Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015, a Good Year for Life Birds

Well, I didn't have nearly the exciting birding year that some people did, but it was quite satisfying nonetheless. I didn't spend as much time twitching in Central Park in 2015 as in the past few years. Partly that was due to a torn hamstring/torn ligament combo that spanned Thanksgiving 2014/January 2015, and caused me to spend the first half of 2015 limping about with a cane and extreme caution. While walking was part of therapy -- along with many, many leg lifts and stretches -- the uneven ground in the park was uncomfortable at first. So it wasn't until late in spring migration that I really got out and about again.

Once the leg was mostly fully healed, hiking up and down the hills of the North Woods and the Ramble became positively therapeutic besides enjoyable. And handling the binoculars and camera was much easier without the cane needing attention. I didn't see a lot of spring migration but did have a few really good days, shared with Ed and with other friends. No life birds, though, at first. And there wasn't much to see in the summer except for the usual suspects, so I didn't make much effort to follow Ed on his weekend bird hikes again until the fall migration began.

There were opportunities away from the city. Our annual summer trip to the Catskills got Ed several life birds over the past few years, and this year I got one too: I finally saw a whole field full of Bobolinks! There were many pairs breeding in an uncut hayfield just one driveway past our friends' farmhouse -- twittering their odd song, flying up to the surrounding power lines perhaps to distract predators, perhaps just to keep an eye on the territory.

My photo, not Ed's
I was feeling kind of lazy to visit Central Park until migration began, when some really cool birds began moving through. In mid October, an injured Sora was spotted in the North Woods. Ed saw it several times, and I finally saw it too not long before it disappeared. This is one of Ed's photos of it, as I had stupidly forgotten to recharge my spare camera battery and therefore was unable to shoot the darn thing myself. Not that it was visible for very long when I was there.

Ed's photo, not mine
We also had a few really good October days seeing warblers, kinglets and woodpeckers -- there were a dozen Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the elm trees between the Pineatum and the Reservoir one afternoon -- but nothing else really new. Then in early November reports began of a Great Horned Owl in the Ramble, I'd missed the previous bird in 2012, I wasn't going to miss this one! So I was there the second weekend he/she was hanging out. I was well rewarded with a gorgeous autumn day, and the sight of a GHO's extremely fluffy butt, seen from below.

My photo, on a really windy day the owl did not enjoy
There was also an extremely lost and scruffy Western Flycatcher (which doesn't exist, as the taxonomy splitters claim that species is actually 2 different species THAT LOOK THE SAME) hanging around near the Boathouse, and we were happy to bring friends to see it same day as the Owl. Alas, the flycatcher soon disappeared from the park. We fear it met a sad end.

Then in December a Painted Bunting appeared in Prospect Park, and there's no good excuse for that bird to be in Brooklyn. It became quite the celebrity. We HAD to see it, despite my birder friend in Ft. Lauderdale noting he had a dozen of those a day at his backyard feeders. As I grew up living a block away from Prospect Park, I was especially pleased to return to the site of my earliest birding adventures. The Bunting was gorgeous. It glowed, as if it were painted with fluid from blue, red and neon green glowsticks. It also wasn't hard to find, as there were nearly 100 other birders tracking it.
I didn't get excellent photos of it, but Ed decided to return the next day and got lucky.

He's right there in the middle. 
As we walked from the skating rink to the Zoo, along the eastern shore of the Lake, we spotted a few ducks. One of them turned out to be a female American Widgeon -- and that was my sixth life bird for the year! If I'd only gone with Ed back to the park, I'd have gotten a seventh -- a Black-headed Gull has also been hanging out in the Lake, but I've been entirely too lazy to nab that sighting. Wouldn't be the first time. Or the last.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Roasting Vegetables the RIGHT Way, MY Way

All the cookbooks and cooking shows are wrong. All the nice trendy little packages of "vegetables for roasting" in the gourmet markets are misleading. You can't just fling a raw vegetable into the oven and expect gourmet delights on a weeknight. I've tried and tried.

