Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Notes from a Birthday

Last summer when we attended a college roommate reunion in Colorado, our friend Linda made the group a specialty from the 1970s, a Harvey Wallbanger cake. For the uninitiated, a Harvey Wallbanger was a sweet cocktail made from Galliano and orange juice. The cake won't make you tipsy, but it does have a nice orange flavor. I decided to make one for myself for my birthday. The recipe follows.

December 29th was one of the first mild December days and evenings, so I talked my husband into going out to Rotary Gardens for their annual holiday event. The visitor center featured around two dozen beautiful handmade quilts, and a huge train set. This year there was a circus train, and a model circus, honoring Wisconsin's role in circus history. The little children and the big ones too were fascinated.

The gardens themselves were lit with thousands of lights, and visitors could walk along the paths to see the snowy fairyland volunteers had created. Apart from the usual forms like this cactus, there were white lights arching over luminaria lit paths, and a tableau across the pond, that was reflected in the water. All in all, it made for a festive birthday.
Harvey Wallbanger Bundt Cake

1 box orange cake mix (if you can't find orange, substitute a yellow mix)
1 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs
1/4 cup Galliano
1/4 cup vodka
1 3 oz. package vanilla instant pudding mix
3/4 cup orange juice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generous grease and flour a bundt pan.

In a large bowl whisk together the cake and pudding mix, then set aside. In a medium bowl whisk together the oil, eggs, Galliano and vodka, and orange juice. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix at medium speed three minutes, until smooth.

Bake the cake 45 to 50 minutes, or until a skewker inserted comes out clean. Cool in the pan ten minutes, then tip out onto a serving plate. Glaze while still warm. It makes a nice moist cake that is even better with a bit of whipped cream.

1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon Galliano
1 teaspoon vodka
Mix together until smooth, then drizzle over the warm cake. It works well to spoon the glaze into a plastic sandwich bag, then cut off the tip and squeeze.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Birthday and Book Bests

December 29th is my birthday. Here's me, at the first one, Christmas tree in the background. This one is the 58th, which seems impossible. Today I'm making a Harvey Wallbanger cake as a combined birthday cake for me and a friend with a New Years Day birthday. This isn't the best time for a birthday, with people all tired and overfed already, but there you go.

This is also the time of year when I look back over my year's reading. I read over eighty titles, and liked many of them. I've always been an avid reader, and I enjoy talking about books to friends and relatives. Recently I was startled by an offhand comment by a woman who reads primarily historical biographies. She said, "When I read I like to learn something." The implication was that reading literary fiction is merely escapism. This year my reading enlarged my mental world in many ways, taking me to places both far and familiar, challenging my ideas, tickling my imagination. I did "learn something." Here's a list of some of my favorites:

Feed, M.T. Anderson (genre fiction)
Before retiring I taught high school English, and liked to ask students what they were reading. One title intrigued me -
Feed. I checked the audio book out of the library and was won over. The story is set in the future, where interplanetary travel is a reality, and where all children are fitted in infancy with a "feed" in their brains that keeps their minds bathed in a constant stream of music, videos, internet sites, texting, and most of all, advertising. The novel portrays a world that is a logical extension of today's trends - and it's frightening. People's ability to communicate face to face, their ability to think independently, their language and even their health are all eroded. The story centers on a young man and the girl he learns to care for, both of whom have their feeds compromised at a dance club by a hacker. I found this story to be fascinating, though some people may be offended my the teens' coarse language. The audio version was especially effective because all the advertisements were produced to sound realistic, and the young narrator sounded authentic.

March, Geraldine Brooks (literary fiction)
I had heard mixed reviews of
March, but my curiosity about the imagined life of the father of Little Women's March family led me to listen to an audio version. I was caught up from the start, and fascinated throughout by the vivid historic detail of Civil War battles, hospitals, plantations, and personalities. This is not the idealized war of Little Women, and Mr. March isn't an idealized person. He thinks, worries, acts, suffers and is transformed in a very real way.

