Thursday, March 30, 2006

My new toy

Most women dream of diamonds and jewelry. They spend months looking for the perfect pair of shoes. Their idea gift is a mink. Not me. For the longest time I wanted a bug zapper.

My obsession started last year when my favorite morning radio show was playing with these zappers on air. The various cast members spent the morning trying to electrocute each other. Given that I can't stand having bugs in the house, the zapper sounded cool.

Then I went to my my friend Karen's farm. She had several varieties and showed me how they worked. You simply hold down the button and swat a bug. ZAPP!! The bug is fried. How cool!

There were several times this last year when I wanted one. Like when a couple of big mosquitoes flew in the house. I couldn't find our regular swatter and eventually had to sic the dogs on the bugs. Then came beer nights. The guys regularly sit in the kitchen with the backdoor open. I understand their need for a breeze, but there isn't a screen on the door and the house would fill with flies. It would drive me crazy!

A few weeks ago Doug and I went to a home and garden show, looking for ideas for our backyard. I saw it from a distance and knew I had to have it -- The Executioner. The best in electronic bug zappers. I could hardly contain myself. Doug decided to indulge me by buying one.

It has been great. I've been able to perform shock and awe on everything from the smallest gnat to the largest mosquito. Picking up the racquet, I know I have the power of life and death in my hands. The first POP of The Executioner sends the dogs running outside. They know better than to get in my path.

Not all zappers are made the same. We were at a friend's the weekend and her zapper was definitely low power. It didn't hurt when you touched it and could barely kill a fly. The Executioner, on the other hand, leaves welts on human skin. Leave to Doug to test it out.

The Executioner has been the best entertainment that $15 could buy. Forget the diamonds, buy me a bug zapper!

Bad blogger!

I know that I've been a bad blogger lately. Evidently the lack of regular postings has both my mom and Doug's mom worried if we are still alive. We are, but it's spring in Austin. This is the best time of the year here, and one of the busiest. We are spending our free time doing outdoor things and attending festivals and such. In addition, my students and school are keeping me busy. Still, I have a lot of things to write about, so I will try to catch everyone up.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Happy anniversary, bloggy!

Today is the one year anniversary of our blog. I'm not sure how we are going to celebrate -- buy a gift, a romantic dinner, ... ? :-)

Maybe it will be that Doug will post an entry. After all, it was his infrequent Austin Update emails to his family that started it all.

If you have a chance, go to the March 2005 archives and read some of our first entries.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Mommy’s little helper

During the past week we've been working on our backyard. Because our big tree split last summer, one of the things we've been doing is adding feeders to encourage wildlife. We have added a martin house, a squirrel feeder (which so far has only attracted birds), and replaced our broken humming bird feeder (haven't seen any humming birds yet). The other thing I've done is started a container herb garden. One rosemary plant costs $1.50, while a packet of fresh rosemary at the grocery store is $2.99. Obviously, it is more cost effective to grow our own, and adds a little color to our patio, so I planted rosemary, thyme, basil, parsley and cilantro.

Every step of the way in our backyard improvement, Allegra has been there to help us out. When Doug was digging the hole to install the pole for the martin house, she was next to him, digging an alternate hole in case the first one didn't work. When we were pouring cement to install the pole, she was there supervising. When I was standing on the chair hanging the squirrel feeder, she was right there making sure I didn't fall. Even when I was planting my herbs, she was checking out the potting soil, making sure I had the right kind. After she inspected the potting soil, and made sure the herbs were up to her standards, Allegra showed her approval by lying down next to one of the herb containers and rolling on her back.

BTW, if you are wondering where Dante is during the backyard improvements, he is usually in another part of the yard, lying in the sun, working on his tan. If there is work to be done, rest assured that Dante won't be doing it. As you can tell from his expression and demeanor (notice the crossed paws), Dante thinks too highly of himself to actually submit to manual labor.

Our first tenant

As I posted last week, we decided to start a purple martin colony. On Sunday Doug spent the afternoon constructing the house. An hour after he had it up, I saw I bird roosting on the top of the house. I didn't get a good look, so I wasn't sure if it was a martin or not. Yesterday morning I saw what I knew was a martin. I was able to get near the house and I saw that he was checking out one of the compartments, but then flew off. In the evening I waited for him to return so I could get a photo, but no luck.

