Friday, December 30, 2011

Winding Down 2011

And there goes another year.  Looking at the  pictures on the camera I found a few things that haven't made it into the blog yet.

Pershing Rifles.  When I left home for college back in '71, I was of course a bit homesick.  And the world was big (There were more students in some of my classes then there had been in my entire school).  So, just to find My People, I joined the ROTC--after all, I had been around the military my entire life.  Women in ROTC were new--this was the first year that female cadets were accepted.

But it was still not My People--the majority of people were in ROTC because it was a way of avoiding going to Viet Nam.  Still in search of My Tribe, I pledge the Pershing Rifles, an ROTC organization.  Pledging was hard--I was the First Woman Ever to pledge, and some people didn't like that.  And the pledge program was very demanding.  But I liked the people, made some good friends, and eventually married one of my pledge brothers.

Forty years later, I find that I am an Icon.  Part of the current pledge training program is to learn that Florida State University had the first female member in history.  And every couple of years the pledges are sent to find me--to poke me and see if I'm still breathing, and to tell stories of the Good Old Days.  So here I am with this year's crop of pledges.

Apache:  if you look back at the blog posts for March 2010, you'll see pictures of Graemalkin in her basket on the counter--we had given up the battle of "try to keep the cat off of the counter" and not only put her basket up there, but built a set of steps so she could get to it.  Alas, time took her away from us.  But we didn't move her basket--somehow it was a shrine to a tough little cat that we both loved.

Well, maybe a shrine to us--but it looked like a comfy bed to Apache.  Cats are such opportunistic creatures.  So, once again, the bed (with the heated pad) has a fine cat to sleep in it.  This odd pose is a favorite of his.

And Projects (and I swear I took pictures before they went off to recipients, but don't seem to find them).  Despite the busyness of taking over a class, I did manage in the last month to spin and weave an alpaca scarf, knit another alpaca scarf, make a set of finger tip towels of handpun cotton (a gift for my boss at the Museum who is retiring--the cotton was grown on the farm there), and a pair of alpaca mitts (I at least got a picture of  those).  I've got another warp ready to go on the loom--but that's another post.

Birds, revisited:  A couple of posts ago I wrote about seeing thousands of birds when out kayaking.   It was so breathtaking that we went to the same area again, just to see if it had been a fluke.

No fluke--it's a winter roost, and once again we sat enthralled as birds beyond imagination came flying in.  OK--so Bob had to take a shower when we got home--it's a small price to pay.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Meat Pies and Fruitcake

Meat Pies

Much of the holidays are about tradition--about maintaining a continuity with the past in an ever-changing world.  Maybe it's aways having the same ornaments on the tree, or singing carols, or even saying "bah, humbug" and going to a movie.

And sometimes traditions can be new--you do something one year, and it somehow feels right, so you do it again the next year, and by the third year it's a tradition.  For us--that's meat pies, sherry, and watching "Hogfather."  Hogfather is a book/movie--and being as the book is 350 pages long and the movie 2 1/2 hours and both are pretty convoluted I won't even try to summarize.  But the key point is that the Hogfather (Santa Clause) isn't able to make his rounds, and people are no longer believing in him.  So Death steps in, dons a red suit and fake beard, and tries to take his place, because it's vitally important that belief in the Hogfather is kept alive.

Which begs the question of Why?  Why do we want children to believe in Santa Clause?  According to Death (the ultimate observer of life) it is the belief in things that don't exist that make us human.  And you have to start off with the little lies (Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny), so that you can believe in the big lies like Truth, or Mercy.

"Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sift it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy."   And yet we have to believe these exist.

So, in the world of the Hogfather, the little kids leave out meat pies and sherry (and turnips for his pig) and in late December we make meat pies and pour sherry and are reminded why we have to believe.


A much older tradition for me is fruitcake.  People are mean about fruitcake--it's given as a joke, sneered at, regifted.  Me--I like fruitcake.  I even like store-bought fruitcake although I rarely eat it because I make my own (and everyone knows it so I don't ever get one for a joke).

