Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Bread of Angels

Isn't it gorgeous? It's Gubana, and you should definitely make some.

          Since he's retired, K has taken over the bread-baking. And it has been wonderful.

          Now, I like baking and I'm good at it, but I fail at the consistent and regular production thing. There are many things going on besides bread that must be attended to, and sometimes I forget to make the bread. There are shiny pretty objects to distract me and cause me to forget to make the bread. There is the post-vacuuming collapse that causes me to postpone the bread-making until tomorrow, when I'm strong enough to face it, and then subsequently on the morrow I forget entirely to make the bread.

          But K—K is consistent. We never run out of homemade bread. He is precise. He uses a scale and grams and percentages and for all I know pipettes and petri dishes.

          In addition to the crusty delicious everyday country loaf he makes, he makes an extraordinary special holiday bread. It is the food that angels eat, in addition to that fluffy white cake stuff, and it is far, far better.

          It is loaded with butter and mascarpone cheese and hazelnuts and dried fruit soaked in Marsala. I will give you the recipe because I can see you drooling from here. You can also find the recipe where K found it, on

Chock full of yummy goodness.


(Holiday Fruit Bread)



1 3/4 cups warm (110º to 115ºF) water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
2 tablespoons malt extract or sugar
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
6 to 7 cups King Arthur™ Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt


2 1/2 cups dried mixed fruits (such as apricots, pears, prunes, and/or apples), diced (K uses dried apples, apricots, pears, prunes, and figs.
1/3 cup coarsely chopped hazelnuts (roast hazelnuts before chopping in a 350-degree oven for 15-20 minutes)
1/4 cup raisins
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup sweet marsala wine
1 cup apricot or orange marmalade
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup turbinado (coarse brown) sugar


In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in 3/4 cup of the warm water, stir in the malt extract, and let proof for about 10 minutes, until foamy.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the butter, sugar, eggs, and mascarpone cheese until smooth. Stir the remaining 1 cup water into the yeast mixture, then stir in the mascarpone mixture. Slowly add 5 cups of the flour and the salt, and mix with your hands to form a ball of dough, adding additional flour if necessary, until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about 2 hours.

Generously grease two 2-quart soufflé dishes or round baking dishes. You could also use 10-inch springform pans or oven-safe pottery bowls. In a bowl, combine all the filling ingredients except the marmalade; mix well.

Punch down the dough and divide it in half. On a well-floured surface, roll each piece into a 16-inch circle. Spread 1/2 cup of the marmalade over each circle, leaving 1/2-inch around the outer edge, then sprinkle on half of the fruit mixture. Roll up each piece like a jellyroll, tucking the edges in as you roll. Pinch the seam tightly closed. Turn each bread seam side down, and shape into a spiral. Place the breads in the soufflé or baking dishes, cover, and let them rise for 30 minutes in a warm place.

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Brush the tops of the spirals with the beaten egg, and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the turbinado sugar over each one. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the tops are nicely browned and a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool for 30 minutes.

Run a knife around the edges of each dish and carefully turn the breads out. This bread is best eaten warm; the breads can be reheated in a warm oven.

Note: The breads can be frozen. Let cool completely, then wrap tightly in foil and freeze for up to 3 months. To serve, unwrap and let thaw, then reheat in a warm oven.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Book Thing, Stave the Second

          This post takes up where Saturday's post left off: numbers six through eleven* of the Ten-Books-That-Have-Made-A-Difference-In-Your-Life-Pass-It-On thing.

          6. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. This may be the most perfectly-written book ever. The three things I like most about it are how well Lee understands the enormous power of our insignificant, quotidian acts, her depiction of the many and contradictory faces of love, and her compassionate treatment of people trying to do the best they can with what they have. If this book can't teach you humanity, nothing can.

          7. Art And Fear: Observations On The Perils (And Rewards) Of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The first emotion I approach any new creative project with is abject, stuttering fear. Fear of inadequacy. Fear of failure. Fear of never having another good idea ever again. Many times this book has coaxed me out of the corner where I was crouched, quivering and daunted, and told me, gently and kindly, to just make a mark. Just start somewhere. I owe my creative life to it.

          8. Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon. Another, slightly more user-friendly, take on how to maintain your creative life. Here's this book's big secret: it's not just for creative people. Anyone can profit from Kleon's advice.

          9. The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope. K thinks it's very funny that I am a die-hard Trollope fan (because, apparently, Victorian novelist + name that is a synonym for A Fallen Woman = giggles). You have to like Victorian novels very much to read a lot of Trollope, but when the man was on his game, he was sublime, and this is one of his best. He wrote it as a rebuke to the British financial scandals of the 1870s, saying, "a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable."

I was struck, when I read it during the days of the dotcom bubble, how frighteningly modern and prescient it was.

          10. Secret Knowledge, by David Hockney. Hockney makes a compelling argument that many Old Masters used optical aids (the camera obscura and the camera lucida) to help them capture and render their subjects so realistically. It didn't change the way I feel about these painters, but it changed the way I think about drawing. I just got a camera lucida (it's available from Amazon for $47). Can't wait to try it.

          11. Catcher In The Rye, by J. D. Salinger. This book is the granddaddy of Young Adult fiction as we know it today, and it's still making banned books lists 62 years after it was published. What does it contain that is so awful it should be forbidden? Naughty words. Cynicism. A sex scene that doesn't happen. Drunkenness. Tenderness. Empathy. Wit. Pain. And the promise to generations of angsty adolescent misfits that they are not alone.

          What about you? What are the books that have made a difference in your life?

*I know, I know; I'm only supposed to list ten books. Think of it as a baker's dozen, in decimal.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Book Thing, Stave the First

          I exited my pop-culture-proof cave briefly this morning to discover that there's this thing going around on the facebooks and the social network thingies that I don't actually hate immediately upon discovery. It is the Ten-Books-That-Have-Made-A-Difference-In-Your-Life-Pass-It-On thing.

