Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Alignment

 I've been following the alignment of the moon, Jupiter and Venus for several days now and last night was spectacular: clear, not so cold, calm, quiet. I walked into the backyard and was struck by the absolute majesty of the sky, deepening to a blue-black after the sun set and allowing the brilliance of the three celestial objects to dominate the western sky.

 Here's last night (02/27/12) on the right and the plot for tonight (02/28/12) on the right. Both frames are for 7 p.m. local time.

 You can see how the moon is moving farther away from the plants and how Jupiter and Venus are huddling closer. Also compare the objects to the two stars on the right and you can see how the position is shifting somewhat. Tonight it'll be cloudy so my view last evening was even more special for being the last.

 First, a shot through some of the trees at the western edge of our property.

 And another.

 The three objects are brilliant behind an Austrian Pine.

 And then backing off a bit to give the view some perspective. The sun has set 40 minutes earlier but the horizon still glows a cheery orange.

 This is my favorite shot of the set. The two front windows (living room) of Pinehaven glow an inviting yellow while the night sky outside takes on a deeper, colder hue. The two planets and the moon seem to have drifted lazily, like smoke, from our chimney and have begun wafting south.

 Another similar view ... this "my" living room window beside the couch. My bedroom is directly above. It is an inviting view, I think. But I also consider the sights I miss every night while I am asleep.

 This wide view is the final I took as I stepped into the backyard a final time. What wonders the universe dangles right over our heads!

Added 02/29/12:

 I looked out the back door again last evening and thought I'd walk out for one final look at this fine sight. Here's what Stellarium told me I'd see at 7 p.m.:

 The moon has moved quite far away from Jupiter and Venus but the three remain is a fairly straight line. Now they're high overhead and not so easy to photograph. But I aimed up through our maple tree and this is what I saw from the north lawn:

 That maple, by the way, is at the northwest corner of the house and is where we hang the suet feeder. While I stood there in the near-dark, leaves and twigs snapped in the meadow to the north. I suppose a deer or some other animal was watching me. I made a few noises so it could be sure where I was and let it go at that.

 Finally, from the front of the house, I shot upwards and caught Pinehaven's chimney at a sharp angle. After a high of 71° (a record tied from 1976), the evening was pleasant though a little breezy. During the night I heard the wind howling and it was just 35° when I awoke at 7 a.m.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Twist & Shout

 It was a quiet Sunday afternoon and we were out of bagels. So, soft pretzels came to mind. Mom gathered the dry ingredients into a measuring cup and I mixed the dough, rolled it out into long ropes and formed it into pretzels. The result?

 We turn the oven's broiler on for the last few minutes and create the dark brown crust. A light colored pretzel doesn't appeal to me like these do. Crunchy with salt sprinkled atop - and warmed again in a microwave - they seem fresh even hours later (leftovers are best frozen).

 Here's the just-made dough, lightly floured so that it can be handled and then dropped into a greased bowl. We warmed the oven (just slightly!) and placed the bowl there for an hour. When I took it out, the dough had doubled but was somewhat sticky. I added a slight amount of flour to my hands and worked the dough a little more. I've found that rolling it and then cutting the rectangular piece into six strips works best. Each of the six is then rolled into a rope (about 18" long this time), folded into a pretzel and then baked.

 Though we didn't grease the aluminum foil, we should have. The finished pretzels wanted to sick but could be coaxed away from the foil with a metal spatula. We tried adding a light egg wash and sprinkling on coarse salt before baking. That worked well.

 Care to make some? I wrote about this at length and added a number of pictures. Just click here for the recipe and instructions.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Winter's Night's Lights

 The astronomy magazines have been writing about the bright mid-winter alignment of Jupiter, Venus and the moon. Last evening was the first chance I've had to see them huddle together as we've had night after night of heavy clouds.