As much as I love baked potatoes and roasted sweet potatoes, I know they take an hour no matter what--proper technique requires a deep center cut and a couple of cross-cuts, a bit of oil rubbed on the skin, and a piece of foil to keep the oil from dripping--and plan accordingly. I tried so many times to make cut-up roasted potatoes in a pan, but even with generous glugs of oil they just wouldn't cook properly. So I tried boiling them first, remembering the fantastic roasted potatoes with bacon my mom used to make. Success!

So what you SHOULD do, is trim and chop the vegetables, put them in a pan of cold water, and bring them to a boil for about five minutes--the outside should just be softening but the insides should still be firm. Then dump them in your roasting pan, add a few good swirls of olive oil, plenty of salt and pepper, and whatever herb or spice flavors you fancy. Heating the roasting pan with some chopped bacon in the bottom for ten minutes will add more flavor. A wide, shallow pan is best for crisper results. Too much oil makes a soggy mess in the bottom of the pan.

Purple carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips, etc.
You might nestle seasoned pork chops, chicken legs or breasts, giant shrimp or other animal protein delights among the vegs. Don't forget to toss well. Put in a nice hot oven, anywhere from 350 to 400 degrees (depending on the accompanying protein) for about twenty to thirty minutes, depending on degree of browning preferred. Toss and stir once or twice. Done!

My favorites for this technique include white/purple turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, orange sweet potatoes, white Asian sweet potatoes, cauliflower, celery root, carrots, yellow or pink beets, russet or purple potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. Radishes are good but a little bland. Pre-roasted or frozen chestnuts are excellent to toss in the pan. Onions, butternut squash, and fennel slices do NOT need any precooking, nor do sliced apples or Bosc pears.

Brussels sprouts, Yukon gold potatoes, parsnips, butternut squash
Seasonings are a lot of fun with so many bland, starchy veggies involved. I like herbal blends like Herbs de Provence, or Fines Herbes plus extra thyme. Seasoning should be STRONG. Recently I used some Penzeys Spices Turkish seasoning (salt, garlic, cumin, black pepper, oregano, sweet paprika, sumac, cayenne red pepper and cilantro) for parsnips, turnips and sweet potatoes, and added a few tablespoons of maple syrup too. Of course, using grated cheese transforms the dish into something more like a gratin.

Chickpeas are a great addition too.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Habenaria rhodochila, Superstar

I love love love love love terrestrial orchids. I've been growing several kinds for many years now. While it seems silly to "waste" precious indoor light garden space on plants that vanish entirely for half the year, it's not much sillier than growing other species that bloom sparingly. And for that half year underground, they're no trouble at all!

My pink Habenaria rhodochila has been very happy for the past six years, but I've never been thrilled by the flowers. They're wimpy. The color isn't bad, but the shape is blah -- too open, compared to others I've seen And no matter how close to the lights I put the developing new shoots each year, the plants end up stretched out. But it still blooms like crazy! And this year, the ever-growing tuber put up a whopping seven new growths, five of which bloomed! I really can't help but love the darn thing, even if those flowers only last a week. A WEEK. Well, having five spikes stretched the flowering period to about a month. But really.

Being nevertheless eager to expand my collection, I was happy to win a tiny plant of the orange form of the species at auction. It came from my friend Ron Midgett at New Earth Orchids, who has excellent taste in Habenarias. I figured it was a good bet the flowers  would be decent, but didn't expect any until 2016.

Surprise! The tiny plant grew and grew over the summer, and soon put up a spike with several buds. It took a long time for those buds to develop. Good? Bad? Neither? The stem is really straight, really sturdy. Then the buds started to open...

This plant's flowers aren't wimpy. They're amazing. And they've been open over two weeks already. I took the plant to work in a cereal box wrapped in plastic bags, then on an express bus for a trip to the Greater NY Orchid Society show table, and wow, not one sign of wilting yet. I hope they make it to the Manhattan Orchid Society show table next week!

Everyone wants to see it next year, when the plant is bigger. I just hope like all hell I don't somehow manage to kill it this winter...I'll be VERY careful once it settles in for its seasonal nap.

ADDENDUM: The flowers ended up lasting FIVE WEEKS. The plant is now (very early January) thinking about going dormant.

