26 December 2013

Midwinter



MIDWINTER

A little bit
Of the receding sun
Now gilds the hills
Across the lake from me.
Midwinter's day
Draws to its early close,
Dusk paints the world
In silver-grey.
Against the frozen blue
The golden light of lamps
Begins to shine from living rooms,
The warmth of family meals
Scenting the air.
The cat
Purrs on the couch.

26. 12. 2013

19 December 2013

Winter Light

I was going to write a deep, thought-provoking post today, but then I thought, Naaah, it's Christmas time. It's supposed to be about being jolly, and holly, and other things ending in -olly. (That's a shameless quote from Terry Pratchett's Hogfather. Thank you, Sir Terry.) So I decided to think about Christmassy things instead.

Early this morning, I dreamt that I had had to move to Australia quite suddenly. And as we were carrying things into our house there, I felt really disoriented, because I had no idea where anything was in that town, or how things are done Down Under - I woke up still thinking I should google the place, so I could at least see on a map of Australia where I was and then perhaps find the nearest grocery store. Anyway, the point of my telling you this: I got to thinking: I don't know that I would like being Down Under for Christmas. It would seem really weird - kind of wrong - to have Christmas in the middle of summer. Christmas needs darkness, and cold, and winter, at least for this Northerner it does.

Part of the fun and atmosphere of the Christmas celebration is the lights, and they need darkness to set them off. This year we put up perhaps the charlie-browniest of Charlie-Brown-trees ever (Love it. It came from the woods behind our house.). And for all its sad, thin branches, once the lights were on, it was transformed. It's beautiful. The light shines in the darkness - that's what Christmas is all about, isn't it?

And then there's winter sunlight. It has a completely different quality about it than sunlight at the other times of the year. Some years ago, I was looking at an art book, in which the author was demonstrating how to turn a summer photo of a wooded landscape into a snow scene. But the problem was that what she was doing didn't work. The author lived somewhere south, might have been Southern California, and by her own admission had never really seen a snowy landscape. The snow was painted well enough, with blue shadows and all, but the angle of the light was all wrong. She just kept the shadows cast by the sun in her southern-latitudes photo, but a sun that high would never produce snowy weather; her summer-sun snow painting felt really bizarre to me. A winter scene in the Northern latitudes is determined more by the angle of the light than by the snow lying on the ground. See? Those trees are most emphatically winter trees, sitting on my kitchen counter with the winter noon sun shining on them through my south-facing window.

I love winter light, the low, slanted noon sunlight falling through my window, and the sparkling, twinkling, warm light of candles and Christmas trees at night. And soon, very soon, the light will turn, and all will gradually become brighter again. The sun will rise in the morning when I need to get up, and then long before I need to get up (and I will grumble at it then), and the darkness will be, yet again, banished to its short night time. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not prevail.

Incidentally, none of this means that if any of you Kiwis or Ozzies wanted to invite me for Christmas (and pay the airfare), I'd turn down the invitation. I might not want to move Down Under, but I'd love to come for a visit!

Life, the Universe, and Light in the Darkness. Winter will pass soon enough.


04 December 2013

Silence

I haven't been saying much on here lately. And it's not because I haven't got anything in my head - rather the contrary, it's because my head is too full of thoughts. For weeks now, morning til night, I've been reading, studying, thinking, writing, thinking some more, reading again, thinking, writing… (and so on and so forth - you get the picture). It's a deluge of thought, and my mind will not be still.

A few years ago, someone I knew, who was writing a column for the local paper, wanted to post a piece on Silence. He gave the paper his column for the week, and what he had meant it to look like is this:

SILENCE












Unfortunately, the typesetter didn't quite get the memo, and set the page in standard style, filling in the empty space with STUFF (I can't quite remember what it was, might have been advertising). It rather spoiled the effect, or, as it were, had an effect of its own. We can't bear empty spaces, cannot tolerate silence.

This past weekend, on two separate occasions, I had the opportunity to practise silence. And the remarkable thing was that it was corporate silence - silence with other people. Twice, I sat in a room (well, once it was a church), among strangers for the most part, and everyone was completely still. Doing nothing but being silent. Meditation, contemplation. Silence. And it was powerful.

Now, on a daily basis, my life isn't particularly noisy as far as decibel level is concerned. I live in a quiet house with a rather quiet family; these days, I can hear the clock tick-tocking almost daily. But what is lacking is that inner silence, that space in which my mind has nothing else to do but be still. And that is what these spaces of corporate silence last weekend gave me a glimpse of. The discipline of sitting among others, in a space determined by others for a time period not decided on by me, just being silent - it fed my soul. The presence of the strangers around me helped me to the framework of stillness which my soul was craving.

Oh, my mind was still doing its hamster ball thing, aimlessly rolling here and there, running, running, running - but, actually, that was okay. I could just let it run its course of furry frenzy, smile indulgently at it, and keep sitting there - silent.

I did not come away from the experience with any profound insight, any solutions to personal, world or academic problems, or - as you can tell - the text of several perfect blog posts completely formulated in my mind. You see, that was not the point. The point of silence is not to come away with Something, although at times that happens, too. The point is to sit in Nothingness, in Silence, just for its own sake.

Silence.

Life, the Universe, and the Hamster Ball of the Mind. I wish you, for today, a space of Silence.

19 November 2013

Book Walls

My computer is currently walled in by books. Lots and lots of books - fifty or so of them. And the desk is shored up by another dozen or more on the floor beside it. That's life in the grad school lane.

They're not all mine - some are (an ever-increasing proportion, I have to admit), but most of them are library books. I'm lucky enough that even though I live in a semi-rural area, I have access to the library of one of the biggest universities in Canada, which just happens to have a campus in town here. With the library card from my distance ed uni, the locals let me take out anything I like, and even send me books from the big city campus if I ask. And I ask - you better believe it. And then there's the public library, which netted me some couple dozen books for my research this time. It'll be heavy lugging taking all that stuff back when the time comes.

You know, I like real books. I enjoy reading ebooks on my ebook reader, when it's novels or short stories (like fairy tales!) which I'm reading for amusement. But for research, for non-fiction, give me a real book. For keeps, give me a real book. For looking up information, give me a real book. For knowing that I have the book in my collection - you know, when I run across that obscure reference to Andrew Lang, and I can say "Hey, I've got that on my shelf downstairs!" - give me a real book.

Real books are not dependent on electricity; if the power goes out, I can still read by candlelight. Real books don't suffer from file corruption or obsolescence - I got my copy of the Brothers Grimm in 1987, and it's still perfectly good, barring a bit of yellowing of the pages. On real books, I can stick sticky notes all over the margins, so I can find the quotes again which struck me while I was reading them.

And of course, real books make great walls around your computer. If I wasn't sitting in my office (aka bedroom) by myself anyway, I still wouldn't need a cubicle for privacy - I have book stacks to do the job.

Life, the Universe, and Grad School Book Walls. Better get back to studying.

12 November 2013

A Different Kind of Remembrance Day

The last few years, I've made a habit of putting up a thoughtful post on Remembrance Day, a post reflecting on the past, on The War. To me, as I learned it from my parents and their generation, The War always refers to World War II. 1939-1945. As if there had not been any other war in the decades previously or since. The scars it left were so deep, even seventy years and two generations later they still hurt.

But this year, I don't want to talk about The War. Because this year, on Remembrance Day weekend, I was engaged in a remembrance of a different kind: I got to go to the 80th birthday celebration of a dear aunt of mine. It was a wonderful party: over eighty people jammed into her daughter's house, eating, talking, laughing, hugging my tiny little aunt who was walking through the crowd of her friends with a great big smile on her face...

Laughing - did I mention laughing? We laughed so hard we had tears running down our faces. Her four granddaughters put on a skit, poking fun at some of her traits. One of the girls acted "Oma", complete with her coat, slacks, shoes, the wig she wore when she had chemotherapy four years ago, and her thick German accent. The funniest bit bar none was when the play "neighbour" talked to the play "Oma", discussing her propensity for making friends with anybody and everybody (that very propensity which was responsible for the crowd of 80+ guests).
"I know you like getting to the mail box at the right time so you can talk to the mail carrier, don't you. You probably even know her name - what's she called?" says the "neighbour".
Play "Oma" replies: "Oh, her name is Jane!"
"No, it's not," interjects the real Oma quite positively, "it's Michelle!"

