Friday, December 26, 2014

Of Snowman Surgery

Boxing Day is possibly my favorite part of Christmas. I like the low-key, low-stress way of it. We spent the day quietly, eating muffins and tangerines from my sister, finishing off a joint re-reading of The Hobbit, walking to the post office and grocery store, admiring some neighborhood Christmas lights en route, tidying away a few things, and generally not being fussed. The sort of day I require after performing an emergency lobotomy on a snowman cake on Christmas Day.

The patient before surgery. He seemed optimistic. 

Surgery; half of the patient's head had to be removed.

Alas; the effects of the versed did not last and the patient was not happy.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas Season: Part II

A few belated Christmas photos as of the last night before the oh-so-desperately-awaited Solstice. We have, happily, finished our Christmas-related outings, not including Christmas day, of course. Last night was the Seattle Choral Company's presentation of "On Christmas Night," a somewhat eclectic collection of songs organized around a theme of Dark (first half) and Light (second half). Scott felt that a lot of the songs were similar in tone, causing them to blur into each other. Possibly a stressful week and an extra bit of margarita at dinner (at the always excellent Oaxaca, this time the one on Capitol Hill) just made me particularly tired but, one way or another, I had trouble staying awake in a way that hasn't been an issue previously. I actually liked the focus on light/dark; this year, more than most, I've been aware of the need for holiday lights and the like in the darkness. But not enough to reconcile me to this year's choral program.

 Today we devoted the morning to taking Gradka to the vet ("ideal" was the word the vet used to describe her apparent physical condition, much to my conditional relief: I'm waiting for the blood and urine test results to completely let go of my Gradka-related anxiety). This afternoon was mostly given over to wrapping Christmas gifts. I'm giving people in my family pretty much the same (very desirable and useful!) gifts this year which made the wrapping a little on the repetitious side but at least I had a variety of wrapping papers to choose from--and the tree is a little more photogenic than it was a few days ago, what with having gifts beneath it now.

Of the tree I can only point out that the wall behind it is green, not yellow; adjust your colors accordingly.

The most exciting Christmas-related news is that this year's box of cookies has arrived and been opened at the Thornton house, meaning I can now post a photo of the box as it looked before it was entrusted to UPS. One might note that the frosting is smudged on the iced cookies. Quality was maybe not Job 1 in Madame Gradka's Cookie Factory this year.

2014 edition of the Thornton cookie box

Not included in the box was this cookie that I sort of feel embodies the Christmas season:

Though, in truth, an aviation (or two) while watching It's A Wonderful Life almost turns that frown upside down, even if it didn't restore the lost leg.

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's beginning to smell/sound/feel a lot like Christmas

The "feel" portion, unfortunately, is that I am exhausted and just want to sleep all the time, a tendency rather exacerbated by the couple of hours at Benaroya Saturday night;  "Sleeping Beauty" was somewhat aptly named as I found myself all but dozing during it. The sartorial high point of the evening was beyond question Joshua Roman's remarkable houndstooth suit. (I was not the only one remarking upon it during intermission and now I'm just so pleased to have found out that it's a Mr Turk design.) We were underwhelmed by the new piece by Mason Bates that Mr Roman was debuting but this line in the program notes has been getting a lot of mileage around the house:
The young American composer Mason Bates is at home in two musical worlds: contemporary “classical” composition and the popular music of our time, especially the rhythmic variety known as “techno."
 Those kids and their "techno" mu-sic. Etc. In truth, I'd like to hear the piece again to see if it improves upon a second hearing.

Cookies: check!
Mongolian hordes and armies of light and darkness (aka peanut blossom cookies, pillowcase cookies, and windowseat cookies. Hmmm; even the "real" names for these cookies are a bit unlikely, now that I look at them).
Tree purchased and decorated: check / photos TK.

Christmas ships seen: check.
It was a gorgeous evening on Alki and yet another reason to so love living in West Seattle. The Christmas ship and its followers were quite lovely out on the water. The singing, not so much.

Children's choir heard: check.
The Endolyne Children's Choir, on the other hand, was charming and delightful.

I have yet to get serious about shopping and wrapping gifts but I'm sure I'll get to that. Eventually.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Vancouver Trip

November was my month of travel and, fun though it may have been (and it was!), I am glad that I'm staying put in December. Oh, I may be thinking about a day trip or two to look for snow geese and the like but, I'm not planning to sleep anywhere but my own beloved bed any time soon.

