Tuesday, 30 June 2009

In Which there are Raptors

I had a luxurious and lazy morning, meeting El, Ticia and OSS at 10 a.m., after they dropped Vampi off at the airport, and had naps and breakfast.
Then we headed over to the raptor centre. We started our tour with Bob, who showed us a bald eagle (which obligingly coughed up a pellet for our education and amusement) a peregrine and a red-tailed hawk. We then spotted the Birdchick, who greeted us with a cheerful “Fiends!” We all turned and responded as naturally as if we had never been greeted any other way, but some of the schoolchildren in Birdchick’s group looked at us rather nervously.
We continued with Bob to visit some owls and more hawks, then Birdchick came back to steal us, and took us to meet a kestrel, red-tailed hawk and horned owl at closer quarters, which was fantastic. And also allowed us to see that the Birdchick’s hair is clearly modelled on the colour scheme of the hawk - protective coloration, perhaps?
Luckily for us, the Birdchick was then free to join us for lunch. We went to ‘Good Earth’, which has some awesome food - Chicken and Caramelised Pecan salad with raspberry vinaigrette, for on, and chicken and cashew salad with avocado were both delicious, and the mini desserts (shot glasses with chocolate mousse and strawberries) were also delicious. It turns out that both Ticia and the Birdchick are past masters at balancing spoons on their noses. Who knew? Lunch lasted for a long time, but it just flew by.

We then had to say goodbye to OSS, flying back to Chicago, then Ticia & El returned with me to the Sofitel, to admire my swanky hotel room, and to have coffee. Being easily amused, we were happily occupied for some time reading the room service and information leaflets - this place has a ‘Romance Concierge’ which led us to speculate on the other types of concierge who might come in handy. We feel that a pillow fight concierge, to maintain good supplies of pillows (and perhaps tactical advice) would be useful….

As evening drew in I drove Ticia back to Stillwater, and we have supper in the pirate bar (Yaaaar!)
I was so proud of myself for getting lot only slightly, and only once, en route back to the hotel…

Monday, 29 June 2009

In Which there is Breakfast, Bengals, and Kittens

The main Fiend weekend draws to a close

Jess, Paul (Mr Jess) and I checked out and met up at 9, saying our farewells to Siri, whom we met in the parking lot, as we left, and then headed to Chateau Quiche for breakfast - Chantrelle, Ralph & Nathalie were chief chefs - an excellent arrangement!

We were in introduced to the kittens, and to Mim and Venus, who were remarkably un-fazed by the sudden invasion of their home. Even Magic came to look at us from the Screamed Porch. He really is utterly beautiful, and it was wonderful to see him being curious, and confident enough to come out of hiding to watch us, albeit from the other side of a window and from a safe distance!

Chantrelle makes a great frittata (including herbs and such chopped with the Famous Exploding Knife, no less) and Nathalie had made some strawberry preserve, which was also excellent.

Venus & Mim used the extra staff to get some feather-stick action and some outside exercise, and we admired the purple flowers planted and nurtured by Beez. The Royals came to to their window to watch us in walking the cats, and Mim tried very hard to climb things. Magic came out onto the porch to watch, too.

Spooky House is a lovely place, although some would say it needs more skeletons.

After delivering Jess & Paul to the airport I managed, after several failed attempts, to get into the Sofitel car park - I spotted the hotel without difficulty, but the spent some time circling it, as I tried to home in on it in the hope I might actually make it into to the entrance.

Once I made it, however, it was most impressive. The foyer of the hotel is a giant atrium, there is a footbridge across it to get to the lifts (and a grand piano lurking below) and some funky lights - it is all very impressive to someone such as myself, who is unaccustomed to fancy hotel. Actually, I am not very customed to hotels in general.

