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Remember that gull we rescued last week? After my husband took it to Native Animal Rescue here in Santa Cruz it was transferred up to International Bird Rescue's San Francisco Bay Area center in Fairfield. I e-mailed and asked how the gull was doing and whether I'd be able to witness its release back to the ocean. Yesterday I received this response:

Hi Allison,

This is Cheryl Reynolds, the Volunteer Coordinator for Bird Rescue. Thank you so much for rescuing the juvenile Western Gull and getting him into care at Native Animal Rescue. Hooks and fishing line can cause severe injuries but fortunately this guy is doing okay at this time. He/she had surgery yesterday to repair some of the damage the line caused to his leg and is being treated with antibiotics. He's not totally out of the woods yet but luckily gulls are pretty tough! I'm giving you his case number here at Bird Rescue #17-1887 but I will be happy to follow up with you on his progress. 
To answer your other questions.. We don't have a timeline yet on release, it depends on how he progresses. We don't usually send the birds back to Santa Cruz, we have so many young gulls we like to release as a group and in an appropriate location locally. 
If you would like to contribute to this birds care please go to our website at You can also sign up to receive our Photo of the Week and patient updates and also find us on Facebook. 
Thanks again for caring for this birds welfare. 
Kind regards,
We hadn't realized that the fishing line wrapped around the bird's leg had caused damage that would require surgery. This makes me doubly glad that we were able to rescue it from the surface of Monterey Bay before the injuries became more severe. It sounds like the prognosis is good for this juvenile western gull, and I hope it and several of its cohort can be returned to the skies and sea very soon.

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is currently hosting a satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project. Back in the fall, about 350 UC Santa Cruz students and community volunteers began crocheting creatures real and fanciful with yarn and other materials. Satellite reefs have been built all around the world, in this project that unites mathematics, marine biology, conservation, and a love of working with yarn.

Since this isn't my brainchild I'm not going to go into the background and philosophy of the Crochet Coral Reef project. Instead, I'm just going to show you some photos of the Santa Cruz satellite reef, and encourage you to come see it for yourself. If you happen not to be in the Santa Cruz area, you can click here to find other satellite reefs around the world. You may even want to start your own reef! Note that many satellite reefs are located quite far inland--Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota--so don't let your lack of a nearby ocean keep you from organizing and building your own reef.

Satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Some of the creatures on the reef are made of garbage or plastic, to remind viewers that the world's oceans continue to pay the price for human excesses. This jelly, below, has oral arms made from plastic grocery bags.

Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And see what familiar object was used for this crab's eyes?

Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

There are multiple species of octopus on this particular reef!

Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Detail of satellite reef of the Crochet Coral Reef project, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
18 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The reef will be on display through October 2017. If you're in the area before then, swing by and check it out!

I have now been concussed for six months. It has been a long half-year. My brain has done a fair bit of recovering, and at least the constant headache is gone. It still hurts when I overexert my brain and I'm still easily overwhelmed by visual and auditory stimuli but overall I feel that I'm getting better.

Over the past week I went through three days of comprehensive neuropsychological testing. The goal of the testing is to determine objectively how well my brain functions in various ways: memory, reasoning, sensory perception. Some of the tests were easy, while others were designed to be difficult or impossible even for people who aren't suffering from a traumatic brain injury.

First day of testing. The test itself began with a simple interview: What hand do I use to throw a ball? open a door? use scissors or a hammer? operate a computer mouse? The technician timed first how long it took to write my name with my dominant hand, and then with my non-dominant hand. The upshot of all this is that I'm mostly right-handed, with some tendencies towards ambidexterity. This didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.

There were several different memory tests, all of which I found extremely difficult. For the first test I was shown ~15 word pairs on a computer screen. The computer then showed a series of words and I had to record whether or not they were on the original list. Then I would be shown one of the words from the original 15 pairs and had to choose which word from a list was its pair. These word pairs returned to haunt me several times during the morning. As I worked through the other tests I was interrupted after a 20 minute interval to ask how many of the words I could remember; I was also given a second set of words and told to keep them separate from the first. Then I picked up where I had left off and worked for another 30 minutes before being quizzed on the word list. I was given a word and asked if it was on the first list, the second list, or neither. Yikes!

