Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wassail, Wassail, All Over the Town

This image comes from the Legendary Dartmoor website.
           It's not too late to go a-wassailing, you know. Through Twelfth Night, you can go 'round the neighbors, caroling and wishing them love, joy, and a happy New Year. If you expect them to ply you with wassail, though, probably best to warn them ahead of time, wassail not being commonly made in many places these days.

          In an attempt to bring back the oh-so-festive tradition of standing out in the cold singing for grog, I am herewith publishing my wassail recipe (sometimes referred to as "Lamb's Wool"). It is an authentic 17th-century recipe that I think is excellent tasty. K thinks it tastes like 17th-century sweatsocks. Try it and see what you think:

          "To make Lamb's Wool. To every quart of good ale put a pint of white wine, and heat them well together. Then put in cinnamon and nutmeg grated and sugar [1/4 cup sugar per bottle of wine—which I have to warn you is more than a pint, so make your adjustments accordingly], with roasted crab apples and if you will some toasts to float thereon, and serve it forth in a bowl very hot."

          I recommend using a fruity but not sweet wine, nothing too expensive. I can't give you much help on the amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg because it's been a long time since I've made it (see "sweatsocks," above), and I didn't note amounts on the recipe. The chances that you will have crab apples of the kind that would have been used at the time are vanishingly small, but I've had good results with baking Gala apples until soft and then putting a half or quarter in a mug and pouring the Wassail over. Can't help you with the toasts, as I've never gone for the old custom of soaking dry bread in whatever was to hand to make it more palatable.

          If my wassail recipe makes your wassailers pelt your house with eggs, you could try serving them mulled wine next year, which has K's stamp of approval, and is also a nicely festive holiday tipple:

          Make a syrup by boiling for 5 minutes 2 1/2 cups sugar, 1 1/4 cups water, 4 dozen whole cloves, 6 sticks cinnamon, 3 crushed nutmegs, the peel of 3 lemons, and the peel of 2 oranges. Strain the syrup and add to it 4 cups hot lemon or lime juice. Heat well, but don't boil, and add 4 bottles red wine. Serve hot.
          Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Scary Santas

         While  looking for mistletoe pictures for the last post, I ran across some photos I took of Santa decorations the first year we lived in France.

          They were frankly a bit startling for an American raised on jolly images of Santa:

"His eyes—how they twinkled!
His dimples—how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.

          The Santas I saw in France were emphatically not jolly. Even the grave Santa of my father's youth, back in the misty beginnings of time, before jolly had been invented, looks positively ebullient next to the Santas the city fathers of Tours had chosen to decorate their public spaces with.

A little solemn, perhaps, but still festive.
          The Santas I saw in Tours were…sinister. Faceless, gaunt creatures they were, clambering up the sides of buildings like burglars, peering disturbingly through people's windows, inching across electrical lines like a SWAT team Christmas party run amok.

That's not Santa; it's a cat burglar!
Peeping Santa? Euuuuww!
The photo is a bit busy, so I highlighted the disturbing vision of Santa
creeping across an electrical line, apparently intent on mayhem. (Detail below.)
Detail from the photo above. He doesn't even have a face!
Dementor Santa? I suspect so.
          Even the Santa that really is supposed to be jolly, mounted above a mall, looks rather sinister:

This is a guy who eschews the lump of coal and simply EATS naughty children.
          There are many things I miss about France, but at this time of year, I am oh so very grateful to be back in the land of the jolly Santas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


This is what mistletoe actually looks like. Accept no substitutes.

           So, mistletoe. Generator of thousands of holiday groaners about undesirable suitors chasing their reluctant would-be loves with a sprig of same, for as we all know, anyone standing under the mistletoe must be kissed. This stems from its association with fertility and its use as an aphrodisiac. You might want to think twice before standing under it. Or not.

          Mistletoe does have other uses, though. The mistletoe plant that parasitizes oaks is considered a powerful remedy against all evil. You must gather it at the new moon without the use of iron, and never allow it to touch the ground. My Perpetual Almanack of Folklore notes that mistletoe growing in apple and hawthorn trees is also especially worth having. I suppose the same restrictions on gathering apply as for oak-mistletoe.

