Monday, March 30, 2015

A lengthy postcard

I'm thinking I'll start making my own postcards. Should this one be "Wish you were here" or "Come back soon!"?

Sitting in the backyard with Gradka, with the tulips, grape hyacinth, speedwell, Lenten roses, narcissus, and those weird little bell flowers that spread like mad all in bloom, along with the cherry and plum trees in flower, it’s hard to imagine why I ever want to be anywhere else. It’s pretty darned blissful back here with various songbirds doing their songbird business. And yet, only yesterday, I was wishing we had another day in Newport since, as is so often the case on trips, the last morning dawned sunnier and warmer than any previous day.

 Because, you see, Scott and I spent the last few days in Newport, Oregon, where I’m happy to say we found the million common murres we had hoped to see again, along with a mess of other fascinating birds. And Poseidon was welcoming and playful, only pretending to try to knock us into the surf while the selkies and sea lions were just as inviting (selkies) and loud (sea lions) as ever. In short, it was an excellent mini-break.

A small sampling of the murres that were gathered around Yaquina Head on Friday. Come Sunday, you had to look long and hard to spot a few stragglers in the water.
 The timing, in some ways, could have been better as it seems that it was spring break for Oregon public school students so there were a lot of families about, making it not quite the quiet off-season visit that we had expected. But the murres were on the rocks and in the waters off Yaquina Head on Friday but not to be seen at all on Sunday so, had we delayed, we likely would have been disappointed. I just didn’t count on getting into the pool at the hotel and any thoughts we may have entertained about going to the aquarium were quickly dismissed. 
Any mention of Mrs Parker naturally leads to cocktails.

 Families with kids aren’t that interested in exploring the mudflats on blustery afternoons nor do they really take an interest in the Basket Slough so it was, really, all aces, “all aces” seeming to be the bizarre bit of slang I’ve picked up from god knows where. I don’t think that Dorothy Parker uses it in any of her reviews and that’s all I’ve read recently. A mystery.

Pelagic cormorants building a nest under the Newport Bridge
A nonbreeding (I think) common loon.
It's always educational to travel with Scott. On this trip I learned that he's pretty bright when it comes to figuring out where to cross unexpected bodies of water, after we ended up on the wrong side of an unexpectedly eager Beaver Creek at Ona Beach, as well as some tricky estuary business on the mud flats by the Hatfield Marine Science Center. We also learned that I automatically start walking like a long-legged shorebird (the Greater White Legs was my name, briefly) while Scott likes to maintain contact with the ground, even when it's under water.

I have, I’ve realized, written too many TripAdvisor reviews in the last twenty-four hours to be able to write anything sensible here so I’m going to toss up a few photos and then see about settling in with a book, perhaps. (A Lulu-printing of “Antosha in Prague” is due here any day which makes it hard to commit to starting anything new but I definitely get twitchy if I’m not reading something. First world problems yet again.) Odds are I'll milk this trip (and gosh, more photos) for a few more posts anyway.

Two photos for Alex:
View from the hotel balcony
See also, making my own postcards. This is the Yaquina Head Lighthouse from above.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Life is pain, Princess . . . rambling, spoilery notes on "The Buried Giant"

I finished The Buried Giant last night and then I read the rather dismissive review in The New Yorker by James Wood (see the link in the Books Read column to the left). And maybe it’s that I was fairly fresh off of Mort(e) or maybe it was something else, but I didn’t so much care for the review (which complains that the dialogue is reminiscent of something out of Monty Python) which leads me to try to put into words why I liked this book.

 The obvious, Mort(e)-reactionary explanation is that Mr Ishiguro can actually work a sentence, a paragraph, a metaphor. He understands how to build sympathetic characters and, regardless of how outlandish or foolish his premise is (a dragon’s breath is clouding the memories of all the inhabitants of post-Authurian Britain), he can still write for adults about relatively important themes.