He was back this morning and I was able to get a shot before he flew off. I can't wait until the rest of the birds arrive.

Monday, March 13, 2006

In her shoes

Saturday night Doug and I were volunteering at the Zachary Scott Theatre, for the opening night of Bad Dates, a play about single life in Manhattan. We arrive an hour before the show to stuff programs, receive our assignments and assist the patrons before the show. C is the house manager tonight, and when it’s time she gathers the volunteers to brief us about the show.

“ will work the bar, Dara and Doug, you need to work the back door, and L, you are on shoe duty.”

Shoe duty? We had no idea what C was talking about. “You didn’t hear about Thursday night?” C asked. We shook our heads no. “We have more than $6,000 worth of shoes on loan from Neiman Marcus Last Call as props. During intermission on Thursday’s preview, we had a patron go onstage and start trying on the shoes. I had to go in there and ask her to stop.” We were all shocked to hear the story, and chalked it up to one crazy woman.

C took us in the theater to see the set. Bad Dates is playing on the Arena stage, which is a theater in the round. The theater sits less than 150 people, and there are only three rows of seats. The stage is ground level. At times you feel like you can reach out and touch the actors. At the very least, you can touch the props near the edge of the stage.

The set for Bad Dates seems more touchable than most. It is supposed to be the bedroom of the character’s Manhattan apartment and looks to be something straight out of a Pottery Barn showroom; and you have to resist the urge to pick up one of the designer pillows or flip through the picture books on the nightstand. In the midst of all this, two dozen shoes are scattered around the set. Although I am one of those rare females without a shoe fetish and only have a minimal number of shoes in my closet, I was in awe of the array of shoes on the set. “Ooh, I could see myself in those boots,” I told Doug as I pointed to a pair of leather boots with a cow skin design. Never mind that the heels are about two inches too high for me to walk on comfortably and they don’t go with any of the clothes in my closet. “Don’t touch!” Doug hisses at me as I start to walk towards them. I resist the temptation, turning around and walking out of the theatre, watching the doors until it’s time to seat the patrons.

During the intermission, L and another woman guard the shoes. All is well. After the show is another story. Because it’s opening night, there is a party in the lobby – champagne, hors d’oeuvres and an open bar. Part of the volunteer responsibilities for opening night is to help set up and work the party. As the other volunteers started handing out champagne, Doug and I slipped into the theatre to clean up the empty wine cups and beer bottles left by the patrons. As I’m picking up the trash on the top row, I look down to the stage where Doug has my boots in his hand. “Doug!” I yell. I had just learned those boots cost $650 as close-out – I didn’t want to think what they were at full retail.

Evidently as the show ended, several patrons went down to the stage and started pick up the shoes. The boots were the third pair Doug had to take out of someone’s hands. In the five years we’ve been volunteering at the Zach, Doug and I thought we’d seen it all – from patrons taking hairbrushes and other props off the Shear Madness set, to a lady knitting on the front row of Santaland Diaries. The Santaland incident was the same performance where one lady left in the middle of the performance, stopping first to chastise Martin Burke for his character saying such mean things about children with handicaps. Is there any wonder why Martin has taken a break from the show? But I digress.

We were stunned by the folks who thought that the theatre was a place for their own personal shopping. I’m all for bringing the theatre to the masses, but when you start trying on the shoes of the character, you have gone a bit too far. If you loved the show, tell your friends. If you loved the shoes, go the Last Call.

Note: Because it was opening night we did not see the show. The theatre was full and we had to set up for the party during the second act. While we cannot comment personally on the show, we did hear good buzz about it during the party. We’ll comment on the show when we go back to watch it.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Regional differences

Sometimes it’s interesting to notice the various regional differences when it comes to food. One of the big things we noticed when we were in Rhode Island a couple of weeks ago was the propensity of Dunkin’ Donuts. There seemed to be one on every street corner. Doug and I made a car game out of spotting the various Dunkin’ Donut shops – the first person to spot a Dunkin’ Donuts punched the other person in the arm (our variation of Slug Bug). Needless to say we both ended the weekend with bruises up and down our arms. In the five days I was there, and the 12 days Doug was there, we managed to go to Dunkin’ Donuts only once, and that’s because I had to go to the bathroom and it was one of the few places that had public restrooms.