The room is large, and very nice - as well as a vast bed, I also get a chaise-longue, desk and more full-length mirrors thn I can shake a stick at. Also, L’Occitane shampoos and such in the bathroom. I begin to see the appeal of having money. Although not having free wi-fi in the rooms at these prices is Just Plain Wrong. Why, I have to go all the way down stair to the lobby to check mail and Twitter, and that means I can’t blog in bathrobe and slippers (which, by the way, are white and fluffy and feel highly decadent)

After I had finished checking in and swooning at the room El picked me up and we met Gayle & M, One Sock Short, Vampi, Ticia and Beez at the Park (Minnehaha) where there is a waterfall. It seems that while I was gone, Vampi has been taught to knit, which is most Impressive.

Then we went to hunt down an independent feminist bookstore, which sadly was closed, so after browsing a little, and meeting up with Aleta, we went for dinner - soup, quiche (well honestly, what else could I chose?) and many desserts shared between us . The Rhubarb and Strawberry Pie remains my first love, but the vanilla bean cheesecake the pumpkin bar and the Very Chocolatey chocolate cake thing also deserve honourable mentions.

It was another good day. I did hear that the others had a late and alcohol-fuelled evening, but of course I would never repeat gossip. .

Sunday, 28 June 2009

In Whch the fiends take to the High Seas (well, river)

I had agreed to take Andrea (Ani) to the airport first thing also we got up pretty promptly and were disappointed to find that the hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 9 o Sunday, which was a little late, so instead we headed out and found a different breakfast buffet - waffles and bacon and such…
The drive in went smoothly and I found the airport without any problem which was nice - I then managed to find my way back to Stillwater without getting lost which, as it was my first time driving alone, made me feel very proud!
The plan for Sunday was for lots of hanging out and no real plans, an it worked pretty well! Quiche came over, bringing Cabal with her, for his Fiendish photoshoot. After meeting everyone, and having his photo taken approximately 4,000 times, Cabal left (somewhat reluctantly, as he didn’t want to leave Pack Second Lorraine) with Woodsman Hans, and the rest of the fiends left to hunt for Ice Cream, a hunt which was 100% successful!

we also investigated a bookshop and antique shop, then we went for a boat trip on ‘Avalon’, a pale steamer on the St Croix. Phiala
We did consider a pirate raid to take over the craft, but decided instead simply to pay & queue as if we were ordinary people.

There was sunshine, a brisk breeze, a buffet, and lot of fiendish chat.


There were also very disconcerting toilets, with a mirrored ceiling, which strikes me a very poor design choice . . . Siri
we saw swallows, and a heron, and what was almost certainly a bald eagle, and various other little birds. Nathalie
We did not mutiny, nor did we lose anyone overboard, (although there was a very un-Christian member of a church group who would have been greatly improved by a little keelhauling)
The day concluded with drinks on the Water Street Inn Patio, and food for those of us hungry enough to need it…

Saturday, 27 June 2009

In which there is Birding, and more Rock, and a Knife

Despite having been up partying ‘til late, and being woken by a thunderstorm at 4 a.m. a selection of us were up and breakfasted in order to go birding with The Birdchick at the Richardson Nature Center.
This time, it was Jess, Mr Jess and Phiala who braved my driving. A swarm of around 15 fiends met the Birdchick in the parking lot, and were immediately shown a yellow bird (a warbler, I believe) we hen headed to the visitor center where we spent some time in the observation rooms, watching the bird feeders - there were some wild turkeys wandering around, and on the feeders themselves we saw ruby throated hummingbirds, woodpeckers and nuthatches, as well as squirrels, chipmunks and sparrows.
Sharon took us out on a short walk to try to spot more birds, which we duly did! We did not see the indigo buntings but we did see a pilated woodpecker, bluebirds, goldfinches (which really are gold, unlike the kind we get in the UK) cardinals, which are red and shiny, and which I fund exciting as we don’t have them, but which are a very common here. We came t a small lake where we were able to see and egret and a pair of eagles, as well as sundry frogs and dragonflies.
The Birdchick was a perfect guide - it was fascinating. a great experience. When we got back to the center we met Na, who had accidentally been left behind L and Aleta, who ad gone back to collect her, and then the entire group, including the Birdchick, decamped to Burger Jones’, where on her guidance we tried the Poutine and the fried cheese curds. Neither of which I would have tried on my own, but both of which were very tasty.
In the afternoon we visited Uncle Hugo‘s (whose profits will no doubt show a small but significant Fiend-related blip) and I believe that a large contingent of fiends also went to Dreamhaven, but we headed back to Stillwater instead, in order to nap ahead of the second Paul & Lorraine gig.
Which rocked once again. The Unicorn song was played . There was audience participation. Need I say more?
In addition to all the visiting and local fiends who were also there last night, Chris “Mr Billy Bones” Lincoln and his wife Mary came, so there was an impromptu signing, and there was, once again, enthusastic audience participation... At the end of the evening, after the music was over, here was the ceremonial opening of the Mystery Box brought by Phiala. This marked the return of the Famous Exploding Knife, repaired, sharpened and etched with it’s name… FabLo was happy as only a girl who has just been given a new and very sharp exploding knife can be.