Drop City, T.C. Boyle (literary fiction)
TC Boyle has written a novel that recreates a 1960's commune filled with idealists, druggies, and drop outs from society, and then transplants the whole group to the wilds of Alaska, sort of Hair meets
Into the Wild. The real appeal and suspense came for me in seeing how the unprepared and naive free-love crowd would manage to survive with both extreme weather and trappers and gold prospectors in Alaska.

The Circus in Winter, Cathy Day (literary fiction)
This quirky little Midwestern novel grabbed me right away. Each chapter is the story of a person connected to a fictional circus based in Lima, Indiana. There is the story of the founder and his wife, of the aerial artist, the elephant keeper killed by Caesar, his star attraction, and many more. The stories have a rather melancholy tone, but each one is a little masterpiece of circus information and character study. Each chapter can stand alone, but taken together they paint a picture of people bound together by the bonds of circus life.

The Grass is Singing: A Novel, Doris Lessing (literary fiction)
How did I miss this book until now? Lessing's novel, written about 1950, is set in Rhodesia. The subject is the murder of a white woman by a native, and what led up to that event. But stating the subject doesn't come close to what the novel is really about. It is a prose poem describing the harsh beauty of the land, and a character study of the white and black inhabitants in the late 1940s. In some ways the book reminded me of
To Kill a Mockingbird, both in its flashback structure and its look at racial injustice.

The Speed of Light: A Novel, Javier Cercas (literary fiction)
"Now I lead a false life, apocryphal, clandestine, invisible life, though truer than if it were real, but I was still me when I met Rodney Falk." Javier Cercas's novel is a fascinating look at how life changes a person, the events, the people, the choices we each make - or fail to make. The main character is a Spanish writer who comes to Urbana, IL, thinking that travel will broaden his horizons, give him something about which to write. In Illinois he shares an office with Rodney Falk, a strange man, a Vietnam vet, who eventually tells the writer about his past. The novel follow the ebbs and flows of their friendship, and of the writer's career and personal issues. I was caught up in the story, fascinated by the characters, and unsure to the very end how it would all turn out.

The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie (literary fiction)
"I have lost count of the days that have passed since I fled the horrors of Vasco Miranda's mad fortress in the Andalusian mountain-village of Benengeli; ran from death under cover of darkness and left a message nailed to the door." Exhausted and exhiliarated are words that describe me after finally finishing this sprawling novel, a book so convoluted, filled with love, death, art, politics, and religion that my head is still spinning. I love the way Rushdie tells his story (Stories?), spinning them out as the princess under threat of death did for her mad sultan. In fact Rushdie was under threat of death after his previous novel,
The Satanic Verses, and that was in the back of my mind as I read the story of four generations and their loves and bids for power over each other and the rest of the world. Spicy, funny, twisted, this book is all of it - a book lover's book - a feast of words.

City of Thieves: A Novel, David Behioff (literary fiction)
I had not planned to read another book set in World War II Russia (I just finished
Child 44), but this mystery thriller came highly recommended, and now I see why. Despite some very graphic and disturbing violence, the main characters are well developed and very charming young men. While it isn't exactly a "feel good" novel, the end is satisfying. Thumbs up.

So Brave, Young and Handsome: A Novel, Lief Engler (literary fiction)
I just finished listening to this novel in audio format, and I wasted some gas just to finish the story. Set in the 1920s, a young writer makes a splash with a first novel, only to find his muse departed for a second effort. He befriends an old boat builder, only to discover the rascal has a shady past. When the older man want to go to Mexico to find his deserted love, the writer decides to come along. Adventures follow.

Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie, Edvart Rolvaag (literary fiction)
"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon. . . . Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come" The opening lines of Ole Rolvaag's 1927 story of Norwegian settlers who start a difficult new life in South Dakota is deceptively optimistic, because the the book is full of the paradoxes of the time. While the new land was beautiful and fertile, it could also be deadly. On the one hand there were acres of land to settle, so rich that wheat sprang from the earth, but on the other hand there were plagues of locusts, killer snowstorms, and isolation that drove more than one person to madness. I enjoyed this story, written in clear lovely prose, and am glad I didn't read it when I was younger. Reading it now, after I have traveled to the area, after I have seen the grasslands and an example of a sod house, and know something of my own family's story, it was a revelation. Stark, beautiful, and inspiring are all words that describe this tribute to emigrant settlers.