Knitting up Bugga!: Green Dragonfly Fern Hat

I'm a certified sucker for cool yarn names and cool pattern names.

Want to sell me armloads of yarn? Slap a name on it like Flamboyant Cuttlefish or Golden Tortoise Beetle or Amber Trinket, and I'll happily fill my shopping cart to overflowing.

"Oh I just love that yarn in colorway 342!" just doesn't have the same pizzazz as "That scarf will look great in Malabrigo Mechita "Mandragora!" I quite understand that most huge yarn companies are reluctant to worry about color names when they change them every year. But still.

Want me to buy your pattern? Call it Parseltongue Hat, Iron Maiden, Sea Dragon Shawl or Hypernova Shawl. I often feel disappointed by the relatively colorless names given to patterns in the knitting magazines--or worse, when the project is named for the color of the yarn they picked, not some unique attribute of the design. An indie designer on Ravelry of course has to market harder than Vogue Knitting; a great name becomes an insider byword. Say "what a gorgeous Leftie!" or "I can't wait to finally cast on a Honey Cowl!" and a whole lot of folks in the yarn store will chime in.

So, "Fern Hat" isn't an exciting name, but the hat does look very ferny, so that's OK. At least the yarn is called Green Darner Dragonfly. I tried so hard to use that skein sooner, as it was one of the first things I ever bought from now-sadly-defunct Cephalopod Yarns. I really wanted to use it for a shawl pattern called Dragonfly -- so appropriate, right? -- but alas the yarn was a bit too fat for a delicate lacy design.

And I still have Gather Ye Rosebuds Hat, Butterfly Sunset Beret, Song of the Sea cowl and Vitamin D cardigan in my pattern queue. So I'm good.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Knitting Up VK Live 2013: Freia Flux Twisted Rib Mitts

It gets bloody cold in New York City some winters. I dislike the "gadget" gloves on the market, that let you touch your smartphone screen through the special panels on the fingertips. I like knitting gloves. I love fingerless mitts. I love to buy colorful yarn. I really like gradient yarns like those dyed by Knitwhits. I can't resist buying pretty things I have no plans for.

I bought two skeins of Freia Handpaints Flux Worsted yarn, colorway Ultra-Violet, because they struck me like two glowing eyes from the shelf. It's a thickish yarn, single ply, dense, rich in color. I had no idea what to make of them, but initially thought perhaps a hat, perhaps a cowl, perhaps I'd mix them with something else. Finally during the winter of 2014/15, confined to the sofa by leg injuries, I decided they would look wonderful as fingerless mitts, just big enough to fit over thinner fully-fingered gloves on a really cold day. As I was spending much of December and January clutching a cane in one hand, that made a lot of sense. So I made these up as I went along. I have no regrets.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Book A Week, 2015, nearing the end...

So at of the beginning of June I'd only read 18 books of my postulated 52 for the year. Not bad for most people, but well short of my goal. I determined to do better! Crack down  and make more time! But...but...knitting! Bird watching! Orchids! Cooking! Sleeping! Yeah, yeah, excuses.

Including graphic novels/collections like Saga 4 and Saga 5, Rat Queens 1 and 2, Sex Criminals 1 and Fun Home, I've managed to start & finish -- in some cases just finish -- an additional 14 books, making my total for 2015 a measly 32 so far, with only 6 weeks to go. I just finished Tananarive Due's My Soul to Keep, not as quick a read as I first thought. I finished it thanks to a long bus ride midweek, despite also having a lot of seasonal knitting to do and a scarf pattern to write.

Finishing The Story of Spanish and The Emperor of All Maladies, which I read a few pages at a time for months and months, also count for 2015. I also finally finished Moonwise, both delightful and maddening; it went easier when we were staying in the country for a few days, where the setting of the book blended better with my mindset. Funny how that matters more for some books than others.

Reading Jazz Singing in bits and pieces as well -- it's history blended with Will Friedwald's opinions, in sometimes weird ways, but overall I'm glad I grabbed the book from a thrift store bin on impulse. It's hard to learn about the history of jazz from just liner notes and encyclopedia entries, and being partial to vocals I'm enjoying learning the stories of the men and women who shaped the genre. Good discography recommendations above all.