 One obvious theme, which perhaps is shared by Mort(e), is that War is Bad. That dividing the world into Us and Them and then making sure that whatever They do, We do back to them, much worse, and we must never, ever forget the injuries done on a national level is bad. I don’t think The Buried Giant is too subtle on that point and I don’t think that I’ve misrepresented anything about the book in this brief little paragraph. It’s a concept I tend to think is correct though I find it hard to believe that it’s one that most of my neighbors, in the comfort of their middle-class, liberal Seattle lives, would seriously think was wrong. I don’t know how I’d feel about a well-written book that used up 317 somewhat heavily leaded pages to deliver that message.

 But there’s another, more Ishiguro level to this book which I find harder to summarize and that the long quote I’ll share here, that comes from the final chapter, fails to represent properly as well. It’s the real reason to read the book, to overlook the absurdity of the Sir Gawain language, the point that I think James Wood, with his very impressive credentials, seems to miss. It’s the quiet struggle of the daily business of living that, I think, is perhaps Mr Ishiguro’s specialty. Maybe Mr Wood has never had a long-term relationship go south and has never spent the wee sma hours chewing over just where it went wrong and what he should have done differently. We all read the book that says something we already think, I sometimes believe, and so, for me, The Buried Giant isn’t about Sir Gawain prancing about on his magnificent horse, doing battle with a giant rabbit dragon, nor is it about the evil of multigenerational terrorism and peoples driven to hatred by long exposure to atrocities. It’s about an old couple who have seemingly succeeded in what so many of us find impossible to pull off, and who possibly are deluded in their own views of their feelings for each other . . . or whose feelings are, at the end of the day, not going to be enough. (Honestly, I don’t know what the final “message” of the book might be on this level; I just know that it speaks to me somehow.)

If she convicts herself for the first part of it, there’s plenty lay at my door for the next. For it’s true there was a small moment she was unfaithful to me. It may be, boatman, I did something to drive her into the arms of another. Or was it what I failed to say or do? It’s all distant now, like a bird flown by and become a speck in the sky. But our son was witness to its bitterness, and at an age too old to be fooled with soft words, yet too young to know the many strange ways of our hearts. He left vowing never to return, and was still away from us when she and I were happily reunited.”

“This part your wife told me. And how soon after came news of your good son taken by the plague that swept the country . . . But why blame yourself for it? ”

“I forbade her to go to his grave, boatman. A cruel thing. She wished us to go together to where he rested, but I wouldn’t have it. . . . A cruel thing I did sir, and a darker betrayal than the small infidelity cuckolded me a month or two.”

 “What did you hope to gain, sir, preventing not just your wife but even yourself grieving at your son’s resting place?”

“Gain? There was nothing to gain, boatman. It was just foolishness and pride. And whatever else lurks in the depths of a man’s heart. Perhaps it was a craving to punish, sir. I spoke and acted forgiveness, yet kept locked through long years some small chamber in my heart for vengeance. A petty and black thing I did her, and my son also.”
. . .

 “And I think it’s no single thing changed my heart, but it was gradually won back by the years shared between us. That may be all it was, boatman. A wound that healed slowly, but heal it did. For there was morning not long ago, the dawn brought with it the first signs of this spring, and I watched my wife still asleep though the sun already lit our chamber. And I knew the last of the darkness had left us.”

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Day for Working on the House. Just Not *Me* Working on *My* House

It could be that seeing hundreds of surf scoters on Elliott Bay should be the most exciting part of my day but, well, there was some pretty stiff bird-related competition on what seemed like it was going to be a pretty dull day. Scott and I ended up not doing a lot of shopping downtown but instead having a quite lovely walk through the SAM sculpture park and then on through Myrtle Edwards. En route,  after visiting the Crumpet Shop (for tea),  a couple of kitchen shops, and Lamplight Books. we made our way out of Pike Place Market, which was packed with long lines out the door pretty much everywhere, including Beecher's Cheese, the original Starbucks, and Piroshky Piroshky. As, in search of food, we abandoned our original route, I told Scott some of the story of The Buried Giant since it features a not-young couple on a supposedly straightforward journey who keep being diverted en route and, well, I couldn't help noticing some similarities. They, however, are always going on some not entirely happy adventure whereas we were just looking at books and buying pastries and the like.