Independence Day, Richard Ford (literary fiction)
"In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems." So begins Richard Fords award-winning sequel to
The Sportswriter. Frank Bascombe, a divorced real estate agent, is doing the best he can to come to grips with the realities of his life and find a little peace and happiness. He deals with difficult clients, his ex-wife, his son and daughter, and his lover like the mensch he is. The action of the novel covers a long 4th of July weekend, and while plenty happens in the outside world, Frank's interior world plays just as big a role. I found the writing to be thoughtful, and the characters to be nicely developed and was sorry to see the book end. It seems like this book might sit happily on the shelf next to some of Updike's Rabbit books.

Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves (nonfiction)
My husband had an old paperback edition of
Goodbye to All That, and it had been on my TBR list for years. I had the incorrect notion that it would be dry, difficult or somehow depressing. Instead I was charmed by Graves' style, his descriptions of pre-WWI English society and school, his first hand experience of the trenches in France, and his chumming around with people like Wilfred Owen, A.E. Houseman, and T.E. Lawrence. I found the book to be interesting and informative, though I could have used a little less regimental history.

Waiting For Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, Carlos Eire (nonfiction)
"The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me." This is the opening line of Carlos Eire's memoir of his childhood in Cuba, up to and including the Revolution that deposed Batista and installed Castro in power. On one level the book reminded me of Bill Bryson's
Thunderbolt Kid because of his descriptions of his family, school and young friends in Cuba in the 1950's. But these memories have a much sharper edge than Bryson's because of the political content. Eire is understandably bitter about the way Castro's regime took away people's houses and businesses, and most of all the way people were controlled through terror. The writing is alternately funny and poignant, and I learned some uncomfortable things about the United States' role in the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver (nonfiction)
"This story about good food begins in a quick-stop convenience market." Kingsolver's story of a year dedicated to eating locally begins in a quickie-mart, but it ends on a Virginia farm with a turkey hatching her chicks. In between in the diary of a year of planting, raising, harvesting, cooking and eating. I really enjoyed reading this book, even though I no longer live on a farm, and no longer cook much (lucky me has a husband who loves cooking). Reading this I actually wanted to cook. I was so inspired I actually joined the natural food co-op where I have shopped on and off for twenty years or so, actually went to a local farmers' market and bought a sack of heirloom tomatoes to eat for lunch. I enjoyed the book also because it was a family project. Her daughter Camille added essays on eating and cooking locally, and her husband added information about organic vs. industrial farming. I was entertained (the turkey sex part was a hoot), and informed. Thumbs up.

Atomic Farmgirl: Growing up Right in the Wrong Place, Teri Hein (nonfiction)
"Gypsy, our Welch mare, seemed as tall as a house and as wild as the stallion she wasn't when she remembered the clover on the north side of the house and took off." Remembering is something that Teri Hein does well. I picked up the memoir on a trip to Portland. The book caught me eye because my grandmother was a child in Washington. She crossed the Columbia River to go to school in Hanford, a place that no longer exists as a town because the US government took it over and constructed a plant to manufacture plutonium for the Manhattan Project. My great grandfather was raised in nearby Fairfield, the hometown of this writer. Teri Hein writes about the experience of growing up on a Fairfield farm in the 1950s, and of the strange cluster of illnesses that killed friends and family after the Hanford Nuclear Reservation began releasing radioactive material. I liked the book on two levels, for the humor and love with which she describes her girlhood experiences, and also for the way she shows the harm the nuclear poisons caused for the people unlucky enough to live nearby. And of course, I felt a personal connection.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve in the Morning

7:00 am, Atwood Avenue

Nydia Rojas,
Wisconsin Poets Calendar 2008

For sure, the hours of light
will increase after the winter solstice
until the longer days of summer
arrive--energy and light--and I'll
be there taking life in
in one deep breath.

