Monday, February 28, 2005

Mystery Recipes Revealed 

Very early this morning, I listed the ingredients for the three chocolate desserts served at our party yesterday. It should not surprise those who have read parts I and II of the Music and Cats 'Let Them Eat Cake' series to learn that all three of the mystery recipes are taken from the pages of Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts.

Mystery Recipe #1: Many people do not think of pepper when they think of chocolate. Central Americans have have been combining chocolate, cinnamon and pepper for centuries, to great effect, as in these Mexican Chocolate Icebox Cookies.

Mystery Recipe #2: The prize goes to Wavybrains, who correctly pegged these as brownies. They are Ginger Brownies, a variant on Heatter's Black Pepper Brownies.

Mystery Recipe #3: Paula guessed correctly! These four ingredients are all that you need for Chocolate Mousse Heatter.

Show me the chocolate recipes!

And much chocolate was consumed 

Our party was - if I do say so myself - a success. It seems that a good time was had by all, and certainly by Paul and me. Over the course of the afternoon, we had about 25 people in the house, 20% of whom were under the age of eight. Sasha and Sergei retreated to the upstairs; Sergei hid so well that, for a while, I thought perhaps he'd gotten out of the house. Lyra (aka Princess Affection Sponge) decided that all these people were here to pay attention to her... and as she is beautiful, soft and sweet, most folks were willing to oblige.

Our friends fortunately did a fine job of consuming the chocolate treats over which I labored for a number of hours this weekend. (I say fortunately because I did not want leftover chocolate treats around the house.) I was going to write about said treats, their recipes, procedures and pitfalls, but I'm just too tired. However, as a teaser, here are the ingredient lists for the three chocolate treats served at the party.

Mystery Recipe #1:
3 cups flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 sticks unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups sugar
2 eggs

Mystery Recipe #2:
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 1/4 sticks unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoon dry instant espresso
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 7/8 cup brown sugar
5 eggs, large
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour, sifted
1 cup crystallized ginger

Mystery Recipe #3:
1 pound semisweet chocolate
2 tablespoons dry instant espresso
2/3 cup boiling water
10 eggs, separated

Can you tell me for what recipes these are the ingredients? Anyone?

I'll provide the names of and instructions for these recipes tomorrow. Now, to sleep.

p.s. Thanks to all who left well wishes in the comments of my last post. Paul and I both appreciated them.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

One year ago today... and today 

At this time, one year ago today, my husband Paul had already been in surgery for two hours. He would be in surgery for ten more.

At this time, one year ago today, I was sitting in the surgical waiting room at the University of Washington Medical Center. As places to spend a day worrying go, the UW waiting room was quite nice. It's a lovely room, located on a corner of the building, with full height windows providing southerly views onto gardens, trees and the ship channel beyond. Soft chairs and love seats are arranged in conversational areas, tables with chairs provide a place to eat or write. A long work surface with data ports provides internet access, and there'’s a large desk on which sits the all-important telephone connecting the room to the operating rooms. I was the first person there, so I had my choice of location. I picked a spot near the corner of the two window walls, from which I could see both the gardens and the door.

At this time, one year ago today, I had already sent a short blog post out to our friends and family. This is what it said:

After weeks of actively gathering information and making choices about Paul's treatment, we've reached the point where, at least for today, it's out of our hands. This experience feels like an amusement park we didn't choose to visit. The past few weeks were the bumper cars; we could make decisions, and try to choose a direction, but we never knew when or from where the next jolt was coming. And now we've gotten on the roller coaster. We're strapped in, and heading up that first long incline. Clack, clack, clack. Once we reach the top, gravity takes over. We can decide whether to scream or laugh, hold our hands up in the air or hang on for dear life. Clack, clack, clack...

At this time, one year ago today, I sat alone, sipping a latte, waiting for my parents and friends to arrive and keep me company through the rest of a very long day.

At this time, today, one year later, I sit at my computer, sipping the latte that Paul just brought me. Paul is in our bedroom, reading the Sunday NY Times. I can hear him talking to one of our cats. He is - knock on wood, god willing and every other cliched, hopeful, superstitious phrase one might use here - free of cancer. He is still adjusting to the persistent, and perhaps permanent, effects of the surgery on his body. Things are a little better every day.

In a few hours, one year later, we're having a party. Although my parents won't be here, a number of the friends who sat with me last year will be. On that day, they brought me chocolate; this year, I am baking chocolate treats for them.

Most importantly, one year later, Paul is still here, and will be by my side when our friends arrive to celebrate that with us.

Friday, February 25, 2005

On place 

The first time I was in Seattle, I fell in love with a place. Not with the city as a whole, but a particular spot in the city. This is the way that love happens, I believe; we fall for details, for characteristics, either one at a time, slowly, or in such a huge rush that it seems we are falling for the entirety of person, place or thing.