          For this knowledge I am indebted to my charming neighbor, A, whose floor-to-ceiling, entire-wall, built-in bookcase I covet with a distinctly un-neighborly covetousness. She posted her great list on Facebook.*

          Now, I feel compelled to list my own Difference-Making books, five today and six Wednesday** (because I cannot resist commentary on each one, and that would make this a post that you would tire of reading before you reached book number six).

          So, Ten Books That Have Made A Difference In My Life, Plus One:
          1. Dorrie and the Blue Witch, by Patricia Coombs. This is the first book I remember reading. This is also the first time I understood that art is magic. Holden Caulfield talks about being able to call up his favorite authors on the phone. I actually did this. I interviewed Coombs for a report I did for my Illustration 2 class back in my art student days. She was a gracious woman, and it was a huge thrill to get to talk to the person who made reading and art magical to me.

Maybe The Best Book Ever.

          2. The Second World War, by Winston Churchill. A history of that awful time by one of the men who was both living history and making it. I learned much of what I know about the dark art of diplomacy from these books, and they also gave me a better understanding of, and sympathy for, the anti-communist paranoia of cold warriors.

          3. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, by Eugen Weber. A fascinating account of how improved roads, railroads, universal education, and military service changed France from an uneasy alliance of provinces into a unified country. The accounts of the difficulty and dreariness of peasant life remind me why the mechanization and centralization we sometimes spurn today were A Very Big Deal Indeed to the average citizen of the time.

          4. Beowulf. A moving reminder that, in spite of the glorious mead halls we build and the monsters we slay, we will all grow old and die, and only our stories will remain.

          5. Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Yeah, it's schlocky. But it's a ripping good story, and it taught me about the horrors of the Civil War and the injustices of Reconstruction. It made me recognize the genius of the last paragraph of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and to take it as a personal goal: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

*She met her husband while reading a book! Obviously he is a man of rare discernment.
**We've already established that counting is not one of my reliable skills.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Interminable Knitting Project: Interminable No Longer

          I have three rules about knitting.

          1. I don't knit scarves.
          2. I don't knit lace.
          3. Variegated yarn is Satan.

          And yet, four years ago, I found myself fondling a wondrously soft skein of variegated magenta/acid green lace-weight merino wool singles and thinking, "This is pretty yarn. I should make a scarf with it. I should knit it in a lace pattern."

          To review, I don't like knitted scarves. I don't like knitting lace patterns. And I hate variegated yarns, which, no matter how pretty they look in the skein, invariably look, when knitted, like Something Threw Up.

          But the yarn was so soft. And so pretty in the skein. And so very soft. I ignored my Three Rules and found a lace pattern and cast on half a million stitches. It took me four years to finish the thing. Because I hate knitting lace. And there were a LOT of stitches. All that counting. All that ripping back when it turned out that I'm inept at counting.

It is a very pretty lace pattern. Too bad I didn't chose a plain color,
which would show it off effectively.

          Every time I picked the thing up, I thought, "Why didn't I get a nice one-color yarn? You can't even see the lace pattern because the magenta is fighting so hard with the acid green. And why can't I count? Why do I have to rip back every second row? And why am I knitting a scarf? I don't like knitted scarves." It was a strategic disaster. It was discouraging. Still, I kept banging away at it. I don't like to leave projects unfinished.

          The only thing it was good for was airplane knitting. I made a lot of progress on various flights hither and thither over the years.

          And then, last week, I measured it and realized that if I knit a few more rows, it would be long enough to wear. And, since our house is currently inadequately heated and scarves are hot indoor fashion gear for K and me, I thought that a warm soft merino wool scarf, however ill-conceived and ugly in color, would be just the ticket.

The Interminable Knitting Project in An Unfortunate Colorway, finished at last.

          I am wearing it right now. It is soft and warm and lovely and I don't even care how ugly it is and how poorly the lace pattern shows up. Because it is warm and the house is cold and that is all that matters.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Meet the New Gods. Same as the Old Gods.

The good Saint Nicholas marking his street in Bruges.

          The feast day of St. Nicholas was a couple of days ago—December 6, and I meant to write this post then, but we've been kind of busy trying to keep the house from freezing, because the Saga of the Inadequate Heating System has turned into a comedy of errors* and repair delays. So, space heaters, lots of baking to keep the kitchen warm, and resetting the circuit breakers when the space heaters trip them because the entire front of the house, plus the refrigerator, are on two circuits** instead of spread out onto multiple circuits like any normal house.

Did I mention that the temperatures have been in the single digits? And that the breaker box is outside? And that I really really hate our seller?

Anyway, Saint Nicholas. Not the jolly St. Nick of popular media, but the pious bishop of Myra (in southwestern Turkey). Patron saint of Russia, children, pawnbrokers, unmarried girls, sailors, perfumiers, repentant thieves, barrel-makers, toy-makers, and, depending on the source you consult, just about everything else. Not exactly a jolly old elf, but definitely an inclusive guy. Maybe even welcoming, in that austere, bishopal way.

The thing I like best about Saint Nicholas, aside from the fact that he's the patron saint of pawn-brokers, is that once you get into the folklore about him, you run across this bizarre but not unexpected*** mash-up of Christian and pagan that one of my saintly sources, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Saints, by Alison Jones, claims for him. Dutch settlers in the new world, the Dictionary claims, by what flight of fancy it is unclear, linked him with the Norse god Thor. Thor, who drove a fancy-schmancy chariot pulled by goats, and meted out rewards and punishments. It is not a far leap, when you're crouching at the edge of an uncharted wilderness far away from your home and family in the bleak midwinter and the children are clamoring for a story to go to sleep to, to smosh all that together and get a jolly old elf, his miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, presents for good girls and boys, and lumps of coal for bad children and every blankety-blank member of the current Congress.

I like imagining that Saint Nicholas has access to Thor's hammer if he needs it. You know, to add a little punch to the whole lumps of coal thing.

And I plan on being a very, very good girl this year. Just in case.

