Gib Finneyโ€™s sequel to THE POWER OF UN
Plans of Mice and People
27 May 2008, Finney @ 7:53 am

As my dad says, “Oh the best-laid plans of mice and men.” The picture above is a bunch of our new icebreaker friends standing around at the airport in Dallas waiting for their suitcases to make it to the baggage claim. Rainy took this with her trusty cellphone, because our cool new cameras are packed and it was too hard to get them out and then have to repack them again right away.

You might wonder why in the heck we were picking up our luggage in Dallas, since we were supposed to go all the way to Punta Arenas. Well…it’s because the best-laid plans of mice and men never seem to work out the way mice and men think they will. (Rainy is looking over my shoulder and shaking her head, and saying it should be mice and people, or mice and men and women. WHATever.) I am just glad my supply of Mentos, Jolly Ranchers, Atomic Fireballs, and gumi worms was in my carry-on bag, because my big suitcase is lost. I hope they find it, though, because otherwise I will have to wear long underwear that is WAY too big.

Our flight to Santiago was totally cancelled. The bad part is that we were supposed to be in Punta Arenas checking out the icebreaker by now. The good part is that the airline people got us awesome rooms in a big hotel in Dallas. I’ve never seen anything like this. When Ash and I open our door to go out, we’re not, like, in some dumpy stinky hallway. We’re on a balcony that is eight floors above the lobby. Looking over the railing, we see this creek and the tables at the restaurant and stuff, but it’s all indoors. Outdoors but indoors. So you can stay cool in the air conditioning but still feel like you’re outside. Ash and I had omelets and bacon and juice for breakfast, and we got the chef to put some of everything in them, which included jalapeno peppers. Dooooood. I had no clue my tongue could feel so hot without actually being on fire. Rainy said she would just have fruit, because fruit is better for you. But then the bacon smelled so good and she was so hungry, she had a whole bunch of bacon, too.

So we are supposed to get on a plane for Santiago and then Punta Arenas tonight, but not till about 9:00. I guess we will have to sleep while we’re flying. I talked to Mom and Dad on the phone. Dad laughed and said the thing about mice and men. Mom is strangely calm. She said, “Predictable.” And, “Well, Dr. Smith knows there’ll be you-know-what to pay if they don’t take good care of you.” She always says “you-know-what” when she means a swear word. We are having fun thinking up all the words she really wanted to say.

I hope the next time I write, I will have a view of the Nathaniel B. Palmer out my window!


Donald’s Heart Wins
19 May 2008, Finney @ 7:32 pm

Back again. Lately I have had some trouble sleeping. I keep thinking about Antarctica, and it’s like a combination of Christmas Eve and going to a new school. We might see whales and penguins and albatrosses. But it might be dark and scary, too. I have been reading this book, Shackleton’s Valiant Voyage, about Ernest Shackleton’s trip to Antarctica a hundred years ago or so. He went to the same place we’re going to — the Weddell Sea. Dude. Even though he loved Antarctica, the ice crushed his ship, and he had a horrendous time before he finally got home again. I mean, not that I think we’re going to get crushed by ice. I’m just saying. Plus, there’s Mom, who is still having a cow about the whole thing. Dude.

But that’s kind of off the track. What I really want to do this time is finish the Donald Frog story, which is taking way too long to tell. I have to finish it up, so I can tell you more about the things that are happening now, instead of stuff that happened months ago. So here’s the short version.

In our last episode, Ash and Rainy and I decided to put Donald back out in the freezing woods, because he wouldn’t eat the crickets we bought for him and we didn’t want him to starve. But when we got to the woods, we found a note from my future self, Old Gib, who has figured out how to travel through time and keeps getting in touch with me in various weird ways. To really understand all this, you will probably have to read The Power of Un. But for now, let’s just say I found out about Old Gib this last year in a pretty traumatic way. His goal in life seems to be to keep me on the right track in a world which, believe me, is full of wrong tracks.

The note said, “Donald is your ticket to the science fair. Don’t lose him. VTY, Gibson Finney.” At this point, we were only thinking about entering the science fair. We didn’t have a project, and we hadn’t been able to figure one out that wasn’t totally stupid. At the time, Ash and I weren’t hot on science fairs, because we thought they were kind of dweeby. But Rainy said we should do it anyway because if I don’t do science, how can I grow up to be Old Gib who invents time travel? And the note from Old Gib pretty well clinched it.

We were on our way back from the woods carrying Donald wrapped up in a ball of brown leaves when Rainy stopped right in the middle of the street and said, “Omigosh. Omigosh.” She was staring right at Donald, who was in my hands.

“What?” said Ash. “What? What?” He was looking at Donald, too, because she was. You know how it goes. “What’s wrong? Is he dead?”