 I ran the view I could expect at 6:30 pm (just barely past sunset but already dark enough for these three bright players to show themselves) with Stellarium, an open source program I find easy to use, accurate and free. Here's the view it told me to expect:

 And here's the view I got:

 A day or so before I might have seen them in a straight line - even more interesting than this triangular configuration - but, as I said, the weather would not cooperate. To say the three were brilliant would be an understatement: they commanded the western sky.

 Placing a tree in the frame gives the alignment some perspective. The triumvirate covered a large chunk of celestial real estate. It would have only been more spectacular had Jupiter been closer to the other two. But surely this trio was enough to stop traffic. How many UFO reports were phoned in?

 Finally this shot, perhaps my favorite (though it must be viewed in a darkened room to fully appreciate the backdrop of pines), taken through a gap in the trees at the western edge of our property. To make slightly dimmer Jupiter jump out, I have to increase the exposure a bit and bring the moon a little too bright.

 While I'm standing there, enjoying the view, I looked to the south, up over the barn, and saw that Orion was due south. It's my favorite for it's expansive rectangle and it's two rows of almost-perfectly aligned stars. I believe Orion, next to the Big Dipper, was the first constellation I learned as a young child.

 The three stars in Orion's "belt" (upper left) are Mintaka (top to bottom), Alnilam and Alnitak. Two of the outlying stars in the rectangle are seen in this shot ... Rigel on the right and Saiph on the lower left. In the middle of the shot is the area of the Orion Nebula Complex (M42 and M43). With a longer exposure, the varied colors begin to show themselves ... oranges, yellows, reds.

 I cannot do them justice with an inexpensive digital camera though a 15 second exposure, though blurry, begins to resolve the bluer colors and the nebulosity of the spot. The area is stretched due to the earth's rotation.

 It was a cold evening with the temperature plummeting through the 20's. The wind, at least, had mostly calmed and I wasn't too uncomfortable. These beautiful sights come so rarely that I can't help stand there and enjoy them.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Lot Like Spring

 Each day yo-yo's between a taste of winter and a hint of spring. Yesterday (02/20/12) we were on the spring end of the see-saw. While it wasn't particularly warm (we topped out at just 41°) it was calm and wholly pleasant, nice enough to come and go in a jacket if one was quick about it.

 About 6:30 pm, I was already dressed in PJ's when I walked by the back door and saw a salmon-colored plume of clouds striking straight up from the garage roof. It was a jet contrail and it was just beginning to glow with sunset's salmon hues. I grabbed my camera, found my shoes, took a coat down from the hook and hurried out the door.

 "Watch out for the coyotes," Mom said. There had just minutes before been a story on the local news about the coyote population expanding. "Are they supposed to be dangerous?" I asked her through the closed bathroom door. "I don't know what they said. Just watch out for them," she answered.

 And so I pushed out into the cool night air and walked behind the garage.

 Here's the apricot shaft of light that seemed to stand vertically above the garage roof. A jet, traveling west I'll guess, left its exhaust marking its trail some minutes before and it has already begun to dissipate. The sun, already set for 20 minutes, is no more than a glow on the western horizon but still enough to cast a warm tone on the atmosphere above my head.

 Through a gap in the pines, the western sky is ablaze with contrails, criss-crossing at every angle. If they were all vertical - and they are not - they would give the impression of flames.

 If I move a little closer to that opening, I can see ominous clouds gathered in the northwest. They are not, of course, but merely made to look angry by the lack of sun. Mere minutes later, the contrail flame cools and fades back to whites and grays. The night begins to take over.

 And here, just before I go back inside, is the sky a little later, when the coloring sun has dropped far enough west to lose most of its influence on Farmersville's sky. The clouds and contrails darken alike and cast stormy shadows from above.

Yet a little later, when the sky had faded to black, I saw Venus commanding this same western sky,. brightly ablaze with its pure white and unmolested by any clouds. The atmosphere had wrung itself out, had cleared completely and the sky had become studded with stars. Orion moves ever west, soon to leave the nighttime sky until next fall.

