Almost Wordless Wednesday: How to make a writer happy

My first documented evidence that someone who doesn’t know me read my book came in via Twitter this week.

Very exciting!

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“Can cats smell stress?”

The Ten-Year-Old takes Canelo for a tour of our back yard. (Photo: Shala Howell)

I can tell my daughter is growing up because she’s starting to experience a bit of emotional turbulence again. She knows we love her regardless, but sometimes she’s not sure about our cat, Canelo. He is not always patient with her erratic moods.

One afternoon after a rough day at school, The Ten-Year-Old tried to calm herself down by picking Canelo up for a hug. He was having none of it.

The Ten-Year-Old was disappointed when Canelo ran off instead of giving her the reassuring head-bonk she was looking for, but as always, her curiosity won out. “Mommyo, can cats smell stress?”

I didn’t know.

Can cats even tell when we’re stressed? 

Everyone from Catster to the BBC agrees that cats can tell when their owners are going through periods of stress. Some even go so far as to say that our own stress may have a detrimental effect upon our cat’s health. But very few put forth any sort of explanation for why this is true.

In her article for the BBC, Robin Wylie speculates that over time cats become attuned to their owners’ emotional gestures. They connect our smiles with positive rewards–happy owners are more likely to spoil their cats with treats and snuggles. As evidence for this, Wylie points to an admittedly small study of 12 cats and their owners led by Moriah Galvan and Jennifer Vonk of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Published in the January 2016 issue of Animal Cognition, the study found that while cats didn’t seem as attuned to human emotions as dogs, cats were more likely to want to be near their owners when those owners smiled, and to avoid them when they frowned.

Another earlier study, led by Dr. Isabella Merola from the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Science in the UK, tested the reactions of 24 cats when placed in a room with their owner and a strange, anxiety-provoking object — in this case, an electric fan to which plastic green ribbons had been tied. The study found that the cats looked at their owner’s faces while evaluating how to react to the fan.  Cats paired with calm, smiling owners appeared less anxious about the fan, although none of the cats approached it.

These studies seem to show that cats pay attention to our facial expressions, but are our faces really the main source of information for our cats?

Back in the day when I had two cats, Mulberry would scratch and hiss at Cozy when he came home from the vet. When I asked my vet about it, he told me that Mulberry was reacting to the fact that Cozy smelled wrong. Things would go back to normal, he told me, once Cozy smelled like himself again. And they did.

Turns out, cats have 200 million scent receptors in their noses, making their sense of smell by far their most important source of information.

If cats are so sensitive to smell, it seems likely that they may be reacting to the scent of our stress, and not just the facial expression of it.

So, does human stress have a smell?

According to the writers at Healthy Women, three things make a human sweat: heat, exercise, and stress. What’s interesting about this is that the mechanism for producing sweat under stressful conditions is different from the mechanism that produces sweat in reaction to heat or exercise.

Sweat from heat and activity is produced by the eccrine glands, which are located all over our body. They produce a thinner, typically odorless, sweat designed to help us cool down.

Sweat from stress originates in the apocrine glands in our armpits.  Sweat created in the apocrine glands is thicker and full of fat and proteins. The bacteria on our skin love to feast on apocrine sweat, breaking it down into fatty acids and ammonia. That process is why armpit sweat smells so much worse than exercise- or heat-induced sweat.

George Preti, Ph.D. is an organic chemist who researches the origin of human odors at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. In an interview with Men’s Health writer Alisa Hrustic, Preti pointed out that animals also emit an odor when they are stressed. He thinks that odor may act as a warning to their peers that something dangerous is happening.

If we humans with our inferior noses can smell the difference between heat- or exercise sweat and the funky stuff we sweat in our armpits while stressed, I have no doubt our cats can as well.

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Wordless Wednesday: Math Doodles

Photo: Shala Howell. Art: The Ten-Year-Old Howell.

Looks like my daughter’s been reading Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci again.

Related Links: 

  • Book Review: Blockhead by Joseph D’Agnese (Caterpickles)
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What’s The Ten-Year-Old reading this week?

Oh my goodness, it feels like forever since I’ve done one of these. I may have failed to tell you about The Ten-Year-Old’s reading life, but that life has been rich and full of books nonetheless.

Let’s see if I can remember how this works.

Planet Tad by Tim Carvell

What the book’s about: Written by a former head writer for The Daily Show, Planet Tad describes twelve-year-old Tad’s seventh grade career, one hilarious blog entry at a time.

