Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest Blogger Tuesday!

This week's guest blogger is the amazing Ms. Tiffany Stephens.  Tiffany is a major science buff, and in all the time I've known her there's been nothing that she's loved more than ocean life.   Read on to find out more about her wild and crazy adventures from Alaska to New Zealand!

The Nomadic Scientist

Hello all! I’m here to give you a peak into my life as a nomadic scientist and. No, not an anthropologist that studies early human migrations, but a budding field ecologist that hasn’t lived in one place for too long the past few years. I have no intention of retracing the entire road that has led to where I am now, but there must be a beginning to any tale, and the story of my sojourn begins most properly as a pig-tailed 7-year old. Did any of you wish to the sun because it was the biggest and brightest star in the sky? I certainly did, and always wished for happiness. Perhaps a little corny, but totally within reach…it’s the only thing that I’ve ever wished for knowing full well that happiness comes unexpectedly and in many forms, and really, it’s the most important thing in life. Sure, throughout adolescence superficial things mostly instigate happiness: cookie-dough ice cream, that radical Little Mermaid shirt, sparkly shoelaces, finally outrunning those nasty little boys, and sure, I still enjoy some of those things today, but their value has been miniaturized. As I matured, so did my goals and desires with how I wanted to live my life. It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t want to value my life based on my possessions and get a job only to support the acquisition of said possession – I’ve witnessed way too many ups and downs with that lifestyle.  Instead, my goal was, and is, to work passionately in a career that adds value to both my existential life and possibly others. Honestly, nearly all life paths have the potential to do just that if you work the right angles; but I identified science, specifically marine ecology, as the best path for my personal success. Working in this field will keep my mind sharp, my body active, has potential to influence environmental policy, and allows me to see the world.

There’s a lot of story from that 7-year old girl to now, but I’ll focus on the past few years as they demonstrate how the Sun Gods appeased my youthful wishes via my career. I began study at the University of Washington knowing full well that I wanted to specialize in marine sciences. After a few years of prerequisites and other discipline requirements, I had finally earned enough flexibility to take creative control over my education. Essentially, I had convinced my department that I needed to study off-campus at a UW extension in the San Juan Archipelago, otherwise known as Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL). Except, I didn’t want to go for just a quarter, I wanted to study there for four quarters! I took advantage of the developing Marine Biology minor and eventually was successful in convincing them that I could complete that minor + my Aquatics and Fisheries major while at FHL…they took the bait!

And so I was off and on my way to a science life abroad. Let me just say now, if you know of anyone pursuing any kind of interest remotely related to marine science, make sure that you refer them to FHL. It is full of whimsy and magic, and it is highly probable that the experience will change their life, as it did mine and more than a handful of my friends’. I went there in the beginning of 2008 to participate in the Zoobot course, which covered intertidal invertebrates (zoo-) and marine algae (-bot). Each field trip introduced new habitats where we: sifted through silts and mosses in search of microscopic creatures resembling fiery Chinese dragons (kinorhynchs) and armored 6 –legged bears (tardigrades), trawled for frilly basket sea stars (picture below) and other creatures of the deep, grappled with magenta sea urchins as large as your head, and snacked on fresh algae baked by the sun. I learned to SCUBA dive and zipped from one bay to the other in retro speedboats so that I could monitor seagrass populations. Many days were spent on an old salmon boat interpreting multi-colored charts to identify fish distributions in narrow channels and observe how seabirds, sea lions and seals altered their behavior due to fluctuations in fish location. FHL is where my infatuation with the study of animate nature grew rapidly into a full-fledged love affair.
Dead Man’s Bay, San Juan Island, WA: Using fluorescent coloring to monitor how water moves over rocks and algae along shorelines; it can give insight as to how algal spores move along and influence algal distribution.
San Juan Island, WA: One of my students found this larva of stubby squid while night lighting, very charismatic creatures!
Cattle Point, San Juan Island, WA: The underside of a limpet.
Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, WA: Every summer FHL hosts an Invertebrate Ball, where you dress like any invertebrate and party. During my first year I chose to mimic a stalked jelly.
In 2009, I graduated with a B.S. Fantastic, a degree! But like 98% of college graduates I wondered, “What now”? I had no desire to grow up, settle down, or go in whichever direction towards domestic stability. I wanted to continue my education with post-graduate studies but had a deep rumbling for field experience outside of Washington before taking the plunge. I knew zero academics outside of UW but quickly learned to put myself out there. My tried and true method was to (a) use Google to identify people with whom I wanted to work, e.g. as part of other universities, (b) archived all promising email addresses, (c) wrote a brief introduction about myself and explained why I would be a great addition to their team, and (e) attached a CV. I’ve had great success with that method. I usually email about 15-20 people, and out of those, maybe 2-3 will respond positively and ask me to submit an official job application. Anyhow, after graduation I received positive feedback from PISCO in California, the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in Juneau. Despite PISCO and the Smithsonian being well-regarded organizations, I accepted Alaska’s offer mostly because it was the road less traveled. Thank you, Robert Frost.