*Only completely without the comedy part.
**What kind of electrician would wire a house like that? And why is he not being roasted in hell even as we speak?
***If you remember what a natural-born appropriator of other cultures' deities the Catholic church was and is.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bright Lights

How they do Christmas trees in Copenhagen. It would be even better
if it were so brightly lit you could see it from the moon.

          It was lovely outside last Tuesday. It was warmer outside, in fact, than inside (if you missed why, see here). So warm and toasty outside (as opposed to inside, where multiple sweaters and a nose muff were required) that I violated my rule against putting the Christmas lights up before Thanksgiving especially if the weather is warm and pleasant.*

          When K and I walked outside Tuesday evening to take a look at the lights, K hesitated. "They are really…bright," he said, shielding his eyes from the glow.

          You can read by our lights. From across the street.

          "I know," I said. "Aren't they pretty?"

          "They are…really bright," K said. "Should they be that bright?"

          "You can see them from the moon," I said happily.

          K nodded. "Sweetie," he said gently, "There's no one on the moon to see them. And meanwhile, you have blinded all our neighbors."

          Which is demonstrably not true. Although I do notice that they are all wearing sunglasses at night these days.

*I grew up in Wyoming. I believe it is cheating to put up outdoor Christmas lights in nice weather. How can you really appreciate the glow of the lights when your labors are finished without having suffered frostbite to install them?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dragons I Have Known

          Last year, I wrote a post about Dragons I Have Met in my Travels. Exotic Asian dragons. Sophisticated Euro dragons. I love meeting dragons abroad, and I have always felt a bit bereft that there were no dragons in the New World that I was aware of. Dragons are one of those things that, like a really excellent art museum and a great library and a major sports franchise and at least one complicated political scandal, every city of any note should possess. Nothing says "We are an important population center" quite like a dragon or two.

It pained me that my country is dragon-free. It made me feel a bit defensive about New World culture. And then the other day while K and I were in downtown Denver, we saw a whole host of dragons, of which this little guy is a fair example:

If you want to see him, he is at approximately 1418 Wazee St., Denver, latitude 39.7499,
longitude -105.0017. (Yes, I have a GPS app that I've been dying to show off.)

          I am much relieved to know that K and I moved to a city that is also home to dragons. I feel more cosmopolitan already.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


          In addition to wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving, this Pilgrim crier who makes me laugh with his enthusiasm and red nose is a shout-out to my dad, who had an ancestor on the Mayflower. I think that makes him a Daughter of the American Revolution.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Caveat Emptor

          "How cool," K and I said to each other when we first looked at the mechanicals of the house we ended up buying. "They are using an on-demand water heater for the entire house hot-water heating system. How green. How economical."

          How wrong. Well, maybe it works in California or Florida, but here where the winters consist of actual Cold Weather, the on-demand system for heating the house works only when supplemented by a couple of space heaters per room.

          So, not very green. Not very economical. And not very warm.

          December 2 is the day we are looking forward to now. On December 2 (O blessed day!) we will get your standard boiler hot water heating system. By December 3, we should be completely thawed out.

I thought this Roman fountain made to look like a satyr, maybe, with a drippy nose was
hugely funny when I photographed it. Now, I am feeling the drippy-nosed satyr's pain.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Think You for Your Service

          Okay, here's what I believe is happening:

          We have access to so much information these days. It washes over us even when we aren't paying attention. There are words (and images, but my primary concern in this rant is words) everywhere. So so many words. Words words words words words.
Pretty soon one word seems as good as another, especially since they just float by in the constant rush of words we process every day. Who has time to evaluate whether they're the right words, or the best words, or even the words that make sense? Who cares? Proofreading? Pfft—as extinct and useless as the dodo.

          Me, I love words. I love their nuance. I love their expressiveness. I even love their odd little spellings. I like the shadings of meaning that come with words: glimmer, glisten, twinkle, shine, sparkle—each means something slightly different. Each helps to build a specific image. I adore that. I adore how I can shade meaning with just the right word. I like the words I read to be the right words, not the almost-right ones.

          I know this is a peccadillo on my part—possibly a character flaw. I don't expect anyone else to share my passion (although I do expect to be treated as gently as one would treat anyone else suffering from a harmless obsession). I have learned to accept the fact that, for most people in their relationship with words, the difference between the fire and the fire-fly, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is neglible. Close enough.

          But sometimes you probably do want to get the words right. Like when you're being all patriotic and we-love-our-service-men-and-women. At those times, you probably want to thank them for their service, not think them.

          Because, you know, words actually do matter.

This ad appeared recently in the local paper. I've blurred the business
name because I'm sure they feel terrible about this blunder, and
I don't really feel the need to taunt them for it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

How to Buy a Work of Art, First Grader Style

          I acquired my first painting when I was 6 years old.

          It's entirely my dad's fault. He should have known that if you are an artist, if you hang out with artists, and if you insist on buying their work when you see something you like (well, more accurately, trade, because Dad always had more of his own work than he had ready cash), you will teach your impressionable daughter that it's perfectly acceptable to acquire art by cash or barter.

          Especially when she has ten whole dollars of birthday cash in her pocket.

          We were visiting one of Dad's friends, and, as I said, I had this wad o' cash.

          And Jim, Dad's friend, had this painting. He'd just finished it and hung it in the living room. It was the first thing I saw when we walked in the door. It was spectacular. It called out to me. It said, "Nancy, you must own me. I was made for you." I was, in short, ensorcelled. I'd grown up around art, and I liked a lot of things I saw in the studios and homes of Dad's friends, but this was the first thing I'd ever wanted to own. The first thing that ever spoke right to me and demanded that I take it home with me.

#7 Feldspar Cove, by Jim Terry. I love this painting. I would say I love the painter,
but frankly I'm still a little scared of him.

          So I did what Dad would do. "I really like your painting," I told Jim. He thanked me, gruffly, for he was a gruff kind of guy. "I want to buy it," I said. (I didn't have any good art to trade, like Dad would have, but I thought Jim would probably take money for his work as well as trade.)