On my first visit to Seattle, I fell in love with Kerry Park, a small urban park on the south slope of the hill where I now live. Certainly the view - a view captured in countless tourist snapshots, local advertisements, and TV news stand-ups - is breathtaking. It encompasses the skyline at its best angle, Space Needle front and center, and a sweep of Elliott Bay from the docks out to the nearby islands. And on clear days, Mount Rainier is visible, either starkly cut against the bluest skies you've ever seen, or shimmering ghostlike, as it was yesterday morning. Oh yes, it is a view for waxing rhapsodic, for sitting and staring and contemplating.

But for me, this place is not just about the view. The view is only one side of the place. The park is surrounded on its other sides by several of the grand houses and old-fashioned brick apartment buildings that make up one of Seattle's oldest neighborhoods. I am an architect, duaghter of an architect, granddaughter of a builder. Buildings are in my blood, are part of my earliest memories. Houses and housing are for me both life blood and my life's work. What I fell in love with at Kerry Park was a house.

The Black House was designed by Seattle architect Andrew Willatsen, built in 1914. Willatsen was an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Wrightian influence is evident in the house's horizontal lines, bands of windows and deeply overhanging roof. The rows of boxwoods along the terraced front yard of the house reinforce that horizontality of the design. If I were putting together a case study on buildings as perfect backdrops, the Black House would be on my list. Spare and elegant, the design says to me Yes, I am here. I am a part of this hill, this neighborhood, this city. But look! Turn around and look out at this amazing view with me.

When I saw the 'For Sale' sign in front of the Black House a couple of years ago, I was covetous. Oh, to be the caretaker of that gorgeous house, to live in that place, to have that glorious view. The house did not sell for months, but eventually the sign came down. I was envious of the people who had the financial wherewithal to buy a part of one of Seattle's landmarks.

Sadly, the new owners appreciated only the view, and not the place of which their house was a part. Just over a year ago, they had the beautiful 90-year-old house that they had just purchased demolished. They did so as stealthily as possible, acquiring the demolition permit during the week between Christmas and New Years. The demolition crew told passersby early in the day that they were doing maintenance work. There was no attempt made to salvage any of the materials from the house.

It has been 14 months since the Black House was demolished. While the owner of the property stated that he intended to build a new house, there has been no application for a building permit, no sign of any activity on the property. I can't imagine that, should he build, his new neighbors will be welcoming. There is a chain link fence around the old foundation. There is a ragged hole torn in the fabric of this place. I cannot imagine how it might be mended.

Not every old house is worth saving. Some old buildings are ugly, are poorly built, are culturally worthless. Some buildings, however, have value above and beyond their worth as property. The Black House was one such building. Kerry Park is not the same without it.

Note: I've attached an article from the Seattle PI regarding the demolition of the Black House. Click to read more.

Feline Friday 20: Shy 

Our cats live in a house in which they outnumber the people. They are shy of strangers, and easily startled by unexpected company. If you keep going, there's a poetry reading, music playing, food and conversation.

If you'd like to visit the cats, please come in quietly, so that they won't run hide under the bed.

This is dedicated to Michele, for giving Norman a kitty mascot, and to the folks from cutekitty.com who left all those nice comment votes.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

I am from... 

A couple of days ago, Melinama at Pratie Place wrote about a lovely poetry exercise based on George Ella Lyon's poem Where I'm From. The exercise was originally from this post at Fragments from Floyd; it includes directions for the exercise, as well as a template of sorts to aid the process. Here are my first thoughts:

Where I'm From

I am from picture books. I am from Fiestaware and cut glass salt cellars. I am from tape measure, T-square and sawdust.

I am from the mid-century modernism of white walls, cool terrazzo floors, and expanses of glass to which small green tree frogs clung on summer mornings. From Bertoia and Knoll, and the smooth black leather of an Eames lounge chair.

I am from fast-moving thunderstorms, and fireflies at dusk above a field of daylilies.

I am from a dictionary open on the table and the first gray hair by eighteen, from Reed and Roberta, now bridge partners forever, and from Ettric, a Viking who made Scotland home.

I am from a passion for education and not talking about feelings. From don’'t let the cool air out, and you can do anything you put your mind to.

I am from lace dyed with tea for the collar of a small handsewn dress, and a hand-me-down violin.

I am from dour, predestined Presbyterians, mellowed over time and by the times, singing let there be peace on earth, arms entwined. From Jesus loves the little children and we exist to let others know they matter to God by showing them that they matter to us.

I'm from the steamy Texas Gulf coast and the stormy sea between Ulster and Scotland, from cornbread dressing, homegrown tomatoes and jars of homemade bread-and-butter pickles on pantry shelves.

I a’m from the man who gathered medicinal plants in the east Texas piney woods as his mother had taught him, the woman who believed in raising a boy to be a good husband rather than a good son, and the boy who decided to become an architect when he learned what the word meant.

In the top drawer of my parents’' sideboard are envelopes and albums filled with photos. The star sapphire ring on my finger, a gift across three generations, is older than any of them.