Rainy punched him on the arm. Don’t ever let anybody tell you girls can’t punch hard.

“Ow!” said Ash. “What’d I do?”

“You guys, Old Gib is so totally right! Donald was frozen solid, but he’s still alive. How could that happen? I mean, all we have to do is figure it out, and we’ve got the science fair project of the century.”

Which, of course, was absolutely right.

So we spent the next two weeks basically living like totally deviant hermits instead of kids, rushing home or to the science lab right after school every day, wimping out of basketball practice, leaving Ash’s Wii untouched, not even stopping for Tang or hot chocolate. The first thing we did, of course, was go to the Web and find out everything we could about common wood frogs. We found this guy, Dr. Costanzo, who is an expert in Ranus Sylvatica wood frogs at a university in Ohio, and we emailed him and eventually even talked to him on the phone. He helped us decide how to do our experiment and answered other questions whenever we had them. Hey, Dr. Costanzo, how are you?

And we talked to our science teacher, Mr. Batcabe, otherwise known as The Batcave, what else? For a teacher, he is reasonably cool. Like, you could imagine seeing him at a baseball game, or eating in a restaurant, or someplace else that is not school. The Batcave was totally blown away by our idea for turning Donald into a science fair project.

And it’s a good thing, because he helped us with the hardest part, which was keeping Donald at a constant temperature of -4 degrees Celsius for 72 hours while we took turns watching him to see if his heart beat at all during that time. (BTW, scientists do temperatures in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit like average Americans. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ll find out on the icebreaker. But here’s a very cool thing that converts Celsius degrees into Fahrenheit degrees so you can see how cold we had to keep Donald.)

This involved filling a little Styrofoam cooler with ice and rock salt and setting Donald (in a nest of dry leaves we got from the woods) on the ice with a thermometer to make sure he didn’t get too cold. It turns out even a wood frog can die if it gets too cold. Out in the woods in winter, they stay covered with leaves under the snow, and it actually keeps them pretty warm — around -4 Celsius. Heh heh.

Every now and then, we had to add ice or add salt to keep the temperature right, and we did this for three days and three nights. Also, we had to be careful not to let salt water get on Donald, because salt water is poison to wood frogs. This was murderous. Stressful and boring both at once. As Ash said, he felt like he was sleepwalking, except when he felt like he was going to have a heart attack. Plus, speaking of hearts, once every hour we spent five minutes staring at Donald’s heart, which pushes up his skin a little bit when it beats. At the end of the five minutes, we wrote the results of our observations in a notebook. Which looks like this:

12/11/07 – 11:00-11:05 p.m. – no heartbeat
12/11/07 – 12:00-12:05 a.m. – no heartbeat
12/11/07 – 1:00-1:05 a.m. – no heartbeat
12/11/07 – 2:00-2:05 a.m. – no heartbeat
12/11/07 – 3:00-3:05 a.m. – no heartbeat
12/11/07 – 4:00-4:05 a.m. – no heartbeat
12/11/07 – 5:00-5:05 a.m. – no heartbeat
etc., about a million times

As you can see, we did this 24 hours a day, even at 3:00 in the morning. Not once did we see Donald’s heart beat. Our conclusion: wood frogs can survive for at least three days, freezing cold, without their hearts beating even once. We also did not see him breathe even once. How cool is that? I wish I could do it. I would spend the night lying in the snow looking up at the stars, and if it snowed on top of me, I wouldn’t care.

Dr. Costanzo says that as soon as the temperature gets down to freezing, wood frogs start making this sugary stuff called glucose. Also another thing called urea. Glucose and urea stay wet and liquidy at colder temperatures than water, and the frogs sort of fill themselves with it. So their cells are full of this stuff that protects them from the cold, and they don’t freeze to death. It’s like they are superheroes. Sort of.

To finish the story, we spent days and days getting all of this work together and setting Donald up in his Styrofoam cooler at the science fair. And (fanfare, please) WE WON!! Then we did it again in the regional competition.

After the regionals, a newspaper wrote an article about us. The reporter asked me what I hoped to do in the future. I said I hoped to be a basketball star or a fighter pilot, even though I know that’s not what my future looks like. What was I supposed to say? I hope to become an old guy who looks like a homeless person but invents time travel? Then, just at the end before the reporter hung up the phone and ended the conference call interview, Rainy said what she’d really like is to go to Antarctica someday, because we had found out there were fish down there that could survive in the cold, cold water, a lot like Donald, and she wanted to see them. We all agreed that would be cool beyond cool. (Well, okay, we didn’t really say cool beyond cool. Under the circumstances — it being about Antarctica — that would have been dweeby beyond dweeby.)

