Hey, my book’s out!

We interrupt our move to California to let you know that the first installment in the Caterpickles Parenting Series is finally available.

What’s That, Mom? uses the proven case-study format to help parents get their children outside and asking questions that promote curiosity. Written for real-world parenting, this book is short and sweet, designed to be read and used as a field guide with tips that parents can put into action immediately.

Woo-hoo! It exists!

Even more exciting, What’s That, Mom?: How to use public art to engage your children with the world around them… without being an artist yourself is the number 1 new release in the Parent Participation in Education category. How amazing is that?

Seems like a great time to say thank you to everyone who helped make this book and its successful debut possible.

I can’t wait to hear what you think of it!

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Wordless Wednesday: Little Dude

(Photo: Grandpa Howell)

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Sky Watch: Total Solar Eclipse August 21

Readers in North America who have been hiding under rocks, there’s a total solar eclipse headed our way on August 21. DO NOT look at a solar eclipse directly. You will go blind.

Watching the Eclipse Safely

Instead, you’ll need to either buy some eclipse glasses (which I hear are in short supply), or make a pinhole projector. Making a pinhole projector will take some advance planning, but not much. Fifteen minutes should do it.

How to make a pinhole projector in 15 minutes or less, using stuff you have at home

Lots of other people have posted instructions on the web for how to make one of these, so I’m not going to duplicate their effort. Instead, I’ll just share some options:

Happy viewing!

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Caterpickles Central Update: Our time in Chicago is winding down

(Photo: Shala Howell)

Caterpickles Central is packing up shop and heading west again. This time to Northern California. Moving day is in mid-September.

Posting will be spotty over the next month or so, as we shut down the Chicago version of Caterpickles Central and open up the new one in the Bay Area.

We’ll miss you, Chicago. We’re so glad we got to spend one last glorious summer with you.

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Wordless Wednesday: Behind the curtain

(Photo: Michael Howell)

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Breaking News: The Caterpickles library is no longer sorted by color

R.I.P. visually striking organization system that made me the despair of all my librarian friends. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Six and a half years ago, Michael proposed that we organize all of our book by color. Changing the color of the books in a room would be easier than repainting it, he argued. And so we did. We’ve kept the books organized by color (more or less) ever since.

For years, this system worked reasonably well, although the square footage of the shelves dedicated to our lovely sort-by-color system mysteriously kept shrinking.

First, we exempted the cookbooks on the grounds that hunting for a good recipe is hard enough. (Although Eat Your Books makes it much easier – thanks for the tip, Mrs. Mickey!)

Then we exempted The Ten-Year-Old’s books. When we are looking for a book to read, Michael and I rarely look for a specific one.  Instead, we are perfectly content to browse the shelves until we find one that sounds interesting in that moment. We also don’t reread books in general, so even if we loved a book immensely, we typically don’t worry too much about being able to find it again.

The Ten-Year-Old is a completely different story. She rereads all the time. Every time she’s looking for a book, she’s looking for a specific book. No other book will do. Her books tend to come in series, so finding the exact book to read next is pretty important.

Our sort-the-books by color scheme wasn’t working for her at all. So then we exempted The Ten-Year-Old’s books. In a vain attempt to preserve the office’s sort by color scheme, we moved the Ten-Year-Old’s books out of the office and into bookshelves we set up in her room and in our living room.

You can see where this is going. When The Ten-Year-Old ran out of shelf space, we gave her some shelves in the office — not sorted by color though, because she needed to be able to find things. And so on, until fewer than half of the bookshelves in our home were still sorted by color.

The Ten-Year-Old has been lobbying for us to sort the books alphabetically for some time now. She counts a number of librarians among her Most Influential Adults set, and while I am holding firm against any talk of implementing the Dewey Decimal System in our home, after six months of intense negotiations I finally agreed to sort books by type: fiction vs. non-fiction, young adult vs. grown-up. Possibly even alphabetically by first letter of author’s last name.

“And by series, Mommyo. I want all the books in a series to be together.”

