Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Moose on the Bridge: Just Another Day in Maine

From the Bangor Daily News:
BELFAST, Maine — An unusual jaywalker briefly tied up traffic on a busy Belfast bridge Wednesday morning.
Belfast police Sgt. John Gibbs said a moose crossed the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge, which carries Route 1 over the Passagassawakeag River, shortly before 8 a.m. The lanky-legged animal jaunted over the bridge from Belfast’s East Side before continuing his trek south down Route 1.
People heading into work captured the moose on camera as it swerved from one lane to another, slowly making its way across the span. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Maine Beer News

I was delighted but unsurprised this morning to read that Portland recently ranked the #1 city in the WORLD for craft beer. YOU GO, Portland! I love Portland, and I love a well-made beer, favoring IPAs & lagers - less interested in pumpkin-spice and blueberry varieties, but hey, whatever floats your teeth.
Portland is an up-and-coming tech hub, and those lads & lasses have expensive tastes and the money to satisfy them. Craft beer tastes, and craft beer budgets = 😋😜!!

I was surprised, and even more delighted, to read that Augusta is getting a craft brewery of our very own. Cushnoc Brewing is set to open a location on Water St. this fall. I've been waiting & waiting for the booming economic health in Southern Maine - and especially Portland - to reach Augusta, in the same way that the economic health of Boston crept north to Portland in search of more affordable living options. I may have a long wait yet, but at least soon I can enjoy a craft beer half a mile from my house to pass the time!

Not to mention a wood-fired pizza.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

March 26 in Central Maine

Photo by Monica Castellanos
Last year at this time I was biking the rail trail. 😑

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Twist on Tradition: Seed Ball Easter Eggs

Given the holiday's roots - the name itself is derived from Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of fertility; and its Christian connection to new life and rebirth - that's what the egg symbolism is all about - I thought it made sense to create Easter Eggs that contribute to new life.

These are made of clay, coffee grounds, and wildflower seeds. Toss them into meadows in April, when the showers will dissolve them and release the seeds. The coffee grounds provide some nutrients to get them started. Well-aged compost is probably better, but I didn't have any of that lying around.
As a bonus, the wildflowers will help support bee populations, which need all the help they can get right now.

For fun I painted mine with some food coloring.

Here are the steps:
Make a little pile of coffee grounds, and one of wildflower seeds, and a few balls of clay.

Flatten out a ball of clay and press it, first into the coffee grounds...

...and then into the seeds.

Roll it into an egg shape. 
Can't wait for spring!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

First Crocuses, 2017

For 11 years now I have been marking the end of winter - the emotional if not the literal end - by watching for the day my crocuses poke their tender heads above ground. Ladies & gentlemen, that day was yesterday! In an amazing coincidence, yesterday was also the coldest day of the winter so far. at around 5°F. This wouldn't have been my choice, if I were them, but I trust that they know what they are doing.

I made sure to replace the blanket of dead leaves I pushed aside to get a peek.

The earliest I've seen crocuses come up in those 11 years was 2012, on February 29th. The latest was March 23. This year is a little on the early side, probably because we got a deep blanket of snow before the real cold came, and because last week was unusually warm.

Spring is coming now! There's no stopping this train.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Maine Musicians: Sonny Probe

This is maybe my favorite Sonny Probe song of all time: 

Colliding Galaxies 

And that's saying something. I'm so fond of Sonny Probe I married him.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Snow Days are Soap Days

Something about winter weather puts me in a mood to make soap. I work in small batches - limited editions, you might say - of 7 to14 bars. Sometimes I repeat a design, but, as with pottery, no two are ever quite alike.

This batch is called Green Granite and Onyx, but I debated calling ti Sharp-dressed Man, because it has a light, slightly musky but definitely masculine scent.

Will be available around March 10. Depending on the method, soap needs some time to cure, and for the lye reaction to fully finish. Will post the link here when these are ready!

Meanwhile, it's still snowing. I need to shovel, but I still feel that urge to saponify! Maybe peppermint, this time.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Ice Shacks on the Pleasant River

See more about Maine rivers, fishing, and habitat preservation at the Downeast Salmon Federations' Facebook page.

Tough Gig

Even fluffy-tailed rats have to eat! We dedicated one feeder to squirrels, not entirely deliberately, but it turned out to be too close to the house for most birds, though a few brave little chickadees use it. The squirrels now mostly prefer this feeder - no cold metal pole to shimmy up! - so the birds have rodent-free access to the other feeders.

