31 December 2011

Sylvester and Horatio

It's New Year's Eve. Oddly enough, in German, it's called Altjahrsabend, Old Year's Evening. Which just goes to show that word-for-word translations are often quite useless. The English word "eve" usually means not "evening", but "evening before", whereas the German "Abend" only means "evening". So the Altjahrsabend is the evening of the old year, whereas New Year's Eve is the beginning of the new. The one to reflect on what's past, and peacefully go to bed, the other to look forward to what's coming, and throw a party and get drunk to get off to a good start.

Actually, most Germans don't call it Altjahrsabend, anyway. The official name is Sylvester. Now, that has nothing whatever to do with pugilistic actors or bird-stalking cartoon cats - nothing more, that is, than that all of them are named after the same guy, St Sylvester, who was Pope around the time of Constantin the Great. And he ceased being Pope on December 31st, 335, by way of dying, therefore making it his feast day.

There's a pretty nifty story about St Sylvester and a dragon, which had such bad breath it wiped out three hundred men a day just by breathing on them (what they were doing, hanging around the dragon's pit, is anyone's guess). St Sylvester, on the instructions of St Peter (whom he saw in a vision), went and recited a part of the creed at the creature, then wrapped a thread around its snout and sealed it with the papal seal, which apparently put paid to its halitosis. He and his two assistants, being equipped with heavenly gas masks, got out unscathed, but two pagan enchanters who had come for a looky-loo weren't so lucky; they were passed out at the gates of the dragon's den when St Sylvester came climbing back out. The Saint, being of the saintly sort, raised them from their near-dead state, and brought them along with him, and anon, the Golden Legend says, they "were baptized, with a great multitude of people with them".

Incidentally, I didn't know this story of St Sylvester and the Dragon, myself, until I looked up the Saint on the 'net just now so I could tell you about him.

And on a completely different note, here's a picture of Steve and his new companion, Horatio, who is a philosopher ("There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy"). Horatio is Yorick's little brother, and came to live with us at Christmas.

Life, the Universe, Sylvester, and Horatio. Happy New Year, all!

29 December 2011


Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. That's to say, I don't really have anything to say today. But being an inveterate driveller, I'm still going to say something anyway. That's known as waffling about nothing.

Which reminds me of a story a teacher of mine told once. He was from Franken, Franconia, which is the area around Nuremberg. In their dialect, so he said, "waffle" is a (not very flattering) synonym for "mouth", something like "kisser" in English. So there were these two ladies sitting in a café, eating ices, and they were ladies indeed. One of them was the wife of a government official, a Kommerzienrat (Councillor of Commerce, Alderman, something like that), which meant that her nose was planted firmly in the air. She was also a rather, shall we say, loquacious person. Now, eating ices in a café in Germany means that you get them served in an elegant bowl, with a spoon, and with a waffle stuck in the top, which you can use as the spoon substitute to scoop your ice cream with (stuck-out pinkie optional). Mrs Alderman had done just that, had picked up one scoop of ice cream on her waffle, but the latest gossip she had to impart to her friend was just too pressing for her to take the time to get the ice to her mouth. There she sat, waffle with ice cream poised in her hand, jabbering away, talk talk talk talk... The inevitable happened: the ice cream started to melt. Her companion tried to get in a word of warning, but could not get through the flow of words, until finally, in desperation, she blurted out: "Frau Kommerzienrat, your waffle is dripping!"

So there you have it; that's what happens when you have nothing to say but say it anyway.

I hope you're all having a great fifth day of Christmas, with perhaps the odd gold ring or two in evidence.

Life, the Universe, and Dripping Waffles. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

24 December 2011

On Christmas Trees and Nose Bags

It's Christmas Eve, which for us Germans means we have the big celebration tonight. Our Christmas customs are a blend between the German and Canadian styles. We do our present-opening on Christmas Eve, but on Christmas Day we have stockings and a big turkey dinner. And we have an Advent Wreath and light the candles on the Advent Sundays, but the Christmas tree gets put up about a week before Christmas, not secretly the day of Christmas Eve. It would be difficult to do that German-style anyway with the open floor plans we have hereabouts; you can't lock the kids out of the living room for secrecy when there's no door to lock.

Our Christmas tree came from the woods behind our house - that's another Canadian thing to do, to just get a free Christmas tree permit from the forestry department (nowadays you can just download it from the web), and go into the woods to find your own. You just have to make sure you carry that permit in your pocket, else if a Department of Forestries Official catches you, he might drag you off to the nearest lock-up and imprison you over the holidays on suspicion of trying to set up trade in Charlie Brown trees. They're coveted commodities, those trees, but residents are allowed three per household - with a permit, of course. Forestry officials are combing the Canadian woods in large numbers at this season, looking for Christmas Tree Perpetrators. You probably thought those roadblocks where the RCMP pulls you over and asks how many glasses of mulled wine you had are meant to prevent drunk driving, but in fact, they're a cover for checking for unauthorized Christmas-Tree-Transporting. RCMP and Department of Forestries are working together to prevent Dastardly Tree Crimes at this season.

Yesterday I turned on the TV, and it just so happened that my favourite Christmas movie was on. In fact, I'd already considered putting in the video I'd taped a couple of years ago to watch it (yes, I still have a VHS player. Antiquated, I know, but I'm unrepentant). But I didn't have to; they faithfully aired (cabled?) "A Child's Christmas in Wales", as they have done every Christmas the last few years. This is the version with Denholm Elliott playing the grandfather, telling his grandson of the snowy Christmasses he had when he was young ("I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."). If you get a chance to watch it, do; it's well worth it. But if you can't get a hold of it, here is my latest discovery: Dylan Thomas himself reading his poem/story, in measured, epic tones. Denholm Elliott does it more lyrical, lilting; but you can't beat hearing it in the poet's own voice. "There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths; ... and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why." I think I had better go and crochet a little nose bag for one of my children, we don't have any aunts, whinnying or not, coming to visit this year to supply the want.

Life, the Universe, and Christmas Cheer. May yours be blessed and merry.

21 December 2011

Filthy Habit

I was awake in the middle of the night again. And you know how you think strange thoughts when it's 2:00 AM and you can't sleep? Well, last night I got to thinking about bad habits. Specifically, my bad habits. And I tried to console myself with the fact that at least, I don't smoke (tobacco, that is. What's coming out of my ears at times, that's a different topic).

I've never smoked. Neither have any of my family members, or most of my friends. In fact, I don't know of one close friend I have at this moment who's given to pipe weed. And don't you know, that makes me feel oh-so-smug. I mean, who needs that filthy habit? It stinks, cigarette smoke does, and it's horribly unhealthy, everyone knows that.

Smoking is one of those habits that has the lovely effect of allowing those of us who don't do it to feel really superior to those that do. I walk or drive by smokers, and I feel virtuous. There are, for example, the teenagers who stand by the street in front of the local high school - they're not allowed to smoke on school property, so they put one toe over the line onto the sidewalk, and practise their bad habit there. Now, my children would never do such a thing.

That's what I realised at 2:00 AM last night, that the way I feel about smoking is utterly saturated with that feeling of superiority. I like to think that because I don't smoke, that makes me better than you who does. And THAT, my friend, is a filthy habit. It stinks.

It's quite a lot like that story of the man who sits in the back of the church with his head in his hands, going "God, I'm such scum!" And at the front of the building, another person has planted their rear in the pew, saying "Thank God I'm not a loser like that guy back there! He probably smokes, too; I'd never do that." I don't think I need to spell it out for you which one of the two the storyteller thought was the healthier person.

And now, entirely apropos of nothing, here's today's picture, which is my cat Cleopatra. She really is a superior creature, indeed, but then all cats are.

Life, the Universe, and Superiority. I think it's time to kick some filthy habits.

17 December 2011

About Ticking and Tocking

My wall clock stopped - again. The first indication was that it said it was 10:30, when I only just got up a little while ago (I don't sleep in that late any more; my teen years were over some time ago). And the second, that it was really quiet in the kitchen. You see, this is a real clock; it ticks. And it tocks. With sort of a slightly halting, skipping rhythm, not that even ticktockticktock you would expect, but more of a tickTOCKtickTOCK. And for all that, it keeps excellent time, when it doesn't stop.