This started about the time I was 12 or 13 and in my Dickensian phase--and The Christmas Carol is full of words like "redolent" and "heady" when describing fruitcake--when that luxurious richness of fruits and nuts and brandy epitomized all that was Christmas.

And then there was Truman Capotes "A Christmas Memory"--with a young boy and his elderly cousin trudging from door to door buying raisins and oranges and whisky.

And so, using a recipe clipped from the Tampa Tribune (they started running that recipe annually sometime around 1950--wonder if they still do?) I made fruitcake.  And have made it every year since (gak!  45 years now?)  It's a white fruitcake, with commercial candied fruit.  I have since found recipes that I like better, with dried fruit and spices--but I still have to make that white fruitcake, or it just won't be Christmas.  It's made in early December, then wrapped in run-soaked muslin to age.

So I've always made it.  When I was in college and went to visit an aunt for Thanksgiving I confused her by saying I had to borrow her kitchen to make fruitcake.  When Bob and I were first married and the purchase of candied fruit and a dozen eggs and a bottle of brandy used up most of a week's food allowance--I've made it.  When we were moving one year shortly after Thanksgiving and were involved with packing and boxing, the fruitcake got made and the cloth-wrapped loaves carefully packed and transferred.

  Some people like it--mostly my family because it's been family tradition for 45 years.  Bless my sister-in-law--she's been family for "only" a dozen years, but admits that she's always liked fruitcake.  Others--not so much.  My other sister-in-law and my neice have let me know that "I don't have to give them any of that stuff."   My father-in-law adored it--he would greet us at the car when we came home for Christmas with "where's my fruitcake?" and proceed to cut a big rich slab and eat it in three bites while standing over the sink.   I had his fruitcake ready the December that we lost him, hoping that he could come off of the ventilator to enjoy it.  And thus began a new tradition--like setting a place for Elijah, the first bite of fruitcake each year is a toast to him.

So be it meat pies, fruitcakes, mistletoe, or hanging a pickle on the Christmas tree, enjoy your traditions.  And have a Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011


A couple of weeks ago Saturday was a beautiful day--maybe a bit warm for December standards, but clear and blue.  Early afternoon we decided to take the kayaks out to the lake.

Normally we head out from the landing to an area we call "the flats."  But it was later in the afternoon than we usuallly go out, so instead we opted for the closer "Iron Curtain".  Not quite certain where that name comes from--it's a line of cypress trees that go almost from one side of the lake to the other, and have formed their own land mass with their tangled roots.

It was a great day for birds--anhingas, cormorants, moor hens, galanules, herons. Bob watched a young ibis and a moor hen fussing at each other over what must have been a prime spot, then gave up and upended together (sorry about the somewhat fuzzy pictures--we take a waterproof camera out on the kayaks and sometimes the picture quality isn't great).

Although it was only about 3:00 in the afternoon, a lot of birds were coming in to roost.  I pointed out a dozen black vultures sitting on a branch to Bob.  Then I looked among the tangled roots and saw another dozen or so vultures.  About that time some groups of cormorants were flying in.  Then more.  And more vultures.  We saw dozens.  Hundreds. 


We craned our heads back and looked up to see a scene out of Hitchcock's "The Birds" -- vultures circling overhead and spiraling down to the trees, flights of cormorants streaming in.  The sound effects were amazing--not only the grunting, cawing, screeching, and honking, but the crashing of the branches and the sound of wind whistling through a million feathers.  The trees were thick with the birds jostling for space.  One inviting gap in the tree roots had a polite lineup of vultures taking their Saturday night bath.

Words and pictures cannot descripe the wonder of this experience.  Sometimes you have to travel to the ends of the world to see something like this--and sometimes you just have to head out to your own backyard.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

And November Continues

Just because it took me a couple of weeks to write up the trip didn't mean that life didn't continue on it's merry way.  Sometimes I wish it would take just a little break.

