28 December 2012

Calling Birds

So today is the fourth day of Christmas, and my house is supposed to be piled with four partridges and concomitant pear trees, six turtle doves (two every day since the second day), six french hens (two days @ three each), and now the addition of four calling birds.

I have no idea what a calling bird might be; I don't think it's referring to those girls in call centres who try to sell you on their latest cellular phone plan. (Pardon me, I have call centres on my mind. I just watched my Christmas DVD, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", which prominently features a call centre in its plot line. Love that movie - a whole flock of über-talented veteran British actors strutting their stuff, being funny and poignant and romantic and oh-so-very English, in India, no less - what's not to like?).

Okay, calling birds. I just googled it, and found out that in the song, "calling bird" is a corruption of the English "colly bird", which comes from "coaly bird", i.e. a plain old blackbird. Now, European blackbirds are songbirds - so, in a sense, they are "calling" birds.

Photo credit: Malene Thyssen, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Malene

It's one of the things I miss about Europe, the sound of birdsong. Here in Western Canada we have lots of noisy birds alright (don't get me started on the racket they make at 4:00 AM on a summer's morning when I'm trying to sleep!) but they don't sing. They chirp, and tweet (with their throats and beaks, not their smartphones), and cuckoo and caw and trill and make lots of other delightful birdy noises, but I have yet to hear the kind of tune that a blackbird will sing on a dusky summer's evening sitting in the tree outside your window. Blackbirds warble, in ever-varying tunes; they really sing.

So that's the kind of calling bird that one's true love is supposed to hand over, in multiples of four, every day from now until Twelfth Night, by which time one will have a full three dozen of the critters. Which, I suppose, will make the filling for one-and-a-half Sing-a-Song-of-Sixpence Pies, which are meant to contain four-and-twenty blackbirds each. And here's another mystery: if they were baked in the pie, how on earth are they still capable of singing once the pie is cut open?

Life, the Universe, and Calling Birds. Happy Fourth Day of Christmas!

26 December 2012

The Second Day of Christmas

It's the second day of Christmas. I believe that calls for Two Turtle Doves. And yesterday, it was a Partridge. In a Pear Tree. Why a pear tree, one wonders? (Apart from the alliteration, of course. But then, why isn't it a quetzal in a quince tree, huh?) Partridges. Hmm. There's Mr Partridge in "Tom Jones" (the book, not the singer), who is accused of being Tom's father. He's the sort of chap who'd be quite liable to sit around in pear trees, being an odd sort of bird, and hungry half the time. But I don't think that's the Partridge the song is talking about.

Today also happens to be St Stephen's Day. You know, the one that Good-King-Wenceslas-looked-out-on-the-feast-of. Stephen, as you no doubt are fully aware, was the first Christian martyr; he got stoned to death because he had the temerity to be a do-gooder who handed out food and such-like to poor people on account of his strong faith in something other than what the establishment wanted him to have faith in, which was principally their authority and the bounden duty of everyone to acknowledge said authority as the be-all and end-all of life. Stephen wouldn't have none of it; he insisted on believing what he believed and carrying on with his do-goodery. And the powers-that-be didn't like that. So they decided to do away with him (silly them). St Stephen is rather a cool character, because he wasn't really all that heroic - he was just a kind, gentle man who refused to play ball with the bullies.

So I suppose the Turtle Doves are kind of apt for today's true love's gift, being the usual symbol of innocence and gentleness and so on - just like St Stephen himself.

Next up: Three French Hens, and the feast day of St John the Evangelist (St John the Baptist's Day being, of course, the summer solstice counterpoint to Christmas, celebrated on June 24th. If you listen carefully on that night, you can hear the animals speak in human language. Ditto for Christmas Eve, I think. But seeing as we've missed that opportunity for this year, we'll have to wait for Saint-Jean-Baptiste 2013 - there's always another opportunity, thankfully.).

And none of that has anything to do with Steve, who is named that just because "Steve is a nice name" (as you will know if you've ever watched "Over the Hedge").

Life, the Universe, and the Twelve Days of Christmas. Happy St Stephen's Day!

24 December 2012

Peace On Earth

A miracle occurred: both our cats were sitting on back of the same couch, within a few inches of each other, without hissing at, batting, or chasing the other. Peace on earth, goodwill to cats! It must be Christmas.

Oh, pardon me - am I not being politically correct here? Okay, let me rephrase that: It must be The Holidays. Wait - which ones? Easter? Or Victoria Day? Maybe Valentine's - love and romance in the air... Pfffft. That just doesn't cut it.

You see, I'm talking about Christmas here. Not wimpy, wishy-washy, generic culturally neutered "holidays". I celebrate Christmas, the Christian feast, as my family has done for I-don't-know-how-many generations. Not only that, I'm fully aware and appreciative of the fact that a great many of its traditions that I hold dear have their origins in the pagan culture of my long-ago Germanic ancestors. I'm quite sure that the Christmas tree, for example, started out as some kind of fertility symbol: in the darkest time of the year people brought the evergreen tree into the house, hung apples and other gifts onto its boughs, and lit candles to show that the light would, indeed, return, and trees would once again bear leaf and fruit. (That's my own theory; I don't have any actual historic information to back this up - but it just makes sense to me, you know?) Christmas is deeply rooted in traditions of my faith, of my culture, of what generations upon generations of those who have gone before celebrated in similar or else very different ways.

I celebrate Christmas, not Hanukkah (as I'm not Jewish, more's the pity), or Kwanzaa (being of a rather pale complexion), or any other of the wonderful feasts that are being celebrated at this time of year by others. There is no disrespect to other cultures, other traditions, other faiths, in wishing someone a Merry Christmas. If that's what you celebrate, of course. If your biggest holiday is Ramadan, then I wish you a very happy one of those, indeed, and I hope you enjoy your traditions as much as I revel in mine. And I would love to hear what it means to you, and what the traditions that go with it are meant to symbolize.

You see, I don't know anything about Ramadan, or about Kwanzaa, and only a little bit about Hanukkah. But I do know a lot about Christmas, and I love everything it stands for. It's no accident that we celebrate this holiday right around the time of Winter Solstice. The message of the birth of the Christ Child fits extremely well into that setting: at the darkest time of year, in the darkest hour of humanity, light came. Just one tiny speck of light, just one tiny human infant - but it turned the tide. No longer is the darkness paramount, but the light once again returns. Light, and peace.

Peace on earth, goodwill to men - or, in other words, human beings actually practising peacefulness towards each other, rather than engaging in the malevolence that so often wants to assert itself in our dealings with others, particularly those of another complexion, faith or culture. That's what Christmas is about.

And today, even two black cats, with seven legs between them, were able to share the back of the couch in a modicum of peacefulness.

Life, the Universe, and Peace on Earth. Merry Christmas!

20 December 2012

It's Grimm

 Google tells me that today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Brothers' Grimm "Children's and Household Tales". Wonderful. Thank you, Google!

I've always loved Grimm's fairytales. They actually don't have a lot of fairies in them, definitely none of the Tinkerbell kind. Tink is an English invention of the early 1900's; the Brits, for all their stiff upper lip and what-not, are an eminently sentimental lot. The Grimms, on the other hand, even though their stories are the prime example of the German Romantic period, are, in fact, rather grim. There's romantic, and there's Romantic (and then there's RRRRROMANTIC, as in, the Marianne-Dashwood-Be-Still-My-Heart variety, but that's a topic for another post).

The Grimm's fairytales, as you probably know, weren't actually children's stories to start with. In fact, the term "fairytale" is rather misleading; a better word would probably be "folktale". Because that's what they were. Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm didn't write these stories, as in, made them up, they just wrote them down. Some of the ones in my fat complete edition (844 pages, 210 tales) are written in dialect, low German, presumably just as they came from the mouth of the storyteller. They are stories that were told around the fireside at night, when everyone was gathered, adult, children, teenagers, the lot. So, yes, they weren't NOT for children, either - the children heard them along with everyone else.