          The Almanack also instructs that mistletoe should on no account be brought into the house until Christmas Eve.

          The Almanack is silent on this matter, but I recommend avoiding the variety of mistletoe most commonly seen here in the U.S.: the smashed blue-green sprig with plastic berries in the plastic packet. If you're looking for the real power of mistletoe, you'll not find it done up in plastic. It's not even the right color: real mistletoe is yellow-green.
          When we lived in France, I used to buy it at the market in a ball about the size of the one pictured above. It was very pretty decked out with ribbons and suspended above the dinner table.

          One of my favorite sights all winter long in France was bare trees sporting clumps of mistletoe, like the ones pictured below:

It adds a certain je ne sais quoi, don't you think?

          It occurs to me that we have oaks in our yard. I wonder if I can find some mistletoe seeds and start my own Christmas supply.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Best Car in the Parking Lot

          The other day—a grim and grey one, I ran my usual colorless errands—grocery store, post office, bank—trying not to dwell too much on the entire lack of color the day was shaping up to. Until, that is, I returned to my car, errands done, and noticed I was parked right next to The Most Colorful Car in Kansas City.

This is what caught my eye first. This is a hood ornament to envy.
The hood is no slouch either.
You can just barely see the deer head roof ornament in the upper right.
(Click to make the photo bigger.)

I'm smitten.

I'd follow this car anywhere.

"Sweet" indeed!

          To make my day even more happily full of random color and customization, I noticed that the car parked next to it had had some body work done, à la Frankenstein, with zip ties.

I think it adds a devil-may-care insouciance to the bumper.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Murmuration of Starlings

This photo was shot by Owen Humphreys, and appears in The Guardian.
Click here for link to full gallery
           That's what it's called. Murmur is certainly not the first word that pops into my head upon the mention of starlings, but watching them in flight, you begin to understand where the name comes from. I'm sure you've seen it too, in winter, late in the day, when hundreds and hundreds of birds fill the sky and…shimmer, undulating, swooping in formation, doubling back and weaving through their compatriots. It is a gorgeous display of airmanship.

          Here's a lovely video shot in an English wetland where waves of starlings routinely fill the winter skies at dusk:

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bond. James Bond.


          K and I felt the need for a bit of distraction the other evening. And we actually went to a movie. In a theatre. We haven't gone to a movie, with the exception of our yearly matinee sometime in the week between Christmas and New Year's, since the 90s. (When you travel as much as K does, out is the last place you want to go when you get home).
          We felt giddy and daring and not in the mood for anything Serious or Artistic. Lucky for us, the new James Bond movie was playing at our local cineplex. Now I have enjoyed James Bond (excepting the roger Moore years) since forever. I like fast cars and exotic locales and exciting chases and complicated spy gear and nattily dressed men.
          A not insignificant bonus during the Sean Connery years was that Sean Connery resembles K (K is, of course, better-looking). And yes, I like the Bond girls, too. I have so few events in my life that require a backless cocktail dress and a Beretta strapped to my thigh that I enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching a woman whose life is filled to the brim with them.
          The Bond girls this time were of course lovely, and he camera loved them all. But the one it loved the most, as evidenced by the number of tight close ups on her gorgeous, been-there-done-that-don't-need-the-t-shirt-to-prove-it face, was Judi Dench, as M. 
          For Skyfall was, in complete contravention of all the Laws of Bond, a meditation on growing older. An exploration of what it's like when the spirit is fatigued (because even James Bond must sometimes think, "Oh for god's sake—neither shaken nor stirred; just give me a club soda. I have a hangover.") and the flesh is no longer quite up to the pursuit through a crowded tube station.
          Yes, the camera loved the exotic exteriors (Turkey, Macau, London [looking so gorgeous even in the rain that it made me heartsick for Europe], Scotland) and the exotic interiors (I want M's flat and Bond's hotel budget) and the pretty girls in spectacular frocks, but what it loved most was the way life maps itself on our faces.
          "Pay attention," it said as it lingered on Dench's face, lined like an antique map of the world, or held Bond's exhausted, world-weary gaze, "what we do writes its story on our faces."