          I didn't think this was a particularly funny thing to say, but the adults all cracked up. Finally Jim said, gruffly, "Well, how much will you give me for it?"

          I didn't know much about negotiating, but I knew you never open by offering top dollar, so I said, "Six dollars." The minute the words were out of my mouth, I regretted not offering seven. I was afraid that Jim would be offended by such a low offer, for he was a gruff guy, and gruff guys, I thought, were probably easily offended.

          I was not wrong. The adults all laughed again, and I thought, "Well, you screwed that up, Nancy; you insulted him. And anyway, it's a really great painting; it's probably really expensive. I bet he wants at least $25 for it. Which is way out of my league." So I swallowed my disappointment and ran out in the yard to play with his kids.

          When it was time to go home, Dad walked out to our car holding The Painting, a funny little smile on his face. "Here," he said. "Jim says that if you liked his painting that much, you should have it."

          #7 Feldspar Cove has been with me ever since. I still love it, both for itself, and for its gruff painter. Maybe he heard his painting call my name. Maybe, on that memorable summer day, he was simply made of pure grace, giving a dumb kid who'd just made the most lowball offer in the history of art sales ever her heart's desire and a story to go along with it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Made From Cool—And Yarn

          What is it about guys knitting that makes me go all weak-kneed?

MADE FROM COOL - Knit with it - from PREMIUM by JACK & JONES from Fashion Films - Moda Filmleri on Vimeo.

          To be honest, Christopher Walken has always creeped me out a little. He plays the Seriously Depraved with a little too much joy. A little too much This Is Totally Who I'd Be If I Weren't a Famous Actor Who Plays Bent Characters.

          And yet…let him knit a Fair Isle sweater (stranding with both hands, I notice—the sign of an experienced colorwork knitter) and I get a little swoony. I fully believe this is Wrong and Bad and Twisted on my part, but—now that I know Christopher Walken can do two-handed stranded colorwork, his hotness increases dramatically in my eyes. I start to make allowances for the creep factor. I think to myself, you know, if more scary people knitted in public, knitters would get a lot more respect.

          This gives me ideas (à la Madame Defarge) you don't even want to hear about. But if you should happen to see a knitter, on the bus or someplace, knitting something black and spiky, with far too many arms, and poking annoying children and obnoxious adults with those sharp needles and smiling at the ensuing screams—well, that will be me.

          I believe Christopher will be proud.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

I Almost Had a Steampunk Kitchen

          One of the items we didn't possess when we moved into our new house was a kitchen table. We used the small wooden outdoor table as a temporary—and highly unsatisfactory—solution, and we started on the inevitable furniture-hunting slog.

          For K and I seldom agree on a piece of furniture, unless it's Stickley. I am captivated by handsome lines or fetching upholstery or, unfortunately, ethereal silliness, and fail entirely to notice that it doesn't go with anything we have. "It looks cool," I tell K, as though it's a good enough reason.* "It doesn't go with anything we have," K points out, and we move on to the next piece of furniture that I find captivating and K finds inappropriate.

          So imagine my surprise when we wandered into a furniture store on a whim and K pointed to a table and said, "What about that one?"

          "That one" was round and copper-topped, with three heavy iron Victorian-era** legs, and (be still my heart!) a cranked gear mechanism that raised and lowered it. I was utterly smitten, but it didn't look like K's normal style.
          "It looks so cool!" I said.

          "I know," K said. "It would look great in the kitchen."         

          "Are you sure?" I said. "You really want to buy a steampunk table for the kitchen?"

          "Of course I do," he said. "What's steampunk?"

See the crank? I'm in love with the crank.

          It also happened that we needed a light for over the table as well—maybe a fan/light combo. An idle perusal of some lighting websites revealed a steampunk ceiling fan. I lost my heart immediately.

          "K will never go for it," I thought, but I showed him the picture anyway. To my surprise, he didn't hate it. To my greater surprise, he allowed himself to be talked into it. He even agreed, grudgingly, that it would look über-cool hanging above the steampunk table.

          Unfortunately, it was only then that we looked at the specs and realized that the steampunk ceiling fan was too big for our kitchen. Sigh.

          I wonder if I can talk K into a steampunk sofa for the living room.

The fan I lost my heart to. Maybe you should buy one for your kitchen.
You can find it here.

*To me, it is. K disagrees.
**The Victorian era, is not, generally speaking, K's preferred design era.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

DIY Honey

This pretty little tribute to bees and honey is found in the Fred F. French building
(more photos here), which is worth a visit next time you find yourself in New York City.
          If you keep bees, and it hasn't been a disastrously cold and wet summer with no blooming things whatever, you will find yourself at the end of the summer, as K and Dad did, with hives full of honey.

Frames of honey.

          What to do with all those lovely frames filled with honey? Why, you buy an extractor, of course.

K, making sure the extractor is ready to use.

          Years ago, K and I extracted honey with a hand-cranked extractor. You will notice that the one K and Dad just bought is electric-powered. This is one of the lessons we have learned over the years: everything works better with electricity.

          To allow the honey to be extracted, you have to uncap the comb. Here again, electricity is very helpful.

K uses a heat gun to uncap the comb.

Dad loads uncapped frames into the extractor.

          K and Dad decided that extracting is best done on a really hot day in August or September*, when the honey is really runny. Otherwise, it takes a long time to spin the honey out of the frames, and another long time for it to flow down the sides of the extractor and into the honey jars. But, eventually, you do end up with this:

Homemade Honey. It is spectacularly good.

*Rather than on the cool October day they chose for the project.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Moving House

This is what our house looked like just a couple of months ago. This is my least
favorite part of the whole homeowning experience.