Will Tad grow a mustache? Get girls to notice him? Survive his summer as a hot dog? Ever learn not to feed his dog nachos? You’ll have to read his blog to find out.

Why The Ten-Year-Old likes it: “It’s like a gateway into his emotions.”

Who would like this book: People who like to laugh, as well as middle schoolers trying to figure out how other people their age deal with their surging emotions.

Dying to Meet You (43 Old Cemetery Road) by Kate Klise and Sarah Klise

What the book’s about: Former best-selling writer Ignatius B. Grumply moves into the old house at 43 Old Cemetery Road hoping to find a cure for his decades-long case of writer’s block. Instead, he discovers an abandoned eleven-year-old named Seymour, his cat Shadow, and a ghost named Olive, who is outstandingly upset about the fact that she never managed to publish her own set of children’s stories.

Why The Ten-Year-Old likes it: “What makes the storyline so interesting is that this grumpy old author didn’t have emotions. He shut them off, and when he lost his emotions he lost his ability to tell stories.”

Who would like this book: Readers who like their ghosts to be more like Caspar than The Shining. Reluctant readers may be charmed by the fast-paced narrative and the liberal use of drawings, newspaper clippings, and manuscript entries to tell the story.


I can tell my daughter’s growing up because her emotions have been all over the map lately, in a way I haven’t seen since she was a toddler. I can’t help but wonder if she’s been reading these books because she’s trying to sort out what this emotional turbulence means and how she can get a handle on it before it whirls out of control.

Of course, when I asked her, she denied it. “I don’t try to figure out the moral of the books I read, Mommyo. It’s one of the reasons I get into so much trouble with my teachers.”

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Wordless Wednesday

Photo: Shala Howell

We are missing our friends and family in Chicago today, so thought I’d post this picture from our last visit to the Field Museum this past summer.

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“What’s the line in a fraction called?”

While we were at lunch last week, The Ten-Year-Old’s mind turned to fractions, as fifth grade minds are prone to do. She had learned in school that the top number in a fraction is called a numerator, while the bottom number is the denominator, but the line in the middle didn’t seem to have a special name.

fractionThat was disappointing.

“Mommyo,” she asked between bites of grilled cheese. “What’s the line in a fraction called?”

This was easy.

“Division bar,” I said.

“Fraction bar,” Daddyo said at the same time.

Gran chimed in with something that started with v, but I didn’t catch it.

So I decided to look it up. Turns out that little line has lots of names. People frequently refer to it as the:

  • division bar
  • fraction bar
  • vinculum

What’s a vinculum?

I had never heard of vinculums before, so I did a little research on them. Merriam-Webster defines a vinculum as

a straight horizontal mark placed over two or more members of a compound mathematical expression and equivalent to parentheses or brackets about them

Put more simply, a vinculum is a horizontal line placed over a group of math terms to show that they are related to one another.

Even simplified that definition sounds really broad, and like vinculums might appear in lots of other places besides fractions.

Where else can you find vinculums?

Mathematicians use vinculums to designate:

Vinculums are also apparently used in complex conjugates and to negate logical statements, but I’m not prepared explain either of those situations to The Ten-Year-Old, so I’m going to stop here.

Related Links: 

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Happy belated Thanksgiving!

This year, I’m especially thankful for my readers and friends.

I know many of you like to use the Thanksgiving weekend to finish your holiday shopping, so I thought — why not have a Black Friday sale? Now through Cyber Monday, you can get my new book, What’s That, Mom?, for 20% off (Amazon only).

Targeted to parents of kids ages 3-10 who want to nurture their children’s curiosity about art, What’s That, Mom? makes a great gift for parents and caretakers on your holiday shopping list. Hurry! Sale ends Monday. 

In other news, I’m churning through my NaNoWriMo project at a healthy clip (42,000 words so far — more or less), and look forward to resuming regular blogging on December 1.

I hope the rest of your holiday weekend proves to be a peaceful one.

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Wordless Wednesday: November flowers

Photo: Shala Howell

No, seriously. We still have flowers here.

Posting may be erratic for a bit, due to unpacking + NaNoWriMo + Thanksgiving (we’re hosting this year, so unpacking feels both urgent and important).

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Remaining Box Count:

  • Downstairs: 23
  • Upstairs: 47
  • Garage: Done!

(Somebody got some serious help from her family this week.)