The tests all started easy and then got progressively more difficult. One of the first tests was shape recognition and matching. I was given a set of identical blocks, each with two solid white faces, two solid red faces, and two half-white and half-red faces divided along the diagonal. Then I had to look at red and white shapes in a notebook and recreate what I saw using the blocks. That was fun.

A slightly different test involved looking at patterns (say, a red triangle within a blue square within a red circle) with a chunk missing and choosing the piece that completes the image. The tricky thing about this test was that the options to choose from were all rotated out of position, so I had to be able to flip them around in my brain to see if they would fit. At first the missing chunks were easy to find, and then the images themselves and the missing pieces got more complicated. I had to guess on many of them.

One of the hardest parts of the day started out pretty innocuously. I was asked to repeat series of numbers (integers from 1-9) after having them read to me. Two numbers, three, four, five, it wasn't too difficult even when the string was ten digits long. Then the test started over, only with me having to repeat the sequences in reverse order. That was easy until the string was about six digits long, then it got exponentially more difficult. I'd repeat the sequence in my head as I heard it (5, 8, 2, 5, 9, 7, 4, 4, 2, 6, for example) but when I had to start from the end and work backwards I'd have no idea what the first numbers (8 and 5) were. For the last part of this test I had to take strings of numbers and recite them back in numerical order. This also started easily but got increasingly more difficult. The really strange thing about all of this was the manner in which my brain failed. The missing numbers simply weren't there. I'd remember the first several digits, then there would be nothing. I could have made up something but it would have been a random guess.

After 20 minutes of this I had to go back to the original memory test and list as many of the words as I could.

There was a section of verbal math problems. You know the type: "Jenny has 14 apples and gives two to each of her three younger brothers. How many apples does she have left?" And: "An item's original price in October is $150.00. In November the store discounts the price on the item by 10%. In December the store adds another discount of 25%. How much does the item cost on December 31?" I had to solve these entirely in my head, without writing anything down. Sounds easy enough, doesn't it? And it would have been, if my brain were working properly.

The other math problems were more fun. I got to dust off my old arithmetic and algebra skills and see if they still worked. How long has it been since you did long division by hand, or divided fractions, or solved problems such as: (x+2)(3x-14)=6? Or multiplied 6932.35 by 217.08? I mean, we can all do that, right? It just takes a little practice to remember how to do it. And I got to use pencil and paper, which helped a lot.

There was a standard vocabulary and spelling test. I think I nailed that part. There was also a list of common knowledge questions:

  • Who was the President of the U.S. during the Civil War?
  • On which continent would you find the Sahara Desert?
  • What is the capital of Italy?
  • Who was Catherine the Great?
  • At what temperature does water boil?
  • What is water made of?

and so on.

The most difficult part of the test was the last bit. This section evaluated my reasoning skills. I was given a keypad with the numbers 1 through 4 and told that I would be shown an image on the computer screen that would hint at one of the numbers. If I keyed in the right answer I'd hear a nice 'ping' and if I got it wrong I'd get a nasty 'blat'. There were seven subtests, each consisting of a series of images. The same reasoning worked for an entire subtest but not necessarily for any subsequent subtests. In other words, once I worked out the reasoning for subset #2, I couldn't automatically assume that it would work for subset #3. And there's no going back, so I didn't get to try multiple reasonings on any of the images I got wrong.

As usual the first subtests were pretty easy. I'd figure out the reasoning for one subtest and apply it for the first entry of the following subtest. If it didn't work I'd have to figure out something else to try. By the last two subtests I was randomly guessing. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what was going on with any of the images. Occasionally I'd get one right, but every time I tried to use the same reasoning on the next image it was wrong. It was extremely frustrating and made my head hurt. A lot. The psychologist told me he knew I was getting frustrated but reassured me that my failures were giving him useful information. I sure hope so.

Second day of testing. This was much easier and less taxing, although I don't know how well I did. Once again we started with a memory test. This time I was shown a drawing and asked to copy it on a separate sheet of paper, about the same size as the original. Then the original was taken away and I had to draw the thing from memory. This was much harder than it sounds. As in the memory test on the first day I had to try to draw the diagram from memory at 20 and 30-minute intervals.