This feeder, filled with sunflower seed, is close to the kitchen window, so provides hours of entertainment for the cats. Win-win!

*If you look close, you can just see the tip of the Banana Boat, our canoe, sticking out of a snow drift. Dreaming of a summer day - not long now! - when we again put it to use. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

During the Storm, After the Storm

During our most recent Snowpocalypse, I felt the sudden urge to make soap! Today was the big reveal:

I was a little worried due to a mishap that occurred in the making - I had gotten it all poured, with all the swirls and flourishes just how I wanted them, and then realized I'd forgotten to add the fragrance. There followed some frantic pouring and mixing (and spilling) and re-pouring, so I wasn't sure what to expect from the finished batch, but all in all I'm quite pleased. 

The scent is After the Storm, and I'm hard-pressed to describe's very fresh and clean. If I say, it smells like a patch of violets in the air after a thunderstorm, I sound ridiculously corny but that's as close as I can get. 

Snow again here today (six inches, or what we call a "dusting" here in Maine) and then Snowmaggedon Sunday and Monday. Every time we have a major storm, it lands on a class day! This winter is getting expensive. I try to make up for it by getting into the studio and making pots every snow day but while that does represent income, payment is deferred until I finish and sell those pots. 

Anyway! This soap, After the Storm, needs time to cure. It will be available March 9th (right around the time the first crocus greens will be up!) and you can be sure I'm gonna share the link to purchase here. 

Mwah. 💋

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Frugalista in Winter: Sunflower Lard Cakes

Suet cakes are not expensive items, but it's even cheaper to make your own, from lard and sunflower or millet seed.
I never thought one way or the other about lard, until I started making soap. It makes a lovely soap with a rich lather. It also means I now have lard around the house. I have a block that had gotten a bit old - not rancid, but old fats will make a soap whose scent doesn't last as long. Waste is a dirty word at my house, so I found another use for it: sunflower seed cakes.

Lard melts at a low temperature - around 85°, which makes it a bad choice to feed the birds in the summer. (It ain't likely to get to 85° today, though; it's snowing like a mad bastard.) I melt the lard in a pan on the stove, and pour it over sunflower seed in a mini loaf pan. I don't know if the plastic wrap is necessary - probably not, I mean, what could be slipperier than lard? But I didn't want to have to screw around with the mess if I was wrong.

I popped the pan in the fridge, and then waited and...
I use a bit of wire to secure the cage, because the squirrels know how to get it open!

Two fit in the suet cage. Surprisingly, the one with the least lard - just enough to come to th ebottom edge of the top layer of seed - held together the best.

Hoping I see my downy woodpeckers, but even if not, lots of birds enjoy a little fat in their diet, to help keep them warm during the Maine winter.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

They Always Come When it Snows

Cardinals and mourning doves. They come for the sunflower seeds; then I have finches on the thistle feeder, but they are more timid, so I couldn't even get this good a shot.

I have a suet feeder as well, but the squirrels - clever little bastards that they are - figured out how to open it, so that never lasts long.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

That Awkward Moment

Near Millinocket, Maine
...when you wake up and there's a moose standing on your car.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Maine Authors: The Grand Old Man

I spent close to two decades living Away, and I can tell you: let a group of Iowans know that you are from Maine, and someone is bound to mention Stephen King.

I made up a lot of lies about Maine - I used to tell people, for instance, that you had to register your chickens like dogs, and that everyone has a snowmobile, because there's only one road. I never had to make up a story about Stephen King, though: the truth was more than enough.

I'm not a big fan of horror as a genre. Dean Koontz leaves me cold. I love King, though, for his characters.

[Herein follows a rant about writers and characters. Tl;dr: most writers create cardboard cutouts of characters. If you're a writer, don't do that.]

Begin rant: I'll read anything; the back of a cereal box if nothing else is available. In seeming paradox, I am also a very fussy reader - I read many many books, complaining all the while (often on twitter!) about giant holes in the plot, improbable plot twists, and most of all bad characters. Before I got most of my books on Kindle, I was occasionally known to throw a paperback across the room in response to an unusually bad bit of dialogue.