The icebreaker team researchers saw the newspaper article, they phoned Rainy’s parents, and there you have it. Did we say yes? No duh. Thank you, Donald. ๐Ÿ™‚

P.S. We returned Donald to the woods, smothering him in leaves right near the stump of the yellow Ticonderoga pencil, where, so far, he is living happily ever after.


Volcano!
8 May 2008, Finney @ 8:07 pm


Whoa! One of the MBARI engineers, Kim Reisenbichler (I hope I spelled that right) just sent us an email to let us know that we are probably going to see a volcano erupting as we fly over Chile on our way to the icebreaker, which is going to be happening May 26. I got a Spiderman calendar for Christmas (the tag said it was from Roxy, but seriously, how is a six-year-old going to buy a calendar? It’s safe to say she had help). And I have been marking off the days. There are only 18 left before we leave.

But I’m getting off track. To get to the icebreaker, which will be waiting for us in the port of Punta Arenas, Chile, we will fly to Dallas, Texas, and from there to Santiago, Chile. (Where everybody will be speaking Spanish, which I am not so hot at. Rainy is acting all smart because she is hot at it. I am planning to practice a few things like “where is the bathroom.” Luckily I already know how to ask for a Coke. And how to say “please.” “Por favor.” Which is always handy, especially if you are accidentally acting stupid in a foreign country, always a danger.)

I checked it all out and it looks like Kim is right and we are seriously going to see this volcano called Chaiten spewing smoke and lava right after we leave Santiago! Here are some pictures (above), but there is a whole news story and more pictures here. It’s a news site, so WARNING, I don’t know how long the link will be good.


Mom Has a Cow
2 May 2008, Finney @ 4:36 pm

Guess what? Chicken butt. ๐Ÿ™‚ Ash and Rainy and I got interviewed by reporters about our trip, who wanted to know all kinds of stuff, like how we got invited onto the icebreaker. If I had the story of Donald the Frog finished, I could have just told them to read it. Which is a good reason to finish writing it, I guess. And I will, but there’s all this other stuff that seems more important during any one-second interlude.

Oh, before I forget, I have been doing a lot of work on the “Who’s on the Iceberg” page. To check it out, look to your right, and choose “Who’s on the Iceberg” under “Pages.” This tells you all the people who are on the voyage with us, and is sort of like the appendixes in the back of Lord of the Rings, except it’s scientists and engineers instead of hobbits and elves.

Things are really starting to move fast now. It’s only 24 days until we get on the plane headed for the very most southern possible tip of Chile and the little town called Punta Arenas where we will get onto the ship. Mom is starting to have a total cow. First, she was worried that we will get lost in the Dallas airport while trying to find our flight to Santiago, Chile. Finally, I convinced her we will be all right because Dr. Smith is meeting us at the gate in Dallas, and besides, if we had to we could find our flight by READING THE SIGNS, like everybody else.

Then Mom stopped worrying so much about that part, and started worrying about the size of the ship. Here is a picture of the Nathaniel B. Palmer. It does not look small to me. But when Mom saw this picture, for some reason, it majorly freaked her out.

I said, “Mom, chill. The NBP is 308 feet long. 308 feet! That’s as long as a football field. It’s REALLY BIG!”

“No, it’s not,” she said. “The ocean is thousands of miles long. And there are all those icebergs out there. The Titanic…” And she started to cry. Which gave me sort of a weird feeling somewhere between my stomach and my intestines, because, you know, parents are supposed to be the brave ones, right?

I said, “Mom, the Titanic was not an icebreaker. The NBP has four gigantic Caterpillar diesel engines. That’s, like, the same amount of power as 12K big, black horses. If ice gets in our way, the NBP wins.”

Then she said, “What if your feet get cold?”

I said, “Mom!! Remember all those fat pairs of socks you bought me?”

But she just kept crying. I cannot win. This made me very worried that she might say, at the last minute, that I can’t go. Which would be catastrophic, as will be revealed at the end of Donald the Frog’s story, if I can ever finish it. Stay tuned.


Sort of, but Not Quite
17 April 2008, Finney @ 4:28 pm

Finally, I have a free afternoon to write some more about Donald the wood frog and how he got us onto the icebreaker.

If you will recall, Donald refused to eat the crickets we got from Mr. Grabowski’s pet store. So after much gnashing of teeth, we decided to put him back in the woods to fend for himself. The problem being that when I stuck my pencil in the ground to mark the spot where we left him, it speared a scrap of soggy paper, or at least I thought it was paper at first. It was folded in eighths and was sort of a boogery beige that looked as if it might have once have been white. As I began to open it up, I realized it didn’t feel quite right to be paper. It was thin enough, but paper that wet should have been falling apart. It was way too strong, and it was slippery.