          K and I recently shook the dust of Kansas City off our shoes and moved to another state. I had assumed that I would be able to continue posting regularly throughout the entire process, pretending that my life wasn't in boxes and chaos while telling amusing anecdotes about packing up a large house, moving it 600 miles and stuffing it into a much, much smaller house. After all, we've moved house a lot, K and I. We've upsized. We've downsized. We've moved across the country. We've moved across the ocean. We are pros. We know what to expect, how long it will take to find the power cords for all the necessary devices (two weeks to a month, depending on your unpacking speed) and where we packed the cleaning supplies. And yet, the eight years that we lived in Kansas City (eight years is a long time for us to live anywhere), erased many of the horrors of moving from my memory.

          I had forgotten that moving is a season in hell.

          I had forgotten how many things go missing.

          I had forgotten how even good movers will drop, scrape, dent, gouge, scratch and otherwise ruin your furniture.

          I had forgotten that, once you get the main paintings hung, you will spend the next six months arguing over where the rest of them go.

          I had forgotten how much stuff you need to buy for the new house, even though you just inserted a houseful of old stuff into it.

          I had forgotten the sudden impulse to burst into tears in the new grocery store because you can't find the cumin and the old grocery store was so pleasant and easy to navigate and they knew your name there.

Another perfectly good reason to burst into tears in the grocery store. Because, really—
an entire display devoted to a vegetable that is only rendered palatable by the application
of cubic yards of bacon? It is to weep.
         Sometime in early September, surrounded by partially empty boxes and up to our knees in packing, K and I made a vow. The moving van stops here. Permanently.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Jitterbug Macabre

By Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (Hartmann Schedel, editor)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

          In honor of the season, I am posting for your viewing pleasure one of my favorite creepy Medieval tropes: the Danse Macabre. This one comes from the Nuremburg Chronicles, and I swear those two bons vivants in the center are jitterbugging.

          I'm feeling a bit like dancing myself. You may have noticed that it has been a long time since I last posted. We moved house. I had to unpack scores of moving boxes. I couldn't find anything that I wanted. I didn't have a desk. I had to get a new library card and figure out where the grocery store was. You know how it goes.

          But now things are more or less back to normal. Posting will resume on its previous schedule. Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Busy as…

        Is it beekeeping that brings out the cliché in me, or is it just that bee-based clichés are so compelling?

         Along with many other useful things that I learned in school, like never to climb on the monkey bars when wearing a dress and how to play a passable game of marbles, I learned to Avoid Clichés At All Costs When Speaking and Writing. You don't forget the lessons that were branded on your young brain by sort-tempered adults much older and bigger than you, so I have always tried, When Speaking and Writing, to Avoid Clichés at All Costs. Sometimes I even congratulate myself on coming up with a particularly effective and original simile when I could have just defaulted to a cliché.

          So it was entirely against all my training and my best instincts that I found myself the other day in the bee yard with K, watching the bees and about to commit cliché. "Look at how active they are," I said to K, completely helpless to prevent the following words from just falling out of my mouth: "Why, they're busy as bees."

          Of course you groan, but it turns out that clichés, before they were clichés, were in fact such universal truths or such creative or compellingly-worded comparisons that everyone fell in love with them and started using them because they were so good or true or evocative. You look at bees in the summer when they're really working, and they are the very archetype of busy. "Busy as bees" is a good and useful descriptor. It is as evocative as billy-o.

          But, as with anything you love and use all the time, these compelling phrases started to get a little worn. A little tired. A little been-there-done-that-bought-the-postcard-and-mailed-it-home. And people began to look down upon them, because they were familiar, and tell Other People that it was one of the High Holy Significators of Tackiness to use them. I myself felt this way until a couple of days after the "busy as bees" incident, when I was, again, in the bee yard.

          I was helping K work the hives, and so I was dressed in a bee-resistant bonnet, veil, and jacket. It was warm and the bees were busy as you know what—eddying around us before flying off in waves to their work. I didn't notice right away that the bee that was buzzing so close to my face—because they were all buzzing close to my face—was distinguished from the rest by being on the wrong side of my veil. Judging from the tenor of its buzz, it was starting to get a little grumpy about sharing such close quarters with me. "K," I said, in the world's most entirely justified use of cliché since the term was coined, "there's a bee in my bonnet."

Saturday, June 29, 2013


More posterizing à la Photoshop, which makes this windmill I photographed in Bruges look
vaguely sinister. Cue the townsfolk with torches and pitchforks. ©Nancy E. Banks

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Cue the Madness

          We'll be moving soon, and past experience (far, far too much past experience) tells me that I will be too exhausted to string together words that make much sense. So the next few posts are some images from my art files. Enjoy.

I do like Photoshop's "Posterize" function. It allows you to make some nice illustrations
from photographs. ©Nancy E. Banks

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Bees Are All Right

          K opened his and Dad's hives the other day. The bees are doing well. There is capped brood and honey and a working queen, and none of the drones are sitting around watching ESPN and drinking beer instead of gathering pollen and nectar.

Bees doing what bees do. The bee with the red spot on her back is the queen.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

I Love my Dad

©Nancy E. Banks
          One of my earliest and fondest memories is of sitting on the floor of my dad's workshop, behind the table saw, nailing together two-by-four scraps. Dad had given me the lumber, hammer (adult size), and nails, showed me how to hammer a nail, and left me to it. I was not yet five years old, and I hit my thumb about seven times for every time I hit the nail head. It was extremely painful, but I didn't cry. I suspected that if I did, Dad would take away the hammer and nails, and no way was I going to give up the bliss of being allowed to hammer nails into wood.

          Dad has always done me the honor of seeing my abilities first, rather than my gender. He showed me how to use tools, rather than preventing me from learning important life skills because "girls don't do that." When I demonstrated an ability to read diagrams and assemble objects, he pointed me to the unassembled bandsaw he'd just ordered, handed me the assembly instructions, showed me how to use a socket wrench,  and left me to it. And then, when I'd finished the assembly, he plugged it in and started sawing, trusting completely that I had put the thing together correctly.