So there was no expurgation of the nasty bits, no bowdlerization. In Grimm, the solution to the story, which is frequently the punishment of evil, can be grim indeed. The wicked stepmother-witch in Snow White goes to her death dancing in red-hot shoes at Snow White's wedding. The equally wicked usurper servant woman in "The Goose Girl" gets rolled down the hill in a barrel spiked with nails on the inside. Cinderella's ugly stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by the turtle doves (which take the place of the fairy godmother in this version - see, no fairies!) - but that's after they commit acts of self-mutilation, chopping off their toe and heel, respectively, in order to fit their feet into the golden slipper (having your eyes pecked out by doves is probably restful by comparison). Need I go on? Oh yes, one more: the Frog Prince gets unfroggified not by a sloppy, sentimental kiss, but by being picked up and chucked against the wall, hard - the princess is so grossed out by him, she can't stand it any longer. Splat. "And when he fell to the ground, there stood a handsome prince..." and one presumes that he isn't gross any longer, because now she's happy to marry him. (You have to wonder if, when he develops a potbelly in middle age, she'll smack him against the wall again to keep up the handsomeness standards; it sure works well the first time round.)

So did I mention I love these stories? I always have. And that's the funny thing: I hate, loathe and abhor violence and pain. I avoid it like the plague in fiction - the real world is too full of it already, I don't want to experience it in my stories. But when it comes to the bloody violence in the Grimm's tales, it doesn't bother me. It never has. And I think it's because of this: the people in a fairytale, or rather, in a folktale, aren't real people. They're personifications, not humans. And so when the witch keels over during her charming red-hot slipper dance, it's not a woman who suffers pain, it's Evil, pure, unadulterated Evil, which gets its comeuppance. There is justice being done, the world is back in balance. Also, whenever one of the good guys suffers, the suffering usually gets fixed: when Rapunzel's prince has his eyes poked out by the thorn bush the witch chucks him into (ouch!), at the end of the story Rapunzel's tears fall into his eyes and, hey presto, fully restored vision.

Incidentally, the one Grimm story I do not like, never did, is "The Goose Girl", in which the princess' talking horse has its head chopped off, and the horse never gets reassembled; it just, literally, remains a talking head. That always bothered me, I didn't think it was fair. The decapitation of the horse is a gross injustice, and it does not get rectified. If the horse (his name is Fallada) were resurrected, I'd like the story just fine - the nail-spiked barrel at the end is, after all, nothing more than the nasty servant deserves. Justice is served.

And as another incidental remark, I was never terribly fond of Andersen's fairytales, either. His are literary fairytales which he wrote himself, not folktales like the Grimms'. And in his stories, the characters are people, not personifications, and they often do not receive justice at the end, as far as I'm concerned. The Little Match Girl is a real girl, with feelings and wishes, and she dies at the end; the Little Mermaid does not marry the prince, but has to watch him marry another, and because she loves him, she refuses to kill him and save her own life, so she turns into the foam on the top of the waves (which is what happens to mermaids when they die, not being possessed of an immortal soul. You didn't know that? Well, now you do. Blame Disney for your previous ignorance.). Andersen has too much pain, too little Happily Ever After. The Grimms might be bloody, but they deliver the happy ending for those who deserve it, and do away with those who don't.

So there you have it: two hundred years of blood, murder and mayhem for our edification. Thank you, Brothers Grimm.

Life, the Universe, and Fairytales. And they all read happily ever after.

10 December 2012

The Pleasure of Socks

Steve got socks. Christmas socks, at that. A friend just gave them to me for a Christmas tree decoration; they are a lovely red-and-white striped knit with red heels and toes, and they just happen to be a perfect fit for Steve. Sorry, Christmas Tree, stuffed bears get priority.

A nice pair of socks really is a beautiful thing. Nothing says "comfort" like a cozy pair of fluffy socks. And, on the other hand, nothing is as uncomfortable as clammy wet socks. Brrrrr. I hear that keeping your socks dry is absolutely crucial if you're going to survive long marches, say, in the military. I'd better mention it to Steve, just in case he was thinking of enlisting.

My favourite every-day kinds of socks are plain cotton ones, in a medium-weight knit. For really cold weather, or inside hiking or snow boots, thick woolly socks over top of the cotton ones are the best (a red stripe around the cuff is optional). And then for wearing inside nicer shoes, I have thin black socks, probably with a dash of nylon; but those kind are starting to leave the realm of sockishness and move over into stockingland. So I'm not sure they qualify for this post. Anyway, a really good pair of socks is a pleasure (Professor Dumbledore would tell you the same).

Now, I wonder if I should make Steve a toque to go with his socks - something in a Santa style, perhaps? But I don't know if I have any red yarn of the required weight available. Or the time to do any knitting right now. Also, his ears look warm enough right now, so he'll probably be okay, don't you think? He doesn't go playing in the snow very often, anyway. For now, he might as well just enjoy his socks.

Life, the Universe, and the Pleasure of Socks. Every bear should have a pair of his own.

09 December 2012

Christmas Cookies

I finally got around to baking Christmas cookies yesterday. There were any number of other things that were also on my "must do" list, but the cookies catapulted to the top. One must have one's priorities. What's the big deal about cookies, you ask? Oh, simply that, without them, it wouldn't be Christmas.

Well, okay - of course it would be Christmas, but it wouldn't feel right. Cookies are among the half a dozen or so Christmas essentials (the others being a Christmas tree of some kind, music, candles, and presents of sorts - homemade or no-cost are just as good as money-spending ones). Christmas celebrations are all about traditions, connecting with the past. So my cookies, they have history. Well, not the individual ones, of course, but the kinds of cookies I make. They're the kind my mother made, and my grandmother, and her mother, and her mother... I have some special carved cookie moulds that are over a hundred years old; they used to belong to my great-grandfather's sister-in-law. Among my cookie cutters are ones that have been in a family since at least my mother; I remember using them as a child. One of the favourites was always the little choo-choo train with coal tender and cars; we used to argue about who got to use it first. And then I added to the collection, myself - there's a little donkey cookie cutter I bought at the Christmas market in Stuttgart five years ago, and one that's a car, sort of like a new beetle, which tells you right there it's not an antique.

The thing about these recipes is that they're very specifically Christmas cookies; never, at any other time of the year, would you make these cookies. The recipes were developed to use the most special, rare ingredients - literally 'rich' recipes, because you couldn't afford them any other time. They're loaded with butter, sugar, white flour (as opposed to the coarse whole-grain flour you'd bake your bread from year-round), eggs, almonds - all foodstuffs that were carefully rationed, in the days when there was some connection between the difficulty of producing a food and its cost. (Take butter, for example: it takes about a quart of cream to make less than a pound of butter; and a lot of milk to get a quart of cream. So a recipe that calls for half a pound of butter - well, that takes huge amounts of milk to get there.) And the spices that go into Christmas cookies are almost all exotics, as far as Europeans are concerned. Vanilla, lemon and orange peel, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, star anise -   from India, China, the Spice Islands, rare and costly.

Today, all these foods are commonplace, and cheap. I eat butter every day, and white flour and sugar are so ubiquitous in our diet that it takes an effort to avoid them. As for the "exotic" spices, they tend to be cheaper and easier to get a hold of than anything that might be grown locally. But the cookies are still special, even today. Because what is rare and in short supply today is time - the sheer amount of time and effort that goes into making these things. Cutting cookies from a sheet of rolled dough takes much longer than dishing out the dough by the spoonful onto a cookie sheet, and normally, during the course of the year, I would never stand at the counter carefully brushing icing onto five dozen cinnamon stars - it takes far too long. But for Christmas, it's worth it. And the labour of making the cookies becomes part of the tradition. I have very fond memories of cookie making as a child, and my own kids now carry on in the same vein. And that's what it's all about, isn't it?

Life, the Universe, and Christmas Cookies. Come on over for a visit, we're happy to share!

30 November 2012


I find myself today, suddenly and without warning, with nothing to do. I finished my course assignments for the week; my November project got done ahead of today's deadline; we have food in the house, clean clothes to wear, and the dust bunnies haven't yet taken on gargantuan proportions; I have no appointments to keep and no places I must go or else get in deep or even just shallow trouble. Nothing to do.

Well, nothing I have to do. There's always something one could be doing, ought to be doing, it-would-be-a-good-idea-to be doing. I could work ahead on my course assignments for next week. My NaNoWriMo novel was not actually finished - I just quickly slapped a 350-word wrap-up paragraph on the end of the 50,000 words so I could call it done; but there is quite a bit more writing that needs to go into that story. I could go to town and pick up groceries; I'm out of rooibos tea and rosewater. (What do I need rosewater for? Nothing, really. I just like having some around 'cause it smells so pretty.) The laundry hampers are full enough that I could run a load or two; and as for the dust bunnies - well, let's not talk about the dust bunnies. And then there's the fact that tomorrow is December 1st, so it's time to take out the Christmas decorations; and it would be a really good idea to clean the mantelpiece first so I'm not sticking my lovely embroidered Christmas runner on top of a layer of three-months-old dust. And of course, I could be doing some crafty stuff for Christmas gifts, or finally get started on Christmas shopping, or bake some muffins or cookies or gingerbread houses or pottery mugs or plum puddings (which nobody but me ever eats, anyway).

