Sunday, December 31, 2006

Porter Fit For a Founding Father

I've just bottled my third five gallon batch of beer. Lest you think I'm going through an awful lot of beer since my birthday, let me point out a few things.
  1. A five gallon batch of beer usually works out to two cases plus up to six extra twelve ounce bottles. For some reason the Pumpkin Ale filled less than two cases, only about 20 24oz bottles instead of 24+. I think that I lost some of the nicest part of my wort by not draining the soggy pumpkin more thoroughly. Next time I will drain the pumpkin for an hour in the colander, then add that to the fermenter, then add the yeast. Yes, more time lapsed before adding the yeast can add to the possibility of contamination, but an hour isn't excessive, and I am good at working under sanitary conditions and avoiding cross contamination, probably because of my fiber dying and my science background. When you learn to cook from a father who's a chemistry teacher, you can't help but think to yourself "never return a re-agent to it's container" and resist putting the little bit of flour you didn't use to flour the cutting board and knead the dough back into the flour canister. But I digress.
  2. I need to start a new batch with enough of the old batch left to get me through two weeks or so of fermentation and up to two weeks of bottle conditioning before the new batch is ready to drink. I started the new porter when I still had a case or more left of the pumpkin ale. At this point I still have at least 6 24oz bottle of The Great Pumpkin Ale left. That's the equivalent of 2 six packs which would be enough beer for my consumption for at least 2 weeks.
  3. I have shared or given away a fair amount of homebrew. In fact, since I am finishing my fourth week of unemployment and have spent it going out to eat way too many times with out of town friends, I may be too broke to actually purchase ingredients for hummus or guacamole for the new years party we're going to tonight. Homebrew to the rescue!

So, on to the new brew! I love porters, which are rather hard to find. What better beer to brew than what you can't always buy? I do adore the new "Edmund Fitzgerald Porter" made by the Great Lakes Brewing Company but it's hard to find. They also make one called "Burning Lake" in honor of our own Lake Erie.

My very first one gallon batch of beer was a porter kit, and it was fantastic. It didn't list exact amounts of ingredients provided, or what kind of hops, so I found a recipe which used many of the same ingredients in an effort to come close.

The recipe, which I modified only a little from my recipe book, is for a molasses porter made in honor of a porter made by a Mister Hare of Philadelphia. The actual recipe does not seem to have been preserved, only the letter from George Washington requesting that there be some ready for his visit to that city. So the brewers who wrote the book took the liberty of making their own recipe and naming it in honor of Mister Hare.

I'm getting better at using the graphics programs on my computer, and for the first time have managed to put the computer lettering onto my scanned-in drawing. I swear this took me longer to accomplish than knocking off the Stuart painting with water color pencils at my kitchen table. I have renewed respect for Chris and what he does every day in his job. The help file for the paint program is written with the idea that the user already knows how to use a graphic design program, or may have used an earlier version of this one, so it only tells you what's new for this version. I can't find definitions for any of the terms it takes for granted. I know damn well what a vector is in the real world, but since nothing on my screen is in motion, and there are no x and y coordinates given, and there is no graph present with an arrow on it, and they refuse to give definitions, I have no idea what these fools think a vector is. Can you tell I hate when people in other fields think they can redefine scientific terms to mean what they want them to mean? It all depends who's in charge, you or the word. Don't even get me started on the way people use the word theory in the vernacular. It's completely opposite of its proper scientific definition. This is part of why so much of the American public still can't grasp the fairly simple theory of evolution. Science education in this country is terrible. Don't get me started!

Anyway, take a look at my lovely new beer label. I'm quite proud of it and think it's the best one so far. I have high hopes for the beer behind each label too.

Marvel especially at the computer generated text right there on the bottom of the picture in the space I left for it.