          Dad has given me lots of gifts over the years, but this has been perhaps the most precious. He believes I can do anything. And over the years, I have done a lot of things—successfully—that I personally knew for a fact I couldn't do when I undertook to do them. Why did I succeed? because Dad believed in me and he'd taught me how to use tools and tackle problems and I didn't want to disappoint him.

          Thanks, Dad.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Public Enemy Number One

          God love the TSA. They never fail to provide excellent material for a rant.

          I thought I wouldn't have anything to post today, but I went to the airport a few days ago and tried to clear Security. With a—gasp!—pocket knife in my purse.

          Now, I had read earlier in the spring that TSA, in its infinite wisdom, had finally decided that pocket knives are as innocuous as those of us who carry them know they are, and that you could now carry them on a plane.

          "Great!" I thought. I always carry a pocket knife, and I hate that airport travel restrictions have made it necessary for me to leave it home any time I got on a plane. It's excellent useful, is a pocket knife, for opening cartons, deadheading flowers, sharpening pencils, cutting string, harvesting rhubarb, and whatnot. The one I carry is called, amusingly, a Peanut. It is less than three inches long. It has a blue bone handle. 

          It's kind of girly, to be completely honest. Were I a terrorist, it would most certainly not be my weapon of first choice for a hijacking (too small; too lacking in scariness; not hardly big and manly enough). So I popped it in my purse (because TSA agents won't even let you carry a Chapstick* in your pocket through their X-ray machines. I've had to take my handkerchief out, too. Apparently a really accomplished terrorist can build a fully-functional, mayhem-ready, shrapnel-infested IED out of nothing more than a tube of Chapstick and a slightly tired hanky. Or possibly TSA agents have elevated flat-crazy paranoia to a new art form.)

My knife. If you'd like one like it, go here to shop.
But lordy, don't take it on a plane.
          When I stepped out of the X-ray machine and began collecting my belongings off the conveyor belt, an agent asked me if the purse he was holding was mine. With a sinking feeling, I said that it was. He informed me that there was a knife in my purse, which I already knew, having put it there, and I said, hey, wait a minute, I read in the newspaper that pocket knives were okay on planes now.

          (Before I start my rant in earnest and forget all about it, I just want to say that this TSA agent was both helpful and non-hostile, surprising the heck out of me. I am not accustomed to decent treatment by the grimly jack-booted minions of TSA. I will also admit that it was entirely my own fault I tried to carry a newly-again-contraband knife through security. I should've checked the airline's website. Because who knows what terrorists will use next to further their nefarious ends—although I'm betting it's Chapstick.)

          Well, yes, he said. They were allowed. But then there was the Boston bombings, so pocket knives are not allowed any more again.

          Oh right, I had the good sense not to say. Because the Boston bombings happened in an airport, and consisted entirely of pocket knives.

          Does TSA have trouble distinguishing stabby-type weapons from explode-and-maim and bullet-stuffed types of weapons? Are they unclear on what exactly a marathon consists of, and why no one holds them at airports? Because no one confiscates my pocket knife because of recent terrorist bombing activity when I walk around on city streets, even though that was where the recent terrorist activity recently happened.

          But let me walk into an airport with a pocket knife in my purse that can't be used for anything more bloody than a little bad whittling, and suddenly I am toting Terrorist Contraband and must surrender it (or TSA will also thoughtfully provide me a mailer and charge me $12 so that I can mail my Forbidden Item home**).

          So because a terrorist stuffed a pressure cooker full of hardware (which is not the same thing as a pocket knife), attached a timer thingy (also not a pocket knife), and then detonated it (no pocket knives involved) and subsequently got into a firefight with police officers (which was an entirely pocket knife-free undertaking), every pocket knife in the country is suddenly seen to be A Major Threat?

          Well, I suppose it's possible, in a Highly Unlikely sort of way. But if I were the TSA, trying to identify The Next Terrorist Threat, I'd be looking pretty hard at the Chapstick.

*Oh, don't even get me started on the Chapstick.

**Demonstrating rather neatly that the agency doesn't actually believe my knife is Terrorist Contraband; they simply want to demonstrate that they are doing something—however mindless and ineffective—to combat Bad Things, whatever they may be, and whether they involve pocket knives and Chapstick, or not. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

In Search of Zen

          It has been a fraught few weeks chez BanksWrites. The most taxing thing I want to do this weekend is stare at a blank wall until I achieve a zen state.

          I suspect this egret, whom I photographed in Florida a couple of years ago looking out at the ocean, has achieved the sort of zen state I'm currently searching for. He has also achieved that effortlessly classic, yet edgy, fashion look that I've been scurrying after my entire life. Not everyone can make white-tie formal marry so beautifully with black stockings and chartreuse footwear.  

©Nancy E.Banks

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tractor Love

          "Do you want to go to the John Deere store with me?" Dad asked the other morning. His tractor has been balky lately, and nobody in the shop could get it running right, so he decided he might as well get a new one.

          Well. I don't turn down chances to go tractor-shopping. Since I don't listen to any country music post-Johnny Cash, a walk through the John Deere dealership is just about my only chance to feel all patriotic and awash in Americana. Plus, I've thought tractors were cool ever since I was a small person.*

          My love of tractors, although I suspect I was born with it**, may also have something to do with one of the best toys I ever got: a toy tractor, from my babysitter.

          Nobody was really rich in the town where I grew up. Okay, one or two families, but it's a lot easier to be rich in a town of 5000 souls on the western side of nowhere in particular than it is to be rich in, say, Manhattan. Most people where I grew up counted their pennies. Twice. Children were not randomly showered with gifts.

          One day, our babysitter was running errands with my sister and me in tow.  We were old enough to be tempted by anything in a store, but not old enough to keep our hands to ourselves without being reminded. So, after she pulled up in front of the dime store, she turned to us and said, "Now what are you going to do?"

          "Look but don't touch!" we chorused. We did this Q & A every time we went into a store with her.

          "That's right," she said, and we got out of the truck and went inside.