It was wonderful to celebrate the life of this little woman whose eighty years on this earth have by no means been easy. From having to flee wartime Poland as a child to a bout of cancer in her seventies which we all thought would kill her, through personal difficulties and health struggles, she carried on, and poured out love around her wherever she went. Some of that love was palpable in my cousin's house this past Sunday, flowing back in waves from her children, grandchildren and many, many friends towards this small, grey-haired, smiling person in the turquoise blouse.

It was a Remembrance Day of a different kind, and it was a great blessing to be part of it.

07 November 2013

Noses

I was reading a fairy tale last night, "Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess". It's a story of a prince who has an incredibly long nose. His mother and everyone is shocked, but because he's a prince, they decide that nobody is allowed to point out to him that his nose is in any way unusual. They surround him with only people with long noses, always talk of his nose being handsome, make fun of short-nosed people etc., so he grows up thinking that his nose is normal and short noses are weird. Finally he falls in love with a short-nosed (or rather, normal-nosed) princess. She gets kidnapped, and he has to go find her, and for the first time in his life is confronted with people who all make comments about his nose. He doesn't want to accept that his nose is at fault, he keeps thinking it's everyone else who's off the wall with their comments and their silly little noses. It's not until his nose interferes with his pursuit of the princess (he can't kiss her hand because his nose gets in the way) that he admits that his nose is, perhaps, "too long", which breaks the spell; the princess is freed, he gets a normal nose, and all live happily ever after.

Now, today I had a conversation with some friends about kids with special needs. And suddenly this fairy tale popped back into my mind, and I got to thinking: I wonder if we don't do our kids, especially those with any disabilities (or diff-abilities, as it were), a disfavour by telling them that they're amazing and talented and can do anything that anyone else can do. Because one day they'll be confronted with "the real world" which will tell them that their nose is, indeed, unusually long - that they're not, in fact, "normal", and they'll find that their disability really does hamper them in what they might want to do, and they won't have the inner resources to cope with that knowledge. When you have a Prince Hyacinth who's been told all his life that he's the normal one and all the other people are weird, he's going to have a hard time figuring out how live in a world of short-nosed people. Of course, we want kids (or indeed, anybody) to be proud of who they are and have healthy self-esteem, but the Prince-Hyacinth-syndrome goes out the other end - he's deluded about his problem, doesn't know he has a problem, because his mother so carefully shielded him from it.

Now, to be honest, I'd prefer the ending of the fairy tale if his nose would shrink to median proportions, sort of go to a moderately-long-but-still-human size, instead of shrinking right down to being "like everyone else". There's nothing wrong with having a long nose, I'll have you know; I've got one myself (see?). But, you know - I used to very much think there was something wrong with my nose; I used to feel terribly self-conscious about it. Then one day a friend of mine, when I pointed out that my nose was long and had a bump in the middle, said "So what? I like it!" Reader, I married him (what else could I do?), and I haven't felt bad about my nose ever since. In fact, I rather like it because it's unusual (also, several famous Germans have had similar noses - Martin Luther and Albrecht Dürer, for one; also, Vincent Van Gogh, though he was a Dutchman).

But, you see, my schnoz isn't so big and bumpy that it gets in the way of what I want to do. Prince Hyacinth's, on the other hand, interfered with what he wanted, namely to snog the princess (who was locked up in a glass cage or palace, so he could only reach her hand - the details, as given by Andrew Lang, are a little murky). And it's when Prince Hyacinth says that "Well, it must be admitted that my nose is too long!" the spell snaps - both his and the princess'. She busts out of the glass cage, his nose shrinks to allow for adequate smooching (on the lips, no less, I'm sure, although Andrew Lang never says so, The Blue Fairy Book being a publication for children).

Admitting to our problems, even just to ourselves, can be the key to solving them. There is a line to walk between accepting our uniqueness, and closing our eyes to the issues that hold us back. True self-esteem sees our strengths and our limitations, and admitting to both is what lets us go to where we want to go.

Now don't anybody bring up Tristram Shandy - that is not the kind of nose this fairy tale is talking about. This is a children's story, people.

Life, the Universe, and Long Noses. And they lived happily ever after.

29 October 2013

Autumn

I don't really have anything to say today, so I'll show you instead: pictures of a Canadian October. Autumn. You know, come to think of it, I like the word "autumn" better than "fall" (although I usually use the latter when I'm talking). "Fall" sounds you've just tripped and gone splat, "autumn" sounds so much more poetic.

Zucchini, spaghetti squash, pumpkins, and some kind of crossbreed which makes good pies.

Thanksgiving Turkey. That sucker was so big, the lid didn't fit on the roasting pan.

Those poor petunias, still trying to pretend its summer.

Rain. It's cosy inside on those days.
...but we've had sunny days, too. The brilliance of autumn colours is beyond comparison.
So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and My Autumn So Far. I do like this season.

21 October 2013

Movies from Books

I've come to a conclusion about watching movies, especially fantasy stories: if you really want to enjoy the movie, don't read the book first. We just saw Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters last week, and it was quite a fun movie to watch. Then I read the book yesterday, and boy oh boy, is it ever different! Well, as usual, the book is better - but because I hadn't read it, I wasn't spending the two hours in the movie theatre groaning about how they messed up the story; I was able to enjoy both film and print.

True, there were a few groan-worthy spots - like the point where some characters are having an emotional reunion-hug scene, monologuing about how much they appreciate each other, while the bad guy does bad-guy things right behind their back that they very much need to interfere with. But they don't, being all emotional and huggy, so bad guy nearly gets his bad-guy way. (Spoiler: he doesn't, in the end. I'm sure that really surprises you, that in a hero movie the heroes win. Yup.) Oh, and another thing that threw me for a minor loop was that they replaced the actor for one of the main characters: Chiron isn't played by Pierce Brosnan, but by Anthony Head. So, no, Camp Half-Blood didn't get another centaur teacher as I first thought, he's just shape-shifted a bit. And actually, Anthony Head fits the character in the book better than Pierce Brosnan; he looks older and more teacherly-mature, which is what Chiron is supposed to be.

"Supposed to be". That "fidelity question" in film adaptations is something I've been thinking about ever since last semester's term paper on Jane Austen movies. I used to be very demanding of "fidelity" in movie adaptations, i.e. "how faithful is the movie to the book?" I still am, to a point, especially when it comes to my favourites such as Austen. But I've rethought a lot of my attitude in that regard. Because, you see, the fact is that movies are not books. Film and print are apples and oranges. Yes, I like my apples to have a certain taste and texture, and my oranges as well. But if oranges were green & yellow with red stripes and a crunchy texture, I'd be a little perturbed. Well, no, a lot perturbed. And a squashy orange-coloured apple with a dimpled skin really wouldn't be cool, either. So a movie which tries to tell the story in just the same way as the book - well, it often just doesn't work. At worst you end up with really boring voice-over narration of the text in the book, or just, well, really boring. Or cheesy.

Because in a book, you can just tell the reader what you want them to "see". You can say "She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen," and each reader imagines for themselves what exactly that means. On a film, you have to show that - and when it comes to such things as "most beautiful" or "most horrible", those experiences are quite subjective. That's where Peter Jackson struck out with his Lord of the Rings elf women - he succeeded in making them sugary, with all that pink backlighting and the soft-focus shots, rather than ethereal and stunningly beautiful. At least that's my opinion. Yes, yes, of course the actresses are very beautiful women - but they're women, that's the problem, not elves. In fantasy films that's a big issue - you're trying to show something supernatural by natural means. That's why the book usually is better, because you can convey so much more in words than in mere image.

But then, sometimes, it's the words that start to stumble. Take The Lord of the Rings again: if one wanted to re-tell the movie in words, to convey the majesty of the New Zealand landscape in which the film was shot, words just would not be enough. That's where the film excels in something the book hasn't got. The movie tells a story in pictures, and sometimes, if not almost all the time, that story is different from the one that is told in words. Different, not worse, not inferior. Well, maybe sometimes inferior, and then, sometimes, superior. But most of the time, just different. I think there are some stories that are best told in words, and some best in images. And maybe - maybe we won't know which fits best until we've tried them both.

