Flying & Asthma

The Flying Trilobite already receives a lot of pageviews due to a steady stream of people searching about being an asthmatic and flying (in an airplane, I presume). I thought it may be somewhat useful for me to therefore pen a post on the subject. The reason so many asthma-sufferers find this blog, I believe is because of the post I did of a drawing called, Asthma Incubus back in May of 2007.

If you are reading this blog for the first time, then welcome! Drop in for the asthma, stay for some paintings inspired by the awe of modern science. I am an artist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Please don't be frightened by the atheism. With atheism comes a healthy dose of skepticism, which you will need if you are suffering from asthma and don't know where to turn next. And anyway, the way I see it, when it comes to asthma relief, it just means instead of thanking god(s), I thank the fine scientists, pharmacists and chemists that have helped save more lives than prayer ever has.

Without skepticism someone may try to wave their hands over you or ask you to carry a small doll to cure your asthma, and while both could be entertaining, you and I both know it's hard to laugh when your lungs feel like they weigh 200 pounds and are made out of bags of rusty harmonicas.

So to begin: a caveat, a warning, a caution. I am an artist, not a medical respirologist. If you are looking for relief from your wheezy lungs, I strongly, mightily urge you to seek out a "Western" medically-trained respirologist and asthma clinic that keeps up on the latest advances in drugs to ease your lungs back into contributing members of your chest cavity. All I will share in this blog are anecdotes, individual stories about asthma, which is not how you should make a diagnosis! Medicines and remedies using double-blind, empirical and statistical trials are the ones to trust. Your respirologist will know which ones. I would also suggest checking out The Asthma Society of Canada for some up-to-date "'evidence-based', market-tested, " information on a regular basis.

Also to begin: some reassurance. I am a skeptic, and I will not try to sell you on the idea of water-pills, drinking urine, homeopathy, acupuncture, taking something just because it is "all-natural", or rearranging mythical chakras. If people seriously think they are helping you with this advice, I would strongly advise you to laugh, ask them to explain further, laugh some more, and do nothing they tell you to treat your asthma. If you are unsure of whether something someone suggests is pure nonsense or not, look for information that has piles of trustworthy studies behind it. To get you started, check out The Skeptic's Dictionary, particularly under "Alternative Medicine".

Oh, and get your children vaccinated too. It doesn't cause asthma, and will save their lives.

So, flying with asthma.

I have flown a number of times in my life so far, probably about 8 trips there and back again. As I said, I live in Toronto, and I have flown as far away as Aruba and Calgary, some 6 or 7 hours at a stretch. I have taken numerous shorter flights from Toronto to Montreal on a variety of airlines; Air Canada, Westjet and Porter, small planes and large ones.

My asthma has been diagnosed as "brittle", though that seemed to be a mistake; I have never fallen unconscious, even in my worst heart-pounding, suffocating moments. The most recent diagnosis was "moderate persistent asthma".

I haven't had any trouble flying with asthma. Whew! I know, all this preamble to find out you should be okay! Modern planes are pressurised so the air will not be thin as you fly up to 35'000 feet. A smaller plane, you may feel light-headed I guess. I have hiked in the Blue Mountains of Virginia before up to 4'000 feet, and I could still breathe and carry a 60 pound backpack.

Flying in a plane is exciting, and I am not jaded by the experience yet. So, sometimes I will need to take a puffer during the duration of the flight, but ask your doctor, or use your own experiences to see if this is necessary. For myself, I do not experience any sudden tightening of the chest, and I suspect I may take it in those moments larger as a psychological comfort. Perhaps the next time I fly I'll skip it if I can and see how it goes.

Most puffers are pressurised canisters, and there seem to be no negative effects on these in a plane. They do not explode or leak. Again, a pressurised cabin would give the canister a steady barometric pressure, and it will function as though you are on the ground. Take your medications in-flight with you in your carry-on luggage. Be comfortable, and relax. Get a window seat and enjoy the flight.

Currently, I take two medications to treat my asthma. One is preventative, and another for fast relief in moments of distress. A while ago, I switched away from a ventolin inhaler to Airomir, and I find I am sleeping better at night. I recommend it. (Ask your doctor!) My wife also informs me that I am not jerking my full body in my sleep anymore the way I used to once a night. There are a lot of options on the market, and you should work with your respirologist to see what works for you. A new medication, which I will not name, gave me some anxiety attacks when in combination with another puffer. My doc said it happens in a small samples of patients, about 5% of cases. So I switched.