I love things that are real. In this case, mechanical; no battery power required, just a few turns of the key about once every other week or so. The clock claims to be a 31-Day clock, which, I understand, means that you should only need to wind it once a month. Doesn't work that way, though. I believe the springs that keep the clockwork and the chime going are a bit sticky; if I wind the clock fully, until I can't turn the key any more, it won't run at all. You set the pendulum swinging, and when you next come into the kitchen, it's stopped again. Kind of puts meaning to the term "wound up like an eight-day clock" - if you end up wound too tight, you just get stuck, and need constantly repeated restarting in order to unstick your springs again.

When I was a kid, every house in the extended family had one of those ticking, chiming, pendulum-swinging wall clocks. The ticking is a soothing sound - but the house has to be fairly quiet for it to be noticeable. To me, the audible ticking of the wall clock is the Sound of Silence (any resemblance of this phrase to Simon & Garfunkel songs, living or dead, is entirely coincidental). There was a time, some ten years or so ago when my kids were young, that their dad took all four of them to church on Sunday mornings, and I just sat in the rocking chair and listened to the clock ticking soothing sanity back into my life.

My clock used to belong to my mother-in-law. But she didn't bring it over from Germany on the immigrant's boat, back in the early 50's - no, it quite prosaically says "Korea" on the bottom of the clock face; my husband vaguely remembers the clock being ordered from the Sears catalogue when he was small. So even though the clock is not antique German- or Swiss-made quality ware, it's still a family heirloom of sorts.

To me, the sound connects me to my heritage, to the past. It measures out, in uneven ticks and TOCKS, the seconds of my life, as those other clocks have ticked out my ancestors' lifetime in their homes. Often enough I forget to wind it, and the ticking stops - but only until I open the door, take the key from its bracket on the inside of the case, insert it in the hole right beside the number "8" (can't wind the clock when it's eight, or twenty minutes to the hour), crank it a few turns, and then give the pendulum a gentle push to set the clock ticking again. TickTOCK, tickTOCK, tickTOCK.

Life, the Universe, and The Sound of Silence. Don't get wound up too tight, you'll only get stuck.

12 December 2011


My man is off in California again for a week. Oddly enough, one week apart seems like nothing, compared to the five months he was away from home this summer. Last year, having him gone for a week would have freaked me right out (spousal business trips have caused hysteria on more than one occasion); this time, I just shrugged. A week without him? Whatever, it's just a week. It's all in the contrast.

I also noticed it the other day, that difference contrast can make. I was driving home from dropping off the kids at school, and appreciating the lovely hot air blowing from the car heater vents. Now, I would not have been nearly as grateful for that warmth if I hadn't been so cold just a few minutes earlier. Going from freezing to toasty has a way to make you appreciate the pleasure of a well-functioning heater. In the spring, we take the warmth for granted, don't even think of it; and then come summer, we get too much of it, and crank up the air conditioner - aah, coolth. The contrast has it.

It's rather like that chiaroscuro thing I was waffling on about a few months ago, that contrast between light and dark in art. For me, a really good painting has to have those contrasts. My favourites, personally, are colour contrasts, the strongest ones you can get, which are the contrasts between the primary and secondary colours. I somehow get a charge out of loading my brush with a bright yellow, and splashing it across a page, then going back and picking up a brushful of crimson for a few more splashes, and then some solid ultramarine blue to fill in the gaps. Pow!

My cats, though, do not appreciate contrasts. The strawberry tabby (he looks like a ginger tabby that's been run through the wash with too much bleach) likes to sit on the pink shale rocks which are the exact colour of his fur, and the small fluffy black one usually chooses to perch on the lap of the person who is wearing black jeans. Failing the Men in Black, she finds the nearest black backpack which was conveniently dropped on the floor where it doesn't belong. And snowy winters are the bane of her existence - not only is it horribly cold and wet outside, but that stark whiteness, it obviously offends her tender sensibilities. Black kitty and white snow do not mix.

Life, the Universe and Contrasts. I think I'll have some hot tea to celebrate the cold outside.

08 December 2011


Life has been silly-busy lately. I had such good intentions of blogging at least twice a week, to keep you all current and reading, but it simply didn't happen. Just to show you how busy it was, here's Steve, hanging upside down over the screen, clinging on in desperation in this topsy-turvy time.

My November got sucked up in a major project (which I might tell you about some other time, but, suffice to say, I had a blast. Which is probably why I haven't blogged much, I've been having too much fun elsewhere.). Now it's December, and, well, you know what that means - Jollification, Deck the Halls, and all that jazz. This year, oddly enough, Advent came so early it totally threw me off, and I ended up being extra-late getting the Christmas decorations out. Which just goes to show that you can overdo anything, even the early onset of Advent season.

Fortunately, next year we'll be back to having the 1st Advent Sunday on a reasonable date. In case you don't know how that works, there are always four Advent Sundays before Christmas, so you take Christmas Day, and then the four Sundays before that are Advent. This year, Christmas falling on a Sunday meant that Advent started a full five weeks before Christmas, i.e. November 27th. I just wasn't in the mood for decorations yet then. But now I am, so that's all good.

Speaking of good(ies), my daughter is in the process of manufacturing her yearly offering to her father and brothers: very yummy Peanut Butter Balls. You could also make them in the bottom of muffin cup liners and call them Peanut Butter Cups (with which, however, you might lay yourself open for prosecution for copyright infringement. But you could always destroy the evidence; around here, it never lasts very long past Christmas Day anyway).

Here's the recipe:


1 1/2 c smooth peanut butter
1/4 c butter, softened
2 c icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 c glazing chocolate

Mix together the first four ingredients, shape into 1" balls. Put in fridge or freezer to chill for a bit so they're firm. Melt the chocolate, dip the balls into it, put on waxed paper and let harden. Keep in plastic containers in the far back of the fridge, labeled "Leftover Fish-and-Liver Stew" to protect from marauding family members. Information about how long Peanut Butter Balls will keep, if uneaten, is, to date of this blog entry, unavailable.

Life, the Universe, Early Advent, and Peanut Butter Balls. Steve's still hanging in there.

01 December 2011


During the last couple of weeks, almost every time I drive the kids to school in the morning, I see a bald eagle. Sometimes even two. I live in a very beautiful spot overlooking a lake (long story, won't be told here); and that school drive I mentioned winds right along the lake for about six kilometres - steep mountain on one side of the road, lake shore on the other (yes, you're between a rock and a wet place on that road). The eagles live in the trees on the mountainside, and swoop right over the traffic to collect their breakfast from the lake.

So yesterday, I'm driving home after a successful offspring-drop-off, when out of the corner of my eye I see the eagle, probably only ten metres or so beside my car, swooping down on the lake, snatching a fish from the water, and soaring off into the woods with it. No, I wasn't getting a good look - didn't you pay attention about the rock and the wet place? That road is windy, as well as narrow. (I also didn't take that photo - I found it here.) But as I was whizzing along the highway in a homewardly direction, I had this idiotic grin on my face, and kept shaking my head, going "Incredible! Wow! Wow, that is so incredible!" Because it is, really. I'm meeting BALD EAGLES on my ordinary morning errands.

But then I got to thinking about the word I was using. Incredible. In-credible. As in, unbelievable, lacking credibility. And I was wondering why I was calling it "incredible" to see eagles by the lake in the morning. I mean, it's not like it requires an Act of Faith for those eagles to be there, does it? So is it that I don't really believe in the existence of the eagles, that I cannot trust my eyes to have shown me the facts? Because the eagles are there, no doubt about it. No doubt, and no belief, either. They just are.

(Now, if that poor Kokanee salmon which furnished the eagle family's breakfast yesterday had indulged in a hearty bout of disbelief, that would be a little more comprehensible - in his case, it would be a simple matter of denial of facts, which might have made his last few minutes on this earth a little more bearable. There he was, unceremoniously snatched from his watery home on a November Wednesday morning, borne away through horribly choking air to an awful death... [Don't you just love nature? Me, too.] Perhaps he was telling himself the whole time that this was incredible, unbelievable, and probably just a bad dream. Let's hope so, for his poor fishy soul's sake.)

The probable fact of this improbable matter is that we use the word "incredible" to mean that we have a hard time believing our eyes, or perhaps, that our friends would find it hard to believe us if we told them what happened (unless, of course, they're the credulous sort). Because the sight of bald eagles, on late November Wednesday mornings, is not something that's just ordinary. It doesn't happen just every day, for everybody. And that's what makes it "incredible" - by which I just mean very, very exciting.

