25 August 2014

Naming

I woke up at 2:30 this morning, and as I went down into the kitchen for a drink, I saw the stars winking at me through the window. So I stepped out onto the balcony, and was overwhelmed. The display was dazzling last night.

A friend of mine talked some time ago about the importance of naming, how the pleasure of experiencing a garden, for example, is increased by being able to name the plants. I get that. I enjoy being able to call weeds by their name when I yank them out ("Take that, evil cranesbill! Out you go, knapweed!"), but even better, knowing friendly plants ("There's rosemary, that's for remembrance." - okay, sorry, that's off topic.). Naming something gives you a little bit of ownership over it, or perhaps some kinship with it.

And so last night, what drew me out on the balcony was the Pleiades, das Siebengestirn - the Sevenstars, that clear cluster which in this hemisphere and at our latitude (50°N, if you must know) is not commonly visible earlier in the year just after dark, so it's a bit of a treat to be able to see it. It was almost directly east, about half-way up in the sky. And just over from it was Capella, in Auriga. In July, around 10:00 PM, it appears just over the horizon to the north; it's exceptionally bright, and it twinkles red and blue - really! - so that when I first saw it some years ago I spent quite some time arguing with my brothers-in-law who were visiting about whether it was a star or a satellite. (I can't remember what my side of the argument was, but looking it up soon turned up the facts of the matter - and the name.)

First I put on my glasses last night, then I went for the binoculars and the star chart. And so I became acquainted with Perseus. No relation to Percy Jackson - well, actually, yes relation to Percy Jackson, I believe he's named after the constellation. Or both the constellation and the teen demigod are named after the Greek hero, whose deeds I can't remember. Perseus (the constellation) is really bright, easy to spot. And it pleases me that I now know another name of a star cluster. It makes the wonder of a brilliant night sky that much deeper - and yet more intimate.

Life, the Universe, and Gazing at the Stars. I love them more for knowing their names.

19 August 2014

Writer's Fatigue

I had great good intentions, I did. I was going to get back to blogging frequently and regularly, and be all erudite and profound and entertaining (maybe even all three at the same time) at least once a week or so. But, somehow, it didn't happen. Summer is trickling away on me, and blog posts are not accumulating.

You see, the fact of the matter is, I've got Writer's Fatigue. I'm tired. Tired of cranking out words, being articulate. Tired of sitting at my computer, putting letters on a screen, then rereading them, changing them, fixing them, rearranging them, and then doing it all again (and again and again). I just finished my big final project for my Master's degree, forty-six pages plus references (if you want to read about it, or even read the whole thing, go over to quillandqwerty, it's got the link on it). And it was the cumulation of two-and-a-half years of grad school - reading, studying, researching - and writing, writing, writing, at least one big paper, usually two or three, each semester. That's an awful lot of words. So now, it seems, my writing ability has trickled out of my ears. My wordsmithing quota has been used up for the time being.

So perhaps, what I'll do instead is give you some pictures. Each one worth a thousand words, no? (Gee whiz, I could have just submitted fifteen photos for my final project, and been done with it... But no, probably not.) So here, for your edification, are some pictures from our recent holiday on the West Coast. I love the Pacific, it's one of my favourite places in the whole world. You're welcome.







Life, the Universe, Writer's Fatigue - and the beauties of the Canadian West Coast.

05 August 2014

Jammin'

raspberry jam at the beginning of the process
I've got a pot of apricot-chili barbecue sauce bubbling on the stove. But as I don't yet know how it's going to turn out (I messed with the recipe), I'm not going to tell you about that right now. I have been meaning to tell you about jam, though, cunningly illustrated with photos from my last jammin' session (the kind on the stove, not with a guitar).

all of ONE jar of raspberry jam!
The event in question involved raspberries and black currants, both from our garden. Well, the currants are strictly speaking from the neighbour's garden, but they hang over the fence, and the neighbours are glad if we clean off our side of the bushes. The raspberries are genuinely from our garden, planted just three years ago. The bushes grew quite nice and big, but unfortunately, they got shorted on water while they were fruiting this year, so the berries were for the most part too tiny to pick. Ah well. I did get half a pound (200g) of berries off the bushes (ooh, aah!), and turned them into jam. That's right. It made precisely one jar, and I hope it's tasty (I also hope to buy some more raspberries at the farmer's market, if there's any left, and make more of the stuff, as it's popular around here).

