Quite the Feather(s) in Their Cap

I’ll get to the winner of Janet Fox’s book in just a minute. (Go here if you’re totally confused by that statement.) But first, Happy Chinese New Year! (And post-Super Bowl Sunday. Sorry, Panthers fans.)

500_F_92701992_OEpj6F8cslLat2ABI7lazQh02vobfZPt  super-bowl-50

Second, I’d like to discuss something that has fascinated me lately: birds have a lot of feathers. (It’s okay if you suddenly realize you have somewhere else to be or some urgent laundry to fold. I’ll keep going, even if I wind up talking to myself.) For example, did you know that bald eagles have over seven thousand feathers? Yes. They do. A tundra swan, however, has around 25,000. Ha! In your face, eagles! Songbirds like a sparrow might have between one thousand and four thousand feathers. And get this: close to 40 percent of those feathers are located around the head and neck. A swan, however, might have 80 percent of its feathers in that region. There is a good reason for that.

Bald-Eagle-2 Eurasian_Tree_Sparrow-Manado


Have you taken a closer look at a bird’s feather lately? If so, you’ve probably noticed that, depending on type of the feather (tail, wing, down, contour, filoplume, and so on), it was either very smooth or downy. Perhaps it was both.


The smooth feather or feather part (pennaceous) has interlocking barbules that zip together neatly. Kinda like Velcro, according to some internet sites. You can only see this aspect at the microscopic level. The downy feather or feather part (plumulaceous) is a lot fluffier. But the pennaceous part is what gives a bird wind and water resistance. Feathers insulate a bird against the cold. This is why a large percent of their feathers are located at their heads and necks—for brain protection in cold weather.

Feathers are made of beta-keratin. Birds secrete an oil that helps feathers stay flexible and waterproof so they don’t become waterlogged and sink! A bird preens its feathers to spread the oil and rehook the unhooked barbules of feathers. And all this time I thought preening had a negative connotation, thanks to its use with vain humans. Perhaps that image seems particularly apt because the barbed part of a feather is called the vane.


Go here for a great video on a preening bird. (Sorry. I had trouble embedding it.) But one video I could embed came from Cornell Lab’s website, where Dr. Kim Bostwick talks about the male club-winged manakin and the amazing feathers of his wings. (There are actually several videos at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site. Go here for yet another one.)

A great website on birds and their feathers can be found here.

Now for the winner of a preorder of Janet Fox’s middle grade novel, The Charmed Children of Rooskill Castle, and the swag.

IMG_8226b CharmedChildrencover (1)

And that person, thanks to the random number generator, is




Charles Yallowitz!

Congrats, Charles! Please comment below to confirm!

Balicassiao (Balicassiao)—Dicrurus balicassius balicassius/abraensis
Philippines, Laguna ML 461028 © 2016 Cornell University

Feather images from publicdomain.net and birdsoftheair.blogspot.com. Eagle from animalscamp.com. Swan feather from pixabay.com. Eurasian tree sparrow from Wikipedia. Chinese New Year image from fotolia.com. Super Bowl 50 image from overtimetkro.wordpress.com.

Revealing the Darkness or Reveling in It?

The other day, a friend and I talked about how increasingly dark many stories seem to be across the board. By the bleak end of some of them, the chill of hopelessness had seeped into our veins and colored our outlook a dull winter gray.


I don’t need to read a book to learn that life is hard. My mother endured cancer twice. My dad had cancer. My sister-in-law had cancer the same year her father died. I can’t have children and have been unemployed a number of times. I’ve endured bouts of depression and I’ve been rejected more times than I can count. Are you getting the picture that I know how difficult life can be?

So when life is hard, I turn to stories that remind me hope exists. They don’t sugarcoat the bad things that happen to people (like concentration camps; bullying by sadistic kids at school). But the resilience of the characters and their determination to rise above the bleakness of their times spur me to do the same.

kung_fu_panda_2_2011-wideRecently, I watched Kung Fu Panda 2, a 2011 animated film by DreamWorks. In it we learn how Po, a panda, came to live with Mr. Ping, a goose. Though I’ve seen this movie many times and tell myself, I will not cry this time, I lie to myself every time. I won’t give you a play-by-play of Po’s early life. You can watch the movie to discover what happened. But here’s what a soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh) said about Po’s beginning:

Your story may not have such a happy beginning, but that doesn’t make you who you are. It is the rest of your story, who you *choose* to be.

This statement seemed hopeful to me. It acknowledged the sorrow of his past without negating the possibility of change in the future. It spurred Po to be the hero he was meant to be.