Life, the Universe, and Bald Eagles Getting Breakfast. Believe it - it happened.

26 November 2011

On Cinnamon and Peacocks

I went shopping the other day at our lovely local bulk foods store. We were running dismally low on such necessities of life as dried beans, rolled oats, and large chunks of chocolate, so the situation had to be remedied. Besides, Christmas is coming up, and it was imperative that I lay in the required supplies. One of the things I love about the bulk food store is the way it smells; they sell spices and other delectables from open bins with just a loose lid on them, so the scent permeates the whole shop. As it did my car, on the half-hour drive home.

This, dear people, is a bag of cinnamon. A one-kilogram bag of cinnamon. For those of you in the US, that's two-point-two pounds. And what I paid for it is $4.97. Four Canadian dollars, and ninety-seven cents. For those of you in Europe, that's about €3.55. For those of you in the US, that's $4.97. And for everyone else, that's just plain ridiculous.

You see, it was snowing that day as I was driving home, inhaling cinnamon scents all the way. Cold, white, soft flakes of snow. Temperatures just around the freezing point. And no, that's not terribly unusual here for this time of year, even though, contrary to what you might think, I do not live in an igloo year-round, and my car moves on tires, not sled runners. (I live in Canada, not next door to Father Christmas and the North Polar Bear. Just sayin'.) But, my point is I'm driving home, through the snow, with a one-kilo bag of cinnamon in the car that I paid five bucks for.

For the last few years around Christmas, the local educational TV station has been broadcasting this very interesting show called "A Tudor Feast at Christmas" (ooh, very cool, you can watch it for free here!). A team of English historians dress up in outfits from the late 16th century, go to an old manor house, and spend three days preparing a meal like the highest rungs of the social ladder in Elizabethan England would expect to be fed at a Christmas celebration. They use only the technology, ingredients and methods that would have been used at the time; and talk to the camera about how much bloomin' work it is to grind almonds for marzipan in a mortar and pestle instead of using a food processor. Now that's my kind of reality television!

So one of the blurbs that really stuck with me is where this food historian talks about cinnamon. He says, if I recall correctly, that cinnamon was nearly as precious as gold in those days - if not more so. Say, an English merchant outfitted three whole sailing ships, vessel, crew, supplies, everything, and sent those three ships off to the Spice Islands. He waits a full year for their return. Two of the ships are lost entirely, sunk off the coast of India in a storm. Just one of the ships makes it back to the cooler climates of Europe, its cargo hold loaded with the little fragrant brown sticks. That merchant, in spite of having lost two-thirds of an enormous investment, has just made his fortune for life.

Countries where it can snow in November are constitutionally incapable of growing cinnamon, so they have to bring it from elsewhere, from the far-away exotic shores of hot climates. Cinnamon, by rights, should be expensive around here. I have a feeling that my one-kilo bag of cinnamon, finely ground and powdery, probably equates to a wealthy person's yearly income by 1597's standards. But in case you were wondering, $4.97 doesn't go very far in today's Canada. In fact, it's only about twice of what I might pay for an equivalent weight in apples, which I could have picked from the trees in the orchard down the street a few months ago.

I wonder if the price on whole roasted peacock with the skin put back on, presented at the table in all its peacocky splendour, is going to go through a similar price drop anytime soon?

Life, the Universe and Cinnamon. Steve says he's looking forward to gingerbread.

17 November 2011


I won something again!! This is amazing, I'm on a roll. I've never won anything before, and now two things in one month! This time I actually had to work for it, though, as it was a contest, not just a draw. Christopher Bunn (yes, he of the Aebelskivers) wrote this very cool new song, and was giving away an Amazon gift certificate to the first person who could identify all three people the song was about. One was a character from one of his books, and as his current Magnum Opus, The Tormay Trilogy, is a three-volume fantasy which is quite magnum, indeed, it took a bit of searching.

I did find it, though, dredging up from the recesses of my blurry memory the general vicinity of the part of the story in which the character was being talked about, and looked it up to find the actual name. It would have been a lot easier if I'd had the books in my hand in hardcopy, then I could have just gone "Okay, about a third of the way through the book, right page, second paragraph from the bottom," and flipped through until it jumped out at me. Alas, so far Christopher's books are only available in e-book format, and e-pages don't flip very well.

The funny thing is that I'll probably end up using that gift certificate to just buy more of his books. Well, okay, I already have all of the ones that are out in print - wait, not print - uh, font? pixel? binary code? (Hmm, this is the same problem I've run into with my online studies: I never hand in papers, they're always just digital files. "Excuse me, Professor, when are those bites due?") But there'll be more of his books coming out soon, and meanwhile, there's so much other good stuff out there to read... And with e-books, oh dear, it's just too darn easy to get yet another book.

Those of you who have been faithfully following my flog - sorry, blog (getting a bit carried away with the alliteration there for a moment) might remember that last year I bought myself an e-book reader, with absolutely no intention to read books on it, as in, fiction, for amusement. Oh no, I was going to firmly remain faithful to my beloved print-on-paper (pBooks, we call that nowadays). The electronic dog polisher was only going to be for strictly electronic dogs, i.e. for reading pdf files for the aforementioned online studies. Hah- hahahah!! As it turns out, tiny little 6" screens are actually quite lousy to read pages on that were designed for 13" windows. (D'oh!)

But, ooh, they're lovely for reading regular books. Instant large print, anyone? What's more, instant reading material, at 10:30 on a Saturday night when you've just finished your Nero Wolfe novel, and you want another one, RIGHT NOW. No more waiting until the library opens again on Tuesday, or at least until the bookstore opens on Sunday morning. Now I can get more books with a few taps of a button, whenever I want. Instant gratification. But the ironic thing is that the instant-gratification reading machine is also teaching me to read more thoroughly again - to really read, page by page, instead of just skipping through the story for the instant gratification of only getting the good bits.

And it's not that my e-reader has turned me off pBooks, in the least. Rather, it's added a new dimension to my reading life. It's a winning situation, all around.

Incidentally, if you can't, or don't want to, afford a dedicated e-reader, you can still read e-books on your computer; the software is available for free download. So you have no more excuses for not reading Christopher's books; he's even giving one away for free.

Life, the Universe, and E-book Reading. Unexpected wins.

11 November 2011


It's the 11.11.11 today. That's a lot of 1's in a row. It's also Remembrance Day, and this year, I'm wearing the poppy.

Remembrance Day tends to be shrouded in sepia, with splashes of red (the poppies). We remember the men - and less often, women - who fought in the wars of the 20th century, wars which, for the most part, happened more than a lifetime ago. My uncle who fell in Russia would be ninety years old now, my uncle-in-law who was left on the fields of Normandy when he was nineteen would have had his 87th birthday this summer. Or, most likely, would not have; none of his siblings lived much past 70.

I remember hearing a story of someone who described how in the 1970's he first saw Cuba, which he had only known from TV footage up to that time. His big surprise was that Cuba was in colour! All the photos and films he'd seen were black-and-white. The stories we tell on Remembrance Day tend to be in sepia tones, stories of long ago and (for North Americans in particular) far away. We forget that all those things happened in colour, were here-and-now for those who lived then.

We also forget that when we are in the midst of things, when we experience them in colour, so much that happens seems inevitable, as if there was nothing we could do about it. I'm a pacifist at heart, but really, my dedication to peace has never been put to the test. I suspect that in actuality, I'm a passivist - I just want to be left alone to live my life, to not be bothered.

And that's were Remembrance Day comes in. I can live my life in peace because of those who were not passivists. I can live in a society where it is unacceptable to disparage someone because of their skin colour, thanks to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. I, and my daughter, can hold property, can obtain university degrees, can vote, thanks to Emmeline Pankhurst and Nellie McClung. And I can sleep at night without fear of bombs dropping on my head because of those who fought the sepia-coloured wars, and those who fight today for our freedom from violence and injustice.

Nothing says it better than the old greeting of the Christian liturgy: "Pax vobiscum - Peace be with you". "And also with you."

09 November 2011

Scarborough Fair

I just gave my herb bed its autumn haircut, bringing in the last of the herbs that I was going to preserve. Here's a lovely Scarborough Fair basket, filled with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. The last three are now hanging in bundles above the wood stove to dry; the parsley was chopped and frozen, as it doesn't dry well.