I packed two suitcases and was off to Juneau in September 2009, just in time for winter! Arriving during the ‘wrong’ time of year is a recurring theme. I was hired to help a PhD candidate finish her fieldwork. She was interested in juvenile king crab ecology; in particular we studied what species of fish predated on the baby crabs and how biogenic structure (living 3D structure, like kelp) influenced baby king crab survival. We were in the water every day for weeks at a time…cold! Sometimes winds whipped through so strongly that the water churned violently, ripping our experiment off the bottom and, if we were in the water, throwing us against the rocks…not at all safe, but I found it exhilarating and caught myself chuckling a few times. When weather wasn’t an issue, we contended with Steller’s sea lions. These animals are intimidating in the water and we were stalked more than a few times! There was one dive when a particularly rotund adult male lurked just far enough to where we could barely make out his shape in the paling light while two younger males dive-bombed us, whirling sediments into the water column to make visibility worse. The rotund male got closer, and closer…I still get the chills. Then on a different day, my last dive in for that stint of work, in fact, we were lucky to have gotten out of the water only five minutes before a few transient orcas (the killers of the killer whale species) swam over our study site.  Questionable situations at times, but that’s exactly why I chose Alaska. It’s wildly beautiful; a picture from my first diving day is below…gorgeous! What you can’t pick-out in the picture are the humpback whales; they were often seen far out in the channel bubble-net feeding.
Adlersheim, Juneau, Alaska: Our main diving site…who can complain? Steller’s sea lions often hauled out on the island across the way, on the left.

Juneau, Alaska: A beautiful 2nd-year juvenile that we were preparing for the field…it probably got eaten later that day by a sculpin!
After six months, the king crab project was more than finished and I needed to move on. I joined a monitoring project in Seattle for couple of months while I sent out another round of emails to potential employers. This time I received offers from Washington, Texas, and Georgia. OOMPH, the latter two were definitely not my cup of tea. However, I WOULD NOT stay in Washington, so accepted the position with Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Again, I packed two suitcases and arrived in mid-August 2010 at, again, the wrong time of year to move somewhere new. Atlanta is a sweltering, humid, disgusting place in August. At the time of my acceptance I was told that I’d be stuck in the lab 75% of the time with monthly trips to the Florida Keys for a large-scale project on fish biodiversity influence on algal biomass and biodiversity. What played out was the opposite. After two weeks in Atlanta, my boss called me to his office and told me that in three weeks I was being sent to Fiji for five months. I didn’t argue.