So  . . . Things I Came Back To

An indigo dyeing demo.  The museum's Farm Days was the day after we came home--and I had already agreed to do an indigo dyeing day.  Didn't remember to take the camera--I'm amazed that I was able to get me and the blue dye out there.  But farm days is fun--there are other activies to watch, cane syrup to bring home, and catch up with friend who come for it.

A Present!  A couple of months ago I taught my friend Rob how to spin with a drop spindle--and I've created a monster!  The goldenrod was coming into bloom just as we left, and as Rob and Jeff were house- and critter-sitting while we were gone, I told Rob he could use my dye kitchen.  I didn't know that I would be the recipient on the results--a most amazing lemon-yellow scarf, with green stripes (add a pinch of iron to yellow and you get green).  I'm so proud of him.

The barred owl.  The Museum now has a beautiful barred owl, and I had just finished being certified to handle her when we went on vacation, so I've been trying to get out there.  Unlike our other owl, she is fully flighted, which makes it tricky to catch her (she doesn't necessarily want to get on the glove.  She does wear jesses (leather leashes on her ankles) so it's a matter of being able to make a quick grab--that's often easier to do with the ungloved hand (gloves are pretty clumsy) but you have to be aware that you're a couple of inches away from some very sharp talons.  But while she can be a bit bratty, she's not ill-tempered and doesn't ever try to attack.  I think she's a lovely bird, and I like walking around with her.

The classroom!!??!!!  My resolutions don't seem to be working out.  In September I had bragged to some friends that this year I a)wouldn't be doing the Haunted Trail, and b) would not be talked into teaching.  Well--if you read my October blog, you'll see that I got rather involved in building the trail.  And I came home to this--yep, that a classroom of students.  One of the faculty walked out, and as I've taught this class before I was the logical person to step in.  Sigh . . .

A glance at this picture shows why I gave up teaching.  Yes--this was taken during class.  No--many of them didn't notice that I was taking a picture because they're too busy cruising the web or texting.  There's supposed to be  100 students in the class--I doubt if I've seen 30 of them.   

Fun Stuff: Dinosaurs!  Jim Gary is an artist who has made dinosaurs out of old car parts, and the museum gets to keep them for awhile.  It's amazing the amount of anatomically correct detail that he can get out of car parts.

And I went back to see Cute and Creepy (the art show at FSU's art museum)  I find the serene expressions on the gazelle's faces to be particularly disturbing.

Finally, as it often does at the end of November, Thanksgiving rolled around.  We had friend over (nope, no pictures) and then the next day had Thanksgiving, Part II--taking the leftovers over to the folks.  I have always thought that Part II was the best part of Thanksgiving--and the reward for being the hostess of Part I (so that I get to have the leftovers).

So November is about over.  Now--got to get ready for Christmas!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Time to Come Home

Wednesday evening we go for one last stroll on the zocolo.  The party is still in full swing--the square is full of vendors, both in stalls and walking around, selling shawls and flying toy birds and the popular big bopping balloons. Once again--I do not eat a fried cricket (all of those mounds on the table are crickets.  One of our fellow travelers in Quiotepec had tried them--she suggested if I did, to have a small one "because they don't taste so much like cricket")   We see the tag end of a parade finishing up at the zocolo, and watch the dancers at a costume charity competition (check out the excellent body makeup on the bride in the front.)

Our ears prick at the sound of a band a couple of blocks away--the sound of yet another impromptu parade--and we hurry over.  Sure enough--there are a line of cars with Day of the Dead altars, followed by musicians,  dancers in "native" dress (not sure how authentic they were) and a streetful of people with flags.  Of course, the batteries in the camera chose this time to die, so Bob was trying to trade them out while trotting to keep up with the parade.

But finally, it was dark--we had been up since 4:00 a.m. and had to get up at 4:00 a.m. the next morning to catch our flight--so we said goodnight to the party on the zocolo and went back to the hotel to pack, and sleep.