I also couldn't resist picking a few more heads of calendula (English marigolds), which were still blooming, and putting them on an old dehydrator rack in the workshop to dry. Poor Man's Saffron, dontcha know. Not that I ever use saffron, really, or calendula petals, for that matter, but I just like having it. I suppose it's like some women and shoes; I always like having yet another herb plant in the garden, or spice in the cupboard. Some of the herbs I don't even bother preserving, as I'd definitely never will use them; I just like growing them.

d is one of them; I don't even know what it's good for, really. I read somewhere that you could put it, sparingly, in pork dishes; but otherwise the only uses for it I heard of is as a strewing herb, and as part of a bouquet of aromatic herbs that judges in Ye Olden Days put on their bench in the court room in order to ward off jail fever which the prisoners would bring with them into the dock (the inconsiderate wretches). Neither one of those is any good to me, seeing as I'm neither a Victorian judge (or a judge of Victoriana, for that matter), and don't have my floors covered in rushes (hardwood or carpeting is nicer, I find, but if you want to put straw on your floors, more power to you. I can let you have some southernwood to keep it nice-smelling). Apparently southernwood is related to wormwood (as in, "bitter gall and -"), which used to be the flavour in absinthe (the drink Van Gogh & Co fried their brains with); its toxicity is the reason that you can't get absinthe any more.

Another herb I like to have in my garden, just to have it, is tarragon. I know you can make lovely tarragon vinegar, and there's lovely recipes for tarragon chicken, and it's a lovely part of a lovely bouquet garni, but really, I don't actually like the flavour. Any of those anise-like flavours, I'm not particularly fond of to eat - anise, tarragon, licorice, even basil... And I'd grow them all, if I could. (Hey, can you grow licorice on the 50th latitude? Or is that a tropical? Hmm, she says, with an avaricious gleam in the eye...) But, anyway, tarragon has one quality that makes it rather vital to have in one's garden: tarragon's other name is Dragonsbane. Truly, it wards off dragons! I haven't seen a single one in my garden since I planted it.

Life, the Universe, and Herb Collections. I think I'll go listen to Scarborough Fair now.

31 October 2011


It's Halloween, my man is back from five months in California, and we got some really strange cross-bred pumpkins from our garden. All of which has nothing whatever to do with each other, but I just thought I'd mention it.

On the topic of pumpkins, I hear this cross-breeding is a really common thing with them. The ones we got must be a cross between ordinary orange pumpkins and Sweet Dumpling squashes. Sweet Dumplings are little guys, no more than 5” across (there's one in the front right in the picture); the perfect single-serving squash, if you like that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, in my family I’m the only one who’ll eat cooked squash. That, my friends, is called an acquired taste. I never tasted squash until I came to Canada, and for starters, detested all of it, even the one dish my family does like (a lot): pumpkin pie. (It always makes me think of The Fat Ladies, Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Patterson, in one of their cooking shows: “...this pumpkin pie the Americans are all so fond of - never let an American near a pumpkin; dreadful things they do to them!” Hah. They certainly weren’t mealymouthed, those two. Too sad Jennifer had to go and die and put an end to that show. But Clarissa is still going strong, and writing excellent books on food and country living and her own life. If you haven’t read or seen any of her stuff, do check it out, even if you are an American, or Canadian, or German, or Any-other-an, who likes to do dreadful things to pumpkins. Heck, I do!)

The first time I tried pumpkin pie I thought “Eew!” The second time, it was “Hmm, not too horrible, especially slathered with whipped cream.” The third time, “I could get to like this!” And now I grow pumpkins in the garden specifically to make pie out of.

Our Jack-o-Lanterns usually get cooked down into pie fodder after the event, which is probably sacriligeous, but I do it anyway. This year, our largest pumpkin came from a volunteer plant which turned out to be one of those white ones - I call them ghost pumpkins, but I think technically the variety is called something like "New Moon". The flesh on that thing is a good two inches thick (it was really hard carving!), and bright orange; if it tastes as good as it looks, it would be a sacrilege not to make it into pies. It’ll be interesting to see if the funny crossbreeds are any good for pie. If not, at least they’re decorative.

Life, the Universe, and Cross-bred Pumpkins. Try acquiring a new taste today!

26 October 2011


I just learned about something new: Aebelskivers. You've known about these for years? Well, I didn't. And if it wasn't for Christopher, I still wouldn't. His theory is that they're a part of either some kind of sinister Danish plot for world domination, or else an equally sinister small-arms manufacturing scheme. I don't know about either of that. I think they're likely a part of some perfectly innocent pan-European plot for world domination.

Now, I've never tasted one of these things, but looking at the recipe, Aebelskivers appear to be a direct relative of Pfitzauf, Popovers, Yorkshire Pudding, Soufflé, Pancakes, Pfannkuchen, Blini, or Waffles, the main difference between all of these cake-like goodies being the language in which you yell at your children to get out from underfoot when you're making them, and possibly the pan or mould they're made in. Aebelskivers, Wikipedia informs me, are made in something resembling a cross between a muffin tin and a frying pan. I think I've seen things like that in thrift shops, and always assumed they were meant for poaching eggs. I know better now. Ah, the power of education.

Doing this deep and meaningful research on delectably fried flour-milk-egg concoctions has had the unfortunate side effect of making me want some. Good thing there isn't an Aebelskiver bakery right next to my house, or I'd go buy some right now. But then, if there was, I would have long known about them, and would not have had to go look them up on the Internet when I read about them on Christopher's blog, and would have been spared the craving which ensued, so therefore would not have gone and bought some from the entirely hypothetical bakery, after all. Which just goes to show. (I'm not sure what, but I'm sure it goes to show something).

Life, the Universe, and Danish Pancake-Like Thingies Which Sound Seriously Delicious. If you've got a pan to make them in, send some my way, would you?

24 October 2011


I won something! Yey! I went on Elle Strauss' blog, and left a comment, and got a prize! It's a copy of a book called "Pride & Popularity", a re-write of the world's greatest romance in an American high school setting. Apparently Jenni James originally didn't even set out to write a version of Austen, it just sort of happened. Should be interesting to read.

I imagine that for a writer of romances, a sure-fire way to garner a greater readership is to refer to Jane Austen somewhere in their writing. I wouldn't know, I've never tried writing romance. I don't think I could; I'd be too embarrassed. (You should have seen Steve's face when I suggested it. Well, yes, it looked exactly like it always does - he is a stuffed bear, after all. But I'm sure if synthetic fur could change colour, there would have been a decidedly pinkish tinge to it then.) I have the same issue whenever I have to write, or say, anything really deep or meaningful - I just can't do it. It's not that I don't feel the things, I just have a hard time saying them. Like with writing birthday cards. What I really mean is "You're such an incredibly wonderful person who has touched my heart deeply, and I wish you every conceivable happiness in which all your wishes come true and all your deepest desires are fulfilled!" but what comes out is "Happy, umm, birthday?"

I read somewhere that the English are so stiff-upper-lip because really, they're frightfully sentimental, so they have to be extra stiff to keep it under control (come to think of it, that sounds like something Lord Peter Wimsey would say; might well have been from one of those books). I think the same goes for Germans: we come across as hard-nosed because we're really just big marshmallows inside. It's not that we don't feel things, it's that we feel them too much. It's no accident that Germany produced Bach, Beethoven, Handel and Holbein: if your feelings are too strong to talk about, you need to give them sound or colour in some other way.

But that's not to say that every straight-faced person is frightfully sentimental inside; some are just unemotional blocks of ice. And some are teddy bears who really are stuffed with fluff. It's probably a good thing Steve can't blush - pink plush would clash with my favourite orange sweater.

Life, the Universe, and Romance. It is a truth universally acknowledged.

20 October 2011


"This is a book for the servantless American cook..." is how Julia Child starts her epic work, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking". I've been re-reading Georgette Heyer's eminently amusing romantic mysteries, classic "Cozies" from the 1930's and 40's, and it struck me yesterday how very not-servant-less they all are in those books. Everybody has at least a butler, a cook, and usually a gardener, chauffeur and several maids (who tend to be prone to breaking dishes, coming over ever-so-queer, and twisting their hands nervously in their aprons when interviewed by the Inspector).