I don't know that I'm quite finished with this one yet... it may change over the next few days. Would anyone else care to play?

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Ode to a Violin 

A couple of weeks ago, at the end of an English Country Dance, one of the dancers asked me about my violin: Did I buy it from a violin shop here in Seattle? Who made it? She wants to buy a violin, and doesn't know where to look. I'm not familiar with local violin shops, but I had some suggestions for her about how to look for an instrument. And while the man who made my violin is, I assume, still alive, I know very little about him.

I began looking for a new violin late in 1990. I was still playing the German student violin that had been given me by my older cousin, a lapsed junior high violinist, when I decided to play. After seven years of orchestra and violin lessons, I had abandoned the violin as soon as I graduated from high school. For 10 years, my violin languished in a closet at my parents' house. I picked up the violin again in 1988, because the traditional dance groups with which I danced needed musicians. My student instrument was fine for retraining myself to play, but after a couple years of playing again, I was ready for something else. The rather bland, quiet tone of that violin was well-suited to blending into an orchestral section. I wanted an instrument with its own unique voice.

I was already a customer of a good violin shop, where I'd had some work done on my violin and bow. The owner, Jim Scoggan, was a symphony bassist, a skilled luthier, and a genuinely nice guy. On what I now recognize as the first day of my search, I went to Jim's shop to pick up a bow that he'd rehaired for me. As we were chatting, I told Jim that I wanted an instrument with a richer, more distictive sound. While Jim's response was simply "do you want to try a few now?" the look on his face said "this will be fun."

One wall of the shop was fitted with deep shelves divided into violin-sized spaces. Jim would study the shelves, then pull out a violin, tell me something about it while he checked the tuning, and hand it to me to play. We'd talk about the characteristics of the violin's sound, what I liked or didn't like about it. Based on my reaction, Jim would keep that violin out or put it back, then pull out another one. I'd play the new one, play another one that was out, play my own, choose which I liked best. An hour and a half later, I had played 8 or 9 violins, and both Jim and I had a sense of the sound that I liked. I was not yet ready to take any home for further trial, but the search had begun. For almost a year, I stopped by Jim's shop every month or so to play recent acquisitions and a couple of favorites from earlier visits.

In September of 1991, Jim's face lit up when I walked into the shop. His partner had been on a buying trip in Italy, and Jim had just put strings on one of the new violins. He hadn't heard it played yet, and he wanted me to try it out. This really was a new violin, made that year. It didn't have the patina of age and use that I loved in the late 18th and 19th century violins that had until now been my favorites. However, when I drew a bow across its strings, this violin sang to me. It had a clear, sweet tone with just hint of darkness. I knew that, with time and playing, its voice would "open up" and become even lovelier. Finding the right violin is a little like falling in love. While I do not fall easily, I have once or twice fallen quickly. I took the violin home that Saturday for a five-day trial. On Tuesday, Jim called to ask when I'd be bringing it back; another violinist - an acquaintance of mine - was interested in seeing it. On Wednesday, I bought my violin.

My violin was made in Cremona, Italy in 1990 by Nilton Fontoura, a student at the Istituto Professionale Internazionale per l'Artigianato Liutario e del Legno Antonio Stradivari. (That is, translated literally, the International Professional Institute of the Art of Luthiery and Wood; the English language version of their website calls it the School of Violinmaking.) The school's online listing of its graduates indicates that Fontoura is a Brazilian, born in 1963, who graduated from their 5-year program in 1995. If he went straight through school, he made my violin during his first semester of the program. Jim's partner bought several violins from students at the school, but he had no information about how to contact them, so this is all that I know of the man who made my violin.

While my violin is a lovely instrument and a joy to play, there are details that, to my mind, show it to be the work of a student. The f-holes (the curved openings in the top of the violin) are more angular than usual. This could have been an aesthetic choice, but that seems unlikely to me at the very traditional Cremona school. The varnish on the ribs shows brush marks, and there's even a small hair embedded in the varnish on one side. And while the coat of varnish is fairly thick (perhaps too thick), there are a couple of spots where it has chipped or crazed slightly. Most violins have a fancy printed label, affixed to the inside of the back, that indicates the maker and shop location. The year the violin was made, and sometimes the number of the violin, are handwritten on the label. Visible through the f-hole of my violin is a small slip of white paper bearing only the handwritten words Nilton Fontoura, Cremona, 1990. I imagine that, as a student, Fontoura could not afford to have labels printed for his first instruments. These details have become, like the eccentricities of a loved one, part of what I love and cherish about this instrument.