After a two-week stint in Florida, I hopped onto a plane to Fiji. Yeah, yeah, rough, I know. Never could I have imagined working and living in a tropical environment for so long, after all, I’m a trained temperate ecologist and working in the tropics had never really interested me; corals, huh-what? I was part of the first group to stay at our burgeoning field station in Votua Village on the Coral Coast (southern coast), and because we were the first group, the ‘field station’ wasn’t much. There was no furniture and each room had at least one cane toad, which had left ‘welcome home’ presents all over the floors. Toads were quickly removed, the station equipped for basic living, and we hit the reef. What I went there for: Past studies have shown that some algal species are detrimental to some corals, so the task handed to me was to test whether previous contact with a known species of algae induced a resistance response in targeted corals (equivalent to the chickenpox-human story). I got mixed results, but most data pointed to development of resistance (not yet published).
Votua Reef flat, Viti Levu, Fiji: Some of our harvested corals used in various experiments. We would swim around and knock off tiny fragments off of larger colonies, transplant them into cement cones with an epoxy, and then let them acclimate and grow.
Votua Reef flat, Viti Levu, Fiji: My office, coral rack in the background.
The project lasted a long time and required me to swim around the reef on my own for hours everyday. I soon learned that there were times not to be on the reef by your lonesome. The four hours of the highest tide were times for me to not be on the reef, though my colleagues never seemed to have a problem. Early in the trip, I was far out on the reef snorkeling through a corridor lined with heaps of lovely pink soft corals (Sinularia flexibilis) searching for a good place to set up an experiment. I detected non-pink movement in the corner of my eye, whipped my head left, and saw a 7-foot white-tipped reef shark swim way too close. Now, I’ll admit, white-tips aren’t scary in retrospect, but that was my first time ever seeing a shark in the wild and it was unexpected, so I was terrified. It took my entire being to take time to first gather all my tools and then head to shore, and on the way in I spotted two black-tipped reef sharks! I attributed it to the distance that I was from shore, not tidal cycle. With all fieldwork behind me, I saw sharks on probably 75% of the high-tide days. Do you ever get eerie feelings that someone or something is watching you? Sure you do. That happened on the reef a lot, one day especially so. I looked around a few times because I had missed the creature the first two scans. It turns out that a fish was staring me head-on less than 10 feet away, and this fish was a 6-foot Great Barracuda in classic striking position. And then it stretched it’s mouth – I like to think that is was gauging weather or not it could successfully attack me…it’s mouth was bigger than my head, after all. I tried solving the situation by swimming to other sections and every time I looked back the barracuda trailed behind. Yep, out of the water. From then on I made sure to work during low or near low tides. My colleagues were convinced that I was crazy because one didn’t witness sharks or the barracuda until halfway through the trip, and the second didn’t see sharks until the last week and never got to see the almighty barracuda.
Beqa Lagoon, Viti Levu, Fiji: Feeding a grey reef shark. This picture was taken during a controlled shark dive; on this dive we saw about 27 adult bull sharks, too…ecologically questionable, but a fantastic experience.
Outside of work, I found time to enjoy other aspects of Fiji. I absolutely adored visiting with the village’s children (they’re quite keen) and our neighbor Dengei, who is a quintessential Fijian Rastafarian. He is also one of the only citizens to retain traditional hut (bure) building knowledge, lives in a home made of bamboo, and just left his Fijian wife for an Italian woman. Odd mix. On most of my days off, I hiked into dense forest to swim at a nearby waterfall and natural hot springs. I was getting very settled in Fiji. Island time and function started to take a hold of me and took appreciating simple things to a new level. I was definitely upset to leave but the experience convinced me that I was ready to move onto post-graduate studies and that I wasn’t restricted to the United States.
Votua Village, Viti Levu, Fiji: A traditional Fijian meal! Cassava, taro, sweet potatoes, fish, and chicken cooked via the lovo method…raw food placed over very hot rocks and then covered with layers of leaves and dirt so that the trapped heat cooks the food.
Waya Island, Fiji: A hike to the tippy-top of this small island.

 Votua Village, Viti Levu, Fiji: Left, our neighbor Dengei putting a fresh layer of dried grass on his tradition bure. Right, the kids showing off their dinner.
 While in Fiji, I applied to three graduate programs: University of Alaska – Fairbanks, University of California – Davis, and University of Otago – in New Zealand…a huge undertaking while living in a third-world country! I returned to Atlanta in 2011 to continue with lab work and field excursions to Florida while I waited for news. When it rains, it pours. I was accepted into both Alaska and Otago. It should have been a no-brainer (duh, NZ!) but there were some ‘complications’ because I was also awarded an NSF graduate research fellowship that I could only use within U.S. borders, so I could take it to Alaska. 

I was deliberating at a park and deduced that both study systems were similar, but New Zealand offered a new and culturally different, but money-limited lifestyle and Alaska-NSF offered a familiar and financially comfortable lifestyle (the NSF fellowship covers tuition and gives awardees $30,000 per year to live off of). At one point I looked up and was reminded by the sun of my childhood wishes to be happy. I had already decided years prior that I didn’t want to value my life and base my happiness/success on possessions, and eventually concluded that personal growth would be greatest if I were to study in New Zealand and the remaining appeal with Alaska was that I could take advantage of the NSF fellowship.