NaNoWriMo Update: 

  • Project: Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?
  • Word Count: 12,271
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“Are artichokes and pine cones related?”

Since we’ve moved to California, I’ve been mildly obsessed with pine cones. This is why.

You think that this is a perspective trick, but no. That pine cone really is almost tall enough to reach the bottom of our coffee table. Also, anecdotal evidence suggests that pine cones this big are terrifying for cats. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Although I prefer to think of these pine cones as POUSs (Pinecones of Unusual Size), the locals refer to them as widow-makers. When we moved in to our house, the neighbors made a point of warning us that the squirrels who live in the pine tree the POUSs come from love to use human heads for target practice. The POUSs are really heavy, so I hope the squirrels continue to miss.

I’m no expert, but as far as I can tell, the tree out back is probably a Coulter pine. Although Coulter pines are native to Southern California, they can found as far north as San Francisco.

You know what else I’ve dodged a lot of in California?

Artichokes. Nearly all of the artichokes grown commercially in the US are grown right here in California.

But in dodging both pine cones and artichokes, I can’t help but keep noticing how physically similar they are.

Sure, one is made of wood, and the other of vegetable, but ignoring that little discrepancy, their petal bud forms are pretty similar — especially if you compare an unopened pine cone to an artichoke.

Which got me wondering…

Are pine cones and artichokes related?

Common sense says that the answer to this is no. Still, that sort of thinking has gotten me into trouble in the past, so let’s find out for sure.

Step 1: Learn their scientific names.   

One of the benefits of having a mild obsession with paleontology is that scientific names are useful, rather than scary, things. Scientific names, the pair of Latin (or Greek) words that appear in parenthesis behind the common name of whatever it is you’re talking about, both uniquely identify a living organism and tell us a bit about how it relates to other living organisms. (This method of naming organisms is also called binomial nomenclature.)

Take the scientific name for the Coulter pine, for example: Pinus coulteri. The first word tells us which genus the plant belongs to (Pinus), while the second word identifies this species of tree in particular (coulteri, the pine tree discovered by Dr. Coulter).

The type of artichoke I’m interested in, the globe artichoke, is properly referred to as Cynara scolymus.

Now that we know that the Coulter pine is a member of the genus Pinus and the artichoke of the genus Cynara, we can figure out where they fall on the plant family tree (and by extension what, if any relationship they have to one another).

But first, let’s clarify what I mean by the phrase plant family tree

Scientists classify plants and animals using a multi-level organization scheme that sorts organisms into various categories according to their distinguishing characteristics. The system we use today, taxonomy, was developed by Carolus Linnaeus back in the 1700s, who was not coincidentally known as the Father of Taxonomy.

Linnaeus’s system has been tweaked a bit over time, as scientists have learned more about the world and the organisms that populate it. For example, Linnaeus originally used his system to sort both living and nonliving things, but scientists now only use taxonomy to sort living organisms. Overall though, his system has held up pretty well.

So when I talk about a plant family tree, I mean this process of sorting organisms into a hierarchy (taxonomy).  From most specific to least, the categories used in this system are:

  • Species
  • Genus
  • Family
  • Order
  • Class
  • Phylum (or division)
  • Kingdom
  • Domain

Let’s get started.

Step 2: Classify the Coulter pine.

Species and genus are easy. The scientific name, Pinus coulterii, tells us those.

Working up:

  • The 120 different varieties of pine trees that form the genus Pinus join with about 100 additional species such as firs, hemlocks, and spruce trees to form the family Pinaceae
  • The various evergreen trees in Pinaceae join with cypresses to form the order Pinales
  • The trees in Pinales combine with yew trees in the order Taxales to form the class Pinopsida
  • Pinopsida belongs to the phylum Coniferophyta, a group of woody, mostly evergreen, non-flowering (gymnosperm) plants, which produce cones in which the seeds are exposed in the cone scales rather than tucked away in some sort of ovary
  • Coniferophyta, of course, is part of the Plantae kingdom, which includes all living or extinct plants
  • And Plantae belongs to the domain Eukarya, which includes all organisms that have cells with a unique nucleus that contains their genetic material (this category was obviously added after Linnaeus’ time)


Here’s what that looks like in a chart.

This doesn’t feel helpful yet. Let’s do the same thing for artichokes and see if that makes a difference.

Step 3: Classify the artichoke.

