Well, I did it! I wrote every day from early October to New Year's Day 2010. Now I will write for fun when I feel like it and see where that gets me. Cheers to all my small-blessing-appreciating friends!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last Post?

This is my 90th day of posting a small blessing every day. It is the last day of my commitment to write every day till the New Year. Sometimes it has been a burden, other times a blessing in itself. It has made me more aware of the abundance of good things around me, the large blessings as well as the small. The discipline has also been worthwhile.

I have five official followers of the blog. I know of perhaps a half dozen more who read without signing up. I wonder if there are many more? It made me smile to hear the passage read about John the Baptist  - "a voice crying in the wilderness".  It feels very empty out there in the internet. Some bloggers have a way of counting visitors, but I don't.

Will I continue writing without the vow. I haven't decided. Maybe I will write intermittently. Will I be lazy and give it up, or will I miss it and make a new promise? Those of you out there, both the known and the  anonymous - care to comment? Has it made any difference to you to be reminded about some of the good things we tend to take for granted? Is it worthwhile?

So today's blessing is you out there. That you would spare a few minutes to read my daily musings gives me a warm feeling of connection. I wish you all love and abundance of blessings in the new year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Polish

I have been polishing silver in preparation for our New Year's Day party. I don't do this often, which explains why some of the items have turned black. The blessing part, small as it is, comes from the way the glowing silver blooms out of the tarnish as I work.  I like the patina of old silver - the nooks and crannies where the tarnish remains giving depth to the silversmith's art. I like the white glow of freshly-polished silver.

My father was an ardent polisher of things. It must be, or have been, an English trait, for I have known other Englishmen who liked to polish. My father shined his shoes every Sunday morning before church, while waiting for us womenfolk declare ourselves fully dressed and ready to go. He liked to polish brass doorknobs, the brass parts on his model steamship, any bits of brass he could get his hands on. (I once visited a pub in Yorkshire filled with brass objects, all gleaming. The owner polished every day, working his way from one end to the other, then beginning over.) My father kept silver gleaming.

His biggest polishing project was his telescope mirror. He made it when I was four years old, and let me help. It involved repeatedly pushing one glass disk across another with water and rouge abrasive between. The lower glass disk gradually assumed a parabolic shape. As we worked, he would check the disk periodically on an improvised optical bench, to see how well it was focusing light. When it was finished, he polished the surface to perfection and silvered the back to make it reflective. This involved gently heating the mirror while sluicing it with a silver-nitrate solution. The silver precipitated onto the mirror forming a thin, perfect layer of pure silver. My dad experimented several times with silvering various objects, until he managed to cover the kitchen counter with permanent black blotches. My mother was annoyed and the kitchen was no longer used for chemistry experiments.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Stay-at-Home Snow





It wasn't supposed to snow. The first flakes fell like petals - like plum blossom petals - drifting down. We all looked around and thought, "Huh.." Then the flakes began falling in earnest, soft and silent, veiling the scenery. It wasn't supposed to stick, but it did. I made it home and settled down to enjoy. All over the city, autos on their homeward commute slid and jammed, but here it was lovely. Untracked, wet, fluffy snow clung to every twig deepening to about two inches. (I took these photos when it was only a half inch deep.) It stopped this evening, leaving every branch and twig and spray etched in black and white, so graceful and glowing.




It is a blessing to be safe at home, warm and snug, watching the gentle snow outside.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Making Lists

Once upon a time, I remembered everything. I never lost things because I remembered where I left them. Every paper in a stack was retrievable,  names matched up instantly to faces, and birthdays were always noted. Along the way, I think my brain got too full and began closing the doors of its storerooms, tacking up a notice: full, access denied. Gradually the filing system fell into a shambles. Now it is anybody's guess what is in that stack, or what you told me to do five minutes ago. Now the only thing that keeps me on track is lists.

I have always made lists. Now they are essential - shopping lists, packing lists, to-do lists. As we prepare for our annual New Year's Day party, I found I had made an excellent list of what we actually used at our last party along with our favorite punch recipe. This has saved us from overestimating amounts of food or forgetting items. I like lists - they give me a sense of control.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Red Shoes


My friend Barbara suggested I write about my red shoes, since they always lift her spirits. I was wearing them in mild defiance of the severe black and white dress code of my choir. Red shoes make me happy - they always have.

I have had three other pairs of memorable red shoes. First there were the go-go boots. For those who do not remember these calf-fitting shiny plastic boots, feel free to google! Mine were the exact color of cream of tomato soup, and wow, did they ever lift my spirits! The next ones I recall were platform sandals. They had the platform part wrapped with raffia and the tops of red cloth, woven into a sexy knot over the instep. They made me feel like putting fruit on my head and doing the cha cha.  Then there were some wonderful open-toe pumps with little heels and big red leather bows on the front. Oh, those were special. When my podiatrist said, "No more heels for you", I couldn't give them away for two more years. I liked to look at them.

My current red shoes are very sensible in all but color. However, I cannot put them on without feeling light-footed and happy. I may not click my heels together like Dorothy, but I feel like it!


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Shadow Box




We have a great many small treasures. Tim likes to arrange them in printers' type drawers to make shadow boxes. This is my favorite. Around a centerpiece of an annunciation angel are nearly fifty objects, natural and man-made.

Of the natural things, there is a small branch of coral and one of bryozoan, and a geode with a geopetal filling (a partial filling of the cavity of a geode that shows how the geode was oriented - mineral-bearing water filled the lower part of the cavity, depositing minerals only there). There is a polished oval of picture jasper, a sample core from a molybdenum mine in Colorado, a perfect pyrite crystal and a pyrite-crusted rock. There are calcite and fluoride crystals, and malachite and tiger eye, a polished half ammonite (see Fossil Seashells Nov. 2). Speaking of seashells, there are many shells throughout the display, including a sand dollar and some very tiny ones.

Crossing the line to man-made is a Chinese jade signature-seal with a leopard on top. Next to it is a brass sealing-wax seal. There is a clay figure of a boy we bought in Mexico at Christmas time - he is intended for use in the elaborate creche scenes we saw. There are two pottery birds from Turkey that Tim's mother gave us. They seemed very poor whistles until I discovered their secret years later - in a book on Armenia I learned that they are supposed to have a little bit of water inside. Then they warble melodiously like birds.

There is a bronze medallion showing Pablo Casals and a bass-playing jeweled cricket. There is a tiny ceramic sea turtle, just emerging from its leathery eggshell and a little shiny quail. There is a blown glass vase and a small golden bottle - one of my learning experiments in gold-leafing.

The fun thing about the shadow box is that it is beautiful from a distance, but rewards close examination.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Cheese


Among our Christmas gifts today was a lovely wheel of 3-year-old Tillamook cheddar cheese.  This cheese will be crumbly and sharp, no doubt delicious. Cheese is one of my favorite foods. (However, I do not care for moldy cheeses.)  Our oldest son, who now lives in San Francisco enjoys trips to the Rainbow Grocery, a natural-foods heaven in his neighborhood. Since he discovered their cheese counter, he comes home bearing cheesy gifts. He likes cheeses with odd names like Welsh Dragon, Stinking Bishop, or Capricious Goat.



Cheese is a product of obscure origins. There exist ancient Egyptian tomb murals depicting cheese making from 2000 BCE. Odysseus found cheeses in the cave of Cyclops, and Roman legionnaires carried firm molded cheeses among their rations. Cheese must have originated soon after the domestication of hoofed animals.

Years ago Tim and I stayed in a bed and breakfast in Ireland known for its fancy dinners (required of guests). The dinners unfortunately did not commence until 10 o'clock. Leisurely course after course was served, as we tourists began tipping in our chairs from exhaustion. As we ate our desserts, we all felt we were minutes from our beds. Then our hostess announced happily, "And now, the cheese course!" She produced an enormous tray laden with local cheeses in little wooden boxes, crocks and other authentic-looking containers. I am sure they were a gourmet's delight, but we were far too stuffed and tired to take advantage of them. A pity! It was a blessing scorned.

