Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My Symbol of Winter

I have no recollection of exactly when in December the snow started falling, I just know that once it came, it never went away. During the usual Peoria winter even the heaviest snow is around for a week, two tops, before it melts completely. It's pretty rare to even have back-to-back snow storms that add accumulation. This winter we had three full months where the snow never went away. Working outside a good part of my day, I became accustomed to the extreme cold. I can't count the days the temperature never rose above the single digits, and it got to the point that if it was above 15F, I was too warm in my coat. The never ending snow and cold brought everyone all kinds of frustrations, but I think the thing that will always symbolize this winter for me is takin poop.

Takin are giant sheep-goats. Scientists keep going back and forth over their classification and whether they are sheep or goats. I don't care much either way, but based on behavior and intelligence only, I would have to guess goats. Anyway, takin eat lots of hay and grain and poop lots of little balls about the size of shooter marbles. They are very cold and snow tolerant and went outside into their large yard at least a portion of every day this winter.

A good zoo keeper prides herself on keeping clean exhibits. Animal enclosures and yards are cleaned 365 days a year. Poop is not left in yards. Ever. Non-keepers would probably be shocked at the lengths I go to remove every little ball of takin poop every day. Well, this entire winter was exceptional. I'm not sure how and why this happened, but the bottom third of the takin yard turned into a thick, THICK layer of ice. As the snow fell and melted, the ice layer became thicker. The takin are agile mountain sheep-goats and this didn't bother them one bit. However, the bottom third of the yard is their favorite place to poop. I don't know what a takin's natural body temperature is, but from the way their poop melted into the ice, I'd have to guess about 150F. That's a joke, but seriously, the poop melted into the ice so that by the time I went to clean it the next day, it was at least partially encased. This wasn't loose, wet ice that I could break up with a shovel, it was solid as a rock. Day after day, month after month, layer after layer. Sometimes the ice was crystal clear and I could only look longingly at what I wished I could remove.

Since the thaw (finally) started in the past couple of weeks, it's been interesting. Each day a little more ice melts and another layer of poop emerges. The first days it was really warm, I filled the entire John Deere Gator bed with takin poop. If that means nothing to you, it is a LOT of poop. Yesterday afternoon was absolutely beautiful and a lot more takin ice melted throughout the day. I knew it was supposed to freeze overnight and possibly even snow. I saw all of that thawed poop and couldn't wait to remove it. I decided to spend the last 15 minutes of my day shoveling as much poop as I could get. The mud covered my shoes, but it was worth it to get the poop before it froze again. I was racing against time and knew I couldn't make another dump run, so I chose to put the poop into a barrel in the back of the Gator.  I joyfully raked poop off the remaining ice and was thrilled with my accomplishment. I pulled the Gator out of the yard, got everything locked up and then decided to leave the barrel at the takin area since I park the Gator in a heated building. I dropped the tailgate and pulled the heavy barrel toward me. As I was lowering it to the ground I somehow lost grip, dropped the barrel the final foot and wet poop splashed all over my face, neck, hair and sweatshirt. Yummy.

I had planned to stop and vote in the primary election on my way home from work, but I kind of needed to get to the shower. If I ever run for public office and they try to smear my name because I didn't vote in the primary election of 2014, this is my excuse- takin poop.

The takin yard is down to maybe 10-15% ice cover, and the ice is getting thin. I imagine within the next week or so I will have the winter poop cleaned up and can look forward to Spring and rain and mud to my shins. But at least I won't have to look at the ice-encased takin poop!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Longest Shortest Month

This winter can end anytime. I pretty much always hate February and find it the longest, most disagreeable month, but February 2014 wins for worst ever. I actually got used to the bitter cold. It was amazing how the first day of sub-zero temps literally took my breath away and forced me to wear many layers and toe warmers. By the 20th day I was only wearing gloves if I was driving the Gator a long distance or shoveling snow. Ah, shoveling snow... It seemed like nearly every day I was shoveling out barn doors and gates, shoveling walking paths to buildings and water spigots, shoveling clean eating areas for animals and even shoveling pee paths for my dogs at home. Ah, water spigots... I can't even count all of the times my water was frozen in certain areas and I had to tote dozens of 5 gallon buckets from other areas. How many days I was unable to hose a particular barn because the water line was frozen, how many days the wallabies had to stay inside due to snow that would either cover them or go up to their necks. It's just been a long and frustrating time for everyone as well as for most of the zoo animals.