I told NSF to shove it, which was invigorating because not many people have the opportunity to do so. I’m currently writing to all of you from Dunedin, New Zealand and have been here for only about three weeks as a fully matriculated resident. I’m in the midst of finalizing a large chunk of my thesis, already, and have woven in some very exciting research and adventures. The theme of my thesis is shaping-up to define the origin and fate of nearshore suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the temperate South Pacific and Southern Ocean. Basically I’ll be looking at tiny floaty things (live and dead) in the water column and investigate how carbon/energy flows through the food web using stable isotope biomarkers. The equally cool part is where I get to study. I’ll be doing most of my work Dunedin, proper, and then travel to Fiordland, the sub-Antarctic islands (Snares and Auckland Islands), and even to Antarctica.
Dunedin, New Zealand: The sunrise on my first morning here. Symbolic, much?
So there it is. A great journey, so far. I am not much one for offering advice, but the following are some things that I try to live by.
  1. Don’t hesitate hoping for the perceivably impossible.
  2. Put yourself out there, way out there.
  3. Maintain a rigorous work ethic, even during sub-optimal conditions.
  4. Know yourself and don’t cave to ill-intended criticism.
  5. Have an open, accepting, and flexible mind.
  6. Think thoroughly, speak carefully and act modestly to make sure that your words and actions represent your exact thoughts and feelings.
  7. Like the ancient Egyptians, give praise to the Sun Gods!
Cheers, everybody!

Pretty amazing, huh?  This girl definitely knows how to travel!  And just for the record, I can attest to the fact that she still gets exited over mermaid t-shirts :)  Got questions for Tiffany?  Want to know more about putting yourself out there for a job/university? Just want to convey your undying jealousy for her way of life? Leave it in the comments!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Day trip to Massachusetts take two!

On our second day of Massachusetts adventuring, we headed out to Springfield - the city of firsts.  Just for fun you should look up Springfield, MA's wikipedia page.  The number of things invented in this town is just ridiculous.  What first drew us to Springfield was a conversation we had with a bartender in Glens Falls.  She had shared with us that it was her grandson's birthday, so she was taking him to the MA city for the weekend to visit the Dr. Seuss Memorial Gardens.  Upon hearing this I was instantly devastated that I hadn't heard of it earlier, and beyond sad that we'd run out of time to go ourselves.  "Luckily," the navy must have been listening, and granted us the opportunity to visit! (Silver lining, anyone?)

After some research we found out that they have what they call a museum "quadrangle," where you pay one flat fee ($12.50 a person, or $10.75 with military discount) to visit five museums in one day.  Of course we couldn't pass up a deal like this, and it made driving an hour just to see statues of Dr. Seuss characters more reasonable.  
Being a Green Eggs and Ham enthusiast, a picture with Sam-I-am was the highlight of the trip for me, but it was all pretty amazing.  The statues are excellent, and watching the excited kids run around the main characters of their favorite books is a great way to spend the afternoon.  As for the museums themselves, we only actually visited two - because of time, and because one was closed for repairs.  The Science/Natural history combo museum was by far our favorite.  It started out a little shaky with some rough exhibits of taxidermied animals, but by the end we more than enjoyed our time there. 
Life size T-Rex in the dinosaur exhibit!
The second museum we visited was the art museum.  It was definitely less than stellar.  Our biggest complaints were the lack of original art (nearly everything in their main room was a replica of the original piece), the lack of definition between Japanese and Chinese exhibits (they were mixed in all together, without information cards to let us know what was what), and that the majority of the museum was under construction until 2014!  The highlight was actually the architecture and detailed woodwork of the building itself.  Since one museum was closed all together (the Connecticut Valley History museum that houses the actual Dr. Seuss Exhibit :( ), and the art museum was pretty torn apart, we probably would have been upset had the tickets cost any more. 

Since we were starving and the regular art museum had major shortcomings, we decided to skip the modern art museum and find somewhere to eat.  Unfortunately, Springfield was majorly a little rougher around the edges than we had expected, and nearly everything in town was either closed or boarded up, so we went out on a limb and decided to stop in Hartford to eat on our way home instead!
Colin throwing up his "spud" gang sign :)
The only thing we really knew about Hartford is what we had heard on the news, which was gangs, gangs, gangs, and more gangs.  Nearly every time we turn it on (both in CT and NY) there is something about gang violence in Hartford, but we figured there had to be some good parts somewhere.  After a quick check of my foursquare app on my brand new iphone (woo!), we decided to eat at a hamburger restaurant called Plan B.  We figured it was fitting considering this was our literal "plan B" for the day.  Not to mention the reviews were nothing short of "this is the best burger I've ever had" etc. etc. 