Life, the Universe, and Movies from Books. Don't read the book first, you'll like the movie better for it.

10 October 2013

Hope


HOPE

My cat hurt himself and I don't know what to do.
The government of one of the most powerful nations on the earth seems to have gone crazy.
A young man I know of broke his neck, and no one knows if he will ever walk or use his hands again.

But
today
a baby came into the world.
A small
ordinary
baby boy
with a button nose
a tiny chin
dusky eyes
(which want to stay shut most of the time
if the photos are to be believed)
and a lip
that is
a perfect Cupid's bow.

Hope
is greater than
fear.

10.10.2013

02 October 2013

Apples

As you probably heard, I'm studying Snow White right now. Yes, her of the apple. But I also live in Apple Country; I drive past apple (and/or peach and/or cherry) orchards every time I leave my house.

Apples are great. I think if I were to move to a tropical climate, apart from dying of heat, I'd really miss apples. For Northern Europeans, they're the quintessential fruit. You know how in the Garden of Eden Eve tempted Adam with an apple? Actually, she didn't. We just think she did, courtesy of all those Northern European artists who heard the story that the Fall of Mankind came about through a piece of fruit, and automatically depicted the first thing that came to mind - an apple. For all we know, the Garden-of-Eden fruit was a banana. But somehow it doesn't quite seem right, you know? Apples are so tempting, so lovely, and round, and shiny (if you buff them on your shirt before eating them) - a banana hasn't quite got the same effect.

That's what got Snow White, too. She fell for all the finery the witch foisted off on her - the lace that was tied too tightly, the poisoned comb in her hair - but the dwarfs figured that out and saved her bacon by unlacing and uncombing her. But when it came to food, they struck out. I'm sure there is some deep symbolism in that, or some sly dig at how important food is to women (well, it is, there's nothing wrong with that. But that's another topic.), and that if you give in to the temptation of food you've had it, lady. Presumably the witch took the bitten apple away with her, or the dwarfs would have seen it lying around and figured out that it was food that did in Snow White, and performed the Heimlich manoeuvre or pumped her stomach or something. Well, it doesn't rightly matter, because once the apple popped back out of her mouth, she was fine.

Apples are very symbolic, of all kinds of things. Martin Luther said that to teach children, one ought to have a switch in one hand, an apple in the other. I believe the emphasis here was on the apple, as in his day it was taken for granted that children needed to be beaten in order to learn anything; he was saying that there needs to be positive reinforcement, not just negative - and the apple was the emblem of sweet treats, a suitable reward for a good child (Mars bars hadn't been invented yet).

You've got to wonder what kind of apple Snow White's was. It says it was red on one side, and white on the other (with only the red side poisoned). I can't think of an apple variety that looks like that. My favourite kind (the one in the picture) is a Mackintosh, which is red and green, not red and white. It's good for everything - fresh eating, pie, juice, drying, apple sauce - plus is keeps well (for months, if it's stored right). And it's rarely poisoned by wicked witches. Now, I wonder what the Mac Apple computer has to do with the fruit. It certainly isn't that they're both the cheapest variety on the market.

Life, the Universe, and Apples. I have a feeling Snow White didn't serve apple pie at her wedding.


25 September 2013

Warmth With a Click

A puzzled cat demonstrating how to be warm
It got colder recently. So this morning, I walked over to a spot in the wall, clicked over a little switch, and warm air started streaming out of some holes in the floor.

I mean, how crazy is that? One click of a switch, and it gets warm in this house again. I remember years ago, going to visit a friend who had just moved into a new house with a snazzy gas fireplace (it was the first time I'd ever seen one of those). When I got there, she said, "Hmm, it's kind of cold. Let's start a fire," and click, she hit a switch and the flames in the fireplace leapt to life. I was laughing, probably a little hysterically - I had just come from our little place, where the furnace was broken and we heated the house with an airtight wood stove. "Starting the fire" at home meant going outside, getting a log from the wood shed, chopping it into stove-door-fitting chunks, hauling it into the house with a canvas carrier, splitting off kindling, crumpling some newspaper, carefully stacking all that in the firebox, striking a match, lighting the paper, regulating the stove vent (if you left it open too far and too long, the house would overheat; but if you closed it too soon, the fire would die)… And here my friend "started a fire" with one click of a switch. Just like I did this morning.

I really like wood fires; they are the nicest form of heat. But I'm profoundly grateful that I am not dependent on them as my only source of warmth. Being able to click a switch and instantly get warm has a lot to be said for it. The same goes for light, and cooking fuel. Click an electric switch, and there it is.

Life, the Universe, and Automatic Fires. How fortunate we are.

17 September 2013

Soup

Did I mention that I like food? I guess I did, maybe once or twice (a month). Yes, well. It's one of the greatest pleasures of life, food is. And I enjoy it. Specifically, right now I'm enjoying soup.

I never used to be a big soup eater. I'm still not, really, although they're great fun to cook (you can be very creative with soups). But I have a few kinds of soups I really like, and one of my current favourites is Jamie Oliver's Cauliflower Cheese Soup. I got it from his book Jamie's Food Revolution (called Jamie's Ministry of Food in the original UK edition), a book I'd highly recommend for beginners and seasoned (haha) foodies alike. I'm not sure what it is about the combination of cauliflower and cheese, but it's just to die for (or rather to live for or on. It's really nutritious, as well as addictively delicious.). And just so your taste buds, too, can experience the bliss of cheesy-cauliflowery wonderfulness, here's the recipe - my version, but it's mostly the same as Jamie's.

2 carrots
2 celery stalks
2 medium onions
2 cloves of garlic (I leave those out, I can't eat garlic. But they'd be very tasty, I'm sure.)
8 cups cauliflower florets, or about 1 head of cauliflower
oil
2 quarts (litres) chicken or vegetable broth (I use homemade chicken stock*)
salt and pepper
8 oz (250g) grated cheddar cheese (or whatever other kind you like)
1 tsp mustard
(Jamie also suggests nutmeg, which I don't like, so I don't put it in)

Chop the vegetables. Put a glug of oil into a big soup pot, turn on high, dump in the veg. Sauté the veg for ten minutes or so, until they're softish (the onions at least). Pour in the broth (Jamie says to boil the broth in another pot first, but I don't, I just put it in cold). Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the vegetables are really soft, about 30 minutes. Purée with an immersion blender. Add the mustard and grated cheese, stir until melted. SERRRRRVE. Makes enough for 6-8 people, or else it freezes and reheats very well. Also good in thermos containers in lunches and such.


*Oh, and just as a PS, here's how I make chicken stock:
take a chicken carcase or two or three (raw with a bit of meat on it still is best, but the bones from a roast chicken, even one of those rotisserie ones from the supermarket, work very well too). Put into a stock pot. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, turn down, simmer for a couple of hours or so. Strain out the bones, pick off the last bits of meat (they make great chicken salad), chuck out the bones, DONE. I pour the stock into old litre-sized yogurt containers and freeze it for future reference. It's THE best base for homemade soups of any kind. Note, I don't add any seasonings, not even salt, because I want to be free to play with the seasonings in the final recipe. Also, if you want to simmer the stock down to concentrate some more, the salt or other seasonings would become too strong, so it's better to just not put any in up front. If I wanted to make plain chicken soup from this, I'd simmer some seasonings along with the bones, say, an onion, a couple of carrots, some celery, and a leaf or two of lovage (a garden herb that tastes like Maggi, similar to celery leaves; it's a great soup seasoning).

There you have it: Life, the Universe, and Soup. Guten Appetit!