Our flight was at 6:15--so we figured we had to be at the airport by 5:15.  Allowing a half-hour to get there meant leaving at 4:45.  As Mexico is not exactly famous for being prompt, we had ordered a cab for 4:30.  At about 4:20 we went to the desk to check out--and saw that the cab was already there, the driving taking a nap.  The drive to the airport took only about 20 minutes--and the airport was closed.  There was a gate across the road about 300 yards from the terminal.  We finally understood from our driver that the gates would open at 5:00--and that he really didn't want to sit there for for the 20 minutes.  So we got our bags and huddled at the gates with a few other refuges.  After the 20 minutes the gates opened and we hoofed it to the terminal; I was grateful that I had indulged in a wheelie-bag for this trip.

The flight to Mexico City was uneventful--and they even had the boarding gate for our flight to Atlanta posted.  An equally uneventful flight to Atlanta, where we were slightly delayed in getting through customs because there were a couple of hundred soldiers still in their desert camoflage filing through.  We happily stood aside--although we had a fairly short layover in Atlanta, it was more important for these men and women to get home than it was for us.

Another short flight, and we were back in Jacksonville.  It's funny how fast you get acclimated--when we got back to our hotel room, I realized that I was thirsty, and "rats--I forgot to pick up a bottle of water."  Then I remembered that we were back where it was OK to drink tap water.

So we're home, safe and sound.  We brought some gifts for friends, but not much material goods for ourselves.  We we have are a couple of hundred pictures, some amazing memories--and a plan to plant a field of golden marigolds.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wednesday--Back to Oaxaca

We left the graveyard after dawn.  Eric suggested "a stroll down to the river before breakfast."  Why the quotes?  Because the "stroll down" had to start with a "hike up" the mountain before you could get to the goat paths that would go down.  After quite a bit of "up" half of our merry team decided to just sit and enjoy the view while the other half went on in search of "down."  I was in the second half; unfortunately I left the camera with the first half.  But we made it down to the river--fairly shallow, not too fast; could be waded if we felt like it (we didn't).  Shore covered in rocks--maybe not a source of fascination to all, but remember I'm in Florida and we just don't have many rocks lying around (when we built a rock garden, we had to buy rocks, fer cryin' out loud).

Finally Glenn, Jenny and I decided that it was time to kidnap Eric and make him show us a goat path back up (there's an awful lot of "up" around here).  We'd all been up since 4:00 a.m. and breakfast was starting to seem like a really good idea.

And then, alas, it was time to head back to the van for the long twisty drive back to Oaxaca.  I would have liked to have stayed another day in Quiotepec; in all our wanderings we hadn't gone into the church (with the thick walls and the purple neon cross on top) and I would have liked to try baking bread with Isabel.  But you can't do everything.

We stopped at a town partway back for lunch--at least we tried for lunch.  A wall had been painted with a sign for a big Day of the Dead party, and apparently most of the restaurant staff had attended--Eric was told that everyone was too hung over to prepare lunch.  So we just hung on until we got back to Oaxaca and a restaurant where the staff hadn't partied too much.

It was our last meal together--it was time to return to our separate ways, but we'll always have been, for a short time, a small family in Quiotepec. (Eric, aka Fearless Leader, is the one in the hat)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Return of the Souls

We slept Tuesday night with the scent of marigolds and the candlight of the altar.  Well before dawn, we got up, dressed, and slipped out into the night to meet our fellow travelers.  It was time for the Return of the Souls--the vigil in the graveyard.

In other parts of Mexico, the graveyard visit takes place on the night of Nov. 2.  But in Quiotepec, the evening winds make this impossible; the vigil is held instead before dawn.

We walk quietly in the darkness and the stars.  We stop when we round the curve in the road that led to the graveyward. The night air mutes the sounds--the swish of a machete, cutting brush for a fire to keep warm, the soft clop of a burro's hooves, a low murmur of voices--most of the village is there before us.  We see the light of hundred of candles, and the silhouette of the mounds of marigolds.  The air is sweet with copal incense.