But before that moment arrives
I will have to walk the winter nights,
their silence highlighting vulnerability
or an oasis of solace where
loneliness has spread its wings,
long and deep.

The long winter nights a prelude
I should not miss. The concert
to which nature has invited me
would be incomplete
without its introduction.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mousie Must Die

Bucky, our black and white tuxedo cat, is most active first thing in the morning, and then again about feeding time at night. In between she saves energy by napping on our laps, in a patch of sunshine or at the foot of the bed. When she's active, she tears the place up. Her favorite toys are little metallic fabric mice that crackle a little, like paper. I found this pathetic critter with no eyes and a tail amputated and reduced to a pile of shredded neon pink fluff. I briefly thought about heading out of the house to buy a new one, but then reconsidered and just sewed on knots for eyes, and a bit of shoelace for a tail. The universe provides, though. Our neighbor walked over with a plate of cookies and a little white fur mouse. This is my latest quick entry for the illustrated journal.
On a more serious note, today the media will be in Janesville to record the last day of production at the General Motors plant. The facility, which has operated in this town for 80 years, and has employed thousands of workers - and also workers in associated industry - closes for good. When I moved to Janesville in 1973 the two signature industries were Parker Pen and General Motors. Now both are gone, and I'm not sure how the city will find a new identity. It will though, I'm sure. It just may take a while, and in the meantime there's going to be lots of economic pain. It's going to be a bittersweet Christmas for lots of families.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Indulging My Obsessive Side

EDM 119 - Draw some rocks

EDM 200 - Draw something lucky

I owe the topic of this post to Jana, who wrote about the same thing: a desire to fill all the empty pages in unfinished sketchbooks.  In many ways I am an ultra-organized person, with model paper and computer files, a closet organized by season and color.  But in my sketchbooks I am very very random.  I grab whatever book is at hand, and in a size I don't mind carrying. Some are small, some tiny, some larger, some in a spiral format, many not.  I started drawing for the Everyday Matters group in a set of four little books given to me by a friend when I retired.  I'm sure he thought that I'd write diaries or The Great American Novel or something literary. But I only write personal things in cheap lined notebooks that I don't mind filling with drivel. These gift books are small, the opened spread is only six by nine inches, which at first appealed to me.  Now I like to work slightly bigger.  The paper is thin too; ink bleeds through. Watercolor makes the pages curl.  Still, I started them, and I need to finish them.  Plus I've been reading about all these other keepers of sketchbooks in Danny Gregory's new book An Illustrated Life, and person after personal talks about filling all the pages.  I have a shelf of sketchbooks and none of them are completely filled.  I feel shamed here, unworthy.  OK, maybe a little lazy.

There is another issue.  I was interested in the Everyday Matters group because of the emphasis on daily sketching.  I draw most days, but not all.  It seemed to me that I could do the weekly challenges as they came up, but some didn't appeal to me.  I don't have a dog, for example, and (gasp) don't even like them much.  I didn't want to draw a dog.  I was horrified at the idea of drawing a shopping cart with all those angles and straight lines.  I try not to eat carbs much, so ice cream, noodles and baked potatoes seemed like a tiny bit of personal torture.  But, there is a part of me that wants to finish what I start,  really wants to do them all.  Other people have managed; I can too.

So, I'm taking a cue from old Nike ads and "just doing it".  I discovered that adding gesso to the thin pages allows me to do more than just pencil work, or just pen.  I've been craving color, so acrylic paint thinned with gel medium seems to work fairly well on the prepared pages. We'll see if I can at least finish one of these little format books before I break out the two new Moleskines I bought for myself last week.  

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Snowy Day

7:30 this morning, a dog walker on Atwood Avenue

All those silly people singing I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas are getting their wish. Schools are closed a second day this month, and will probably be making up the time in June. We retired folks sat by a fire sipping java and eating stollen, and just hoping the roads will be opened for Christmas Eve and Christmas day for family travel.