There were several sensory perception tests on the second day. I was tested for bilateral sensitivity to touch on the backs of my hands: With my eyes closed I had to say whether or not I felt a touch on my left hand, my right, or both. There was a similar hearing test.

The most fun was a test to see whether or not I could tell if two rhythms were the same or different. I thought this was very interesting, because I realized that if two rhythmic patterns have the same beginning it's not easy to tell if they're different at the end. For example:

| | | ||| | | |

sounds more similar to | | | ||| | ||

than it does to || | ||| | | |

I had to stick my hand into a curtained box, and the tester put a wooden block into it. I had to determine what shape the block was, then use my other hand to point to the correct shape on a card. I did this with both hands.

A related test for shape recognition ended up being a lot harder than I thought it would be. I was blindfolded and a vertical wall was placed in front of me. There were shapes carved into the wall (I couldn't see them, of course) into which wooden blocks would fit. I was given a "tour" of the board with my right hand, and then told to find the blocks on the table in front of me and put each block into its correct shape using only that hand. The shapes I remember are square, circle, oval, star, triangle, large parallelogram, small parallelogram, half-moon, and trapezoid (I think, not sure about that one). I'd be interested to know how other people worked this puzzle. I did it by picking up a block and holding it in my hand, then using my fingers to find the shape on the board. I think some people might determine a shape on the board and then go hunting for the right block. I can't say that my way was the best, but I did eventually get all the blocks matched up correctly. It went faster with my left hand because I already had some familiarity with how the board was laid out. But I thought it would be a cake-walk when I got to use both hands, and it totally wasn't. Maybe it was too much sensory input at one time for my brain to make sense of.

After the board was put away I was allowed to remove the blindfold. Then I had to draw the board, including the shapes in their respective places. I don't think I did very well on this part.

The last test of the day was one of those T/F personality tests. I was instructed to answer the questions as they applied in the last month or so. There were several questions about drugs: Have I ever lost track of time due to drug use? Has my personality changed since I started using drugs? Have I used illicit or illegal drugs in the last six months? Has my drug use affected my relationships with friends and family? It wasn't hard to figure out what those questions were angling for.

Third day of testing. Today was the last day of the neuropsychological workup, and it was the easiest. It started with a casual interview, to provide a description of the accident and my early injuries. Then I took a long version of the T/F personality test. I had to answer only 360 of the 500+ questions, which was good because many of them were very unclear. I was finding it difficult to make sense of statements such as "I always regret never having done such-and-such when someone told me not to." Uhhhh. . .

Then we got the What It All Means debrief. Since I don't have the full written report yet I can't give you the long version, but the take-home message is that: (1) my verbal skills are still really good; (2) my incidental and working memory functions are average, probably less good than they should be; (3) I don't have any major deficits at this point but the ones I do have seem to result from injury to the left side of my brain.

One result I found interesting was this timed finger tapping test I did last week. I had to tap a digital counter with my index finger as many times as possible in 10 seconds. With my right hand I got 57 taps in 10 seconds, and with my left hand I did the same. Apparently right-handed people should be able to tap faster with their right hand. So either I'm sort of ambidextrous and my right hand isn't as dominant as it is in other right-handed people, or my right hand is somewhat impaired and should have tapped more than 57 times in 10 seconds. On the other hand, 57 taps in 10 seconds is pretty high for anybody with either hand. Given other indications of minor injury to the left side of my brain, a minor impairment on the right side of my body makes sense.

In terms of how to assist my brain in its recovery, the psychologist suggested continuing to do what I can, as long as it doesn't cause my head to hurt, then to respect my brain's limits. At this point overdoing it could set me back. In a nutshell, I continue to rest and not overexert myself.

With the analytical part of my left brain not quite up to speed, this afternoon I decided to exercise the artistic right side and made a little drawing:



Autumn along the California coast can be spectacular. With the cessation of northerly winds and coastal upwelling, ocean and air temperatures rise. September and October typically offer the sunniest days of the year. Summer tourists who shiver in their jackets in July might be surprised to know that in September the natives run around in shorts and flip-flops. The ocean itself tends to be calmer now, and combined with the end of the seasonal phytoplankton bloom presents some of the best conditions for SCUBA diving.