When I got it unfolded all the way, I looked at it, blinked, and looked again. There was a message on it, written in purple, in a big, hurried scrawl. As Rainy leaned over my shoulder, she gasped. The message said, Donald is your ticket to the science fair. Don’t lose him. VTY, Dr. Gibson Finney.

I took the sheet over to the big flat rock and smoothed it out so we could all see it. The purple writing wasn’t a solid line, as it would be if someone had used a pen. It was made up of tiny dots, almost as if it had come out of a printer, except it wasn’t a font. It looked like handwriting. In a weird, alternate dimension sort of way, it looked like my handwriting. Dr. Gibson Finney. It was a note to us from my future self.

“What does VTY mean?” said Ash in a hushed voice.

I shook my head. “No clue.”

“It means Very Truly Yours,” said Rainy.

Ash’s mouth hung open, one side tilted slightly upward in a crazy cross between shock and a grin. He turned and nailed me with a maniacal look. “Or maybe Very Truly You,” he said.

All I could manage in return was a very sickly smile.

We sat on the rock for a long time, staring at the writing that was like mine, but not quite, written with a purple pen, but not quite, on something like paper, but not quite.

Finally, Rainy said, “Gib, if you made a special trip back in time to deliver this to yourself, it must be very important.”

I frowned, because my brain had been going several hundred miles per hour since the moment I opened the message, and I had already figured out that me making a special trip back in time to deliver the message to myself was just one possibility. “Yeah, or maybe I just left it for myself last time I was here.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Ash. “Either way, it’s important. You went to a lot of trouble to tell yourself not to…” Ash’s eyes went wide. “OMG!” he shouted. “Where is Donald?”

He had a point. In all the excitement, we had somewhat forgotten about the subject of the message. In a flurry, the three of us were down on our hands and knees, searching through the dead leaves at the foot of the rock. Eventually, I was the one who found him, already beginning to refreeze, pretty much exactly where we left him. We decided, given everything that had just happened, our old plan was defunct, and Donald would have to come home with us again. So, still inside his ball of leaves, we wrapped him up in the message and headed back.

First, though, I took out the yellow Ticonderoga pencil again and pushed it into the dirt till only about an inch of it was still above ground. I was pretty sure Old Gib would appreciate a marker, so he would know exactly where to leave the message when the time came, whenever that was.

After that, all we had to do was figure out exactly how Donald was our ticket to the science fair. Oh yeah…and how to keep him from dying of starvation. Next post. ๐Ÿ™‚


Tortures of Ragnoth
8 April 2008, Finney @ 8:59 am

Hi, hi. Dropping in to say I’m still here, just way busy getting ready to go. Trying on wool underwear and socks. The socks, okay, I can deal with them, but the underwear — dude, it’s like the tortures of Ragnoth. I am on strike in favor of microfleece. Ash says he will gut it out and take the wool because he wants to be just like Ernest Shackleton, and they didn’t have microfleece in Shackleton’s day. IMHO, Ash is sometimes insane.

Rainy, on the other hand, sweet-talked her parents into buying her these ultra-soft unders made out of special wool from special sheep in New Zealand. It’s softer than my old stuffed rabbit, Bunzo, who, I confess, is still on the top shelf of my closet.

Also, think about it. I’m going to miss the last three weeks of school. And every single one of my teachers is loading on the extra work!

The good news is that all three of us are finished with our medical tests and are now officially “PQ,” which means healthy enough to go on this trip. Yahoooo! The other good news is that instead of expensive ultra-soft New Zealand froo-froo sheep underwear, I got a really cool new camera which I am learning to use so I can take awesome pictures of icebergs and otherworldly creatures of the deep and stuff.

More about Donald Frog soon.


Message from the Future
25 March 2008, Finney @ 4:14 pm

Of course, as usual, tons of stuff has happened in the past week. Like, I got most of my polar physical exam and filled out about a ton of forms to send to Raytheon Polar Services, which included a form about what size I am. Ash and Rainy had to do it, too. Mom says this is so they (Raytheon) can put together bags of special extreme weather gear for us to wear on the icebreaker. But I’ll talk about that in the next post. Right now, I want to tell some more of the story of how Donald Frog started the whole thing.

So, Donald, who we thought was dead, thawed out and started croaking in my bedroom during the night. This was a huge crisis, because keeping a frog for a pet is hard, especially in the winter. My book said wood frogs (and that was Donald, wood frog, Rana sylvatica) eat “small animals of the forest floor.” Which turned out to mean bugs, slugs, and snails. Which are impossible to find alive in the winter (dead ones wouldn’t be good enough). Therefore, I called a meeting of the Three Musketeers.