I've been playing this violin since 1991; I expect that it will be with me for the rest of my life. Its sound has opened up, becoming stronger and sweeter, the instrument more responsive and more nuanced as I play it. And my musicianship has grown with it, acquiring greater subtlety and power. It takes around 50 years for the voice of a violin to fully mature; I acquired this violin near my 31st birthday. If I am lucky, I may as a very old woman hear the fully developed voice of my violin. When I am gone, my violin will be passed on, with the beginnings of that patina of use that I so love in old instruments, to another violinist, one who I hope will cherish it as much as I do.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Feline Friday 19: Good Day Sunshine 

Last Sunday afternoon was gloriously sunny, but cold. The cats availed themselves of the patch of sun in our bedroom. Light, shade, shadow and happy cats - I grabbed my camera.

Lyra in Sunlight

Click for sunshine photos of Sasha and Sergei.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Marmalade redux 

This evening, I made more marmalade, using up the remaining four pounds of seville oranges. While the first batch is quite good, it is very strong stuff, not for the faint of heart or palate. It is the sort of marmalade that I imagine my Scottish ancestors might have eaten to ward off the effects of too much whiskey the previous night.

For the second batch, I decided to make some changes. I reduced the amount of sugar by a cup, and changed the ratio of white sugar to brown; this recipe has 80% white, 20% brown. I chopped the orange peel into slightly finer pieces. I did not include the bag of seeds and pith in the cooking, as I wanted less bitterness. I flavored the marmalade with chopped candied ginger rather than with orange liqueur.

The result is a lighter, more delicate marmalade, perhaps a bit more tart than the first recipe, but considerably less bitter. The proportions of jelly to peel are different from the first batch; I used a little more water for simmering the fruit this time. This looks more like the marmalade that you'd see on the grocery store shelves, whereas the first recipe is darker and more rough-cut than any marmalade that I've ever seen before.

I don't have any brioche for tomorrow morning. I don't even have any bread for toast. Clearly I haven't been paying attention to the important stuff.

Note: If you're interested in orange marmalade, and want to compare notes with someone who has a web page with reviews of a number of different brands, visit Paul Anderson's marmalade page.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Orange you glad? 

I have heard for years that the only way to make real orange marmalade is with seville oranges, a type of bitter orange that is not common in this country. I didn't know that it was possible to get fresh seville oranges here, so I made do with making marmalades of sweet oranges, lemons and limes. And nice marmalades they were, every one, but they didn't have the edge of a - dare I say it - a proper English seville orange marmalade.

Late last week, I heard from a friend that her mother had found fresh seville oranges at our local Whole Foods market. On Saturday, I went on a highly successful mission of acquisition. On Sunday, I made seville orange marmalade. Here's how:

Step One: Simmer four pounds of seville oranges and four lemons in water to cover for one and one half hours. That'’s whole oranges and lemons; remove only the small stem ends of the fruit. This is the strangest first step that I have seen in a preserves recipe, though by no means have I seen them all. I know that the intent is to cook the citrus rind, but I don'’t understand what the advantage is to cooking the fruit whole, especially as a) the recipe indicates that the simmering liquid is to be reserved and b) the fairly thin-skinned organic lemons split open during simmering, releasing much of their juice into the water. While the oranges do not split open, when removed from the pan at the end of simmering, their skins have become wrinkled and indented, as if they have become too large for the fruit inside. Step One makes the entire house smell lovely, as if it has just been cleaned with one of those orange oil based cleaners, minus any cleaner smell.

Step Two: Cut up all of the oranges and lemons into small pieces. This involves a) allowing the fruit to cool until one can handle it without screaming and scaring the cats, b) slicing each fruit in half and scooping/squeezing out its juice, seeds and pith, c) slicing the rinds and bits of fruit still attached into approximately 1/4" x 2" pieces, and d) pressing the guts of the fruit through a sieve to extract the juice. The seeds, pith and fruit that remain go into a cheesecloth bag, to be cooked with the marmalade. Step Two makes one's hands feel lovely and smooth, a combination, I believe, of the exfoliating properties of the citrus juice and moisturizing properties of the orange oil. Having one's hands smell like oranges is very nice, although the cats seem not to find it so.

Step Three: Add many, many cups of sugar, almost all of the sugar in the house (my house, that is; you may have more than 14 cups of sugar in your house), sugar half white and half brown, to the reserved simmering liquid. Bring the resulting syrup to a boil; on a late 1970's vintage electric stove, this will take a long time. So as not to watch the pot attempting to boil, perform some small tasks, such as unloading the dishwasher. Place a small plate in the freezer. When, despite one's impatience, the syrup is boiling, add all of the orange and lemon rind and the bag of seeds and pith, and boil for half an hour. Although the syrup is dark from the brown sugar, see the orange peel candying and turning translucent at the edges as the syrup thickens. Remove the small plate from the freezer, drip a few drops of syrup onto it. The syrup does not gel. Twice more at five-minute intervals, repeat this procedure; the third time may be the proverbial charm. Remove the now-marmalade from the stove, and remove the bag of seeds, squeezing to release as much seedy goodness as possible. Pour in 3/8 cup of orange liqueur, which will boil on the surface of the hot marmalade; stir it in.