But you know what? I think I'm not going to do any of those things today. Tomorrow, I have places to go, things to do. Today, I think I'll do some nothinging. And when I stopped, and thought about doing just that, all of a sudden a wave rolled over me. A yearning for nothinging, for just sitting still, for not accomplishing or completing or finishing, for not keeping deadlines or appointments, not meeting goals or expectations, not getting things done or starting things or even being in the middle of them.

I think that's just what I'm going to do today.

26 November 2012

More Words

POLONIUS: What do you read, my Lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.

POLONIUS: Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.
(Hamlet, II. ii. 191-192, 205-206)

Life, the Universe, and ... Words. Don't be scared, it's only language.

18 November 2012


I was watching "Mamma Mia" the other day. Yes, that movie with Meryl Streep and Colin Firth and a host of others doing song-and-dance numbers to ABBA tunes. And it got me thinking. (And that's how much of an overthinker I am - a musical based on ABBA songs makes me think. Sad, but true.)

What got me going, in this particular instance, was the movie rating. It's labelled PG; and apparently it got the "P" for "nudity" (that would be the guy wearing a thong with tattoos on his butt cheeks) and "language [that] may offend". Uh-huh, okay. Fine. No problem. (I guess the guidance that parents are supposed to provide to their eight-year-olds goes somewhere along the lines of "Now, darling, having a pair of eyes tattooed on your butt cheeks is in bad taste, you shouldn't be doing it.") Never mind the fact that throughout the film, there are some very suggestive dance scenes, one of them between a 50-something woman and a 20-ish young man who is openly panting after her (and gets the brush-off, quite hilariously, to the tune "Does Your Mother Know You're Out"). Never mind that Meryl Streep's character Donna has a conversation with her girlfriends which starts with the question "Are you getting any?" and progresses from there through some fairly heavy innuendo; and that the whole storyline of the musical revolves around the fact that Donna does not know who her daughter's father is - yes, for exactly the reason you would suppose. But all those things are not deemed to be worthy of parental guidance - it's "nudity" and "language" that does it.

Which brings me to my other point, "The King's Speech" - yet another Colin Firth film which took movie audiences by storm, and rightfully so. It was rated R. Restricted. And why? Because Colin Firth's character, King George VI, receives speech therapy for his debilitating stammer, and in the course of the therapy he says "fuck". That's it. That's all. That one word insured that children, even 17-year-old young adults, could not see this movie without an "adult" in attendance. Okay, fine - the word is repeated multiple times at high volumes, and it might even be accompanied by "damn" and "bugger"; I can't exactly remember. But the thing is that in the scene in the movie, there is a point to the therapist's making the King say this - he needs to get over his crippling inhibitions. And that's all he does, say it (or shout it, out the open window, as it were), and it, along with all the rest of the therapy, does its job. "The King's Speech" is a story of the triumph of the human spirit over fear and shame. But it was "restricted" from being shown freely because of a word.

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Americans are afraid of words. Not of images, of sounds, or of actions - just of words. I wonder what has the movie ratings people in such a flap about it. Perhaps, when they were young, they were taught that "Sticks and Stones may break my bones / but words may never hurt me," and then they found out that that's nothing but a big fat lie. So now they're mortally afraid of words, and ban them from being heard by young audiences in movie theaters. Or can you think of another reason?

Incidentally, don't get me wrong - this is not meant to be bashing "Mamma Mia". I enjoyed myself watching it the other day, and will probably watch it again soon. It's an engaging, feel-good piece of fluff with gorgeous visuals, toe-tapping tunes, and marvellous actors strutting their stuff. Great fun for a dreary afternoon. I just wish that the movie raters would get off their obsession with "language", and start thinking about content for a change. The ratings would perhaps, then, start meaning something again.

Life, the Universe, and Words. Don't be afraid of Language.

11 November 2012

Brother Mine

I remember this book I read when I was a kid. No, that's not quite correct: I remember one scene out of this particular book. I don't remember what the book's title was, or any of the rest of the story but this one scene which burned itself on my memory.

The story is about a girl, I think her name is Elsbeth or Lisbeth (it's quite possible that the author was Elisabeth Dreisbach, and the story was somewhat autobiographical. She wrote quite a bit for the publisher who put out the book - and I can't remember the publisher's name either. We just had a lot of their kids' books in the house; they were small and had a yellow back cover.).

Elsbeth is around 11, or maybe 13, and lives on a farm outside of Düsseldorf - no, I think it was Wuppertal. It's wartime. Elsbeth, her father, and her little brother set out on a few days' visit to relatives in the city. Mother is worried - what if there's a bombing raid while they're there? Father reassures her: nobody is going to bomb Wuppertal; the enemy is not interested in that small city. So they go.

No sooner do they arrive at their aunt's flat in town, that Elsbeth's little brother throws a big tantrum: he wants to go home, he hates it here! Father is not impressed, and won't give in. He's come to visit with his family, and visit he will. Elsbeth enjoys her cousin, and her uncle, but she is particularly taken with her aunt, her father's cheerful, charming younger sister.

In the evening, father and aunt sit down at the piano together, and sing a duet, a beautiful, melancholy folk song:

"Sister mine, sister mine, when shall we go home?"
"When the cocks crow early in the morn,
Then shall we two go home,

Brother mine, Brother mine, then we shall go home."

In the night, Elsbeth has a dreadful nightmare of fire and flame and her mother calling to them. She runs to her father, she begs him to please, please take them home that day, not to stay over another night as they had planned. "Oh, not you too! I thought better of you!" Finally, extremely reluctantly, father gives in, angry and disappointed at having his time with his sister cut short by his children's caprice, and takes them back to the farm.

That night, they hear the drone of the bombers flying overhead, and watch from their farm on the hillside as fire rains down on Wuppertal, destroying everything. Their aunt, uncle, cousin - all dead.

"Sister mine, sister mine, you step grows so weak."
"Seek out my chamber door,
My bed beneath the floor,
Brother mine, slumber fine shall I evermore."

Wars kill.

Lest We Forget.

The bombed-out interior of the Stiftskirche in Stuttgart, 1945 (from a photo in the foyer of the church)

08 November 2012

Jack-o-Lantern Pies

Let me introduce you to the fine art of Jack-o-Lantern Pie Baking. Despite what Lynn Johnston, she of "For Better or for Worse", says (check the footnote of this particular comic strip), jack-o-lanterns can, and indeed do, make fine pies. You just have to make sure to not include any of the wax drippings from the candle.

So here's this year's jack-o-lanterns (and a couple of jack-o-nothings in their whole uncarved glory):

The one on the left did, alas, end up on the compost; it looked kind of mouldy on the inside. It came that way; not sure what went on there. But the one on the right, one of our homegrown pumplings, became pie fodder.

In order to turn a jack-o-lantern into a pie, you first examine it carefully for wax drips and scorch marks. This one, being of the wide and squat persuasion, was totally blackened on the underside of the lid (there was only a couple of inches between the lid and the flame of the candle). So the lid hit the compost, too. But then, I just hacked up what was left, stuffed it in a large pot, added some water, and cooked it for, umm, until-it-was-done. Maybe forty-five minutes or so? Then drain it, peel off the rind, and Bob's your uncle (or cousin, or kittycat).

Enter the fail-safe and idiot-proof recipe:

1 single unbaked 10" pie crust (I use the recipe from the inside of the lard box. Yes, I make my pie crust with lard. It's makes the flakiest crust.)
2 c cooked, mashed pumpkin
2 eggs
3/4 c brown sugar
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 c cream (or less, or more, or 1/4 c milk and some butter, or whatever)
(c = cups or 250ml, tsp = teaspoon or 5ml)

Whiz all and sundry in food processor, dump into crust, stick pie into preheated 400°F (200°C) oven, bake for 45-55 minutes or until filling puffs evenly all the way to the center.
Remove from oven, cool on rack, serve with whipped cream.
Observe minute of silence for memory of jack-o-lantern.

