WHAT IS THAT?! The bumps on the backs on my arms.

For much of my life I had a weird and unsightly rash on the backs of both my arms.  It wasn’t itchy and it never hurt, but it looked awful.  This strange rash ran from roughly my elbow to my armpits and had the appearance of small raised bumps.  Running your hand along the underside of my arms you could feel them and you definitely could see them.  People would often ask what it was and whether it was catchy.

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The Secret Lives of Lobsters

Last week my daughter & I visited the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, a nonprofit marine science center located right in the heart of Portland’s harbor.

My daughter’s 5th grade class had been invited to participate in a special program called Lobster: Untold Tales and I was tagging along as a chaperone.  I’d never thought much about lobsters before – apart from how tasty they are – so I was interested to see what I’d been missing. After being briefed in the lobby, we were led into a state-of-the-art interactive exhibit room for our LabVenture!

As someone easily impressed by things like salt free food and wild turkeys, you can imagine how taken in I was by the (nearly) $2.5 million facility above.  With its gigantic screens and its dark lighting and shiny metal kiosks, I felt like I’d stepped right onto the set of CSI!  But instead of being ordered to stand behind the camera, the LabVenture! program is all ACTION!  Not only were we set loose in the “lab” to investigate, but we got to (hold your breath) TOUCH LOBSTERS.

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The Giant Puffball Mushroom

Nature is FASCINATING. Especially for someone like me who loves food. Although I’ve never been daring enough to collect and consume wild mushrooms – mostly b/c I have no idea what I’m doing and would likely wind up dead or whacked out of my mind – I still enjoy discovering the abundance of fungi out there. Just look at this one I found in Vermont, which looks quite egg-y to me:

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Or this one, also from VT, which resembles a giant puffy pancake.

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My husband recently introduced me to this online program – a mushroom catalog, detailing which are edible and which lethal. I particularly like the little emoticon faces – from happy to ill, and worse.

I visit a local nature refuge several times a week.  This fall has brought forth several remarkable mushrooms, each the size of a soccer ball.  I was FLOORED the first time I saw one. WOW! Look at the SIZE OF THAT THING!  Of course my husband and I – being the way we are – immediately grabbed one and began kicking it back and forth to each other.  After a few kicks…BAM! it exploded, and we were left with large white chunks.  We realized the whole mushroom had been solid, rather than hollow.  It struck me as so remarkable that I decided to take a few photographs and do a little research.

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When I got home, I googled “GIANT PUFFBALL” and Whaddaya know?! CHA-CHING! The Giant Puffball Mushroom, or Calvatia gigantea

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Giant puffballs resemble the white button mushrooms you find in every supermarket, but are smooth solid white globes, lacking gills of any sort. The ones we’ve found have been no more than 12 inches in diameter, but puffballs can be as small as golf balls or as large as medicine balls – some weighing up to 40 POUNDS. The young, all-white mushrooms are edible and said to be quite tasty, w/ a flavor akin to tofu or melted cheese. For more detailed information on consuming giant puffballs, see the following RecipeTips entry.

As the Giant Puffballs age, they eventually split and turn yellow, and then brown, as they begin to spore.  I found a specimen at Tinicum which had opened and begun the process.

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Once they reach this stage, giants puffballs are INEDIBLE. (Not that anyone in their right mind would be interested in gobbling that mess up.. But still. I offer the warning.)

For more information on Giant Puffballs, check out the following websites:

Tom Volk’s entry w/ FUNNY PHOTOS is definitely worth a click.
Wikipedia entry on Calvatia gigantea
Wildman Steve Brill’s entry on the Giant Puffball
David Fischer’s American Mushrooms entry on BEST EDIBLE WILD MUSHROOMS: Giant Puffball

New York, New York

Saturday – in honor of John’s 37th birthday – we went to NEW YORK. Almost a year since our last visit. October 2007, boarding the Norwegian Spirit on our way to New England & Canada. As exciting as that trip had been (taking in the sights of the NYC passenger terminal and Penn Station), this time we wanted MORE.

Behold the American Museum of Natural History.  Isn’t she PRETTTY??  YES_SHE_IS!

We got to the museum early. We’d debated the merits of driving v. taking the train and finally decided just to drive. Mostly b/c it allowed an extra hour of sleep. There’s a parking garage located conveniently beneath the museum, so we were able to park all day for just $46 bucks. WOW. My lovely friend Pannonica had set aside Super Passes for us and let me tell you. NOTHING BEATS FREE. The “insider touching privileges” and executive washroom access were just icing on the (proverbial) bday cake. Make no mistake, Biologists are ROCK STARS.

The museum is massive, so we had to prioritize. Several sections are similar to the Academy of Natural Sciences here in Philly, as well as the Penn Museum and the Smithsonian. So we skipped those. NO NOT ALL OF THEM.  A few we walked through, doing the YES I AM PAYING ATTENTION dance. The place is just way too big to see in one day. So we did the best we could. We took in the scenic tour of the Food Court. I recommend getting there as soon as it opens, before the bagels are fondled too much. At lunchtime the place is an absolute zoo. I wanted to try the empanadas, but as the line was 5 deep, I gave up. The half of a bacon cheeseburger I pried away from my husband was o-kay. But not an empanata. We checked out one of the gift shoppes. The girls wanted cool moving-picture book marks, which were indeed neat, but at $6 a piece left me aching for an empanada.