I found the following video by the Grace Foundation at Nancy Hatch’s blog in her post, “Sustainable Eating.” While Nancy had a different take on making the world better, the video was another reminder to me of the power of stories. This cow had a sad beginning too. But the video showed more than just a bleak situation. Just watch and see. It’s only a minute and a half.

Yes, we can write stories that reveal challenging times. But if that’s all we do—hold up a mirror to the corruption, the ugliness, the violence, the lack of hope—without once providing any kind of alternative thinking, where’s the power in that? Are we revealing the darkness or reveling in it?

Go ahead. Call me Pollyanna, Ostrich—whatever makes you feel better if hopelessness is your mantra and you want to spread that gospel. But I refuse to join your crusade. When it’s dark, I usually do what I need to do: I turn to the light.


Hopeless image from barbwire.com. Oil lamp from fireflyfuel.com. Kung Fu Panda 2 from hdwallpapers.

Awwwww, So Cute

Several weeks ago, my niece told me about the following Animal Planet video, which features baby sloths at a sloth sanctuary. In the past I didn’t pay much attention to sloths (except as a crossword puzzle answer). Not that I have anything against them. But I proceeded to watch this video twice that day and at least once every few days since then.

A Japanese word for cuteness is kawaii. Hello Kitty is one of the poster children for kawaii.


Yes. I’m cute. But I still plan to rule the world.

Cute-Birds-5Why are so many of us content to watch videos with cute animals or babies? In an article, “Addicted to Cute?” columnist Eva Wiseman provides some insight:

In 2009 a scientific study came out proving that we undergo a chemical reaction when we look at babies. It proved that cuteness is physically addictive, which explains the billions of YouTube views for videos showing babies and baby animals.

Cute-Puppy-Kitten-1600x1200Interestingly enough, according to this article by Carrie Arnold for Scientific American.com, many people feel more aggressive when they see cute babies or animals. For example, a person might express a desire to pinch a human baby or bite or squeeze baby animals. Think of how many times you’ve heard someone say of a baby, “I just wanted to grab his/her little cheek and squeeze.” Perhaps you have seen photos of babies online and can relate to that reaction. But Arnold explains further:

Cute aggression’s prevalence does not mean that people actually want to harm cuddly critters, Aragon [a Yale University psychologist] explains. Rather the response could be protective.

I can understand that desire to protect. After all, babies are small and vulnerable. And if an animal is sick or helpless (see sloths video), we feel especially protective. However, I wonder if some of these baby animals would trigger the same protective response:

baby-snake2  spidersbaby

baby-elephant 137007258.67xVUIce


Cuteness really is subjective, isn’t it?

Time for me to watch the baby sloths again. . . .

Have you seen that video before? Are there any other animal videos you have seen and love? What made you watch them?

Arnold, Carrie. “Cuteness Inspires Aggression.” Scientific American Global RSS. Nature America, Inc., 06 June 2013. Web. 05 July 2015.

Wiseman, Eva. “Addicted to Cute.” The Guardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited, 11 June 2011. Web. 05 July 2015.

Puppy and kitty from activatingthoughts.blogspot.com. Lizard from imgarcade.com. Cute birds from aly-oops.blogspot.com. Snake from babyanimalpictures.blogspot.com. Baby hippo from tehcute.com. Baby elephant from hedweb.com. Baby spiders from spiderzrule.com.

What I Learned from Birds

It was a rainy Saturday. And I was not in the mood for the phone call I had to make to the cable company. Grrrr. My cable box had broken three weeks ago. A replacement had been sent and I connected it the television. Yet something still wasn’t working, because the television screen remained blank.

So there I was on hold for an hour and totally frustrated when a flash of red outside the window caught my eye. A male cardinal peered at me from a branch of the lilac bush close to my window and soon began his song. I was too disgusted at the time to appreciate his serenade. But once my phone call ended and I was calmer, I recalled how the cardinal sang though raindrops fell.

That was unexpected. I wish I could have taken a picture of him. Unfortunately my phone was occupied at the time. Grrrr. The cardinal had left before my phone call ended.


Cardinals, particularly the males, are my favorite birds, because they’re red. And the northern cardinal is the state bird of Illinois. Yet in the pouring rain this bird sat in a bush and sang. He reminded me that even in the midst of a storm, I can choose to sing, rather than complain.