This poem reminded me of my childhood ice skating.  First I borrowed Dad's hockey skates and stumbled over rippled ponds in our farm fields, then later when I was in sixth grade I got skates of my own.  Then I'd haul them to school and walk during recess to the nearby rink to skate.  I fell more than I skated, and I was never any good, but I liked gliding on the ice. I dream, sometimes, of skating now.

Ice Follies
Superior, Wisconsin 1947
by Susan Kileen,  The Wisconsin Poets Calendar 2008

Jill  had Mr. Schiller's custom-made ice skates
and tailor-made costume smothered in sequins
with a short, swirling satin skirt we all envied.
The rest of us skated in the clumsy chorus line
dressed in hand-me-down skates and paper hats.

We skated as fast as we could, tripping and falling,
before the spotlight swiveled onto the featured stars.
Bernie, plump and strong, with her partner,
Frank slim and elegant, who stole the show every
year like true Olympians.

Back home in our backyard rink my dad made,
we were the champions.  Our only spotlight,
the back porch light and our faithful audience
the neighborhood dogs who ran deliriously around
and around barking and leaping, encouraging us
to try ever more daring leaps and spins.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Last Page in a Sketchbook

watercolor, acrylic, ink in Moleskine sketchbook

This sketch started out as a plan for a collage. I have an illustration board prepared, and I've gotten the papers ready, but I realized that I needed to understand what I planned to do with this complicated shape. I played and played, and finally I realized I had to just step away from the whole thing. Maybe I need a closeup, something that isn't as confusing as all the droopy branches in this plant. I'll try again later this week.
I like the plant, when I'm not trying to draw or paint it. The Christmas cactus (Zygocactus) is originally from South American jungles. Unlike a true cactus, this plant cannot go very long without water. It loves our glassed in porch with its bright indirect light and cool temperature. I read that the Christmas cactus likes temperatures around 55 degrees at night in order for it to bloom, so the porch is perfect. I trimmed some of the bracts off last spring and just popped them into outdoor planters. They rooted and grew, though none of the cuttings is blooming yet. The plant does best with well drained soil, and when it is established and rootbound.

On another note, I'm looking forward to tomorrow, when I have lunch with some retired teacher friends, pick up a framed painting that I want to give as a gift, and get my Mac back from the shop. It has been gone for over a week, and I've been using my husband's computer. I can't wait to get my files and my playlist back home. I'm guessing he can't wait to get me off his machine.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Some Holiday Pictures

Here I am, dressed up as part of a holiday open house at the Lincoln-Tallman restoration on Saturday. I portrayed Nellie Tallman, the daughter-in-law of the house's builder, and the person who lived in the house longest, from 1865 after marriage until 1915 when she moved in with her son. I showed visitors the master bedroom with its massive furniture, louvered shutters, and cold running water, then escorted them to Nellie and Edgar's adjacent room. There visitors saw some of the gifts the Tallman's exchanged, based upon entries from her diaries. This included such items as a tiny pique dress for little Stanley, Nellie's son, a child's wicker rocking chair, a tin horse, little mittens, candy, a set of Victorian blocks, some silk handkerchiefs, a pretty beaded pin cushion, some lacy sleeves to attach to a frock, and old currency. The house was decorated sumptiously, with all sorts of greenery, ribbons, poinsettias, and a different decorated tree in each room. It's a pity that more people didn't come out to see a real jewel of a home. The tickets were only $5, money the historical society needs badly for the house's upkeep. But maybe with so many people losing their jobs when the GM plant closes here on December 23, even that was too much.
The oldest glass ornament on our tree. It's scratched, but the handle and spout are still intact.
We moved our tree to the enclosed porch this year, where it is less in the traffic pattern, and cooler. This year I didn't go overboard in loading it with lights and ornaments. Only the glass balls went on, though I still may dig for the glass icicles. We like small balsams for their scent, and because on a makeshift table they are easy to decorate and water.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