Eventually we reached the Sculpture Park where we admired the giant eraser and considered the newish giant head which seems to be one of several such items that artist Jauma Plensa has planted around the world. It's seems a nice enough bit of work but it's unlikely to displace the giant eraser in my affections any time soon. The thing about the Olympic Sculpture Park, aside from my inability to remember its proper name, is that it sits right on Elliott Bay and it's difficult to be properly gobsmacked by any bit of manmade art when there's all that gorgeous bit of Sound and sky right there. The park is lovely but it was when we hit the beach and I was able to wade for a few minutes that I was truly happy.

 It was a little while after the wading that I complained about the lack of seabirds thus causing a couple of red-necked grebes (because, having seen them for the first time a few days ago, it seems I'm now destined to see them frequently) to catch my eye, thus distracting me from the eighteen Barrow's goldeneyes. A bit later we saws a mass of scaups and Canada geese hanging out by the grain elevators and then the surf scoters arrived. By the hundreds. It was quite fabulous though, I'm told, not that unusual. We were pleased. I was happy I'd brought my binoculars and only minimally sorry to not have my camera.

Tail of bushtit entering the nest
 But still, I insist the finest thing about today was watching the pair of bushtits work on their new nest a few feet from the kitchen window. Personally, I might feel better if they'd opted to build the nest a little closer to the house and thus a little more sheltered from the elements but I trust they know what they're doing. I quite like that I can sit at the kitchen table and watch the bottom of the nest poke this way and that as one of the couple arranges lichens and moss on the inside while the other goes to fetch more materials. What I have discovered is that one sees a lot of bushtit going into the nest but you have to be pretty quick to see them exiting.

I see you!
Mostly I just snapped the shutter when a bird came near the nest and hoped for the best. I think I knew a bird was in the nest when I took the photo to the left, but it was only when I looked at the images this evening that I realize Mr Bushtit was looking back at me from the entrance (right).

Sunday, March 15, 2015

It was a dark and stormy Ides of March

A brief post on a very rainy day in Seattle. As I said a few hours ago, after coming in, shivering and wet, from putting out some fresh bird seed, these are ideal hypothermia conditions. It doesn't seem like it's all that cold but one gets wet through and through pretty much immediately, and there's a pretty strong wind. Being out without a coat for just a minute or two I became thoroughly chilled. Happily I was just steps from shelter that contained a functional furnace. It's a good day to realize that an extra contribution or two to a homeless shelter wouldn't come amiss.

 None of which has anything to do with what this brief post is supposed to be addressing. No, I've overcome my trepidation about newly published novels and I'm happy to say that, at least through page 65, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant is all that one could ask. I try to avoid  reviews of books before I've read them but I noticed this line in the NPR link I've just inserted: "No novelist around today beats Ishiguro when it comes to writing about loss" and it's certainly an observation that I'm not about to argue with. I'm not a good  enough reader to understand how Ishiguro manages to permeate his text from essentially the first page with a sense of isolation and loss but, by gum, it's a trick he has mastered. There's a feeling of slow, minor-key chamber music to his books that, personally, I find quite irresistible. This one seems like a fairy tale of Alzheimer's though I'm pretty sure there's a lot more to it.

 To cleanse my palate after Mort(e)--and to see how it should be done--I reread Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog over the last few days. It's amazing to me how well Mr Bulgakov handled some of the same material that Mr Repino so mangled. In a fraction of the pages Bulgakov successfully offers poltical and social commentary, with humor and deftness, via the animal-becomes-human trope. God bless you, Mikhail Bulgakov. This This 2007 Guardian column puts it all much better than I can.

Saturday, March 14, 2015


It was Pi Day so naturally I made pie. I'm still me, however, so naturally neither pie was exactly and absolutely pie. I made what I'm calling "Mrs Tebbens' Quiche" after the Angela Thirkell character Mrs Tebbens, one of whose defining characteristics is a compulsive need to use up that bit of old cheese in the ice box, not that I'm suggesting that the remainder of goat cheese that we had was a nasty bit of old cheese, mind you, but rather that today's quiche featured the remains of stirfried vegetables and tofu from a few night's ago dinner. The quiche, I say, struck me as quite delicious. I used the recipe I posted a few days ago, substituting the leftover stirfry for the broccoli.