I hope this has been helpful. Asthma is manageable, and sufferers have many options to help nowadays. If, however, I am wrong and there is some folklore I do not know about and people are finding this blog to learn about flapping their arms like Icarus and flying while suffering some asthmatic-like effects afterward, I have only one response.

"Umm."
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All original artwork on
The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details.

Artwork Mondays: reference & when not to use it

The revamp of my Dimetrodon-Sphinx concept from over a decade ago continues. The original drawing is below, and is part of a larger drawing seen here.

And below, is where I am so far.

To reach this stage, it was important to use a lot of reference. A part of this exercise was to see how much I may have improved. A lot of that improvement likely comes from using references, such as a model for the woman's body, and looking at other artists' representations of living dimetrodons for the back-half. As well, I used these two photos I took last summer when visiting the Royal Tyrrell Museum.












(Actually, I'm not sure that the one on the left in the left-hand photo is actually a dimetrodon; the head seems to be quite a different shape. A pelycosaur nonetheless. )

There is still some work to do. I thought I might be able to complete the drawing in time this week.

I struggled a lot with the hair. I tried tiaras, an Egyptian sphinx headdress, no hair, tight curls, messy hair whipping in the wind, and even the bob on the one in the original. Eventually I decided to go with slick wet hair, as I could be fun to paint this as a rainy scene.

The mouth and lips are way off, and will need some work, and I messed up the left hand. One of the ways many artists' check the progress of a composition or the realism if a piece, is to flip it:

This allows some mistakes to jump out, and gives the familiar pencil strokes a foreign eye, as a viewer will likely have for the first time they see it. Looking at the piece in the mirror is one way, and using Photoshop is another great way to try this technique. Remember though, that no face or body is perfectly symmetrical, not even Pac-Man's. (Look close, you'll see his left eye is 1 pixel closer to his nose than his right.) I think the Sphinx's hair could be more ropy and knotty.

Looking at the lone dimetrodon above, I can see there are about 24 of the long vertebra supporting the sail. My Sphinx's pretty back is not long enough to support quite that many, so here is a point where reference and I part company. Another is in the feet. When I was at the Royal Ontario Museum's Darwin exhibit recently, I was reminded of how fascinated I am by the irregular-looking toes of an iguana. And so, I abandoned the realism of a dimetrodon's no-doubt noble foot, in favour of the broken-looking toes of the green iguana. And to top it off, I didn't use a reference *gasp*.

This piece seems to evoke a night-time feel to me, and so I began roughing in some rocky shapes in the background, and darkening the sail to illustrate the translucency and rock silhouettes showing through. Last week, I spoke about the possibilities of camouflage. Now, I think any colouration choices would have to wait for me to paint the piece.

Will I add colour? It's at the right stage for it. A scan and print onto canvas-paper and I could apply my oils. There's some great tips on colouring and texturing using Photoshop in ImagineFX, a magazine I just picked up a couple of weeks ago. However I've spent longer on this drawing than I thought I would over the last few Artwork Mondays. Next week, it may be time to move onto something new.
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All original artwork on
The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details.

the boy on the back of the turtle

Brief Book Review of...
the boy on the back of the turtle:
Seeking God, Quince Marmalade and the Fabled Albatross on Darwin's Islands
by Paul Quarrington

The title immediately caught my eye, and well, you can't judge a book by its cover, but I am a very visual person.

I actually have a copy signed by the author that my wife bid on at a fundraiser here in Toronto, so that's a lot of fun. I had never read Paul Quarrington's work before (that I know of; now I am noticing his writing cropping up in front of me in magazines, since the name is distinctive). I also have a copy of his book, Storm Chasers.

I took this book with me on my trip to Alberta in July, and I whipped through it much faster than I usually do on vacation. Perhaps there is a subtle quality in the writing of a fellow Torontonian that made it feel like an especially rich conversation. And it was a conversation, since it made me laugh, and shake my head, and look forward to my time with it each evening or lazy afternoon.

The story is a biographical one, with the authour going on a trip to the Galapagos with his 7-year old daughter and 77-year old father. Mr. Quarrington immediately caught me with a high-falutin' opening paragraph that quickly tripped over some vulgarity on it's way to conclusion.