Hild and The Martian were both amazing, in very different ways. I picked up a copy of Hild just a week before we went to Readercon, with author Nicola Griffith as Guest of Honor. I wished I'd read it sooner!!!! so I could have appreciated her even more. Many have remarked on the book's power to transport you to another time and place in ways most fantasy authors wish they could, even though there really isn't any fantasy going on. I entirely agree. The Martian is about as different from Hild as two books could possibly be, but has a similar power to transport you to another place, inside another mind. I loved both books a lot. And I'm very happy Griffith is writing a sequel!

Three more of the best were "more of the same" books: The Magician's Land (#3 of that series), Last First Snow (#4 of Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence) and Ancillary Mercy (#3 of Ann Leckie's deservedly highly-praised series). I dearly love a good trilogy, a good quadro-trilogy, a good long series of stories sharing characters and universe. (Seeing the news on Gladstone's blog that he intends a total of 10-12 Craft books made me squeal with unholy glee.) I also finally read Scalzi's Old Man's War, but I probably won't read the rest of that series anytime soon.

I'm a little bit awed by authors who manage to world-build within the confines of a single story or novel and then -- just walk away. How do they do that?? How do their brains work so differently from mine and George R.R. Martin's and Robert Jordan's and Anne McCaffrey's???

Working hard to finish Roboteer by my friend Alex Lamb, this is his debut novel and it ROCKS. Hard SF with great characters and riveting action. I'll be posting reviews!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Seven for a Secret: My book, it is ALIVE!

Seven for a Secret on Apple's iBooks.

Seven for a Secret on Barnes & Noble NOOK.

Seven for a Secret on Kobo.

Seven for a Secret on Scrib'd.

Seven for a Secret on Inktera/Page Foundry.

Thanks to the miracles of our modern digital age, I was able to get my book published to several major ebook markets in just one evening! Still waiting for notifications from a couple. But this is pretty cool, I have to say. I was able to check the Amazon Australia site and provide a link to a friend down there. Amazing. Love it!

And, the book is also on Goodreads already, which totally surprised me. I intend to find out which market caused the entry to be generated.

Now I have to catch up posting reviews of my friends' books on Amazon and Goodreads! And return to my read-one-book-a-week attempt for the rest of the year. I was doing OK with that until I hit a few big ones...looking at my to-read pile of actual books, and the huge Kindle queue, I think I'll try to get to the shorter ones first!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

I'm About to Commit Novel: SEVEN for a SECRET

SO this is the saga of my fantasy novel "Seven for a Secret":

Many years ago, I had a vague idea for a novel and brought a few random chapters of absolute crap to my writing group. Then about 9 years ago the whole idea suddenly clicked, and most of those chapters ended up in the shredder but a few scenes stayed.

I started with an idea for a slightly magical kid in Northern England in the 60s who fell in love with blues music and went on to become a rock star. Big twist, he'd discover hidden magic talents along the way. MEH. The click I needed was to have the kid always know he was magical. In fact, he's part of a growing tribe of born witches living under everyone's radar, but becoming bolder now that society is more tolerant of those claiming magical abilities. He was born already walking a hero's journey, knowing he's special, but he's pretty sure it's a mistake...pretty sure the daring feat he's born to achieve is hardly worth achieving. Other witches beg to differ. Which of them are right?

(Yes, the Chosen One kind of story is overdone and lame, but frankly I hate the "ordinary person suddenly sprouts magic and saves the world" kind of story too. In myth, the hero is always a demigod with the gods stacked against him. So how badly can a demigod mess up? See Jason & Medea, for starters. Yes, it is popular belief that ordinary people can perform magic, even if it's just casting an evil eye from jealousy. We all ask water spirits for wishes in return for coins -- that's simple divine intercession on our behalf, similar to prayer. Divination by tarot cards, love charms with herbs and candles, they're all part of popular belief that pretty much anyone can learn magic spells if they just try hard enough. In my story, In these stories that simply isn't true. I have no opinion whether it's true in our reality.)