Austin, on the other hand, is not a big donut place. There are maybe two Dunkin’ Donuts in the entire town, three Krispy Kremes, and of course, Round Rock Donuts. If you bring donuts to the office, it usually takes until late-afternoon before they are all gone. I’ve even seen poor college students pass up free food if it was donuts. However, breakfast tacos are a popular breakfast in Austin. It’s always a treat when breakfast tacos are brought into the office – you know it’s going to be a good day.

After two weeks of workshops in Rhode Island, Doug’s company is holding a workshop in Austin this week, with several of the participants flying in from Rhode Island. Being big on the Dunkin’ Donuts, one of the guys said that he was excited to find a Dunkin’ Donuts in Austin. Yesterday Doug was in charge of getting breakfast for the workshop. Thinking that he would do something Texan, he brought three dozen breakfast tacos from Taco Shack, a perennial favorite in the Austin Chronicle readers’ poll.

Given the reactions of folks, you would have thought that Doug served them dog food. The New Englanders couldn’t believe that Texans would eat tacos for breakfast. The tacos were not a hit and there were still a couple dozen left by mid-morning. Doug wisely set out the remaining tacos for the rest of the staff and they were eaten within 10 minutes.

Go figure. I guess for the folks from Rhode Island, deep-fried sugar is okay for breakfast, but eggs and bacon wrapped in a tortilla is not.

Tech support frustration

Anyone who has ever had to deal with computer tech support can relate.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Problem child

A student walked into my office yesterday morning. “I need to talk to you about the PR project.”

“Twenty-five minutes before it’s due?” I brace myself for some excuse as to why it wasn’t done after three weeks.

“Actually, it’s about my group, one of our members didn’t bother ever showing up to group meetings and didn’t contribute to the plan.” I take a deep breath. I’m hearing this a lot this semester. I ask what group the student is in and I look at my list.

“Was it K?” I ask. K had emailed me Friday, saying she only knew the name of one of her team members and couldn’t find his email address. K wanted me to give her the names of her other group members. This is, there is a Web site for the class and all the information she needs is on there.

“No, it wasn’t K. She has been helping out and was even there last night when we were finishing the plan. It was L.”

I sigh. I thought that L would have learned something from last semester. Instead, my Problem Child is at it again.

Rewind to last semester. L was in one of my classes. She missed the first test – never a good sign. Then it comes time for the PR Project. Remembering the disaster of a group project when I was in college – this girl and I did all the work and two other guys totally flaked – I had the students pick the members of their group. After the students picked, I received this email from L. She was new to the school and didn’t know anyone in class and had missed several classes because of various issues, and didn’t have a group and what should she do??? The next time the class met, I asked people to raise their hand if they didn’t have a group. No one did. L wasn’t there.

I the following month I must have received 20 emails from her. This is when I started referring to her as my Problem Child. She never did find a group, so she had to do the plan on her own. She didn’t want to present, which was 10% of the project grade. She continued to ask questions about the plan, which she would have known the answers to if she had attended class. She was almost like a gnat that wouldn’t go away. We got through the projects, and she continued to show up only sporadically for class. The semester ends and I think I am done with her. Knowing that you have to have at least one, I wonder who will be my problem child this semester.

Turns out, it is L. She emails me at the beginning of the semester saying she is retaking my class because she knows she can make a better grade. “Oh great!” I think as I read her email. Yet she starts the semester by showing up to class. “Maybe she is getting serious,” I think. Yet I notice that she spends more time examining her split ends than taking notes. I chalk it up to having heard some of this stuff before. She’s not emailing me like before, yet when it does, they are from left field – what did I know about the school health fair that she needs to attend for one of her other classes? I teach PR – I know nothing about these health fairs, why is she emailing me? She made it to the first test, but I would have thought she could have done better with just a little effort. But after that, she started attending class less frequently.

I look at the student standing in front of me. I can’t tell him that L is my problem child and I had thought she was changing but hadn’t. I know what he’s feeling – he and the other team members put in time and effort and don’t want someone getting a free ride off of them. It’s not fair, yet I didn’t want to let him know that this happens in the real world as well.