And there  you have it. I got two whole pies out of it this year, and yummy they were indeed. See?

Life, the Universe, and Jack-o-Lantern Pies. There's nothing like acquired tastes.

03 November 2012

The Problem With Stuff

My man and I were talking with some other people today, and the conversation turned, as it sometimes does, to how so often we don't do what we really want to do. So often, we'll say to each other: "We really should get together with (Insert Name Here)," but we never do.

That poor Insert-Name-Here, he's one neglected friend. Well, him and his missus, Mrs Insert-Name-Here. Actually, to be precise, him, his missus, and all the Little Insert-Name-Heres, not to mention their grannies, uncles and aunties. We keep wanting to meet with them, because they're such great friends and we miss talking to them, but then we don't. And for why? Because we're busy. We're busy, and when we're not busy, we're tired from being busy.

Steve the Stuffed Bear buried under Stuff
And it's all because of our stuff. You see, there's six people in our family. Six largish people. And people need food. And they need space to live in, and clothes to wear, and transportation to get from here to there, and roofs over their heads and floors under their feet and windows to look out of and a grassy space out back to bounce on a trampoline on and have boxes full of dirt to grow carrots in. Because they like carrots, which is all to the good. We want them to like carrots.

But all this carrot-growing takes time, and energy. And so does looking after all that other stuff that comes with having roofs and floors and windows and clothes and toys and cars and trampolines. So much stuff. So much time and energy that goes into that stuff. And if it's not looking after the stuff, it's acquiring the stuff, and in order to acquire the stuff, you need money, and that requires enormous amount of time and energy to earn it. And even if you're tired of all this stuff-acquisition-and-maintenance and want to reverse the process by just getting rid of some of the stuff - well, have you ever tried cleaning out a twelve-year-old's bedroom? I rest my case (but not my weary head).

Sometimes, I almost wish something drastic would happen and rid me of all those stuff obligations. Something like, I don't know, a forest fire that wipes out our house so we could collect the insurance money and live on it happily ever after (with no stuff). Well, yeah - of course I know that I'd be horribly traumatised and would have a nervous breakdown long before I'd see a dime of the insurance money; I know this wouldn't be a great solution - so quit intruding common sense on my extremist fantasies, will you? My point is that sometimes I wish all the stuff would just go away. Because I'm tired. I'm tired of looking after stuff, of buying more stuff, of getting rid of broken stuff, of buying and cooking foodstuff and then disposing of uneaten and rotten foodstuff, of cleaning stuff and mending stuff and moving stuff from here to there because it's occupying the space of other stuff. And then, finally, I just hide my head inside a computer screen or a lovely Austen movie to forget about my stuffy obligations. I'm tired, you know?

So if you're one of those friends, a member of the numerous clan of Insert-Name-Heres, please forgive me for not having spent any time with you lately. I really miss you.

Life, the Universe, and the Problem With Stuff. I think I'll have a nap now.

28 October 2012

Vanishing Ink

I've got another science conundrum for you. It's not quite as mysterious as the last one, but more amusing, really. It's (drum roll please) The Case of the Vanishing Ink.

For my current course, I'm supposed to be following a particular kind of journal-writing practise, one that involves putting on a Baroque music CD, lighting a candle, and then introspecting for half an hour by cello warbles and candlelight. Great - I love Baroque, and adore candlelight. So I thought I'd get out something a bit special for the purpose: I have a pack of floating candles that I bought a couple of years ago and never used yet; they're shaped sort of like fat lenses and are meant to be floated in pretty dishes while softly illuminating their surroundings. Seeing as the bag of candles sat in the broom closet through two hot summers (we usually have at least one week when the temperatures go well above 30°C), they melted out of shape and stuck together. But I thought they might still be useful.

I got out a little plexiglass dish, filled it with water, and dropped a candle in. Purty. But, I thought, how about making it a bit more interesting? I could colour the water, I thought. Not having my watercolours handy, I reached for the nearest colouring agent, which was a cartridge of blue ink from my fountain pen. So I dropped in about four or five drops, and watched it swirl around the water. Lovely, deep royal blue colour. I lit the candle, and started my first piece of journalling. Then I looked at the candle dish again. Hmm, I thought the water had been darker blue. Ah well. Back to writing. Another look at the dish - is it just me, or is the water getting paler by the minute? No, it's not just me. After half an hour or so, the water had gone completely clear:

Now, that kind of ink (Pelikan Royal Blue, if you must know) usually fades over time, anyway, especially if it's left in the sun; I knew that. But to disappear completely, and in such a short time? That's just weird. But it happened. Twice. I recoloured the water after it had gone clear, and again, the ink totally faded in an hour or so. I don't know - maybe it would eventually reach its ink saturation point and stay blue? But I'm not going to try it out; those ink cartridges are imported all the way from Germany and I don't want to waste them on having them fade away in the water. The candle looks pretty enough bobbing in clear water.

Life, the Universe, and Mysteriously Vanishing Ink. Science is a strange thing.

21 October 2012

When Your Bear Won't Write Your Post For You

Steve and Horatio being busy
I asked Steve if he'd write another blog post for me, but he says he's busy. Go figure. So much for supportive bearhood. I have no idea what he's busy with - probably composing poetry, or designing a new ultra-light aircraft.

So I guess I have to write my own post again. But the problem is, I've run clean out of inspiration, not to mention energy. And without either inspiration, energy, or, in a pinch, a looming deadline, decent pieces of writing aren't easy to come by. Nor, for that matter, are indecent ones.

I don't know if you, gentle reader, really want to hear about how tired and dragged-out I've been lately. Probably not. I'll spare you the whining, as I know full well that many of you are in far tougher spots that I am in your life. Fact is, I'm not in a tough spot at all; I've got a really great life. And I know it. But that knowledge doesn't change the fact that I go through times when everything is just too much, and there's a slight haze of grey over a lot of things. I'm not talking about the haze that permeates the kitchen after burning the pizza - no, this one doesn't set off the smoke alarms. It's more of a fog that makes the outlines of things blurry, not fumes that burn your eyes and choke your lungs. This haze can settle in all the chinks and crannies, and eventually rust you up like the Tin Man of Oz so you can't move any longer and need to wait for Dorothy and the Scarecrow to give you a hand with the oilcan.

Did you know that the Tin Man was originally a Winkie? It's true, I read it in the book. He was a woodcutter by the name of Nick Chopper who had a bunch of nasty accidents courtesy of one of the Witches, and ended up accidentally chopping off all of his limbs (not all at once, fortunately), until his whole body, head included, was one giant prosthesis. As a matter of fact, he was the original android - move over, Data, you're a copycat! Come to think of it, Data and the Tin Man are rather alike in their quest, too, both of them looking for a heart, or true humanity ("I want to be a real boy!" Oh, wait, different story.). Maybe Data isn't a copycat, but the Tin Man's descendant. The heart the Tin Man got from the Wizard didn't get passed down, that's why Data is still struggling with the same issues in the 24th century.

And that's the kind of waffling you get from me when I'm too out of it to write something witty and profound. Blame Steve - I did ask him nicely to fill in. But what can you do when your bear is busy? Drivel on about Tin Men, I suppose. I guess the fog will clear eventually (it usually does) and you'll get wit and profundity again. But, perhaps, it's just as well you knew I'm not always on top of the world. Maybe, if you run across Dorothy and the Scarecrow, could you point them in my direction?

Life, the Universe, Bears and Tin Men. Perhaps Steve isn't too busy to help out with the oilcan.

15 October 2012


We got a new kitty. Yes, again. Our darling Morty (Napoleon/Villy/Voldemort) got out on Labour Day evening, and never came home. The coyotes were howling in the night. After shedding lots of tears, and cursing the coyotes up one side and down the other, we girded our loins and betook ourselves back to the SPCA, to find another small kittycat who might like to put our elegant Cleo's aristocratic nose out of joint.

We wanted another not-black cat - Cleo is solid black, we figured it might be too confusing to have two black shadows slinking past you in the night. There were a couple of tuxedo kitties in the kitten room, tumbled amongst their solid black brethren and sistren. (Apparently, black cats are the last ones to find homes. The only reason I can think of for it is superstition. I was going to say "the only good reason", but as far as I'm concerned that's not a good reason at all - it's profoundly silly.) So we asked to meet one of those little black-and-white kittens. And he was cute alright - cute and a bit skittish, hiding under the bench when we wanted to pet him. But while the SPCA lady had brought him out, we saw this little solid black guy hobbling around the room. Yes, hobbling. There was something wrong with his foot - a three-legged kitten.