Day 1 debris field. At this point, we had barely even gotten started. (Photo: Shala Howell)

We have an enormous number of books, including multiple copies of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up in which Kondo posits that having a mere 40 books is really quite sufficient. I am debating keeping both copies, because the irony of that brings me joy every time I contemplate it, and really, isn’t the point of Kondo’s work to construct a home environment that brings you joy?

I digress. We have an enormous number of books, but with the help of The Ten-Year-Old’s two babysitters, we were able to take down and sort through every book in our house (that we know of) in just three days.

Day 2 Debris Field. Canelo is seriously displeased that the book project has spilled over into his sun room. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Three days later, here we are.

The non-fiction books are grouped loosely according to topic and clustered on one side of the office. The fiction books are arranged even more loosely. The Ten-Year-Old’s books are still on specific shelves in her room, the living room, and on her now-traditional office shelves. They are not alphabetized, but they are all within her reach.

The grown-up fiction books are loosely alphabetized according to the first letter of the author’s last name. The arrangement would still probably cause palpations in every librarian’s heart, but with luck it will work for us.

View in my office this morning (Photo: Shala Howell)

Sadly for Canelo, several hundred discards are still piled up in his sunroom. I guess I’d better deal with those today.

Where’s Canelo? (Photo: Shala Howell)

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Wordless Wednesday: Baby Bunny at the Lincoln Park Zoo

(Photo: Shala Howell)

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“Has anyone ever committed a robbery while armed with a cow?”

The Ten-Year-Old would like you to know that she’s gone into business as a private detective. Her partner is a crimson dragon named Cherry Lane. I would post a picture, but Cherry Lane is under threat at the moment by several miscreants whom he was instrumental in bringing to justice but who were released this week from jail after a series of legal snafus.

Let’s just say I cannot confirm nor deny that Cherry Lane was the model for the dragon on the cover of Sandra Staple’s guide to drawing fire-breathing dragons.

But I am allowed to say that the dragon on her cover is almost as fierce as Cherry Lane.

Still, after hearing that so many of Cherry Lane’s past captures had been released, I told The Ten-Year-Old that her new partner really needed to do a better job of building air-tight cases against criminals. The Ten-Year-Old mulled this over for a bit, then announced that actually Cherry Lane had hired her just for that purpose.

Their first client is another dragon who is accused of committing armed robbery using a cow. The Ten-Year-Old has been tasked with researching the various precedents associated with the case.

“Mommyo, has anyone ever committed a robbery while armed with a cow?”

Via Public Domain Pictures

There are so many stories of cattle rustling in the American West that sometimes I’m amazed that anyone had time to do anything else. As Lauren Feldman of American Cowboy puts it, “For as long as men have owned cattle, other men have been stealing them.”

But The Ten-Year-Old wasn’t asking about stealing cattle. She was asking whether or not anyone had used cattle as a weapon while stealing something else.

Turns out, cows have been used as weapons in war

In her article “Cows Are Deadlier Than You Ever Knew,” Esther Inglis-Arkell writes that cows have been used as instruments of war on at least two occasions. As proof, she cites George Armstrong Custer and Reverend John George Wood, both of whom wrote about how stampeding cows were used in war both as distractions and as modes of attack.

In his 1874 memoir, My Life on the Plains, Custer writes that the Native Americans were so successful in using stampedes to keep Custer’s army off-balance that his soldiers quickly realized that their first step in any conflict was to secure the cattle (and the horses, ponies, and mules).

Similarly, in his 1878 reports on the war between the Zulus and Boers in South Africa, the Reverend John George Wood wrote that the Zulus would frequently attack the Boers by sneaking cattle into their campsites at night and then frightening those cattle into stampeding through the tents.

If stampeding cows can be used in war to create a distraction, it’s not exactly a stretch to imagine a herd of stampeding cows being used as a distraction while you rob someone in peacetime.

Angry Cow, Slovenia (2893441048)

This photo by Kevin Cure is literally titled “Angry Cow, Slovenia.” Apparently Kevin woke the cow up to take the picture. Kevin clearly hasn’t read Esther’s article. (Photo via Wikipedia)

“No, Mommyo. I mean, has anyone ever come in armed with a super-farting cow and tried to rob anyone?”