This last weekend's trip to Vancouver was planned back in August when I gave tickets for Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe Christmas show to Scott for his birthday. There is no Seattle show this year so a trip to Vancouver (where we stayed at the quite pleasant Buchan Hotel) was required.

View from the window at the Buchan

The train trip north included an unscheduled hour or so at the Bellingham station while they checked a reported blockage on the tracks to the north. Happily, it turned out to be a false alarm, and--even more happily--I opted to step off the train to wait at the station while they pulled the whole train back up the track to avoid blocking an intersection. I suppose I could have spent that hour in the Parlor Car drinking fancy cocktails, but it was much nicer to get some cold fresh air and have a look at the birds to be seen in the immediate vicinity of the station. Especially when those birds included this handsome little creature:

Hermit thrush by the water by Bellingham Station

There were quite a number of birds to be seen from the train before and after the unscheduled stop as well. Birding from the train means snapping a lot of photos and hoping to be able to identify the results later. 

This group includes a number of pintails.

We arrived in Vancouver only an hour or so behind schedule. We checked in, had a cup of tea, did some shopping, and then went to Vij's for dinner. I'm sorry to say the food was less spectacular than on our first visit but it was still a lovely first evening in the city.

As it happened, it was Grey Cup Weekend which meant, among other things I'm sure, that there was a parade through downtown on Saturday. We missed some of it but arrived along the parade route in time to watch a number of marching bands, admire a couple of floats, and be baffled by the ways of foreign lands. I was disappointed not to get a nerf football but I did take some snaps.

I have no idea what this means but it's my new motto.

After the parade, we had tea and coffee at Finch's Tea House  (which could not be less like its website suggests) and then bought a number of books at MacLeod's Books. After depositing our purchases at the hotel we continued along to Stanley Park where we managed to spend an hour or more circling Lost Lagoon after which we were too cold to remain outside much longer. The Lagoon was quite rewarding, however

Stanley Park could be named Spotted Towhee Park. I've never seen so many. I was cursing my inability to get a decent photo of them when this little fellow threw up his wings in despair and obligingly posed for me. Repeatedly.

Alas, there is no sound or video of this amazing mute swan which powered through the water, pushing a great quantity of water along before it. Imagine "Swan Lake" performed by leaden-footed five-year-olds.

After an excellent dinner at Adesso Bistro  (the front door of which was conveniently located about a dozen feet from the front door of our hotel), we scurried along to the Stuart McLean show which was, as always, quite lovely though yet again I was not the oldest nor the youngest person present and thus did not win any prizes.

The return trip, via Amtrak Bus, was fine. There are a lot of bald eagles along the I-5 corridor.

Book Report: Ironweed is a violent little tale.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

More about Mergansers

Argh! If there's a way to edit an existing blogger post or add a photo to a comment, I don't know what it is and it's late and I need to be asleep. So, Alex, this post is all for you. We thought the merganser was a non-breeding male based on its white secondaries (speculum?) and less rounded head and shaggier crest. Here are a pair of larger, more cropped shots:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Boise Report

Here's looking at you, kid

A trip to Boise last weekend resulted in a pile of photos, a pile of books, and one (1) new bird on the life list: a sweet little merlin.* Both Scott and I were relieved, I believe, when it failed to catch the songbird it briefly chased while we watched. Oh, I know raptors have to eat too but I don't have to witness the kill and I'd be happiest if they contented themselves with tasty starlings. Of which we saw very few in Boise. In addition to the merlin, we saw a fine downy woodpecker, a number of birds wintering over water, some finches, a kingfisher or two, and a number of geese, seemingly wintering near water. Considering how short the visit was, it was some pretty decent bird action.

As hinted in the first line, we also spent some time (and cash) at Boise's excellent Trip Taylor Bookseller. Scott found a Ruskin (Modern Painters) with nice heavy paper and color reproductions (so nice for increasing the heft of our luggage) while I picked up a few books that had, one way or another, come up in discussion earlier in the visit. I also bought a Gorky I'd never heard of before (Foma Gordeyev), largely because it had excellent cover art.

It was a fine visit, with pleasant friends, plentiful cocktails, excellent food, delightful walks, and some opportunity for lobbing snowballs. But it's also nice to be home with Gradka.

*Alas, the merlin report turned out to be inaccurate. It was, it seems, a sharpshinned hawk. In Boise River plumage.

Honestly, would anyone believe this bird was naturally occuring?

Just a mess of goose / duck prints in the snow

Grimple watches while Scott demonstrates how to make the Boise Arnaud.

