Quarter Horse and Wild Bird Forge Unlikely Friendship

August 7, 2009

Recent triple-digit temperatures have had a strange affect on the fauna inhabiting the pasture outside my office window. Unlike our suburban home, our office and warehouse occupy a semi-rural lot spanning a couple of acres. Several years back, my husband committed bribery when he told me I could get a horse if I would leave my teaching career to run our air conditioning company. Having longed for a horse since I was ten, I quickly caved. I took on the role of office manager and soon afterwards adopted Cisco, an eighteen-year-old rescue horse.

Theodore, our Sicilian donkey, was an afterthought. Horses are sociable animals which should not be kept alone and a bit of research revealed that a donkey would make an economical, low-maintenance companion. Four-year-old Theodore swaggers about the pasture like a gang member trespassing on some rival’s turf. At the same time, he has his soft side. If I ask him for a “donkey hug” (you ask a donkey, you don’t tell!), he’ll walk over and rest his extraordinarily heavy head upon my shoulder.

As the summer temperatures have soared, Cisco, the horse, and Theodore have been spending less time grazing side by side in the pasture, as the heat has driven them to pass most of the day beneath two widely separated shade trees.

The other day I looked out my window to see that Cisco had left the shelter of his tree to graze awhile on the sun-scorched grass and that he had acquired a new companion — a small, nondescript bird. The bird followed Cisco everywhere he went, hopping when the horse walked, stopping when the horse stopped. It had to be a coincidence, I told myself as I went back to work.

Fifteen minutes later, I looked out the window again. The horse and the bird were still together. Another thirty minutes went by and I looked again. The bird was still sticking close to his newfound thousand-pound friend. Occasionally the horse would walk away without the bird realizing it. Moments later the bird would crane his neck, turn his head to locate the horse, and hurry after him.

Eventually I figured out the source of this unlikely relationship. The sun was beating down upon the pasture and the bird was using the horse for shade. He was not so much following Cisco around as he was taking pains to remain in Cisco’s shadow.

Later, when Theodore ventured out from the shade of his tree, another bird tried to take advantage of his shadow, but the donkey would have none of it. Every time the bird got too close, Theodore swiped at him with his famous, dangerous sidekick. Not on my turf, Buddy. The bird soon gave up and flew away.

In this month’s issue of National Geographic, there’s an article about an astronomer, Roger Angel, who wants to launch trillions of thinner-than-tissue silicon nitride disks into space where they will, together, shade a section of the earth to counteract the effects of global warming.

If Angel has his way, maybe we should name the manmade silicon constellation Pegasus – the flying horse which shades us from the sun.

Make Mine a Double – When It Comes to Swine Flu Two Ounces of Prevention May Be Worth a Pound of Cure

August 6, 2009

With U.S. health officials predicting that up to forty-percent of Americans may become infected with the Swine Flu over the next two years , ACU Air plans to pay for swine flu shots for its employees and their school age children. This will serve the dual purpose of reducing absenteeism during the flu season and will prevent any of our service technicians from unknowingly carrying the virus into customers’ homes.

Immunization against the H1N1 cocktail of human, avian, and pig influenza strains may require two vaccinations. Consequently, ACU Air employees are preparing to roll up their sleeves not once but twice , just as soon as the vaccine hits the streets – most likely sometime in October. The dire forty-percent prediction recently quoted in front page headlines throughout the United States is based on a worse case scenario in which the vaccine is either not ready in time or in which a national vaccine campaign proves unsuccessful. We encourage other employers to pay for their employees’ and their employees’ children’s vaccines so that the forty-percent prediction does not become reality.

Some people have been wondering whether the mechanical air cleaners and UV disinfectant systems ACU Air sells and installs will help to protect their homes and families against H1N1. Not really. The flu virus is spread primarily through close contact with an infected person, especially when that person coughs or sneezes. You can also pick it up by touching an object that has the flu virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. Your best line of defense is to keep your distance from people you know to be infected and to engage in frequent, good old-fashioned hand washing. While it is possible that the virus may spread through an air conditioning system that frequently recycles air in a crowded, confined space (such as the cabin of a plane), the virus is unlikely to survive the journey and be spread through your residential air conditioning and heating system.

We recommend mechanical air cleaners and UV disinfectant systems for removing airborne allergens and for killing mold spores, rather than to halt the spread of infectious diseases in the home. Save your money and spend it on liquid hand soap and hand sanitizers and, of course, the H1N1 vaccine as soon as it becomes available.

Viewing the World Through Green-Colored Glasses

August 2, 2009

In the novel, The Wizard of Oz, everyone was required to don a pair of green tinted glasses before entering Emerald City.

“I am the Guardian of the Gates, and since you demand to see the Great Oz I must take you to his Palace. But first you must put on the spectacles”…. He opened the big box, and Dorothy saw that it was filled with spectacles of every size and shape. All of them had green glasses in them. The Guardian of the Gates found a pair that would just fit Dorothy and put them over her eyes. There were two golden bands fastened to them that passed around the back of her head, where they were locked together by a little key that was at the end of a chain the Guardian of the Gates wore around his neck. When they were on, Dorothy could not take them off had she wished, but of course she did not wish to be blinded by the glare of the Emerald City, so she said nothing.
– L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

I wonder whether some of our federal government’s green initiatives aren’t like those green glasses visitors were required to wear inside the Emerald City.