Step Four: Fill eight half-pint jars (all that my small canner will hold) with marmalade, and set them in boiling water to process. Realize that the remaining four jars will not be sufficient unto the quantity of marmalade that has been produced, as, in a surreal twist, the recipe has made considerably more marmalade than advertised. Scrounge in the basement for an additional four jars and rims, and quickly sterilize them. By the time that the first eight jars come out of the canner, have another eight jars waiting to go in. The Step Three photo is what was left in the pot after I'd filled 16 half-pint jars. It is mostly softly chewy, sweet-sour-bitter slices of orange peel, with a binder of sweet orange jelly.

Step Five: (This morning). Warm brioche bun from Macrina Bakery; split in half. Spoon a few bites of marmalade onto bun. Eat. Do not attempt to control wordless sounds of pleasure that come unbidden from deep in chest. Enjoy. Look at all those jars of marmalade on kitchen counter. Look at remaining four pounds of seville oranges on kitchen table. Smile.

Monday, February 14, 2005

For me? 

That's what Sasha and Sergei are wondering. Sasha loves flowers, especially roses that smell good, as these do. No, kitties, those roses are for Paul.

Twenty-four years ago tonight 

Some of you may not know that Paul and I met on Valentine's Day in 1981. Paul had just transferred to Brown; I had been there for a year. My friend Melinda told me about a Valentine's party being hosted by another transfer student, and we went. Who was throwing the party? I don't remember. (Paul can remember his face, but not his name.) Where was it? Somewhere off campus. I know we walked, but I know that only because none of us had cars. Snow on the ground? Probably. All that detail is long gone.

What I do remember is walking into the living room, where this cute guy was dancing with my friend Oona. Melinda introduced us (it was Paul), we chatted briefly, then Paul and Oona kept dancing. He seemed quite taken with her. I don't remember much about the rest of the party, either.

Not much of a story, really, and I probably wouldn't remember even that small fragment of the party had it not been for later events. The story didn't really become very interesting until a couple of days later, at Melinda's birthday party. By then, Paul had learned that Oona was involved with another woman, and therefore was not really available to him (in more ways than one). That was the night that we sat up talking for hours for the first time, listening to James Taylor and Jackson Browne... but that's another story for another night.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

It's not a meme; it's pie... yummy, yummy pie 

The lovely Bakerina provided answers to the following questions, but did not follow directions (it's not baking, after all) regarding passing of the stick. Instead, she left said stick on the table, saying, "Maybe if you think of it less as a stick and more as a freshly-baked pie...everybody likes freshly-baked pie."

I think I'll have some pie...

What is the total amount of music files on your computer?

Does this mean audio files, or sheet music files? I'm rather an accidental Luddite about audio files; there are none resident on my computer. I have the technology and lots of music that I love, but I just haven't bothered. I do have, however, a number of PDF files of sheet music for English Country Dance tunes.

The CD you last bought?

'Down Came an Angel', a recording of solo piano interpretations of Christmas songs by Jacqueline Schwab, a tremendously talented pianist and truly lovely person. While I know her from the community of folk dance musicians, many more peope will recognize her playing from Ken Burns' documentaries: The Civil War, Lewis and Clark, and others.

What is the song you last listened to before reading this message?

The Coffee Drink Delivery Service song, as "written" and sung by my husband Paul.

Oh, did this mean recorded music? Hmmm... I really don't remember.

Write down 5 songs you often listen to or that mean a lot to you.

Five? How am I supposed to choose? It's made a bit easier because much of the music that I love most does not have words, and would therefore be classified as tunes rather than as songs.

'One I Love' by Jean Ritchie. A lovely waltz-time song by one of the matriarchs of American folk music, this song has traces of the traditional Irish, English and Appalachian songs that the Ritchies collected. I learned it around the time that Paul and I got engaged; it's as close to being "our song" as any, but a little different in that I sing it for him.
For when the fire to ice doth turn,
And when the icy sea will burn
And when those rocks all melt in the sun
My love for you has just begun.
One, I love. Two, he loves. Three, he's true to me.

'World's Bliss: Medieval Songs of Love and Death' by John Fleagle. This is an entire album; if pressed, I would choose 'The Hern' (The Heron) as my favorite song on it. John had one of the most glorious voices I have heard, and played a number of early and modern instruments beautifully. He died too young. My friend Shira Kammen, whose violin seems like an extension not only of her body, but of her very being, played on this album with John.

'Why Walk When You Can Fly?' and 'Jubilee' by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Perhaps I'll just choose all of 'Stones in the Road,' which is one of the few albums I own on which I like every track.