After sitting down to order our plan b burgers, we found that those reviews were more than accurate.  These burgers are so good they could turn even the strictest vegetarians back to meat (I'm looking at you, Ms. Ross!).  Not only do they make their own ground beef in house, but they also use all natural free range meat (see picture below), and it definitely pays off.  We were more than pleasantly surprised.  It was definitely a risk we were glad we had taken. 
That pretty much concludes our memorial day weekend!  We took today to catch up on some reading and relax before closing out the evening with Kung Fu Panda 2 (Colin loves him some Kung Fu Panda).  It's getting so warm here that we actually had to use the AC in our room today, which is something we definitely didn't pack for, and the cat's surely weren't ready for (as seen in the picture below :D), but we're still loving the sunshine.  Here's to hoping this week yields some answers about our future!! Keep your fingers crossed!

Click in to see more pictures of us frolicking around the Dr. Seuss gardens!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A day trip to Massachusetts

Part 1:  Salem, MA

Yesterday Colin and I started off our memorial day weekend with a short drive up to Salem, MA.  Since I already posted a ton of pictures on Facebook, I'm not going to go into too much detail on here.  I do however want to mention that we learned so much about the Salem witch trials while there, but Salem is also an absolutely beautiful city!  We were shocked at how fun and unique it was.  It will definitely go down as one of the best places we've visited on this crazy Navy train.
If you ever make it to Salem, I would definitely recommend stopping by the Salem Witch Museum.  We were expecting a regular old museum were you walk through exhibits etc., but they actually have two different performances where they talk about what actually happened during the trials, and how the idea of witches and witchcraft has evolved today.  They even go into detail about the pagan events held in Salem all year long for currently practicing wiccan groups.  It was extremely informative, and they have a great military discount! 

Aside from this, I'm not sure I would actually pay to see anything in Salem (except for maybe the House of Seven Gables if you're a Nathaniel Hawthorne fan).  Since tourism is Salem's main industry, they have a giant red line on the sidewalks that goes all through the town leading you to the important destinations.  You can also pick up a free map at the visitors center that mirrors the red walking path and points out the "must stop" locations.  This made it super easy for us to make our own walking tour, and we were able to meander at our own pace and skip what we weren't interested in. 

The top five things I learned while in Salem were:

1.  Only 19 people were actually killed during the Salem Witch Trials.  18 were hung, and 1 was crushed to death.  A Possible 13 died in prison while waiting to be released.

2.  5 of the people killed were actually men who either stood against the hangings and were in turn charged with witchcraft, or attempted to stand up for accused family members.  This includes Giles Corey who was pressed to death with stones for refusing to enter a guilty or not guilty plea when accused of practicing witchcraft. 

3.  Salem is actually more focused on educating people about the pagan faith, and how religious/government fear tactics are really to blame for what happened in Salem, than they are about playing into the idea of witches. 

4.  The witch trials were actually started by an African American woman named Tituba who was a slave that cared for the children and taught them "magic tricks."  She was the only accused Salem "witch" that wasn't offered a trial, and was released once the trials ended. 

5.  There are several thousand modern day witches living in Salem, and nearly every other store front claims to offer psychic or tarot readings.  If you want to find out what's to come, this just might be the place to visit. 

Part 2: Boston, MA

On our way home from Salem we realized that Boston was about 20 minutes away, and the Bruins game was only a half an hour from starting.  Normally, I only get enthusiastic about hockey because Colin is enthusiastic about hockey, but the idea of heading to a sports bar in the heart of Boston during the final playoff game to decide whether or not the Boston Bruins would compete for the Stanley Cup, was a once in a lifetime opportunity I couldn't pass up!  So we rerouted Maggie (our GPS), and headed to The Pour House on Boylston in Boston. 
Excitement and disbelief about our perfect bar seats
Pure Bruin excitement
 It must have been meant to be, because not only did we find FREE parking on the same block as our destination bar, but as soon as we walked in two people got up from their seats right in front of the tv and quietly passed them on to us.  In a sea of yellow and black chaos, it was effortless perfection.  It wasn't long before we realized that these Boston fans sure are nuts!  Even though it was one of the most uneventful hockey games I think I've ever watched, the bars and streets were packed with people all waiting in hot anticipation to find out if their team was going to make history.  When they did end up winning, the city erupted.  Cops drove down the streets with their sirens blaring and nearly everyone was hooting and hollering. 
"Lovers Park"
We decided to take a little walk down the street to a park we had driven by while looking for parking that Colin deemed "lovers park" because it seemed that no one knew about the excitement only two streets over, and it was exclusively couples walking around.  It was beautiful and peaceful and the perfect way to let the city clear out before we drove back to New London. 
We ended up getting home entirely too late, and we were so exhausted that we decided to delay our Springfield trip until tomorrow - but it was totally worth it!  What a great day exploring the beautiful state of Massachusetts!