11 September 2013

Snow White and Rose Red


from Wikimedia Commons
Steve thinks I'm studying the wrong Snow White story. Oh, didn't I say? This semester, one of my courses is a reading course on fairy tales, and I'm focusing on "Snow White". The one with the seven dwarfs. But Steve, being of the ursine persuasion, thinks I should do the one with the bear in it. His argument is that there's a dwarf in that one, too, so if I'm stuck on dwarfs, it'll do just as well. But sorry, Steve, "Snow White and Rose Red" just isn't well-enough known in English-speaking countries for there to be much scope for a whole course of study. No Disney or other movie adaptations, no cheesy YA novels, and nary a picture book to be had, unlike the Seven-Dwarfs version. Which makes me wonder if the dwarfs had a hand in disseminating the latter tale; it sure makes dwarfkind look good, while the other story - well... But you've probably never heard of "Snow White and Rose Red", have you? Well, here it is - my version. (If you want to read the proper Grimms' one, #161 in the Children's and Household Tales, you can find it here.)

There once was a poor widow who lived in a little cottage in the woods. In the garden in front there were two rose trees, one white, one red. Inside the cottage, there were two little girls, one called Snow White, the other Rose Red. (Creative, eh? You gotta wonder if the kids were named after the trees, or the trees planted for the kids.) Those two little girls were the poor widow's daughters, and they were so good and sweet, it's downright nauseating. (The Grimms go on for more than a page about just how good these kids were. I'll spare you the recital.) So one bitterly cold winter's night, they were snugly sitting by the fireside, mother reading out of a fat old book while the girls were spinning (yup. With a spinning wheel.) when a heavy knock fell on the door. "Go open the door, girls," says mama, "it'll be a poor woodsmen needing shelter from the cold!" (Apparently they hadn't heard of not letting strangers in the house.) So the girls opened the door, and outside stood - a big, black bear. Now, it seems they had heard that black bears are dangerous, so they let out a shriek and tried to slam the door, but the bear got his foot in the crack first (well, okay, that's not what the Grimms say, but it's the gist of it), and said, "Kind ladies, don't be afraid! I only seek to warm myself by your fire." Now the mother figured that a talking bear must be less of an issue than the ordinary growly kind, so she let him in and talked the girls into coming out from behind the sofa, where they'd been hiding. He stretched himself out by the fire, got the kids to brush the snow out of his fur, and once they figured out that he was really quite tame (besides being able to talk), they made right pests of themselves, petting and poking and rolling all over him, using him as a sort of live hearth rug or oversized puppy dog. The bear put up with it quite good-humouredly; in fact, they had such a good time that the mother asked him to stay the night. When he left in the morning, he snagged his fur on the door latch, and Rose Red thought she saw a little bit of gold underneath - but she wasn't quite sure, so she didn't say anything. Mama invited him back the following evening, and so all winter long, the bear spent his nights at the cottage, sleeping in front of the fire and being plagued by the little girls.
 Now, come spring, bear said, "I can no longer spend my nights in your charming company, for I must go and protect my treasure from the wicked dwarfs which come out of their caves now that it is warmer. Farewell, my friends!" (or something equally sonorous; he talked kind of posh) and took himself off into the woods.
So then one day the girls were out picking flowers or something, when they made a new acquaintance. By a log, they saw something hopping up and down, and when they got closer, they noticed it was a dwarf, with the end of his long beard caught in a slit in the log. He'd been trying to split the log for firewood, and got caught. He was an extremely rude and self-absorbed dwarf, yelling at the girls and calling them names, but nevertheless, they helped him out. Snow White had her sewing scissors in her pocket (being that sort of girl), and she cut the end off the dwarf's beard and set him free. He swore at her for mutilating his beard, collected a bag of jewels he had stashed nearby, and scampered off. This being a fairy tale, the same thing happened twice more: once they cut the dwarf's beard free from a fishing line he was caught in (the fish was trying to pull him under), and the other time they pulled him out of the talons of an eagle who wanted to lunch on the crabby little fellow. Even when the dwarf yelled at them for tearing his clothes in the rescue attempt, they didn't regret what they had done, which shows you just how sweet, good, and slightly dimwitted they were.
But the last time they met the dwarf, the outcome was just a little different. They were coming back from town, and there in a clearing was the dwarf. He'd spread a big bag of jewels all over the ground, and was gloating over his hoard, when he noticed the girls. He started screaming and yelling at them, but then suddenly, with a growl, a big black bear jumped out of the bushes. (You know where this is going, don't you?) He attacked the dwarf, who started whimpering and whining, begging the bear to spare his life: "Here, eat those two little girls instead, they'll be much tastier than me!" Of course, wicked ungratefulness of this kind must be punished, and the bear did the honours: one swipe of his paw, and the bad little dwarf was no more.
The girls were running for it - they weren't sure if the bear wouldn't take the dwarf's advice and have them for dessert - when they heard the bear's voice: "Snow White, Rose Red, do not be afraid! It is I, your friend!" They stopped to wait for him, but when the bear caught up with them his black bearskin fell off him, and there before them stood a most handsome young man, dressed from head to foot in cloth-of-gold. (Being good-looking doesn't mean he had fashion sense.) "I am a king's son," he proclaimed (to the surprise of no one except Snow White and Rose Red), "and the evil dwarf had me under an enchantment, so I had to live as a bear until I was freed by his death." (Which means that if the girls hadn't been so polite to the rude dwarf and kept saving his life, the prince would have been freed from his enchantment much sooner. I guess the moral of that is that you really should let rude people get what's coming to them.)
So Snow White married the prince, and Rose Red married his brother (which sounds like cradle-snatching to me, as the girls are described as quite young for most of the story), and with the dwarf's treasure, which they divided between them, they all lived quite a cushy life. Mama came to live in the palace with them, of course, and she brought along the two rose trees, which continued to  bloom happily ever after, each summer, one white and one red.

There, now you know the story of "Snow White and Rose Red". Isn't it fun? It was always one of my favourites (not just Steve's).

Life, the Universe, Snow White and Rose Red. And if they haven't died by now, they still live on today.

03 September 2013

Margins

Hey, where did August go? All of a sudden it's September, and I haven't written a blog post in almost a month. That's the second time this year a month has gone missing on me - I lost May, too. First it was April, and then, I could have sworn not much more than a couple of weeks later, it was the middle of June. It's like that odd character in the equally odd movie adaptation of Five Children and It, the strange uncle played by Kenneth Branagh. He loses a Thursday in that movie. Well, it happens, you know.

But actually, to be honest, I do know what happened to August. Holidays happened. Company, and road trips to be company; and then of course peaches and salsa and relish happened, too (pears and pesto are still forthcoming). And I read P. D. James (who isn't nearly as gritty and disturbing as I remembered from the first book of hers I read), and watched movies, and went places and saw things with company and as company. And between all of that, there was no space left for blogging. Oh, sure, I could have made myself do it - there was the odd blank space in the margin of my life that didn't have anything scribbled on it. But quite apart from the fact that after all the term paper writing I did in July I had a mild case of writer's fatigue, I needed to keep those margins blank.

Because the thing is, a person needs margins in their life. There needs to be space around the edges of the sheet of things you've got to do. Because if there isn't, if you cram your life so full of doings that you live it right to the edge, when something extra drops into the middle you get pushed right off the rim. Splat. When you work right to the limit of your capacity, all day and every day, then any crisis, perhaps even a minor one, will send you spiralling into a meltdown. If you spend right to the edge - energy or money, it's all the same - you might find yourself suddenly clinging desperately to a narrow rim which is all that is left to hold onto.  No margins are not a healthy way to live.

Now, I know that there are times when you simply can't help it, when your sheet, or your plate, as it were, is full right to the edge through no doing of your own. But I do think that more often than not we can help it. We make choices about what else we pile on that plate or scribble on that sheet. Writing into the margin is something we decide to do, because we figure that (for whatever reason) the thing we're putting down is more important than having that extra space to absorb unforeseen stress. God knows, I've done it so many times. And fallen off the edge with just a little extra push from the middle. It's not a good thing, trust me. Quite apart from the pain of hitting the ground, once you're splattered on the floor, you get nothing else done - so then what have you achieved with your overcramming of your life?

So I don't want to live like that any more. I want to keep margins in my life, some blank spaces around the edge. Keep the middle to the middle, fill it with only those things that really are important. And I want to do that before life forces me to do it through illness or loss or any other nasty ways that it could possibly do that. The stuff in the middle, that's important, but we need the margins to keep the middle in place. With margins, a crisis can be handled - without them, it becomes a catastrophe.