'No Man's Land' by Eric Bogle, on June Tabor's album Ashes and Diamonds. I was listening to this "song about the waste and futility of war" written after Bogle's visit to cemeteries in Flanders, when I heard that the US had attacked Iraq in 1991. I think of it often these days.
And I can't help but wonder now, Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you "the cause?"
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it's all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

'Cold Missouri Waters' by James Keelaghan, as sung by the short-lived group Cry, Cry, Cry (Richard Shindell, Dar Williams, and Lucy Kaplansky). Inspired by Norman MacLean's book Young Men and Fire, this is perhaps the best modern ballad about a real-life event that I've heard. Even reading the lyrics gives me goosebumps.
Sky had turned red, smoke was boiling
Two hundred yards to safety, death was fifty yards behind
I don't know why I just thought it
I struck a match to waist high grass running out of time
Tried to tell them, Step into this fire I set
We can't make it, this is the only chance you'll get
But they cursed me, ran for the rocks above instead
I lay face down and prayed above the cold Missouri waters

Ummm, yes, I am a folkie, and a sappy romantic. Did you really have to ask?

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

Here's a chocolate torte. Here's the whipped cream. Help yourselves. Please share.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Feline Friday 18: How many cats? 

When one of us gets out of bed in the morning, a cat will usually commandeer the warm spot right up against the pillow. Yesterday morning, Paul caught all three cats sleeping in his spot. While it was a bit chilly in the house, it's rare that all three of them sleep so close together.

Note: Friday Ark is happening at The Modulator.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

I don't like Mondays * 

I gave my grad school alma mater an email address so that the architecture school could send me its online newsletter, which occasionally brings word of someone I know. Now that the University has said address, it bombards me with email, most of which I delete without reading. However, yesterday's subject line Limited Edition Dinner Set intrigued me. I opened the email... and was stunned.

These dishes are emblazoned with a photo of the UT Tower, site of one of the worst mass murders in this country. On Monday, August 1, 1966, UT student Charles Whitman took five guns and 700 rounds of ammunition to the UT Tower. He had already killed his wife and mother, and he killed three people on his way to the observation deck at the top of the tower. Once there, he began shooting, killing ten more people and wounding many others before policemen shot and killed him.

I was two months shy of my 6th birthday, and one month away from starting first grade in Houston. The Tower Massacre is the first news event that I remember, although I certainly didn't comprehend it at the time. By the time that I arrived at UT for grad school, the Tower's observation deck - also the site of several suicides - had been closed. Nevertheless, there were times while crossing the south mall beneath the Tower that I was very much aware that this had been a killing ground.

I wonder now, looking at the photo on this dinnerware, whose idea it was to put the UT Tower on a Limited Edition Dinner Set. I have to think that it was someone young enough not to have the same horrific associations with the Tower that I have.

* "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day." -- This was the statement given by 16-year-old Brenda Spencer about why she opened fire on an elementary school in San Diego on Monday, January 29, 1979, killing two school employees and injuring several children. As Charles Whitman did not leave an explanation for his actions, no one knows what was going through his mind. I can't imagine that it would have made any more sense to me than Brenda's "explanation."

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Let them eat cake, part II 

I wrote the first part of this cake series two weeks ago, and I'm just now getting back to it. I think there will be 5 parts; this could take a while. When we last met, I had finished baking Maida Heatter's Torta di Cioccolata, and taken a Sunday afternoon nap.

On Sunday evening (in early January, 1993), several friends came over for Torta di Cioccolata and port. They crowded around my kitchen table, and we chatted while I whipped cream. My then boyfriend Gary opened the bottle of port, and poured it into an assortment of small glasses. I brought out the star of the show, my freshly-baked chocolate torte, dusted with confectioner's sugar. I was tremendously pleased with at least the aesthetics of this foray into baking; my friends oohed and aahed. I was hoping that the torta would taste as good as it looked.

"That cake looks like you bought it," Annie teased. Her husband Jay chimed in, "And your kitchen's too clean - you can't have baked this today."

"I should've left all the dirty dishes in the sink, just to prove it," I laughed. "And then you two could've washed."

I sliced and plated; they passed plates around the table, and spooned dollops of whipped cream onto their cake. We toasted ("to cake, and port, and friends with whom to share them"), and then tasted: cake with cream first, then just cake, then cake with port drizzled on it. The torte was very good: dark, rich, and moist. I thought, however, that it might not be the perfect complement to a good vintage port. My friends agreed much too easily, and strongly suggested that I test another recipe. It was obvious that they just wanted more cake.

Two weeks later (so perhaps there is a rhyme or reason to my pacing of these episodes), I prepared for the second tasting. I baked another flourless cake, also from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. Like the first cake, this one depends entirely on beaten egg whites for its lift. Unlike its Italian cousin, in which ground almonds do the work of flour, this French "cake" really is a souffle of sorts. Chocolate, butter, sugar and eggs -- what more does one need? Perhaps a splash of liqueur, a bit of salt, but that's all.