For me, there is little more satisfying than good bread, with cheese and fruit.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sunny Christmas Eve

I am getting to be such a stick-in-the-mud that I am really glad it is clear and dry today. It was last year that cured me of longing for a white Christmas. All of us Portlanders are happier with the idea of snow than the actuality. Last year, the week before Christmas was all about snow, with an ice layer sandwiched in. The scene below is our front walk.

The snow was so deep and impassible (to us Portlanders) that it stayed beautiful, pure, and white all week. We all had a very quiet time, being unable to dash about doing pre-Christmas parties and preparations. I skied around the neighborhood and we trudged up to the Little Store for supplies (see Nov. 11 entry). Neighbors greeted each other cheerfully and commiserated.

I was to sing on Christmas Eve, as usual, but there was no way I would be driving our little car through the deep ruts. Some dear friends had planned a Christmas Eve party and were determined we should be there. Heroically Peter careened across the frozen city to fetch us, took me to sing later on, and brought us home again. It was both a blessing and an adventure.

This year there will be no difficulty getting to church to sing. When I return to my car after midnight, with the bells ringing out over the city, I will not worry about reaching home safe and sound. That will be a blessing!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Sound of Practicing

My husband is an orchestra musician. Fortunately he plays the cello and not the trumpet or piccolo or percussion. When we first married, he would apologize for practicing. I didn't mind; it was nice most of the time. I make exception for very few pieces of music such as his third of the Schoenberg String Trio, which sounded horrible.  Many times, especially if he is practicing chamber music, I become familiar with the music and it becomes a friend, something always nearby. Then after the performance, that music stops and I miss it. But there is always something new.

We will celebrate our twentieth anniversary this month, a very large blessing. The sound of practicing has become such an integral part of life that I associate it with well-being and security. I hear the notes of the cello and all is right with the world.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lace in the Garden

There is not much to write about in the garden these days, especially since the freeze. The annuals are limp rags, the perennials have mostly been cut down. Anything still standing looks pretty ratty, with the exception of the evergreens. Hooray for them! They are still beautiful.

We have an affection for variegated plants. I took some photos to show you. They seem to match the weather with living frost.


Pieris, always tidy and attractive, especially with its buds ready for spring.


This charmer is Lamium.  Its common name is Dead Nettle, which seems so inappropriate.


Variegated boxwood, so much more interesting than plain green.


This Fatsia is one of the newest plants in our garden, eventually to fill up a dark corner with the silver-white sheen of its elegantly-formed leaves.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Shortbread

My neighbor brought over a plate of shortbread this evening. His cheeks were rosy with cold and he is a kindly man, a bit of a Santa without the whiskers tonight. His wife makes shortbread every year and blesses the neighbors with this treat. I love shortbread better than chocolate, by far.

I have a lovely memory from a visit to Scotland nearly 30 years ago. We stayed in a bed and breakfast in Killin. The host was a distinguished looking gentleman of about sixty, who wore a kilt at all times. His guests were all invited to tea in his beautiful library at 10 o'clock in the evening. This seemed rather late for tea, and the tea was strong. I once heard of a Scottish granny who described proper tea as "strong enough to trot a mouse on". This was it. The shortbread was still warm from the oven. To me, a footsore tourist, this was heaven.  Did I sleep after that strong cuppa? You bet!

Our kilted host explained at breakfast that his family eats a somewhat different type of oatmeal from that which he served us. Their Scottish oatmeal was made with a starter, and fermented overnight in a special insulated drawer in the kitchen. It is apparently an acquired taste. I wish I had tried it.

Killin, by the way, had a crumbling church with a tower. An owl was peeping sleepily from the ruined belfry. It was a romantic spot.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hot Laundry

Here is a mini-blessing for my readers. Don't you love to put clean sheets, hot from the dryer, against your face? The only thing better is the smell of sheets dried in the sun and the breeze!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Glass

The winter darkness closes in, earlier and earlier; a friend lies sick in the hospital, a relative with no health coverage and little income works at a lonely job. My mind is not on small blessings - I am so conscious of the great web of civilization that protects me and provides for me. I am thinking of all the farmers, the truckers, the miners, the electricians and plumbers, the doctors, the sanitation workers...  Help! this is too much to comprehend, let alone name. And yet there are those in darkness and uncared for.

It has been a good thing to focus on the small, like beginning a journey with a step. I have less than two weeks more to write, until I will have fulfilled my original intention. What then?

Drawing back from the early darkness of deep winter, I will write a few words about glass. Glass may be a window, through which we see but are protected from the cold and wind. It may be silvered on the back to become a mirror, or beautifully colored to delight our minds, or frosted to transmit light only. It may form a vase or a drinking glass, holding liquids, or be fused and formed into fine art, or made into beads. Precisely curved, it forms lenses. It is used for LEDs and optical fibers and a host of specialized scientific applications. This wonderful substance has been made since the third millennium BC. At its heart, glass is merely melted sand, cooled quickly, but learning to make it clear, flat, and distortion-free was a great undertaking of human technology. What was once a rare and precious substance is now something we take for granted - one of the untold number of small blessings that surround us.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Anchovies

Tim made Sicilian anchovy pasta sauce tonight. It is made with garlic, parsley, lots of anchovy, and tomato, served with a topping of crunchy bread crumbs rather than grated cheese. It is delicious.

I looked up anchovies. They are a group of fish - some 140 kinds of oily little fish. They are in a group called "forage fish", that is, the ones that almost all the predatory fish feed on. The forage fish feed on plankton and newly-hatched fish, which puts them just above the bottom of the ocean food chain. Anchovies range from less than an inch to 16 inches long, greenish with a blue sheen and they congregate in huge schools. They swim about in synchrony with their mouths open, catching plankton. They like waters all over the world that are not too cold or hot, and prefer fairly shallow areas like bays and estuaries.

Netted anchovies are gutted and salted, then matured, then packed in oil or brine. The ancient Romans loved a type of fermented fish sauce made from anchovies, which was considered to have aphrodisiac properties. Many cultures in Asia use anchovy-based fish sauces.

Anchovies have a strong tangy flavor, but in the Sicilian sauce we enjoyed tonight they are mellow and rich. The dish makes me feel happy - perhaps it is the aphrodisiac at work.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pretty Grandma



My Grandma was always old. She was born in 1894, so when I was born she was 56 years old. Her hair was always grey or the unnatural shade of brown of the moment - she never colored it blue or purple. She was a great walker. I remember fondly are our long walks in Forest Park - the great urban park of St. Louis. It had a fine art museum, a conservatory called The Jewel Box, an outdoor opera house, and a network of lagoons with frogs and waterfalls. Sometimes I stayed in her apartment in downtown St. Louis. It had a Murphy bed - what a marvel to a kid. On the bed was "the eiderdown", a purple silk comforter filled with down. I thought that was marvelous too. And I feared and delighted in the fiery incinerator in the hallway. Grandma was not only old however, she was also cranky and difficult. She was widowed young and raised her two sons in poverty. She found much to resent in life, but was always kind to me.

Some years ago I found a photo of my Grandma as a teen. I think she was dressed for a part in a play, perhaps Ophelia. She is so young and beautiful it is hard to reconcile this image with my memories of my old Grandma.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

High-tech Rain Jacket

Today's blessing is my very waterproof, breathable high-tech rain jacket. After days of clear, dry and cold weather, Portland is back to raining and raining. We here are not known for high fashion, perhaps because we are more interested in staying warm and dry. (I wrote about my boots last month.)

My jacket is sporty-looking but decidedly unchic! It has a deep hood with a bill to keep the rain off my glasses, and the hood can cinch up when the wind blows. The sleeves have velcro tabs to keep the water out and the zipper has a snap-down flap to cover it against the rain. The front zips clear up to my nose if I want, and there are lots of weather-proof pockets. Coupled with rainpants and my boots, it is quite invincible. However, I look like some sort of hazardous-waste worker, but blue with white racing stripes.