A lot of research into Darwin's life, and the history of the Galapagos (or 'Encantadas', Enchanted Isles) was poured engagingly into this book. Which is why the following had me whipping out my own pen to retort on the margins of the book:

"Whales are interesting. They are in a sense the largest example of Paley's hypothetical watch, because there are no clear evolutionary ancestors for them, no proto- or mini-whales. They seem to have been popped into the waters by the Almighty. " (p97)

What about pakicetus?! Ambulocetus? The ancestry of what evolved to modern whales is almost as clear as the horse, or our own primate ancestors and relatives. I flipped out, grabbed for a pen. (Cool skeleton re-created here.)

As my fervour abated, I flipped to the frontspiece of the book. Ahh. Published in 1997. That may explain it. On vacation and without easy internet access, I resolved to check when the amazing discoveries in Pakistan were published. It seems that in 1996, J. G. M. Thewissen, S. I. Madar, and S. T. Hussain published their work. It hardly may have been seeping into the consciousness of a Toronto writer by that point. The stellar Walking With Beasts t.v. series by the BBC had not yet aired.

But still. Although this was a footnote in a relaxed style, the book was well-researched and insightful. It was a bit of a shock to see the authour jump from no current evidence to the Almighty in the span of a footnote. It happens again later in the book, when he refers to "the unliklihood of complexity arising out of chance," (p175). However, you can't throw the whale out with the flood. (Or something. ) What a truly excellent book while I was on vacation looking at fossils! Part of the arc of this journey was to come to what Quarrington referred to as the Big Insight, and discover something meaningful in his family for his daughter, and perhaps about his father.

I think he did. The book leaves you with an intimate sense of travel, family, and how searching for self-discovery can be done in the outside world. I found the story to be a gripping one with how a person (perhaps agnostic), can search to be moved, and find it in the natural (not supernatural) world. I would recommend this book heartily to other members of the BrightsOnline, Atheist Blogroll and PaleoWebRing communites.

The rollicking history and natural history lessons of the Encantadas in Quarrington's "voice" make this a great book for people interested in science, family, or just curling up and relaxing.

All which is dead need not necessarily be forgotten...

Back from the Badlands


Burgess Shale at the
Royal Tyrrell Museum

The title of this entry is a paraphrase from H.P. Lovecraft's Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, "...all which is forgotten need not necessarily be dead..." I believe the reverse sentiment to be more accurate and powerful, especially in the face of organisms from the Cambrian.

Once I began to feel that my drawing skills were approaching a professional level, I have found the creatures from the Cambrian to the Permian to hold a special fascination. As I have said in previous posts, I get shiver down my back when beholding an organism so strange and unusual, that we as binocular primates can look at and comprehend. This love is not religious and not dogmatic; it is the evolved primate rush of understanding. And when the object of that understanding is a five-eyed Opabinia (above, playing in the sponges) from 505 million years ago, I marvel.

I do not know how much time I have to write this. Even now, I hear the scratching at the door...a very Lovecraftian anomalocarid lurks in the gloom...The horror of the fluttering flapping thing! Those eyes!
Heh.



Alright, enough glowy-eyed marvelling. The Royal Tyrrell Museum had enough pre-dinosaur fossils to keep me entertained for weeks. These photos are from their re-created chamber of Burgess Shale fauna, all 12 times life size. The room is dimly-lit, with spots, and the floor is partially transparent so you can see the trilobites trundling around the sea floor below you, competing with that poser-crustacean, marella.

The sounds of other patrons entering this room were a lot of fun. One couple, I would guess were in their seventies, were utterly fascinated. I noticed most people entering without reading about the Burgess Shale creatures on the information wall outside. Then they came in and encountered the truly strange.

In the photo above at right, you can see on the ocean floor a little mound with wings, wiwaxia. In Aquagenesis: the origin and evolution of life in the sea, author Richard Ellis says, "(wiwaxia) was not a snail, it was not an arthropod, it was not a worm. Like so many of the animals of the Burgess Shale, it was sui generis, and nothing like it has ever been seen again."

There is a beautifully to-scale recreation of a reef, in water that holds many people's gaze as they look at all the fish and cephalopods hidden in a natural setting. The folks at the Tyrrell have done a wonderful job of recreating the lushness of coral aquariums often found at the better zoos.