Meetings of the Three Musketeers are called by lighting a Musketeer Beacon, which means one of us turning on a flashlight in the window of our house. I got the idea from a book I read about the Great Wall of China, where they used beacon fires to warn of approaching Mongolian hoards. The Musketeer beacon system only works because I live close enough to Ash to see his house, and Ash lives close enough to Rainy to see her house. You can probably guess that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It kind of depends on whether people are looking out of their windows, and sometimes it takes a while. But that morning, Ash was watching TV in the room with the best view of my beacon, and Rainy was working on her computer near the window with the best view of Ash’s beacon. Here’s a picture of the beacon towers on the Great Wall (circled in red), and uh…my beacon.

So within about half an hour, the three of us were sitting at the kitchen table staring at Donald inside the dirt-filled aquarium while Roxy asked dumb questions like, “What’re you gonna do with him, huh?”

Actually, it wasn’t really such a dumb question. As Rainy pointed out, “If we put him back in the freezer, he might die. But if we don’t, he might starve.”

Just then, my mom came in with her eyes half open and started feeling around for the coffee pot. “Mom, what do we have that a frog can eat?” I asked, admittedly feeling desperate.

She bent down close to the aquarium, trying to get her eyes focused. She had left her glasses in the bedroom. “A what?” she said.

“A froggy!” shouted Roxy.

“What will you kids think up next?” said Mom, yawning.

“Mom, this is serious!” I said.

Gazing at Donald with an absent look on her face, she said, “I dunno. Ask Mr. Grabowski.”

“Mrs. Finney, you’re a genius,” said Ash with a huge grin.

“That’s right,” said Mom. “While you’re there, please pick up a bag of food for Doofus.”

So Mom gave us $10, and we got on our bicycles and went to see Mr. Grabowski at the pet store. It was a cold, clear day, and by the time we got there all of us were red-cheeked and blowing on our fingers. Grabowski’s Pet Gallery is one of my favorite places. It is small and dark, except for the lights in the aquariums and the windows up front where the parakeets chirp in their cages. It smells like alfalfa pellets and dog biscuits and some other thing that reminds me of licorice. Best of all, it’s always toasty warm to keep the tropical animals comfy, which we definitely appreciated that day.

Old Mr. Grabowski, who looks like a talking prune, told us to try giving Donald live crickets, which he was happy to sell us for $6.99. This was for 250 crickets, which I figured would take Donald about four gazillion years to eat.

“He’ll eat ’em faster than you think, sonny,” said Mr. Grabowski. He smiled, and I wondered, as I always do when he smiles, whether he ever brushes his teeth, which are brown and mostly gone.

“Hmm,” I said. “How much is a bag of Laughing Pooch Dog Chow?” Laughing Pooch is the brand Mom always buys. She thinks it makes Doofus less rambunctious. Her word, not mine. I think it is all in her imagination. Doofus is the berserker barbarian of dogs, with or without Laughing Pooch.

“$8.50 for five pounds, on sale, get it while it lasts, sonny boy,” said Mr. Grabowski.

Ash and Rainy and I looked at the ten dollar bill, then at each other. $10.00 minus $8.50 left…not enough! “Mr. Grabowski,” said Rainy, “would it be possible for us to buy $1.50 worth of crickets?”

The old man frowned. “I figure that’ll only be…” He stared at the ceiling, as if maybe the answer was floating somewhere near the winking florescent light. “Letsee. $1.50 divided by $6.99…21.4% times 250…that’s only 53 crickets. Waddya gonna do with 53 crickets? It’s hardly a mouthful.”

A mouthful of 53 crickets. It wasn’t a pretty thought. Rainy swallowed, looking queasy. “That’s okay,” she said. “If we need more, we’ll come back.”

“Suite yourself,” said Mr. Grabowski.

It would be nice if I could just say, And he wrapped up 53 crickets and a bag of Laughing Pooch, and we went home. Which would allow me to avoid the embarrassment of describing what actually happened, which was this: Mr. Grabowski said, “The crickets are right over there. Put 53 in this cup.” At which point, the Three Musketeers turned into the Three Stooges.

Let me just say catching crickets is a test of will and eye-hand coordination that makes basketball seem easy. If “Catching Crickets” were a Wii game, nobody would ever win. By the time we got 53 crickets into the cup, there were at least 100 fluttering and hopping around the pet store, and Mr. Grabowski, looking disgusted, said, “You owe me another $1.50, which you can pay next time you come in here, and you’d better not forget.”

So we swore an oath to repay him soon, and left feeling generally overheated and glad to be out in the freezing air again.

When we got home, Ash used the tweezers on his Swiss pen knife to put a cricket into the aquarium with Donald. Since he had practiced in the pet store, this went fairly smoothly. Except Donald wasn’t hungry. He hopped to a far corner and croaked while the cricket fluttered around, trying to escape.