We wander the graveyard, strangers here, yet welcome.  They may not understand why this group of strangers has come to pay honor to their dead, but they accept it.  Some graves are large and showy monuments, some with tiny chapels, some are merely neat mounds of earth.  Not all are remembered--this is a very old village--but all are honored.  I see three tiny mounds, barely two feet long.  A woman decorating a nearby tomb sees me looking at them, and pauses to lay an armload of flowers on each one.  No one remembers these lost babies--but their spirits are welcome back.

The flowers are laid in armloads on the grave.  Flower heads are plucked off and placed in rows.  I watch one man lightly scatter a drift of petals.

Dawn breaks over the mountain.  The light reveals the colors--the brilliant gold and pinks of the flowers, the colors of the tombs and decorations.  People are talking more now--the ones whose homes we visited last night greet us.  The spirits, welcomed home through the altars last night, return to their own world.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


One of the things I like about Mexico is the altars.  Almost every restaurant has one; many businesses do, and every home I've been in has one.  Sometimes they are a simple picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe (in fact, even in the States, Bob looks around for the Virgin whenever we go to a Mexican restaurant to see if it is a "real" Mexican restaurant).  Sometimes there is an entire wall, or even a small room, dedicated to the altar.

Altars are especially important during the Days of the Dead, as they act as a gateway for the departed spirits to return.  Usually there is an arch of some sort (sugar can is popular for that), fruit, flowers, food (tamales,bread, chocolate)--there is a feeling of abundance.  The favorite food of the departed is placed on the altar (Coca Cola was popular) and there might be pictures or possessions.

We had collected items for our altar in the market, and gathered flowers in the field.  We all met in our room to arrange the things that reminded us of the ones we had lost--a paint pallet, a Cubs shirt, a picture of a favorite spot, tiny shoes, herbs, spices, a favorite drink.  We lit the candles and sat together and told the stories of the people we were remembering.  It was a sweet and comforting time, oddly close for people who had met only the day before, coming to this tiny rural village to remember.

Going out for the night, I leave the door slightly ajar, just for the welcoming beauty of the candles and the golden flowers.

After this, we walked through the village to visit other altars.  And, for this, Bob has stepped in to add his part to the story:

In the town of Quiotepec( in the valley of the Rio Grande de Oaxaca) night does not so much  falls as it comes into being. And on this night, the night before theReturn of the Souls, is when from home to home, house to house, the visiting occurs. We travelers, in the wake of Eric our guide and conductor to this world take to the rocky streets to see this celebration for ourselves.

There in the darkness ( for the town’s power grid has fallen victim the vagrancies of electrical conductivity) we slowly and quietly proceed.

In each humble home--for there are no McMansions in Quiotepec-- we reverently file in to visit and view the family altar to the departed. Each altar carefully, lovely constructed in the best room of the house and adorned with the traditional arch for the souls to return through, the  beyond brilliant marigolds and the fruits and foods of the valley, the loved one’s favorite food, drink or endeavor, the golden glow of many candles. And of course a photo of the loved one themselves, a departed Patriarch with fierce mustaches, Grandmothers with kind eyes, a beloved Grandson killed in a hail storm, a soldier brother lost in the narco-war only three days after his last home leave.

Some of the people talk brightly and happily of their lost ones, some stand quiet and still very much lost in their grief.

But they all share, a sip of mescal (tequila’s wild cousin), cane alcohol, or the ever present Mexican Coca-cola that is made with real sugar.

Sometimes some bread, a bowl of goat stew.

We gringos stand out in this world. Our world is far away, our ancestors and customs from even further. And in this world of small dark people I appear most ursine than human.

But we have come here to know, to understand. So later back in our cabin we too  build our own altar and talk of our loved ones, so that like the people of Quiotepec, of Oaxaca, of Mexico, so that maybe we too on this one night  may open a gate and create a path so that our lost ones can walk in more than our hearts and memories.