The Tyrrell Museum as a whole could easily take up a week of sight-seeing for an enthusiast. In my posts, I haven't even touched on the marvellous ceratopsians, the humid and lovely Cretaceous garden and waterfall, and so many other sights. The museum is heavy on information content, and does not dumb things down for the casual visitor. You can simply gawk, or you can read more and more to learn about the past. I desperately want to go back.

My apologies for the following if you are not a Lovecraft & Cthulhu fan.

The anomalocaris is once again scratching at the door...I do not know if this manuscript should be found, and if so, will the flapping mad thing chase down another trilobite? Will any being know of me in the fullness of time? The dark ages of oblivion yawn before me...

Dinosaurs as Art: Royal Tyrrell Museum

Back from the Badlands

The Royal Tyrrell Museum near Drumheller was more than I had imagined it to be. I have grown up with the Royal Ontario Museum; I took classes there as a child, and have been a frequent visitor since. The R.O.M. specialises in many areas, from ancient China & prehistoric animals to modern bats, & art. When constructing its new dinosaur gallery inside the Crystal, the R.O.M. would do well to pay attention to the wealth of uncompromising science and education about evolution at the Tyrrell. No concessions made to offending any religious sensibililties, just facts and supported theories, evidence in abundance, pure science.

The Tyrrell has a narrower, and richer focus. Prehistoric life. Evolution. The world of what happened before us.



Above, left: Golden Eagle claw with Sauronitholestes. Above, right: The sickle-claws of a dromeosaur, ornithomimus & velociraptor.

The pictures I am blogging today are from my favourite room; a Gallery, shrouded in darkness, reverent spotlights revealing the detail and majesty of the fossils. Ornate gold frames, in the baroque-style, encased the larger specimens. Simple North-Renaissance black frames with black-velvet mats added subtle lushness to the sophisticated evolved claws, teeth and feet of swift-moving dinosaurs.

Above, an Albertosaurus caught in a dramatic rigor mortis pose.

A struthiomimus.

The majestic Tyrannosaurus. Mounted without frames or hyperbole.


Perhaps this room appeals to me so much because of my Fine Art background. When I oil paint, I begin on a black or dark background, adding paint and the figures emerge from the darkness, much as this room brought to life. Bravo and thank you to the curator.

I believe one of the greatest experiences of my life was first entering this room. Seeing the magnificent creatures of the past I have loved so much, through the lense of the human art world was sublime, and I felt the rush of the scientifically-numinous.

Dinosaur Provincial Park

Back from the Badlands
After our visit to the Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum, my hunger for more fossils grew. I wanted to see bigger ones, jutting out of rock. I'd heard about Dinosaur Provincial Park even as a kid, (didn't the Polka Dot Door do an episode once?) I wen hoping to see a parasaurolophus skull grinning out of the sandy matrix.

It was a long and beautiful drive out from Calgary. All of the sudden, the lightly rolling hills drop away, and we were in the Badlands proper.


We'd just made it, and hopped on board the 24-seater painted schoolbus, and our guide Eric sprayed misty water on us, claiming it was air conditioning.

He drove out to one of his two favourite spots, and as we got off the bus, he pointed out a femur in the dirt parking spot. It seemed so staged just laying there right where he parked the bus. Boy, was I wrong! We all sat down on some banana-coloured pieces of foam. There was a brief group lesson, everyone looking at small fossils of the kind we were likely to see. Crocodile teeth, scutes from crocodiles or euplocephalosaurus, herbivore teeth, femurs and a great many more.

We swore the One Finger Oath, and were shown how to do the lick-test to identify fossil bone. If you lick your finger, and press it hard against a suspected fossil, the tiny pores in the stony bone will create suction. We walked a few more paces, and the fossils were literally littering the ground underfoot. The picture at left shows a breathtaking lichen encrusted stone sitting on shattered manganese. The stone is likely a fossil, but it was so pretty I didn't lick my finger to test it out.

Our guide Eric was terrific. He spent a lot of time with the children, who eagerly tried to show off to him what they had found in a constant stream. Finding a large shattered femur, bulbous and amazing, I wanted to show off to him too, and grabbed his attention for a few moments. As I'd pass by, wandering on our little exploratory hill, I heard him say one of my favourite phrases for a scientist; "Wow. I don't know what that is, but I'm gonna have to find out". He said it more than once. This is education, kids.