We played with Mr Tux for a bit, and then my daughter and I looked at each other and said: "Should we meet the little three-legged guy?" Yes, we should. No question. So I asked the SPCA lady if we could, and just about got shouted at with enthusiasm - YES, absolutely we could meet him! And out he came. His back right leg is missing from the joint down; apparently he lost it shortly after birth because the umbilical cord had been wrapped around it. He hops, not unlike a rabbit - loppety-loppety-lop, he hobbled all around the visitor's room, poking his little black nose into every corner. He wasn't particularly interested in sitting on our laps, there was far too much interesting stuff to explore. But when we did catch him and hug him, he rumbled at us - LOUDLY. A small black kitten with three legs and an enormous purr.

So we had to bring him home, didn't we? Black and gimpy, he'd probably have been at be at the SPCA forever, if we hadn't. Besides, we fell in love.

And this time, there was no question about what to name him. My son, who has a knack for naming furry critters (live or toy, he usually nails it), said "We could call him Long John Silver!" Well, of course, it's obvious. Except that we actually named him Long John Charcoal, on account of the colour, you know. Beware the Three-Legged Cat! (Maybe we could get a pet mouse to go with him, and name it Jim Hawkins. And a parrot named Squire Trelawney?)

So there's Johnny Cat, singing his country music - no, Long John, limping around the ship - no, just Johnny. Johnny Kitten. Hobbling around the house - until he takes to running. Ziiiiip! up the stairs he goes, just as fast as any other cat, ziiiiiiip! across the rec room and around the corner, ziiiiiiiip-hophop! up on the kitchen table where he's got no business to be and gets a squirt of water in his face to teach him manners. He's adorable, and we love him.

Maybe Morty had to go to kitty heaven so Johnny could find a home? I miss our Morty - but Johnny is a darling, and I'm so glad we met him, that day we went to find another furry friend, and he became a part of our family. And you know what? I always wanted to adopt a crippled child. I didn't think he'd be furry, and quite this small, but there's a little bit of a childhood dream fulfilled here.

Life, the Universe, and a Gimpy Kitten. We love our Long John Charcoal.

10 October 2012


The power went out an hour ago. It blinked, twitched, came on again for a split second (just enough to make the charging cell phones squawk), and then took a leave of absence, time of return not specified. So now we're powerless. At this moment, I still have 73% battery power, rapidly diminishing, and, of course, no internet.

Being without power is kind of amusing for a little while. I always have to think carefully about what I can and cannot do without electricity. Fortunately, my tea maker was done doing its thing, so I had a pot of hot tea available, and everyone was finished having breakfast, so no need for eating untoasted toast (which would, of course, have been a terrible experience).

But I had to consider how to keep my tea hot. Usually, I just leave the pot sitting on the counter, and zap a cup of the lukewarm brew in the microwave when I'm in need of caffeinated refreshment (which, as a rule, is about once every fifteen minutes, until the pot runs dry). Well, zappage capacities vanish with the departure of power. So, some other means of keeping the tea toasty had to be found.

At first I pulled out a tea cosy. I've got a couple of them; one of them I knitted out of ugly thick brown wool, and it goes quite charmingly around my White Betty teapot (is there such a thing - a White Betty? It's shaped just like a Brown Betty, but it's white porcelain.). The brown wool works very well to hide those hideous tea dribbles that always run off the spout and disfigure any other self-respecting tea cosy, which is why I chose that particular yarn. However, that particular cosy won't fit over the glass carafe that goes with the tea maker (which is, technically, a coffee maker, but woe betide the hapless innocent who dares put the bean grind into my brew machine! There's nothing worse than tea made in a coffee maker. Blch - cofftea. Coffee flavour is horrifically penetrant, sort of like peanut butter in hot-drink format. Tea is a delicate thing, easily bullied by the heftier brew. No coffee in my tea maker, got that?). So: brown woolly cosy, tea maker carafe, no fit. Then, I took out the thick quilted pink floral thing I got for a present a while back; it ties around the top. It worked, sort of, but it wasn't entirely satisfactory.

But then I went "D'uh!" The piece of equipment that is designed for this very purpose, the item I wanted here, is the Stövchen. It's an East Frisian tea-keeper-warmer. You see that candle in the bottom? That's why that kind of candle is called a tea light.

So, I fished the Stövchen off the top of the microwave where it usually resides, lit the candle, parked the tea pot on top, and was ready for a prolonged bout of powerlessness.

However, seeing as you're reading this on the internet just now, you can conclude that the power did, eventually, come back on. My battery was down to 54%, the cell phones let out another strangled squawk, the smoke alarm screeched briefly, and we were back to humming along in our usual electrified way. But it's always kind of fun to think about how you could function without the blessed power of the hydro dam, isn't it? So long as it doesn't last all that long.

Life, the Universe, and Powerlessness. It's good to have a Stövchen in reserve.

02 October 2012

Hyperbole and Oxymoron

This is highly symbolic (sim-BOL-lick).
My son brought home a poetry exercise, and he had to give an example of hyperbole. Now, I know what hyperbole is, pretty much - but what I don't know is how to pronounce it. Is it HIGH-per-bowl, or high-PURR-bolly?

Well, thank goodness for Google; it has the power to prevent the unspeakable embarrassment of mispronounced literary terminology. And that, just now, was hyperbole, the "unspeakable embarrassment" part. High-PURR-bolly, as it turns out - go figure.

You really need a pronunciation guide for those things; there's no way you can guess whether the individual terms are pronounced the way you think, or put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle. I was doing the fancy pronunciation on "oxymoron" - called it ox-IMMER-on; it sounded so much more literary that way - until someone looked at me funny for it and said "Is that how you pronounce that?" Seeing as she was an English BA who had actually gone to a brick-and-mortar university for her degree, unlike me who got hers from a distance ed school and learned all these words from books instead of live people, I thought she might have a point, so I looked it up. And to my great chagrin is turns out to be an OXy-MOR-on - you know, as in "bovine draft animal of low intelligence". It's from the Greek words for  "sharp" and "dull", so an oxymoron is a sharpdull - a contradiction in terms. And a moron, it appears, is a dullard, i.e. not the sharpest knife in the drawer (and that, in turn, is a metaphor. MET-a-for, not met-TAF-er. Sigh.).

English is not the easiest language to learn to speak by reading it. I got laughed at once, when I hadn't been in Canada all that long, for calling an executive (ex-ECK-you-tiff) an exe-CUE-tiff. Well, excuse me, they execute power, don't they? They don't ex-ECK-ute it, they exe-CUTE it. Cute, I know. I was making the mistake of applying logic to the English language. Hah. Silly me.

Life, the YOU-ni-vurs, high-PURR-bollies and OXy-MOR-ons. When in doubt, look it up.

27 September 2012


Last night, as I was lying awake at 4:00 AM, I composed a really cool blog post in my head. It  was all there - the topic, the phrases, the witty wordplay and underhandedly profound conclusion. And do you think I could remember now what it was about? Nope. Not on your life. It was really interesting, though...

So instead, you're stuck with yet another untitled post. One that's about not much at all. Profundity was lost sometime in that space between 4:00 and 6:00 AM, when my alarm rang (curses upon its cogwheeled innards!) and pulled me out of a dream in which I had lost two of the diamonds from my engagement ring and both the side pieces that hold up the raised center part. But wait - my engagement ring doesn't have a raised center part; the diamonds are sunk into a channel flush with the rest of the ring. Well, go figure. That's the kind of dream it was, not particularly sensible. And for that I gave up a brilliant blog post.

Leaving things untitled can have a number of reasons. Sometimes you just can't think of a title. But there are other times when you have to leave the title off not because you cannot find one, but because there are too many - and none of them fit. When I tell you that I painted one picture called "Very Small Ink People Playing In a Field of Colour", what do you think it's about? Exactly. (It's for sale. $30, and it's yours, frame and all. No, really, if you want it, drop me a mail.) But if I tell you I've got a sculpture called "Women", what does that tell you? Quite. It doesn't really begin to cover it. And so, for the time being, it's actually called "Untitled". Or maybe "Untitled (Women)", to distinguish it from the other "Untitled" stuff I've got kicking around.