Non-breeding plumage common merganser and Lady Mallard companion

Friday, November 7, 2014

Hasty lunchtime photo post from the Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival


Rainbow view from my balcony at the Banff Centre

What I've learned is a common redpoll

That common redpoll again, side view

Vending machines at the Banff Centre offer chips, chocolate, lip balm, toothbrushes, and Tylenol. I wish they had cheese.

The obligatory view from the window shot

Jeremy Collins working on an illustration, above and the fniished work, below (on a speeded-up video)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Adieu, Joseph Anton

I've so been looking forward to this particular post and now what I am is, possibly, coming down with something and my head feels, oh! so fuzzy. But inspired by Mr Rushdie, I refuse to let that stop me from declaring, with great joy and relief, that I have finished Joseph Anton. Honestly, it's a day that could not come too soon.

Being a Rushdie fan, I had been looking forward to the book before it was published, but the reviews were so universally awful that even I opted not to read Joseph Anton. Then, a few weeks ago, it was on the table at the local used bookstore. I reasoned that neither Mr Rushdie nor his publishers would make any money from the purchase (sadly, I do think in such terms) and, when Scott reminded me that Mr Rushdie did not come off at all well in the book I argued, reasonably, I thought, that, "Even if the author is a jerk, he's a good writer and he can tell a good story." Which, you know, based on Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Midnight's Children, and The Satanic Verses is nothing but true. I would include The Ground Beneath Her Feet on that list though others at this address would not. So, truly, I was not prepared to find the writing and storytelling in Joseph Anton so abysmal. It's a first draft, is this book, and why a man who, it seems to me though I haven't actually made the effort to look at the novels on the shelves here to confirm, excels at the first person voice thought it made sense to write a work of autobiographical nonfiction in the third person, I cannot understand. Maybe even Mr Rushdie was embarrassed by what he was spewing forth. There's the expected self-pity and self-importance (and who among us can say that he didn't have plenty of cause?), but also what can only be termed relentless name-dropping. Honestly, did the man not have any contact with anyone who was not an award-winning writer/artist/politician for more than a decade? Mr Rushdie is presented without fail as brave, clever, persecuted but rising above it not in the sort of prose that one might expect from so fine a writer but in the structure and language of, well, a very pedestrian blogger.

 Anyway. I've finished the book now. The final, post-9/11 chapter has some fine things to say (mostly quotes from columns Mr  Rushdie wrote thirteen years ago) about the importance and power of literature and that, I hope, is what I'll take away from the book. Authors can be frail and flawed individuals, and they can write seriously bad books on occasion, but, at least much some much some no, much, damn it, of the time, literature itself is something more.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Now we can swim any day in November

Well, not exactly, perhaps but I was very surprised to discover fresh fruit on the raspberry canes a few days ago. Not a ton, obviously, but then it is October and I was, in fact, in process of cutting the canes back a bit. Oh, I know that I'm suppose to leave the garden untidy to provide habitat and food for wintering birds but Gradka also regards the canes as her personal hunting blind and with her recent kill of Ratticus I worry that she might leap on an unsuspecting white-crowned sparrow next. And there is plenty of cover and food sources left in the yard, I promise. I was very pleased to see a chickadee enjoying a grape not an hour ago. The grape arbor offers cover and tasty treats. I found that I was sharing the space with a white-crowned sparrow when I was picking a few pounds of grapes this morning; he was just hopping about without a clue that I was few feet away. There's a reason I worry about the white-crowneds in particular.

The few pounds of grapes have been processed into grape pie filling which I plan to freeze and pull out to use in the depths of winter, should winter depths happen. I'm not counting on only grape pie to remind us of summer, however. There's also the absurdly overstocked jam cupboard.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

More about Grapes

We'd made grape jamly, and we'd made grape pie, but had we ever made them at the same time in the same kitchen? Not until today. It seemed like a good idea to make both simultaneously so that my hands, the sink, and various parts of the kitchen were stained purple only one afternoon, rather than spreading that joy across a couple of days. And, you know, those grapes aren't going to remain viable forever. At least, I assume they won't. They continue to be quite prolific, however. As for today's adventure, I am happy to say that it all worked out fine. Somehow we ended up with a *lot* of grape jamly (so I'm hoping it's not really grape syrup*) and the pie has been pronounced "better than the first one" so that's all good. (Oh, and the new Cuisinart mini-chopper, purchased to replace the Black & Decker that died shortly after its use in the last round of jamly-making? Fan-tastic!)

Also pictured, the post-production-line snack plate and drinks. The drinks featured some Timber City ginger beer, brewed in South Park and sold at the West Seattle Farmers Market. It's *very* gingery.