Torte Souffle au Chocolat (recipe Maida's, words mine)

4 ounces (4 squares) unsweetened chocolate
6 ounces (6 squares) semisweet chocolate
5 ounces (1 1/4 sticks) sweet butter, cut into 1" pieces
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
7 eggs (graded large), separated
1/3 cup Grand Marnier
Pinch of salt

Set oven rack 1/3 up from bottom of oven; preheat to 300 degrees. Butter an 10-inch diameter, 2-1/2-inch high (or more) spring-form. Line the bottom with a round of baking parchment cut to fit; butter the paper. Dust all over with flour (I like cocoa powder better for this), then invert and tap lightly to remove excess.

Melt both chocolates and butter together in a double boiler over medium. Cover until partly melted; uncover and stir until melted and smooth. Remove chocolate mixture from hot water and allow to cool slightly, uncovered.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with 3/4 cup plus one tablespoon of the sugar. Beat at high speed until very thick and pale, about 5 minutes. On low speed, gradually add the Grand Marnier, then the tepid chocolate mixture, using a spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl. Beat only until mixed.

In another bowl, add salt to the egg whites with and, with clean beaters, beat until they hold soft peaks when the beaters are lifted. On lower speed, gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar; increase speed until whites hold firm peaks. Using a large spatula, add about 1 cup of the beaten whites to the chocolate mixture, fold in. Fold in another cup. Then fold in the remaining whites, only until the mixtures are blended. Turn into the pan; rotate pan between palms to level mixture.

Bake for 1 hour at 300 degrees; lower oven temperature to 250 degrees and bake 30 minutes more. (When the temperature is lowered, the cake will begin to sink; do not despair.) After the cake has baked for 1 1/2 hours total, turn off the oven. Open the oven door a couple of inches, and allow the cake to cool in the oven.

When the cake has cooled completely, remove it from the oven and remove the sides of the spring-form. Cover the cake with a rack, and invert; remove the pan bottom and parchment, then invert the cake onto a serving plate.

This is one of those cakes that, in Maida Heatter's words, requires camouflage. The top cracks as it settles; it is not beautiful. What to do? Whip some cream, of course!

To be continued...

Sunday, February 06, 2005


When we had the house painted... hmmm... three years ago, we took down the small, ugly house numbers that were adjacent to our front door. Since then, we've been looking for house numbers that we like. The difficulty was in finding a font in which we liked the particular numerals in our street number. You'd be surprised how many fonts with otherwise nice numerals have a really dorky "1" or oddly proportioned "0".

In the meantime, we've had a house number "plaque" that Paul made using a sheet of 8.5x11 paper, a black Sharpie pen and tape. The numbers were really quite nice, but the materials not particularly durable.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, we finally found house numbers that we liked. My parents gave them to us for Christmas. Really, they gave us the money with which to buy them, and it took us several weeks to get down to the store to pick them up.

Last weekend, I made a paper template, on two sheets of 11x17 paper, showing the locations of the numerals, and the precise spots at which the pilot holes for screws should be drilled. I've seen these templates many times, as professional sign companies use them for installation of signage with individual letters and numbers. They now use computers to generate templates; the "technology" that I used is as antiquated as hand-drafting.

Yesterday, Paul installed our new house numbers. At the time, it was sunny, and the low winter sun on the thick numerals cast deep shadows against the column. By the time I took this photo of Paul presenting his handiwork, the sky was overcast, so they don't look quite as striking. Still, we like them a lot.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

First signs 

It's February in Seattle. Although the skies are often gray, and the nights still come early, we've had a fairly mild winter. This pot, which sits on our west-facing front steps, gets all of the afternoon light that these short days have to give. It has rewarded us for placing it here with this tiny riot of color.

These flowers are for Jen, with whom I was chatting when I posted them, and for Michael, who wants more flowers in his life.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Feline Friday 17: On the couch 

Earlier this week, "psycho-therapists" Sigmund, Carl and Alfred addressed what they see as the psychopathology of pet blogs. Starting with the premise that "animals do not blog," they went on to describe those of us who blog about our pets as... well, see for yourselves:

Posting picture of your pet is another revealing aspect of your sorry ass selves.

Now hear this: cats, dogs, fish, etc., are like Volkswagons [sic] (and babies)- if you've seen one, you've seen them all. That's right. Digital images of your pet, so lovingy [sic] posted on your blog or website, are like posting images of rocks. There are only so many angles from which a rock is fascinating. While the rock may hold a certain fascination for you, it does not hold that same fascination for the rest of us.

In extremely broad strokes, their "analysis" painted us as using our pets to meet neurotic needs, and pet blogging as providing a window into the perverse and unrealistic expectations and beliefs that we have regarding our relationships with our pets.

I don't take offense easily, but this stung. I know - because I've done my time on the couch - that emotional reactions are worth examining. So, I'll hop on the figurative couch now, and free associate for awhile about my cat blogging.

"Well, docs, for the past week I've been -- Oh, you want me to start at the beginning? Look, I really don't want to talk about my childhood today, but I'll talk about when I first started cat blogging.