And sometimes, whatever the work is, it has no title. Just like me - my friend said I'm a piece of work, but I'm not titled. Other than "Mrs", of course. But I'm not a Duchess, or Marchioness, or even a Countess (one wonders why that's not an Earless. Probably because it would be misread as "lacking ears", rather than "wife of an earl".). I'm not even a Lady - well, I occasionally try to be a lady, but I'll never be A Lady. Unless my man manages to snabble a knighthood for services to the Crown I shall have to remain untitled. And that's quite alright - because, like with my sculpture, none of the titles really fits. Or they all do, but none really sums it up. And they don't come with a coronet, anyway, so I can do without them.

And then there's the times when "Untitled" is the title. Like today.

Life, the Universe, and the Untitled. We're in good company.

Untitled (Women)

24 September 2012

You Can Only Do So Much

Poetry. Magnetic. Yup.
You can only do so much. You know? Several of my friends are gearing up for this year's Christmas art show at the local gallery. I missed the deadline. Well, really, I let it intentionally slip by. I didn't have anything ready to put in, unless I was going to offer them a few pieces from last year, including a couple they had rejected then. But you know what? I just didn't feel like doing the art show this year. I'll go and admire my friends' work, and maybe even find some new artists to admire, and then I'll go home and enjoy the fact that I didn't have to stress about getting artwork ready for it myself.

It feels a bit weird, though, not doing it this year, because last year's show was a resounding success for me. I sold more pieces than I ever have before in my life. You'd think I'd strike the iron while it was hot, wouldn't you? Or, as it were, strike the clay while it was cold, wet and squishy. (When it's hot, you don't want to go near it, let alone strike it - the glaze firing runs to 1200°C, it melts everything up to and including some types of rocks.) But, well, I've got other things on my mind. And the whole thing about last year's show was that I did it purely for fun. The pieces I put in, I'd made for fun; participating in the show, putting things together for submission, that was fun; and when I sold stuff and got a cheque out of the deal - hoo boy, you bet that was fun! But it was bonus fun, not the point of the exercise.

Whereas right now - what do I do for fun? Write weird magnetic poetry. Or rambly blog posts. And watch my favourite movies, reread my favourite English authors, develop crushes on Lord Peter Wimsey, Inspector Alleyn, Edmund Bertram and the actors who play them, and occasionally cook or bake something good to eat that's not the same-old-same-old thing I make so often it bores me to tears (or causes tears, anyway; the large amount of chopped onions required might exacerbate the boredom-induced lachrymosity).

The thing is that what passes for my work right now, namely my grad school studies, actually requires a fair amount of creative thought and effort. And I have only so much of that creative energy. When I need to write essays for school, or even, as is the case this week, stories and poems (which qualify as fun, or at least creative satisfaction, in their own right), my capacity for "getting things done" is pretty much used up.

It's a little embarrassing at times when people ask me if I have "done any pottery lately" (or painting, or soap-making, or insert-any-of-the-dozens-of-hobbies-I've-had-in-the-past), and I have to answer, quite plainly, "Nope!"

I've composed a lemon cake on Saturday, though, does that count? It's quite delicious. And baked a few poems. And I think I almost figured out whodunnit in "Death and the Dancing Footman"; that takes time, too, you know? I think it should count. You can only do so much.

Life, the Universe, and Good Things To Do. Sometimes you need to get choosy about what you spend your time on.

23 September 2012


The cemetary under the cedar trees


I didn't know
she had been gone a year
this little old English lady
so tiny and so sweet.
"Mrs C., your hold is here!"
"Thank you, dear,
we'll come down presently!"
I did not know.
But here she lies
under the cedar tree
next to her son
of whom
I also hadn't known.
Her husband
small and slight
and such a gentleman
left to himself.
I'm sure he'll meet her

Written at the cemetary, 22.9.2012

19 September 2012

Peaches Behind a Void

Me, contemplating some luscious fruit on the kitchen counter: "Peaches. Peaches! Should I have a peach?"
Son: "Yes. Have a peach. As long as it isn't behind a void."

What he was referring to is, of course, this:

Life, the Universe, and Peaches Behind a Void. Ah, the power of poetry.

14 September 2012

Sock Puppetry, or: Showing Off and Hiding Out

The Duchess of Parma

There's this lovely term floating around the internet: sock puppetry. In case you haven't run across it, it's when people build themselves fake identities in order to make themselves (in their regular identity) look good. Say, for example, if I created multiple google accounts for myself, and then posted admiring responses to my own blog posts, that would be sock puppetry. (No, Steve made his own account, I had nothing to do with it. Excuse me? Who're you to say that a bear with two-inch-wide fuzzy paws can't type?)

But there's another, subtler form of sock puppetry. Oh, perhaps it's not technically called that. But I think it might well be. It's when we portray one persona on the internet, but behind the scenes, things are really different.

I used to do puppetry in high school. Marionetteering, to be exact (handling marionettes, string puppets). I have some photos from the first show I was part of, a production of Dr. Faustus - not Goethe's classical piece, but one closer to Marlowe's original. My character was the Duchess of Parma (I both handled and voiced her; we recorded the play on tape and then moved the puppets to that soundtrack for the performance). She's a beautiful, elegant noblewoman who does some heavy-duty flirting with Faust, but doesn't really get anywhere with it. But I was also Helen of Troy, a speechless specter which is used by Mephistopheles to seduce Faust away from his impending conversion. And I was a silly-looking demon, who, at the beginning of the play, gets rejected in favour of Mephistopheles (being a much more sophisticated-looking devil, the latter was obviously better suited to Faust's purposes. I mean, he had a silk-lined cloak - how could my sackcloth-clad character compete with that?). But really, literally behind the scenes, where we stood on a little walkway holding the cross bars over the miniature stage on which we made the marionettes dance, hidden behind the backdrop, I was an awkward, naive eighth-grade girl who had a crush on the boy who manned the sound equipment (I think for the most part he was unaware of my existence).

When you're doing puppetry, you can hide behind the backdrop. On the internet, you can be whoever you want to be. You can, all at the same time, show off and hide out. You can tell people in the breeziest of tones about your latest wonderful project, and make yourself sound like you've got it all together. But meanwhile, your world isn't nearly so cheery and bright. You've been fighting fatigue and depression for weeks (or not fighting it, as it were). You've been dumped by a friend whom you were trying to help. Your beloved kitten has vanished; he's almost certainly become coyote bait. Your garden is going to pot (no, not weed. Just weeds. And the plants you liked died of thirst). Your remaining kitty, the neurotic one, has gone and pooped in your bathtub (fortunately, you weren't in it at the time). And so on.

I think it's interesting that the word "person", or "persona", comes from the Latin or Greek word for "mask, character in a drama". We wear masks. We play puppets; whether sock puppets or string puppets, it hardly matters. I don't know if we can get away from it, from presenting one persona in one place, and another one in another; the whole of us just doesn't fit on that little marionette stage.

Internet sock puppetry is offensive because it is meant to deceive. But perhaps it's possible to play our puppet personas without deception. I don't think anyone who watched that production of Dr Faustus, back in 1981, was  really under the impression that any of us were the characters we voiced and acted (well, if they thought that I was, in fact, a ten-inch-high Italian duchess, let's leave them their illusions; they're probably happier that way). Masks don't have to mean deception. Sometimes they can even be protection. Sometimes it's safer to hide behind the scenes, and the dusky lighting backstage can be comforting. So long as, at the end of the play, you step out from behind the curtain, and rejoin your friends and family who have come to watch you do your thing with the puppet on the string. So long as you're not trying to deceive.

Life, the Universe, Showing Off and Hiding Out. Sometimes things are better on that tiny little stage.

12 September 2012

Walnut Ink, or: Quill and Qwerty, Part 2

Well, darlings, I said yesterday I'd tell you about the time I was writing with a dip pen recently, so I'd better do it, eh? The telling, not the writing.

See, what went down was this: I got hijacked by another project. It happens, sometimes. Somebody is doing something really fascinating, and if I haven't got anything better to do (and, unfortunately, not infrequently even when I do have something better to do) I'm overcome by this desire to try it out, whatever it is they're doing. So this one was ink making. That's right, you heard: making ink. Out of black walnut husks.

Now, it just so happens we have a walnut tree in our garden; it was one of the few food-bearing plants that were here when we moved in. We don't usually get much from that tree, but this year, it's fairly full. So on Labour Day (which this year fell on September 3rd), I suddenly was seized by an urge to make walnut ink, and after some judicious googling to find out the recipe, proceeded to rob the tree of about two dozen of its fruits. Most of the ones I got were still green; according to information received, it'd be even better once they're all black and dry and shrivelly, but the green ones work too.