For Heyer, and her contemporaries and read-alikes such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers or Ngaio Marsh, there's always the intelligent and well-educated Scotland Yard Inspector or Private Detective, usually accompanied by Sergeant Sidekick of solidly-middle-class background who has a knack for putting servants at their ease and getting important bits of information out of them while taking his tea in the kitchen and flirting with the cook ("Get along with you, Sergeant, do! You're a one! Won't you 'ave another biscuit? They're ever so nice. But this murderin' business, that I don't 'old with, and never 'ave, and so I said to Mr Simms only this mornin'..."). Whatever would they do if a murder occurred in a house such as mine? Not a single, solitary servant to interview around here. None. There's just me, the servantless German-Canadian cook. And I'd take me apron off if an H'inspector h'approached me house, I would. Cross me 'eart and 'ope to die.

Fact is, all those Golden Age Mystery writers, they wrote about people just like themselves. Heyer and Christie had one child each, who were almost certainly taken off their hands by nannies and governesses or boarding schools; Marsh and Sayers lived their life as single women (Sayers' illegitimate son was raised by a cousin of hers). They likely never changed a diaper in their lives (and would have called them nappies, if they had, and certainly wouldn't have had to rinse the poop out of them, launder them, and hang them on the line to dry; that's what laundry maids were for). In the last Heyer book I read, "Blunt Instrument", there's a quirky young woman called Sally Drew (no relation of Nancy, as far as I can tell), who writes mystery novels and wears a monocle, no less. I'm sure she has A Room of Her Own, and probably even 500£ a year, or she wouldn't be able to saunter so nonchalantly through the pages of this novel, making the Inspector's life difficult with her amateur sleuthing which she then turns into novel plots herself. If she had to concern herself with actually doing the work which was entailed in the elaborate lifestyle of the upper middle classes of the day, if she was, in fact, servantless, she would simply have neither the time nor the energy to devote to such intellectual pursuits.

Julia Child appreciated all that. "This is a book for the servantless American cook," she continues, "who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children's meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat" (MTAFC, 2001 edition, p. xxiii). It's a sobering thought that if Julia Child had had the deepest wish of her heart fulfilled - had been able to have children - she would have been too busy to do what she became famous for. She would not have needed to find herself something to do in Paris, would never have gone to the Cordon Bleu and learned to cook, would never have shared that gift with the rest of us. Being a servantless American, but one whose husband's position at the American embassy in Paris made it unnecessary for her to do the labour of keeping the two of them clothed, fed, and comfortable, she could go and learn. And write.

Life, the Universe, and servantless living. I can't help it, Sergeant, honest!

16 October 2011

Eclectic Tastes

I just read one of those books I picked up at the book sale, the pink one on the top of the stack in the picture. It's called "The Frog Princess", by E. D. Baker, and turns out to have been the inspiration behind Disney's "Princess and the Frog" movie. Inspiration only - there's not a whole lot of resemblance between the two stories, apart from the basic idea of a girl kissing a froggified prince and turning into a frog herself, and then having to find a way to un-froggify herself and the prince. In fact, they're both really nice stories based on that idea, each enjoyable in their own way. (Oh, cute: I didn't realize that it was Oprah Winfrey who did the voice for the princess' mother in the movie! The things you can find out online...)

Anyway, I picked up that book at the sale because it looked like it might be a fun read. And it was, too, so much so that I've now got the next two books in the series on hold at the library. They have something to do with breaking the curse on the princess' aunt's long-lost boyfriend, who, at the end of the first story, is left as a turquoise-coloured otter (yup - the book's called "Dragon's Breath"), and with breaking the curse on the princess' family's women, who are doomed to turn into hideous hags if sometime after their sixteenth birthday they touch any flower at all ("Once Upon a Curse"). I always like it when I find a good new series to read; this one is promising. Reminds me of the time when we found Patricia Wrede's "Dealing with Dragons" and its sequels, about a princess who doesn't want to learn such princessy skills as how to faint or how to be rescued, and runs away to become a dragon's housekeeper instead. I highly recommend it to strong-minded girls of any age, or ones who could use being a little more strong-minded, or any girl or boy who just likes a good story with dragons and knights and princesses and cooking and such-like.

Speaking of strong-minded, my other read today (other than "Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life"), was "The Renaissance Soul" by Margaret Lobenstine. In case you're wondering, Renaissance Souls are people who have so many interests, they have a hard time choosing between them. They go to library book sales and pick up cookbooks, fantasy novels, gardening books, art books, travel guides, literature classics, and Snoopy books, with reckless abandon. (Stop snickering, people, I wasn't referring to myself. At all. Nope.) That's also known as having Eclectic Tastes, which is a handy thing to have, because it assures you never run out of things to do. It can also be a bit inconvenient, because it assures you never run out of things to do. Or read, for that matter. So much to read, so little lifetime!

Incidentally, Steve likes that "Frog Princess" book, too. Here is Benjamin reading it to him and Yorick. (Steve can read, of course, but it's a bit hard for him; I think he might be dyslexic.)

Life, the Universe, and Eclectic Tastes. What does your stuffed bear like to read?

14 October 2011

Book Sale

I just got back from the annual library book sale. Spent $39 (which is not too bad) on: Julia Child's cookbook and autobiography, a Snoopy book, "Eat, Pray, Love", xeriscape gardening, Cezanne, an illustrated biography of the Brontës, Diana Wynne Jones, Pratchett, Brian Jacques, some classics, Sister Wendy's "Nativity", "The Happiness Project", "Twinkie, Deconstructed", a book on British food, one on Kokoschka, and a couple of YA fantasies. Eclectic tastes - who, me? Naaah...

I spent a couple of bucks on a great big cookbook, a four-pounder, on wine and food: "A Matter of Taste" by Lucy Waverman and James Chatto. I've had this very same copy checked out of the library when I was still working there; the flyleaf has our local branch code and "Jan. '10" scribbled on it in my handwriting (no, I wasn't vandalising it; it was part of my job to mark when the book came into the branch). I remember shelving it, more than once, and putting it out on display so that others would take it out, too. And eventually I must have sent it back to Headquarters for reallocating to another branch, or even for weeding out of the system. And then it ended up in the book sale for the likes of me to take home for good. It's the kind of book that would easily cost $50 new. Library discard sales are the bargain of the year.

Of course now you're wondering if I'm actually going to read all those books I bought. And the simple answer is: you-gotta-be-kidding! Well, the novels, I bought them because either I've read them and liked them and want them for my collection (e.g. "The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents", a vintage-Pratchett spoof on the Pied Piper of Hamelin), or because they looked like they might be amusing. So those, yes, I'll read. Probably. Eventually. But the non-fiction, like the gardening or art books, I never read those. What I do with them is I look at the pictures ("[For] what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversation?").

Even the cookbooks, I rarely actually cook out of them. I just use them for inspiration. I look at the luscious photo of Red-cooked Chicken in Mandarin Pancakes, drool over the idea of Aragula and Gorgonzola Spread (what is Aragula, anyway? Is it any relation of Aragog, Hagrid's giant arachnid pet?), sigh at the thought of Chocolate Passion with Mango Lime Sauce - and then go and serve up yesterday's leftovers (albeit with the gleam of inspiration in my eye). I really don't need to cook my way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and then write a blog about it; Julie Powell did an excellent job of that already.

Now, the real difficulty still lies ahead: where am I going to put my new acquisitions? I must build me bigger bookshelves... Library book sales are dangerous.

Life, the Universe, and library book sales. Live dangerously today.

11 October 2011


Steve won't speak to me. We spent the long weekend with family at the Coast, and I forgot him at home. Here he is, sitting on my bedside table, pouting. I'm really sorry, Steve, but someone had to stay home with the guppies! You know they get scared alone in the fish tank at night.

I didn't even notice that I had forgotten him until we were on our way home. We were heading for the mountains, when suddenly it crossed my mind that my trusty teddy was not with me in my bag. Those aren't small mountains we were heading for, either. It's a 230 km trip from one side to the other; the summit is at 1728 m. There's a special feeling to approaching that last exit on the freeway, that last chance you have to turn off and go back to the flatlands. You mentally run through the list: Gas? Check. Engine coolant? Check. Snacks? Check. Thermos bottle full of tea? Check. Teddy bear? Oops, forgot him!

It's just a little scary to know you're heading into the high mountains, and there won't be another chance to stock up on the essentials until you come back down on the other side. Scary - but also exhilarating. When you pull past that last turnoff, and the steep forests close in on the right and left of the freeway, you know you really are unequivocally on your way. You can't stay in the flatlands, avoiding the scary, lonely, barren mountains, if you want to get where you're going, get home where you belong. You have to take a deep breath, push down your foot on the gas, and just go.