Rainy said, “This is disgusting. We should just put the frog back outside in its natural habitat.”

But this idea made Roxy totally desolate. She started to cry. Loudly. Truth to tell, I didn’t like the idea, either. I mean, if we put Donald back outside…

“He’ll freeze again,” I said. “For all we know, that’ll kill him!”

Donald croaked. Rainy breathed out through her nose and rolled her eyes. “Oh for Pete’s sake,” she said.

So a compromise was reached. We decided to give Donald 24 hours to eat the cricket. If the cricket wasn’t gone by the next day before lunch, Donald would go back into the woods. As luck would have it, Donald refused to eat the cricket, and the next day at lunch time, the three of us were once again staring into the aquarium. To make matters worse, sometime during the night, the cricket had died. Donald was starving, and the cricket was a putrefying corpse.

“All right. It’s over. We’re putting him back in the woods,” said Rainy. “And don’t look at me that way. We made a pact!”

The three of us put on our coats and trudged out into woods. Crusty snow from the last storm covered the ground in places. But we found what looked like a cozy spot in the shelter of my favorite big, flat rock. We covered Donald with leaves. I had a yellow Ticonderoga pencil in my pocket, and I stuck it in the ground right next to him so we’d know where to find him later, assuming he didn’t hop away before he froze again.

As I pushed the pencil into the ground, something crunched. The pencil’s tip had speared a scrap of soggy paper, or at least I thought it was paper at first. It was folded in eighths and was sort of a boogery beige that looked as if it might have once have been white. As I began to open it up, I realized it didn’t feel quite right to be paper. It was thin enough, but paper that wet should have been falling apart. It was way too strong, and it was slippery.

When I got it unfolded all the way, I looked at it, blinked, and looked again. There was a message on it, written in purple, in a big, hurried scrawl. As she leaned over my shoulder, Rainy gasped. The message was a warning from the future!


Destiny Warning
13 March 2008, Finney @ 5:22 pm

Well, this is not the same night as my post about the beach. I kind of blew that. Have you ever made so many promises you can’t keep them all? This has been happening to me a lot lately. My life has turned into a creaking banquet table loaded with roast beef, mashed potatoes, and pineapple upside-down cake (this would be the Antarctica stuff and the Mitchell Rutherford Middle School baseball team, which I am on) and way too many vegetables (this would be homework and chores). I want to get back to Donald Frog and the whole thing about how Ash, Rainy, and I got ourselves into an Antarctic adventure, and I will, I swear my most excellent oath. But first, before I forget the best parts, here is what we did in California besides going to the beach and the aquarium.

We were still mostly asleep when Dad got us up, herded us into our rental car, and drove a few miles down California Highway 1 to MBARI. MBARI is right on the beach at this place called Moss Landing which is a good harbor for ships, which is great, because they have a few of them — the Point Lobos (yep, same name as that great beach), the Zephyr, and the Western Flyer. The scientists use them to go out into the ocean and measure things like water temperature and depth, and to get samples of sea animals, some of them way strange. The Monterey Bay gets really deep really fast, which is one reason researchers love it. We did not actually get to see any of these ships, because they were all out at sea. Two were doing research, and one (the Western Flyer) was getting fixed because it hit a reef down in Mexico and got temporarily messed up.

But, not to get too far off track, we went into this big room with one whole wall of windows you could look through and see the beach right below. The three of us stood around eating enormous pastries and grapes, talking about everything we saw through those amazing windows — people flying kites and walking their dogs on the sand, sea gulls floating on the wind, and big waves pouring up onto the shore like milk from a giant’s bucket. One by one, the scientists and techs arrived, until finally everybody (about 20 of them) was there. We took our seats and the meeting began.

First, people introduced themselves and said a little bit about what they’ll be doing on the icebreaker. Rainy got to use her mom’s cell phone for the trip by promising to call and tell her all the news each day. The cell phone has a camera, so she took pictures of everybody, which you can see by clicking here. Everybody was really nice to us (actually nicer than nice, more about that soon) and said we should ask questions any time we want. No problem there. I already have about a bjillion, and I’m pretty sure Ash and Rainy do, too.

Now…this may sound weird, especially coming from someone who has been in a science fair, and knows he’s going to become a scientist, invent the unner, and end up being one of the strangest old guys who has ever lived. But probably the biggest discovery I made at MBARI is that I did not know the truth about scientists. Until February 27th, when someone said scientist I thought of a deadly serious person in a white lab coat and goggles, like Mr. Maynard, our science teacher, who is the only guy at the school who wears a tie except the principal. But now I have a new theory based on observation. Which is: they are basically Musketeers in grown-up bodies. Which makes me feel a lot better about becoming one.