Without the onshore air flow that results from coastal upwelling, it can get quite warm here; it's not for nothing that the marine layer is called Nature's air-conditioning. Yesterday and today the afternoon air temperatures have been over 95°F right next to the ocean. That's too dang hot for my tastes. I miss the fog already. For those who dislike fog and complain about being cold all summer, though, these weeks of Indian summer must be heaven.

Unfortunately, the heat of Indian summer coincides with the driest part of California's dry season. Without a blast of cool, damp fog every week or so the landscape desiccates and fire becomes a daily threat. This year the fire season has been intense, with the Soberanes fire near Big Sur (started by an illegal campfire on 22 July 2016) having become the costliest fire to fight in U.S. history as well as other large fires scattered throughout the state. Cal Fire anticipates full containment of this fire in the next several days.

Closer to my neck of the woods, Cal Fire has another tough battle on their hands. Yesterday afternoon at about 15:40 I noticed a big plume of smoke rising straight up from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the northeast.

Smoke plume from the Loma fire at 15:41h. 26 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 15:41.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Because there was almost no wind at ground level the smoke rose straight up quite a way before dispersing laterally. It looked like a mushroom cloud of death.

The Loma Fire, as it is now called, is burning in rural Santa Clara County along the Loma Prieta Ridge. Fortunately this are is not heavily populated. I kept an eye on the smoke yesterday and took a series of photos from roughly the same spot on my deck.

Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 15:52. 26 September 2016
Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 15:52.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Smoke plume from Loma Fire at 16:06. 26 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 16:06.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 16:20. 26 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Smoke plume from the Loma Fire at 16:20.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

To escape the heat in the late afternoon and early evening yesterday we borrowed a friend's boat and went for a short cruise at dinnertime. The smoke in the sky did make for a very nice sunset.

Early evening sky to the west from the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor. 26 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Early evening sky to the west from the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong
The Crow's Nest restaurant at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, with the Loma Fire burning in the background. 26 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong
The Crow's Nest restaurant at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, with the Loma Fire burning in the background.
26 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

When we got home after dark last night we could see flames along the entire ridge. Wildfires always seem more menacing at night. When I got up this morning I could see that smoke from the fire had been blowing out over the ocean. This is fortunate for the people living in Santa Clara County.

A smoky sunrise, courtesy of the Loma Fire. 27 September 2016 © Allison J. Gong
A smoky sunrise, courtesy of the Loma Fire.
27 September 2016
© Allison J. Gong

As of 12:30 this afternoon, the latest update from Cal Fire reports that 1500 acres have burned and the fire is 5% contained. The weather is supposed to be cooler tomorrow, with a chance for some fog, which should help the firefighters. Indian summer may be lovely, but it comes with risks. Fire is scary stuff in the Golden State.

In addition to being the autumnal equinox, today also marks the four-month anniversary of the car accident that left me with bruises, some cracked/bruised ribs, and a concussion. All of the physical injuries have healed by now, except for some residual soreness when I push on the left side of my rib cage, but the concussion continues to be a pain in the head. While the overall trajectory is up, I still have bad days when I can't do much of anything. I feel like I have an invisible disability because I don't look sick or injured, but I'm definitely not functioning normally. For example, I can physically walk from the far end of any parking lot to the front door of a store, but having to negotiate walking through traffic and cars looking for parking might get me killed.

Headache: The headache has gotten much better in the past couple of weeks. I never was on anything but OTC pain meds and now I'm not taking anything on a daily basis. The headache has become more localized lately, and moves around. Usually when I'm aware of the headache it feels very concentrated through the top of my head. Sometimes it's concentrated around my temples, and sometimes it feels like a really tight band around the crown of my head. The constant dull ache has ebbed, though, and that's a good thing.

