Thursday, December 22, 2016

Expressions of love with a nod to the Woozy Works

At the beginning of December, while S was at work, I hunted down some hazelnuts at the local Fancy Grocery Store. My purpose: to surprise S by baking Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars), the German Christmas cookies that most remind him of home. I toasted the nuts in the oven, then rubbed them between my hands so the bitter husks would drop off. This left my hands delightfully warm and soft, but used up all my baking energy for the day. I swore E to secrecy and hid the toasted hazelnuts in a container in the back of a cabinet. After two weeks, I pulled out the container, thinking I would make the cookies that evening--that rather than the cookies themselves being the surprise, the act of having found and toasted hazelnuts and kept them secret until I could bake the cookies could be the surprise. But S came home before I started baking, our evening turned to other things, and the nuts became snack food rather than cookies.

This morning, I finally pulled out the digital kitchen scale (because Zimtsterne are German cookies and therefore all about mass rather than volume). I supplemented the 239 remaining grams of toasted hazelnuts with 61 grams of raw almonds, weighed out 300 grams of powdered sugar, let four eggs come to room temperature, got sidetracked by a phone call, became further distracted by a text message from E about SAT tests, and took a break to gripe with friends about standardized testing. 

Then I pulverized the nuts in the 20-year-old Cuisinart with the recently recalled defective metal blade, separated the eggs, started whipping the egg whites, and then remembered that the recipe calls for setting aside 2-3 tablespoons of meringue which is NEVER enough. So I added an extra egg white, approximated an appropriate extra amount of powdered sugar, dumped all the sugar into the whipped egg whites WITHOUT sifting and all in one fell swoop rather than ONE f*&%ing TABLESPOON AT A TIME, beat for maybe 5 minutes max instead of 20, added the juice of half a fresh squeezed lemon (the recipe calls for "a few drops"--which, while quaint, are undetectable when facing off with two cups of powdered sugar and five egg whites), beat again, and set aside one cup of meringue.

Then I combined the ground nuts with the meringue and two teaspoons--meh, make that a tablespoon, close enough--of ground cinnamon. The dough was super sticky, as always, with a tendency to spread, as always (even when the recipe is followed to a T), so even though I love my family, I had zero interest in dusting the countertop with ground nuts and/or powdered sugar and pressing out the dough to cut it into stars before gently placing each star on a piece of Back Oblaten (thin flour-starch baking wafers that keep sticky batter from adhering permanently to baking sheets and of which we currently have none). Instead, I tossed a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet, spread out the dough, baked it for 20 minutes, took it out of the oven, spread the remaining meringue on top, put it back in the oven, and thought of my great great grandmother Jenny, of whom my grandmother Woozy reminisced fondly:
She analyzed her housework. It was clear that the children had to be fed, even though she was sure that a good and just world would find a more sensible way of doing it. There were some choices. She could mix eggs and flour, salt and water into a dough, hit it firmly on the table a hundred times to develop the gluten, place it in the center of a white tablecloth and gently with the backs of her hands stroking the underside of the dough, run around the table for an hour stretching the most gorgeous strudel dough on the block, and then shell and chop the walnuts, peel and chop the apples, soak seed and chop the raisins, mix in sugar and cinnamon, spread on the dough and dot with butter, roll and bake, but she said it not only killed the whole day but you ended up with a dead head too, so she put a bowl of apples and a bowl of nuts on the table and read Paradise Lost instead.
Pictured below: Zimtsterne 2016, cooling and waiting to be sliced into bars, which rhymes with "stars" and will have to do.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Updates: politics, penguins, pets, and personae

Were he still living, "Aged Reader" would be sending me the occasional nudge to blog. Alas, he is not and does not, so I have been negligent about keeping things current. Some updates are in order, and I believe Aged Reader would be appalled by some and proud of others.

Generally, I try to keep this space apolitical, because I have three different professional personas to project/protect (musician, potter, writing teacher), and sometimes people actually read what I write here. Today I throw caution to the wind. As I type, I am listening the News & Observer's live-stream video of protesters at the NCGA, where state Republicans are showing the world that they believe in neither democracy nor due process. Shame on these power-hungry connivers for their years of self-interested sneak attacks and subterfuge, and for this particularly egregious disregard for the people of this state. The ends do not justify the means; appearances and process matter. Shame. Shame. Shame. We'll see you in court.

How does one shift topics from appalling political transformations to more mundane things like pottery and pets? Well. You can see why it has been hard to blog this year. Stepping up to the plate to aid in the switch: a community-building environmental-activism local-to-international art project.

Much of what could have been blogging energy this year was redirected to The Potters' Penguin Project, with updates posted semi-regularly at I've inventoried 1,627 of 1,700+ birds to date--each one different, each one with its own personality (penguinality?), each one made by hand by one (or sometimes two or three) of 250+ makers. Most of our penguins originated in the NC Triangle area, but we've received birds from as far west as Arizona and as far east as Spain and Germany. The generosity of the makers--kids and adults, amateurs and professionals, friends and strangers, teachers and students--has been stunning and heart-warming, and it's been pretty spectacular seeing each penguin up close.