Friday, 26 June 2009

What I Did on My Holidays - The Fiends arrive en masse, and there is Rock!

The Fiends began to arrive in force.

After breakfasting with Siri, Jess & Paul I met OSS and Phiala at the airport. They bravely took on the roles of being my first passengers as I also collected my hire car, and made my first tentative efforts at driving on the wrong side of the road.

I think it was OK. We didn’t hit anything, and neither appeared to be shaking when we arrived at the Water Street Inn!

More Fiends - Fluffy, Revelle (Fluffy Junior) and Emily. So naturally, we went hunting for lunch. After all, a hungry Fiend is a Cranky Fiend, and who wants that?

We also looked at the exciting Lift Bridge, which goes to Wisconsin.

There is a drive-in church just the other side, but we didn't go. there is a guy in a Gondola, too. we considered going for a ride, but we didn't think we'd all fit at the same time.

The afternoon was taken up with checking in and talking.

It turns out that where fiends are gathered together, much conversation will ensue Who knew?

We invaded the Inn’s patio and rearranged the furniture to create one giant fiend table, and were all sitting there when Ms Fabulous herself arrived, with Nathalie.

Quiche, wise woman, lurked in her car observing us for a little while (and quite possibly scoping out potential escape routes) before coming over to introduce herself. We did all have Skull bedecked name tags, courtesy of Phiala, to assist in identifying the guilty…

Itroductions over, the partying began. Paul & Lorraine totally Rocked! Dr Wicked live broadcast the whole thing, and we had the pleasure of extra guitar from Adam and drumming from Dylan.

The hat Adam is wearing to indicate his position as band-leader is Revelle’s, and although it looks pretty damn good on Adam, it looks even better on Revelle!

These ‘Paul & Lorraine’ guys are pretty good, y’know. You should go and see them if you get the chance…

Did I mention there were also bagpies?

In which there are several Fiends

My flight from Chicago to Minneapolis was delayed by about 35 minutes, but on the plus side, when I arrived I was met not by one, but by two Fiends, Siri and Aleta. After getting me checked in at themotel we headed to the International House of Pancakes for supper, we talked, although having been awake for about 20 hours by that point my memories of exactly *wat*we talked about are a little hazy!

Siri and I then spent the day on thusday visiting Stillwater, including visiting Dairy Queen, which is no doubt commonplace to many, but had a slightly unreal feel to me because Dairy Queen is an esablishment which belongs in books about America, not in real life....We also found a secondhand book store and some ice cream (Maple Pecan....Mmmmmm)

And lots of sunshine. And we went into Wisconsin, mostly because It Was There. It seems a lot like Minnesota.

This evening we met more Fiends - El & her roommate, laserlady, Aleta and Gayle, for dinner, and belly dancing.

I should perhaps make clear that we were observers, not participants , in relation to the belly dancing. anything else would have required much more beer.

Did I mention I'm having fun?