Two dozen black walnuts in the husk, chuck in a pot, cover with water. Put on to boil. Boil and boil and boil and boil. It'll stink quite horribly, and the walnuts will turn black and sludgy. Iron oxide, a.k.a. rust, will help the ink turn black rather than brown, so you can either boil your ink in a rusty cast-iron pot (but if you have one of those, shame on you for letting it go rusty! And don't you dare use it for boiling ink, but hand it over to me, and I'll clean it and season it and use it for cooking stew.) or you can do what I did, namely chuck some rusty nails in the walnut sludge. Oh, by the way, the stuff becomes a potent dye quite quickly; the wooden spoon I used to stir it went from the sort of blonde colour it started with to a lovely mahogany tone by the time I was done. Okay, so after several hours of stinky boiling (some of the recipes said to boil it for eight hours; I did more like four), you've got black sludge. Take some cheese cloth, dump sludge into it, drain it through. Put on your authentic medieval disposable latex gloves, and squeeze the cheese cloth to get as much of the ink out of the sludge as possible (the gloves are optional, but highly recommended unless you want really brown fingers. If your fingers are brown to start with, you probably don't have to worry about it). Test your ink. If it's dark enough for your liking, great; if not, put it back in the pot and boil it down. And voilà, you've got ink!

So then I put the ink in a couple of lovely ink bottles - one of them came with a chemistry set that belonged to an uncle of mine when he was a kid, so it must have been from ca. 1935 - pulled out my Speedball dip pen, and tried it out. And what do you know, it works! Fun, isn't it?

So, next time you're stranded on a deserted island full of walnut trees and rusty-nail bushes, you'll be able to do your own ink boiling, so you have something for writing your messages to stick in bottles (oh, yes, walnut ink is also semi-waterproof). Or maybe you can write your memoir. Or engage in a vigorous correspondence with the guy over on the next island, once you've traded a bottle of your ink for a ream of his paper which he made from palm tree fronds. What do you mean, paper isn't made from palm tree fronds? Fine, I'll go look it up. I'll let you know what I find, if I don't get sidetracked into papermaking next...

Life, the Universe, and Black Walnut Ink. Have you ever tried writing with a dip pen?

11 September 2012

Quill and Qwerty

The quill and the QWERTY. Well, the quill and qwerty keyboard, anyway. It's amazing what's come out of those humble tools in the last, oh, four millenia. (I do believe the ancient Egyptians already used the quill to draw their strange cubist pharaohs, so, yes, four millennia. If not more.)

I did a bit of writing with a dip pen the other day (I'll tell you about that some other time), and found myself quite astonished that the likes of Austen were able to write whole books with that method. And they had really fancy handwriting, to boot. Once, a long time ago, I tried using a proper quill, i.e. a goose feather carved to shape with a sharp knife, and I couldn't manage it. Scrape, scratch, splatter...

And now I'm so used to the computer QWERTY keyboard that I'm starting to find myself amazed how anyone could write whole books by hand at all, even with a regular pen, be it ballpoint, fountain, gel or felt. Or a pencil.

For me, ballpoint would be out of the question; I get hand cramps from those things in very short order. Gel isn't much better. Felt is okay, but my writing instrument of choice for anything meant to be permanent is a fountain pen. Yes, an old-fashioned fountain pen. Though not quite as old-fashioned as the one in the picture; that one belonged to my grandfather, so it's from no later than the 1950's, maybe even as old as the 1920's or 30's. It's the plunger type, with a piston ink reservoir in the belly.

No, the kind I use are the ones I learned to write with, back in Germany in the 70's, with neat and tidy ink cartridges to put in it. Usually royal blue, but when I got to my teens I really enjoyed paying a bit extra and getting the fancy coloured inks. They even had scented ones for a while in the little junk shop where I liked browsing. My grade 11 math teacher was not impressed with the yellow and orange; he said he could barely see them on the page. So I had to switch back to turquoise, and green, and purple. I even had brown for a while; but I can't remember what the scent of that one was. (No, it definitely wasn't what you think! Get your mind out of the gutter.)

Now, I just rattle my fingers over the keyboard, with great speed and inaccuracy. My backspace button gets used about as much as the space bar, I think.

Life, the Universe, the Quill and QWERTY. What's your favourite writing tool?

06 September 2012

Malicious Software

This picture has very little to do with this post
It's been said that computers are now called upon to perform functions that were previously done by living creatures, such as eating your homework, which used to be the dog's job. Well, today it came to my attention that the internet can even perform the function of the maliciously plotting wicked witch.

This morning, I happened to look into the junk mail folder of my mail program, and I found an email from a friend that he had sent two months ago. TWO MONTHS! And I'd been wondering why I hadn't heard from him, and he wondered the same thing about me. Here we were, sitting on opposite sides of the Valley, feeling like we had unwittingly offended the other (else they'd be writing, wouldn't they?), when all along it was Thunderbird, maliciously holding on to the message which could have kept our email exchange humming along happily all summer.

It's rather like the ballad of the prince who was going to swim the deep waters to meet the princess on the other side, but the malicious enchantress (or nun, depending on the version) blows out the candle the princess put in the window for him to see by, and he drowns. Oh tragedy. He probably lost his hair net in the water, too. But no, actually, that story isn't quite right (and not just cause I ain't no prince swimmin' for no princess, neither). The one I'm thinking of is where the malicious enchantress withholds the letter that would have made everything well. Othello? No, that involves a stolen hanky, in addition to lots of maliciousness. Wait, Romeo and Juliet! That's got a missing letter in it, I think. But no maliciousness, at least not in the communications mishap, just lots of silliness. Ah, well, I can't think of the specific example right now, but there's probably a Shakespeare version of it, whatever it is, as well as a Brothers Grimm story (which are, let me assure you, often quite grim. Red-hot shoes for dancing in, anyone?).

So, I'm quite convinced that the internet, specifically email programs and social media software, is, deep down, a malicious plotter which is out to mess up our friendships. It makes us THINK it delivered the message, but meanwhile, on the other end, it's surreptitiously marking our mail as junk and throwing it in the recycling bin with all the tin cans with crusty tomato sauce on the inside and last week's advertising fliers. It's only by a fluke that you'll ever find it again, when you're digging through the bin for the receipt you chucked in there that you now absolutely have to have or you won't be able to get back your money on those ugly shoes you bought on impulse the day before yesterday. At the bottom of the recycling bin, there's the message from your friend. And suddenly, all becomes clear - it wasn't that he was too offended or too sick or too busy to write, it was the internet's fault. Curse you, malicious software!

Life, the Universe, and Friendship-sabotaging Software. Beware the malice of the internet!

31 August 2012

Very Mysterious

See this picture? It's a mystery. One of those "name that object" ones. What? You think it's an ice cube tray? Well, yeah, that was moderately obvious. No, I don't mean the tray. I mean those strange and vaguely improper-looking spikes sticking out of the ice cubes. Do you have any idea what they are? I sure don't.

Those spikes just started appearing on my ice cubes this summer. I really have no idea what does this. Well, okay, I have some idea, a guess. Incidentally, they're not drips from the top of the freezer; that was my first thought, and I checked if there was anything dripping. But you see how they're pointing in all different directions; if they were stalagmites - or is it stalactites? - they'd be straight up and down. Perpendicular, like the gothic architecture ("This is a peh-fect exah-mple of an ice spike of the ah-citechture of the peh-pendicular period."). But they're not. The front one, in this case, is at a 45° angle, at least; no drip could be causing that. And after I used up these particular spiky ice cubes to impart a pleasing chill to my preferred summer beverage (I like iced tea, American style - just brew some tea and dump it on ice cubes. Takes the spikes off in no time flat, and is marvellously cooling. Aaaah.), I made more ice cubes, and every once in a while, they'd throw out these spikes again. And every time, they'd be pointing off in all direction at weird angles.

So here is what I think those spikes might be: I figure they're eruptions from the ice cube's core. The other day, I opened the freezer to get some more tea chillin' materials, and there was a loudish crack from the ice cube tray. Several of the ice cubes had split down the middle and just about jumped out of the tray, and there were a couple more of those spikes sticking out of the cubes. See, I think what happens is that when the ice cubes aren't 100% frozen, and someone opens the freezer (which happens more frequently at this time of year; see "iced tea" above), the still-slightly-warmer water in the core of the cube expands, and gets shot out through a tiny hole in the layer of ice covering the cube. And then it must, I don't know, flash-freeze or something, to form these spikes. I wouldn't have thought this was possible, but there's the evidence, right here in my freezer. And it's the most logical explanation I can come up with.