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Art in Life

Sake offerings.
©Nancy E. Banks

          Apropos of nothing at all, and ignoring the season, I give you a couple of photos taken several years ago at the Shinto shrine of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Japan.
          Why? You know the answer for the sake barrels—because I like type. Don't care if it's Japanese type and I can't read it. It's good stuff. Also, I like design, and I was delighted by the design made by the repeating sake barrels, as well as by the designs on the individual barrels.
          This, kiddies, is why you go to Japan. Everyday things are treated like art. It's my kind of place.

Ema boards. Worshippers write prayers or wishes on them and then leave them at the shrine.
©Nancy E. Banks
          The ema boards, also photographed at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, I like because of the beautifully-drawn illustrations on them, and also because, when you compose the photo well and the gods are smiling on your effort, you get a very pleasing design.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Not Quite Quail

©Nancy E. Banks

          I'm all out of words today, so I'm giving you a drawing instead. And if the old saw about 1 picture = 1,000 words holds true, everyone who reads this post will come away their own personalized essay about a bird who is obviously not a California nor a Gambel's quail, but aspires to be one.
          Of all the quail species, the California and Gambel's are my favorite, completely because of the little bobble on their heads. They are particularly charming when you run across them in a family group, Mama leading four or five half-grown chicks as they scurry into cover, all of their bobbles bobbling along in time. Only the truly hard of heart could help being enchanted.
          I have exactly one happy memory of my sophomore year of college, which was excelled in misery only by my freshman year. But my sophomore year, a family of quail lived in the shrubbery next to my apartment, and I used to watch them from the kitchen window as I typed up essays for my English classes.
          They kept me sane and got me through the year, bless their little bobbles.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Team Bella Gets A Life? I Thought Not


          Today's post is not written by me—although I share the sentiments expressed by the author, my lovely and talented niece, Madison Thomas. Because I, too, have slogged through all four Twilight novels, for my sins.
          The first novel is a fun beach read, especially if you've had a touch too much sun and your critical thinking is addled. The second book contains the four best chapters Stephenie Meyer is ever likely to write—and I mean it sincerely when I say they're brilliant. By the third book, you have really started to notice the fact that Meyer is not a great prose stylist—although, in her defense, I've read much worse. The fourth book—oh, dear—the fourth book is a horrible mishmash of bourgeois wish-fulfillment ripped straight from Brides magazine (honeymoon on a romantic and deserted tropical island, anyone?), disturbing pregnancy fantasies (because every woman should carry a monster baby who will kill her to term), and sham battles in which nothing of value is lost or won. Plus there's the really icky pedophilia subplot with Jacob and (worst name in the entire history of naming characters) baby Renesmee. Eeeeuuuuwwww.
          Here's Maddie's take on the misbegotten Twilight series:

Bella’s Bad Influence

If you haven’t seen it, you’ve heard about it. It happens when the moon is high in the sky glowing like a giant ghostly lantern, and the air is so absurdly cold that you curse yourself for only bringing a light coat. It is November, after all.  And, of course, you are part of it: this giant line of people snaking all the way around the back of the movie theater. You look at the people around you and realize that these are no ordinary people; these are Twilight fans.
You can pick out the overly excited soccer moms, that pregnant lady who makes everyone feel awkward, the little girls who are WAY too young for this, the married women who didn’t bring their husbands, the teenage girls debating which actor is hotter, and lastly, the boyfriend, who looks like a sad, old basset hound on a short leash. Everyone’s outfit includes a black shirt proclaiming which male lead they most support, ergo, “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob.”
Whatever happened to “Team Bella Goes To College” or “Team Bella Stops World Hunger” or even “Team Bella Strives For Greater Things In Life”? By inventing Bella Swan, I’m pretty sure Stephanie Meyer knocked feminism back fifty years with a few strokes of her keyboard.