 The coyotes? I heard not a whimper and came back indoors with all body parts intact. I am told by a nearby friend that an exceptionally large coyote was taken in the woods behind her house (not a mile from ours) and so there is proof that they are about and healthy. I suppose they would run from me if they saw me in the dark.I would have a similar reaction.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Little Like Winter

 Though it is still cold, it is now snowing and calm, and so the greatest chill is gone from the air. I suppose the current temperature of freezing will rise to nearly 40° later today and melt what little snow (2/10") we received overnight. Though it was still snowing when my walk time came, I just pulled up my hood and headed out. The snow is falling from the south and so it gathered on the left side of my coat as I walked towards Sams, switched to the right side as I walked back out the lane. It all evens out. I am equally wet on both sides.

 I've always been intrigued by how last fall's Queen Anne's Lace gather the lightest of snows. Their flower heads, now months-dry, seem to reach like brittle fingers towards the sky and snatch every nearby flake as it falls. Where there is little snow on the ground, these flower heads seem to have been gathering in a heavy snowstorm.

 Nature must have a purpose in this way. Perhaps it conditions the seeds for next spring's planting?

 Two days ago, we dropped to 10° and Mom's second flood bedroom window (north-facing) was etched, when the day began, with a glorious coat of feathery ice, perhaps an indicator of our heating costs and an artistic triumph at the same time. How can mere molecules of water take on such intricate structures? A wide view shows the window as I first saw it from the bathroom.

 The day, in the background, has begun clear and crisp and the dark outline of the pines is etched against the blue sky. But here on the window, ice has been drawn in feathery shapes, all while we slept. These storm windows do not seem to leak air - we never feel a draft - and yet cold fingers of air apparently invade the space between the panes and write their message there with icy fingers.

 We would do well to replace the windows (probably installed in the 1960's when the house was bricked) but we paid an enormous fee to have the outside frames layered in aluminum, to protect the old wood, and it would mean starting over again with new windows. It is easier to pay slightly higher heating bills and be done with it.

 A close-up view of a small section of the pane, shows the delicate patterns left there. They truly mimic the feathers of birds and at their root, I imagine nature uses the same instructions for both. Nature repeats herself ad infinitum. It is almost a Darwinian thought: when a pattern is found to work here, it is used again there. But, no, these are not living creatures and the pattern is elemental, cast down at the core of nature herself.

 Now, hours later, the snow is slowing and the temperature has risen to 34° and our quick taste of winter has nearly ended. I button the pocket that contains my billfold and know that it can stay there a while longer.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Driving Miss Mary

I know how Hoke Colburn felt. Behind him, in the mirror, sat Daisy Werthan barking out orders.

 My mirror shows me a similar character: Miss Mary.

 Mom has always sat in right rear seat of any car we've ever driven. It is her place. When Dad died, I asked her if she'd like to move up front with me. It'd be easier to get in and out of the car there. We'd sit side by side and the conversation would be easier. We wouldn't have to be forever handing things back and forth.

 "No, I like it here," she said. "All my stuff is here."

 Thus the conversation about relocating ended.

 "I'll feel like a chauffeur," I told her. "Too bad," she answered.

 So as we tool about town, I sit alone. Driving. Humming. She sits alone. Reading. Sleeping.

 With the mirror, though, I can watch the progress of her book. I'll begin to see her listing left, slowly shifting down in the seat until she is no longer visible. When I can no longer see the top of her hair, I know that she is sound asleep. It is a rare acknowledgement of trust, her sleeping while I drive.

 Mostly the rear seat is a sort of throne where she can arrange the next stop, make mention of some sight beside the road, plan the next day's meals. I watch her survey her kingdom from there.

 Beside her, on the floor, is a box which contains her usual necessities, a sort of portable beauty parlor. It contains tweezers and clippers. A favorite drive-time pastime is to tweeze errant hair from her eyebrows, a dangerous activity while speeding down the road. "You'll put an eye out if I have to stop quickly," I tell her. "I have to do this here, The light is better," she replies.