Raspberry jam is one of the easiest jams to make. The biggest amount of labour is in picking the berries, actually - once that's done, you just wash them, dump them in the pot with sugar, boil, and you're done. To be specific: I make my jam by weight, European style. Five parts berries, four parts sugar, so 1kg of berries to 800g of sugar, or, in this year's case, 200g berries to 160g sugar. For jam, I never use commercial pectin, it works quite well without, and I like the taste much better that way (jelly is a different matter; I have yet to manage a jelly without pectin. I might try it with the concord grapes this fall.).

a rolling boil
The basic jammin' technique is as follows: put the berries in the pot with the sugar, stir. Start boiling on high heat (jam always runs on high heat, never turn it down), stir a lot. Bring to a rolling boil, which means it boils so hard you can't stir it down (see picture). A rolling boil rises really high in the pot, to about twice the height of the original mix, so leave lots of room in the pot. Boil for a while (it varies according to recipe - for raspberries, just a few minutes; strawberries and peaches, more like fifteen minutes). Skim off the foam and put in a cup; it's really tasty on toast. Take pot off burner. Immediately ladle jam into scrupulously clean containers. With jam, I don't bother either sterilising the jars, or hot-water-bath processing them; jam is preserved by its sugar content, not a vacuum seal like other canned produce. I do use the screw rings with the metal lids (which I boil in hot water) and put them on immediately; the heat from the jam is usually enough to seal the lid to keep dust, bugs and air out (the latter will dry the jam out, which isn't so lovely). But you could even just tie some waxed paper or cellophane over the top; it just wouldn't keep as long as in properly airtight jars because the top of the jam will dry out eventually. (As far as keeping quality goes, this kind of jam in well-closed containers could literally last for several years on a cool dark basement shelf. It's best in the first year, and generally it gets eaten long before then, but, you know, just sayin'.)

jelly test (see the drip?)
One more thing: with many jams and jellies, you know they're boiled enough when you can do the jelly test, i.e. when a drop of jelly running off the spoon sort of hangs together (see picture). With raspberry, that's not the case; it'll be completely runny when you put it in the jars, but as soon as it cools it sets up nice and firm-ish. As I said, it's the easiest jam to make - no pitting, peeling, stemming or other fussing with the fruit, and it pretty much always turns out. Well, so far it did for me.

black currant skimmings
The black currant jam needed a bit of a different technique, and it didn't turn out terribly well this year - too runny. But still very tasty. I use the recipe from Marguerite Patten's book Step by Step Cookery (it's Brits, from 1963, quite amusing). It calls for 1 lb. black currants, 3/4 pint water, and 1 1/4 lb. sugar;  you boil the fruit and water first until the currants are soft, and then proceed as above. As I said, mine turned out a bit too runny this year; it should be really great on pancakes.

Life, the Universe, and This Year's Jammin'. Come on over and try some.
the completed glory




01 August 2014

Love of Life

It's August 1st today, which means it's our bloggiversary, Steve's and mine. That's right, four years ago we started hanging out in the cyberworld and bestowing our great wit and wisdom on you all. So that's an occasion to celebrate, no? Every year on this date, I archive my blog posts, and start a new file on my computer for the next round. We're up to "blog 5" now by way of a file name.

A few weeks ago, my cousin got me a lovely necklace at the local Farmer's & Crafter's Market. She wanted to give me a gift, and I saw this piece and loved it, so that's what she got me. It's a carnelian necklace, and it goes with a bracelet I've had for, oh, fifteen years or thereabouts. Actually, the latter is a mandala - you can bend it into all kinds of shapes, use it as a bracelet, hair piece, candle holder, crown for your stuffed bear, or just a plain old fidget. One of my favourite pieces of jewellery, and I always get compliments when I wear it. It's made of stainless steel wire, metal beads, and stones of smoky quartz and carnelian agate.

Steve regally modelling the carnelians
Now, there are deep meanings in those stones. They're supposed to do things for you; you know, attract wealth, peace of mind, love and happiness, or something of that kind. I think. I really don't go for that kind of thing, as a rule; I chose that particular mandala because I liked the colour of the stones and they go with almost everything I wear. So I've never been able to remember what carnelian is supposed to do for me, because I didn't really care.

But then the other day, on our holidays, I was in a gift shop, and they were selling stones - and each of them came with a little card that explained precisely what the stone is supposed to do for you. Of course, I promptly forgot most of what it said about carnelian - I think it was supposed to increase clarity of mind and purpose, or whatever. But one thing stuck out: one of the attitudes carnelian is supposed to foster in its wearer is - wait for it! - Love of Life. So that's why I'm drawn to carnelian, eh? It's the Amo Vitam Stone. Amo vitam, in case you've forgotten (or never knew) is Latin for "I love life", and I started using it as my blog title because AMO happens to be my initials, and because I do - love life, that is.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and the Amo Vitam Stone. Happy Bloggiversary!

12 July 2014

Humanity

We went camping last week, in the same spot we've gone to with our friends every summer for the last few years, just a couple of hours south from us. One of the major attractions of this campground is that it's situated right next to a river, a fairly shallow stream which winds its way right around the campsite and is ideal for floating on with inner tubes and inflatable boats. Usually, that is. This year, we had unseasonably cool, wet weather until just before we went, and even though the weather was really hot by the time we got there, the river water was still very cold, and it was running really high. And that's what led to the big excitement of this camping trip.

It began on Wednesday night. Around ten or eleven o'clock (I don't carry a watch on holidays, so usually don't really know exactly what time it is) we saw the lights of a car slowly driving around the campground. I took one of my many trips to the washroom; the car was stopped in front of it, and it turned out to be the camp warden. I overheard him asking some other campers if they had seen a nineteen-year-old boy on a bicycle, he was missing. But that was all we heard then. In the night, we saw some emergency vehicle lights flashing against the walls of our tent; I slept poorly, worrying about this missing young man.