Bella is described as a pale, clumsy, brunette seventeen year-old girl, which sounds pretty typical and relatable, right? Well, in the beginning of the series she is, maybe a little whiny, but still a character with the potential to overcome her inescapable habit of tripping on flat surfaces.  That is, until she meets Edward. 
I think we need to take a minute to appreciate Bella’s horrible taste in men, or perhaps have a moment of silence for her inability to be an independent woman! Let’s be realistic, this guy is pale, he drinks animal blood, he sparkles, he’s undead and he’s over one hundred years old. What woman would ever find any of that attractive? In fact, why does she need a creepy boyfriend at all? Bella is perfectly capable of having a fulfilling life without an elderly stalker promising her eternal existence.
I’m pretty sure there should be some law against that kind of age difference.  If she’s seventeen and he’s over one hundred, is that statutory rape? I guess we are not supposed to think about that because Edward appears to be Bella’s age. Still, Edward is the most unpleasant person in the world. Even with his scary, controlling attitude, he has no ambition. Edward has never pondered what he could do with all the free time that he has.  He could cure cancer or start the world’s most profitable no-kill animal shelter. Instead, he watches Bella sleep and goes to high school because apparently those things are REALLY interesting. If Bella wants a boyfriend this badly, couldn’t she at least find one who makes great waffles, knows something about feminism, and encourages her to vote and to go to college?
Instead, Bella has chosen to fall in love with a guy who is obsessed, possessive, and could rip her throat out if his bloodlust was too great. Even without his rabid desire for blood, he still has problems.  First, he treats Bella as though she is stupid, by constantly telling her what she can and cannot do.  For example, he won’t let her drive EVER, which is incredibly rude and sexist. If she did drive, at least she would drive the speed limit, unlike Edward. She may whine about everything, but that does not give him the right to treat her like she cannot think for herself. Obviously, Bella overlooks the serial killer characteristics that Edward possesses, and the readers do too. The logical ending to the series of Twilight books would have left Bella tossed into the woods to die because she was “in love” with a psychopathic murderer who has a thing for girls lacking in melanin.  
But, when Edward decides to leave Bella in New Moon “for her own safety” she freaks out and instead of putting on her big girl panties, curls up into a ball and cries for four months straight. Then, after cliff diving, she realizes that she can hear Edward’s voice in her head telling her not to do dangerous things. So, instead of going to a counselor and working out her problems, Bella decides that it is a great idea to continue cliff diving so that she can hear Edward’s voice.
Do we really want our daughters, friends, or other women to think it’s okay to act like Bella in any of these situations? What kind of parent or adult would feel that it was appropriate for a young girl to date a man who has all the warning signs of becoming a serial killer? No one needs a possessive, masochistic, creep to govern their life. No one needs to let the disgusting guy they’re dating into their room to “watch them sleep.” Someone is going to end up pregnant or dead. I know what those other people in the Twilight line are thinking: “Well, sure Edward has a dark side, but it’s only a fantasy, and we know that.”
I understand that Twilight is a fantasy-romance. However, how about a fantasy-romance with stronger female characters? Perhaps someone like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, who was willing to give up her life for her sister and fight against a government that exploited and tormented children?  Or a character like Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series, who was “the brightest witch of her age” and instrumental in defeating the darkest wizard of all time. We simply don’t need any more characters like Bella, who only distinguishes herself by the goopy lengths she will go to in order to get and keep a boyfriend.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Speaking in Tongues, Holiday Version

          Every time I swoop in from exotical locales (because where in the world is more exotical than Kansas City?) to join in my extended family's holiday celebrations, I am oh so very grateful that years ago, in Wisconsin, I had the foresight to learn a language.
          I'm referring, of course, to the fact that I can speak Football.
          Even though I speak it with rather a heavy accent, when I am seated next to people with whom I have absolutely nothing in common except some shared genetic matter (most notably the Pie Gene—more on this later), and am searching for a conversation topic—ANY topic—to fill the yawning silence, I can always ask how the Broncos are doing this year. And since I live in a town with a spectacularly losing football team, I can gin a nicely social conversation out of the Broncos' last win plus a meditation on my hometown team along the lines of good-lord-you-have-to-play-a-little-offense-if-you-ever-expect-to-win-a-game, plus a dash of does-this-team-not-understand-the-concept-of-defense. In desperate straits, I can always add sometimes-you-just-need-a-decent-passing-game.
          If carefully executed, a little Football spoken early in the gathering can get me through an entire holiday celebration with the aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and first, second, and third cousins without my politics or lack of religious affiliation causing offense or scandal. Lordy do I love being able to speak Football.