I read a lot of crime fiction, and in that genre, female characters are often written particularly poorly. Sometimes the only female characters in the book are the past, current, or potential sexual interests of the male hero. Look around the world, crime writers! Do you see any women you haven't and don't plan on fucking? Lots of them, right? Take a clue. (HAHA get it? A clue?? ) Stereotypes abound in crime fiction, as a result of the use of female characters as a plot device, rather than actual developed characters. The tough cookie, the ingenue, the socialite, the bitch.

It's a bee up my nose, for sure, but it's also the proverbial canary in the coal mine: if your female characters are wooden, your male characters probably aren't great either.

Emphasis on physical description is a symptom. Honestly I think all writers should remove the word "beautiful" from their vocabularies, except (maybe) for use in dialogue. It's lazy. If your character (male or female) is meant to be attractive, you can lightly sketch an appearance, and let us deduce attractiveness from other characters' interactions - if it even matters. Often we don't need to know what someone looks like at all. The waitress can show her dimples to your hero, and we get that she is flirting, regardless of whether or not she is pretty. Tangential to this point, if you have to tell me one character has feelings for another, you're doing it wrong. That is maybe the easiest thing in the world to demonstrate. The old adage is none the less true for its hoariness: show, don't tell.

[End rant]

Which brings me back to King. His latest trilogy is a set of crime dramas (with a bit of the supernatural...he is still King, after all) which feature retired detective Bill Hodges. Hodges has sidekicks, supporting characters, and adversaries...none of whom he is hoping to fuck! Imagine it. One of three main characters is a woman, and nowhere do we discover whether the average guy would want to fuck her! She has her personal strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, but she stands on her own, a fully formed character, not merely a device to create situations for Hodges.

The same is true of all of his characters: they have flaws, they have struggles, and as a result they feel real. I care what happens to them. When they triumph - not just over the bad guy but over their own weaknesses - I exult with them. It's why I always loved King's work even when he only (or mostly) wrote horror. Write good characters, and I am yours for life.

Anyway: if you haven't read these books, you want to. If you've passed over anything with the Stephen King name on it because horror is not your bag, give Bill Hodges a whirl.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

This Old House: New Numbers!

I've been meaning to replace my house numbers for like 11 years now. It's been on the list. It's a pretty long list, and included This Old Staircase, but I am knocking a few items off it, one at a time.

My old address numbers were just the ugly plastic ones you get from the hardware store. They were so old and faded the numbers were hard to read from any distance, so needed to be replaced, but since I had it in my head to make the new numbers out of stoneware, I kept putting off replacing them.

This project, like so many others, refused to do itself.
The old numbers

Making the stoneware numbers was not at all difficult. I am a potter in real life, all the materials - not to mention the kiln - were readily available to me. As you can see in the photo, I broke one of the numbers in transport; I went ahead and used it anyway. I had already waited 11 years for these numbers, I didn't want to wait one more firing cycle.

I am thinking of taking orders for these! $10 per number, choice of purple, yellow, blue or black...whaddaya think?

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Success Story - American Bald Eagles in Maine

I grew up in Maine. My family are an outdoorsy bunch - camping, fishing, hiking, boating - so I spent a lot of time enjoying the natural beauty of Maine. One thing that I never did see, growing up? A bald eagle, in the wild.

That's because, when I was growing up, bald eagles were nearly extinct. The pesticide DDT interfered with the success of the eggs. Their habitats were infringed and badly degraded. Their food sources were poisoned by pollution. Though the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 prohibited shooting them, there was still some illegal hunting, as eagles - pushed out of their preferred food sources - would sometimes take chickens or lambs.

In 1967, eagles south of the 40th parallel were protected, and in 1972, DDT was banned. Eagle populations did not begin to recover until after they received the full protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1978. It was listed as endangered in 42 states and  threatened in six others.

Today I live a quarter mile from the Kennebec River, and I see bald eagles almost every day. They glide over the river. They hassle osprey to drop fish
Photo by Greg Stephens
they've caught. They land on the sand bars and pick at their prize. I see them at Hatch Hill - the town dump - where they prey on the seagulls attracted by the trash.
Eagles are back. But they never would have come back if not for the ESA. This is the story for many species, and many more - Kennebec Salmon, for example - are still struggling.

Now Republican lawmakers want to roll back the Endangered Species Act. This came as something of a shock to me, because I don't know anyone who is not in favor of the act, which has been such an obvious success. In 1973 it passed almost unanimously.

But it's not 1973 anymore, and it seems like the Republican agenda has just become to roll back anything that liberals like. That's Republicans in Congress; as I said, every Republican I know personally favors the act. Anyone who hunts or fishes usually does.