Life, the Universe, and Margins. I'm going to leave some blank around those edges of my life.

06 August 2013

Summer and Its Downsides

It's summer. High summer, Hochsommer, as we would say in German. That's as opposed to midsummer, which, oddly enough, is the beginning of summer, not the middle of it. Last year this time I went to see the prairies; here's one of the leftover pictures which I never posted last time:
ducks on a slough

And here's some other leftover pictures from last year:
view with grape leaves

That grapevine winding itself over the railing of my deck is rather more prolific (and unfortunately, less healthy) this year, which means I don't get a lot of these kinds of views any more:
boat through railing

But that's okay. I like the grape. And for next year, we can prune it so it fills in the sides of the deck instead of the lake-facing front.

When I started this post, I had actually intended to whine a bit about summer. Being of North-Western European blood, the summer weather in South-Central British Columbia is, usually, too much for me. In Germany, 30ºC is a heat wave; here, it's normal. My system doesn't cope well. And we don't have functional central air conditioning in the house, just a couple of window unit machines. I must say, the one in my bedroom/office has been a life saver - okay, maybe not a life saver, but a sanity saver for sure. I literally start to lose it when it gets hot, go into depression.

Come to think of it, that's what I need to tell you about today: there is such a thing as summer depression. You've heard of SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder? Well, there's a summer variant. Unlike the winter version, which is brought on by lack of light, the summer one comes from too much heat. And while it's a lot less common than winter SAD, it's just as real, and just as debilitating. The summer one can have symptoms that are a little different, sometimes the opposite of the winter version: summer SAD can lead to sleeping too little, make for agitation, irritability and anxiety, and be more likely to lead to loss of appetite rather than excess appetite. Or so I hear - the latter never seems to be the case for me; in either version, I eat and drink too much - or too much junk, at any rate. I should be so lucky as to lose weight with any of my depressions. Pffft.

Oh, and yes, you can have both varieties of SAD. Case in point: Yours Truly (takes theatrical bow). Too little sun in winter has me dragging my feet, too much in summer does the same. It doesn't matter that I look out on the most gorgeous views you can imagine; when it's really hot, I can't enjoy them. In fact, looking out on my yard and seeing all the scorched grass and dying vegetable beds, with everything either gone to seed or overrun with weeds (which seem to be the only things thriving in this weather), is enough to send me the rest of the way off the cliff. I have to do the hide-my-face thing - "Lalala, I'm not seeing this, I'm just ignoring it all, lalala..." In summer, a nice cool day with rain showers brings me back to life - just like sunshine does in the middle of winter. All of a sudden my energy springs back up; I can do things - cook, clean, do projects, bake something, make something, write, plan, be pleasant...

If you've never experienced how the weather, physical circumstance, can affect a person, you'll have no clue what I'm talking about. No, it's not a matter of self-discipline. No, I cannot just pull myself up by my bootstraps, or sandal straps, as it were. And no, you're not any more virtuous than I am because you don't have these problems. Okay, sorry, that was uncalled for - you probably weren't thinking any such thing. Forgive me. I was projecting my own self-assessment on you. Because, you see, when you (meaning I) get into these moods, you think that it is your fault. That you really should be able to function like you do the rest of the year, like everyone else is. And that if you're not, it must be a sign of moral weakness. Lack of determination. Lack of virtue.

When I sat down to write this today, I hadn't planned to talk about this. I was just going to fire off a light-hearted post on the beauties of summer - yes, I'm fully aware of them, and on a day like today, when the thermometer hasn't cracked the 30º ceiling yet, I can actually enjoy them. But then this topic just pushed itself to the forefront, and demanded to be talked of. So if I've delivered a bit of a downer here, I'm sorry. But if, like me, you're one of those people for whose moods summer can be just as bad as winter, maybe this will help you a bit.

See, when everyone around you is glorying in the gorgeousness of the weather, thriving on the heat, loving the sunshine, and all you want to do is hide in a dark room with an air conditioner, or you long for a good bout of rain (which everyone else thinks is just so awful), or you get up yet another day to see the sun glaring in a cloudless sky and think "Oh no! Not again!" - well, you can start to wonder what's wrong with you. And maybe reading this will give you an inkling that you're not the only one, that it's not your fault.

I've got to add my disclaimer here: I'm no medical expert. Of course not; you already knew that. So don't take my word for any of this. But if you think you might be suffering from Summer SAD, go do your homework. There's studies out there, and books of advice far better and more indepth than what I'm talking about. Google "summer SAD", "atypical depression", or "seasonal depression summer variant". And yes, there's ways of dealing with it. Just like light therapy can help with Winter SAD, "coolth therapy" (I just made up that word) helps with Summer SAD. Yes, those air conditioned rooms, that's what I'm talking about. Swims in cool lakes or pools, or lots of cool showers or baths (like, several a day). A holiday in a cooler place, if you can afford it - probably one of the best places is by the seashore (large bodies of moving water, like the breakers on the ocean shore, create negative ionization in the air, which is good for your mental health. Look it up.). That can all be helpful for getting over the hot times until September rolls around and you can breathe again.

But meanwhile, most importantly, remember that this is real, that it's not your fault, and that you're not alone. So go easy on yourself, be kind to yourself. And get a really cold drink, a good book, and a hammock, and take a few hours off. There's a good reason afternoon siestas are a national institution in hot countries.
Like that. Johnny's got the right idea - there's nobody who can take a siesta like a cat.

Life, the Universe, and Summer. Despite its downsides, I still can love it.

02 August 2013

Bloggiversary

It was our third bloggiversary yesterday, Steve's and mine. Meaning we've been blogging for three years now. So in honour of the occasion, here is Steve sitting on a wood stack on the campsite where we were last weekend. I didn't share my scrambled eggs with him, though - he's picky about them, and I hate people being picky about food. Even if they're furry bears.
Apart from that, I really have nothing much to say today. So this was Life, the Universe, and a Bloggiversary. Happy August from me and Steve!

31 July 2013

How to Barbecue a Pot

I've been barbecuing a pot. No, not pot - we're not talking about marijuana shishkabobs - but a pot. A cast iron casserole, to be precise.

I found it at the second-hand store when I was on a quest for a pot to use for camping. Brilliant, I thinks - cast iron can go right into the campfire, that's perfect! So I grabbed it, paid my $12.99 (that's a decent deal for a cast iron pot, even an unprepossessing no-name one like this - it's not a Lodge, let alone Griswold, but it's cast iron), and triumphantly bore it home. But when I took a closer look at the thing, it turned out to have been previously owned by someone of the never-wash-cast-iron-it'll-ruin-it persuasion, which, of course, ruined it. It had a layer of black crud all around the inside of the pot and the lid, some of it almost 2mm thick. Not pretty. I think anything cooked in that pot would have had a nice seasoning of black flaky who-knows-what mixed in.

For starters, I tried soaking it in water, which, needless to say, didn't do much at all. Oh yes, some of the crud flaked off, exposing bare iron underneath, which promptly started rusting. (That's exactly what would have happened if I had cooked, say, chili in it. Yummy.) So now I had a crud-covered pot with rust spots interspersed with the black bumpy layer of baked-on whatever-it-was.

Discouraged yet? Well, I wasn't. You see, long before I bought that pot, I had read up on this stuff online. Cast iron is almost indestructible. You know your cast iron pot is ruined when - well, maybe when it's got a hole in it. The kind you can see daylight through, when the pot literally falls apart. Otherwise, you can fix it. So that's what I proceeded to do, according to the instructions on the websites I found.

The first step was oven cleaner. Yes, the really harsh, stinky, spray-on kind, that makes you cough and gag while using it. Yuck. I took the pot and a big garbage bag, sat the pot inside the bag, put everything together into a cardboard box, took it out into the driveway, suited myself up in long pants, long-sleeved shirt and rubber gloves (I just about had a heat stroke), and sprayed down the whole pot and lid, inside and out, with the oven cleaner [cough, hack]. Then I closed the bag, shut the lid on the box, and put it up high out of reach of the cats. The point of the bagging is to keep the oven cleaner from evaporating, so it can work longer (the point of the closed box is cat protection).