Eventually the story arc broadened out into 4 books. I kept adding story complications, and my reallllllllly long "teen witch blues saga" grew backwards into Gerry's traumatic childhood.

I've been shopping book 1 to agents and publishers for several years now -- alas I now realize my early pitches were just terrible, and I do still have some agent queries out there and have more to send. But at my advanced age for a never-published author, I really have nothing to lose by just getting the damn book OUT THERE so I can STOP FIDDLING WITH IT and move on and finish books 2, 3 and 4, most of which are written. So doing this is both cathartic and practical! So there.

I created my own cover for the darn thing, too.

Catasetum Karen Armstrong FLOWERS YAY OMG!!

Fred Clarke of Sunset Valley Orchids rules the orchid universe. Well, at least parts of it. The Catasetum part, certainly. He has an eye for parent plants and a knack for making incredible crosses that are new things to the eyes of the world. After all, he made an orchid so very near black -- Fredclarkeara After Dark -- that digital cameras have a hard time revealing details and many of the images are just sort of blobby. (Really good photographers are able to overcome this challenge. Not so most of us.)

I've had a couple of Catasetums for years now, and itched for another from SVO. One of Fred's pioneering efforts is to create "mini" hybrids in this group, using species known to stay small and keep their offspring small as well. Well, that fits my plans, and my light garden, mighty well! So when Fred was speaking in New Jersey last year, a friend picked out a near-blooming-size Catasetum Karen Armstrong for me. It seemed pretty much ideal for my light garden conditions based on its parentage. I took good care of the plant through its brief dormancy, and was rewarded with an enormous new growth. And was further rewarded with a spike!

Catasetum Karen Armstrong is the hybrid of Ctsm. Susan Fuchs (expansum x Orchidglade) and Ctsm. denticulatum, so it combines "old style" mega-Catasetums with the species most notably being used to create the "mini" Catasetum hybrids. CKA is a great building block parent, but it's also a great plant in its own right. I wuv it. Trouble is now I want more...

Sunday, June 28, 2015

No Man on Earth, by Walter Moudy

Yet another vintage SF paperback from our groaning bookshelves. It was published in 1964, though, so I'm OLDER than this book, and I do rather not enjoy the idea of being vintage. Still. It clearly belongs to another era of publishing, of slender action-packed novels with somewhat generic covers that looked a bit slapdash but were certainly colorful.

"A Science Fiction novel of a strange quest in interstellar space."

"Thad Stone was like no other man on Earth. Born with superhuman powers, he knew from his earliest days that he had been sired by no mortal man...In the world of 2081, Thad sets out to find his father -- a search that carries him into the farthest reaches of interstellar space. The search is long and at its end Thad discovers just why he had been given his superhuman powers..."

The back cover copy doesn't quite do it justice. A nifty story, well written. Lots of interesting touches for the space travel and confrontations.

This was Moudy's only novel, he also wrote a few short stories, and passed away in 1973.

In case you're interested, it's in very good condition, shows shelfwear, otherwise clean, binding tight, no loose pages. Berkley Medallion paperback #F987, 50 cents. 176 pages.

Sundog, by B.N. Ball

Been a while since I visited our VAST collection of (mostly) inherited vintage science fiction novels. While I was happy to see many of them find new homes via eBay, the majority still reside with us. Slowly but slowly we're working our way through them, I love the covers, and the breathless cover copy. This guy's head looks all xplody, but maybe in a good way?

This1969 paperback from Avon was 1st American printing, Prev. 1965 British publication.

The front says: "A power from outside our universe had imprisoned mankind in the solar system -- until one man dared to confront the captors."
The back cover says: "An unthinkably vast, invisible, and absolutely impenetrable screen imprisoned man within the solar system. Cut off from the stars, men applied their ingenuity to themselves, setting up a world of total control -- where even dreams were programmed."

Hm, that sounds a lot like a very popular current SF novel that's got a lot of attention!