What will we be doing in Antarctica? It turns out we will be chasing big ol’ icebergs, and when we catch them, we will find out everything we can about them — how tall and deep and wide they are, how they are shaped, what they are made of, where they are going, what happens to the water when they melt in it, what lives on them and under them and around them. To do this, we will use a remote control submarine called The Phantom, a radio controlled airplane (see above) like the one Ash won at the carnival except bigger and with a better engine and a bomb bay that launches real GPS beacons, a giant high-volume water pump, various one-of-a-kind machines (a Lagrangian sediment trap, for example; and no, I don’t know exactly what it is yet), hoses, tubes, cords, binoculars, and possibly a giant slingshot or a crossbow. How cool is that??

Last but not least, we will be doing this in Antarctica — a place that is so much like Mars that it almost doesn’t belong on Earth. Rainy has just finished reading Shackleton’s Boat Journey by Frank Arthur Worsley, which is about these guys who get shipwrecked in Antarctica. She says it is extreme and makes her wonder if we are out of our minds. Maybe we are, but it doesn’t matter. I found a note in the woods last week, which I think is from my future self. It says, “Do not chicken out. Antarctica is your destiny.”


Life as an Anemone
7 March 2008, Finney @ 5:46 pm

We will get back to the gripping tale of Donald D. Frog before long, particularly since, in a weird way, I wouldn’t have much to tell you without him. I mean, excuse me for thinking the way I have ever since the whole thing with the unner, but if that crazy little frog hadn’t thawed out in my bedroom in the middle of winter, Rainy and Ash and I wouldn’t even be thinking about going to Antarctica.

As previously alluded to, I and the other Musketeers (okay, and my dad, too) traveled to Monterey, California a few days ago to meet the other members of the Antarctic expedition. I do not feel especially great admitting this, but up until then, I had never seen an ocean before. Ash’s grandparents live in Florida, so he had seen the Caribbean. And Rainy’s parents took her to Disneyland a couple of years ago, and they all went over to the beach. But me? No way. This is the problem with having a mother who owns her own hardware store and a father who owns his own bookstore. Most people would think it is a great situation, because they are the bosses so theoretically they can ditch work any time they want. But “theoretically” is the operative word here. Both of them are working maniacs and never want to close their shops because then they would lose business. Result: I am half grown up before I get to see the ocean.

But that is all in the past. I am pleased to announce that I have now not only seen the Pacific Ocean, I have touched it, too. And it is C-O-L-D. Monterey is only a couple of hours south of San Francisco, which is pretty far north on the California coast. Rainy says the water is a lot warmer down in Southern California where Disneyland is. I am here to tell you that the Monterey Bay is cold enough to make your toes ache. Dad took us over to Point Lobos, which is way cool, and I am not just talking about the temperature.

We saw things there that I had barely heard of. In the distance, we saw the dark heads of harbor seals rising and falling with the waves. There were whole underwater forests of kelp, this weird sea plant that looks like it came from some other planet, seriously. Here is my dad holding the biggest piece we found, which we later used for a jump rope. That thing in the picture next to him is an anemone, which I think looks even more alien than kelp. If you touch an anemone, it will close up and look drab and ugly. They live in the tide pools where the waves are always trying to tear them loose from the rocks.

When I said it looked to me like anemones live a pretty tough life, Rainy got this sort of wingnut look on her face and said, “The way anemones live their lives is noble. I would be proud to emulate an anemone, looking magical even while holding on for dear life.”

I figured “emulate” must mean something like put an amulet around its neck, if you could find its neck. But later, Dad told me it means “imitate.” Rainy would be proud to imitate an anemone? Too much excitement at the beach, in my humble opinion. Maybe Dad thought so, too, because after that he took us to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where we saw even more weird ocean stuff, but indoors, where Rainy got a little calmer.

So, I started this entry thinking that I would tell you all about the meeting with the scientists at MBARI, which was also exciting, but then I got sidetracked by the ocean. I will make a separate entry about the meeting later tonight. But just to give you a little flavor of what’s coming, the bad news is there won’t be robots on the icebreaker after all. The good news is there’s so much other totally excellent stuff that I’m pretty sure we won’t miss the robots at all. Plus, I am going to be in the bird survey! Do not laugh. It is totally awesome.


Rana Sylvatica
24 February 2008, Finney @ 12:56 pm

Things are really starting to heat up now! Ash and Rainy and I are traveling all the way to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California tomorrow for a big meeting of all the Antarctic expedition members. We will get the answers to some of our questions, of which we have about a bzillion. Rainy is anxious to meet the biologists, especially since some of them are girls. Wait. Women. Ash is anxious to meet these two guys who are planning to take pictures of icebergs from the air using remote controlled model airplanes. I am totally not joking.