2 meals in the food court and one gift shoppe visit later, we took in the actual museum. Which is very quiet and clean 1st thing in the morning. Disintegrating into a combination swap-meet/ Macy’s parade atmosphere as the day wears on.  We saw as much as humanly possible w/ 2 children in tow and swarming hordes of on-lookers. The highlights included the breathtaking Hall of Ocean Life. Also, the Dinosaurs Alive! IMAX film, which positively enchanted my older daughter, though not my husband. Always a critic. We all very much enjoyed the Lizards & Snakes: Alive! special exhibit, which, I confess, has left me longing for a Burmese Python. The whole museum – from the dioramas to the miles-long array of minerals, to the beauty of the building itself – is awesome. Fascinating. Overwhelming.  By the time we left, I felt like someone who’d tried digesting 5 billion years of history w/ one too few Tums.

BUT THERE’S ALWAYS ROOM FOR DESSERT.  And what trip to New York is complete w/out a visit to the sweetest place on earth (at least for a child) – FAO SCHWARTZ.  We made our way through Central Park, ambling towards 5th Avenue. It was simply lovely. The undulating trunks of the American Elms, the couples in love, the roller dancers making fools of themselves. AHHHHH. What a day to be alive.  Even the teeming crowds outside the Plaza weren’t enough to throw off our bliss.

Until we arrived at FAO SCHWARTZ.  I must confess that my daughters were MORE THAN A LITTLE skeptical regarding this particular store.  They kept asking, over and over – What IS THIS??  WHERE ARE WE GOING??  IS THIS FUN>> IS IT FOR KIDSSSS>????  As though we’d lost our senses.  TRUE the name does sound more like a financial institution than a toy store.  But once we stood outside the glass walls, and the girls had spotted the doorman dressed as a toy soldier, they knew GAME ON.  Once inside, we managed to make our way through the two stories and come away unscathed.  The ladies agreed to one small Playmobil set each. I was awed by the life-size Lego recreations of Chewbacca, Hagrid and the Harry Potter gang. But enough is enough.

Next stop: American Girl Place. Anyone who knows me can JUST IMAGINE WHAT I WAS THINKING. And you would be right. But I kept it BUTTONED. Through 4 floors of crass commercialism, personal shopping, doll hair salon, and cafe. I simply smiled weakly and let Daddy treat his daughters. Afterward I needed a drink. BAAAAAAAAD. We walked up 5th Avenue, past stores I will never be able to afford, surging with the crowd. We ate dinner at a cozy Irish place, which YOU KNOW HAD ALCOHOL. We stood in Times Square, gazing open-mouthed at all the neon and craziness. And then we walked, slowly, back to the car, taking in the sights. Watching the blocks morph from tacky souvenirs into respectable stone. And silently wondering what life must be like for those fortunate enough to live in such splendor.


Differences between butterflies and moths

I took the ladies to the Academy of Natural Sciences last week, and one of our very favorite exhibits there is called BUTTERFLIES! I like it almost as much as the stuffed bird room on the third floor, and the super sweet Cowbird in the Children’s room who absolutely loves my older daughter and always talks to her when we visit. Cowie, Cowie, he calls, and puts his head down for a scratch. ANYWAY. At the Buttterflies! exhibit, we spoke w/ a friendly & highly knowledgeable staff person who explained to us the difference between moths & butterflies, something I had always wondered about but never quite knew.

Three easy ways of identifying a MOTH vs. BUTTERFLY:

1) Moths are mostly nocturnal, i.e., they’re active at night and rest during the day. Butterflies are the opposite – awake during the day, at rest during the night.

2) Moths, when they rest, spread their wings out to each side, wide open. Butterflies, on the other hand, close their wings together & keep them upright. They may gently beat them up and down while feeding, but mostly keep them closed rather than spread to each side.

3) Moths have short, feathery antennae, while butterflies have long, thin antennae w/ a “club” (nub-like doo-da) at the tip.

Some other interesting facts (excerpted from National Geographic Kids magazine):

Atlas Moths are the largest moths in the world, some w/ a wingspan of 12 inches. But they live for only three days. Sad.

Monarch Butterflies eat poisonous milkweed plants, rendering them toxic to other animals. Other types of Butterflies, such as the Viceroy, mimic the Monarchs coloring to fool predators into avoiding them as well.

Butterflies have sensory organs on their legs which act as tastebuds — so they can literally “taste” how ripe fruit is just by landing on it. PRETTY COOL.

When butterflies emerge from their chrysalis cocoons, their wings are crumpled and wet. If they don’t unfurl them properly and let them dry, their wings will stay wrinkled and they won’t be able to fly.

Caterpillars are eating machines. Some may grow to 100 times their original size.

Click HERE to read about the Four Stages of Butterfly & Moth Metamorphosis: Egg, Larva (Caterpillar), Pupa and Adult.

Lastly, my younger daughter & I very much enjoyed a picture book about Butterflies called Gotta Go! Gotta Go! by Sam Swope & Sue Riddle. I dare you to read it and NOT have the catchline stuck in your head for weeks.

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