One good thing about February is that I usually have time I have to take off work. We get time-and-a-half "E-time" rather than paid overtime. We also have to work 365 days a year, so unless I specifically ask for Christmas or Labor Day off, I work. I am still given X number of paid holidays off each year, but I work most of them. That time also transitions to E-time so I end up with a lot of extra time off. By union contract, we have to have our E-time down to 80 hours by a certain date or they have to pay us, so the keepers end up with tons of time off during February and March. My February time off was requested well in advance, but it couldn't possibly have been better timing. I was getting so stir crazy and cabin fever-y that I'm sure I was awful to be around.

The weekend of Valentine's Day, I was supposed to take Kaylin and her friend Kira to St. Louis for my cousin's baby's birthday party (as well as a weekend of fun), but the predicted 1-2 inches of snow turned into a blizzard that canceled our trip. The girls were extremely disappointed and angry with me, but they couldn't possibly have understood how much I needed that time as well. We will reschedule sometime soon, but it won't be the same. Another weather-related annoyance is that all of my regular birding areas are closed due to deep snow nobody is bothering to plow. Even simple places like the park at the end of my street where Logan and I go owling and the marina across from the park are inaccessible due to deep snow. My feet just aren't good enough to go hiking in deep snow (I can't wear boots, or if I do absolutely have to wear them, I have to save that short time for work when I have no choice) so I have been staying home. The snow is getting so old and boring that even the kids don't play in it anymore. Even the young neighbor boys are opting to stay inside playing video games. I am not made for staying home! I'm going crazy!

I finally did get a little adventure. I took off last Wednesday through this Tuesday to burn some E-time. Logan and I have been wanting to go back to Duluth, MN, ever since our trip 2 years ago. Two years ago was that weird non-winter where the temps around here seemed to hover around 45F and we got almost no snow. I knew Duluth was a big gamble this year, but I had been watching extended forecasts and was optimistic we'd be able to pull it off. It was going to be COLD, but we were used to that and there was hardly any snow in the forecast. We decided to leave Wednesday after school to avoid Thursday's predicted thunderstorms in Illinois. I checked the Duluth forecast right before we left home at 3pm. It said 1-2 inches of snow for Thursday. Pffff, that's probably not even a light dusting for Duluth! By the time we arrive that will be gone and there was no more snow predicted through Sunday. By the time we stopped for the night at a hotel near Wisconsin Dells, the Duluth forecast had changed to 9 inches of snow Thursday, with gusty winds Friday. Hmmm, the places we were planning to go were very rural and not likely to be well-plowed, if plowed at all. I drive a tiny Toyota, not a four wheel drive monster truck. I told Logan we'd wait and see what the forecast was in the morning, but we would probably need to come up with a Plan B. By morning, the Duluth forecast had changed to 15-18 inches. Uhhh... I looked at on Friday or Saturday and Superior, Wisconsin, which is on the other side of a bridge from Duluth, was listed as number 1 for most snowfall from that storm at 18 inches. It was definitely good that we didn't go!

The Wisconsin Dells area was predicted to have freezing rain in the morning followed by regular rain the rest of the day and maybe an inch of snow at night. I figured we'd stick around the area Thursday and Thursday night and come up with a Plan B of maybe heading toward Lake Michigan in search of snowy owls. I checked Expedia for good hotel rates for Wis Dells and found one of the major waterpark resorts for only $99. I booked it, but check-in time wasn't until 4pm and it was only 8am. Even Logan's favorite arcade/amusement center didn't open until 11am. We decided to see how the roads were and if they were good enough, head up to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. The roads turned out to be dry and fine. There were so many local school closings and delays I had been worried, but even the extremely rural back roads to the NWR were no problem. I didn't even have ice on my car windows! We hiked around the visitor center at Necedah and then went inside to watch the bird feeders for a while. We were the only visitors on this cold Thursday morning, and the ladies working the desk were very attentive to our needs. I told them we had been headed to Duluth to go birding, but were stopped by the blizzard and were looking for somewhere to find snowy owls instead. One of them got very excited and told me about a prairie chicken conservation area about 45 miles away that was also a straight shot back to the Dells. She said she had seen a snowy owl there last weekend and that we had a good chance of finding prairie chickens. Whoa! Cool! She assured us there would be tons of other birders in the area and all we'd have to do is stop when we saw cars. Huh huh. I guess she wasn't thinking that it wasn't the weekend. We passed exactly one other car the entire 2-3 hours we were there and I think it was a resident rather than a birder.