Thursday, 25 June 2009

In which there is a lot of travel

My journey started Tuesday evening in a mad rush to leave work in order to get home, apologise to the cat for abandoning him, collect my luggage and get on a train. To my relieved surprise, and unlike the last time I tried to get to Heathrow by rail, everything went smoothly and I arrived at the airport a little earlier than I’d expected! And a gentleman even carried my suitcase up the stairs at Bath station for me, which was as pleasant as it was unexpected. (there are no lifts there, which if you have a bad back and a heavy suitcase is a bit of a disadvantage!

I stayed overnight at the Yotel which has the advantage of being comparatively cheap (if there is only one of you) and inside the airport so it is easy to get to the correct terminal in the morning. It is also surprisingly comfortable, although with my usual, irrational, pre-travel nerves I didn’t sleep very well!

Wednesday morning saw me trundling round to T5 where I was stunned to be able to go through security without having to queue, which I took to be a Good Omen. So with time on my hands I treated myself to breakfast pancakes at Gordon Ramsey’s Plane Food restaurant. (My verdict, OK, and if you are going to be eating overpriced and fairly uninspiring food which, let’s face it, if you are in an airport you are, it is probably nicer than most. And the waitress was friendly, which always helps.

My flight to Chicago was full but uneventful, (and ‘uneventful’ is what I look for in a flight….) and the clouds cleared to allow me to look down on he Bristol channel, and later on Goose Bay and lots of bits of Canada which seems, from what I could see of it, to be covered in trees and lakes and not a lot else! We had a very slightly bumpy landing, so that a couple of cases fell out of the overhead lockers on to the business class passengers, but apparently without damaging any of them.

Immigration took about an hour, and then they let me into the country, which was a relief. Although it does mean that the US government now has my fingerprints, a picture of my iris’s and quite possibly a piece of my eternal soul.

It was raining in Chicago. Quite spectacularly, if briefly. Since I didn’t go out of the airport this really wasn’t an issue for me. I merely add it in the interests of full disclosure.

Of course, one of the things bout coming to America as opposed to other countries is that everything is in English, and as one airport terminal is much like another, there is that unsettling feeling that perhaps you haven’t travelled anywhere at all, but have simply been sitting in an aircraft while someone rolls pretty pictures of clouds past the windows for 8 hours…

I write this in Chicago airport (so they say, anyway) - reassured to know that my onward flight to Minneapolis does indeed appear to exist and that I do appear to be booked on to it. It’s also clear that I could after all, have booked the flight an hour earlier, but I think he extra time waiting is a price worth paying for not having to get stressed about whether I would get through immigration and security in reasonable time. The gods of travel being what they are, had I booked on the earlier flight I would probably have found that my flight from London would have been delayed, the queues at immigration and then security twice as long and my nerves in shreds. Now, if only the wifi here were free……

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Stamps & Stories

I now have some lovely new stamps, designed by Dave McKean and accompanied by some (very) short stories by Neil Gaiman.

I couldn't quite decide whether to get the 1st Day Cover, or the Presentation Pack, so in the end, I got them both.

The 1st Day Cover (which comes with franked stamps, and it's own day-of-issue postmark which was also designed by Mr McKean). inside is a card with (in this case) the very short stories, about Dragons, and Pixies, and Fairies, and mermaids and giants.

The presentation pack is unfranked, 'mint' stamps, and has the most amazing artwork, in addition to that on the stamps themselves. I keep returning to this, and each time I see something new. I am thinking of getting this framed to go on the wall, as it seems a waste to keep it tucked away in a box!

The presentation pack also includes the stories, and having bought both, I was surprised to find that the stories with the presentation pack are actually little longer - inside the 1st day cover they must have been edited so that they all fit onto a single, envelope-sized card. So I am glad I got both, as it means I have both the post-mark, and also the longer stories and the extra art! And I have, of course, also bought some stamps to actually, you know, stick on letters when I write to people. I was expecting the pictures and the words to be good, when I first heard about them, and they do not disappoint!

Saturday, 13 June 2009

In Which Very Little Happens (With bonus Cauliflower!)