 She keeps a roll of paper towels handy, too. No idea when they'll be needed to clean up some mess, else staunch the flow of blood if the tweezers go terribly wrong at 55 miles per hour.

 To her credit, she keeps the square foot of floor beneath her feet impeccably clean. She keeps a rag rug there, folded just so, and she'll whip it out now and again and shake it when we reach the garage.

 "Let's go to the grocery in New Lebanon," she says. "Then we can stop at the library in Germantown."

 I follow the instructions like a cabbie. After all, I'm drivin' Miss Mary.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Three Bottles

 We've been a wine-making mood. Trouble is, we make it far faster than we drink it. What's wrong here?

 Wine is not something we regularly have with meals. I tend to drink a small glass infrequently at bedtime and that's about it. I enjoy making it, love the bubbling sound on the kitchen counter, love walking by a jug-in-progress, thinking of those busy yeast cells lapping up sugar, spitting out alcohol and carbon dioxide. It's an entire manufacturing plant that fits in a gallon container.

 Mom, meanwhile, has seen fit to "make room" for our recent production. We have an area under one kitchen counter that is tall enough for large bottles and it is where we store items from the grocery - cranberry juice, vegetable oil and the like - until they're ready for us. It's the perfect spot for bottles of wine: cool, dark, undisturbed.

 So while I'm sitting on the sofa reading, I hear bottles clanking. Mom's emptying that space, sitting groceries on the counter top, pulling out older bottles of wine, Rock 'n Rye and white lightning, and putting them aside for dusting and eventual relocation in the same space. It pays to rotate the stock.

 That's when I walked to the kitchen to see what she was doing. With the outside light flooding through three bottles of apricot wine - all made in 2008 - I was taken aback by their beauty. What a lovely gold they've become! The wine was placed in old bottles, each thoroughly washed, and labeled crudely. They were never planned for long-term storage. Most have become gifts.

 They are, perhaps, first a feast for my eyes. I picked up each bottle, felt its cool glass, dusted it before sitting it back down. Mom will organize our stock, place the oldest to the front, tuck the newest grape to the rear where we'll pull them to the light years from now. Unlike me, each will become better with age.

 Perhaps I'll learn a lesson and the newest wine won't last three years? Last evening, I lifted a small glass down from the kitchen cabinet, poured a few ounces of the dark purple liquid in it and carried it to the sofa where I pulled the quilt across my lap, opened my book and enjoyed the exquisite quiet. The latest wine is medium dry - perfect in my estimation. I don't want a dessert at bedtime.

 And so, I think the current wine isn't going to need the space for long. I'm enjoying it first with my eyes but a warm belly at bedtime is a close second.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Spoonful of Sugar

 I never prepare a cup of tea that I don't think of my beloved maternal grandmother, Catherine Paulsen. In her later years, still living alone on Riverview Avenue in Miamisburg, I'd often stop on my way to classes at Miami University. I'd have evening class at the Middletown campus and, heading south anyway, I'd stop at grandma's for warm conversation and hot tea.

 I never knew her to be much of a tea drinker but for these evening soiree's. She loved coffee, dark and black, but settled on decaffeinated through necessity. For me, though, when I stopped for a brief visit, it would be tea. She'd fire up her natural gas stove and in no time she'd have boiling water and a cup of tea ready.

 I didn't know it then - or perhaps I really did - that her time left was short. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in the early years of the 1960's and it was to return again and again like an uninvited guest. She always maintained a positive attitude. Truth be told, she was a fighter. I saw a fire in her eyes early on.

So, tea in hand, we'd enjoy a short visit and talk about the things grandmothers and grandchildren talk about. They were never heavy conversations, just expressions of unspoken love. Time and tea together was enough.