And I think they may be right. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tuesday Morning in Quiotepec

Well, I'm actually still on Monday afternoon--but I'll get to Tuesday.
After beer and bread, we were taken out to a field of huge golden pompom marigolds to gather flowers for our altar. All families have an altar, and Eric decreed that since traveling together made us a family of sorts, we should have one too. The cabin that Bob and I got is built into the side of the mountain and had a natural shelf, so it became the altar space. I temporarily stored the marigolds in the shower--it was rather decadent and wonderful later to take a shower in a stall filled with flowers (and be grateful--I didn't let Bob take a picture). Flowers are everywhere--they are said to help guide the spirits back to this world.

Dinner in the beautiful dining hall was a new favorite of mine: tlayuda.  Sort of a Mexican pizza--a large crispy torilla with a spread of black beans, topped with bits of meat, crumbled cheese, tomatoes, and avacado.  Really have to figure out how to make them.

Time to turn in.  We sat for awhile on the steps to let the night fold around us.  Up in the mountains, in the desert, the air is impossibly clear, with more stars than can be imagined.

Tuesday morning we got up early (to the sound of Isabel playing the Mexican national anthem on the loudspeaker) to go witness the Unburying Of the Tamales. A tamale is corn dough, often with a filling, wrapped in cornhusks, and normally steamed. But in Quiotepec, twice a year--for their saint's day in July and All Saint's day--they pit bake them all night. A fire is built in the pit during the day, and then layers of bananas leaves and tamales are put in (several familes bake them together, each family's worth separated by banana leaves). The final pile is covered in woven mats, then dirt, and left to steam all night. The tamale itself is also unusual--normally they are a thickish layer of dough, with a filling inside. These were make more like a jelly roll--thin layers of dough and bean filling. They are wrapped with an avacado leaf (giving a delicate anise flavor) before going into the cornhusks. Delicious. Although we later noticed that in general these were not being eaten; we would see them on the altars and the graves.

Although the tamales would have been enough, our hostesses had breakfast ready for us in the dining hall. Black beans and scrambled eggs with nopales (prickly pear cactus leaves). I had not had nopales before--I had heard that if not cooked properly, they have okra's tendency to be slimey. Our cook knew what she was doing, and they were delicious. So were the cups of chocolate.

Tamales, beans, eggs, and chocolate--how is one to work all of that off? With a good hike, that's how. Back into Eric's van, across that old railway bridge, and off to see some meso-american ruins on the mountainside. It's not a long hike up to them (Eric said about a mile and half), but we're Florida Flatlanders and it was mostly up (except for returning, which was mostly down). The huge candelabra cactus were impressive (how big? That's me standing in front of one--that is estimated to be 800 years old). More subtly impressive was the industriousness of the people of Quiotepec, who not only cleared paths and edged them with stones, but made stone rings around most of the trees (if you build it, will they come?) Not all of the ruins have been excavated--you can see pyramid-shaped mounds when you learn how to recognize them. Only a few of the excavated ones have been partially restored. We've been to ruins in Mitla and Monte Alban that have been cleaned and restored and opened to the public--but these, mostly unbothered, gave more of a sense of their great age, and yet gave more of a feeling of the people who were once there. This place may look inaccessible to us--but it's at a meeting at the rivers, and in it's time was an important crossroads and trading area. And for us Flatlanders--the view from up there was magnificent.
After the hike, we return, dealing with the Quiotepec version of a traffic jam--a large herd of goats on the road. Lunch (beans and torillas and fresh guava juice), and it's time to build our altar (that will be the next post). We retire to our various rooms, to rest for awhile, and listen to the wind. The afternoon wind in the mountains is a living entity, wrapping around the buildings, shaking the shutters. The wind is why we will be getting up before dawn tomorrow. In the city, the Return of the Souls and the visiting of the graveyards is done in the evening. Here, the wind would scatter the flowers and blow out the candles, so the vigil is held before dawn.