There'll be semi trucks on the way blocking your lane (can't they go in the slow lane where they belong? Sheesh!); there'll be that spot on the side of the road where you got stuck just after 9/11 with four little kids in the car and had to get towed back to safety; there'll be the beauty of the wild river beside the road and the flaking granite of massive Zopkios Ridge, wreathed in a narrow necklace of cloud, towering over you on the left. You'll find yourself suddenly in the middle of a fog bank, barely able to see (haven't those people ever heard of putting on their headlights in a fog? Good grief!), and then just as suddenly have your view sweeping over valleys upon valleys as you crest the summit. And then, you're heading down the hill - faster than you like sometimes, having to put on the brakes to keep yourself from running away - and before you know it, you're out of the mountains. The Lake appears on your right, you sweep around the curve, merge onto the regular highway, and soon have to slow right down to city speed.

And then you're home. You drop the pizza you picked up on the way through town on the counter, kick off your shoes, put your bag into your room, and apologize to your teddy (who won't speak to you; but don't worry, he'll get over it). You wouldn't be here if you hadn't entered those mountains, if you had safely stayed in the flats. "High Mountain Road - Expect Sudden Weather Changes", the sign says. Yes, there are sudden weather changes up in those mountains. And you've got to get through them to get to where you're meant to be.

Life, the Universe, and high mountains to cross. I trust Steve will forgive me eventually.

08 October 2011


It's Thanksgiving Weekend. That's the time when we all sit around, eat turkey, and wrack our brains for things to be thankful for. Because, you know, the table groaning under all that food isn't giving us any hints. Hah.

Canadian Thanksgiving is always on the second weekend in October. In Germany, Erntedank (Harvest Thanks), is the first Sunday of that month. In the US, it's the fourth Thursday of November. Someone, I believe it was Barbara Kingsolver in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle", pointed out that the difference is accounted for by the different lengths of the growing seasons in those places. In the Northern latitudes, harvest is pretty much done by October; in fact, the year before last we had our first hard freeze on Thanksgiving weekend. The grape harvest is the last thing that needs to be done in October; that year, we went on a winery tour the day after that freeze, and they were frantically scrambling to get in the grapes, because once you have a freeze, that's it for the ripening process. I don't know if they left any grapes on the vines for icewine, which is an amazing delicacy which also requires northerly climates to produce, but usually icewine doesn't happen until December or so.

So, anyway, in Canada, and in Northern Europe, early October is when you've picked most of what you're going to pick, have finished making your jams and jellies and pickles, and have bags of dried fruits hanging in the rafters in your attic - don't you? No, me neither, though I do have some in jars in the cupboard. But my Southern German grandmother used to have this big attic, over the barn which was attached to the house - she hung her laundry up there in the winter time - and I remember cloth bags suspended in that dusky space, being told they were full of dried fruit.

I don't remember ever having Schnitzbrot at her house, but I'm sure she made some sometime, as it's a traditional Swabian Christmas treat. It's literally bread, generally a heavy rye, loaded with dried fruit; sort of like American fruit cake except without the candied fruit and wrapped in bread dough instead of cake batter. One of my uncles was a preacher, and I once went with him on a visit to an old, old farmhouse in the countryside, and the ancient and wrinkled farmer woman gave me a piece of Schnitzbrot, thick, heavy and chewy-sweet, spread with fresh cool butter. Wonderful. In Bavaria, they call it Kletzenbrot, "Kletzen" being dried pears. On the first and third Thursday evening in Advent, young people dressed up as shepherds go from house to house, sing carols, and are given treats or money for it, rather like christmassy trick-or-treaters; in "the old days" they didn't get candy or money, but the Kletzen for their Kletzenbrot.

Somehow this year I'm much more aware of the wonders of the harvest, the blessings of food that's come straight from the land. Our season was rather short this year, as we had a long, cool winter and spring; it seems it barely began and it was over already. But in those few short months the land was bursting at the seams with fruit, with vegetables, with berries and peaches and plums and herbs and fruit flies (no, wait, we actually didn't have a lot of those this year; probably thanks to the cooler weather). A cornucopia of abundance.

Life, the Universe, and a Good Harvest. I don't think I have any problems finding things to be thankful for this year.

05 October 2011


I can't eat garlic. It's a fairly recent development in my life; I used to pig out on it with quite shameless abandon. (I remember once, in my grade 12 year, going to a party to which most of my class was invited. It was the first time I tasted tzatziki. And it was excellent tzatziki; everyone had lots. The next day, the teachers walking into the classroom were practically knocked back out the door by the garlic fumes that were oozing out of our pores...) So, then, sometime in my thirties I developed a garlic intolerance. It's not too big a deal, not like a real allergy you could kill me with; it just gives me an upset stomach. (And, yes, I checked: my eyeteeth are not any longer or pointier than they were before, when I could still eat the stuff. Nice try.)

So, this whole thing is just a bit of a nuisance. Most of the items on the menu of my favourite restaurant are garlic-loaded; especially the appetizer section has nary a thing I can eat. But I've got used to that; it's not like my appetite is in any need of stimulation, as a rule, anyway. My man, on the other hand, really likes all those garlic-loaded foods, but then he complains that most of the menu is contaminated with either mushrooms, or shrimp, or both, neither of which he can stand (but I love). Never the twain shall meet...

I've learned over the years to just ignore certain foods, one of them being pesto. But then last year, I had some basil plants in the garden. I grew them because the man likes basil, but I don't actually like it, myself; so I was a bit stumped on what to do with it - didn't want to throw it into the spaghetti sauce, for one. I was leafing through one of the cookbooks I had picked up at the library sale the year before, and my eye fell on a recipe for pesto: basil, olive oil, parmesan, and GARLIC. Hmm, thinks I, this sounds like something the man might like! I dumped the requisite amounts of the stuff into the blender (it also calls for pine nuts, which I didn't have, so I left 'em out), whizzed it around, then called the man upstairs to taste it. Bingo! Not only did he like it, he loved it! Pesto on sandwiches, pesto as dip, pesto on scrambled eggs, pesto... You get the picture. Now the odd thing is that even though I can't tolerate garlic (even the smell nauseates me sometimes), and I don't like basil, when they're combined like that in pesto it smells really, really good.

Fast-forward to this past spring: based on last year's pesto binges, I planted lots and lots of basil. I made one big batch of pesto a couple of months ago, but I didn't quite cut the plants down to the ground; I left some standing. And what do you know, they re-grew! So I had another big bunch of basil sitting in the kitchen yesterday. Now what? I was tired of making regular pesto. Well, what about trying the milder bulb - what about onion pesto? I tried one smallish batch, with onion instead of garlic, so I could eat it myself. Tasted it, and it was fine. Didn't feel like dealing with the rest, so hung up the bundle of basil stalks in the basement beside the wood stove to dry.

Then today, come lunchtime, I pulled out the ham and the cheese, and my eye fell on that little jar of onion pesto in the fridge. Well, why not? Ham-cheese-mayo-pesto sandwich. One bite, and oh.... my.... goodness!! That stuff is divine! I wasn't even done eating the sandwich before I reassembled the blender, and marched downstairs (still munching), plucking the basil bunch back off the drying line. So now I have two more ice cube trays filled with onion pesto nicely solidifying in the freezer, to be pulled out in handy little cubes and thrown into delicious food combinations in the dead of winter.

It just goes to show, doesn't it. I could have missed out on this amazing treat if I had let my garlic intolerance and my previous dislike for basil keep me from at least trying this. I'm converted to the rank of the pestorians - pestolentials - anti-anti-pestos - ah, whatever. I officially love pesto!

Oh, and in case you're wondering: 2 c fresh basil leaves, 1/2 c olive oil, 4 cloves garlic or 1 smallish onion, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 c parmesan. Whiz in blender. (If you want to do the pine nut thing, 2 Tbsp of those, toasted. I don't bother.)

Life, the Universe, and Pesto. Do give it a try.

03 October 2011


I made soap today. Yeah, I do stuff like that; comes from having been born in 1967 (Hippies, Human Be-in, Summer of Love, and me). I'm into all that "simple living" stuff - you know, preserving your own food, putting your babies in cloth diapers, scratch-cooking everything (from scratch!), homeschooling, wearing unbleached cotton (and flannel next to the skin - oh, wait, wrong time period. Flannel was the 1800's, Jane Austen and all. Cotton - just stick with cotton). It's such a simple life I've only burned out about three or four times from sheer exhaustion and overwhelmedness.