Foxwoods Casino!

Connecticut is perpetually foggy

Welcome ladies and gentlemen, to the largest casino in America!  I have to say right off the bat, it was fun, but Mohegan Sun is definitely a better experience if you're not there to gamble.  I think in order to truly enjoy Foxwoods, you have to stay in the hotel and have access to all of it's services.  That being said, we had a pretty good time!  Only two floors are open to non hotel guests, but they have the most slot machines of any casino in the world, so I was pretty much in heaven.
My winner cashout ticket
The screen showing my Red Fish Jackpot

On the first machine I sat down at and put $20 in, and I walked away with $60.  I'm nearly positive they do this on purpose to get your hopes up :)  I spent the next few hours wandering around putting my money into any machine that "called" to me, while Colin enjoyed the free drinks (he's not a gambler).  In the end, we came out over $50 up and utterly exhausted, so it was more than successful. 
It definitely had less visual appeal than Mohegan Sun, but there were still some picture worthy structures.  The restaurant area was called the "Theater District," and was definitely fun to walk through.  It reminded me more of being in Vegas than any other areas of the casinos here.

The Theater District
Ultimately, I think if we're going to go back to gamble anywhere, we'll probably be headed to Mohegan Sun, but I'm glad we experienced Foxwoods, and we came out in the black so I can't really complain! I'll leave you with a picture of my final 1 cent slot bonus screen that won me around $20!  Of course I chose the vampire, and of course he won the battle :)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rocky Neck State Park

If you click on the picture you can almost see Long Island in the distance
Yesterday was an absolutely gorgeous day, so we decided to take a trip over to Rocky Neck State Park for a little fun in the sun.  Let me just say that this place is huge!  There's a beach, open fields, hiking, wooded camping - you name it they have it.  Since they also have great little cookout spots by the water we decided to get some chicken, a soccer ball, and some BBQ sauce and get grilling! :)
Colin showing off his smooth soccer moves
One thing we didn't plan for was the ticks.  Of course I've heard about the connection between Lyme, CT and Lyme Disease, and beware of tick signs are pretty much everywhere, but we didn't think we had to worry about it at this beach/park.  Boy were we wrong!  We spent about an hour getting the grill ready and kicking around the soccer ball before we sat down to read in the sun and eat our lunch.  Since I'm practically transparent, Colin insisted we choose the only picnic table under a giant (yet low hanging) shady tree.  The minute I sat down I saw a tick on my arm.  Of course I immediately brushed it off and spent the next 10 minutes trying to convince Colin it really was a tick.  After that I pretty much refused to sit down in the grass. 
The picnic area and giant pavilion
A few minutes later Colin was standing under the tree eating and I saw a tick on his shirt!  He threw it in the fire an apologized for spending all that time calling me crazy earlier.  We decided since two in less than half an hour was probably a bad sign, and we knew little to nothing about ticks, we would pack up and head home.  Believe it or not, we saw one more tick on Colin's arm while we packed our stuff up.  It was just crazy.

Of course as soon as we got back I spent the rest of the afternoon ingesting everything the internet has to offer on the Connecticut tick population.  Luckily, we're pretty sure the ones we saw were Lone Star ticks known for living close to the water (and in trees!) on the Connecticut coast and do not carry Lyme Disease! 

After everything I guess I can say it was an educational experience, but next time we'll be at the beach instead of the soccer field. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guest Blogger Tuesday

After some serious lack of follow up on my part, Guest Blogger Tuesday is back!  This weeks guest blogger is the fabulous Mrs.  Jen Reed!  She's going to be sharing with you about the awesome art of wood burning.  It's something that I knew little about until I looked through the photos of her art and couldn't help but want to know more.  Colin used to dabble in wood burning in high school, but hasn't done anything in the time that I've known him, so I knew it existed, but didn't know how unique and cool it was.  Without further adieu, I'll let Jen explain the rest!