Anyway, this place turned out to be miles and miles of grassy snow-covered fields. We slowly drove and drove and drove, scanning the fields for prairie chickens and snowy owls. We found lots of snow buntings and even a dead sheep on the side of the road, but no chickens or owls. I was about to give up in boredom, when suddenly Logan spotted an owl on the ground out in the middle of a field. I have no idea how he saw it, but the kid IS amazing at spotting owls! We stopped and got out and watched it for a long time. We eventually got back in the car and drove on, only to find a second, much closer owl about 50 yards up the street. It was sooooooooo cool! Fueled by our excitement, we did another hour of field scanning, but found no more owls and no chickens. We did see two northern shrikes, so that was exciting, too. We were finally so hungry we had to head back to civilization. Oh, and it never rained one drop until ~3pm when it rained lightly for a while.

I had no idea where to find our resort, but the route we took from the grasslands to the Dells conveniently took us straight there. It was a happy surprise! They allowed us to check in an hour early and rather than swimming or going to the arcade immediately, Logan just wanted me to upload the snowy owl pics to facebook. Friday turned out to be extremely windy. Extreme wind usually equals poor birding, so we opted to spend the day in the Dells having fun. Plus, we already found our owls so there was no pressing need to go to (ugh) Milwaukee to possibly find more. We stayed at the resort and played at the waterpark until around 2pm. I don't think I mentioned before, but we stayed at Chula Vista and it was very nice. I'd like to go back in the summer when everything is open. The indoor waterpark had some great fun slides, as well as a water coaster, a lazy river, several kiddie areas and a huge hot tub. I'm usually not the biggest fan of swimming, but this place was fun! They had a tube slide with a "toilet bowl" spinner that was so much fun I actually went on it 4 times. I also tried the water coaster, mat slide and body slide and spent a fair amount of time in the hot tub where I found a jet that perfectly hit my bad calf/ankle. We moved on to Knuckleheads, Logan's favorite indoor arcade/amusement center and played lots of games and won some crappy ticket redemption prizes. I also won two balls from a skill crane. Oh, yeah! We stopped at the Cheese Store on our way out of town and then had to decide what we were going to do the rest of our trip.

I thought maybe Logan would want to head on home and make his flag football game on Saturday. He did not. It was super windy and driving on the highway was a bit scary. We ended up driving a little past Rockford and staying in Rochelle, Illinois. Saturday morning we headed to Starved Rock. We checked out the dam visitor's center across from the park, but the water was open so there weren't too many eagles.The water was really high and there was lots of mud, so we didn't go hiking. We took the long way home and drove the Illinois River Scenic Byway on the west side of the river, stopping where we might see birds. The bridge in Henry was our best stop, with eagles soaring right over our heads and geese flocking in from all directions. We had a fun trip, but as always, it was good to get home to Gene and Kaylin and the pets. I spent Sunday and Monday both taking care of business and relaxing. I took the girls to the giant flea market on Sunday where we bought nothing, but had a good time. Today I have a lunch meeting with the woman who used to do the Audubon newsletter. I am a bit frightened to learn how much work the newsletter will involve. I'm pretty sure it's a lot. I'm heading back to work tomorrow just in time for negative temperatures once again, but at least I only have a 2 day work week. This long, long shortest month is almost over!

Friday, January 31, 2014


I accomplished a major personal goal this week and as silly as it is, I'm incredibly proud and happy about it.  Accomplished?  I don't know if that is actually the right word.  Maybe completed?  Finished?  Survived?  I'm not sure...

Six months ago I tore a tendon in my foot and missed six weeks of work.  This was my third major injury to my left foot in four years.  I was completely devastated because I was convinced I'd have to quit the job I love.  I did tons of research looking into other careers and even took a few seminars at Illinois Central College about changing careers, writing resumes and cover letters and an hours-long aptitude test.  I talked to countless people and got countless ideas, but the bottom line was that I wanted to remain a zoo keeper.  I find my job to be incredibly fulfilling and meaningful and I can't imagine anything else being as personally satisfying.  I not only love the animals, but I also love the work itself and especially finding solutions to the constant challenges that arise in working with the unpredictable and always changing animals and situations.  I love working outside and am usually not bothered by the weather (though this winter of extreme cold and never ending snow is getting on my last nerve.)  Anyway, I eventually decided that I will work as a zoo keeper until I absolutely can't do it anymore.  I don't know if that will be 2 weeks or 20 years, but I'm going to make the most of whatever time I have left and more importantly, enjoy it.  I will constantly keep my eyes and ears open for my Plan B, but I'm not going to actively seek another job until I have to.