This would be a logical point to insert an image of the Far Side cartoon with the sea of black-and-white penguins, where one penguin in the distance is exuberantly singing "I gotta be me, oh I just gotta be me!!"--except that Gary Larson posted an online letter in 2008 asking people not to re-post his cartoons. That letter is reproduced here; the original source is no longer available, which is evidence either of an expired site or that the request was for an obviously losing battle. The penguin strip is all over the interwebs, of course, as a Google search demonstrates. In any case, my point is that while Gary Larson mocked that singing penguin's sense of special snowflakeness, every penguin in the Potters' Penguin Project colony truly is unique. (Note the placement of the adverb: "truly is unique," not "is truly unique." As I tell students in my writing workshops, unique means "one of a kind," and it doesn't make sense to say something is truly one of a kind, as opposed to only sort of one of a kind. Thus is every penguin, truly, unique.)

Yesterday was the official deadline for penguins to join the colony, so counting incoming birds will be high on my to-do list as 2016 winds to a close. The project will exhibit at Claymakers between January 10 and February 11, 2017, and in April/May, a contingent of penguins will represent the colony at the Greensboro Science Center (where one can see real live endangered African penguins up close).

From penguins to pets....Patient readers might recall that we adopted a new cat in April following the death of Homer Wells. FindusBabyCatBiteyBeauDrJekyllandMrHyde has become a little less bitey than he was in April, but he remains edgy and vigilant--vigilant not in the protective way of Miss Maggie B., nor the professional on-duty way of Schroeder, but rather in a psychotic way that suggests he knows the world cannot be trusted, no matter how much kibble you feed him or how many times you let him in or out or in or out or in or out the back door onto the porch. He doesn't like being touched unless he initiates the contact, but he's an expert at sucking up to strangers--the talent that suckered us into adopting him. Last week, he destroyed three handmade mugs and tried climbing inside the piano twice. Here is a video of him in jail, followed by some photos of him at his finest.

Schroeder, meanwhile, has given up playing fetch. We lost Preferred Carrot shortly after Homer died. Schroeder will gift us with other finger puppets, but he has no interest in retrieving them if we throw them down the stairs. Instead, he has turned his attention to a life-sized stuffed kitty toy that he carries by its neck up and down the stairs. When we go to bed at night, he brings it into bed with us and humps it. When we wake up in the morning, he humps it again, and when we go downstairs, he brings it downstairs. Occasionally, he tries feeding it by dropping it next to--or in--his food dish. In the evening, when we sit on the sofa in front of the fireplace, he retrieves his plush toy, jumps onto the sofa with it, and humps it. His obsession is all the more remarkable because the plush toy is big enough to obscure his line of sight: Schroeder jumps from floor to bed/sofa without seeing where he's going, and he has yet to miss his mark (although sometimes he'll land on FindusBabyCatBiteyBeauDrJekyllandMrHyde). He purrs a lot, seems happy, is a genius, and is neutered, so we set aside our prudishness and let him have at it.

In other news, alter ego Robo Revenger has returned. Robo Revenger responds to spam callers so they have less time to call you, dear readers. This fall, Robo Revenger spent a good ten minutes talking with pseudo-Mikrosofft scammers phishing from the Indian subcontinent. I managed to capture most of the conversation in a video recording (see below). The first 1.5 minutes are excellent; my high school classmates might enjoy the reference to Four Square just past 1:00. I'm also partial to the two minutes starting ~3:10. The first "f*&% you" is ~5:22. The stuff about how to count desktop icons ~5:35-7:03 is fabulous, yielding a nice stream of "f*&%-yous" ~7:04. The part from 7:00 to the end demonstrates how to remain chipper and polite in the face of adversity. Really, the whole thing is a Robo Revenger tour-de-force.

A week later, the Mikrosofft phishers phoned back. Robo Revenger had barely gotten out the video camera and started misleading the callers when a real live human knocked on the door. Robo Revenger asked the spammers to please call back in ten minutes--and they did! Add that to your toolbox, people, and remember to always use your superpowers for good. (And if you really care about preventing spam calls, add your voice to the chorus at the Consumers Union.)

Sunday, December 4, 2016

More sunrise eye candy from Ocracoke

Belated Ocracoke images from last week... My favorite thing to do on Ocracoke is to walk, pre-dawn, on a path through the wetlands to the beach to watch the sunrise. On Thursday morning, that effort was rewarded with an unexpected spectacle involving thousands of cormorants and other birds flying over from the sound side and spending a good twenty minutes zipping northward along the water's edge. We returned to the beach Friday morning, hoping for a repeat performance. The cormorants were nowhere to be seen, but pelicans were more abundant than they had been the morning before--or perhaps their numbers were easier to see without all the cormorant chaos. On Saturday, we saw fewer birds, and a squall line blew in just in time to obliterate the sunrise--but the dolphins were out in force. A new treat each day. Photos and videos below.

Thursday a.m.:

Friday a.m.:

Orion and Canis Major

Crescent moon and Venus

Clouds heading our way

Pre-sunrise--fog starting to roll in...

...but we could still see the moon.

No more sun. It went from foggy... foggier...

Then the sun rose over the clouds, and the fog dissipated.

Pelicans were abundant

Saturday a.m.:

Apparently we walked faster, as we arrived with 40 minutes to spare...

See that dark line of clouds to the left on the horizon?

Cold, wet weather blew in impressively quickly.

Goodbye, hint of impending sunrise...

On the bright side, E finally had enough wind to fly a kite before lunch...