" My husband Paul and I write this blog, Paul vs. the Squamous Monster, about Paul's diagnosis last January with oral cancer, his subsequent surgery, and the ongoing process of his recovery. Yes, I know I've talked about this before, but I feel like you aren't really paying attention to me. Where was I? Oh, yes, the first time that I ever wrote about the cats... Not quite a year ago, I was having a really difficult day dealing with medical insurance and second opinions, but there was a moment when Sasha made me laugh out loud. Simple laughter, uncomplicated by sarcasm or fear -- have I told you what a rare thing that was in our house then? It was so blissfully normal to be amused by the antics of my cat, so I wrote a post about it. I figured all the folks who stopped by every day to see how we were doing might enjoy something light and a little funny.

"Paul'’s surgery was at the end of February -- it's been almost a year now. He was in the hospital for 12 days. The cats were not used to being alone so much; when I was home, they were all over me. After Paul came home, I was busy taking care of him, and writing about how he was doing, so I didn't write about the cats until Lyra went missing. Paul and I were really upset; we didn't feel like we could handle more loss. We were so relieved when we found her.

"In August, I started this blog. I wanted a place of my own, a blog that didn't focus on Paul's illness. It needed a name, and I thought about this quotation from Albert Schweitzer, about music and cats and life's miseries. It's right over there near the top. What? -- Yes, maybe it is sort of a depressing sentiment. I was depressed. Paul was even more depressed, but at that point I hadn't been able to convince him to see a therapist. I was afraid that my office was going to close, and I didn't feel like I could bear to look for a new job. Our cats and my music really were two of the most comforting things in my life.

"See, docs, our cats really don't care about many of the things that we humans worry about, and that's one of the reasons I love them. They don't care whether I'm depressed or happy, whether I've just lost my job or gotten a promotion. While Paul is sensitive about the effects of his surgery, the cats don't care that he has a scar from ear to chin, or that his speech is sometimes thick. These things are of no consequence to them. They want simple things: food and water, a clean litter box, a warm place to sleep, and toys to hunt. They like to be cuddled and brushed and petted; I think that indicates some sort of "mother issues" about bathing and grooming, but you're the expert on those thing. They like the sounds of our voices, probably because they associate our voices with getting all those other things they like.

"Oh, right, I was going to talk about why I post photos of and write about our cats, not why I love them. You remember I said that I was depressed? And that being able to laugh at Sasha's antics felt normal when so much of my life did not? Well, I really wanted this new blog to be about the normal, everyday things in my life. Not that I felt like my life was back to normal... not by a long shot. But our cats, they're such beautiful, healthy animals. So I posted some photos of them. Was it a way of presenting my life as more normal than in fact it was? Perhaps so. Then one of my readers commented, 'Not enough cat photos. How about cat photos once a week?' I wasn't sure about once a week, but after a while I decided, well, why not? That's when I started Feline Fri--

"Oh, we're almost out of time? OK, before we stop, I just want say this..." (click to continue)

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Wearing red 

When Evelyn walked into a room, everyone felt happier. It wasn't because she was beautiful, though she had sparkling blue eyes, a lovely smile, and masses of wavy blond hair. It wasn't because she was talented, though her soprano voice was high and clear, and she was an intuitive, graceful dancer. It wasn't even because she was bright, charming, and had a wicked sense of humor. While all of those attributes were part of the lovely person that Evelyn was, her greatest gift was the joy that she found in life, and her ability to share that joy with those around her. Evelyn just made people feel good.

Five years ago this spring, my dear friend Evelyn had a massive heart attack. While doctors eventually resuscitated her, they were too late; she no longer had brain activity. All of her marvelous vivacity, talent, humor and gentleness were gone. Her husband Mark, the minister who officiated at Paul's and my wedding, made the gut-wrenching and generous decision to donate Evelyn's organs to people who needed them. When I think of Evelyn now, I wonder who may be alive, or no longer on dialysis, or seeing more clearly because they now have some part of Evelyn's body in their own.

Evelyn was 49 years old. She had no history of heart disease.

Tomorrow is the second annual National Wear Red Day, on which Americans are asked to wear red to raise awareness that heart disease is the #1 killer of American women, and that cardiovascular disease of some sort kills 1 in 3 American women. Wear Red Day, and the Red Dress campaign, are part of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's The Heart Truth campaign, and the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women program. Both organizations have a wealth of information on the risk factors for heart disease in women, and on the symptoms of heart disease and heart attack, which are often different for women than for men. Please look at this information. Consider whether you or someone you love might be at risk. If someone you love is at risk, tell her. Tell her that you don't want to lose her. If that someone is you, please take care of yourself. That's what I'm going to do; I'll be back at the gym (where I have not been for months) in the morning.

I'll be wearing red tomorrow for women who may already have heart disease, or may be at risk for developing it. What that really means is that I'll be wearing red for all of us. And I'll be wearing red for Evelyn.