If you think this is a horrifying idea, now would be an excellent time to call your Senators and Representatives and tell them so.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Last of the Tomatoes

Last summer I tended 26 tomato plants, of several varieties. They yielded enough for us to enjoy the fresh fruit every day in August and September, and also to freeze many bags of salsa and puree.

All good things must come to an end (luckily this is also true of bad things!) and today I opened my last bag of frozen tomatoes. They are processed with onion, garlic, basil, and oregano, and I will cook the batch down with some grated carrot to make pasta sauce. It's simmering now; smells marvelous.
I took the opening of the last bag as a cue to dig out the Fedco catalog that arrived in December. I kinda wish it would arrive in January instead; in December I am too busy, and not yet weary enough of winter, to appreciate its arrival. Nevertheless, I am glad it is here now, helping me dream of long summer days.

I'll be ordering Sungolds cherry tomatoes, for sure. They are always the first and last to produce; I was still picking Sungolds when the frost came. I imagine I will have a few volunteers as well, since they are so prolific I always miss a few. And, importantly, they are my mother's favorite! Since I refuse to grow squash for her (takes up a ton of garden space and also ewwww) I owe her these at least.

Garden peaches are another favorite. A small, yellow tomato, they have a relatively short growing season - 71 days - and very sweet fruit.

I'll also be reprising the Jubilees we got last year. They were a surprise, which Fedco substituted for the Cosmonaut Volkovs I had ordered. Their season is a bit on the long side for Maine - 80 days - so it's a risk. If we get cool June, or a rainy summer, they may not produce. But they were so beautiful, and so tasty, that I'm willing to take the chance.

I didn't love the Oregon Spring variety we got last year. The flavor was a little underwhelming.  It is a full size tomato with a very short growing season - 58 days - that will thrive even in cool summers. I was tempted to get it as a hedge against a bad season, but the flavor, while good, suffers in comparison to the other varieties...and flavor is, after all, the whole point.

So, what to get in its place? I could return to the Cosmonaut Volkovs that have performed well in the past, but I do like to try new things, so I am leaning toward the Berkeley Tie Dye, a full size short season tomato said to have an almost spicy flavor. Based on my quick Google image search it appears to be a very handsome fruit as well - maybe that shouldn't matter but I am an artist, after all.

Like many Mainers, I don't mind winter, but I spend much of it dreaming of spring.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

10,000 Strong

...and that's just in Augusta. All over Maine today, people marched to speak for the rights of the marginalized, to protest racism, sexism, and corruption. I am proud to be a part of #theresistance. Our work has just begun.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Morning Monkey

The Morning Monkey

Everybody knows about Chunky Monkey Smoothies, right?

1 banana
1 tsp cocoa
2 Tbsp peanut butter
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup coconut milk

While this version is delicious, it has one drawback: I have to buy coconut milk for it, which I don't use in anything else: by itself, or in other smoothies, it tastes like soap. (Turns out it is high in lauric acid, which is a saponin.) And, frugalista that I am, I noticed there was often a bit of coffee left over every morning - sometimes more than a bit. It's about impossible to guess exactly how much we are each going to want! I started saving it in a pitcher, to maybe drink as iced coffee later in the day, but then got a better idea.

I switched out the coconut milk in the Chunky Monkey with leftover coffee, and man is it delicious! Now I often have this in place of my morning brew. Wakes me up and gets breakfast out of the way at the same time. The slight bitterness of the coffee is the perfect balance to the sweetness of the peanut butter.  Not only do I use my leftover coffee, I can remove an item from my shopping list. This is a very satisfying breakfast. It's a little on the caloric side - 382, but who's counting? - but between the protein, fat, and fiber, I find I don't get hungry until mid-afternoon. Frugal and fabulous, a winning combination.

Morning Monkey Smoothie

1 banana
1 tsp cocoa
2 Tbsp peanut butter
1/2 cup plain ypgurt
1/2 cup cold coffee

I put away the dishes in the rack while the blender is whirring.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

This Old Staircase: Final Steps, Probably

Ooops, I arted
In the last installment of This Old Staircase, I was deciding whether the stairs needed a pop of color - scarlet maybe, or gold .Those of you who know me will be unsurprised to learn that the answer was yes, both.