Pyrography: The Art of Wood Burning
When I was about fifteen, my mom had taken my sister and I to the craft store. She said she would get us both something to do, and since I had already tried latch hook, needle point, knitting, crochet, and basically everything else and failed, I was looking for something new and different. I wandered up and down all the isles, and found this kit that had two pieces of wood and what looked like a soldering tool. It was a wood burning kit! This looked like something I could do! I told my mom that it was what I wanted, and she chuckled a little, but said she would get it for me. Little did she know that it would become a wonderful hobby for me, and get me to branch out into other aspects of wood working.

Some people call it Pyrography, while others call it wood burning. It’s the same thing, really. It is just taking a soldering tool with different shaped tips on it to make designs in wood pieces. I have five different tools and about fifty different tips that I use for various patterns and projects. Some of the tips are good for sharp lines or thick lines, while some are better to create shadow effects. I use any kind of wood, really. I have burned on anything from oak to walnut to cedar to basswood (which happens to be my favorite). Some of the wood I have used came from stores, while some I have used has come from places I have visited, or from wood scrap piles. Wood can be found anywhere and made into art, if you have the imagination for it.
To prepare for a wood burn project, the wood needs to be sanded down so that it is smooth to the touch. When that is done, the pattern can be drawn right on the wood, or can be transferred on to the wood. I do both, it just depends on what project I am working on at the time. Some of my designs are done free hand. Others are taken from patters or photos. For those, I print out the picture, and use transfer paper taped on to the wood, and then tape the print out on to the transfer paper. From there, it’s just a matter of tracing the pattern out and getting it on to the wood. It is a fairly simple process.  

After the pattern is on the wood, you are ready to burn. Warming up the tool only takes a matter of minutes. Pick out the tip you would like to use first, and put it in the tool. Then plug the tool in to get it hot, and once it is ready, the burning can start. I usually start from the top of the pattern and work my way down, or start with the less detailed pieces of the work. The end is where you can put on a smaller tip and do the detail work. I never had any training in how to do pyrography, so this is what I have found is the best way for me to do it. It really is up to each person, though.
Coaster set
The biggest project I have completed took over forty hours of burning time, and over 30 hours of prep time. It was a coffee table for my sister and brother-in-law. The design was of a cabin, with some Labradors out front, and some ducks flying in the sky, with the dogs looking at them, and some trees and a fence and mountains along the way. For the borders I put an oak leaf pattern across the bottom and two little leaves in the middle of the top. It was one of the best projects I have ever done, and the one I am most proud of. I have also done a couple of end tables for my parents, and various other gifts for my friends and family. There are many other projects I am proud of, and can’t wait to get more going.
Completed coffee table
Wood burning is something I really enjoy doing, and sharing my work with people is a gift I love to give.  For me, it is a relaxing hobby that is fun to do, that I can get other people involved in if they want to be.  My works have presented themselves in a unique way and to give something personal that I have made for someone, and to have them know how much time and effort I have put into it, makes it even more special to that person, and to me. It makes me feel good to see them smile at seeing my artwork and to know that they really like what I have given them.

Wood burnings make great, unique, personal gifts. I sell my work and would be willing and able to work with anyone to get a design going if there is an interest.
Here is the public link to my facebook Random Crap…I Mean Crafts page if you’d like to check out some of my art. Please enjoy. If you’d like to contact me, my email is: princessburley@hotmail.com

Cool, right?  If you're interested in buying anything you see from Jen's album, or requesting a custom piece as a gift or for yourself, please email her with the details!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

I'm not a big fan of beer but...

I couldn't help but notice this at the Stop & Shop grocery today.  Not only were these signs on every alcohol display, but there were also giant green tarps down over everything alcohol related.  How utterly ridiculous.  Separation of church and state anyone?

Arkham Asylum and Mohegan Sun

Today was another eventful day!  We decided to go exploring again, and found a comic book shop in Norwich called Arkham Asylum!  I just had to see what it was like!  Besides the awesome paintings on the walls and general insane asylum feel, it was actually pretty overpriced and not really comic book central.  There was a ton of Magic stuff, and mostly just trade paperbacks.  Sort of a let down but still fun to visit.