Also created this evening, a bit late  in the production cycle, a new label:

*Updated to note that it was a lot more like grape syrup. We opened all the jars and boiled the contents for an additional ten or fifteen minutes until it properly passed the cold plate test. Then we put it back in the freshly boiled jars (it now filled only seven), sealed them up with fresh lids, hot-bathed the lot again for ten minutes, and then happily heard them all ping. Labels still require printing but at least it is now jamly and not syrup.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ashes to ashes

The memorial for my father was today ("we're not fast but we're slow" could be my family's motto for scheduling such events) and it included a number of photos, some of which I'd seen before and some that I had not. The following is one of the gems that came out of a box from goodness knows where. What I love most is not that I mistook a model of the Apollo for a lampshade but that in this photo, which presumably was part of a string of "official" photos taken promoting the company (Avco) or the project (the Apollo) my father is holding a cigarette. Really, the trick is to find photos from this period in which my father is not holding a cigarette.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sunday, September 14, 2014

When life gives you grapes, make pie!

And tonight, grape pie!

 This used up another two pounds of grapes, leaving us with what is scientifically termed, "a fuckofalotmoregrapesstill." I used this grape pie recipe while listening to the Vinyl Cafe September 13 podcast. The length of the show pretty much exactly matched the length of the prep-time for the pie which was pretty ideal. The Morley story about the Dutch oven was darned fine as well. And, again, fingers crossed that the pie is edible. If it is, I'll plan to make another one or two for next week's post-memorial business. While feeling bad that I never made such a pie for my father.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

More Adventures in Preservation: Grape Jelly/Jam

It's Saturday night and I'm updating a blogger that is read by two people. Let's just admit that I'd like to be one of those people who make a living by writing about their daily lives doing things like make jam. Sadly, I'm not one of those people. Perhaps less sadly, I know I'm not one of those people and yet here I am, putting together a post, with a number of photos, about making jam. Or maybe it's jelly. That I can't decide whether what we've made is jelly or jam is likely one of the many reasons I'm not one of those people making a living by my blog posts. Tonight I'm more than willing to accept that because what I have are seven jars of grape jelly/jam that was made with grapes grown in our very own backyard. This pleases me to an absurd extent--an extent that is particularly absurd since I'm not really a huge fan of grape jelly. But here's the story.

This year, for the first year, we have an inordinate number of grapes (Concord, I believe) that have come (oh, how I love that moment when words suddenly make epiphanic sense) to fruition. In previous years either Ratticus has eaten much of the harvest while it was still green or the vines just didn't feel particularly ambitious; I don't know. But this, our fifth full summer in the house, the grapes have been so prolific that it has been impossible to ignore them. And so, despite not being such a fan of grape jelly, I insisted that we should make jelly. Or jam. We used this Concord Grape Jam recipe so I guess it's jam though it seems to me that if you cook it twice and strain it midway through it should be jelly. Whatever. Make with the photos.

 See? This is what we saw when we looked up into the grape arbor. Lovely, isn't it? But also impossible to ignore, especially since all these lovely grapes eventually either a) become food for Ratticus, b) fall to the patio below making a mess, or, most likely, c) both. So I picked what turned out to be more than five pounds (scarcely making a dent in the supplies) and brought them in to be washed, de-vined, and skinned. Skinning Concord grapes, I'm happy to report, turns out to be an incredibly quick and easy business. You squeeze the grape and the innards just squirt out.
Here you see the washing and de-vining stage:

And below are the basic ingredients: grape innards, lemon juice, sugar, and grape skins, some of which had, when this photo was taken, been "pureed" in the handy black&decker chopper which fills the role of "food processor" in our kitchen.   

Next up, all the ingredients get combined in a pot and cooked pretty much until it's all deliquesed. This was one of the selling points of this recipe over the other one found by googling "Concord grape jam recipes"; it didn't require cooking the grape skins separately from the guts. It also had a better grape to sugar ratio (and used a lot more grapes: 5 pounds vs. 8 cups). After cooking, we put the whole mess through the newly purchased food mill. If we'd spent this $34.95 plus tax before we made the blackberry jam, we'd have a lot more blackberry jam now. I suddenly adore the inventor of the food mill.