December Virtual Sketch Date

paper collage, 5.5 x 11 inches

Here is my interpretation of December's Virtual Sketch Date challenge ( Being a Midwesterner, I am well acquainted with those days in winter when the world presents itself in shades of gray and brown, when the snowy earth and the dishwater sky seem indistinguishable. The reference photo was evocative of familiar winter scenes. I decided to try this one as a paper collage.
I had been saving scraps of paper by color in envelopes, so my colors were ready to go. I used a scrap of leftover 140 lb. watercolor as the base, coated on both sides with matte gel medium to keep the paper from buckling. I wanted something in a landscape orientation, with the buildings off to one side, instead of having the center of interest in the middle. So I played with a simplified sketch on tracing paper, then transferred my plan to the prepared watercolor paper. After that it was a matter of laying down layers of paper, and attaching the bits with gel medium, working from back to front in layers.

For a day or two I thought this would be the finished version. I liked the simplified shapes and quiet quality. But as I looked at it I became dissatisfied with the central shapes. The corn stubble in the foreground was more interesting than the cluster of buildings, perhaps because of its layering and complexity. So I went back and added layer to the buildings and trees. That was an improvement.

Here's my work in progress. I keep the scraps of paper in the value I want out, and the others put away just to help me keep focused on one thing at a time. I find having a container of water handy. When I get stuck, or need to tear paper, I can keep my brush in the water, preventing the gel medium from destroying the brush bristles.
When I finally decided I was finished and the gel had dried, I put the collage under a stack of books to flatten it. Thanks to the Virtual Sketch Date folks for posting the reference photo. Check there on Saturday to see how other people interpreted the snowy scene. I will be busy all day Saturday, so decided to post when I had adequate time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Snow Day in the Studio

Yesterday the weather forecasters predicted a major snow storm, so the stores were all busy with people stocking up on food and running errands. Last night I woke up and realized how quiet it was, no traffic noise at all. This morning when I took this photo it wasn't very snowy, the temperature was too high, so mostly we had sleet in the night. But since then it has gotten colder and the snow has been falling steadily all day. My painting group canceled, and my doll club meeting Christmas meeting for tonight is rescheduled. All the area schools are shut down. We aren't going out, so there is time for decorating the tree, writing cards, and working in the studio.

This is my work space. You can see the edge of my Ott light, which I love for the full spectrum light it provides. My studio is an attic room with two small dormer windows, so I need to have extra light to work. I have some of my own art on the wall, but also some by friends. You can see my homemade containers for watercolor pencils, and my glass jars of brushes. I have shelves full of materials on the table and also on shelves behind me. I had been working on a collage as my response to the December Virtual Sketch Date, but I'm not posting the results until Saturday, so I moved the actual finished picture out of the photo. I hope I can get further along on a colored pencil piece I started ages ago when I work this afternoon.

This is one of my little windows. There is just enough light to keep plants alive through the winter. I have to have green things around me in the winter, just to remind me that the world will turn green again.

I just wanted to include this 1913 Christmas postcard that I bought at our local consignment shop. The snowy day, birds, bells, and deer seem bright and cheerful. I love vintage graphics, though I'm not sure why these robins didn't escape the snow when they had the chance.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Happy Birthday Mom

Today would have been Mother's 78th birthday. Carol had lots of challenges during her life, family issues, being widowed at age 52, heart problems. When the congestive heart failure finally claimed her four years ago, she made me promise to burn her diaries, and not to read them. I opened a bottle of merlot, lit a fire in the grate, and fed the bound pages one by one, taking only the quickest glance tossing the pages on the flames. She must have felt that there were things written there that would distress her children, but the only references I saw in those quick peeks were notes about visiting town, or having her hair fixed. If she complained or told dark secrets I didn't see it. I did find five loose handwritten sheets, dated from 1954, and I kept those. Those were the days when she was a young mother, and she was looking forward to the future. This picture is Carol and me, probably 1951. She looks happy.