When you think of going to the beach, most folks think of swimsuits, colorful towels and sun hats. Not in Oregon! Here, as often as not, the above-described outfit is the only appropriate attire. I have seen people get out of their cars, muffled to the eyebrows, advance within sight of the ocean, bracing against the wind. They stare at the waves for a few minutes, turn and go back to the car. At somewhat better times, a trip to the beach means a bracing walk or even a hike, followed by some hot coffee or tea, or better yet dinner in a nice restaurant. There are idyllic days in summer when it is actually warm, although not in the water. Tim will go play in the waves on these warm days, but not I. Nonetheless, we Oregonians love the wild beauty of our beach, and (for another blessing) it really is OUR beach. There are no private beaches in Oregon. And we love our high-tech jackets.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Unpacking Ornaments


We decorated our tree last evening and enjoyed Hanukkah latkes tonight. Such is our family. To me, one of the keenest pleasures of the season is unpacking the ornaments. Last January I carefully laid them away, wrapping the most fragile. Now one by one they emerge.

Many of them are rich with memories. There is the bride and groom ornament that was given to us as a wedding gift. There are ornaments commemorating the births of our two sons. There is an ornate purple blown-glass one that was chosen for me by my father. There are some feathered birds that I inherited from my mother, that were her favorites. There are many ornaments she gave me, one or more each year when I was in my twenties and early thirties - a skiing polar bear, a mouse in a nightcap in bed with a cheese, a cookoo clock. There is one that is a favorite of my sons; they chose it themselves at a Christmas tree farm. It has a hole to tuck a light inside. There are two elegant blown glass birds given to me by Tim.

The ornaments include many, many musicians; angel musicians, a devil with a banjo, Old King Cole, a pair of child musicians in jesters' caps, and a number of cherubs

There is a blown glass ball with spidery threads of glass inside, given me by a dear friend. There is a lifelike garlic from a former girlfriend of one of my sons, who had a quirky sense of humor. There is a spotted red mushroom, reputed by my sons to be the one that the king of elephants ate - and died of - in Babar. There is an embroidered ornament made by a Danish friend of my parents. There are delicate twisted glass icicles made by a high-school friend of a son. There is a ball from Akumal in Yucatan with a sea turtle on it, and one made from Mt. St. Helen's Ash. They are treasures all, the more so because each year they come from their boxes fresh again after eleven months.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Weather Underground

Today I am writing about my hands-down favorite weather site on the internet. I feel guilty about this subject, as if it is somehow taboo to be calling this a blessing, but it is my blog and this is what I feel like writing about. Weather Underground (wunderground.com) is a site that compiles National Weather Service information in very useful ways. The user may customize the site to show favorite locations and choose the maps and information that appear. I like the hourly information which shows temperatures, conditions, wind speed and direction, likelihood of precipitation, and percent cloud cover expected throughout the day. I like the animated maps like the ones seen on television. But my favorite of all is the "scientific forecaster discussion".

I know I am a hopeless science geek. Perhaps not everyone would enjoy the few paragraphs written by the actual forecasters, reporting, not to the public, but to their colleagues. The discussions require some guesswork to follow because they include discussions of the often-differing outcomes of several computer models used in forecasting. They also use jargon. For instance, a Mr. or Ms. Dalton reported at 2:40 today that "cirrus shield from approaching front has now spread over most of the area this afternoon".  Cirrus shield is a such a nice term for the way the high clouds advance across the sky. After talking about winds at the coast, Dalton goes on into a friendly and idiomatic discussion of factors influencing the amount of snow to forecast for the mountains overnight.

When I read the thoughts of an intelligent professional reconciling the output of different computer models, it makes me more tolerant of the uncertainty of forecasting. I have never been one of the "they are always wrong" school, nor the "why don't they look outside" folks. Will it be 31 degrees or 34 degrees when that band of rainclouds arrives? How quickly will that circling mass of air the size of the Gulf of Alaska move? They cannot tell you exactly and it is always a judgment call for them to issue a storm warning or predict ice - lots of people will be annoyed if it doesn't happen, but lots more will be upset if they don't say it is coming.

I guess today's blog is really a fan letter to meteorologists. Earth's weather is a marvel and I appreciate their efforts to understand it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Clementines


Lovely little clementines! My favorite tangerines are so easy to peel and section, so sweet and juicy, and seed free, so glossy and so - orange.  They are one of the treats of the holiday season. But on looking them up, I found that they are not a tangerine at all. They are a kind of mandarin orange.

A few odd facts are to be found in wikipedia. One claim is that they are a hybrid of tangerine and Seville orange discovered in the garden of an orphanage in Algeria, but likely they are a much older species from China. They were introduced to California in 1914 and are so valuable a product that a grower recently threatened to sue a bee-keeper. Cross-pollination with other fruit by bees causes the clementines to have seeds, and the grower accused the bee-keeper of allowing his bees to trespass in his grove.

When I was a child, my Christmas stocking was hung on the post of my bed. When I examined the contents on Christmas morning, there was always an orange and some walnuts in their shells. I think these must have been customary English gifts, from my father's childhood. Hearing his stories of growing up in poverty in Northern England, with meager coal fires the only heat, I think sweet oranges must have been a rare and wonderful treat. Although I can buy bags of clementines from any grocery at this time of year, I am taking this time to be thankful for these delightful fruits.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Feel of Damp Air

After a week of dry, clear, cold weather I am all dried out. My hands are so dry they will hardly turn pages. The rain has returned, fortunately without an intervening spell of ice. I welcome the return of rain; I am rejoicing in the softness of the moist air. It feels warm after that cold spell, and caressing (though still a chilly caress!) My skin is already losing the dry scratchiness.

Many of my friends really do not like the grey days, but I feel like a plant stretching itself to collect the life-giving drops. It doesn't make me feel blue at all. Just think of friends and families in much of the country digging out from under heavy snow! A white Christmas has its charms, but for me, let it be grey.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Airlines that Work

Michael came home from college today; he took a very early flight from Los Angeles. I am sure we have all had experiences with grueling lines, delayed planes, and lost luggage. Today NONE of that happened and I am thankful.

Michael got on his flight with a minimum of fuss, and had an interesting person sitting next to him on the plane. It arrived seven minutes ahead of schedule. We got to the airport with alacrity, and walked in the door about the time his plane was landing. In a few minutes he appeared. When we arrived at baggage claim, his duffel was already waltzing around the conveyor. Out the door, into the car, and we were on our way home. I don't believe it has ever gone that smoothly in my experience.

I wish all travelers this holiday an equally pleasant trip!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Wrapping Presents

There are those among us, like Tim, who wrap up all their gifts on Christmas Eve. Others, like me, wrap gifts as soon as we bring them home. Instead of a whirlwind of paper, boxes and ribbons, I can spend a quiet quarter of an hour with my mind focused on the intended recipient of the gift, enjoying the texture and colors of the wrapping paper, curling the ribbons or choosing a bow, choosing a gift tag. I fold the paper and watch the gift disappear into mystery.

For many years now, like many of our friends, we have been recycling Christmas wrappings. The same bows go around again and again, ribbons are coiled and put away, and any paper not ripped to shreds is smoothed and folded. No one minds and the gifts are just as pretty. We also try to buy papers that don't have foil or metallic print, so that they can go in recycling when they become too battered to reuse.

I find that over the year that I have become lackadaisical. I used to devote hours to the wrapping, making each parcel a marvel of perfect folding and imaginative decoration. My son David turns each parcel into an anarchical whimsy. Tim makes up for lack of technical expertise with quirky creativity. Nowadays I just wrap the things up in a quite traditional way. I haven't the boundless energy to devote to everything as I once had. They still look delightfully enticing piled under the tree on Christmas morning.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Moonlight

Night before last we were heading home late and the moon was rising. It was near the horizon and looked huge. It was a half moon, "on its back", like a big orange slice. The beauty of the phases of the moon is one of the blessings available to every earthling. The cold science of the moon's motion and appearance has nothing to do with aesthetics, but we who live here love the moon. Flowing water, trees, clouds, mountains, moss, desert sunsets - we love it all, and are so often cut off from all this beauty by our houses and electric lights.