          In my memory, this particular dime store was a veritable Aladdin's Cave of childhood delights: squirt guns, Barbies and their accessories, Matchbox cars, GI Joes, marbles, paddleballs, rubber snakes, rats, and spiders, kaleidoscopes, kid-sized purses, play jewelry, jacks, tiny plastic pinball games, yo-yos, harmonicas, kazoos, play doh. I wanted to touch it all—to plunge my hands in the open bins and fondle every last piece of merchandise.

          My sister, being younger, practically vibrated with her desire to run her hands over the goods. She tried so hard to be good, but it was not a state that came naturally to her, and she had to keep her hands clasped tightly behind her back so she wouldn't reach out just…one…little…finger to stroke a necklace of pretty pastel plastic beads.

          Oh, it was so tempting.

          But we were expected to behave, and so we did, even though behaving was not our natural state and we didn't enjoy it even one little bit.

          Our babysitter, unlike some adults, had once been a child. She knew what a horrible temptation the dime store was. She saw our longing stares at all those lovely toys. She noticed my sister's hands clenched tightly behind her back. She understood how hard-won our good behavior was.

          I know now that she didn't have any extra money to toss around, and at the time I certainly didn't expect any kind of reward for good behavior. Good behavior was one of those things that adults mysteriously expected you to exhibit, but which they did not generally reward.

          On this particular day, however, our babysitter knew that we had earned a reward. She bought us each a plastic tractor in recognition of our good behavior. Mine was red; my sister's was green.

        I loved that tractor. I had earned it by doing the one of the hardest things I had ever had to do in my young life, and it was more precious to me than diamonds and rubies. And every trip to the John Deere store reminds me of that tractor, and of the love of our babysitter, who didn't have to buy somebody else's children toys but who, one memorable day, did anyway.

*When you grow up in the rural west, these things can happen.
**Granddad was an ag teacher. Great granddad was a rancher. This little apple did not fall all that far from those particular trees.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Five Stages of House-buying

          •We have a nice-sized down payment; we're looking for a smaller house and yard—this will be a piece of cake.
          They want HOW MUCH per square foot?! Doesn't anyone in this stupid town know we're in a recession?
          •Our old house is WAY nicer than any of these houses.
          •Does no one in the modern world understand the actual function of a kitchen? IT DOES NOT BELONG IN THE LIVING ROOM!
          •It is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE for the lot size to be smaller than the square footage of the house, and I refuse to look at houses with negative lot sizes.
          •I don't do bidding wars.

What do you MEAN my piles of gold coins will only purchase a GARDEN SHED in this market?

          •Okay, we can look in the suburbs.
          •Fine, the yard is microscopic. We'll just send the dogs out in shifts.
          •Sigh. I guess we'll just use the kitchen in the way all modern people do and eat out every night.
          •If it has a sensible kitchen designed by someone who actually cooks, plus a yard that's at least as large as a spare bedroom, I'll pay over the asking price.

          •Oh dear; we looked in the suburbs.
          •"Denver is great!" I told K. "There are lots of houses in nice neighborhoods in our price range." Why did I ever open my big mouth? What happened to all those houses?
          •When did my modest requirements for shelter, storage, and a blankety-blank wall oven turn into The Impossible Dream?
          •Maybe we should just buy a condo.

          •We will be in the suburbs. In a 70s-era ranch house. I will have a permanent rash from exposure to hideous architectural design.
          •We will pay too much.
          •We will have to tear out the kitchen and do a complete remodel.
          •The dogs will have a yard the size of a bed sheet.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

License Plates

          I don't know if this is true of all rural areas, or if it's an idiosyncracy common only to the vernacular architecture of the west, but here is a construction truism that I learned in my earliest youth:

          License plates are a suitable material for siding.

          There are a lot of sheds and shacks in Wyoming and Montana that are still standing thanks mostly to the license plates that clad their exteriors. When I was small I thought this was the coolest way to make a house ever. I wanted a license plate house. My parents, as they are required to do under the terms of their Giant Interminable Contract O' Parenting, stifled any joy I might ever have taken in our house by choosing deadly boring lap wood siding. I think it may have stunted my creative growth.

          K has never allowed me to side anything—even the chicken coop—with license plates, so I just recently got rid of our collection of expired plates because I couldn't think of anything else to do with them. (And also because it was time for the Purging of Things We Haven't Used in Years and Wouldn't Miss if They Were Gone.)

          And then I found this sign on a store in Denver and realized too late that I could do something with those old plates (see what I mean about stunting my creative growth?) and that I did miss them now that they were gone:

I love that they used motorcycle plates, too. It adds to the
jolly chaotic look. Also please to note the iconic bronc rider
from my home state that started my fascination with license plates.

          I did a quick calculation after looking at this sign and I figured that, if I'd kept our old plates, we would only have to move a couple more times and I would have enough letters for a short story.

          Which I would of course write on the sides of an old shed.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

There's One in Every Crowd

          We made an early Memorial Day pilgrimage to Fort Collins this week to visit the graves of Mom's relatives. I've always loved the cemetery up there. It's old, and treed, and they still let you plant flowers on the graves (my family's flower of choice? The peony), and they haven't caved in to the reprehensible custom of requiring that all the headstones be laid flat to make mowing easier.

          When we visit the cemetery, I like to also take a stroll around to survey the funerary art. The marker pictured below caught my eye and made me laugh:

I wonder if their family is shocked, or if they're used to the smart-alecking by now.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Life Imitates Art Which Then Takes an Unexpected Tangent

          One of the great things about being on the other end of the leash from a Very Good Dog (pictured above) is the freedom it gives you to pay attention to things other than said dog. He's not going to get himself into any trouble, wrap himself around a fence post, or get tangled in his lead (it's one of his ninja skills: he can untangle himself without any assistance at all from the species with opposable thumbs).

          On our walk the other morning, Pooka was tracking ghost rabbits and I was gazing off into the middle distance, enjoying the way the pastures are greening up near my parents' place and wondering how much actual use I'd get out of a camera lucida were I to acquire one when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the largest puffball mushroom I've ever seen in my entire life.