It being such a special Pi Day, however, a single quiche seemed insufficient (and, also, I was hungry) so I opted to make an apple tart/pie/thing with what apple we had in the house. Mrs Tebbens struck again, as I used one whole apple, a couple of half apples, and insufficient dough and improvised streusel to create the second pie for the day.

 This experiment in thrift was also quite fine. As it happens quiche and apple pie have the same oven requirements; ten minutes at 450 followed by half an hour, or a little longer, at 350. It's like the baking gods smiled upon my Pi Day experiments.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Hey, where's the decoder ring?

Today is getting so much better! After telling a coworker, at shortly after 5:00, that I was heading home to my gin bottle, I decided to take the scenic route and biked to Alki. It's a gorgeous day in Seattle, with sunny skies and the temperature in the high 50s. Lovely biking weather and lovely birding weather. I know that birding while biking is probably ill-advised but it's also a fabulous way to improve one's state of mind.

 I  saw what I thought was an exciting, and somewhat unusual, bird but on consulting Sibley, I think it was likely a western grebe and that all of the "western grebes" I've been recording for the last stretch are more likely horned grebes. It could be discouraging to realize just how weak I remain on some birds that I see pretty darned frequently.

 But I got home to find an envelope had arrived in the mail with the words "Project FeederWatch materials enclosed!" in bold letters on the front.

You'd better believe I was pretty excited even though it seems that the Project FeederWatch 28th Season ends on April 3rd. But because it's so late in the season, Cornell is automatically signing me up for next year for free! I'm sure that the decoder ring will come in the kit for renewing participants that is sent out in November. In the meantime I can study up on the other materials provided in today's envelope: a poster of common backyard birds, a bird-watching days calendar, the sample tally sheet, and, most promising of all, the FeederWatch Handbook & Instructions!

 Oh, I mock but I expect to find it at least somewhat instructive. Alas, the "backyard" aspect of the project means that none of it is any use at all with my grebe problem.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What's the smell? Oh, it's Mort(e)

Mort(e) is, possibly, the stupidest book I have ever read and yet when I look for links for it I find that it has been favorably reviewed. "Absorbing," says the Boston Globe and "marvelously droll," coos Slate. I am, frankly, baffled and can only assume that the reviewers judged the book by its cover, as I did when I made it an impulse buy at Elliott Bay Book Company. I liked the cover and I liked what seemed to be the premise, "cats rise up against their human 'masters' and, naturally, win the battle." I failed to realize in time that the cats (and all other animals) suddenly grow to six feet tall, or taller, and develop hands and human speech and advanced reasoning skills (like I don't know that Gradka already possesses those reasoning skills) as a result of a very scientifically minded ant who has lived for thousands of years. In short, the animals become humans. Humans with tails who have been liberated from their oppressors by a bunch of ants. And, gosh, it turns out that love is the most powerful force in the universe.

The charm of Neil Gaiman's Dream of A Thousand Cats is utterly lacking here. There's no love for or understanding of cats (or, I suspect, dogs, rats, raccoons, or bobcats, either) revealed in this book; it seems that Mr. Repino does actually live with a cat and a dog but one would not guess that from much of anything in this book--aside, possibly, from some of the slavish devotion that the prop Sheba has to her master. The plot is ludicrous, not delightfully droll. The mechanics are clunky, not "smart." It's not a take on detective stories, nor does having the animals behave like humans allow for a demonstration of the nature of humanity. It's more a demonstration of a very bad story written by a twelve-year-old boy, possibly. And yet here it is apparently selling well as a $26.95 hardback. I'm sure there will be a film deal soon because, gosh, do those giant ants and cats, dogs, and raccoons with human hands call out for CGI.