No, seriously. I think I did learn my lesson in there somewhere, at least I hope I did. And it's really not so much about "simple living", because, in case you missed the dripping sarcasm, that kind of life is not all that simple. It's more about self-sufficiency, but also about connectedness. Connectedness to the source of your food, to your living - the stuff you have around you. Knowing where it comes from, where it's been ("Johnny, put down that potato chip right now! You don't know where it's been!!"). And it's also about purity, about quality, and about creative satisfaction. I just get a kick out of washing with soap that's been made according to the Bavarian Purity Law (just four ingredients: Water, Hops, Yeast and Malt. Wait. That's beer. Which I don't like. But if I did, I might try brewing my own, just for fun.). Today's soap batch contains, for the most part, olive oil, coconut oil, and lye (No, not lie! I am telling the truth!); a couple of the molds also have vegetable shortening, essential oils, and powdered spices in them. It smells lovely; even the unscented stuff has this clean, soapy fragrance I really enjoy.

And that's what it's really about for me now, the enjoyment. If I didn't like making soap, I wouldn't do it - not any more. I first tried soap-making back in my Little-House-on-the-Prairie Days, when I was under the impression that it would make me a better person to live like Ma Ingalls (labour-intensive housekeeping mandatory). But, in my usual fashion, I just read books on how to make soap instead of learning it from a real person, and miserably failed. All I got from the attempt was a very, very clean pot (the lye burned away all the dirt that was clinging to the little scratches on the inside of the pot). You really need to have seen the way a batch of soap looks when it's tracing (starting to set) before you try making it yourself; I had to take an evening class at the local high school to learn how to do it. For your information, a proper trace looks exactly like instant pudding when it just starts to thicken - oh, wait, you wouldn't have instant pudding in your house, because it's so un-hippie-ish, un-natural, and un-homemade. Would you? Well, yeah, actually, me too. I did say I learned my lesson, right?

Life, the Universe, Soap and Self-sufficiency. If you don't overdo it, it's all good clean fun.

30 September 2011


It has come to my attention that there's been a certain dearth of comments on my blog posts lately. I thought it was because my esteemed readers were too disgusted with my babble to deign to reply, or else overcome by a certain sense of ennui as to the topics covered. However, as it turns out, there was (perhaps still is, now) a glitch in the system, and all the great multitudes of you who have been dying to leave a comment have been prevented from doing so by technical difficulties.

Apparently the error message one is sent runs as follows: "We are sorry, but we were unable to complete your request. The following errors were found: Input error: Cookie value is null for FormRestoration". Now, what in bloomin' blazes does that mean? The only thing I can figure is that they think you've been trying to join some weight-loss site. They're telling you that if you're trying to get back your pre-pregnancy (or pre-college, or pre-marriage, or pre-learn-to-cook-real-food) figure (= "FormRestoration"), you shouldn't consume any cookies (= "Cookie value is null"). Or, perhaps, only have really worthless cookies in the house, because they taste so awful they won't present any temptation. But you know that already, don't you?

Or, perhaps, it's actually something to do with carpentry. I usually set my "Language Preferences" to "English, UK" (it's Euro snobbery, okay? You don't have to follow suit). Now, in the UK, "cookies" are known as "biscuits", I believe. And "biscuits" are also what carpenters call little round flat disks of wood which can be used to join two pieces of wood together, provided one cuts a suitably-shaped slit into those pieces first. Then you have a biscuit joint, as opposed to a mortise-and-tenon, dowel or dovetail joint. I know about those because I learned a bit of furniture-making some years ago; alas, my jointing capabilities never progressed any further than the butt joint. (Quite. You can stop snickering now.) But I read all about the other joints, so I feel qualified to pontificate thereon. (What do you mean, reading library books isn't the same as actually doing something? C'mon!) So, I conclude that the error message about the cookies was meant to say that without cookies, or, in proper Queen's English, biscuits, the joint falls apart.

Well. The fact of the matter is that some of you did still get through to my blog commenting form, if not others. (Please, please don't tell me that you haven't actually been trying. It would just be too discouraging, and destroy all my carefully cultivated illusions of how tremendously large my readership has been growing in the last couple of days, and how all of you are clamouring to leave witty and erudite contributions. Leave me my fantasies - and leave a comment while you're at it.) So, I wonder if those of you that got through have something special going on? Perhaps an immunity to cookies. You're probably also really skinny, and your favourite food is green salad without dressing. I hate you. (Oops, sorry. That's not the way to build a following, is it? Okay, I mildly dislike you. No, not even that. In fact, you're my best friend, and you can come over anytime I've baked a fresh batch of cookies. More for me. Muahahahahaaaa....)

Ahem. Okay, I pushed a few buttons in the Blogger Dashboard, and clicked "Save" a couple of times. Maybe that fixed this problem? If not, I'll have to do some calisthenics to get blogger to do something about this. Can't have these comment-less blog posts; I don't like having my cyber voice echoing in an empty space. Cookie -kie -kie -kie -kie -kie.....

Life, the universe, and cookies. Uh, biscuits. Ah, whatever.

29 September 2011


I was very tempted to go off on a rant today about people who speed on the highway, tail-gating me and making me feel pressured to get out of their way so they can get ahead and wait at the next traffic light about two seconds longer than me. But then I thought, no. There are better things to talk about: such as today's Feast Day. It's St Michael's and All Angels today! Happy Michaelmas. Just in case you didn't know, that's pronounced "Mickle-muss", not "My-kal-mass", just like Christmas is "Kriss-muss", not "Cry-st-mass". I found that out from repeated watchings of the definitive film version of "Pride and Prejudice", the one with Colin Firth: "Mr Bingley is to take posession by Michaelmas!" There's lots you can learn from classic films (handsome actors in wet shirts have nothing to do with any of that, of course; I watch them purely for the educational value).

Michaelmas is one of the four quarter days of the year, the other three being Christmas, Lady Day (March 25th) and Midsummer or St John's Day (June 24th), which of course roughly correspond to the solstices and equinoxes. Quarter days are when rents were due, and servants hired (or paid, I suppose). So when Mr Darcy says that "Bingley means to quit the place entirely at Michaelmas", that translates to him moving out at the end of the rent term (The bum! But then, he didn't, after all. He married Jane instead. So we're all good. Aah, romance...).

It's kind of an interesting to look at which important personages of the Christian faith got their names appended to the old seasonal festive days. Christ to the Winter Solstice, Mary to Spring Equinox (which would make sense, it being nine months before Christmas), John the Baptist to Summer Solstice (oh yeah - he was Jesus' cousin, half a year older than Christ! More sense there.), and Michael the Archangel to Autumn Equinox. I wonder why they attached the angels to autumn.

The name Michael means "Who is like God?" It comes from a beautiful legend of how Lucifer, the Angel of Light, challenged God, wanting to be like Him. The Archangel took him on, calling out the battle cry "Who Is Like God?" (somewhat by way of a rhetorical question, as I understand it). After a big struggle between Lucifer and Michael and their followers, Lucifer was defeated, and he and his minions cast into the outer darkness, henceforth known as Satan and the devils.

I don't remember where I heard that story - it's not from the Bible, as I had assumed; as a matter of fact, I think its origin might be Milton and "Paradise Lost". But as I've never actually read more than an excerpt of Milton (have you ever tried him? He makes the Victorians look downright concise. And that's saying something.), I must have been told the story as a kid. Anyway, that story is why St Michael is usually shown as a warrior, having it out with a dragon-like creature; sort of like St George, but the latter tends to wear plate armour, being the original Knight In Shining Armour, whereas the Archangel has the standard wing outfit.

In Bavaria, where I spent my teen years, they have Michaelmas Markets, which are country fairs where animals are bought and sold, ribbons handed out, and good times had by all. I remember one year seeing a classmate playing in the brass band by the beer tent, wearing the full outfit, Lederhosen and all, which was a bit surprising as he didn't look like that in school. Oh, and I had another classmate whose birthday, I believe, fell on or around St Michael's Day, and he was called Michael even though he wasn't Catholic. I think he's got a PhD in chemistry now, but that probably has nothing to do with any of this.