Moonlight is silvery. Why? Bright as the full moon looks, it is about 500,000 times fainter than the sun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_light). Our eyes are cleverly designed to work in both bright light and dim, and all between. Have you ever noticed how, as the light fades, the landscape gradually seems to lose color. Reds fade out first, turning blackish. Then the other warmer colors go, leaving blues and greys. Finally, by moonlight, there is no color we can distinguish - just a scene of shades of grey. This is because our retinas are made up of two different kinds of receptors - the rods and cones. The cone cells are the ones that see color, and they do not function at low light. The rods are very sensitive. They are located near the edges of our retinas and help with peripheral vision, but they don't see color.

So our night vision sees a silvery scene by moonlight - and we find it beautiful.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Big Refrigerator

We cooked up a huge pot of beans today, with the intention of making chili later. It turned out to be too large to fit in the refrigerator. What to do? We realized that we could simply put the pot of beans out on the porch to cool till we needed it. Very convenient!

We have used this big refrigerator before. For Thanksgiving we brined our turkey outside in a large cooler. We chill drinks on the back porch for our New Year's open house. We have even made the mistake of buying a pizza from Costco that wouldn't fit in the fridge - so out to the shed it went till needed.

I lived in a dormitory my freshman year of college, in the days before mini-refrigerators. We used to store our supplies precariously balanced on the second-floor window sills to stay cool. Occasionally they toppled overboard. My roommate and I became quite good at cooking all sorts of things in an electric popcorn-popper!

Thinking of the root cellars and ice-houses of past times, I realize there is nothing original about our discovery.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Nice Old Sweater

It is weather for woolies, the season when we are grateful that sheep grow such wonderful fur.  Wool in its natural state is rather waterproof and woolen fabric has the property of not losing its insulation when wet. The kinky texture of wool fibers traps lots of air, keeping us lovely and warm. I would never make it through the winter without wool!

Irish fishermen knitted heavy weatherproof  sweaters to keep them warm at sea. Each village had distinctive patterns, which allowed for the identification of poor souls washed overboard. At least their bodies could be returned to the village of origin.

Today I am wearing a natural cream-colored wool pullover with all manner of fancy cable stitches. It has chevrons, split cables and cables with "popcorn" in the places between the cable crossings. My mother knitted it for me when I was in high school and somehow it has lasted out the decades. I think of her when I wear it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lots of Shelves

This evening the thermometer stands at 27 degrees, on its way down, and the wind is whooshing around the house. I am ever so conscious of the great blessing of a warm and comfortable home. There has been lots of music today, and Tim is at this moment performing with the symphony, so there is another very great blessing in my life. Looking about for a small blessing, I noticed our pantry shelves. Little blessings are very easy to overlook as we touch and see them every day, and one purpose of this blog is to make me more mindful of these everyday good things.

Some years ago we resolved to improve an ancient and leaking corner of our house. A happy result of this remodeling is that we, for the first time, have more than enough shelves. One of Tim's axioms is that you should be able to see your stuff.  Our stores are brightly lit and accessible, quickly grasped by a cook in need of a dash of sherry or smoked paprika or a cup of pasta. There are high-up shelves for the coffee urns, trays and other utensils we use on special occasions. The cookbooks live here. Storage containers have a handy shelf, and farther down near the back door are the garden books and paraphernalia. The pantry shelves are an everyday blessing, indeed.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

In Praise of Soup

Tim is making sausage and lentil soup tonight. It smells delicious and makes me feel very grateful for soup. Hooray for soup! Rich and creamy-smooth or chunky and rustic; redolent with fresh herbs and nourishing roots; satisfying with beans or rice or barley; stocks from bones, from the garden or the simple elegant broth made from shrimp shells; refreshing gazpacho or cold borsch in the summer; spicy chili or turkey noodle in the cold weather; curried soups; soups with dumplings; fish soups....  This is not the soup from cans, made in factories; it is at once the most basic of cooking and the flavorful palette of kitchen artists. It is a food that warms and replenishes us. It comforts the ailing. So give us some crusty bread and bring on the soup!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Shades of Greens




My friend Catherine let me cut greens from her garden for my wreath. Catherine designs gardens and has a huge variety of evergreen plants. They are every shade of green. The wreath has a base of fir with variegated box, camellia, Oregon grape and others. My favorite touches are the magnolia with its brown furry reverse and the fuzzy gray rhododendron. There was enough left to crown our garden statue.



I am distracted as I write by lovely violin and cello playing in the next room, so please excuse my brevity.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Christmas Lights

Should I call them "holiday lights"? Probably, especially given their undoubtedly pagan roots.  One of my recorder-playing friends call them "fairy lights" which also appeals to me. Yet they are still Christmas lights in my mind, glowing with childhood memories. My husband is Jewish, but he has always loved the lights. He has some nifty Hannukah glasses that convert all the lights into little stars of David.

My neighborhood begins to light up by the weekend after Thanksgiving. One by one the houses take on a fairy-tale look, some charming, some in dubious taste. By Christmas the area will be lovely. Some years  ago an entrepreneur  took folks on night-time carriage rides through our streets. In some windows the menorahs will show more and more candles. Ah, the bone-deep ancestral need to light fires as the days become so short! The night deepens and the cold wind blows, but we light the darkness.

When my older son was a toddler, Grandma took him to see the lighting of the Portland State University tree. A newspaper photographer captured his rapt expression. I still feel like this when I see the lovely glowing lights.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Metronomes

Metronomes are the little taskmasters that the undisciplined among us, including me, dislike. We fruitlessly complain that the metronome must be slowing down, not me. It tells us the truth about the bits we haven't really come to grips with, so we fudge the time. If you play or sing by yourself, you can get away with these indiscretions; with a group you eventually have to work to get it right. Here is where the metronome becomes a blessing.

I will soon be performing a choral piece that goes much more quickly than I realized. Suddenly the words and notes are all over the place. What to do? Start slowly with the metronome, and gradually work up to speed. There is no way around it; it is that or be an embarrassment to myself.  The little taskmaster goes bip bup bip bup and allows for no slacking.

I used to have a pretty little mechanical metronome. It was the kind with a weight that slides up and down an arm to set the speed, and the arm ticks back and forth. It was cute and had the reinforcement of the moving arm. However, it was prone to getting tired as its little clockwork spring ran down and, if set on a slant, went tick....tock tick....tock tick. I think I spent more time playing with it than using it. Tim's electronic one will divide up your beats into hysterically complicated subsets if you want - I don't! I have heard that there are even several metronome iphone applications, including one that features a little Asian lady. Tim is very good at using a metronome, as you might imagine, because orchestra music is orders of magnitude more complicated than anything I might undertake. His theory is that practicing makes you enjoy playing more. Hmmm.... not a bad idea that. Back to the metronome!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How the Garden Grows

A mild sunny day called for work in the garden. Today I have been cutting down the tangle of clematis vines and the brown remains of coreopsis. While I worked I was thinking of how our garden has changed in the last ten years.

What has become of the charming border of pinks, lavender, and alyssum we once had? Whither the wisteria and evergreen clematis? What of the frothy shore of maidenhair ferns beneath the rhododendrons? What about the elegantly pruned ivy arches in the front garden?




Growth and simplification are forces that have been shaping the garden. The small magnolia of ten years ago is working hard at becoming a majestic tree, reaching at least 30 feet so far. It began to crowd and overshadow the ivy arches, which were also a great nuisance to keep trimmed. Growth and simplification - out came the ivy. Pruning issues led to the removal of the wisteria and the evergreen clematis. Ours is a small garden and rampant growth overwhelms it. The maidenhair ferns? The neighbors cut down a densely-shading tree, opening that part of the garden to full sun. As they say, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade! The fussy little border of pinks gave way to a more easy-going look, as the focus moved to our rose arbor. The peony whose flowers drooped on weak stems at any rain, the roses that attracted fungus, plants that grew gawky or died, were replaced by new favorites. We moved shrubs and flowers as they outgrew their spot or asked for better light.