 I despair at such times, I really do

Monday, March 9, 2015

Mary E. Theler Wetlands Nature Preserve: Adventures with Zipcar

A few days ago the forecast was for a sunny and warmish weekend and I wanted to get away from the house for a day so Scott arranged for a Zipcar. His requirement was that wherever we go not involve a lot of driving, especially on I-5. A quick google led me to the Mary E. Theler Wetlands Natural Preserve which, I soon realized, was hike #21 in Craig Romano's Day Hiking Olympic Peninsula. Google directions suggested we could catch a ferry out of West Seattle which made it just that much more inviting as I do love that one can catch ferries in West Seattle. Saturday morning dawned and some hours later we walked up the hill to collect the car and also, not so incidentally, cat litter, since the real impetus for getting a car was the need to get cat litter. But an hour or so later we were on our way, sandwiches packed, along with three or four of the ten essentials, in our backpack. At shortly after noon we paid our fare for the 12:20 ferry and claimed our spot in line.

 And that's where it all started going a bit pear-shaped. A nice woman came up to the car to ask if we were aware that one of our tires was flat. Really flat. We weren't. It was. I hurried back to the ticket booth to find out if there was any sort of gas station in Southworth immediately after getting off the ferry. There wasn't and, what's more, we wouldn't be allowed on the ferry with a flat tire. I hurried back to tell Scott the unhappy news, all the while cursing the premature ending to our outing. Scott, however, realized that of course there would be a spare in the car and, Virgo that he is, he worked out how the jack went together and changed the tire in less than twelve minutes. I have rarely been so impressed by anyone doing anything. Sadly, the stress of the whole business prevented me from taking any photos. Trust me when I say it was quite remarkable.

 We were able to board the ferry and, despite "low pressure" warnings, damaged air pumps at gas stations, missing a turn-off or two, and a memorial service being held at the Mary E Theler Community Center, we eventually found ourselves on the trail to the wetlands.

 Which were, I'm sorry to report, a little underwhelming. Oh there were unexpected highlights such as the woman in her rhinestone sunglasses, cigarette, and overly tight clothes who was accompanied by her ill-mannered children; she was just so very much the Natasha character in The Seagull Project's 's production of The Three Sisters. And, less cattily, there was the rather amazing skeleton of a gray whale. Like Cary Grant in North by Northwest, I thought it might be a fake.

tail portion of the grey whale skeleton
The wetlands are, actually, a very scenic little park with remarkable vistas out to Hood Canal (I think) and some fine trees and even a few wild animal footprints. But it was a little lacklustre on the bird front though even as I type those words I realize that maybe I've become a bit spoiled.  There were some fine Canada geese, a handful of mallards, any number of teals and wigeons, as well as some very obliging song sparrows, several calling red-winged blackbirds, a charming towhee, a delightful ruby-crowned kinglet, a great blue heron, a fishing belted kingfisher, and more killdeer than I see most months. The killdeer were likely my favorites; certainly they are the ones who feature in my favorite photos, perhaps because we encountered them as the sun was sinking lower in the sky so the light was particularly nice.
 The birding on the ferry heading over wasn't bad either; I realized later that we'd seen three different flavors of cormorants as we were approaching/leaving Vashon Island. Double-crested, pelagic, and Brandt's cormorants were all mingling nicely, though I managed only the double-crested and pelagic in one shot. 
Double-crested and pelagic cormorants, Alex-view
And the water was so clear that we could the feet of the adorable little grebes (western, horned I'm now thinking) who were paddling about the water nearby. I suspect it says nothing good about the cleanliness of the water, but I like the lines in the water in this photo of the grebes.  
Getting home involved a missed exit, a blocking train, and a "forgotten kittycat" (not ours!) on the ferry but eventually we reached the sanctuary of home and Gradka and the liquor cabinet with the Zipcar safely returned to its spot, little spare wheel still safely attached.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Most despised day of the year (also, quiche)