I take a moment to describe my evaluation system and how I use team evaluations to determine the individual grades of each group member. I tell them that the evals are totally confidential. I explain to him that he and his team members need to provide an honest evaluation and if they don’t, I can’t lower the grade. I gave the example of last semester when a group didn’t mark down their other members and everyone got an A when only a few deserved it.

The student thanks me and is on his way. I sit there for a moment and let out a deep breath. The project is worth 20% of the students’ grade this semester. If a student does not participate at all in the project and gets a 0, the best they can hope for will be a C in the class. There are more of those students than I would like to admit this semester. But what can you do? I think a minute about my problem child and wonder what is going on with her. I can’t spend too much time dwelling on it. I have a class of students waiting downstairs for me, wanting to turn in their projects. I can only help the students who want to help themselves.

Update: Within an hour of posting this entry, I received an email from my problem child. She said that she has been trying to reach her group for two weeks and no one is responding to her. She said that she did contribute to the plan (her group members said she sent two sentences which were unusable), but that they were presenting tomorrow and didn't know what to do. She wanted me to help.

Going batty about birds

Ever since Doug & I moved into this house, we've talked about installing a purple martin house in our backyard and starting a colony. Usually it's been one thing or another and we don't get a house up in enough time.

Last week we saw it -- our window of opportunity. The scouts had started to arrive. Our neighbors have a couple of martin houses and usually what happens is that one or two birds will arrive before the rest of the colony. You have to have the house up for the scouts, or the colony won't nest there that year. Martins are great because they eat all the bugs around and they have a pretty singing voice. However, sparrows and starlings have taken over all of their natural habitats (and will take over the houses too, if allowed). The martin population is only one-tenth of what it was in the 1920s and the only houses they have now are the ones provided and maintained by humans.

Doug and I spent this weekend searching for a martin house. We must have gone to a half dozen places and couldn't find any and no one knew where we could go to find one. One place told us it was too early for the houses, but we told him that we saw the scouts. We did find a few houses where we get our dog food, but the houses were plastic and didn't look durable. I looked online and found one local place, but it was way too expensive.

Last night we tried one last place -- Wild Birds Unlimited. Not only did we find a martin house we liked, the owner gave us a lot of advice.

When we were at the store, we noticed they had bat houses. Austin is big on bats, as we have the largest urban bat colony in North America. Bats are also good for insects. Doug and I had been talking about getting a bat house and I had been reading on the bat conservation site about building one, so we bought one. We are going install it on our chimney, facing the backyard. Now folks will be able to pack a picnic and come watch the bats at our house instead of heading down to the Congress Avenue bridge.

One thing is for certain, between the martins and the bats, insects won't be a problem at our house.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Cake love

There are two things you must understand. First, my friend Cindy is an awesome baker. Her creations are usually too pretty to eat but too yummy not to. Cindy is gaining the reputation as one of the best bakers in Austin. Her company, Pretty Dishes, creates some of the best, and most unique desserts, in Central Texas.

Second, I have become fascinated with the baking contests on Food Network. Whether it's the Halloween cake competition, the birthday cake competition, or the Elvis cake competition, I watch in awe as the competitors create cake sculptures that can only be described as works of art.

Thursday night we had a girlfriends happy hour at Paggi House. The food was excellent, their special mojito was awesome, the deck and the view of the putting green and the Austin skyline was great, and of course, the conversation was lively. Earlier, Gigi and I were wondering about Cindy, as neither of us had heard from her in awhile. Just as we thought we were winding down, Cindy shows up, with a box. It was a belated birthday present for me (don't you just love celebrating your birthday for an entire week!).

I have to say, this was one of the most special birthday presents I have ever received. She baked a cake for me that could be in one of those competitions I love to watch. See the photo below. The flowers and the pot are fondant, making the creation 100% edible. The cake is chocolate with raspberry layers -- my two favorite flavor mixtures.

At the table you could just smell the flavors of the cake and I was anxious to dig in. Cindy and Gigi convinced me they didn't want any and that I should save it for Friday night and Doug's return from his business trip. Since he also is fascinated with the cake competitions, this was probably a good idea. I had to wrap the cake back up just so I couldn't smell it and be tempted.

Doug was amazed when he saw the cake. For as pretty as it was, it was just as delicious.