space for both of us.”  Her eyes softened, and she finally made eye contact.  “Evie, you know how important this job is to me.  If I can make it at Disney World, I can make it anywhere.”  She smiled.  “Sweetie, just imagine how beautiful our lives will be when we’re rich and famous, and we’re able to finally leave Abilene.  Los Angeles, New York, Paris...  We can go wherever we want.”

I frowned and looked at my hands.  “I don’t want to go to any of those places, Mom.  I want to go to Disney World.  Now.  This summer.  With you.”

Violet’s aggravated sigh told me I was wasting my time.  “Evie, I really need you to stop being so selfish right now.  I have a job to prepare for.  Please do your best to be a little more supportive, okay?”

####

The remaining two hours of our car ride were spent in silence.  My mother occupied the time by chain-smoking out her open window--a true testament to her discomfort.  Crumpled in my seat, I fought the urge to cry and refused to look at her.  Instead, I busied myself with an assortment of obsessive-compulsive tasks--all I could really do to keep my composure.

We passed sixteen sea shell shops on the way from Pensacola to Panama City Beach.  There were 78 cents and three French fries scattered on the floor of the Rabbit, and the setting sun would reflect off my side mirror and hit me in the eyes if I slouched just enough.

At some point in our drive, my right shoe became untied, and I found that if I flexed just right, it felt like it might slip off.  The song “Thriller” by Michael Jackson buzzed on the radio as we motored through Fort Walton, and we passed two dead armadillos and one dead alligator between the billboard for Florida’s Gulfarium and the Phillips Inlet bridge.

I was intrigued by the sign for Florida’s Gulfarium: a shiny blue background accented with the radiant smile of a bottlenose dolphin.  “World’s Oldest Marine Show Aquarium!” the sign proudly proclaimed.  Although unsure what a marine show aquarium was, I was captivated by that dolphin’s cartoon grin.   Under different circumstances, I was certain I would have begged my mother to stop.

Instead, the Rabbit chugged on in silence.

####

The sun had almost disappeared completely into the crimson soup of the Gulf of Mexico when Violet flicked on her left blinker and pulled into the parking lot of Reid’s Court & Trailer Park.  There, in a squat community surrounded by sea oats, the fragrance of hot dogs lingered in the air, mixing with chalky dust and the Rabbit’s sooty exhaust fumes.

“Stay in the car,” my mother instructed, peeling herself off the vinyl and slamming the door behind her.

“This is stupid,” I thought, watching with detached interest as a large black fly alighted on my forearm.  Propelling itself forward on rubbery limbs, it tickled my arm hairs as it moved.  

Unwittingly, a faint smile formed at the corner of my lips.  The fly’s stylized, mirrored eyes and translucent wings suddenly made me feel less alone.

From somewhere inside my grandmother’s coral pink trailer, I heard an overjoyed, “Violet, you’re back!” followed by a long period of silence and some hushed talking. 

Muffled, disembodied words floated through the trailer’s cracked windows, seeming awkward and lost without their context:  “Moving...  Face auditions...  Lake Buena Vista...  Met at the diner...  The Rabbit...  You know how it is...”

I felt my cheeks flush when I caught my name floating through Delphine’s lace curtains.  Violet’s voice had taken on a very serious tone, and it was followed by an even more somber reply from my grandmother. 

After a few moments of silence, an incredulous roar of laughter shattered the evening:  “All this so you can run off with a married man and pretend to be Snow White??  Violet, you can’t be serious!  Have you lost your mind?”

“Mother, I didn’t come here asking you for permission!”  The rage in my mother’s voice was enough to make me flinch.  On cue, my fly friend took flight and disappeared into the evening.

“I have talent, Mother!  I have the looks and I’ve learned the mannerisms, and if I can be cast as Snow White, I can make some really important connections at the Walt Disney Company.  Steve says...”

“Steve is a groundskeeper, Violet!  A custodian for the Walt Disney Company!  You can’t possibly think he’s going to pave the way for your big break?”

“Mother!”  I could almost picture emotion clouding my mother’s sea green eyes.  “They belong to a Union, there.  A Union, mother.  You know what that is?  That’s a big, fancy company that sets you up and takes care of you and makes sure you get the opportunities you're supposed to get.  Get it?”

“Violet, I think you are being ridiculous...”

“I said I'm not asking you for permission!”

“Where’s the child?  Where’s Evie?  You haven’t filled her head with this nonsense, too, have you, Violet?”

“She’s in the car, Mother.  And no, she hasn’t been filled with nonsense.  She understands that this is our big break.  She wants me to go.  I need to do this, Mom; I won’t take no for an answer.”

A defeated sigh.  “Of course not, Violet.  Evie’s my granddaughter.  But I really think you ought to rethink...”

“We can talk about this later!”

Opening the screen, Violet appeared in my grandmother’s doorway.  Silhouetted against the yellow glow of the living room, she appeared triumphant, one hand resting easily on her slender waist.  “Evie!  Come on!  We’re here!”

Opening my side door, I felt silly and embarrassed, like a dressed-up monkey or some sort of circus pet. 

“Evie, look!  I want you to meet your grandmother!” 

I knew the jubilation in my mother’s voice came from her victory over Delphine, not our impending introduction. 

She simply wanted me out of her car before Delphine had time to change her mind.