The funny thing about this is that quite probably, if you tried to replicate this phenomenon in your chemistry lab's lunch kit freezer, you wouldn't be able to. There's likely some weird combination of conditions that's in place in my freezer, or even in that particular spot in my freezer (eight inches from the left on the top shelf beside the ice cream and in front of the dish of lemon juice), which, together with the prevailing atmospheric conditions and the fact that Venus and Jupiter appeared together in the early morning sky for several weeks, created ideal ice cube spiking scenarios.

None of this really matters, does it? I just thought it was curious. And those spikes look decorative, don't they?

Life, the Universe, and Ice Cube Tray Mysteries. If you can think of a better explanation than mine, do tell.

Addendum Jan. 4, 2016: The mystery has been solved! What we're dealing with is ice spikes, and here is the Wikipedia article that explains how they're formed: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_spike (the article wasn't written until a year or two after this blog post, that's why I couldn't find anything about it online). Finally, a solution!

25 August 2012

Beartales the First

Hi. This is Steve. My human's been a bit out of it lately, so I thought I'd help her out and talk to you people for once. You know, she's been in the kind of mood where she plops herself on the couch and pops in that movie, you know the one where they're all mincing around and talking funny, and the men wear tall tubes on their heads, and every once in a while someone goes "Mister Daaaahcy!" There's not one single bear in sight anywhere in that movie, but she seems to like it anyway. And it's five hours long. That kind of thing. You know?

So, we went on that trip a while ago, you know, we went on an airplane, and then I sat on a bedside table in a hotel for a couple of days. Here's me, in the hotel:


I like travelling; it's fun. I tell Horatio all about it when we get home, and he likes listening, but he doesn't want to go anywhere himself. He's a hometiger, I suppose. And then, after I'm done telling him about our trip (sitting in the backpack squished under an airplane seat is loud. And tight. You know?), he tells me about the poetry he's composed while I was gone. He never writes it down, though, which is too bad because it's good poetry. But maybe it's more of a performance art, you know? Writing it down would probably spoil it. I don't know if our human even knows about Horatio's poetry; I should tell her sometime.

Here's me in the backpack on the airplane:


Well, that's all I can think of telling you for today. Maybe I'll come back some time and tell you more; you're nice to talk to, you know?
This is Steve the Bear, signing off for today. Woolly Wishes!

18 August 2012


I learned to speak Prairie on the weekend. Oh yes. As I already mentioned, there was the lesson that tall round steel containers on the prairies are called "granaries", not "silos" (silos are for animal feed, not people feed). There was also the spelling lesson I got on how to write it; when I told another prairie-born friend how our Saskatchewan friend had been so emphatic about the right word, I spelled it "graineries", and she wrote back nonchalantly talking about "granaries". Aha, another thing learned.

And then, furthermore, there is "coulee", a dry ditch on the prairie. (No, not a native Asian worker who is employed to carry heavy burdens for ridiculously low wages. Those are coolies.) And there is "butte" - take off the "e", and imagine one sticking out of the flat of the prairie. That's sort of what it looks like. But it's pronounced "bute", like the first syllable in "butane", not like, well, the body part.

But then, there's "slough". And that's a really funny word, because of its pronunciation. A slough on the prairie is a lake, often without an outlet, so it can become almost salty (or so I hear). And that kind of slough, it's pronounced "slew". Like flew, and grew, and sew. (Oh, wait...) But then, another friend of mine comes from the land where they pronounce things correctly (well, you have to admit that England has a certain claim to being the arbiter of how English should be pronounced. I mean, it's not called Americanish, or Canadianish, or Australianish, is it?). He says that there, the word "slough" is pronounced to rhyme with bow, and row, and sow. Uh... I mean, as in: "After the sow had a row with the cow about who got to drink from the slough, she took a bow and walked off in a huff." NOT as in "The farmer liked to sow his row of wheat so that it would go in a bow around the slough." You know?

That's what really confused me about J. K. Rowling - I used to pronounce her name like "Roland" with "ing" on the end. Then I read somewhere that she said the "Row" part was pronounced like the row people have with each other; and that just confirmed it for me. I learned that word from books, you see, and had never heard it said out loud, so in my mind I was always pronouncing it like the activity people engage in with paddles and oars. (But, oh dear, I suppose you could have the argumentative "row" with paddles and oars, too - it would get a little violent, that, as Dr. Seuss so aptly describes in the "Tweedle Beetle Battle with Paddles in a Puddle" from Fox in Socks. No, no, I mean the rowing you do with paddles and oars on the water. In boats. Phew, this is involved...). It took some watching of Brits movies to figure out that an argumentative row, the kind that J. K. Rowling means, rhymes with "cow" and "now". As does the slough, the watery kind, in England. But not on the prairies.

Now, I also have this vague idea that there is a kind of "slough" that's pronounced differently yet, namely when it's a verb. To slough, i.e. to shed skin - sloughing off - isn't that pronounced to rhyme with "tough"? Sort of like, well, tuff? And huff? Sluff?

I think I'm giving up. English is just weird. Suffice to say, the prairie slough is something that ducks can swim on, and it gives greater value to a piece of land. And the sun turns it into a molten gold when it glints off it in one of those spectacular prairie sunsets one hears so much about.

Life, the Universe, Coulee and Slough. I speak Prairie - how about you?

16 August 2012


Steve and I got to see the prairies on the weekend. Well, I did, anyway; Steve mostly saw the inside of my backpack and the bedside table in our hotel room. But that's okay, as he's a little agoraphobic. And in case you've never been on the prairies, let me tell you that they're a very bad place to be if you have a fear of open spaces.

I had never been on the prairies before - not really. Only on the westernmost part of it, in Alberta; and while I was impressed with them then, they're nothing to the immense, astonishing, enormous vastness that is Saskatchewan. The immense, astonishing, enormous, FLAT vastness. There is, as Connie Kaldor sings, "Sky With Nothing To Get In The Way". And that nothing that doesn't get in the way, it goes on for miles, and miles, and miles -for a whole quarter of a continent, in fact. Steve isn't the only one who felt a little agoraphobic out there.

Really, there is no reason why I should be so astonished at what the prairies are. I heard them talked about for most of my adult life, not least by the friend whose wedding was the reason for our quick weekend trip. But immensity like this, it has to be seen to be imagined. I had no idea that there is a landscape like this, so wide, so flat, so endless, with just a few clumps of trees, sheltering farmhouses from the wind, seemingly randomly dotted across the plains, far, far away from each other across the fields. And then occasionally, equally randomly, the houses cluster together into little towns, by the side of the arrow-straight road which could take you on, and on, across the vast flatness, until it dips over the horizon.

Our friend took us out to see his family's old farm, where his brother, his father and his grandfather tended the land for nearly a hundred years. It's been sold now, and his family's home, heartbreakingly, stands abandoned. But the land around it is still being farmed, still used to grow food. Right next to the house, there are some granaries (our friend nearly snapped our heads off when we called them "silos") which are in use by the people who farm the land now, and spilled on the ground in front of them there were some lentils, just sitting on the dirt like so much gravel. I could have scooped them up and cooked soup out of them right there (after a little help from Cinderella's doves with sorting out the grass and dirt from the lentils themselves). Of course I knew legumes grow on plants, but somehow I had never really pictured where they would come from - those vast acres of plants, translating into food just like that. There were the bronze and ochre fields, and here the lentils lying on the ground.

I have conceived an enormous respect for the source of our food, for the people who dwell on those vast open plains and work this tremendous, beautiful wide land. I have also come to a new appreciation for the mountains, the lakes and the trees that I see every day when I look out my window. Beauty comes in so many forms - some awe-inspiring, some intimate. Here, back at home, in the orchards down the street the peaches are ripening, and the pears and apples won't be far behind. But now, when I dip my measuring cup into the flour bucket to make the pie crust to go on the fruit, I can picture those wide open prairies where the wheat blows in the wind, and I can see the farms and little towns where the people live who plant, tend and harvest.

Life, the Universe, and the Immensity of the Prairies. It has to be seen to be imagined.