Mother used to tell the story about the day after Pearl Harbor. She understood that something terrible had happened, but she remembered that her mother and father forgot her birthday that year. I try never to forget it.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Grasmere Gingerbread, my version

Grasmere Gingerbread (shortbread)

Both my husband and I were English majors in college, so it's not altogether surprising we often took trips to the UK. I had a London pen pal, from 1961 until her death in 2004, so that was another reason to visit. At any rate, one trip in the 1980s was a hiking trip in the Lake District, including a stay in Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived. That little town is famous for its gingerbread, which is nothing like any gingerbread found here in Wisconsin. The actual recipe is a secret, though many folks have tried to duplicate it. Seems to me I remember the original had some preserved ginger. Their version is closer to shortbread, thin, buttery and crisp, than the more cake-like American version. I did my best to convert a British recipe to American ingredients and measurements and came up with this.

Grasmere Gingerbread
2 cups flour (can be part oatmeal that has been whirled in a blender until fine)
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
3 teaspoons ground ginger (I added a little grated fresh ginger)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 sticks butter

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees, and grease a 9X13 inch baking pan

Combine the dry ingredients. Cut in the cold butter and rub with your fingers until it resembles fine meal. Press into the prepared baking pan. It will be crumbly. Bake for 35 minutes.

Once it is on a wire rack, let it sit a couple minutes, then cut into squares. Let it cool completely in the pan, then remove the gingerbread squares and store in a tin.

If anyone in the UK has a better version, I'd love to hear about it. If you try it, I'd like to know what you think.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Cowgirl Song

Christmas, 1953 (whatever happened to Old Paint?)

A Prairie Song

Oh, music springs under the galloping hoofs,
Out on the plains;
Where mile after mile drops behind with a smile,
And to-morrow seems always to tempt and beguile, --
Out on the plains.
Oh, where are the traces of yesterday's ride?
There to the north;
Where alfalfa and sage sign themselves into sleep,
Where the buttes loom up suddenly, startling and steep, --
There to the north.
Oh, rest not my pony, there's youth in my heart,
Out on the plains;
And the wind sings a wild song to rob me of care,
And there's room here to live and to love and to dare, --
Out on the plains.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Then and Now, Plus Sugarplums

Ah, December in Wisconsin. Gotta admit, the snow can be pretty - right up to the moment when I have to chip the car out of its casing of ice, back out of our narrow driveway, and try to make it up the hill on Atwood Avenue. Think spinning tires. I really wanted to go out yesterday, but the sight of cars and trucks spinning and sliding on the road outside our dining room window changed my mind. I had tentative thoughts of going to the athletic club, but I reconsidered. So instead I worked on cards and made my husband's favorite holiday snack, sugarplums.

Those who know me well know that I rarely cook. Part of it is a lifetime battle with my weight, but more of it is that I just would rather read or work in the studio or play piano. Anyway, this is an old recipe that I clipped from a women's magazine years ago, taped to a yellowing index card. I can use the food processor, and whip these babies up in minutes.

Sugar Plums - supposed to make 36, but I used a tablespoon measure

1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 dried figs
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup flaked coconut
3 tablespoons orange liqueur (I use part coconut rum, and use the cap to measure)
1/4 cup white sugar

1. Finely chop apricots, pecans, figs, raisins, and coconut either by hand (if you're into that sort of thing), or in a food processor. Add liqueur; blend well.

2. Shape mixture into 1-inch balls by squeezing the mixture in your hand. Roll each ball in sugar. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. I don't keep mine in the icebox (can't help using my mom's old term) because our kitchen is plenty cold already.

These are better the next day, just because the liqueurs soak into the fruit. Sugar Plums keep well, if they last past the first couple days. If low fat is your thing, there just isn't any in these treats. Otherwise, they are about 35 calories each. Come on, it's fruit. How bad for you can that be?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Looking for Beauty in Punta Cana

I can't resist posting a few more pictures from our recent trip to Punta Cana.  When I travel I try to take a few photos that I can use on my computer desktop, just pretty images that will remind me of sunshine and green growing things.  I don't know what these flowers are, but they were planted all over the resort.

In addition to flamingoes, an egret fed in the decorative pools.  In fact there were little fish in the water, so this bird was there often, feeding.

The beach was filled with people of all ages, sizes and shapes.  These little girls were entranced by the water. I liked their body language and the way they were reflected in the damp sand.

