Monday, October 31, 2011


Why is it so fun to dress up? Maybe it's the fantasy element, or perhaps just the break from routine. I'm lucky enough to work with a very merry bunch of gals, and several of us wore costumes today to celebrate Halloween.

My sartorial goal was "lady pirate", so I went to the closet and pulled out a rose-coloured flared skirt. The plan was to pin it up on one side to reveal a second (linen) skirt underneath. I pulled some lace out of the sewing stash and tacked it to the bottom of the linen skirt to give it that petticoatish air (no time to tea-dye the lace, I'm afraid):

A trip to the thrift shop yielded a black belt with ornate buckle, and a plaid cotton skirt I could cut up and use as a sash/baldric for my deadly cardboard blade:

Every pirate needs an aluminum foil dagger

I even made a nifty little rosette (which naturally included a bit of crochet) which I tacked to the top of the side-bustle on the skirt. (I was not born with the embellishing gene so this rosette was a real stretch for me).

Add a gauzy white blouse (also from the thrift shop), a few pairs of earrings, and some black boots from the closet, and there you have it.

Did I say lady pirate? Looks more like Rob Roy disguised as a schoolmarm. But that's okay. A good time was had by all.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Crisp Saturday Ride

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Cattails looking like cotton candy
Roadside carpets of gold and bronze
Clouds that could have rained but didn't

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Although rain was forecast for Sunday, Saturday was beautifully clear, so I hurried through the housework in order to squeeze in a ride before church. The air was crisp (as were the leaves on the roadsides), and the northwest wind was downright cold. Some heavy clouds were overhead when I left the house, obscuring the sun and adding to the chill, but they soon dispersed and marched grandly eastwards in a picturesque display.

My weekend rides are beginning to have a valedictory feel - I never know which ride will be the last of the season. The road is full of memories - here is the field where I saw a flock of wild turkeys; this small pasture used to be full of daisies; that's the place where the hawk flew out of the woods and over my head; over there the wild bergamot grew. So much beauty to look back on and remember.

Maple leaves like stylized flowers outlined against the sky. This would make a lovely fabric print or stencil, I think.

A cattail looking just like cotton candy, or spun sugar if you prefer. Spun brown sugar, at that.

I pass a row of pines with glowing birches hiding behind, peeking out from between the branches and reminding me of a stained glass window.

I'm not sure what this farmer is doing - discing perhaps? He's looking over his shoulder as he goes.

Ophelia comes to mind as I stop on a bridge and look down to see these maple leaves drowned in a brook.

"Leaves in the glassy stream..."

This has become a favourite corner. The glory of gold and red leaves may be gone from the trees overhanging the water, but the beauty remains.

Here are bright leaves enough to satisfy me - many of the oaks are still glowing with colour ...

...while others have dropped every leaf, and bravely face the winter without a shred of clothing.

Some very interesting vines, with dried fruit pendent like little lanterns.

A close-up of the fruit - rather a prickly variety.

The birches are also slowly disrobing and leaving a carpet of gold on the verge ...

... but there are still enough leaves glowing against the blue sky to justify a picture.

A few yards away, this wasps' nest hangs nearly over the road, looking a bit like marbled Italian paper.

A contrail across the autumn sky. Who are the people in that jet, and where are they going? What tragedies or comedies or romances are being acted out in their lives? (A contrail always fills me with a sense of mystery and adventure.)

A dark-red oak peeks over a hill.

A stubble field of corn, with a glorious background of trees and sky.

This stray cob looks like an exotic bird or butterfly in the grass. As I snap this picture I hear a motorcycle approach, and lo and behold! Mr. M pulls up. "Photo op?" he asks. He looks somehow sexy in his helmet and motorcycle gear - very manly and dashing. We chat for a few minutes, and he drives off to finish his own weekend ride. A pleasant encounter.

Here's a better view of the trees behind the cornfield. So lovely.

At the corner, I see these odd white boxes at the edge of a field. What can they be? Then it hits me - beehives, of course.

Happy bees, to have a backdrop like that.

A beautiful day and a very good ride, followed by church and homemade pizza. A rainy day of cosiness and crochet to look forward to on the morrow. Life is good.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Streusel Topping

Streusel topping is a wonderful thing. A sprinkle of this sugary buttery goodness can elevate muffins to the status of miniature coffee cakes, add texture and interest to actual coffee cakes, take the place of a top crust in a pie, and turn a bit of excess fruit into a quick and satisfying crumble.