One of our work trucks qualifies for what has turned out to be the most popular section of the stimulus package, Cash for Clunkers. I would hardly call the shiny white one-ton pickup which carries air conditioning units and furnaces anywhere and everywhere we ask it to go a clunker. Still the $4,500 credit towards a new vehicle would be far more than we could get for the truck if we sold it. Should we turn it in?

I hesitated to participate in this program, in part, because of my irrational attachment to the cars and trucks I have driven for any length of time. It would make me sad to turn in this truck, which has and continues to serve us so faithfully, to be destroyed. In her article “U-Turn in Cash for Clunkers Causing Whiplash” for The New York Times (August 2, 2009), reporter Katharine Q. Seelye described what happens to the vehicles people turn in. “Nick Clites… took a reporter through the process as he prepped a 1988 BMW 535iS, with 214,000 miles on the odometer, for its death. He drained the oil, then donned a silky blue protective suit, goggles and gloves and poured a sodium silicate solution into the engine. He revved the car, and within a few seconds, the solution hardened, the engine seized up and was kaput. Wreckers were called to pick up the car, remove the spoiled engine and crush the car.”

Irrational attachments aside, I began to question the environmental wisdom of destroying so-called clunkers, many of which may still have quite a few years of life and service left in them. For each car that’s reduced to salvage, a manufacturer gets to sell a brand new car. Would the total amount of extra gas that clunker would have used before it died a natural death (compared to the gas used by a new vehicle with better mileage) been anywhere near as much as the amount of energy expended and greenhouse gases release in the mining and transporting of the resources required to build the car, the manufacturing of the car itself, and the transport of that car to its point of sale? I doubt it.

Furthermore, people who owe nothing on the clunkers they are turning in now find themselves deep in debt on their new cars. Some of these people may have been able to purchased a used car for cash or for a much smaller loan but the temptation to purchase a new car or otherwise lose the ‘free money’ being offered for their clunker was too great to resist. The sad irony in all of this is that dealers may have already accepted more clunkers than the funds allocated by the government will cover. To protect themselves, many dealers have had buyers of new cars under the program sign contracts stating that if the government does not come through with the money for the clunker, the buyer will pay the difference. Want your clunker back? It’s too late. The sodium silicate will have already done its job. You now owe the dealer another $3,500 to $4,500. Have we gone from sub-prime mortgages to sub-prime auto loans?

I am troubled in the same way by the $1,500 tax credit being offered for the purchase an installation of high energy air conditioning systems. To qualify for this credit, the new cooling system must have a SEER rating of 16. To achieve this, the homeowner is not looking at simply replacing one piece of equipment — maybe one which is leaking refrigerant or has locked up or gone to ground and cannot be repaired. No, to qualify for the tax credit, the homeowner will need to replace the entire system – the condensing unit, the evaporator coil, and the furnace – as a two stage furnace is required to achieve the minimum SEER. A new plenum will probably be required as well. There is no doubt that the high efficiency system will use far less energy than the system being replaced. But if all or even some of the equipment being discarded was still functioning properly at the time it was disposed of, will with the energy savings achieved by operating the new system ever make up for the energy that was used to mine the metals, manufacturer the new equipment, and transport it to its point of sale?

Will the earth and its atmosphere benefit in the long run from the auto rebates and ac tax credits? There’s no question the manufacturers and dealers will. Maybe the green they’re seeing isn’t the green of mother earth but the green of cold cash.

Towards the end of The Wizard of Oz , the wizard himself tells Dorothy, “I ordered them to build this City, and my Palace and… then I thought, as the country was so green and beautiful, I would call it the Emerald City; and to make the name fit better I put green spectacles on all the people, so that everything they saw was green.”

“But isn’t everything here green?” asked Dorothy.

“No more than in any other city,” replied Oz; “but when you wear green spectacles, why of course everything you see looks green to you.”


August 1, 2009

After a long drought and two months of triple digit heat, everyone in the Houston area yesterday exclaimed on their cell phones and in text messages, with a joy normally reserved for announcing the birth of a baby or a winning lottery ticket, “It’s raining here! Is it raining where you are?” Yes! We had all won the weather lottery.

The world outside my window is once again green — at least those trees and shrubs which survived the first two months of summer.

For me there is nothing more boring than a string of clear, sunny days. (Okay, maybe a presidential speech simulcast on a dozen stations). Some days I just want to curl up with a good book or watch a DVD or bake cookies. If the sun is shining outdoors, I feel guilty about staying inside to indulge in such frivolous pleasures. A rainy day offers me the perfect excuse. “Of course I would be outside weeding what’s left of my yard or washing my car or walking my dog but…”

This morning, following yesterday’s showers, it was so humid outside we woke up in a submarine world. Condensation coated every single window so that we looked out at the fresh, green yard through a thick film of water. I hummed “We all live in a yellow submarine…” as I snapped on my dogs’ leashes and stepped out into the wild, wet world.

The Mother of All Summers

July 29, 2009

The Houston radio stations are calling this The Mother of All Summers and with good cause. The local temperatures hit the triple digits in early June and have pretty much stayed there ever since. The air conditioning calls have been coming in steady and rapid as machine gun fire.

Pete and Sosa, our guard dogs, are now inside the office soaking up the air conditioning. Even though they have a pond to cool off in, it seems too cruel to keep them outdoors when we’re in the business of keeping people cool. Meanwhile, our service technicians, who brave hundred-and-twenty degree attics daily, complain that the dogs are receiving better treatment than they are!