I speak football with a Wisconsin accent.

          On the rare occasion that a relative does not speak Football (it happens, even in the best of families), I do have a fallback position, for I also speak Pie.
          There is a Pie gene in my family, first expressed, to the best of my knowledge, in my great grandmother. Those of us in my generation still remember Great Grandma, although only those in my mother's generation have tasted her pies. Still, a question about who has Great Grandma's apple pie recipe can keep a conversation alive that really was never meant to draw breath in the first place. And a simple question about shortening preference for pie crust can draw out an otherwise dour relative, turning a tense silence into a nice little conversation. Or possibly, if the wind is from the east and the Broncos are having a losing streak and everyone is a bit on edge, an internecine war, with the Crisco faction insulting the lard faction who is belittling the butter faction who is patronizing the Crisco faction.
          Sometimes you must tread carefully with family members when discussing the shortening issue.

I will not tell you what shortening I used in this crust,
for shortening is a matter that can divide families,
but I will tell you that Dad made the pie plate.

          Why do I care so much about finding conversational common ground with my relatives at the holiday gatherings I show up for every few years?
          I don't know. We share the Pie Gene, I guess. We remember Great Grandma. We have endured Grandma's odd "bonus" gifts. We loved Grandpa and we still miss him. We have gone swimming together. We have barbecued together and run around with sparklers. We remember our cousins' Great Dogs and Cats of Yore. We've mustered out for the weddings and the funerals and the dog shows.* Tribal affiliations have been built on less.

*A big thank you, by the way, to my family for that. That was more than even the shared Pie Gene requires, and I appreciate it greatly.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012


          It's customary at this season to mention things we are thankful for. Here's my list:

My daily bread.

The baker of my daily bread, here taking a break from baking
to play with a dog in China.

Three boys (now somewhat older) and their families.

The wearers of the goofy glasses.

A brand-new godmother.

My personal trainers.

My goddess of a hair stylist. She's worth a trip to Kansas City.
As is her husband, who is also an excellent stylist.
Seriously—book an appointment now. You'll thank me.

Pelicans. It's not the same without them.

The City of Light.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Proof Positive that the Gods Love Norway

©Nancy E. Banks

          I took this photo a couple of years ago when we were visiting Balestrand, Norway.
Later that same day, I took this photo on a hike above Balestrand:

A double rainbow!
©Nancy E. Banks

          It's clear the old gods love Norway and like to dress it up in pretty weather.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fall is the Best Time of Year in Kansas City

Gingko leaves and a dog. Because a dog makes everything better.
©Nancy E. Banks

          Our neighbor has a gingko tree. When I took the small dog for her walk yesterday morning, there was a bright carpet of gingko leaves in his yard. It looked like he had gilded his lawn.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Cat Abroad

I can sunbathe in many different languages.

          When we lived in Paris, the guardienne of our apartment building was Tunisian, and a Muslim. I know this because I used to stop into her office sometimes to ask her where to find things in the neighborhood, or to chat with her when I saw her cleaning the lobby. She told me a lot about Tunisia—how beautiful the country was, how kind the people were. She told me charming stories from the Quran. K and I decided to spend our Christmas in Tunisia that year.
          Our timing, however, was spectacularly poor. We talked about a Tunisian Christmas off and on during the summer of 2001, and along about August we decided we would start making travel plans.
          You know what happened in September 2001. Suddenly North Africa didn't look like such a good destination for a holiday.
          But the thing I remember most when I remember our Tunisian guardienne is what she said to me one morning when she saw our cat sunning herself on our terrace. "You know," she said, "the cat was born in the arms of the Prophet."
          Aside from being a stunningly beautiful image of love—the Prophet Mohammed holding a newborn kitten—it is stunning for another reason. Raised as I was in a Christian ethic that has often equated cats with evil, I had simply never imagined a culture existed where the cat was allied with holiness.
          Islam, like all other religions, has a bright side and a dark side. This is the nature, unfortunately, of religion. I can't ignore the dark side any more than I can fail to honor the bright side. And what I always think of, when someone mentions Islam, is the Prophet with a purring cat in his arms, a smile upon his face.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Voting Matters