          Well, you don't just pass by the largest puffball mushroom you've ever seen in your entire life without walking over to examine and possibly poke at it a little*.

          So I spoke a word to the Very Good Dog and he obligingly climbed through the fence with me and then we walked over to investigate this bizarrely large and out-of-place puffball.

I neglected to put my pocket knife beside it for scale, but this guy is around 8" in diameter.

          When I got close enough to see it in detail, the first thing I noticed was the lovely cracked pattern. Because my dad is a potter rather than a mycologist, my first thought was not wait a minute—puffballs usually have smooth skin, but rather, goodness, that looks like a crawling Shino-style glaze.

One of Dad's plates. The glaze has cracked and crawled in firing.

          My next thought was what is a glazed vessel—because it was clear now that I wasn't dealing with a member of the plant kingdom at all—doing out in the middle of a horse pasture? My father is not above taking the idea to salt some random pasturage with shino-glazed ware, simply for his personal amusement. I had long ago learned to accept his artistic caprices as having an underlying, if sometimes vanishingly subtle, reason, and certainly pottery in a pasture is not the strangest thing I've ever seen him do, but I kept hanging up on the vessel itself. The shape wasn't quite right. The glaze color, although interesting, was not something he'd normally use. The workmanship wasn't up to his usual standard.

          I picked it up so I could look at the signature on the bottom, and realized, once again, that my internal world does a very tidy job of embroidering and enhancing actual life. The vessel I thought was part of some complex, inscrutable ceramic art installation was far too light to be made of clay. It rattled as though it contained seeds. It was, in fact, a gourd.

          I spoke another word to the Very Good Dog, and we continued on our way, Pooka trailing ghost rabbits, and I reflecting that a pottery installation in a pasture would actually be pretty cool.

          I'm sure I could talk Dad into it.

*At least I don't. You may may have seen such prodigies of ginormous mushrooms as to be jaded enough that the sight of yet another just makes you sigh and wish life would cease oppressing you with overgrown fungus, I don't know. But I had to go have a closer look.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Church in the Wildwood

This photo comes from the website Colossal

          Back before the whole world was a megachurch, my hometown was about evenly divided between those whose god lived a civilized kind of life in a churchy sort of building and those whose god lived rough in the mountains. 
          At the time, my god lived in a church, and I felt superior to those whose god lived outdoors—mostly because I was taught that suffering refines and makes you more holy, and I am here to testify that there's no greater suffering, church-wise, than a three-hour meeting seated on hard pews listening to a droning assortment of religious boringosity.*

          But when I became an adult, I put away childish things and found my deity, such as it is, outdoors. I certainly never thought I would see the god of churches and the god of nature so perfectly united in this lovely chapel, built by an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright.

          The Thorncrown Chapel (for that is its lovely name) is located in the Ozarks, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. In a classic case of man putting asunder what god hath joined together, a power company apparently has plans to build a 48-mile high voltage transmission line through the woods next to the chapel, destroying the view.

          You can read more about the Thorncrown Chapel on Colossal here (including a link to Arkansas Public Service Commission comments page where you can offer your opinion on building this transmission line), and on the Thorncrown Chapel website here

*If what I was taught about suffering were actually true, by the way, I would have been raptured to a greater glory by the age of 10.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Fact: It's Not Crazy if Someone Else Thought of it Too

          Some of you may remember back a year or so ago, when I admitted right out in public  that I had kept a naked chicken in my house until her feathers grew back in.

          At the time, I contemplated knitting her a vest to keep her warm (it was the dead of winter. She had goosebumps. I'm not crazy. Just sayin'.), and K convinced me that a towel was sufficient to her needs.*

          Imagine, then, my joy in learning that I'm not the craziest chicken-harborer on the planet.

This image comes from Kent Online (

          It seems that schoolkids in Ashford, UK are knitting sweaters for "retired" egg-producing hens. (Click here for the story.) During their working lives, these hens are kept in small cages in close proximity to their fellow hens, who, being penned and bored and lacking chicken-themed reading material or video games to while away the long hours of egg production, peck bald spots into their neighboring hens.** When their egg production drops below a certain level, they are made into pet food or, alternatively, rescued by people with more chicken-related issues than even I.

          And what do you do with a bunch of partly naked rescue chickens? You get a bunch of empathetic teenagers to make a class project out of knitting them sweaters.

          It makes perfect sense to me.

*Well, what he actually did was say, "Are you serious?" in such an incredulous, Good-Lord-I-may-have-to-commit-my-wife-to-a-mental-institution tone of voice that I was shamed into creeping downstairs when his back was turned and tucking one of our old ratty dog towels around her. And then quickly ripping out the ribbing I'd cast on for the chicken vest before he noticed it.

**This, actually, is part of the reason I had a naked chicken in my basement in the first place. Even free-rangers are not above pecking one another baldish.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Whole Lotta Love

Blest be the pie that binds: Great-grandma, Mom, me, Granddad.
          In my family, pie = love. As you can see from the photo, there's a whole lotta pie—er, love—been going on in my family for a whole lotta years, and I'm fortunate indeed to have a mother who has always been so generous with her pie and her love.

          Happy Mother's Day, Mom.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bees' Knees!

          My favorite part of the beekeeping business (besides having K do the actual manipulation in the hives) is watching the bees come back to the hive loaded down with pollen.

          Yes, mine is a simple life, and yes, the possibility exists that I don't get out enough.

          Nevertheless, it pleases me immensely to contemplate the hive when it's busy, so at the risk of showing you far more photos of bees than you ever wanted to see, here are a couple:

Bees at the entrance of the hive. They appear to be discussing the weather. Not sure whether
the upside-down one is showing off or whether the sugar water Dad and K are feeding
has started to ferment.

My favorite part. See the bright orange bulges on their back legs? That's pollen,
boys and girls! Success!