The day that Daylights Savings Time takes effect is my absolutely, beyond any doubt or question, least favorite day of the year. It offends on so many levels, and perhaps the worst aspect is that we are so complicit. An hour is stolen from us and rather than rise up in arms, or at least in pajamas and bathrobes, we ourselves dutifully change all our clocks before going to bed saying, "Yes, please, take an hour that is mine. Here, take it from the cat clock in the living room, from the kitchen clock, from the fucking alarm clock, from the very wristwatch which feels the pulse of my life's blood." And our cell phones, thermostats, and computers all act as silent accomplices. Myrna does not even tell me that she has reset herself anymore; it just happens. It is, to me, a sign of all that is wrong with the world, that we can't patiently wait for the evenings to stay lighter longer but instead insist upon wrenching the natural order of things so that we might have some sort of immediate gratification without any care for the costs. Time, I tell you, is out of joint and at times I feel that I was born to put it right.

But instead I write a blog post, in part because a friend emailed today to ask if I was alive. The whole online business has made me tired. I've abandoned Facebook more or less entirely (though I will likely revisit it just long enough to share the news of this scintillating post), and I can't really believe that it serves any purpose for me to write here and yet here I am, writing. As it happens I found myself making quiche today, and taking photos, so this will be a recipe post. The recipe is a mishmash of a bit of Joy of Cooking and a bit of Fannie Farmer, influenced by half a dozen recipes consulted online, what we actually had in the kitchen, and Scott's very helpful recollection of how he used to make quiche in his Nebraska days which, thankfully, came down to not worrying so much about all of it.

 The impetus for the quiche was 1) I've declared I'm giving up fleisch, inclusive of fish, for Lent, and 2) Jennie Grant (of City Goats) gave me a couple of balls of frozen chevre a week or so back, with the warning that something had gone slightly amiss in the cheese's creation so that it likely wouldn't be great eaten on its own. "So what do I do with it," I asked in my helpless way, to which she replied, perhaps surprised at my cluelessness, "make quiche?" I shifted the cheese from the freezer early this afternoon (what should have been late this morning had the hour not been stolen), and set out for the farmers market where we bought eggs and leeks, as well as arugula and apples and bread.

 The cheese was not entirely defrosted some hours later so I pried off what I could (about a cup) and set out to find recipes that would use what we had. It was a bit alarming. Many people pre-bake their shells (and nearly all buy their dough--shudder)  and some use as many as a dozen eggs. Though I googled "quiche with chevre" recipes, very few actually used chevre. Those that did were in French and gave measurements by weight, not volume. Some were extremely contemptuous of Americans who use milk rather than cream, "I like a frittata, sure, but if you don't want scrambled eggs, then you must use cream." Eventually, as hinted above, I opted to wing it, using my basic pie crust recipe.

1 c. flour
1 t. salt
1/3 c. cold shortening
1 T. cold butter
2 T. icy water

Combine flour and salt. Using pastry blender, cut in half the shortening and water and then add the balance of each. Sprinkle on water and blend with fork until dough can be gathered into a ball. Roll out and put into deepish 8" pie pan.

(Dither about whether to pre-bake or not. Prick with fork, preheat oven, and then reconsider and reseal fork-pricks. Opt to brush with egg white instead.)

1 small leek, chopped fine
1-2 t. butter
1 c. (more or less) broccoli, chopped smallish
3 eggs (less most of one egg white used to brush crust)
2 c. half and half
1 c. chevre
1/4 t. nutmeg

Saute leek in butter for a minute or two. Beat eggs. Add half & half, nutmeg, salt, and pepper then beat a little more. Add leek and give a stir to combine.

Put broccoli, and cheese into pie shell that has been brushed with egg white.

 Pour egg/cream/leek mixture on top and place in preheated 450 degree oven.

 Bake for 10 minutes, then turn temperature down to 350. Wander around backyard, marveling at how pretty everything is.

Realize that you really ought to rake up the fallen magnolia petals though it will disturb Gradka's rest on her cushions.

 Bake another half hour or so until done. (You'll know it's done when the filling on the perimeter does not wobble when the pan is shaken but the center still shimmies slightly.)

Allow to cool for a bit while making salad, then eat, marveling at how very light and fluffy and delicious it truly is.