This was Brian N. Ball's first novel. He's since produced a number of sf series and standalone novels, even including a couple of Space:1999 novels.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Book A Week, 2015 So Far

Last August I decided to Get Serious about the ridiculous To Read pile of books in our house. By reading them. Crazy, I know, but I was determined. And Goodreads made it easy to log all those books and put them in order. But it also made it easy to keep adding new books to the "want to read" list...things from hot-topic Facebook and Twitter posts about the world of authors beyond cis white guys* (of which there are MANY) (many non-cis, non-white, non-guys that is), new books by authors I already love, older books I apparently overlooked. I read mostly science fiction and fantasy right now, with a few scoops of music memoirs, history, and natural history/science. 

August 2014: Since I've got 39 books in my To-Read section on Goodreads, and lots more than that just sitting on the actual shelves of the actual house -- and a few on my Kindle-for-Android app for good measure -- this ought to be easy. Especially since most of them aren't Huge Thick Weighty Tomes, but a bunch of reasonable length novels. (Aside from Vernor Vinge's "Children of the Sky" and the final 6 books of Neal Stephensons "System of the World", that is.)

Those last 22 weeks of 2014, I read 17 new books of varying lengths. A couple were essay format ("The Mammoth Book of Sex, Drugs and Rock 'N' Roll") and so made good um, smallest room reading over the course of weeks. I finally discovered the amazing work of Graham Joyce, Max Gladstone and Hannu Rajaniemi; was pleasantly surprised by JK Rowling's "The Casual Vacancy"; was amused by my first Georgette Heyer; and rather disappointed in a few things too. (That will be a future post.)

So here is the midpoint of 2015, and I still haven't tackled "Children of the Sky" but I have finished 18 other books, including both of Ann Leckie's existing Imperial Radch novels, more Graham Joyce, and the curious debut from Ian Tregillis. I really enjoyed Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death? and its unsettling mix of tech and magic. I thought Throne of the Crescent Moon was a good first novel in a grand tradition of fantasy sword-and-sorcery, I quite liked The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, and its blunt/elegant imagining of the mind of a creature of myth. The Goblin Emperor is on the Hugo ballot, and while it's a lovely story of a young man rising to an occasion and taking the world on his shoulders, the fantasy element just isn't compelling, or really even necessary. 

I'm also keeping up with my non-fiction list, reading The History of Spanish and, when that's done, The HIstory of French. There's also a lot more music books on the shelf. I finally finished Joe Boyd's "White Bicycles" and am ready to move on to a few more stories of 60's art. There's also more Amy Stewart books about bugs and flowers. They're fun and easy to grab onto.

I'm pleased to still be close to the desired pace. Especially since the Goodreads To-Read list is now over 80 books. And those are just the ones I've remembered to list. 

NOTE: In modern America we now live in an age where ALL THE BOOKS can at least be mentioned and seen, even if far too few of the people who still read books of any kind feel the urge to find and read more than a few of them. We are finally seeing more English translations of books from authors writing in languages other than English, and not just Tolstoy and Dumas and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Umberto Eco. Now we have translated Chinese SF like "The Three-Body Problem" available, and more to come. We have more authors than ever who are writing from alternative or minority points of view, whether of culture, language or gender: Kazuo Ishiguro, Samuel Delany, Geoff Ryman, Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson, Karen Lord, Kij Johnson...all these authors are pretty accessible, and a good place to start. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Knitting Up Rhinebeck 2012: Spirit Trail Fiberworks "Nona" Cascata

My handpaint obsession nearly burnt itself out at Rhinebeck Sheep & Wool in 2012. I got lotsa stuff in gorgeous multicolors, but also a few things more muted in tones. I loved the watercolor effect of this merino, silk and cashmere blend from Spirit Trail Fiberworks. Their yarns are absolutely delicious.

The colorway being Beach Glass, seemed a natural fit with a shawl pattern called Cascata, meant to evoke flowing water. Behold:

Cascata Shawl

I LOVE this pattern. I might even make it again someday, because unfortunately the skein ran a bit short for the full pattern, but I got the important parts in! (The rest was just a lot of short-rows making a sort of collar. Not fully necessary, IMHO.)

I wore this shawl a LOT at Readercon, and it kept me warm even in the notoriously chilly Salon F. And it flings nicely, due to the soft, silky yet firm hand of they yarn. Love it.