Here’s a video by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on the cardinal’s song:

While I searched for videos of the cardinal’s song, I found videos and articles on another bird—the male bowerbird. You can find these birds in New Guinea and Australia. But the thing I found most interesting about the male of the species is the fact that he decorates his bower to win a potential mate.


On this BBC Worldwide video, Sir David Attenborough discusses the habits of the Vogelkop bowerbird, which is found in New Guinea.

I was impressed by this bird’s decorating sense and his persistence as he arranged and rearranged items in his bower. Obviously he had a plan in his head for how things should look.

The arranging and rearranging aspect reminds me of the drafting and editing phases of writing. The plan is the outline we follow as we draft. When we draft, we arrange. When we edit, we rearrange to make a pleasing product and win potential readers.

This week, I have some arranging to do in my WIP. But soon, like the bowerbird, I’ll rearrange. I hope I remain as single minded as this bird and not allow distractions to steer me away. But I wouldn’t mind a distraction like the cardinal. He can sing to me anytime!

What, if anything, have you learned from a bird or another animal?

Cardinal from birdsgallery.net. Vogelkop bowerbird from bernardvanelegem.com.

They’re Back

There I was, driving down the street next to my apartment building when I saw them, huddled at the curb, as if daring me to draw nearer. In fact, they chose that moment to saunter into the street. My heart sank and I slammed on the brakes. As they crossed to the next curb, each turned and gave me a look as if to say, “Yeah. We made you stop. We can make you do whatever we like. And there’s nothin’ you can about it, ’cause we own this street. Mwahahahaha!!!!!”

Who are they? Canadian geese. They’d been away much of the summer. Now that the weather cooled down, they were back. Since I was driving, I couldn’t grab my phone to snap a photo of my own. I had to find one on the Internet.


Look at ’em. They’re plotting to walk in front of my car.

I don’t know why they usually feel the need to saunter into the street the moment they see my car. But whenever I see them, my attitude instantly shifts toward the negative. And they don’t have to do anything to merit my negativity. All they have to do is show up.

Ever feel that way? Not just about geese but about a person or a group? What about teens? I ask about them specifically, because sometimes, when I see a few geese sauntering down the street, I think of teens. This doesn’t mean that I have the same negative attitude toward teens as I’ve expressed about geese. But teens in my neighborhood, like geese, gather in groups in parks and on street corners. Many have an “I dare you to stop me” manner, as if they expect anyone they encounter, particularly an adult, to thwart them in some way. (Not all behave that way of course.)


Look at ’em. Waiting for the rest of the gaggle.

When I was a teen, I usually knew when adults had a negative attitude toward me, especially those I saw each day on the bus on my way to school or at the mall. Perhaps they had an expectation that my friends and I would be too loud or too impetuous or too _______ (fill in the blank). That attitude was usually expessed with a look that told me, Oh no. Teens. Why do they have to be here? As if they wished us 50 miles away.

Perhaps their attitude sprang from a bad experience with a teen or from a lack of understanding of teens, though they were teens themselves once. Perhaps suspicion has created a gap neither side has bridged.

You know, suddenly I’m reminded of my attitude toward the geese. My jaded attitude comes from dodging geese in the road or dodging their poop in parks. But my attitude says more about me than about the geese, doesn’t it? Even if I think I’m justified, am I really?

The day I saw the geese, I was impatient to get to my destination. The geese happened to get in my way. I felt that my desire to get where I was going was more important than their desire to cross the street. When their rights coincided with mine, intolerance was the result.

So, I know what I need to do. I need to deal with my own issue, instead of blaming the geese. Yes, they’re back as they usually are at this time of year—just in time to remind me that patience and tolerance are virtues I can cultivate.


Are you lookin’ at me? Honk if you are.

Canadian geese from Wikipedia and elsewhere on the Internet. Sims FreePlay teens from blog.mezzacorona.it.

Okay, Now It’s Getting Ridiculous

002Headed out to my car the other day, past the sunflowers—those great, hulking eight-foot giants (I grossly underestimated their size last time I wrote about them)—and what did I see? A monarch butterfly fluttering on the breeze. But as I fumbled for my phone, the butterfly disappeared before I could get a photo of it. If this seems like déjà vu to you, I can understand why. I’ve written about this before. This is the third time I’ve seen one (or two in one case) in recent months and failed to get a photo. Always I’m on the verge of capturing it. But always it flits away before I’m ready—the little tease. I couldn’t help thinking, Okay, now it’s getting ridiculous. Three times and no photo.