Since it didn't take up nearly as much time as we thought it would, we decided to stop by Mohegan Sun, the second largest casino in America.  Foxwoods, the largest casino in America is also only about 10 minutes from New London, but we decided to save the big daddy for a more planned out trip.  Mohegan Sun was still pretty amazing.  It's absolutely huge and has some of the most beautiful artwork and architecture.  I was really surprised. 
The casino from the parking lot
The casino is made up of three main rooms - the earth room, sky room, and wind room.  Each one has pretty much the same stuff, just a different decorative theme.   We spent most of the time walking around but I did have a good feeling about the earth room, so I put $5 in the penny slots and came out with $9.02!  I'd say that's pretty successful!  There are also about a million restaurants and designer shops.  A lot of the restaurants had some famous person/chiefs name attached (Bobby Flay, Jimmy Buffet, etc.) and the price tags definitely reflected it, so we decided to eat elsewhere.  Even still, it was more than fun just to take it all in.

As I was walking by the giant auditorium I noticed that there were signs everywhere for Glee!  That's right, the live show is coming to Mohegan Sun the first weekend in June.  Since it looks like we'll be here at least until then, Colin said that if we get the schedule and car sales stuff figure out we could maybe look into getting tickets!!! They're almost sold out, and all that's left is horrible nose bleed sections, but it would still be so worth it!  I'm just surprised he even entertained the idea of going with me :)
Awesome artwork in the casino
Glass sculpture in the casino
We posted the car on craigslist to try and sell it ourselves instead of trading it in (they hardly offered us anything so we decided to see what would could do), and we've already got a serious buyer willing to pay near full price!  I'm so shocked!  I guess since it gets such good gas mileage it's a steal.  We got her all cleaned up today and ready to show this week.  I'm so excited and sad all at the same time.  Versa was our first dealership car buying experience, and also our first car that was less than 20 years old :)  It'll be sad to part with her, but exciting to find something new!  That's just how these things go I guess.

We're thinking about heading to New York City next weekend for the end of fleet week, and to see some of the last things on Colin's wish list that we didn't get in the first few trips.  Even though we're stuck in a less than ideal situation, it sure has been fun spending time together and exploring Connecticut!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A weeks worth of updates

I wish I had better news to share, but we're definitely at a standstill here in CT.  Colin has a preliminary appointment with Navy med on May 31st that he's been trying to get moved up to no avail.  So right now we're just hanging out trying to make the most of this time together.  He's been told that even if everything goes perfectly at his appointment, it will probably still be at least a month before his new waver arrives (from wherever it is they come from).  It's discouraging news, but there's nothing we can do so we went exploring instead of pouting!

This week we went hiking at the Gillette Castle State Park in East Haddam, CT.  Of course I spent the majority of the time being completely distracted by the most giant tadpoles and frogs I've ever seen in the wild.  I'm talking Goliath (our frog who was adopted by the Schlotz's when we moved) Pixie frog sized.  I also almost stepped on a giant water snake that was well hidden in the grass and was too fast to get a picture of.  The best part is that I almost stepped on it, but it went after Colin :) 

(click on the images to see them larger - especially the panoramic)
Gillette Castle
The view from the castle
A giant frog in the water.  They were everywhere!
It's tough to see, but there is a log in the middle covered in a bunch of turtles.
Attack of the giant tadpoles!  There were regular sized ones too, but they're so small you can't even see them in this picture!
The pond where all of this awesome stuff lived.
We've also been actively looking into buying a new car.  After testing out the removable roof rack on our drive from NY to CT, there is just no way that it's going to work long term as we hopefully make our way to WA soon.  We've test driven a bunch of different midsized SUVs, and researched a ton, but we still haven't settled on anything.  It'll be sad to see Versa go, but she's just too small for us now.  I think we've narrowed it down to a Honda CR-V, Toyota Rav4, Jeep Liberty, Ford Escape, or Hyundai Santa Fe.  Driving all over Connecticut to visit different dealers has definitely made the time fly by, and has allowed us to see all sorts of cute little towns we never would have known existed.  We even accidentally stumbled upon Yale one day on our way home! 

So that's it for now!  I'll be sure to update as soon as we have more news.  Like I said before, our cell reception is horrible, and we never know when the internet is going to be working, so if you tried to get a hold of us and couldn't, I'm sorry!

Do you have any suggestions of what we should see while were in Connecticut?  Is one SUV better than another?  Leave any insight you may have in the comments!