Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our friends and family!

"Just in time for the holidays, the folks at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, give us a glimpse of a heavenly angel—not literally one of the seraphim, of course, but an astronomical delight nonetheless. The two-lobed star-forming region, dubbed Sharpless 2-106, is located in an isolated part of our Milky Way galaxy nearly 2000 light-years from Earth. The bluish "wings" are lobes of super-hot gas illuminated by a monster star—dozens of times the mass of our sun—forming in the center of the still-expanding nebula. A dark ring of dust and gas circling the star (dark bands, center), material that may one day coalesce into a planetary system, acts like a belt, cinching the nebula into an hourglass shape."
Photo & text from Science Journal

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Book for Your Wish List

As many of you know, books are a huge part of my life.  For several of the past 5 years, I've managed to read more than 200 books a year.

Of all the books that I read this year, there is one that stands out and I'd like to share it with you today.  It's called You Are My Only and it's by my friend Beth Kephart.

You Are My Only tells the story of Emmy and Sophie, two teenage girls separated by more than a decade.  Emmy is only nineteen when she marries and has a baby girl.  That baby is the center of her young world— tangible proof that she has done something right and good with her life.  One day, while playing in the backyard with her baby, Emmy goes inside the house to get something.  She's gone only a moment, but she returns to find that her little girl is missing.  The book then flashes to Sophie's story.  Homeschooled and forced to move every few years, Sophie is a 14-year-old girl who yearns to have friends and who is beginning to understand that her mother is not like other mothers. 

The narrative of the book flows between these two lonely girls.  Emmy has a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized.  Sophie ventures outside while her mother is away at work and makes friends with her next door neighbor Joey and his two quirky aunts.  The tone of the book skips in and out of haunting suspense and youthful exuberance. Beth has a gift for poetry and description, and the resulting work is one that tugs at your heart and makes you want to open your door to Sophie and Emmy and all of the delightful other characters.

To give you a little taste, here's a description of one of my favorite characters.
"Arlen squats back down beside me. His legs are wide but not long. His trousers are scruffy. He’s missing a button on his blue-plaid shirt; there’s a toothpaste stain on his collar. With the rising of the sun, he has been revealed. I am surprised by the pleasant way he smiles. . . . He isn’t a pretty man or a handsome one. The bulb of his nose sits crooked. There’s nothing on his outside that’s as nice as his inside, but still, “Will you help me find my Baby?” I ask."
There is also a certain tutor who appears later in the book for whom I have a particular fondness.  Quite possibly because she was named after me. ☺(Thanks for that gift, Beth!)

Hopefully after reading this post, you'll add You Are My Only to your own holiday wish list.  Or you'll give it as a gift to a friend or family member.  And after you've finished enjoying it, consider donating it to your local middle or high school.

If you liked this book, be sure to visit Beth's website for a peek at her next book, Small Damages, which is due out in July of next year.  I haven't read it yet but it's at the top of my wishlist for 2012!

Happy Reading!

Although You Are My Only is classified as a teen novel, it's perfect for adults and would make a great selection for a bookclub.  Character development, intrigue and suspense, child abduction, mental institutions, and the power of acceptance—there are tons of topics that one can tease out for discussion.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Finally, a Trip to the Beach!

Earlier this month, Drew and I headed east towards the coast.  It was our first trip to the beach and we were excited.  After living in landlocked Colorado for six years, it's nice to know that we are only two hours away from the ocean.

We drove pretty much straight east into Bateman's Bay, a touristy town that reminded me a little bit of Virginia Beach although not quite so big.  After a quick stop for lunch, we headed north along the highway to Pebbly Beach.  One of Andrew's work mates recommended it and it was indeed the perfect spot for our first beach trip.  Pebbly Beach is located in Murramarang National Park and has a campground a short distance from the beach access.  Even though we didn't make reservations, we were able to find a camping spot when we arrived on Saturday.  Being the camping pros that we are, we had the tent set up and our toes in the water within 15 minutes of arriving.

As you can see from the pictures, the beach looks nothing like the Outer Banks in the States.  While there are sandy beaches in some areas (close to where the kangaroos were hanging out), most of the coastline is rocky and abuts the cliffs.  This creates the perfect environment for tidal pools and we were lucky enough to be at the beach as the tide was receding. 

Since the water was freezing (!!), we didn't swim but rather waded around, peering into the tidal pools to see what creatures we could find.  We saw lots of anemones, crabs, and snails.  We also saw quite a few "blue bottle" jellyfish washed up on the beach. You may know of these as Portuguese Man o' Wars.*  In the picture above, you can see two Blue Bottles on the beach next to the lobster shell.  They look like harmless plastic bags, but the tentacles can sting you hours after the creature has died.

We explored along the coast line until dark and then made our way back to the campground, where we had a tasty dinner of pb&j sandwiches and oranges.  That night, a thunderstorm blew through the area and cooled everything down quite a bit.  We have a great little tent (thanks, Dad!) so the cold air and rain didn't bother us.

In the morning, the sky was overcast and the cool air seemed to be hanging around.  It was definitely not a day for swimming. After a fortifying breakfast of pb&j sandwiches and oranges (notice a pattern here?), we grabbed our water bottles, our raincoats, and decided to hike to the top of Durras Mountain. 