I want to meet everybody. They all sound way cool. But I especially want to meet the guys who are working on the underwater robots. That’s right. We are going to have robots on the ship, and they are going to go underwater. Maybe we will even get to see them on Tuesday or Wednesday. Plus, we are going to stay at this really great hotel right on the beach. Yessss!

However, getting back to the story of how we got here…

So. The apparently dead frog thawed out during the night and started croaking like the Duck from Planet X and about gave me a heart attack. When morning came, I looked over at the windowsill and saw the frog hopping and stretching in the bug jar. Every now and then, it put its front feet against the glass and said, “Grack,” as if it were totally confused, which I suppose it was. I mean, it went to sleep in the forest on a snowy day, and it woke up on some kid’s windowsill in a bird’s nest.

It was still really early, and nobody else was up. So I got dressed and went out to the garage in search of Roxy’s old aquarium, which had once held a really dumb goldfish that accidentally killed itself by jumping out of the water and landing on the floor, where Doofus ate it. I took the aquarium outside and shoveled in some dirt and leaves from the garden, enough to cover the bottom a couple of inches deep. This I had to do in a big hurry because it had snowed a little in the night, and I was thinking so much about the frog that I forgot to put my shoes and socks on.

Hopping around on one foot and then the other, I brought the aquarium in and set it on the kitchen table. I needed a bowl deep enough to hold some water, but not so deep that the frog could drown in it. One of the weirdest things I know about frogs is that when they are baby tadpoles, they have gills and can breathe underwater. But when they are grown-ups, they stop having gills and start needing to breathe regular air.

Photo © by
James Dowling-Healey,
this guy I know

Now, let me say right here that Mom hates it when I use her kitchen stuff for experiments. Luckily, she is trying to save the planet single-handedly, so she never throws anything away. This includes plastic things which, in the store, hold stuff like salsa, or cheese dip, or olives; but which, in our house, hold stuff like one leftover lamb chop or two spoonfuls of putrid sauerkraut. Which is sort of OT, but does mean there was a stack of not-too-deep plastic containers in the cupboard, one of which I grabbed and filled with warm water for the frog’s new clubhouse. Then I went to my bedroom to get the frog.

By the time I got back, Roxy was peering over the edge of the kitchen table with a puzzled frown.

“Gib. Gib! Why did you put dirt in my quarimum, huh? Why is there a little thing of water in there, huh? What’re you gonna put in there, huh?”

“Look what I’ve got,” I said. I held the jar up for her to see.

“A froggy!” she said, clapping her hands and jumping up and down. A second later, though, her smile disappeared and a shadow crossed her face. “Wait a minute, is that the dead one?”

“Yep,” I said as I opened the lid and dropped the frog into the aquarium.

“Gi-i-i-b, don’t trick me! That’s mean!”

“I’m not tricking you. We thought he was dead, but I guess he wasn’t. He thawed out in the night, and now he’s good as new.”

“Really?” said Roxy, scooting up for a closer look.

“Grack, grack,” said the frog.

Doofus rushed in, skidding across the floor. “Rrrf, rrrf!” he barked.

“Oh!” cried Roxy, jumping up and down again. “I know what to name him! His name is Donald. Donald Duck Frog! Hi, Donald.”

While Roxy was busy naming the frog, I went into Dad’s den and dragged one of his books off the shelf, Palmer & Fowler’s Fieldbook of Natural History. It is huge and old, and Dad says it is sort of outdated now because of the Web. But I still like it because it’s full of pictures of every kind of plant and animal, and it’s still the easiest way to figure out the name of whatever you’re looking at.

I looked up “frog” in the index, and went to the start of the “Phylum Chordata, Class Amphibia” section. There were entries for about a bzillion kinds of toads and frogs from all over the world. There were spadefoots and peepers, bullfrogs and green frogs. The list went on and on. But Donald’s big eye patches and the stripe on his back helped narrow it down. Pretty soon, I had him nailed. Rana sylvatica, the common wood frog. According to the Fieldbook, only the male croaks, so Donald was a reasonable name, sort of. Also, “adults eat small animals of the forest floor.”

Not that I intended to keep him very long. Because when I went and looked up “wood frog” on the Web, I found out that what they mean by “small animals” is stuff like bugs and snails, which are hard to catch even in the summer, and dead ones won’t do. Sure, I had raised frogs before, but mostly while they were still tadpoles and would eat any old thing as long as it was green — pond algae, old lettuce, whatever. I’ve never kept one very long after it turns into an actual frog, because cripes, what do you feed them? We had to set Donald free. But if we did, for sure he would freeze again. So it looked like maybe we were going to kill him whether we wanted to or not. I can not describe how slimy this made me feel.

There was only one thing to do, and that was: call a meeting of the Three Musketeers.


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