Tim and I have learned to welcome the chance of rethinking parts of our garden. Each time, what appeared to be a problem became an opportunity. Some corner of the garden would undergo a renewal or acquire an identity it had lacked. It is a blessing I would do well to remember.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Camellia sasanqua


Camellia sasanqua "Setsugekka"

The Camellia sasanqua is also known as the Christmas camellia. Indeed, there is a wonderful red variety called "yuletide". Ours is "Setsugekka", her flowers perfect, white, ruffly beauties with crowns of yellow stamens. And it begins to bloom, blessing that it is, in October and carries on into the new year. Ours grows outside the window of Tim's studio, and I have been admiring it today.

Camellia sasanqua, as the varietal name of ours suggests, is a native of the coastal forests of southern Japan. Its leaves are used to make tea - I do not know how it compares with the true tea camellia, Camilla sinensis. Perhaps I should try to steep some of the leaves. This and other camellias also yield an oil from their nuts, tea seed oil (not to be confused with tea tree oil.) It has a high smoking point and is used as a cooking oil in Japan and China. It is used for frying tempura and for setting the hair of sumo wrestlers. Is it possible to know too much? Now will I think of elephantine wrestlers when I look at the white pure blossoms?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My Advent Calendar


For those of my readers who do not know what an advent calendar is, let me explain this joy of my childhood. Advent is the four-week season of preparation for Christmas. The calendar consists of a printed cardboard picture (often with glitter representing snow). It has little perforated doors all over it, numbered for each of the days of December until Christmas. Behind each door is a little picture printed on tissue, so it is translucent. The calendar is placed in a window to backlight the little pictures as the doors are opened day by day.

I had wondered why so many advent calendars are printed in Germany so I looked in trusty wikipedia. It seems they were invented because of a German Lutheran custom of counting off the days of Advent. An enterprising Swabian printer made the first printed calendars near the beginning of the last century. After World War II paper shortages, a printer named Richard Sellmer in Stuttgart revived the production and now his company stocks over 1, 000,000 calendars worldwide. They are the largest dealers. Advent calendars are very popular in England, so it was a custom my father introduced to our household.

Now that my children are grown, I buy myself an advent calendar. My calendar, pictured above, was made by Sellmer's company and shows a charming scene of daily life in a town in the Holy Land. The doors are well hidden in the scene. Part of the fun is searching out the day's door to be opened. I remember as a child, poring over the doors, wondering what would be behind them. With shame and amusement I recall the year I secretly opened the door for the 25th and peeked at the picture. Then I attempted to seal it up again, but of course it would no longer close properly. The blessing is in the anticipation.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Helpful Neighbors

They live next door. Their politics are not the same as ours; their family life moves in different circles from ours. We are friendly but will never be the best of friends. Yet these are our helpful neighbors.

They pick up our newspaper when we are gone, and wheel out the garbage cans. They collect any mail left showing. And we do the same for them. They will accept a package or lend us chairs or utensils. They are the ones to go to for the missing eggs that brought the baking project to a halt. And we would do the same for them. They are people we could call in any emergency, and I hope they would feel the same.

They are the helpful neighbors.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Watercolors



I have been painting with watercolors lately. Mixing colors is pure delight.

Most of my life I have painted from little boxes of pan paints; only this year I took a class and discovered the artists' colors in tubes. The intensity of these pigments, the texture and the ease with which they join to make a glorious rainbow of subtle colors has been a revelation. Another thing I didn't know before this year was that I could leave my messy palettes of paint for another time. I used to feel I needed to complete my painting in one go, then clean up my paints. No more. I return again and again to a painting, allowing me to indulge in as much detail as I wish.

Painting is work that I find entirely absorbing. I think learning new music must be like this for Tim. Not many of my activities feel this way, and I find myself at a loss to describe the experience. It must use a special part of my brain. Whatever the reason, it is a blessing, and one that should be enjoyed more often.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Hearth


The fireplace is an important part of our home. In the old days, the hearth was also the kitchen, that other heart of the home. So central is the hearth to the home, traditionally, that the latin word for hearth is "focus".

In chilly weather we enjoy our fireplace so much. Part of the enjoyment is the feeling of direct radiant heat. We, along with children and cats and dogs, like the feeling of direct toasty heat, whether it be sunbeam or fire. Central heating is a great blessing but it lacks that purr- or "ahh" inducing feel. Our hearthstone is green marble; after the fire has been going for a while, it warms up. We like how it feels to our feet.

The fireplace gives a feeling of contentment. I think it satisfies some atavistic longing of humans for the security and warmth of fire. Any of you who have been following my musings will have noticed my attraction to cooking on open fire, whether it be the stove, the grill or a campfire. Our fireplace is fueled with gas, for environmental considerations, but I do love the crackle and snap and smell of a wood fire. When I was  a small child in England, we had coal-burning fireplaces. Even then I was fascinated - both by the warm fire and the coal itself (to my parents' dismay).

This Thanksgiving Day, I wish you all the delights of hearth and home.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Smell of Broth

Ah, the scent of turkey broth simmering - it is rich and meaty, promising deliciousness for the feast tomorrow.

Thanksgiving food is so laden with associations for most of us. We remember our childhood home and relatives coming from afar, congeniality and contentment. I am aware that many people also have memories of family strife and pain, or of loneliness, but blessedly my thoughts are free of that. It is the good memories that sustain those who are making the stressful trek to their destination. Once through the door, the familiar closes its embrace around them and the aroma of good cooking fills them.

The turkey is in brine, the broth simmering. Tim is making the cranberry relish. All is on schedule and the house smells wonderful. All is well. Best wishes for your feast tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rex Begonia



 The Rex Begonia was given to us by friends many years ago. It grows happily under Tim's care, occasionally producing small pink flowers. Obviously the flowers are not the point of growing this plant. Its whorled and jagged leaves are patterned with deep red and silvery white. I think it more likely that angels would have wings like this rather than the tame white bird wings the artists like to portray. The leaves are extravagantly beautiful, but the ordinary appearance is only part of their glory. Below is a photo with sunlight passing through the leaves. It speaks for itself.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Portland's Water


Do you know where your water comes from? In many parts of the country the answer would not be nearly as attractive as in Portland. Our city water comes from the Bull Run Watershed. This watershed is protected from logging and all other uses, making it as pristine as you can get. It catches precipitation ranging from 80 inches at the naturally-formed lake where our water is collected to 170 inches in the headwaters in Mt. Hood National Forest. It is fed by rain and snow-melt and by what is called "fog drip" from the thick forest of Douglas firs. The ancient fir forests of the Cascades are amazing places, silent mossy cathedrals floored with fallen logs and the duff of centuries, spongy with moisture.

The water collected from this untouched watershed requires no filtration and is some of the best-quality drinking water in the United States. It is treated with chlorine and ammonia for disinfection, because almost all our streams have the parasite giardia lamblia (see post Nov. 9th) . In addition it is treated to make it somewhat less acidic so it doesn't eat up our plumbing. That is it. Unfortunately, Federal regulations may soon require that it be filtered, just for the heck of it.

The magazine "Tea" in 1998 reported on a study conducted at Fortnum & Mason tea-tasting laboratory of the best tea for each of ten North American cities, based on their municipal water. According to a brochure for Fortnum & Mason, "At one time a list was kept of all the major cities in the world, together with a list of teas suited to the water in each particular city." They tested Seattle's water, which comes from watersheds in the Cascades similar to Portland's. The study reported that, "Tea brewed in Seattle water quite notably produces the clearest and most vibrant colours of all the water tested. Fortnum & Mason experts declare that Seattle water is truly excellent for brewing each of the six teas."  This was not news to me, since I am a tea drinker and have found Portland's water to be superior for tea brewing to that of any place I have lived.