The round trip hike took us about 3 hours. Although we had some great views of the ocean, most of the trail was through the forest which protected us from the misting rain. The only bad thing about the wet trail was the leeches. Drew was the unlucky blood donor for one of them.  I should have taken a picture because they are somewhat fascinating creatures but, at the time, I was way too grossed out to think about the camera.

After our hike, we packed up the tent and headed back to Bateman's Bay where we had pb&j sandwiches opted for fish and chips for lunch.  We had a fabulous first trip to the beach and are ready for our next visit.  Hopefully next time we'll see a few starfish in the tidal pools. 

*Interestingly, the Portuguese Man o' War is not actually a jellyfish.  It is a "siphonophore" and is comprised of a colony of organisms called zooids.  While they may seem like solitary individuals, these zooids are dependent upon one another and cannot survive alone.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Art of Cliff Divining*

As you've probably noticed, Drew and I love climbing.  It is, after all, how we met and I could write a whole philosophical post about how the faith and trust that you put in your climbing partner is a great lesson for how to build a strong marriage.  But today, folks, I want to talk about our dirty little climbing secret.

We sometimes can't find the cliffs.

Seriously. We have a whole treasure trove of hilarious (and frustrating) stories about how we hiked all day and never found the cliffs we were looking for.  One time, we actually hiked back and forth for hours on top of the cliff that we were looking for, never realizing that it was right below us.  Not our best moment...

Mountains are big, right?  Rocks stick out of green landscapes like pineapple on pizzas.  So what is our problem?  It's a mixture of many things.  Sometimes we read the map wrong.  Sometimes the guidebook or website that we relied on is outdated and incorrect.  (Sometimes I'm so paranoid about snakes and spiders that I'm not much help.)  Sometimes it seems like we are just plain jinxed.

Take the last two weekends for example.

Last weekend, we went back to our favorite nature reserve, Tidbinbilla.  But this time, we weren't there to see the animals.  We had our sights set on Gibraltar Rocks, supposedly one of the best climbing areas within a 60 minute drive of our house.  It was a 45 minute hike to access the Rocks, and it started off great.
Within the first few minutes, we had walked within 5 feet of a baby kangaroo. (I've already seen hundreds, but they are still so dang cute!)  Within another five minutes of that, we saw a snake, lots of tiny skinks (a type of lizard), and some interesting beetles and ants.

Then the trail got really steep.  We were each carrying about 30 pounds of climbing gear in our backpacks, so the hike up felt like it took forever.  In reality, it only took about 45 minutes, minus the water breaks we took.  At the top of the hike, we found ourselves on a beautiful rock plateau, looking down over the valley.
There were rocks all around us and we thought it'd be no time before we were roped up and climbing the walls.  Unfortunately, we couldn't find a single route that was safely bolted.  Most of the climbs had old rusty bolts, or holes where the bolts used to be.  As much as we wanted to climb, the only safely bolted routes that we saw were above our abilities.  It was a gorgeous day, with a beautiful vista, and we didn't want to ruin it with a bad fall caused by a run out route.**  (A run out means that the distance between a climber and the last piece of gear that he/she placed is too great and any fall will result in little to no protection.)
Drew checks the climbing guidebook again
By the end of the day, we had scrambled around the base of all the cliffs that we could find.  Our arms and faces were scraped from hiking through brush and ducking around tree branches.  We were hot and sweaty and hadn't climbed at all.  But the view was gorgeous and we found two rock caves and saw evidence (ie, scat) of the Brush-Tailed Rock-Wallaby, a critically endangered creature nicknamed "The Shadow."  We may not have found any climbable routes but at least we had fun "bushwalking." (Quick glossary: It's hiking in the States, bushwalking in Australia, and tramping in New Zealand.)
Mandy standing next to a "Grass" tree (Xanthorrhoea).  Interestingly, this plant is not actually a grass but is most closely related to lilies.  These "trees" are specially suited to the bush—the trunks of the trees are so dense that they don't burn through during hot bushfires.  Instead, the fires activate their reproductive cycle, causing them to erupt in flower blooms after the fire has passed.

Two weekends ago, we decided to head up to Cooleman Ridge.  It had been recommended to us as a good bouldering site and we were "mustard keen" to try it out.  It had rained the entire week previously and we were so excited to be outside that we started hiking without orienting ourselves with our map.  The Ridge area isn't too big so we weren't in any danger of getting seriously lost.  We just had a hard time finding the actual rocks.  After a lot of hiking and lots of sneezing caused by Drew's grass allergy and lots of me being scared of snakes, we did eventually find the rocks.  Hooray!

The moral of this story is that, yes, we'd love to take you climbing, but you'd better make sure that we've been there before.

*Water Divining is the ancient art of finding water using a dousing, or divining, rod.  Cliff divining is a term that I made up and it is the art of finding cliffs using a map and good ol' common sense. While neither one of us has any experience in water divining, I'd like to think that one day we will be masters at cliff divining.

**In my 6 years of climbing, neither of us has taken a dangerous fall.  Although we are not masters at finding the cliffs, we are masters at climbing safely.  We always triple check each other's knots, wear helmets if there is danger of falling objects, and never climb above our abilities without the proper gear protection.  This footnote is specially for my Granny Bear who worries about us.