          I have a special fondness in my heart for Election-Day pollworkers. The first election I voted in, a couple of months after I turned 18, took place in the civic auditorium in my hometown. When I walked up to the table to get my ballot, the mother of one of my schoolmates was the one who double-checked my name in the register and gave me my ballot. Her face lit up when she saw me, and I felt, in that moment, like she was welcoming me to adulthood. It's the feeling I carry with me every election day—that I'm doing something adult and responsible and important, and that Laura Rice's mom would be proud of me.
          However, ever since we've started handing out the "I voted" stickers to those who have cast their ballots, I've been wondering—could it please be a sticker that makes us (or me, at least) feel more like the voting superheroes we are and less like the victims of a hit-and-run clipart bandit?
          Something designed by, you know, artist types—like this:

Superman would wear this without shame.
©Nancy E. Banks
         Rather than this effort designed by someone who I am sure is quite good at math or chemistry or plumbing or any of many other fine, respectable professions, but who has not been smiled upon by the design gods. I say voting Americans deserve a better typeface than Times New Roman!

Holy clipart, Batman!
           Our local paper also saw the need for better "I Voted" stickers, and so they ran a contest, open to anyone under the age of 18, to design a better sticker. The results ran in this morning's paper, and I would be pleased and proud to wear any of them. (Click on this link for the story.)
          These are the newspaper's top three choices:

Jessica Whitmore, 8th grade
Bernard Campbell Middle School. Lee's Summit, MO

Daniel Crossett, 2nd grade
St. James School, Liberty, MO

Shannon Brouk, 11th grade
Park Hill South High School, Riverside, MO

          In addition, here are a few more from the runner-ups that I'd wear in a heartbeat:

Emily McBride, 7th grade
South Valley Middle School, Liberty, MO

Maleah Ahuja, 8th grade
Bernard Campbell Middle School, Lee's Summit, MO

Mikayla Collins, 8th grade,
Lee's Summit, MO

Aislynn Hobbs, 5th grade
Thomas Hart Benton Elementary, Independence, MO

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Voter Fraud in Missouri

          Election Day isn't till next Tuesday, and there is no early voting here in the Show Me state. And yet, this morning while raking leaves I found evidence of pernicious (and impressive) voter fraud:

What I want to know, is how did it mark the ballot?
©Nancy E. Banks

          The leaf that the ineptly-designed* "I Voted" sticker is attached to comes from our Sweet Gum tree, which has apparently procured an absentee ballot, marked it, and submitted it to the proper authority. Because those poll workers don't let you have an "I Voted" sticker without you actually vote. Now, I'll have to double-check the statutes, but I'm fairly certain that flora are disallowed from voting in national elections (possibly they are allowed in local races if expected voter turnout promises to be less than 10 percent, and if there are woodland-related items on the ballot—but I should probably verify that before I go around posting it on my blog.)
          Here's my dilemma: do I report this to my local election authorities? Or do I just assume that the sticker was given in error and the poll worker has already informed our suffragist tree that its ballot will be disallowed?

*More on this later.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Budget Cuts, Halloween Version

          Some of you will have seen this cartoon before. My apologies. It's been a bit…fraught chez BanksWrites this week, and as my posting deadline looms, my mind is not so much blank as disinfected entirely of ideas.
          So, in honor of the season, here is a groaningly awful pun, recycled for your viewing pleasure.

Budget cuts forced the cemetery to reduce
its groundskeeping team to a skeleton crew.
©Nancy E. Banks