Several people suggested that I paint the rail and balusters to match the treads, and while I don't disagree that the project might look better as a whole, I couldn't bring myself to paint over the patina of 100-year-old wood. The stairs were different - they'd already been painted, and the wood underneath was badly scarred and discolored. I might spiffy up the surface of the balustrade a bit, but the natural wood color stays.

I didn't know when I painted them, but the posies are stylized Egyptian Star Flowers. Or, wait, perhaps they are Asiatic Lilies. Yes, that's it. I'm ready to put down my brushes (and stencils, and paint pens) now, until the next painting project, which is threatening to be: These Old Cabinets.

Followed closely by This Gross Peeling Countertop, and then This Laughably Dated Backsplash.

Stay tuned.

The Frugalista in Winter: Coffee Ground Magic

An especially icy spot on the deck
Like many folks, I love love love coffee. We drink only a moderate amount (most days!) but enjoy it to the hilt. Not only do I never waste a drop (any leftovers in the pot find their way to a Morning Monkey Smoothie [recipe in a future pot!], or just plain old iced coffee) but I don't waste the grounds, either. Black gold, they are! I use them in making soap, in the garden, and even in my pottery.

Today I discovered one more use: in place of sand on an icy walkway!

Salt and sand don't go away. They build up in your walk, and kill the soil on either side. Coffee grounds enhance the soil as they biodegrade. Grounds do little to melt the ice, so occasionally you may have to resort to salt, or an eco-friendly alternative, but more often than not a thorough shoveling makes salt unnecessary. Coffee grounds provide the same grit that sand does, to make the ice less slick.

This winter has been a series of snow/thaw/freeze cycles, resulting in a treacherous buildup of ice on driveways and walkways. Lacking money but having no shortage of coffee grounds, you Frugalista sprang into action! Feeling safer already.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Below: The Story of Flagstaff Village

In 1950, the towns of Flagstaff Village and Dead River Plantation, established in the 1800s, were submerged when Central Maine Power constructed the Long Falls Dam on the Dead River, creating Flagstaff Lake. I've been to Flagstaff Lake - it's a nice spot - and never thought twice about the people who lost their homes so it could exist. Kind of creepy, thinking about all the history below the surface.

Songwriter Slaid Cleaves, who grew up in Maine, put the story to music.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

This Old Staircase: Am I Done?

I kind of want to be done. This project is entertaining but I've got other stuff to do, you know? Doug thinks it's done. But...

But, damn aesthetic intuition says it is not yet done. Specifically, the contrast between the white stencil and the teal of the riser is too stark, and needs either a balancing contrast - some accents in gold, maybe, or scarlet - or to be stencilled over, in kind of a double-exposure effect, with one of the lighter teals already a part of the design.

In any case I am done for today. I'll sleep on it and look at it fresh tomorrow.

Books by Maine Authors: Monica Wood, One-in-a-Million Boy

Of the many Maine authors whose works I follow, perhaps my favorite is Monica Wood. Her debut novel, Any Bitter Thing, was luminous and entrancing, and I was immediately a fan. A memoir, When We Were the Kennedys, followed, which I loved for many reasons, not least that it's always a thrill to recognize the locations I am reading about, and to know people who live similar lives.

Now Monica Wood has a new book: The One-in-a-Million Boy. I just purchased it and can't wait to get reading!

Here's what Amazon has to say about it:
The incandescent story of a 104-year-old woman and the sweet, strange young boy assigned to help her around the house — a friendship that touches each member of the boy’s unmoored family
For years, guitarist Quinn Porter has been on the road, chasing gig after gig, largely absent to his twice-ex-wife Belle and their odd, Guinness records–obsessed son. When the boy dies suddenly, Quinn seeks forgiveness for his paternal shortcomings by completing the requirements for his son’s unfinished Boy Scout badge.
For seven Saturdays, Quinn does yard work for Ona Vitkus, the wily 104-year-old Lithuanian immigrant the boy had visited weekly. Quinn soon discovers that the boy had talked Ona into gunning for the world record for Oldest Licensed Driver — and that’s the least of her secrets. Despite himself, Quinn picks up where the boy left off, forging a friendship with Ona that allows him to know the son he never understood, a boy who was always listening, always learning.
The One-in-a-Million Boy is a richly layered novel of hearts broken seemingly beyond repair and then bound by a stunning act of human devotion.

When I dive into to a book, I sometimes don't come up for air until I am finished, so it may be awhile before I post again. No worries: I am happily lost in Monica Wood's fictional world.