I left the whole thing sitting for about 18 hours. Longer would have been better, but I'm impatient, so I suited up in my chemical hazard gear again and brought the whole box in to the kitchen sink. When I took the pot out of the bag, a lot of the buildup had turned from hard, crusty crud into black, goopy crud that just washed right off the pot. Now, it would have been better to have given it another coat of oven cleaner and put it back in the bag for another day to dissolve the remaining crud, but, well, did I mention I'm impatient? So I tackled the rest of it with elbow grease and a stainless steel scrubby pad. I got pretty much all of it off by the sweat of my brow. (Literally, I had sweat pouring down my face. Long-sleeved sweaters aren't the most congenial items of clothing for the kind of weather we had yesterday).

So now I had a crud-free pot, stripped down to the bare grey iron, which immediately developed a coating of rust all over it. I knew that would happen - no big deal. Those websites about how to recondition cast iron have various suggestions for what to do about the rust, but I found just giving it a good wash in very hot water and then drying it right away took most of it off.

And then came the barbecuing part. Well, first the oil. You'll find various suggestions for which fats are most suitable for seasoning cast iron (lard is the most traditional choice), but I followed the advice of Sheryl Canter on this website, who recommends using unrefined flaxseed oil for the purpose. As an occasional oil painter, her reasoning makes heaps of sense to me - flaxseed or linseed oil is a drying oil, which actually means not "drying" as in "water evaporation", but solidifying by polymerisation. Linseed-oil-based paintings have a very hard surface, once they're fully cured. See, that's also the nonsense behind the "don't wash cast iron with soap" idea: cast iron seasoning is oil, goes the reasoning, and soap dissolves oil, so ergo, no soap on cast iron. But by the time the oil is bonded with carbon onto the iron, it's not ordinary oil any longer that can just be washed off with soap - just like you can clean an oil painting with soapy water without doing any damage to it, or scrub your kitchen walls, which might be painted with oil-based paints, as much as you like. To be fair, the idea of "no soap on cast iron" probably originated in the days when soap was homemade and possibly had a surfeit of lye in it (if the soap recipe or procedure wasn't quite right - but that's another blog post), and lye, as the oven cleaner process shows, does strip cast iron down to its bare metal.

So I rubbed the clean, very slightly rusty pot all over with linseed oil. And then I rubbed most of it off again. You want a thin layer - many thin layers, not one thick one. (Once again, look to oil painting - the thick blobs take forever to cure and always stay blobby, which is one of the advantages of oils to painting, but not to cast-iron-curing.) And THEN (yes, I did eventually come to that) I stuck it on the barbecue. Upside down, the lid leaning up against it. And lit the BBQ, let it get to about 500ºF (260ºC) and let the pot cook for an hour.


It would, of course, be possible to do this in the kitchen oven. But for one, it was a hot day, and the last thing I needed was for my kitchen to get any hotter (30ºC is more than enough, thank you). But more importantly, the point of seasoning cast iron is that you need to get past the smoke point of the oil; in a sense, you're burning the oil onto the iron. So by its very definition, this process generates smoke. In fact, between the burger drippings burning off the barbecue, and the oil from the pot, it generated enough smoke coming in through the windows to set off my smoke alarm inside the house. (I closed the windows after that.)

Then I turned the barbecue off, let the pot cool a bit, gave it another layer of oil, and repeated the process (there was far less smoke by then, without the burger drippings). Ideally, the pot should have about six coats, but, well, I did mention I'm impatient, didn't I? So it's just got two coats so far. I might give it a few more later. But even as is, it's got a beautiful, even black sheen, just like any pre-seasoned cast iron pot you get from the store. It's a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Well, for a while, anyway, until I cook enough tomato-sauce based dishes in it to strip the seasoning again. Rubbing a thin layer of oil back onto the pot after cleaning it helps with that.

So there you have it. Life, the Universe, and a Barbecued Cast Iron Pot. I'm quite proud of it.


24 July 2013

How to Write a Term Paper

Steve demonstrating the state of one's mind during Term Paper Writing
1.) Pick a topic. Find something you're interested enough in that you won't end up hating it after having completely immersed yourself in it for weeks on end.
2.) Vaguely think about it off and on while you do the other assignments for your course, hang around on Facebook, and read murder mysteries in your off time.
3.) Hit the library. No, wait - first hit the library's website, and surf around, following improbable rabbit trails through the jungle of Library of Congress Subject Headings.
4.) Repeat step 3.) on Google. It's amazing the stuff you can find - say you're researching Austen film adaptations, you might find out that Jennifer Ehle played some other costume drama with Jeremy Northam, and that she looked a whole lot better with her hair natural, rather than that dorky wig they put on her for the 1995 P&P. This step can occupy you for a long, long time.
5.) Go to the library and pick up the two dozen books you ordered in on your topic. Stack them around your computer.
6.) Panic.
7.) Send an email to your prof, whining about not getting ahead. Try to change your topic a time or two.
8.) Procrastinate.
9.) Panic.
10.) Get several pads of sticky notes, the real skinny strips, preferably fluorescent-coloured. You need them to mark sections you're going to quote in the books. Don't even THINK about actually highlighting library books, or even just underlining stuff and making notes in pencil. You will be smote by the library gods. (I'm sure there are some. Some Greek gods of libraries? And they're very smiting, believe me. Especially after having had their powers enhanced by my righteous indignation at all those scribbles and markings in the margins. Grrrrrr...)
11.) Repeat step 4.)
12.) Go on the library website, pull up the databases the library subscribes to, and repeat step 3.) Save about three dozen references in a special folder. The next day, go back and open every single one of those .pdf files which will all have titles like 678459q84.pdf, and rename them so you can actually recognize them when they're closed. Go back into the databases, repeat your search, then actually save the references to the files you've found. Export them to RefWorks.
13.) Panic.
14.) Eat copious quantities of snacks.
15.) Start reading. Or at least, open those .pdf files, and skim over the contents. Highlight interesting sentences, even if you have no clue what the author said on the page before or after the quote. (Yes, you may highlight. The library gods do not care about alterations of electronic files.)
16.) Crack open the covers of those library books, and follow the general principle of step 15.), replacing "highlight" with "sticky-note". You may write on the sticky note, if you manage to not draw outside the line and accidentally write on the page of the book. If you do the latter, you will be smote.
17.) Procrastinate.
18.) Panic.
19.) Feel put upon.
20.) Pace.
21.) Open several text files in your favourite writing program, such as Scrivener. One will be your main text body. Another will be random notes. Scribble down everything and anything that came into your head when you were doing all that pacing, procrastinating and panicking (see, they have a purpose!). Copy and paste quotes you want to use from the .pdf's; swear at the fact that Adobe Reader won't let you copy something you've highlighted. Go back and pull a clean .pdf off the net, so you can copy and paste from it. Manually copy quotes from the hardcopy books. Throw all those citations randomly into your notes file.
22.) Sleep and eat. Don't panic too much at this point, it interferes with sleeping and eating.
23.) Whine at your family and friends about the stress levels you're under. Tell them what you're writing about (it helps. See "pacing, procrastinating and panicking"). Stop telling them when their eyes glaze over.
23.) Open your notes file. Sort your ideas into a semblance of sense. Cut and paste the quotations, and stick them in the right categories.
24.) Panic.
25.) Open your text body file in one window, your notes file in another. Take a deep breath. Start typing.
26.) Keep telling yourself "Just write, just write, just write - you can edit it later - just write... yes, this sounds awful... just write..."
27.) Make sure to frequently hit "save".
28.) Repeats steps 22.), 23.), 24.) - 27.) as often as needed.
29.) Include in-text citations as  you write, or leave them to the end, as you choose.
30.) Read over what you've done. Fix the really glaring nonsense (if the wording makes you gag, chances are your prof won't like it either).
31.) Boot up RefWorks, pick the four references you actually used of the three dozen you saved, and build your Works Cited list. Manually enter the reference information for the hardcopy books.
32.) Copy and paste it to your text file.
33.) Pick a snappy title for your piece.
34.) Export everything to the file that will be your final paper file.
35.) Spellcheck and format your paper. Swear at the word processing software which does weird things with margins and fonts, and insists on spellchecking in US English instead of British or Canadian. No, I do NOT want to change "colour" to "color"!
36.) Hit save.
37.) Have a glass of wine or two to celebrate. Go sleep.
38.) Open the file, read it over. Shake your head at all the mistakes you've missed. Fix them. Make sure all your citation information is correct and shipshape.
39.) Save everything to a few other files, just to make sure you don't lose it. Give the files an academic-sounding name. (No, "Bob" won't do.)
40.) Read the paper over again, just to be sure.
41.) Address an email to your prof; attach the file. Quadruple-check that you've actually attached the file and aren't sending him a blank mail. Hover your mouse pointer over the "send" button. Take a deep breath, then another for good measure. Panic mildly. Click "send".
42.) Abandon yourself to The Euphoria of Completion.