Reminds me of the countless times I’ve driven down a parking lot aisle a half-second before someone behind me pulls out of an awesome space. Grrrr! I’m also reminded of Serendipity, the 2001 John Cusack/Kate Beckinsale movie, where a couple meet cute but keep missing each other years afterward.


There have been many just-missed-it moments in my life. I also wrote a post about a guy I crushed on in high school who came up to me on the last day of school, suddenly aware that I was alive. Gee, thanks, but I’m cleaning out my locker now and am about to go away forever. I’ve also been first runner-up for jobs. Those are the most frustrating of all, especially when I’m told, “You were our top choice until someone better came along.” Maybe that person didn’t use those exact words, but that was basically the gist. Or, there have been times when I had a free movie ticket, which could only be used after a first-run theatrical release has been out for two weeks. Only, I totally forgot I had the free ticket, which of course expired the day before I suddenly remembered I had a free ticket.


In order to keep my blood pressure steady, I need to believe that the things I just miss or almost get, but don’t, were not meant for me in the first place. This is not an unrealistic, denial-based attitude made purely out of wishful thinking. No, I’ve lived out this truth. Wanna know why I know this is true? Because there have been times when I was at the right place at the right time or was hired because I was the right person or at least had potential. There were times when someone I liked chose not to wait till the last minute but came at just the right time.

So monarch butterflies, go ahead and flit away while I fumble for a shot and miss. At least I had a glimpse of you as you flitted by. You helped me realize that some things were not meant to hold on to forever. Some opportunities need to flit by. But I won’t miss what’s truly meant for me to keep forever.

Movie ticket from yoursourceisopen.com. Monarch photo from Wikipedia.

The Butterfly Effect

If you’re a chaos theory fan, your palate might be set for entirely different fare than what I’m about to present. This is not a post about Edward Lorenz or the effect the flapping of a butterfly’s wings may or may not have on hurricanes or tornadoes. Instead, I want to discuss a butterfly sighting and the effect it had on my life. (Let this be a lesson to you if you’re new to this blog: keep your expectations on a low setting and your phasers set to stun. Sorry. I couldn’t resist using an old Star Trek reference.)

First, call me Multitasking Marie. I flutter from one thing to the next—revising a manuscript; writing curriculum; writing blog posts; watching the behind-the-scenes documentaries of the Harry Potter movies; beta reading; checking email; reading blogs—sometimes within a short window of time. I also fit in a bit of The Sims: FreePlay. Okay, maybe more than a bit. This is my mantra of sorts: Go here. Do this. Now, now, now, now, now


Consequently, I sometimes have the attention span of a gnat, especially when I try to squeeze in too many things at once. But when I headed out to my car to zip off to church Sunday morning (in a hurry as usual), I came to a complete stop. Why, you ask? The sight of two monarch butterflies fluttering around my car.


I didn’t take this photo.

I usually see one at a time. Never before had I seen two at once outside of a nature film. I couldn’t grab my phone fast enough to snap a photo. Monarchs flutter fast, like gossamer floating in the breeze. Off they went to the weeds and wildflowers in the field near my car. The scene was so idyllic, it took my breath away.


A butterfly-less corner of the weeds and wildflowers. (Remember, I told you I didn’t get the photo of the monarch butterflies.) I can almost picture a zombie lurching through this field, because that’s the way my mind works.

The only thing the scene lacked was a bunny sighting. Oddly enough a friend later that day told me a story about a bunny—one that was hardly idyllic, since it ended in tragedy.

The image of fluttering butterflies usually is a very positive, relaxing image, and it was a contrast to my frantic hustle and bustle. But the fluttering butterflies reminded me of some manuscript feedback I recently received: questions and comments from beta readers like, “I don’t understand what’s going on. Why would he do this? Can you flesh this out?” These comments reminded me that I hadn’t slowed down enough to fully inhabit the scene—to give it enough life so that a reader doesn’t have to ask, “What’s going on here?” Instead of making sure that the character motivation was clear or other physical aspects (i.e., the spatial order of each character) were presented well enough, I fluttered off to another scene, leaving a reader behind with questions. When I reread the scene, and this time really focused on it (something I should have done before handing it to a beta reader), I realized what information I had forgotten to provide to help a reader track the action.

Sometimes a writer needs to trust a reader to figure things out without spoon feeding him or her. But sometimes a writer lands too lightly in a scene and seems too eager to flutter off someplace else—just like a butterfly or a busy multitasker. As in everything else, balance is necessary.

Monarch photo from butterfly-photo.blogspot.com. Sims image from Nokipedia.