Now that I don't always have the headache I've been paying closer attention to what triggers it. This helps me avoid situations that I know will be headache-producing. Unfortunately, not all of the triggers can be avoided, or at least avoided without major inconvenience. For example:

  • Noise. Background noise remains extremely problematic for me. Any restaurant with a "lively" atmosphere or acoustically reflective surfaces will be hell. A social gathering in which multiple conversations are going on at the same time makes my head hurt. I don't think my brain is currently capable of distinguishing between background noise and sound that I'm supposed to pay attention to. It all gets overwhelming very quickly, and once my brain can't manage my head hurts.
  • Light. Light itself is not a headache trigger, but rapid shifts between light and dark definitely are. Strobe lights would be awful, and riding in a car at night is bad, too. The lights of cars, traffic signal lights, and lighted buildings on the side of the road--my head can't tolerate any of them. Even riding as a passenger with my eyes closed I can't keep from seeing the flashes between light and dark from behind my eyelids. Wearing dark sunglasses at night helps a bit but doesn't eliminate the problem. A similar thing happens in daylight when I'm riding in a car through alternating strips of sun and shade, as in a forest.
  • Mental activity. Having to concentrate for more than about 10 minutes at a time starts my head throbbing. This means not much work is getting done. No real science, either. I have started spending a couple of hours at the marine lab two or three days a week, just to get back into the swing of things. This week I've been cleaning things tanks, tables, and the little dishes I keep some of my animals in. In the process I've gotten nice and dirty, which makes me feel like I've accomplished something.

Cognitive deficits: In my nonconcussed state I have a pretty good sense of cardinal direction and elapsed time. These are still scrambled. From anywhere in the area I should be able to point to the ocean without thinking, but now I can't. I can navigate to places I know well, but getting any place new to me is a crap shoot. The same thing has happened with my sense of time, although that does seem to be improving a bit. I still have to use timers and clocks more frequently than I used to.

I still feel extremely slow and stupid. In writing and in speaking I often can't find the words that I know are there, and I can't explain things very well. I've asked friends--people who are used to conversing with me--if I seem slow to them when we're talking and they've all answered 'no,' so my own perception of how long it takes me to find words must be warped by my messed up sense of time. Or maybe they're just being kind to me.

The neurologist has told me that I shouldn't try to learn anything new while my brain recovers. To pass the time I've been knitting and listening to audiobooks. It would be nice to say that I've been doing housework while I can't do much else, but that would be a lie.

I've come to appreciate exactly how much concentration it takes to drive, and exactly how little attention most drivers pay to what's going on around them. There's a lot to keep track of--the general flow of traffic, pedestrians, cyclists, and distracted drivers in other cars. It drives me crazy to see drivers fiddling with radios or phones, or simply not paying attention. Any time a car makes an unexpected movement my heart jumps. I don't trust anybody on the road these days. The guy who hit us wasn't driving distracted, so far as we know, but now I know how little time it takes to get into a really bad accident even when you're not doing anything wrong. I no longer listen to anything while I'm driving, and I'm not driving any distance at all these days.

Executive function: Making decisions is incredibly difficult and painful. I can answer 'yes or no' questions better now than I could a month ago, which is a welcome improvement. I deal with the complexities of a dinner menu by ordering the first thing that catches my eye. If I put much more effort than that into the decision my head starts hurting. I've been telling people not to give me options other than 'yes' and 'no,' and it actually does help me cope.

In a similar fashion, prioritizing and multi-tasking are also difficult. I can just about manage a short string of consecutive activities if I tackle them one at a time. I've also gotten worse at knowing how long a given task will take, even if I've done it many times before. That's probably the wonked-out sense of time at work.

Psychological effects: These have improved, except for the stress of driving or even riding as a passenger in a car. I have minor panic attacks when something unexpected happens. It's much easier for me, psychologically and mentally, to ride with my eyes closed. I think this is a minor case of PTSD. For the most part I don't feel depressed but sometimes I think I'm not making much progress and that's a bummer. Patience is not one of my virtues, but I am trying to be patient with myself. On the days that I feel good I can get things accomplished, which makes it easy to overtax my brain and bring on the headache. I'm having to learn how to pace myself and not do too much at once. My brain seems to allow one excursion a day, and I'm honoring that restriction as much as I can.

So, I'm getting better but slowly. I still have a long way to go.

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