Working up from the genus and species for Cynara scolymus we learn that:

  • Artichokes are actually the bud of a plant from the thistle family, which means that they, along with asters, daisies, and sunflowers, belong to the family Asteraceae
  • The flowering plants in Asteraceae combine with the bellflowers in the Campanulacease family to form the order Asterales
  • Plants in Asterales join with roses, magnolias, and other flowering plants to form the class Magnoliopsida
  • Plants in Magnoliopsida are part of the phylum Magnoliophyta
  • Magnoliophyta are part of the Plantae kingdom
  • And as we learned before, Plantae belongs to the domain Eukarya, which includes all organisms that have cells with a unique nucleus that contains their genetic material

Whew. I hope I got all that right. Here’s what that looks like on a chart.

Step 4: Compare the charts to see what they tell us about how artichokes and pine trees are related.

The lowest level the artichoke plant and the Coulter pine have in common is the Plantae kingdom, so from this I learned that artichokes and pine cones both come from plants. Other than that, they’re really not related at all.

Honestly, that was more work than I was hoping for.

Still, now that I’m certain pine tree and artichoke plants aren’t closely related, I want to know why pine cones and artichokes look so similar. What is it about that cupped petal form that is so beneficial that pine trees would use it for their seed cases and artichoke plants for their buds?

Anyone know?

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Remaining Box Count:

  • Downstairs: 31
  • Upstairs: 70
  • Garage: Still to be discovered

(Somebody went on strike this week.)

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“We just got here, Mommyo. Why are you packing all those bags?”

Last week, as I was sitting down for a bit of pre-dinner reading, I had what I thought was a bout of dizziness. Then one of my books toppled over, and I figured out that what was actually rocking me in my chair was my first large-enough-to-be-felt California earthquake. (Little quakes happen all the time — QuakeFeed tells me that there have been four earthquakes magnitude 1.7 or smaller within five miles of my house in the past four days. But most people only feel the magnitude 2.5 and bigger ones.)

That, combined with the wildfires raging in Northern California and the news out of Puerto Rico, has me thinking about disaster preparedness.

Moving is the perfect time to revisit your disaster planning

When we moved to Chicago in 2013, my husband set up a set of emergency backpacks and supplies based on the most common types of natural disasters in the Midwest (tornadoes, maybe snow, sometimes floods). Here in California, the disasters feel more apocalyptic (fast-moving wildfires and potentially massive earthquakes), so we wanted to rethink our emergency supplies accordingly.

Settling into a new home is a wonderful time to update your emergency bags. After all, when you’re unpacking boxes by the hundreds already, what’s the harm in sorting through a few more?

Four years ago, my husband worked mostly on hunches when setting up our bug-out bags, but this time we’ve been using the Department of Homeland Security’s emergency preparedness website.  I don’t know if you’ve been to lately, but it’s been really helpful for us. keeps you focused on the essentials covers the basics of surviving various natural disasters, such as tornadoeswildfires, and earthquakes, as well as man-made catastrophes such as active shooter situations, bioterrorism, and cybersecurity attacks.

Different types of emergencies require different survival strategies, so provides a handy worksheet to help parents think through the various possibilities and identify options that will work given their individual circumstances.

Elsewhere on the site, you’ll find instructions for building an emergency kit for your home, workplace, and car; making a plan to find shelter in an emergency; identifying an evacuation route; and figuring out how your family will communicate if they become separated.

Don’t wait for the tornado warning. Get the basics in place now. 

There’s a lot to sort through when it comes to disaster planning, which is why it’s important to begin working on it before disaster strikes.

And, as I’ve learned this week, once you think the planning is done, it’s pretty important to review your plans and supplies every so often to make sure the plans are still relevant and the batteries, food, and first aid supplies are still fresh. Oh, and that the kids’ clothes still fit the kid in question. Ahem.

I’m about halfway through the process. The bug-out bags are mostly built, but I’ve got some of the document preservation and evacuation planning work still to go. Even though I’m not done, it’s been oddly liberating to work on disaster planning this week.

I had thought that disaster planning would cause a string of sleepless, anxiety-laden nights in which I dwelled on all the things over which I have no control. But it’s turned out to be quite liberating. I am much more comfortable going about my day-to-day life, knowing that if disaster strikes, my family will have a plan and (hopefully) a set of well-staged supplies to see us through.

Related Links: 

Remaining Box Count:

  • Downstairs: 31
  • Upstairs: 70
  • Garage: Still to be discovered
Posted in Out and About, Parenting Dilemmas | Tagged , , | 3 Comments