Portland does have some wells, which are used only during dry spells in the summer. I can always tell when the wells are turned on, because suddenly the tea tastes bad. Then I switch to filtered water until the wonderful mountain water is back on tap.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Everyday Rituals

Families unconsciously fall into rituals. Rituals govern who sits in which seat at meals, who gets which section of the newspaper first, how we say goodbye or goodnight to each other, what we do when we come home, which lights are left on at night, how the table is set, how chores are divided, where things are stored. The list goes on and on. When our sons come home, they know where to sit at dinner without being told; they fall into old patterns. They expect to find certain foods in the pantry and certain books on the shelves. There are families where very little is consistent from day to day, and families more organized than ours. I expect we don't even recognize many of the familiar things we do over and over without thinking. I have read that even the way people argue with each other tends to fall into ritualistic patterns too.

The everyday rituals I am thinking of today are the comforting ones, the loving ones. They make life familiar and reduce stress. I like the patterns. Maybe when I was 20 I would have wanted every day to be a surprise,  but no longer! Now the rituals are a blessing.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Recipes

Just as musical scores bring the thoughts of composers down through the years and centuries, recipes bring us the knowledge of cooks. The recipes and techniques of the great chefs were treated as trade secrets - still are, to some extent. I am thinking of the chefs of the home kitchen - the (traditionally) mother to daughter to granddaughter chain. I didn't learn to cook this way; I didn't apprentice at my mother's elbow. In fact, when I moved into my first apartment, I really had no idea how to cook.

What saved the day for me was "Joy of Cooking". Of course there was a lot to learn the hard way, such as learning that a capon is not just a big, big chicken. It can't be barbecued, as I found out - the result was a charred, raw-inside disaster of a meal. Capons are for slow, moist cooking. I have tried to convey this idea about cooking various cuts of meats in different ways to my older son, David, who is just starting out in his own place. I told him, "Ask the butcher." At my little neighborhood store (blog of Nov. 11), one may ask how to prepare that weird-looking vegetable, or what is the difference between bacon and pancetta. He didn't learn to cook by my side either, except for his few "party" dishes. We gave him his own copy of Mark Bittman's book when he moved away.

I am still learning every time I cook. Tim is more of an intuitive cook than I - he is in favor of adding more ingredients and tasting a lot. I rely a lot on recipes, and smell. For reasons I can't explain, I don't do much tasting. Recent ventures into "The Art of French Cooking" have taught me a lot about intensifying flavors. I have learned to ask myself "why" as I read recipes, rather than simply following steps. What is often missing from the recipes is the part that would be learned at the mother's elbow. The better recipes put me in that place, learning from masters.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reading Lamps




Once upon a time, I could read by the light of single photons, and sew tiny almost-invisible stitches. Even back in those days, it required eyeglasses because things in my world go out of focus about eight inches from my eyes. But the flow of time takes us along, sometimes gently floating, sometimes careening though rapids. Inevitably we show signs of wear as our journey lengthens. Now I require extra-strength reading glasses for my embroidery and light - good light. It is especially necessary here in Western Oregon in the winter when sunbeams are in short supply.

Some years ago, Tim gave me a marvelous reading lamp. It produces brilliant white light, rendering colors reasonably accurately (always an issue with artificial light). What a difference it made! No more squinting and neck strain.  So I bought Tim one for his music, because he and I are floating along together.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Signs of Spring

I have been working in the garden between rainstorms, clearing leaves and cutting down dead vegetation. In a larger garden it might be fine to let the leaves lie over the winter to nourish the soil, and keep the dead plants as cover and forage for birds, but in a small urban garden like ours, it is better to keep it tidy. Picking up the leaves discourages the lurking slugs and snails. It also gives me a chance to spend time with my hands and eyes close to the plants.

As I work, I notice many signs of spring. It is not like February when I shall be mad with expectation of each day's emerging buds, but there are many early spring bloomers that prepare in the fall. The rhododendrons are ready and the hydrangeas have fat buds even as their leaves turn color and drop.


The magnolia is ready with furry  buds too.



These are trilliums.


My favorite, an early peony.

We are blessed to live in the maritime climate of Western Oregon. It is a gentle and moist and quite splendid for gardening.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Special Gift

I suppose it was inevitable. One of my principles in writing this blog was to suppress the internal critic (see my first post on October 4th Rules and Reasons). The critic has decided she has been ignored long enough - the last few days she has reasserted herself in high indignation. I feel like Mr. Toad hauled before the glowering magistrate after his auto-theft adventure. She roars, "Just who do you think you are? What possible interest could anyone have in your banal observations?" Well, Mr. Toad was unrepentant and I will strive to be so as well.






This somewhat battered portfolio holds very special meaning for me. My father gave it to me when I went to work for the U. S. Geological Survey in about 1974.  I was born in 1950 - my father held quite traditional views about women. Although he worked with a number of respected women in medical research and teaching, somehow the concept of women professionals didn't quite apply to his only daughter. In addition, my field of geology rated in his mind as a second-class science - "mickey-mouse" to quote him. This sounds quite horrid today, but bear in mind that this was a gentle, intelligent, loving man.

While I was still in college, he overcame his prejudice against geology. It happened the day he saw under a microscope an ultra-thin slice of an ancient fossilized reef. (If you grind most rocks sufficiently thin, they become translucent, revealing their makeup.) My dad looked in the microscope and saw beautiful branching algal fronds and other fossils. He shouted, "My God, there is structure!" He had supposed that rocks were amorphous blobs with no character whatsoever. From that moment, geology went up a notch in his estimation. (It was not until near the end of his life, seeing the amazing volcanic landscapes of Central Oregon that he fully realized the central role of geology in landforms.)

After graduating, I worked for a while for one of my professors, then for a geologic engineer,  running compaction tests on soil samples. It was an important step up when I went to work for USGS. It was not long after that that my father handed me the handsome leather portfolio. I needed no explanation of what it meant. I was now a professional in a respected field.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Gas Stove




When I cook I like "on" to be "on", "off" to be "off", and "low" to be "low". It has been so many years since I have had an electric stove at home, that I have forgotten all the little tricks of working with them.  The electric elements require much more attention than gas - not to let the mind wander while they are interminably heating up, remembering to turn them down or off before you are ready, balancing pots half-on and half-off the burner. When we moved into our present house, it had an antique electric range. The unit was very homey looking and apparently quite strong. The first time I set the kettle on to boil, nothing happened for a while, as I expected - then suddenly it boiled so furiously that water shot out the spout onto the floor. I could never regulate it. We went out to purchase a gas range as soon as possible.

I like to see the fire that cooks my food. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am a fan of barbecuing and camp fires.  I like to be able to look at the pretty blue flames beneath my cooking pot and adjust them just right, and to be able to regulate the rate of cooking in real time. For me this is a day to day small blessing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Windy Day

Today I am having trouble writing about small blessings. My mind instead pays homage to the large blessings of a peaceful, safe, and abundant life, a warm home, healthy family, and faithful friends. I am thinking of the role of music in my life - Tim's treasured vocation and my joy in singing and playing my recorders. I am thinking of books and the passage of ideas and music and art down through the centuries. I am thinking of all the creative and nurturing people I know, the meeting of minds, and the delight in things that grow, and the pleasure of preparing and sharing food. The listing of large blessings goes on and on, in ever widening circles.

Yet the purpose of my writing is to celebrate the small blessings. In bringing myself back to the immediate, I hear the wind outside, rushing by in big breaths. It is no wonder the Renaissance artists showed the winds as cloudy faces with cheeks puffed out, lips pursed, blowing out air. Sometimes when I stand in the wind, I am reminded that air is not nothing. It is a substance with mass, although we do not see it. Birds flying in the air are not so different from fish swimming in the sea - we are the bottom dwellers of the sea of air, looking up and wishing we could fly. The trees seem to revel in the wind, unless it grows too strong and unseats their roots from the soil or breaks their branches. John Muir liked to climb high into the tops of redwoods. He wrote of riding out a storm in the top of a tall tree, clinging for his life, feeling it rock and sway, looking out over the waving treetops, exulting in wild nature.