I may try to paint them later, but if anyone who reads this blog wants to try to draw or paint any of the images, I'd love to see how they turn out.

Monday, December 1, 2008

On the Beach, Part Two

For the past several years I've struggled to take along wee watercolor kits on vacation, thinking to do wonderful little color sketches of our travels.  I have given it up.  The kits attract attention, are messy, and the results are rarely anything I like later.  This time I took my Moleskine and a brown Micron pen and that was it.  Simplify, simplify.  

One of the beauties of only having a notebook and a pen is that nobody plays me the least attention.  One lady carrying a book and a towel peeked over my shoulder, but most people were essentially unconscious.  Since I haven't found a nearby life study class, and like drawing people, all these sunbathers were perfect.  Most stayed still for at least a couple minutes.

The first couple days I tried traditional sketches, but then I switched over to contour drawings. I just looked at the figures, then did the best I could, only looking down two or three times to keep the relationships reasonable.  I like this one best.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

On the Beach in the Dominican Republic

One of the best things for us this year is that we discovered lots of new places - South Padre Island in January,  the Oregon coast in September.  Over Thanksgiving week we spent a few days in Punta Cana, a resort area as far east as you can go in the Dominican Republic.  Neither of us has family obligations here in Wisconsin, so we decided to go somewhere sunny and warm, and be thankful for the chance to be warm.

The beach here was soft and white, with very few rocks.  One resort after another lay at the edge of the sand and turquoise water.  Right after our breakfast, which included lots of tropical fruit and local coffee, we went for long walks on the sand.

At home our colors are all gone, and everything is shades of brown, black and gray (today there's white snow).  But in Punta Cana skies were cerulean, the water was bottle green, and most of the flowers were hot pink or orange.

We woke one morning to what sounded like migrating geese, but turned out to me flamingos cruising the lawns and streams for breakfast.  There also was a snowy egret and, oddly, a chicken.

Our building at the Iberostar Punta Cana resort was undergoing renovation, so one annoyance was the constant sound of buzz saws and pounding hammers.  But nothing could spoil the peaceful happiness of mornings before the workmen started, when we could look out over the grounds at the level of the tops of the palms, listening to the birds and drinking coffee on our balcony.  Paradise.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Early Thanks, and a Poem

5x7 inches, acrylic
Nora, 1928

This little painting is of my paternal grandmother, Nora Belle Donaldson Pierce.  I only knew her as an older woman, more than thirty years after this was taken.  I never saw her dressed up like this, in a hat and fur collar, and a rarely saw her smile. My uncle Gene says she worked hard, which could account for how serious she always seemed.

Having no children, no immediate family in the area, we decided to go somewhere warm for a few days, so we're off to Punta Cana.  We've never been there  before, but I suspect the beach isn't too different from other Caribbean beaches.  All I need is my passport, shorts, a swim suit, sun block, books and a sketchbook. Easy.

Before I go I want to thank all the people who have stopped by to leave comments on my blog. It means lots to me to have people take the time to look at my photos or art, to read what I post.  I thankful for each of you and the way you help me feel connected.  I'm thankful for much in my life, a good husband, decent health, time and means to do the things I love.  I'm a lucky person.  

By the way, I posted this painting at a web site called Watercolor Passion.  A man named Maury Kettell posts a water media challenge four times a year, and he posts what people send in to him there.  The current challenge is a painting done with only two pigments.  He is still taking submissions until December 31st.

The poem is for those of you who are preparing a Thanksgiving meal; I hope your families are thankful for your efforts!

For Thanksgiving I Will
by Judy Sepsey in the 2008 Wisconsin Poets Calendar

plan the meal, buy the groceries
thaw the turkey
pull out the napkins,
touch them up with the iron
choose the tablecloths, 
clean the house, move
the tables, set up the chairs,
get out the good dishes and silver,
find the candles I bought
last week, set the table,
find oven space for all
the food, turn on the oven,
change my clothes,
fidget until everyone
comes, because I started
too early and that's all
there is left to do.