I don’t know.  Dr. Google doesn’t seem to know either.

“Did you search for ‘super farting cow’?”

Yes. And after reviewing the available evidence on YouTube, I’m going to go with, “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”

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Wordless Wednesday: Our storm glass is finally back to normal


(Photo: Shala Howell)

And it only took six months.

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“Did Isaac Newton invent the cat door?”

During a recent bout of Family Togetherness Reading Different Books time, The Ten-Year-Old found her mind blown by a passage in Amazing Cat Facts & Trivia. “Whoa. Guys, it says here that Isaac Newton invented the cat door.”

Daddyo, setting aside his copy of Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs: “He did? I knew there was a reason I liked that guy.”

The Ten-Year-Old: “Besides all the physics.”

For once the suspicious one, I surreptitiously double-checked the story on my iPhone.

Did Isaac Newton invent the cat door? 

Newton’s ideas changed the world for the better in many ways, but the cat door wasn’t one of them.

According to Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope, the idea of cutting a smaller hole in a door to allow a pet through predates Newton by centuries. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales mentions a cat door in “The Miller’s Tale.” The Tales were written in the late 1300s, some 300 years before Newton may or may not have drilled a hole in his door at Trinity College in Cambridge for the convenience of his hypothetical cat.

Frankly, when you think about it, it does seem very odd that a scientist of Newton’s caliber would be willing to risk the results of his experiments on light diffraction to the random entrance and exit impulses of a clowder of cats. It seems much more likely to me that Newton is the reason those holes are plugged up today, and not the person who brought them into being in the first place.

So where does this story come from? 

Isaac Newton not only didn’t invent the cat door, there’s very little evidence that he had a cat at all. The entire story is based on those two holes in Newton’s old door. They are apparently just the right size and in just the right place for use by a cat and her kittens.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that someone came for a tour years after Newton’s residency at Trinity, saw the holes, made some sort of joke about Newton inventing the cat door, and someone else enshrined the joke in history.

Which raises the question: How do I break the news that Newton didn’t care all that much about cats to The Ten-Year-Old?

Would discovering that Newton didn’t care about cats encourage The Ten-Year-Old to not care about Newton?

What was a curious parent to do? “Um, guys, hypothetically speaking, if I were to discover that this is only an urban legend, would you want me to tell you?”

“Always” was the immediate reply. Based on the glare The Ten-Year-Old gave me, she was disappointed I even had to ask.

Still, I was unwilling to prejudice her opinion of Newton based solely on the shady rumor that he may not have been a fellow cat-lover. So I simply told her about the cat door in The Canterbury Tales. She didn’t believe me, so I looked it up. Here’s the relevant passage from “The Miller’s Tale”, courtesy of SparkNotes:

But al for noght, he herde nat a word;
An hole he fond, ful lowe upon a bord,
Ther as the cat was wont in for to crepe;
And at that hole he looked in ful depe,
And at the laste he hadde of him a sighte.

Isn’t it amazing how different English looks now? I mean really, Chaucer is a formative figure in English literature, but seven centuries on, I still kind of want a translator. In case you do too, I’ll just quickly update some of the spelling:

But all for naught, he heard not a word;
A hole he found, full low upon a board,
There as the cat was wont in for to creep;
And at that hole he looked in full deep,
And at the last he had of him a sight.

“So who did invent the cat door, Mommyo?”

Hard to say. It’s possible that the first cat doors evolved in the same way mouse holes do. A chink develops in your building’s armor, and the local beasties just start using it. The wording in “The Miller’s Tale” is ambiguous with respect to the cat door’s origin, and my Google search results are clogged with Isaac Newton myths.

A trip to our local library may be required to figure this one out. If we can at all. One of the reasons Chaucer stands out is that not very many people were writing things down in the 1300s. Finding documented evidence of cat doors that predate The Canterbury Tales is going to be a bit of a challenge.

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