It seems I am back out into the larger realm. Tomorrow I must write about something very small.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Food Outdoors

When this idea came to me, what a flood of memories and associations crowded out of my memory - apples baked on a stick over a campfire,  my Grandmother's project of roasting potatoes in the fire to celebrate Guy Faulkes Day (they were memorably underdone in places, scorched in others),  my mother's picnic baskets full of goodies, Campfire Girl foods such as smores, mock angelfood cake, and meals  cooked in foil. I remember eating freeze-dried dinner on a backpacking trip while watching the sun set on the Maroon Bells in Colorado, beside a roaring waterfall in Tennessee, and by a meadow looking up toward the summit of Mt. Rainier. I picture my sons devouring pancakes on a camp-out and toasting hotdogs and marshmallows over the fire - now that they are off about their lives I get to toast my own marshmallows.

We eat in our garden every evening we can during the summer. It is beautiful and serene and the food tastes great. I am the family griller, getting great satisfaction from cooking over fire. Our camping meals have become more decadent, often with wine and an appetizer. We once took a guided trip on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The two guides were masters of the dutch oven and laid a feast for us every night - they even showed off by bringing out ice-cream the third evening (they had it stored on dry ice) served with flambéed sauce.

The thread that runs through all these outdoor meals is that the food tasted extra-delicious. Maybe it is the fresh air and exercise that often precedes outdoor meals that makes the food taste so good. Maybe it is a deep satisfaction in being close to Nature, away from our usual duties and surroundings.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Great Great Grandmother's Card


 Bridget at age 82

I have just been sorting some old family documents that turned up last summer. The last item I looked at belonged to my Great-Great-Grandmother Bridget who came from Ireland. It is a membership card from 1890 in the St. Joseph's Union. It is an interesting document.

The card is headed, "With the cordial approbation of his Grace, Archbishop Corrigan, D. D." Bridget got the little card by subscribing to "The Homeless Child". The card continues, "The object of this Union is the protection of homeless and destitute children, and the spiritual and temporal welfare of all subscribers to the "HOMELESS CHILD".

The Union was formed by a Father Drumgoole, in 1876, in New York City. Members could receive an indulgence of 400 days for every day in which they recited the Union's prayer twice. For those readers who don't know what  indulgences were, they allowed devout Catholics to earn time-off from purgatory. Masses were also to be said for the benefit of the subscribers. If they wished the masses to benefit a dead person they could "procure certificates in the name of the deceased" - presumably by purchasing additional subscriptions.

On one edge there is a little pointer hand followed by the statement, "Last year's certificate is of no use." Better keep that subscription current!

I enjoyed this glimpse into the humanity of an Irish immigrant almost 120 years ago.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Magnets

Oh, those mysterious toys, magnets! One of my sons could play with them for hours at a time. My husband also has a favorite magnet toy (shown below). Magnets' invisible power, their "endedness" causing them to suddenly whiz around to their chosen orientation, their choice of materials to attract, their ability to work through neutral objects like a sheet of paper, the beautiful patterns they can form in a tray of iron filings - all these behaviors make them fascinating.



Their practical applications are many, ranging from recording tapes and discs, televisions and computer monitors, audio speakers, electric motors, transformers, MRI machines, heart pacemakers, and particle accelerators, not to mention compasses and refrigerator magnets. The serious uses take us into the realm of large blessings.

I use magnets for a very mundane purpose. My husband thought of this. One is screwed to the side of my embroidery frame to hold my little scissors and two more hold my pattern in place, one on the top and one underneath the embroidery. These little magnets assist me nearly every day, as modest small blessings.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Allée



Yesterday I wrote about my neighborhood store. Today's subject is our linden allée. When the neighborhood was platted in the early 1900s, several wonderful landscaping features were added. All the north-south running avenues were lined with maple trees, which grew to form an archway across the streets. The east-west running streets had American elms, those huge fountain-like trees that used to be a feature of the Elm Streets of every American town. Alas, the country's majestic elms are mostly gone, lost to the Dutch elm disease. Many of our elms remain although they are ill with the fungus and each winter we lose a few.

Down the center of the neighborhood, running for a mile, is an allée of linden trees. An allée is a "feature of the French formal gardens that was both a promenade and an extension of the view. It either ended in a terminal feature, such as a garden temple, or extended into apparent infinity at the horizon". This is the definition at www.brittanica.com. Other sources simply define it as a walkway lined with trees or shrubs. I prefer the first definition because, as the photo taken this morning shows, our allée leads the eye into the distance. It is a favorite place for runners, children on bikes, and people walking their dogs. It is beautiful at all seasons, but in the fall it invites us to walk along its golden road.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Little Store

I live in a pretty, tree-shaded neighborhood. Nestled at the edge is the Little Store. This sweet little market has been an essential feature of the area since 1924.  In the 20 years or so I have lived here, the Little Store has always been the place to run to for the missing ingredient, for great produce and meats, and friendly knowledgeable service. It has a candy counter for the school kids. (I imagine most of us can remember counting out our change to buy those silly candy-dots-stuck-to-paper and sugar-filled straws.)  The current owners have added an espresso machine and a deli. They also carry specialty items from Spain and Italy, local organic produce and ethically-produced meats. They make terrific dinners to take home and heat up, and can give expert cooking advice. The Little Store is not its real name, but nearly everyone calls it that.

My husband grew up in New York City. He describes living in a densely urban area where all the services you needed were in easy walking distance, from the grocery, restaurants and drug store to the florist and cleaners. I grew up in suburbia and took it for granted that the car was necessary for all errands. Here we are in between - a close-in neighborhood of single-family houses on small lots.  It is a nice place to walk, with sidewalks and slow-moving traffic, and bus stops close by. The Little Store acts as a favorite destination, making it, in effect, the center of the neighborhood, the place where you see your neighbors. I consider it a blessing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Snow Princess


Today's post is about a little bit of nostalgia that has been traveling with me for over fifty years.  She is the Snow Princess,  a tiny (1 1/2 inch) ceramic half princess. She dates back to the days when we girls were all being indoctrinated by Disney to be good little princesses and wait sweetly for our prince to show up and make life happen. It must be significant that she lacks her lower half, but I am very fond of her.

When I was a child in St. Louis, Missouri, there was a special treat that outranked all other treats in my mind. About once a year my Grandma would take me downtown to the big department store. It was immensely tall, and we rode the escalators up and up. The lower escalators were broad and fancy. As we went up floor by floor the escalators were older and narrower. The last escalator was quite scary because it was made of wood and was only wide enough for one passenger. It also seemed rickety; it rattled and shook. At the top was a restaurant, a very fancy one filled with dressed-up ladies. My Grandma would allow me to order the Snow Princess.

The Snow Princess was a dessert of unimaginable wonder to a little girl. It was made from a cookie, topped by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Over the ice cream was piped whipped cream to make a gorgeous ball gown with swags and ruffles, decorated with edible silver balls. Atop this beautiful skirt rose the perfect little princess with her powdered hair. It was almost too wonderful to eat. Best of all, when I had finally devoured the treat, I could bring the little ceramic princess home with me.

Most of the little half princesses disappeared, as small treasures will in the hands of young children. This one somehow has stayed with me all these years,  and always makes me smile.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Drinking from a Spring




When we were in Central Oregon last month we visited Fall River. This short, amazingly clear and tranquil river is best know to fly fishermen. Reflecting fall colors, it was a treat for the eyes and heart. Fall River emerges straight from the ground in large springs at its head. Fishermen know this river as a safe source of drinking water.


It has always seemed sad to me that the pristine-looking streams and lakes of the Cascades are often infested with giardia, not to be consumed without boiling or chemical disinfection. It was a real treat to be able to drink directly from the springs of Fall River.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Orchid



One of the orchid plants decided to open its flowers this week. Tim is the caretaker of our indoor plants. He patiently waters and feeds them. Most of his plants are simply green - it is rare for any plant to produce flowers in our house and those that do often make inconspicuous little blossoms.

The two orchid plants are such odd leathery creatures - each year they put up one or a few new thick stems and leaves, along with white fleshy roots to cling to their bark-filled pots. Then they sit there until winter. A dainty stem emerges from among the leaves and swells into buds. Then the buds open one by one into gorgeous velvety purple blooms. Why do they wait till this time of year? Do they come from the southern hemisphere? I have no idea. But these elegant undemanding beauties are certainly a blessing.

Watching Lightning

I was at the coast this weekend. To say the weather was unsettled would be serious understatement.  Each ten-minute period seemed to bring a different weather mood. The alternating brilliant sunshine, overcast, wind and rain were punctuated with thunderstorms. We were walking on an open road high on the hill when a storm a couple of miles off sent a sky-filling blast of lighting. It was unnerving.
However, once we reached the cute small house where we were staying, it was fun to watch the storms. Large windows gave an expansive view of the ocean. From this snug lookout, we could see thunderstorms arrayed at intervals across the horizon, slowly marching toward the land. Lighting filled the sky and thunder rolled. We could see shafts of heavy rain descending from each cloud.  At intervals one would arrive at our section of coast, drenching our windows with rain and hail, all the while booming and flashing, before drifting off over the land a few minutes later. It is a very different thing to watch storms from a secure shelter rather than exposed outdoors.
I grew up in the Midwest and Southeast where thunder and lightening are common, and I relish the infrequent thunderstorms here in the Northwest. This extravaganza of storms was a rare treat for me. That night I awoke to more lightening and thunder. I counted seconds to see how far away the storm was. Lying snug with a warm comforter tucked under my chin, I was full of a sense of the majesty of nature and the joy of a kid who likes to watch storms.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Being in Touch

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. "Pooh," he whispered.  "Yes, Piglet?"  "Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's paw, "I just wanted to be sure of you."”

How comforting it is to reach out a hand and find your friend or loved one right there beside you. I have been thinking about the extensions of that touch. As a loved one departs on a journey, we say, "Stay in touch."

People used to write letters by hand. A letter contained not only the thoughts of the distant friend, but also a tangible sense that they had actually touched the paper and inscribed the words, perhaps even dotted the paper with tears or imprinted a kiss. A letter one could hold against the heart, even a typed one.

The telephone brought us the sound of our friend's voice. How precious that was, with little sense that it was brought to us by jiggling electrons over untold miles. The old telephone ads said, "Reach out and touch someone." Or record a message on their answering machine.  Now our cell phones extend that touch to almost anywhere. "Hello Dear, I am on the bus and thinking of you." I have even called home from a meadow high on the side of Mt. Rainier, were there happened to be cell-phone reception.

Email has almost been the death of letter-writing. It is convenient, quick and does not impose on the recipient's time in the same was a ringing phone. With Instant Messaging you can get some of the immediacy and intimacy of a conversation. And what about Facebook?  Reach out to a lot of your friends at once and enjoy the comments with which they respond. It is quite addictive. My computer-programmer son spends most of the day connected by Instant Messaging to colleagues and friends all over the world - he calls them friends even when he has never met them. Now if we choose, we can be in contact with our friends virtually all the time.

I will be "out of touch" this weekend. I am going to a house perched on a cliffside far above the beach. There will be sweeping vistas of a major storm that is coming in. There will be no cell phone and no computer, just some good friends, good food, and good books.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Invincible Boots


Hooray for boots! Bring on puddles, snow and mud!

I have skinny little dainty feet, very far from sturdy furry hobbit feet. As much as I admire beautiful fashion boots, it is the work boots that make me happy. My trusty hiking boots are steady and safe whatever the terrain. My wellies never met a slop or slush they didn't disdain.

In my years of working as a water-resources geologist, I wore hiking boots, wellies, hip boots and even waders. One of my colleagues played a trick on me by handing me a pair of waders with a hole in the foot. When I jumped into the stream, my foot was promptly swamped in a stream of cold water. He is the same guy who tried to scare me with a dead snake. Boys will be boys.

There was a poster in the Columbia Sportswear store a few years ago, showing a young woman garbed from top to bottom in waterproof gear and boots. The caption read something like, "In Oregon, this is beauty."

I feel beautiful in my invincible boots.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Butter

OK, I have been putting off writing about butter because it seems rather self-indulgent. But butter is another of those foods that makes me happy. Just think of the lovely foods it goes into - from cookies to a plate of spaghetti with browned butter and mizithra cheese, not to mention toast.

My mother remembered when margerine was sold as an unappetizing white, crisco-like blob along with a package of dye to make it yellow. For decades we were indoctrinated to believe that hydrogenated corn oil was much more healthy than butter. My arteries and I resent that deceit.

I have made butter. It isn't difficult. Just beat some cream past the whipped-cream stage and suddenly it separates into curd-like blebs of butter and thin buttermilk. Strain out the butter and knead it together - voila! It appears you can make butter from any kind of milk - it would be interesting to try sheep or goat butter, or perhaps even yak butter. More flavorful and aromatic butter is made from slightly fermented cream, and is called cultured butter. The natural color and flavor also depends on the diet of the cow (or other creature).

Have you ever wondered why Mediterranean cuisine doesn't use butter much or why only clarified butter is used in India? It is because unclarified butter spoils quite quickly without refrigeration. Ghee doesn't. In more northern climates, the cooler temperatures allow butter to be kept longer. In fact, in medieval Ireland, firkins of butter were buried in peat bogs and kept for years. The flavor must have been interesting. Archaeologists still find these barrels in bog excavations - they contain greyish cheesy stuff, no longer edible.

Where would we be without the exquisite sauces of France and the shortbread of Scotland and lemon-curd and thousands of other delectable butter-requiring foods?  Our celebratory tables would be sadly lacking.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

An Organized Kitchen


Tim has a talent for organizing the kitchen. I said I wouldn't write about him, but here he is again. His organizing principles are: you should be able to see things and they should be within reach when you need them. This is a skill I don't seem to have.

In our kitchen, commonly used items are hanging from hooks, standing in crocks, or on glassed or open shelves. The rarely used items do go in drawers, and unfortunately there isn't room for a pan-hanging rack, so those are in a cupboard. Spoons, potholders, seasonings are right where they are needed. Knives are on a magnet bar, in plain sight. We haven't gone as far as Paul Child, who installed pegboard with the outline of all the kitchen tools.

It may look untidy compared to the bare and beautiful countertops in magazines, but our home kitchen is a joy to work in.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fossil Seashells


I visited the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago with my father back in 1969. We especially enjoyed the paleontology dioramas - I being a newly-declared geology major. As we strolled past millions of years of history from about 500 to 400 million years ago (no land animals appearing for a long time yet) the animals that most struck our fancy were the Nautiloids. My dad described them as "ice-cream cone creatures". They were the top predator of the day and reached lengths of 13 feet or more.

These phenomenally successful creatures are represented today by the Nautilus, which as we know is tightly coiled, (as well as more distantly related squid and octopus.) Starting some 400 million years ago, relatives of the nautiloids appeared called ammonoids - these were also coiled.
Both the straight and the coiled animals start out very small. As they grow, they construct a larger shell section, walling off and abandoning the old one (except for a very nifty little tube that allowed them to adjust their buoyancy by adding or removing gas from the empty chambers.) Oliver Wendell Holmes described this in The Chambered Nautilus: 
Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil:
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year's dwelling for the new,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.


As the ammonoids evolved, they began to make more and more complicated boundaries between the old and new chambers - we call these sutures. The complexity of the sutures is used by paleontologists to determine the age of the fossil. The photos below show simple and extremely intricate suture patterns. For those of you inclined toward math, the complex ones are fractal.


We as humans are short-lived creatures and tend to ignore the vastness and wonder of earth's history-book. These beautiful fossils open my mind to unimaginably ancient chapters.