 After putting the contents of Pot A through the food mill and thus into Pot B, you put Pot B onto the stove and cook the contents until they pass the "cold plate test" which happened a lot more quickly than we expected. For the cold plate test you drop a teaspoon of jam mixture onto a plate you've had in the freezer and then let it sit in the freezer for a minute. If the "mound" of jam then slides as a single unit when you tilt the plate then the jam is sufficiently jelled and you can move onto ladling the stuff into properly prepared jars. This is the least ambiguous test I've ever encountered in the cooking world. I heart it, I do. Of course, I didn't take a photo until after we'd done a taste test or two. Also, below right, the jam ready to be ladled into prepared jars:

Below, the seven half-pint jars once they'd been filled, lidded, processed in a hot bath, and labeled. And, hell, stacked into a pyramid.

 But in Mme. Gradka's kitchen, no job is truly finished until the staff has cocktails:

Monday, September 1, 2014

Alex, We're tentatively calling this a female cinnamon teal. She was at the Basket Slough near Salem, Oregon. Would you agree with that identification?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Stressful few weeks so an update on reading

It has been a somewhat stressful few weeks, the details of which I (mostly) spare the Imaginary Reader. "Mostly," I say, because the two books I've read in the last few weeks were both pretty crappy and of them I shall write.

 First up, the impulse buy of A Fistful of Collars which is really not a book I would buy in normal circumstances. But a friend wanted to go to the author's reading and I am, it has been demonstrated on too many occasions, incapable of not buying an author's book if I attend their reading. I have bought second copies of books I already own as a result of attending a reading. I have bought books I knew were awful just because I've been at the reading. At least in this case I opted to skip the newest hardback and bought a less-expensive trade paper title from midway through the series. The premise of this very successful series of mysteries is that the narrator is the detective's dog, Chet, who considers himself part of the "Small Detective Agency" team. Let's just say the dog isn't a very good writer and he makes the same stupid jokes about as often as you might expect a dog to do the same stupid thing.

 While I was at Third Place Books for the Chet reading I naturally looked around the stacks and bought some other titles as well. One was an older Julian Barnes (copyright 1982). I've liked other Julian Barnes books I've read; some I've really loved. So I was unprepared for just how unpleasant I would find the experience of reading Before She Met Me. The premise of this book is that a nice mild-mannered academic finds out that his (second) wife acted in B-movies before he met her and he becomes obsessed with the men with whom, in the films, she slept and also the actors, from the films, with whom she may have had sex. The nice guy turns into a truly repulsive sort while his nice wife assumes that it's just a rocky period through which all marriages must pass and so she puts up with his increasingly disturbed behavior. I don't know what point Mr. Barnes thought he was making in this book but it was mostly just an icky read I was glad to finish. The NY Times review to which I've linked suggests that it's "darkly comic."

 So now I have started A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, also purchased at Third Place, this time with a "money-back" recommendation from a usually reliable friend, and I am hoping, desperately, that the third title will be the charm. Otherwise, it's straight back to the safe world of either Mr. Trollope or Miss Thirkell's Barset(shire) from which I shall just never emerge.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


I asked Scott to help me with the layout on this page but he is *not* responsible for the mess that has resulted. I'd like a nice background image and that led to trying to adjust the various element boxes and, yeesh, the results are pretty horrendous. But I'm tired to death of fussing with it so I'm leaving it as it is for now.

It does, however, occur to me that I could likely add a widget column, similar to the "books" list (a work in progress) and use it to keep track of birds. Which likely is no more useful than keeping track of them in the lab book as I am currently.

For posterity, however, I'll update on jam. We got to the Farmers Market too late to buy raspberries today so, instead, we picked some blackberries on the way home. Popular opinion seems to be that blackberry jam is too seedy so, after cooking them for 15 minutes, we strained the berries. This left us with a fair bit of juice and a lot of sadly discarded pulp and seed. We need to get a proper sieve, possibly. But the pot of juice seemed to put us into the business of making jelly more than jam which in turn made deciding whether the stuff to which we added sugar and lemon and put back on the stove was "done" even more of a mystery than usual. We decided it seemed right and started ladling the results into jars but then I noticed that the consistency seemed uneven so we dumped the contents of the jars back into the pot to cook a little longer. This led  to a lot of shrinkage, what with some jelly/jam/whatever being left behind at each stage. We ended up with less than three half-pint jars of jam at the end of a somewhat hot and sticky afternoon. On the bright side, what blackberry spread there is is seed-free. We've not yet decided if we're making more blackberry jam next time out or just getting to the market earlier. Happily, there were cocktails.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Just another day chez Aurora (with Gradka)

I'm still not sure what I'm doing with this space but, for now, I toss a photo on here to document what I'm doing rather than deal with the question.