I like to make streusel topping by ratio, which means I can make a little or a lot, depending on my mood and the intended target. The ratio I've come to rely on is as follows (all measurements are by volume):

2 parts butter
3 parts sugar (brown for me)
4 parts flour
Spices to taste

Combine dry ingredients, and cut in butter. A food processor makes quick work of this, but you can also use a pastry blender or 2 knives.

A little streusel goes a long way. For a batch of muffins, 2 tablespoons butter + 3 tablespoons sugar + 4 tablespoons (or 1/4 cup) flour should be plenty, and may leave leftovers. The cook is at liberty to eat the leftovers (the carpe diem approach) or to freeze them for future use (the wise ant approach).

Some delicious additions to streusel topping include:

Rolled oats (to equal flour amount) - this will nearly double your topping and give you a virtuous sense of healthy eating
Cornmeal (to equal butter amount) - lends an interesting crunch
Dried grated coconut (to taste) - unsweetened if possible - adds a subtle richness
Finely chopped nuts (to taste) - walnuts are a natural here but use your imagination

Here's a little something I made the other morning to use up a too-ripe pear and plum:

Add some summer berries from the freezer, and
toss with sugar, cornstarch and nutmeg
in small oven-proof containers

Topped with streusel of the rolled-oats-coconut-walnut variety, and baked at 375┬║ until the fruit was tender and the topping golden:

A lovely snack to have with tea (me) or coffee (Mr. M)

You ought to have heard the spoons scraping the Pyrex to get out the last bits of crunchy goodness.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011


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Thunder outside, warm
covers pulled up to my chin
and hours yet to sleep

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In Praise of the Public Library (with Various Parenthetical Asides, Some Pertinent, Some Merely Distracting)

It's difficult to be a book-loving minimalist. So many tomes, so little shelf space. We try (Mr. M and I) to keep our material stuff within workable limits, but we both love to read and to collect books. When we visit used bookstores ("used bookstores?" What in the world does that mean? Are there bookstores that remain inviolate? Let us rather say used-book stores) we almost never come away empty-handed. Our idea of a date is to spend an evening sitting at Barnes and Noble, drinking their excellent tea and reading the merchandise. (O tolerant B&N, you deserve your own laudatory post for allowing us to freely handle your wares and scan your magazines from cover to cover though we rarely purchase more than a beverage.)

Even better than a bookstore is the public library. Thanks to this praiseworthy institution, I can indulge my voracious hunger for words, at no cost to myself but that of time. (Well, time and the occasional late fee.) Purchasing a book is, for me, a kind of literary contract of marriage - "Do you, Mrs. Micawber, promise to love, honour, read and re-read this book, to treat it with respect and refrain from bending the spine backwards, to shelve it with care and dust it at least occasionally? If so, say 'I do'...." But the library offers me the reading equivalent of one-night stands. I request, I read, I return. No commitment required, no strings attached. In the same vein (and a dreadfully mixed metaphor) the library allows me to test-drive a book before deciding whether or not I really want to marry it - or buy it.

Another advantage to a well-stocked library system is the availability of out-of-print books by authors who are no longer among the living (and all of my favourite authors belong in this category.) Thus I can, for example, every few years or so, read through the entire hilarious Barsetshire oeuvre by the incomparable Angela Thirkell (some 29 books in all), while slowly building my own collection as I come across used copies of her work.

Public libraries also have amazing book sales. Thanks to our village library (and some short-sighted librarian who decided to get rid of these wonderful works) I am the proud owner of several P.G. Wodehouse volumes printed in the 1920s and 30s - some of them first American editions. (They're not in very good shape, but that doesn't bother me. I bought them to read, not to sell.) A first American edition of Mrs. Miniver (oh, to be able to write like J. Anstruther), with the original dust cover. Seven or eight Michael Innes novels - does anyone still read that erudite academic's whimsical and witty work? - also came from a local library book sale. All bought for 10 to 25 cents each.

I could go on - I haven't even touched on music and movies - but it's time to stop nattering. I'm headed over to the library system's website to order up a copy of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by Julia Child. An Amazon gift card is burning a hole in my virtual pocket and I'm seriously considering spending some of it on the aforementioned tome. But not before a test drive.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Drippy (and Briefly Hazardous) Ride, with the Three Great Things

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Birch leaves glowing yellow against a grey sky
Sandhill cranes singing a mournful autumn song
Rainy Sunday solitude of a country road

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In addition to the Three Great Things about today's ride, I would like to offer, in question-and-answer form, the Three Things I Learned Today.

Q: When rain is forecast, should I cook or cycle first?
A: I should just get on the bike. That way I MIGHT beat the rain. But when I choose to make enchilada sauce before riding, in an effort to save time later, the rain beats me.