My first major goal was to make it to my anniversary date of January 30th.  This was an important goal if only because this was the year my retirement became fully vested.  It was also a big deal because I was out of sick time and low on vacation time so I couldn't miss more work.  Over time, this deadline somehow became more and more important.  I had a scary setback in late October and November when an entrapped nerve in the same foot required me to have a series of weekly alcohol injections that became increasingly painful to the point I was terrible to be around.  Not only was I in agony, I was also terrified I wasn't going to make my goal.  I finished the injections and the pain slowly subsided.  By late November, I was doing a daily countdown.  I knew exactly the day I could make it to my anniversary date with full pay if I had to miss work again.  I mentally crossed off every day, rejoiced when January finally came and then groaned as it dragged on and on.

I guess it seems kind of dumb and not like much of an actual accomplishment, but my happiness at the arrival of January 30th was comparable to it finally being the day of a major event.  I'm not usually much of a celebratory person- I couldn't care less about making a big deal of my birthday- but I actually took treats to work.  Almost no one knew what they were for and no one but me could have understood how significant the day was, but I was so happy and relieved.  I made it!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Gender Indentity?

We live in a weird, weird world!  I just finished reading a long thread on a forum about gender identity in children.  I learned that according to psychologists I am gender variant.  This term is very new to me, but its discovery did not give me an "aha" moment with peace, relief and clarity.  It just made me feel labeled and like there is something wrong with me.  To this I say "Bullshit!"  I am who I am and I like who I am and do not label me as defective because I am different from the perceived norm! 

As a child I liked to play outside.  I liked to have adventures and get dirty and play with animals and tromp through the creek.  I owned a little case with one fake Barbie and a bunch of clothes.  I played with her when I was forced to play with some girl who lived around the corner from my grandma or one of my female cousins.  I was never embarrassed that my Barbie was fake or gave it any thought because I didn't care about it at all.  I hated dressing up because dress clothes were itchy and uncomfortable and wearing a dress meant I couldn't get dirty or play like I wanted.  I never cared about "looking pretty" because for whatever reason it just didn't interest me.  Maybe you don't care at all about the stock market or football or knitting.  That is how I have always felt about clothes, makeup and jewelry.  I have zero interest.  I almost never think about these things unless I am forced.  I really don't think I have ever suffered low self-esteem or anything similar due to my appearance because it almost never occurs to me to think about it.

As I grew into a preschooler, I started to realize that wearing a dress meant I was expected to act "ladylike" and sit quietly and not crawl around on the floor playing kitty or vrooming cars.  I noticed the boys wore pants and it was completely acceptable for them to act wild and get dirty.  Dresses equaled boring torture, pants equaled fun.  Girls equaled sitting quietly and sewing and sipping tea. Boys equaled having fun and playing outside and getting dirty.  As a person with no interest in appearances, I identified with the boys.  I questioned the women and when I got "because you're a girl" as a response, I couldn't accept such a shallow answer and I rebelled.  I began to equate dresses with not getting to be who I was.  Dresses were evil.  I still hate them.

In junior high I went through a short phase where I was peer-pressured enough to slightly care about my clothes.  Actually, I didn't care at all about the clothes, just the brands.  As long as my clothes were certain brands, they were acceptable and I could get away with wearing t-shirts or polos and jeans with my Reebok high tops.  I still never wore makeup or cared a hoot about my hair or appearance.  I remember being absolutely shocked to find out that nearly all of my female friends tried out for cheerleading.  That was something that never even entered my mind and I was completely confused when girls who were so obviously not meant to be cheerleaders were extremely disappointed about not making the team.  To me, being a cheerleader meant caring deeply about all of the things I had no interest in.  I wasn't jealous or envious because it meant nothing to me.

