Thursday, February 17, 2011

Prompt Blog 4

I grew up with wolves. Nothing so glamorous as Julie or living in the countryside of northwestern states. The only place I’d ever seen a wolf in real life was the zoo. But wolves are my mother’s favorite animal and she had adopted one through the World Wildlife Federation. Her house is filled with mugs, throw blankets, wall hangings of stone or fabric, statues, CDs, framed pictures, and stuffed animals. Some of them showcase her wolf, Matzi.

Although I am a cat person, I can understand a wolf’s allure. The main difference between a wolf and a dog is weight (average being 99 lbs), longer limbs, larger paws, greater height and bulk, stronger jaws, and a pre-caudal gland on the base of its tail. The gland is used by the alpha male to release a pheromone to mark another wolf as a member of a particular pack. Dogs have this, but it tends to be vestigial depending on the breed. It also explains why wolves and dogs sniff each other’s tails: to identify who they are by their individual musk. But what drew me to wolves were their eerily beautiful and harmonized howls that are haunting and emotional. Wolves howl, bark in a soft woof, whimper, and growl. Howling is the most familiar to humans and is used to assemble the pack before and after a hunt; pass alarm, especially at the den site; locate each other in a storm or in unfamiliar territory; communicate across great distances; and to create an impression of more animals. Wolves can howl while lying or sitting and they don’t howl at the full moon.  

They also have other unique aspects. Their coats are diverse, making it easy to identify one from the other. They are social creatures with a chain of command, loving parents, loyal pack members, and fierce hunters with amazing stamina. It made me sad every time someone referenced how they were evil just because people had grown up with condemning fairy tales, stories, and movies. Somewhere along the line, the Big Bad Wolf symbolized evil and loomed in Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even Bugs Bunny and Tex Avery cartoons. It’s hard to argue with classmates when you’re in elementary school and the nerdy outcast. What could you possibly know that the others didn’t? How could you possibly be right? You’re probably lying for attention. We don’t care.
I wanted to show them videos of pack life. I wanted to show them how gentle a wolf babysitter could be to cubs that weren’t his or her own. I wanted them to listen to the yips, barks, and howls that were used as fluid and effective communication that humans couldn’t understand. But what child wants to learn more outside of class?

Eventually, I became that child. It took me reaching college to do it, but I blossomed in my nerdy ways and researched wolves for a story in order to discover whether they could see the stars. They can, but the light would be extremely blurry. Because they are predators, their eyes are located at the front of their skulls for depth perception and focus. However, they lack a foveal pit, which is used to sharply focus at greater distances. Without it, wolves cannot distinguish much beyond 100 to 150 feet except for shapes and movement. Despite this, their peripheral vision is extremely accurate and they are able to detect slight movement from very small animals (think mosquito) at close ranges of about 10 feet or more, and movement from larger animals at considerable distances. Wolves can probably see color, but their spectrum is limited because of their enhanced night vision, which is usually black and white because of the rods used to see in dim light.

But a wolf’s vision is almost irrelevant (currently) for my thesis next year. I need to research wolves again. There isn’t much I don’t already know, but there are subtle nuances that will crop up throughout the story. I’ll probably research as I go, which is what my current mentor prefers. In that research, I’ll need only what is relevant to the story: general descriptions, coat variances, voices, habits, prowess, etc. For instance, a wolf’s sense of smell is about 100 times more powerful than a human’s, so my wolf character could easily react to something my main character hasn’t yet noticed. In addition to smelling prey a mile away on windy days and smelling another animal three days after it had left, a wolf can detect scents that a human cannot. Odorless poison, perhaps? Wolves also have a broader hearing spectrum, with the upper range reaching 80 kHz compared with a human’s 20, allowing wolves to hear up to 6 miles away in a forest and 10 miles over open land. I’ll have to research how a blind person’s hearing changes, though.  And when a wolf sleeps, its ears are always upright so it can detect sounds from other animals at all times, which the character could remark about if he always pats the wolf’s head throughout the night and notices the ears are up.

All this is a start, at least. And I’m sure I’ll delve into nonfiction and documentaries as I go. But I’m looking forward to writing about this character, and then handing it off to Mom for her approval.


Place Blog 4

This morning I managed to leave for work somewhat on time around 7:15. I walked to my car; opened the driver’s side door; and set my bag, mug, and shawl on the passenger seat. Then I sat there with my door open and legs dangling to the sidewalk, pondering. The air was wet but not humid, and my skin was tantalized by interchanging warm and cool air streams. It was 45 degrees and one of those partly cloudy mornings that hid the sun, making it a candle flame in with clouds breaking in such a way that the sun’s backlight looked like smoke rising and catching on the wind in an upside down checkmark. The eastern horizon glowed with gentle pink and orange while the rest of the sky was still a dusty, pale violet. This cast a twilight blue over the earth, like I was looking through a blue tinted camera lens.
It was the air that pulled me out of the car. I locked my door and walked up the lawn. The snow was gone. The ground was firmer, though the grass was still brown. When I reached the backyard, two dark-breasted birds fluttered away from the corner gutter. Here, too, the snow was gone except for a small line near a forgotten garden. The lawn was bumpy, which startled me because I had grown used to the flat landscape that snow and ice created. I could feel small mounds through the inch-to-inch-and-a-half rubber soles of my snow boots.
The lawn was quieter despite twittering from nearby—though hidden—birds. Snow may lie as a blanket, but its bright white also lifts the world. Without it, the earth sinks to its former level, pushed further by the weight of rain and ice. My backyard looked crumpled but resting, waiting for warmer spring temperatures that would allow grass to grow and lift once more.
As I walked around, I noticed changes and details that had been buried. Bricks trailed in two small mounds across the garage’s little wooden doorframe. The door had somehow shut. And beside me lay a small half-rotten pumpkin—probably from Halloween or Thanksgiving—preserved in its decay beneath the snow.
I wasn’t there long, just enough to soak it in like desert lizards soak in moisture through their skin. Then I walked back to the car and drove to work, expecting rain in the afternoon.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Prompt Blog 3