She was never physical in the sense that she hugged me or kissed me much. And yet I knew her love for me knew no bounds. When I was sick with strep throat, so seriously sick that our family couldn't predict my eventual recovery, she gave money in my name to a religious charity, hoping that it might bring me health. The donation is all the more memorable because money was the one thing she had so little of. To give it away was unheard of.

 I remember, as much as she wasn't a kisser, always leaning in for a parting peck on her cheek. She would invariably turn her head, place her cheek toward my lips and accept the offering in good grace. I remember to this day how cool her skin was. I sense the same thing in my own mother when I tuck her into bed each night.

 If we are not a family that shows physical love, an undercurrent flows strongly. We know that we are there for one another and the strength is in the knowing.

 When I saw my grandmother alive for the last time, she was nearly comatose, in a hospital bed in 1969. I looked at the urine bag hanging low on the frame, watching the slow drip of a life ebbing away. She did not turn her cool cheek to me that last night but I remember it was positioned correctly atop the pillow for a final kiss.

 I still think, after all these years, "Thanks for the tea, Grandma."

[Pictured: A cup of Bigelow Lemon/Ginger Tea to which I've added a full spoonful of sugar and a slice of lemon Mom and I brought home from Pizza Hut on Sunday. It is sweet and lemony. Every swallow reminds me of my grandmother.]

Monday, February 6, 2012

Apple Jack

 The grape wine of November 23 is racked and bottled. With a clean, empty gallon jug on our counter, we decided to move ahead and make some apple wine (apple jack). It's as easy as the grape. In fact, follow the same recipe I gave here but replace the two cans of Welch's with two cans of frozen apple juice (we're using Kroger's brand).

 Less than a day after starting the wine, the bottle sits belching on our kitchen counter. By last evening it was bubbling at a rate of two per second. When I took this shot, the sun was setting and bathing the bottle with a pretty orange glow, complimenting the color of the apple-wine-to-be.

 Earlier in the day, I shot a short 11 second video of how quickly the must was fermenting. It reminds me of a just-poured soda, fizzing quite furiously. You can watch the tiny bubbles of CO2 rise to the top and then exit through the fermentation lock (the plastic gizmo stuck into the top of the bottle). Here's how it looked:

 If this follows the same timetable as the grape, I figure we'll be bottling it in late April, just in time for spring yard work to begin. A small glass of apple jack late in the day may be just the thing we need to relax.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Spring Comes Early

 It is February 1 and the calendar shows another seven weeks of winter. But this one's been different. In fact, there hasn't been any winter. My total snowfall still adds up to a single inch.

 Today was another exceptional day. We topped out at 62°. The record high for this date was 64° in 1989. The average temperature for today was 54°; the normal is 29°. Crazy weather we're having.

 For one who is forever watching the sky, I've seen plenty of beautiful clouds. But none, I suppose, have been any prettier than these today. Mostly they have been high wispy cirrus, mares tails that sweep across the sky like ghostly brooms. There are the dainty white fair-weather cumulus, too. At times the sky is nearly overcast; at other times it is almost clear. At all times it is beautiful.

 What is water? What is sky? Today the two are the same pure blue. It is nearly calm, too, so the air is as peaceful as a late spring day, one that causes you to tarry, never hurry about. That three-dimensional sky feels as though one could be sucked right up into it. Lose balance for a second and you risk falling up.

 This is my favorite shot of the day. I love how the cirrus are angled and how the sweep of the white pine follows the line of the clouds. I love the deep blacks, the crystal blue, the frothy whites. It is a celestial ocean there over our heads. What seashore offers a more compelling view than this? We swim in an atmospheric sea.

 As I arrive back home from the Farmersville-Jackson Twp. Joint Park, I see that Pinehaven's sky is equally stunning. To the northwest, cirrus almost obscure the blue. And yet as the day becomes late, I don't care. It was enough to have the sunny hours we already enjoyed. I cannot ask for more.