Today has mostly involved running errands. I had to take my car for its MOT test, and to have the repairs from my bump completed - which turned out to be more expensive tha expected, as I needed 2 new tyres, and also the other drivers insurers are being a bit slow so I had to pay the excess. I should get it back, sooner or later, but in the mean time it's another £100 which together with £140 for tyres and balancing and the MOT itself makes quite a big dent in this month's budget.

On a happier note, the car now has a new exhaust pipe instead of the cracked one, and a new reat panel (although this does rather show up how dirty the rest of the car is. Maybe I should consider washing it!)

Also, becasue the people doing the MOT test (who are different to the people fixing the car generally) messed up - having made the booking, for a 10.30 test, over 3 weeks ago, they called yesterday to say they could only do it at 9.30, which meant getting up earlier than I'd planned. Not too happy about that at the time, but it did mean I didn't waste any time today.

I have friends coming over for a meal tomorrow so I have been tidying and cleaning, and buying food.

And when I went out into the garden to cut the grass, I found to my pleasure and surprise that one of my cauliflower plants is making a cauliflower!!

I realise, of course, that there are those who might feel that the appearance of a cauliflower, on a clauliflower-plant, is not, in fact, particularly surprising. However, it was quite surprising to me, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, I did not intend to grow cauliflowers at all. I aquired the seedlings when they were at the slightly pathetic 'two leaves sticking out of a shot-glass sized plant pot' stage, and owing to a combination of poor labelling by the garden centre and poor seedling identification by me, I realised shortly after arriving home that I had bought cauliflowers rather than lettuce. This was probably just as well really, as the slugs ate all the lettuces I did maneage to plant, whereas the cauliflowers are holding their own.

For another thing, I don't think that I have really been nurturing the cauliflowers correctly. I don't think proper gardeners grow cauliflowers in planters on the patio, so they are probably only growing at all because unlike me, they (the calulis, not the the proper gardeners) have not read the Pocket Vegetable Expert which explains that they need deep, rich soil to grow, and to be fed, and hoed, and that they are not easy vegetables. Mine seem fairly relaxed so far, but perhaps they will get more difficult when they are older. Unless I eat them before that.

I also feel that there is something ingerently unlikely about cauliflowers. It doesn't seem as though such a large vegetable could grow from such small beginnings - they look as though they ought to grow on trees, perhaps, instead. Perhaps they do, mostly, but mine haven't had the memo?

I have some tiny corgettes growing, too - mostly only 2'-3' long so far, but with luck they will continue to evade the slugs until they are big enough for me to eat. (they are not growning on the cauliflower plant. They have separate courgette plants which they are growing on)

It makes me happy.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

In Which there is Bellringing

I mentioned in my last post that we went out so that my parents could go bellringing, which is a little unusual, especially outside the UK, so I decided to expand a little on what it is.

So: I am a campanologist. I couldn’t help it. My parents both are, and I (and all my siblings) were taught to ring when we were too young to know any better.

Video of ringing (c) Docklands Ringing Centre

So. It involves ringing church bells. Change ringing is a uniquely British thing to do. There are other countries which have ring-able bells, but these tend to be in places which were once English Colonies, so there are small numbers of towers in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Africa. But the vast majority of bells, and ringers are in the UK.

It’s different from the way bells are rung in most other countries in that the bells are mounted on wheels, and turn full circle for each stroke, you need one person per bell, so it is a group activity – most towers have 6 or 8 bells, but some have 10, 12 0r even 16 – and the aim is to ring methods (based on mathematical permutations of the bells, rather than ringing tunes, as is more common with continental campaniles.

There are many such methods: the order in which the bells ring changes on each ‘stroke’
1 2 3 4 5 (ding)
2 1 4 3 5 (DONG)
2 4 1 5 3
4 2 5 1 3
4 5 2 3 1
5 4 3 2 1
5 3 4 1 2
3 5 1 4 2
3 1 5 2 4
1 3 2 5 4
1 2 3 4 5
(this is ‘Plain Hunt’, which is the simplest possible pattern.