Q: How water-repellent is my water-repellent wind jacket?
A: Moderately water-repellent. For about 20 minutes.

Q: What effect does a heavy drizzle have on my desire to take pictures?
A: A dampening effect.

Temps are in the upper 50s and skies are grey as I set out on today's ride. The drizzle starts about 2 blocks away from home. (The Briefly Hazardous part comes at the very end of the ride and the post. Those of you who are breathless with suspense may skip down to the final two paragraphs.)

Just outside town, I see these berries leaning out of the dead grasses, about a foot above the ground. I ought to know what plant they came from, but I can't call it to mind.

Masses of these dried flowers are nodding in the breeze (hence the blurry focus). Another plant I can't place. I'm beginning to think I need a guide to "Dried Wildflowers of Wisconsin".

I indulge myself by exploring a little side road I usually pass by (a dead-end road, but I've always wondered what was down there). It runs between marshes and opens out into wide farm fields. Two sandhill cranes rise up from the marsh and circle around and around, crying mournful cries.

I find some lovely milkweed pods just opening up...

...and a deserted little shed, all sad and empty.

Now the rain begins in earnest, and I lose all desire to take pictures for several miles, until I come to these tall, narrow oak trees, gently glowing a faded red.

More rain, more miles. My rear wheel is spraying so much water up my backside that I have to remove the camera from my rear pocket. How can I keep it handy and dry? I find to my surprise that a snug sports bra can accommodate a small digital camera and its case, in addition to the usual cargo.

Finally, a break in the clouds. I spy coloured leaves on the verge. Some delicately-tinted...

...others almost garishly bright. This is a Very Small Oak - just three leaves growing out of the grass. But it's holding its own in the autumn colour competition.

More shades of autumn. I can see this is going to be another tree-centric post. (I don't know if tree-centric is a real word, or, if so, what it means. But it sounds rather impressive. I shall be like Humpty Dumpty and use it regardless.)

A  break in the clouds and some very fuzzy cattails.

think these are larches (I should have brought my new Trees of Wisconsin guidebook). They're turning a lovely yellow-green.

Detail of a bridge railing.

Most of the maples have burnt themselves out, but here and there a few are still flaming brightly.

This wagon has been sitting on this corner for weeks now. Today I stop to see what the large dark contents are. Turns out they're tractor tires.

Possibly for this? It's standing in the field behind the wagon.

A bit further up the road, and the sun comes out to my left, illuminating the stubble fields to my right and lighting up the bronzy oaks.

Sometimes I think the autumn trees look even more beautiful against a grey sky than against a blue.

A multi-coloured horizon.

Just around the corner, pale marsh grass in the foreground with autumn-tinted trees in the rear.

As always, I have to snap a photo of glowing birch leaves.

The rain comes back. I try (unsuccessfully) to catch a shot of the water spraying off my front wheel. Can't see the drops, but it's still a fun shot I think.

I stop to shoot this red oak against the green firs. The sun pops out behind me and the leaves suddenly come to life.

Time to head home and finish making enchiladas. Just before I get back to town I have a narrow escape from two bull terriers who suddenly appear out of nowhere and begin to chase me. One of them jumps repeatedly at the bike and hits my front wheel. They are very fierce, and seem determined to take me down. "Please, God, don't let me wipe out on this wet road with these dogs here." I have dreadful visions of being worried, caught in the death-grip of their fiendishly strong jaws with nothing more than a bicycle pump for self-defense. Everything seems to happen in slow motion, but it probably only lasts ten seconds or so before the adrenaline kicks in and I finally manage to out-sprint them. They follow me for several hundred yards then finally give up. When I look back, they're sitting on the side of the road, glaring balefully at me.

When I arrive home a few minutes later and tell Mr. M the harrowing tale, he is outraged and immediately calls the sheriff to file a complaint. The dogs should be restrained, he says. Fine by me, I say. (What would happen if a child walked by, or a mother with a baby in a stroller? I shudder to think.) The sheriff, young and friendly, comes to the house to take a report, and talks to us in the kitchen while I'm putting the enchiladas together. (Chicken enchiladas - a 9"x13" panful.) As I pour the extra sauce over the top and smother it with fresh cilantro before adding a final layer of grated Monterey Jack, he says "Well, I'd better get going or I'll end up inviting myself to dinner. Those look great."  We have a pretty nice bunch of sheriffs in our county.

A good ride, though wet, with an exciting finish and a smashing dinner to follow.

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