In the morning, the excitement really started. By 7:30, people in safety vests came around, going from campsite to campsite, handing out photocopied sheets with a description of the missing boy. It gave his name, "19 years old, mentally challenged; black hair with long sideburns, blue t-shirt, black shorts, green bicycle" - a woman's handwriting, probably his mother's. And then the Search-and-Rescue machinery rolled into operation. Our site was quite close to the campground's entrance, so we had a front seat to the action. There were at least three big trucks, one of them outfitted as headquarters (my man went over there to ask if they needed help looking for the boy; they took his name and campsite number, and told him they'd find him if, or rather when, they needed volunteers). They had ATVs, and dog handlers. The helicopter landed, whirling most of the sand off the kids' playground, then took off again to fly slowly up and down the river, the infrared sensors on board trained on the rapidly-running water. Please, God, please, don't let him be in the river…


And then, around 9:30, my son calls out: "I think they found that missing guy! I heard someone say so, and they were clapping!" Sure enough: he was found. Rescue personnel drove from campsite to campsite on ATVs, spreading the good news. I cried… The helicopter flew really low overhead, and made a triumphant "whoop whoop whoop!" noise with its siren; we all waved and cheered. It turned out that the young man had ridden his bike back all the way to town, 120 km over a 1200m-high summit - and he was perfectly safe and unharmed. As my friend said, next time this boy says "Mom, I'm bored, I'm going home," they'd better pay attention.

It was all quite exciting. But what was really moving about this event was the effect it had on all the people involved, ourselves included. The Search-and-Rescue machinery in action was quite a sight to behold - dozens of people out there searching, looking for this one young man. And for those two hours that the search was on in full force, the campground became a community. All of us were worrying, concerned about this one lost boy, praying, hoping - and then so relieved when the good news was spread that he was found safe and unharmed.

It restored my faith in humanity. Yes, we hear so many bad, sad, disturbing stories in the news every day. But this, it showed me that by and large, people do care. We worried about this boy whom we had never met, and probably never will, and we all rejoiced when he was found. One mentally challenged boy who did something silly, and so many people out there concerned for him, and making sure that he was safe. Even one life matters, and it matters to so many people. It was beautiful.

Life, the Universe, and Humanity. There is still so much good in the world.

Steve on the campsite

04 July 2014

Stacks of Stickies

I just mailed off my final grad school paper. That paper, that's why I've been AWOL from the blogging front in the last few months; I've been up to my eyebrows in fairy tales (meaning I've been writing about them, not that what I'm telling you is one). But now it's done, one big treatise on "Cinderella", "Sleeping Beauty", "Beauty and the Beast", and "The Frog Prince". I'll be anxiously awaiting my mark, and then editing the thing for submission to my uni's thesis collection.

So the paper is sent in, and I feel slightly stunned that I'm actually done. Two-and-a-half years of study finished with one click of a button. It can't really be true, can it? But then, there's always one more thing to do after that button has been clicked: I have to de-sticky my research materials. Yes, you know, de-sticky? Take the sticky tags out of the books, of course. I might have mentioned once or thrice, marking books is evil and will get you smote by the library gods. But a grad school student (or indeed any other student) has to keep track of interesting points in books somehow, so, enter the sticky note. I go through pad after pad of those things in the course of my research, plastering them all over the margins of the books, sometimes adorning them with expressive arrows  (← !!!) or erudite comments such as "Does NOT!!" or "pfffffft!", or even, I hesitate to admit, the occasional "IDIOT!" (it's true. I found one like that this time. What can I say - I was justly incensed at a scholar's assessment of my favourite movie.).

So then, by the time I'm finished my writing, I don't need all those place markers any more, and the university library, slack though they may be about the state of their books (I once had one out that sported the dusty print of a running shoe sole across its front page spread), would probably not appreciate all those pink and orange and green bits of paper sticking out of the book. So I pull 'em all out again and pile them on my desk. One stack of stickies indicating just how educated I have become. Or how muddled, either way. It's the sure sign that I really am done with whatever piece of research I've been doing.

And then I dump the stickies into the garbage, take the library books back to the library and put my own books on my book shelf (or pile them on the floor, because there is absolutely no book shelf space to be had any more), and then - then I go and find myself a book to read or a movie to watch that has absolutely nothing to do with whatever I just finished studying. Fairy tales? Hmm, I think I'll read a Regency romance now, thank you. But don't worry, I'll be back to fairy tales soon enough. Even studying them as intensely as this hasn't soured me on the topic, and that, my friends, means that it really is my thing.

Life, the Universe, and Stacks of Stickies. The sign of the end of grad school studies.






08 June 2014

Rose







delicate petal
languidly sleeping
in elaborate shadow.
lazy red whisper
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
rose.



(from the archives, 2005 or '06)