Others are more complex…

And each bell can only ever move one ‘place at a time

starting from
1 2 3 4 5
The 2nd can swap places with the treble (no 1)
2 1 3 4 5
Or with the 3rd
1 3 2 4 5
But can’t ‘jump’ by swapping with the 4th or 5th, because that would involve moving 2 places at once.

Then there is the beer. Beer and bellringing go waaaay back. Ringers used to be paid in beer, and although sadly that custom has now lapsed, it remains the usual practice for the ringers to decamp to a nearby pub following an evenings ringing.

I am something of a lightweight where ringing is concerned. I learned to ring when I was about 11, gave it up in my rebellious teenage phase, took it up when I found that being up in the tower ringing absolved me of having to actually be in the church listening to the school’s Founders Day service, and became enthusiastic again when I went to university and discovered beer.

But I never became fanatical about it. One of the things which more, shall we say, enthusiastic ringers do is ring peals. A peal involves ringing 5,040 (or a little more) changes, and (depending on the number and weight of the bells) takes between 2 ½ and 3 ½ hours to ring. Non stop. As you have to concentrate, this can be quite hard.

I have rung peals. But I don’t make a habit of it. Other than peals, and quarter peals (which as one might imagine are shorter - 1,260 changes, or about 40-45 minutes) ordinary church-service-and practice ringing involves shorter bursts of 5 -10 minutes. Much more manageable.

clip of the ringing from last Saturday.

And did I mention the beer?

I don't ring much at present, I have a long standing problem with my shoulder which means I can only ring small, lightweight bells, and I can't even do that at the moment because I have whiplsh from my recent RTA, and I know from experience that trying to ring with one hand ends badly 9at least for me) But I WILL be back...

[Edited to add: Phiala reminds me I should have mentioned Dorothy L Sayers' novel 'The Nine Tailors', which has possibly the best literary introduction to ringing there is (provided you are willing to suspend disbelief over Lord Peter's skill despite lack of practice)]

Monday, 8 June 2009

In Which it Rains (But there is tea, so that's OK)

I spent the weekend in Devon, staying with my parents. The past week has been a week of blazing sunshine and I was hoping, in despite of the weather forecast, that at least some of the weekend might be similar.

My hopes were unmet.

I arrived at about 7 p.m. on friday, and it started to spit with rain just as I pulled in to the gateway. I left at about 4.30 on Sunday afternoon, just as the rain started to clear. Over the weekend, there were occasional periods when it stopped raining, but never enough to make it worth while going out for a walk or to the beach, which was a shame (Last weekend, when my sister visited them, it was so sunny they were at the beach until after 8 p.m....)

However, despite disappointing weather I enjoyed the weekend. The luxury of having someone else cook meals, bring me tea in the morning, and so forth would make it worth while even without the added pleasure of, y'know, seeing the family.

And I spent some time wandering around the garden, between rain showers, looking at bumble-bees and flowers.

We went out, one evening, so my parents could do some bell-ringing. My bellringing is on hold at present, as hurty shoulder means I can only do it one-handed, and I know from experience that that doesn't end well, but I went along in anticipation of the pub-going part of the evening, and spent some time hanging around in an atmospheric graveyard, and finding a rather charming little skull on a tombstone inside the church.

I love how the stone mason has put in the anatomicly correct 'seams' on the skull, then added a little backwards ear.

The tomb it comes from is from around 1750. It's odd that you get these skulls for a (relatively) short period in the early to mid 18th Century, and not much either earlier or later. There were also some early 19th Century memorials to the local gentry, who seemed to make a habit of marrying late, and on multiple occasions (the men) and dying young (the women & children) One gentleman was married 3 times, and had 9 children, yet when he died in 1817 he was succeeded by his greatnephew, which suggests that none of the children (or at leat none of the 6 sons) could have survived.

Back at the house, it rained some more, and I watched the Goldfinches on the birdfeeder, and the rain on the flowers.

And although nothing happened over the weekend, I think it was practically perfect.