In high school I had a tight group of friends.  We were all misfits and most of us were completely okay with that.  I remember a few people trying to bully me for being different, but it confused me far more than hurt me and I guess I didn't give the proper reaction because it never lasted more than a couple of verbal insults and never led to anything physical.  Again, I never felt hugely different or out of place because I rarely thought about it.  As I entered adulthood, I still remained who I always was.  I still don't think about appearance and don't wear makeup and have had the same hair style for nearly 30 years.  It usually takes something like getting something in my eye and flipping down the car visor mirror in the bright sun for me to notice whoa! I have a lot of gray and should probably color my hair soon.  Even then, I don't dwell on it and might forget for another month.  At age 41 I remain uninterested in clothes, jewelry and makeup.  I think I have plenty of good friends, a great husband of 20 years, two wonderful children, a job and hobbies I love and enjoy.  My life is pretty good and fulfilling without being stereotypically feminine.

Back to childhood gender roles...  I was a tomboy for sure, but it was more out of wanting to do what I wanted to do and be who I was and then practically being forced to rebel against stereotypic gender roles to prove my point.  I have never been any more interested in boy fashion than girl fashion.  As a young child I possibly wished I was a boy, but only because it was so unfair that it was completely acceptable for boys to be doing what I wanted to do.  I never identified as a boy or wished I had a penis or grew up feeling I was in the wrong body.  Any discomfort I've ever had as a female resulted from not matching outside expectations of who I should be.  And it never lasted long because that is not something I ever think about or dwell on.  Despite the fact that I don't pretty myself up like a "normal" woman, I have done the most stereotypically female things- I got pregnant, grew two babies inside my uterus, gave birth twice and then breastfed each child for nearly a year.  I love that my body is capable of doing these things!  I don't want to be a man.

Another thing that has been occasionally (or maybe often and I have been oblivious) assumed about me based on my appearance is that I am a lesbian.  This is not something I have ever found offensive or taken as an insult, so again, anyone who was trying to tease me was probably disappointed and backed off quickly.  In fact, I have never been attracted to women, only men.  Dressing or acting like a boy, playing with boy toys, etc. did not make me a lesbian.  I most certainly do not think similar activities will make my children or any other children gay.  I will always remember and laugh at toddler Logan playing with his ~4-yr-old sister and the same-aged neighbor girls.  My neighbor had an in-home daycare with three little girls.  Kaylin played with them constantly and Logan started tagging along as he got old enough.  Their big thing was playing princess and dressing up.  Logan wanted to join in the fun and would often allow them to put him in a dress.  I thought it was hilarious and adorable, but the neighbor absolutely freaked out that it would make him gay.  She also thought Gene would probably leave me if he found out.  Seriously?  I have an absolutely adorable picture of Logan wearing a dress and sitting on the lawn tractor.  Attitudes like this make me sad.  C'mon people, clothes and toys do not make children gay.  I could be the poster child for this.

I always enjoyed watching my kids and observing their gender roles when they were little (and even now.)  Both kids loved Thomas trains with wooden tracks.  Kaylin liked building different track formations that went to different fantasy lands.  She played with the trains as characters.  Logan liked building different functional tracks and played with the trains as vehicles.  Both kids liked sorting their toy collections (Kaylin's ponies, Logan's cars) and would spend countless hours lining them up in various ways.  Kaylin kept a running commentary, Logan would just make vrooming noises, but both were continuously thinking and plotting what they were doing.  Sometimes Kaylin played with cars and Logan played with ponies.  Overall, both of my kids have been more interested in things more stereotypically linked to their sex.  One of the comments on the gender identity thread was from a woman with no children and accused another woman of a little girl of "forcing" princess toys on her child and that's why she loved them.  Ha!  Really?  I'm pretty sure my little girl NEVER had a princess toy forced on her by her mother!

I have completely strayed from the original point of this entry, but I guess what I want to get across is that I don't feel like or think I have a disorder.  If "gender variant" only means that I do not fit stereotypical female gender roles, I will happily admit that is true.  If it means there is something psychologically wrong with me because I don't care about dresses and jewelry, I don't think so.  I think my issue is primarily disinterest in the subject.  It is more obvious to others than my other disinterests, but is it really "worse"?  I mean, basically no one cares that I never think about the perfect lawn application for the greenest grass or different qualities of yarn or the new tax laws for 2014.  Why should I care deeply for something just because the majority of the female population does?  I can think for myself, thank you very much!