There you have it - Forty-Two Steps to Writing a Term Paper. Well, they work for me, anyway. You're welcome.

16 July 2013

Book Fixes

I pulled out my copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for my next course. Well, one of my copies. This particular one is part of a boxed set that my man gave me many years ago, I think it might have been for our first Christmas after we were married. And then, also many years ago (but not quite as many), one of the kids was practising her scissors skills on the cover. (In her defense it must be said she was quite small. And she never did it again, at least not on book covers - the cat's fur and her own bangs were a different matter. I'm not sure which came first, the hair cut or the book trimming. But in either case, even though I don't remember my reaction exactly, I'm sure it was sufficient to put a healthy respect for the sanctity of the printed page into her. It doesn't seem to have scarred her for life, fortunately.)

So, anyway, this poor book has lived with half a jagged-edged cover for the last however-many years (title: The The Witch A The Wardrob). I even bought another boxed set of the Narnia novels from Scholastic to replace this one, but I could never really warm to that version with its movie-tie-in covers. It seems cheap, somehow. Well, it was cheap - it's Scholastic, after all (I love Scholastic; but quality of physical properties of books is not one of their strong points).

So I pulled out this book from between The Magician's Nephew and Prince Caspian to do preliminary work for my course. It really was pathetic, that half cover. Fortunately, the actual text escaped the ravages of toddler scissors unscathed; only the front matter got hit. The copyright page looks pretty sad, and there's a couple of snips on the edge of the page which has Lewis' dedication letter to his goddaughter Lucy on it, but from the table of contents onwards the paper is intact. But it really didn't feel nice, handling that jagged-edged cover. So I thinks to myself: why not fix this? Can't make it worse, can I?

Now, I love books. Not just reading them, but handling them. I could probably be quite content in a job in the library's processing department, where they stick the Dewey Decimal stickers on the spine and put nice clear covers around the books to keep them looking pristine. Perhaps in another life I was a bookbinder? Anyway, fixing a poor, mutilated book is something that's quite a pleasing endeavor.

I started with a piece of plain white card stock, trimmed it to size, then glue-sticked it to the inside of the cover. So now instead of a half cover with a jagged edge I had a half-coloured cover with a jagged-edged section of white staring at me. Much better on the tactile end, but still not so glorious visually. Along comes the offspring (she of the scissors skills) and says "You should find that cover online, print it out and glue it on!" Brilliant, eh? And that's just what I did - well, the finding and glueing; she actually did the printing (it had to be sized just right to fit, and she's good with stuff like that; besides, she sits next to the printer. And she's just one of those obliging kinds of people).

So now I've got a nice, complete image on the cover of The LION, The Witch AND The WardrobE again. It's a little paler on one side, and the fit isn't 100% exact (due to the cropping of the online image). But that's just one of those pleasing signs of age, sort of like the wrinkles at the corners of my eyes (Velveteen Rabbit, with the plush loved off, that sort of thing). Just a sign that this book has been well-used (not just ill-used). I'm happy.

Life, the Universe, and the Fixing of Books. Now I can have my book fixes again.

10 July 2013

Stacks of Austen and Some Jam

I went to the university library yesterday because I had some holds in. Even though I'm taking my degree through a distance ed university, I get to use the library of the local uni. That deal is called COPPUL, the Consortium Of Pacific and Prairie Libraries; they have an agreement to let each others' students use their libraries. So I get to take out whatever I want - and boy, do I ever!

I've always said that the library is the one place you can impulse-shop with impunity. Whatever catches your eye and strikes your fancy, grab it and take it home. The worst thing that could happen is that you forget to renew it and get hit with overdue fines, or perhaps that you spill your tea over the book and have to pay for it. But in the latter case, you usually get to keep the book, so if you liked it enough to take home, you might not mind owning a copy, albeit a somewhat tea-stained one.

So I had five holds in yesterday - and I walked out of that library with twenty-seven books altogether. Ahem. Well, they made me take them out! C'mon, wouldn't you grab a copy of Jane Austen's letters, or James Edward Austen-Leigh's memoir of his aunt Jane, or Jane Austen on Screen (with a lovely picture on the cover of Kate Winslet smiling winsomely at Allan Rickman)? You wouldn't? How strange. Well, I did.

The thing is that there's a real head rush about browsing the stacks in the library, something that only real bookworms understand. Collecting books with shameless abandon, and only stopping because you can't carry any more - I haven't done that in quite a long time. In fact, it was having a job at the library that made me stop doing that. When you work in the place, you don't browse the stacks any more. You take out what comes across the desk, and what you've ordered in because you found it in the catalogue. And then when I quit my library job, I never did go back to browsing, at least not in the public library. But now I'm doing it in the uni library, and it's lovely.

So am I actually going to read all twenty-seven of those books I took out? Nope, not on your life. I will flip through them, and pick out the bits that interest me and are useful for my paper. But there are some that'll be keepers. My favourite of this lot is The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries by Emma Thompson; I already have a copy on order through ABE books. I've always liked Emma Thompson, ever since I first saw her in that movie (she plays Elinor, as well as having written the screenplay), but reading her diaries of the filming, oh my. She's utterly hilarious. And after reading that, I'll be watching the movie with rather different eyes. For example, when she gets up from Marianne's bedside after her night's vigil and rubs her   stiff neck - that's for real. She really did have a sore neck that day, and put it to good use in her acting.

In other news, we got four pounds of raspberries off our bushes in the garden yesterday, which made me quite happy. I only planted those vines two years ago; they were hand-me-downs from when my sister-in-law was pulling out her raspberries. So this morning I made jam, eight jars worth of lovely ruby sweetness. And being afflicted these days with early-waking insomnia, I was up in time to get it done by 9:00 - that's a record, for me.

Life, the Universe, Browsing the Stacks and Raspberry Jam. The small pleasures of life.

02 July 2013

Jane Austenite

summer balcony view
"I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen. My fatuous expression and airs of personal immunity - how ill they set on the face, say, of a Stevensonian! But Jane Austen is so different. She is my favorite author! I read and reread, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, I greet her by the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers."

That's E. M. Forster said that, not me (see citation below). I feel vindicated. Because he's a famous writer, so he ought to know. Nowadays, we mostly call ourselves Janeites, not Jane Austenites so much, although I believe Forster's the one who invented the term, back when he wrote this in 1936. [Addendum: no, he wasn't. Wikipedia says that the term "Janeite" was coined by George Saintsbury in 1894, and that Kipling wrote a short story called "The Janeites" about a group of WWI soldiers who're fans. Might have to track that one down, sounds intriguing.]

I've thoroughly enjoyed rereading the novels for my course, although it's taken me about four times longer than I had bargained for. Partially that's due to the fact that as soon as I have to do something for school, it becomes work, and therefore something to be avoided; that cuts down on processing speed considerably. And the other part was that really reading, carefully, every word, plus the forewords and afterwords and bonus materials, just takes longer than skipping through to get to your favourite bits (even if you read those three times over because you like them so much). But I'm done the reading, so now I can go into the writing.

On another note, the weather gods suddenly decided to crank up the thermostat, just in time for the beginning of the summer holidays. Today we're supposed to get to 34°C; this morning at 8:00, it was already 32°C in my east-facing kitchen, what with the sun burning through the window and patio doors. Thank God for the new window unit air conditioner in my bedroom/study; my papers would be doomed without it.