Life, the Universe, and Michaelmas. Now you know all about it.

27 September 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

So when I wrote that last blog entry, about my book stacks, I found out that Diana Wynne Jones is, alas, no longer with us. She passed away in March of this year at the age of 76, of lung cancer. Sad. Sad to think there won't be any more stories coming from that so-very-gifted pen of hers.

I first read one of her books in the early 80's, when it was still quite new. The German title was "Wir sind aufs Hexen ganz versessen"; it's a translation of "Charmed Life", the first book she wrote in the "Chrestomanci" series. Some fifteen years later I picked up a book called "The Lives of Christopher Chant" from a Canadian library, and in reading it kept having flashbacks to this other book I'd read as a young teen - there are nine worlds, all parallel to each other; one of them is ours, the others just like it except a bit different (one, or maybe several of them, use magic to manage their daily affairs). And I thought how interesting it was that two authors had come up with the same idea of these parallel worlds. D'uh... "Charmed Life" came out in 1977, "Christopher Chant" in '88; the last of the six Chrestomanci books, "The Pinhoe Egg", was published in 2006. I devoured them all as I could lay hands on them.

When I first read the Harry Potter books, which I picked up sometime between the publication of "The Prisoner of Azkaban" and "The Goblet of Fire" purely to find out what all the fuss was about, I was actually rather unimpressed - oh, I liked them alright, but my main thought was "What's the big deal? These are just like Diana Wynne Jones' stuff!" And I still stand by that opinion, although I've now pretty much become a die-hard fan of Rowling's world and her young wizards. Diana Wynne Jones is every bit as good as Rowling, and I'm fairly certain Harry Potter's creator would agree with me (not being of the conceited sort, from what I can tell). Jones' work is much more varied than Rowling's, and there is considerably more of it - not surprising, as Diana Wynne Jones was some thirty years older than J. K. Rowling and had that much more time to produce good fiction (I'm sure in thirty years' time we'll have lots from Rowling, too).

My favourites of Diana Wynne Jones' stories are the "Chrestomanci" and the "Castle" series - the latter known to anime fans through Miyazaki's version of "Howl's Moving Castle" - and the set "Deep Secret" and "The Merlin Conspiracy". Some of Jones' books are pretty much written for adults ("Deep Secret" is one of them; "Fire and Hemlock" another); others are classified as "easy readers" or "chapter books" by the library (for example "Wild Robert"; it's one book I didn't like, as the story feels unfinished to me). I have yet to read "Enchanted Glass" - it's left in my bedside stack of mean-to-read's - as well as the Derkholm Series and "The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land", which form a set. Her last book, "Earwig and the Witch", only just came out in July; my library hasn't even got it yet (but they will soon; I suggested it for purchase).

So I still have a few Diana Wynne Jones' left to read, and when I'm done those, I can probably start over again on the older ones. It's been a long time since I read most of them; I can enjoy them all over. And I will - they're that good.

It's sad when a good author leaves us readers, and we can no longer look forward to more gripping tales from their pen. But then, there are new writers, fresh voices, for us to discover. I'm sure that somewhere in the Mythosphere (that's the Land of Story, as you'll find out when you read "The Game") the Chrestomanci is shaking the hand of a young wizard with a lightening-shaped scar on his forehead, and, I believe, is getting ready to pass him the baton.

25 September 2011

Quick Trick Book Stacks

I realized this morning it was time to clean up the book stacks again. They keep growing beside my bed. Three current library books, two of them on cooking and French diets (ah, deliciousness!). One note book. Two classics, several Pilcher, Heyer, and Diana Wynne Jones. Most of them sort of migrated there, from the basement shelves, or the book case on the other side of the bedroom. When the stack gets so high that it reaches the top of my (admittedly low) mattress, and interferes with making the bed, it's time to have the books re-migrate back to their proper locations.

So, one pile over to the book case. But, unfortunately, there's no room there either. The Heyers in the second shelf from the bottom have become obscured behind sideways-stacked books I've been meaning to read; most of them I picked up at last year's library book sale. (Oh dear, it's almost book sale time again! Where am I going to put the new ones?) Ah, but there are also quite a number of books there that I'm done reading! They can go back to their homes on the basement shelves. One paperback set of "Lord of the Rings". Several small German novellas about Lorenzo de' Medici. A Maeve Binchy. An assortment of mystery novels, and a copy each of "Emma" and "Pride and Prejudice" (I got nicer copies that match the rest of the gilt-edged set, so these ones can go downstairs for now). Okay, pile those up. Add the ones from beside the bed that are destined for the basement. Pick up the stack, carefully pinching down on the top book with my chin. (The worst is when you pinch too hard, and the books from the middle of the stack pop out- clatter bang ka-bumble! The whole stack goes. Do not try this at home, people, you have to be a trained librarian to treat books that badly.) Now, two flights of stairs down to the basement. I hope nobody's left anything sitting on the stairs for me to trip on, I can barely see where I'm going. Down in the rec room, I don't feel like sorting the books into their proper places, so I'm going to just leave them on the cabinet for now. Who knows, one of the kids might like to pick up one of those books to read, and they wouldn't notice it if it was neatly filed on the shelf, would they?

Back up the two sets of stairs (who says book worms don't get any exercise?). Okay, so now there's space in front of the Heyer books where I can pile a couple more of the books that have sat beside my bed in the mean-to-read pile. A mean-to-read shelf, it's somehow much tidier that a loose stack beside the bed, don't you think? Steve thinks so; probably partly because the books aren't as likely to fall on him from the shelves as from the book stacks (splat, flat teddy).

Quick trick book stacks. Somehow they just grow around here. Incidentally, that phrase is a corruption of Fox-in-Sock's "quick trick brick stacks". If you have young children in your life, and you haven't read them Dr. Seuss' "Fox in Socks", you absolutely must do so. Forget the Cat in the Hat (he's annoying and inconsiderate anyway), go with Fox in Socks. I dare you to read that book through in one go without tripping over your tongue at least once on the way.

Life, the universe and quick trick book stacks. What's on your mean-to-read pile?

20 September 2011


My crystal fell from the kitchen window. The suction cup that holds it on the window pane let go, and the crystal clattered to the window sill. Now, it's done that lots of times before, no harm done - I just wipe the spot on the window, moisten the suction cup, and stick it back on, maybe after polishing up the crystal a bit to make it sparkle again. But this time, I was quite sad to see, the crystal got chipped. Too bad. I've had it for years; don't even remember where I first got it - a hand-me-down from someone, I believe. It's hung in my kitchen window, which, in this house and the last one I lived in, faces East, and it has painted rainbows on my walls and floors even when there weren't any to be had outside.

So now it's broken. My first thought was where I could get a new one - perhaps the gift shop in town? They used to carry things like that. I don't know if they still do, I could check next time I'm down there. But then I got to thinking: maybe a chip isn't the end of the world? Maybe not even the end of the rainbow. (Wait - the end of the rainbow? Isn't that meant to be where the pot of gold is hiding? Ah, whatever.) Regardless, the chip is a fault, a serious flaw in the beautiful faceting of my crystal. I can't tell if it has impacted the rainbow-painting yet; the sun hasn't been at the right angle to shine through it. But, it occurred to me, perhaps the chip, the flaw, might become an asset instead of a liability? Perhaps there will be new rainbows, different ones - not as straight as before, more curved, more (dare I say) interesting?

As I said, I don't know yet. I have to wait for the right morning, preferably a winter day when the sun's angle is low enough to send the colours dancing over my cupboard doors. Just one more thought, though: the chip on the crystal is not unlike the tiny chip that's missing from one of the diamonds on my engagement ring. You need a jeweller's glass to see it, as the diamond itself is already really small (0.1 carat, I believe); I know the chip is there, but most people couldn't tell. And it certainly hasn't impacted my marriage in any way. Rainbows do not seem to care about chips, in crystals or in diamonds.

Oh, and just so you're clear on that, none of this has anything to do with rainbow chips, those frighteningly multi-coloured concoctions of sugar, strange fats, unpronounceable whatsits, and food colouring, which people sometimes put in their innocent and unsuspecting cookies. It might, however, have a whole lot to do with such topics as "Autistic Pride" (a movement that seeks to make the diversity of human life more widely accepted among humankind), which uses rainbow colours as its symbol. I leave you to figure out the connection for yourself.

Life, the universe, and chipped rainbow-makers. It's all in the angle of light.