My backyard is still foreign and new to me. It was the last area I investigated after moving to New Castle. In fact, I never set foot there until these blog entries started. I would watch my housemates come around the house from the back yard, telling me they were putting up a tall wooden fence or pulling up weeds and bricks from the patio in order to make a garden. But the only times I ever saw the area was from my room, a small strip from the kitchen window, and when I would look out the half-wall windows of the sun room.

But the back yard is very much like moving into a new, cramped place. When I moved into the house that already had five other people living there, the dynamic changed. The atmosphere grew tense and uncertain and someone else's rhythms, habits, and schedules were added with the rest of the tenants' already coordinating lifestyles. It took months to feel comfortable with everyone there, but by that point they were having their own problems. We all kept to ourselves and stayed within our own confined quarters, rarely using the living room and kitchen as community areas. There was nowhere to go without first making sure no one else was there. We became tense or surprised when we would walk into a room and discover someone else already there, or go to use the bathroom and find it occupied while the other bathroom lacked toilet paper. We had to adjust and accept what was there (another person, a new lifestyle) and what wasn't there (comfort, trust, confidentiality).

When walking out to the backyard, it's like meeting a new tenant again. I psychologically explore, observe events and details, and slowly shift into the changing environment. I walk slowly, watch my back, and look for aspects that would welcome difference or deny them. And the back yard is still like my tiny room. I'm surrounded by walls with very few openings. People are coming and going constantly. The entrances aren't well protected so there is no sense of safety. But, like rooms and new tenants, it takes time until they become acceptable and normal. A room becomes one's own, tenants come and go, and a backyard can go through seasons and change with the house's internal atmosphere. It just takes time, and I haven't had enough time to discern whether the backyard will sync properly or I'll avoid it after these blogs are done.  

Monday, February 7, 2011

Place Blog 3

Place Blog #3
I walked into my back yard on Monday around 2 p.m. so I could see it in full daylight. I had the day off from work because the office switched its February holiday from President’s Day to the day after the Super Bowl. Many people had asked HR for that day off once they learned that Pittsburgh was going, so HR sent out a mass email explaining the change. I don’t care about football, but having the day off was nice.
The way to and from my place was a bit dangerous. I’d chosen to walk over the tracks that two young girls had created when they trudged through my then untouched front yard just to ask if I wanted my sidewalk or driveway shoveled. I had told them no because I didn’t have any extra spare cash, but that resulted in the driveway and sidewalk being covered in three inches of ice. Walking to and from the car is always an ordeal, and avoiding it this time was a smart move. Luckily, when I reached my bridge, I discovered that it was bare of snow, so I was able to stay completely on my lawn instead of walking over my neighbor’s driveway.
When I arrived at my place, I was struck by the monochromatic world. The sky and snow matched perfectly—a dingy white. Little did I know that it was raining—the small invisible rain that can’t be seen through windows. It turned the snow and ice into slush, but my land bridge and bits of the back yard were soggy grass. I could hear the rain patter against my neighbor’s gutters, along their house’s siding, and against the back of my hood as it gradually turned to freezing rain. An hour later, it would turn into an icy mixture and by evening, it would be a solid snowy drizzle, like the world was placed under and open packet of powdered sugar. But at that moment, I could also hear the rain splattering onto rocks and wood from where the neighbor’s gutters ended their downward route to allow a miniature waterfall to travel the rest of the way to earth. Nearby, my own gutters were leaking from the very top, and great drops of water like translucent bombs spattered the brown and pale green grass a few feet away.
Toward the actual back yard, the snow had melted away from the black Craftsman wheelbarrow, leaving it exposed, alone, and—because it was no longer under something as all encompassing as the snow—dejected. The color of the red bricks against the garage that matched the world’s dingy white had deepened and was stark against the snow. I looked for the cat tracks I had seen before and found them as large indents from where they had melted and then been covered over with new layers of snow and ice. But there were at least five or six fresh tracks, some that intersected with the original ones, and others that went off in seemingly random directions. Yet each one led to the open garage door.
As I stood there, the back yard was filled with the scent of wood smoke. I tried to locate its origin, but couldn’t find any plumes to guide me. It wasn’t until I reached my car that the scent turned from wood to steak, and I wondered who in their right mind would grill steaks outside in that weather.