This was one of the most incredibly exalting experiences I've ever had, just exploring this hill in a tiny section of the park. At right is another exposed femur, possibly some kind of hadrosaur. Could it be the parasaurolophus I had sought? It could. Nearby was a covered, partially-excavated spine and ribcage for our viewing pleasure.

Dinosaur Provincial Park is also famous for its centrosaurus beds. Centrosaurus, a ceratopsian with a very pretty head-shield can be found in abundance.

The park is an offshoot of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and more excavated wonders awaited us inside. The displays were heavy on information, and uncompromisingly scientific. Exhausted, the day only half gone by, it was the morning of a lifetime. The thrill of amateur, touristic discovery was rewarding and left me flush with wonder.

Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum

Back From the Badlands

While staying at a gorgeous cabin with an amazing view near Pincher Creek, Alberta, this Ontario-born blogger got to see a local treat. Spying an ad in a five year old tourist-attraction booklet, we called ahead to see if the Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum was still open for business. It boasted Canada's largest collection of cephalopods. I just had to go.

On the way there, we speculated what it would be like. It sounded like a small collection, and I wondered if it would be in someone's living room. I was wrong. At the time we arrived we were the only visitors. And we stumbled into an insidious Garden Gnome Invasion. They were everywhere! My heart raced at the thought of seeing fossilized remains of early gnominids. Painting ideas were coming to mind.

The gentlemen and collector greeted us out in the winding, tree-lined front yard, obviously in league with the garden gnomes all around. Being from Toronto, it's easy to forget how large these rural Alberta properties are. We did not head for his living room; we headed to a building behind the house. The gnomes followed, I'm sure of it. Waiting to pounce.

The treaty the owner had with the gnomes was still holding. They did not enter.

Once inside, it was clear the declaration of "largest cephalopod collection in Canada" was no idle boast. There were tons of them! Check out the ammolite specimen above. Ammolite is the semi-precious "stone" interior of ancient ammonites, like mother-of-pearl, but sometimes with startling red tones shot throughout. The owner gave us a bit of information, then sat down at a desk and let us look. Each glass case held a myriad of early life forms or minerals, all hand labelled with a description and location.

At left is a pretty geode, larger than your fist. Looks like marshmallow, doesn't it?

Mmmmm....tasty geode....

I love minerals like this. The little 'hairs' on the puffball-looking formation are so tiny, it challenges the eye to pick them out.

There were shark's teeth, plant fossils, fish fossils, and enough coprolite to keep my five year old nephew entertained (at least after we told him it's dinosaur poop).

The collection is well worth the drive out of the way for any fossil enthusiast or person looking for a spot to take the family. It is a private collection however, and I would strongly recommend asking permission before taking photos, as I have done. It's polite. Rural Alberta has a bit of a reputation for being conservative, at least with Ontarians, and it was nice to see an entire museum devoted to fossils instead of fundamentalism.

Of course there are abundant trilobite fossils, even if they were outnumbered by the ancient predatory cephalopods. Here is Mr. Jumbo, a whopper of a fossil about 60 cm long. This beautiful trilobite is easily more than a match for the gnomes outside, and no wonder they did not enter the building. Is that some sort of iron-rich mineral giving it a rusty appearance? I wonder. A little sea scorpion and ammonite sit submissively beneath the pygidium of this prehistoric royalty.

There are a few tiny fossils and mineral jewellry for purchase, nothing as grand as what's in the collection. I bought a nice little brachiopod, and left the Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum with my appetite for prehistoric wonder whetted for more.

We left the militant gnomes behind.

Back from the Badlands

I'm back from my family holiday in Alberta. The land was so starkly different from Ontario, I simply gawked out of my window for much of my trip. Mountains gliding across the distant horizons. Electric yellow-green canola fields commanding the eye. Gorgeous white windmills silently thrumming in the fields, often lined up to catch an invisble corridor of kinetic power for kilometers at a time.

Every once in a while, the land sloping sharply downward through a layered cake of every shade of beige and rust toward a riverbed that may or may not have water at the bottom. And may or may not contain fossils sprinkled throughout.

I have a lot I wish to blog about the trip. A very warm thanks to my travelling companions, and to our gracious hosts, my wife's cousins' and aunt & uncle, for all the fun and more travelling than was reasonable to indulge this paleo-nerd in looking for things millions of years old.

Over the next few weeks, likely topics I will blog include: