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!

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


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


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


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


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


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.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Thirtieth Blog Post

Today I am celebrating making it to thirty blog posts. When I started, I wondered if I could write every day. There have been days when ideas don't come, but so often there is an inspiring thought and off I go. I didn't expect the exercise to be so rewarding. I didn't expect the blogging itself to be a blessing.

I am very good at worrying in the middle of the night. Especially at about three in the morning, if I awaken, there is always something to worry about. It doesn't matter how trivial or unlikely the issue appears by the light of day, it will produce plenty of grist for the worry mill. Since I began this blog, I have only to focus on what small blessing to write about next. This short-circuits the worry machine, and sends me back to sleep.

The process of writing, in itself, is like a meditation. By the time I hit the "Publish Post" button, I feel centered and refreshed. The posts are not of equal quality, but, as Julia Child wrote: ""No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize."

Blessings to all of you who read this and have encouraged me.