Life, the Universe, and Imbecile Jane Austenites. Keep cool!

(Forster, E. M. "Jane Austen: the Six Novels". A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen. New York: Random House, 2009. 22-25.)

24 June 2013

Excessive Sensibility and Rx Story

I'm in the frame of mind right now where about the only prescription that works is "Take two stories and call me in the morning." So yesterday, we finally went to see the new Star Trek movie, and then, because I was on a Benedict Cumberbatch kick, I watched episode 1 of season 2 of Sherlock, which I hadn't seen yet either. [Warning: there might be the odd spoiler in what follows. If you don't want to know that the movies I watch end happily - else I don't watch them - quit reading right now.] Unfortunately, all this movie-watching had the effect of having Mr Cheekbones-sharp-enough-to-cut-yourself-on rampaging manically through my dreams last night, but that's okay.

Now, I could have sworn that as Khan, Benedict Cumberbatch has brilliantly blue eyes - but as Sherlock, his eyes are green! Sort of a sage colour, a light tone, but kind of subdued. What gives? In which one is he wearing contacts? Or was I just hallucinating the blue eyes from wishful thinking? (I have a thing for black Irish colouring - black hair/blue eyes = knockout. But I'm pretty sure the black hair is fake, too; in his publicity shots, he's usually more of a sandy-blond.)

Well, no matter. That wasn't really what I was going to talk about right now. What I was thinking about this morning is the issue of "excessive sensibility" (in Austen's terms) - in other words, being a person who feels too much. "How can you not feel?" asks Kirk of Spock with his dying breath. Yes, Mr Spock, how? I would dearly love to have the answer to that one, too. Especially from someone who admits earlier in the story that he stops himself from experiencing feeling not because he hasn't got any, but because he's got too much. You've got to shut down those feelings before they overwhelm you.

And if you're the kind of Princess (or Prince) on the Pea who feels everything, shutting things down is nothing short of self-defense, a survival strategy. As a matter of fact, there's some research that shows that for certain people, their brain shuts down sensations  that might be too painful without the person's even noticing them first. Unfortunately, Mr Spock, that's very likely to lead to physical health problems. I have a suspicion that Vulcans, and especially half-human Vulcans, with all those intense emotions roiling about inside of them that they don't allow to the surface of their consciousness, suffer from chronic high blood pressure, digestive issues, depression, and probably heart disease and what-not. Live long and prosper, eh?

But that's where stories come in. If you're born with excessive sensibility, if you're an empath, you will feel things, whether you want to or not. What you see on a screen, read in a book, or hear from somebody's mouth will affect you. You feel the feelings of the person in the story, even if it's a very simple story and not terribly convincingly told. Even if it's a news item from thousands of miles away. Even if it's fantasy fiction about wizards or space ships, which your rational mind is fully aware is just invention.

But you see, it's not just invention. Because the emotion is real. And you can use that consciously to cope with reality. You immerse yourself in a story, and feel those feelings, and in the end, when the credits roll or you close the book, you come out stronger for having lived out positive emotion. Sherlock outwits Moriarty, the Enterprise is triumphant, justice and harmony is restored, people are happy once again - and it gives a tremendous boost to your own feelings to have felt that happiness with them. Mental health on a movie screen.

Or between the covers of a book, or even, in reality, on Facebook pictures of your friends being happy. Feeling with a beautiful young couple who just got engaged and are radiating love to such an extent it shines out of the photo, laughing at the big toothless grin of another friend's baby, hearing and seeing the pleasure of people you care about and feeling that pleasure for yourself - all that works together to help in dealing with your own day-to-day reality. And even if those you care about are pointy-eared aliens, the effect on your emotion is real.

Life, the Universe, and Excessive Sensibility. Bring on the stories, I say.

19 June 2013

The Good Old Days

There is nothing new under the sun:


Life, the Universe, and The Olden Days. (Thanks, xkcd guy.).

10 June 2013

Rampaging Waves, and Glass Puddles

On a blustery day some years ago, when he was quite small, my youngest son looked out the window at the lake and said: "Look at that rampage of waves!" And that's, of course, exactly what the waves were doing, rampaging. Others might call it whitecaps, but let's keep language accurate, shall we? They was a rampage of waves again the other day, see:

A Rampage of Waves
The other thing is that I did some baking the other day - of clay, that is. Here's one of the pieces:

Squash Pot, 7.5", stoneware.

That puddle in the bottom, that's molten glass. Shards from a smashed-up vodka bottle, to be precise, which I had chiefly bought for the lovely cobalt blue of the container. Well, I needed it to make vanilla extract (two vanilla beans in 3/4 c. vodka, steep for two weeks, use); but the clear glass bottle would have been cheaper. You know you're addicted to blue glass when you buy booze according to the colour of the bottle. The glass crackled most satisfactorily once it cooled.


Glass Puddle In Squash Pot, 3", glass.

Life, the Universe, Rampaging Waves and Glass Puddles. The dish is for sale, the waves are not.

02 June 2013

Rich

There's a word in the English language I particularly like: rich. As in, applied to food. In German, the equivalent "reich" strictly means "having lots of money" (if you capitalise it, Reich, it also means "empire", but as an adjective it just means, well, "wealthy"). But the English "rich" contains so much more. Today I made some chocolate mousse for dessert to go with Sunday dinner (goulash, egg noodles, and salad fresh from the garden, if you must know), and it totally covers every meaning of that word.

The ingredients in this delectable concoction (recipe to follow) are chocolate (actual chocolate, not just cocoa powder), butter, eggs, sugar (regular and icing), and whipping cream. The only way to make it more decadent, more expensive, would be to add some booze. (Ooh, that's a thought - a shot of Grand Marnier, perhaps? Hmm...) Eggs, butter, cream, sugar, chocolate - everything that is costly and rare, or should by rights be so.

And it tastes rich, too. It's the kind of thing you eat in tiny servings, because after a dozen dessertspoonfuls, you just can't eat any more. But oh, those dozen spoonfuls... Bliss.

And as promised, here's the recipe. It comes from Christian Teubner's Kochvergnügen wie noch nie ("Cooking Pleasures As Never Before"), the 1985 edition. One of my aunts gave it to my mother as a Christmas present, about that year or the year after, and as my mum isn't big into trying out recipes, I absconded with the book and its companion volume, Backvergnügen wie noch nie ("Baking Pleasures As Never Before"), when I emigrated to Canada. (The only-English-speaking among you might recognize the word "Vergnügen" in this context from the VW ads promising Fahrvergnügen, "driving pleasures". Personally, I get more Vergnügen out of cooking or baking than driving, but to each their own.) So here you are:

Mousse au chocolat

(serves 4-6)

100g (3oz) semi-sweet chocolate
1 Tbsp butter (unsalted)
2 eggs
1 Tbsp sugar
1 pinch salt
1/4 l (1c) cream
1 Tbsp icing sugar

Melt the butter and chocolate over low heat. Separate the eggs; beat the egg whites with the salt to stiff peaks, the egg yolks with the sugar until creamy. Blend the egg yolk mixture into the chocolate, along with a couple of spoonfuls of the egg whites. Leave to cool slightly. Whip the cream with the icing sugar. Fold together the chocolate mixture, egg white and cream.
Dish into fancy little dishes (I like using those 1970's champagne glasses, the wide, flat ones that are supposed to be originally molded on Marie Antoinette's breast. Which should turn one right off any food or drink that would be served in them, but as it's probably an entirely apocryphal story, I don't let it bother me.). Chill for a couple of hours (you and the dishes). Lick spoon and mixing bowl.
(The original recipe doesn't include that last instruction, and instead says to reserve some of the whipping cream for garnishing the dishes just before serving, sprinkle on chopped pistachios, and put one coffee bean on top of each. But I never do that. I do, however, lick the bowl, so I thought I'd share my own version with you. Don't blame Herr Teubner.)

So there you have it. This is the epitome of rich food. I made a double recipe today; it turned out exceptionally well (it doesn't always, so that's particularly gratifying), and there's not a single lick left.

Life, the Universe, and Rich Food. I feel privileged.