I've started drawing my labels while the wort is in it's initial one hour boil, so it's a good use of that time and I'm busing thinking about beer then anyway. I just have to remember to get up every few minutes and stir. Like the last batch, this batch also boiled over and made a huge mess and had to be split into two pots in order to finish the boil with no further incidents. Apparently my big soup pot is too small even for a partial boil if I use any more than 3 lbs of malt extract. Since that last batch included an entire pumpkin, and this one used twice that amount of extract plus a cup and a half of molasses, not to mention more than a pound of grain before the boil, I have come to the conclusion that my soup pot just ain't gonna cut it. Now I have a big canning pot I use for dying that would be perfect, but making beer in a dye pot is a good way to poison your family. Don't do it! If you do, don't you dare come sue me after you get your stomach pumped. I just told you in writing not to. So there.

Anyway, I checked a few thrift shops for more canning pots (that's where I originally got my dyepot) but there were none to be had. Then I went into Big Lots in kind of a funk after trying on bras (if I get the 34d, I have to make sure I don't accidentally buy a minimizer*, if I get the much easier to find and almost the same size 36c, I have to carefully search the rack to find one that's not a push-up bra. Can someone tell me why there's no inbetween? Why I can't buy a bra that provides support without the intention of changing size?) and there in Big Lots, with a sort of heavenly glow surrounding it, was a 20qrt stock pot for only $9. Now, I sometimes get a little lost in the English system of measure, but I can see that the 20qrt pot is almost twice as tall as my soup pot, and I'm pretty confident that I've calculated 20 qrts to be much bigger than 2 gallons, and therefore perfect for boiling two gallons or so of wort without boiling over. A 20 qrt pot should in fact be a 5 gallon pot if I'm right about the whole "quart" thing actually implying that a quart would be a quarter of a gallon. I'm still not sure about pints. If they're half a quart (which is what I'm pretty sure they are) why can't they be called an eighth? Ok, I've just remembered, in our system eighths are only for measuring pot, not pots, even though if I understand the Arlo Guthrie song correctly, really large quantities of pot are measured in kilos. Maybe because they come from countries that use the metric system? Glad I'm not a drug dealer, this is needlessly complex.

This is also the first time I've reused labeled bottles from previous batches. When I've reused bottles from commercial beer, it's been a real pain to soak off the labels--at least from the American beers. English beer labels come off more easily. Apparently American beer companies use stronger glue on their labels because Americans like to keep their beers ice cold in coolers full of ice at picnics. My homebrew labels came right off within 30 seconds of soaking in warm water and sanitzer because I applied them using a brilliant bit of advice, also from the recipe book--glue them on with milk. I brushed milk on the back of each label with a pastry brush and stuck it on the bottle. It stays on in the case and in the fridge, it comes off with no hassle when it's time to bottle the next batch. Brilliant!

That's what's in the little teacup, milk! I love little tricks like this. It's like when I learned you could spit-splice wool yarn to join a new ball. Brilliant, and less sewing in of ends when it's done.

There was one problem with the pumpkin ale, which I'd like to mention. The yeast seemed underactive. I didn't feel like the specific gravity was down as far as it should have been when fermentation was over, and even though I bottled over a month ago, the beer never fully carbonated. The first few bottles were hardly carbonated at all, so I put the remaining bottles on my radiator, thinking the process might just be going slowly in my 65 degree apartment. That did help, and I'll probably do it will any batch I brew in cold weather, but while the ale finally tastes right, it still doesn't pour with a head. I'd describe the few larger bubbles on top as looking more like dishwater bubbles. Now I opened one of the porters yesterday even though they were just bottled a few days ago, and it had a head! A nice creamy head with very small bubbles, much like what a Guinness draft has by the time it's been brought to your table. This leads me to believe that the problem with the pumpkin ale might not be temperature, or something wrong in the brewing process, but just a bum batch of yeast. I used a different brand for the porter to test if this was the case, and I think my results confirm that it was. I'll have to look at the bum yeast packet again at the brew store to see if it's meant for higher temperature summer brewing, but I think it may just have been a little old or otherwise flawed. They're living organisms, so of course yeast would vary from batch to batch, and lose quality over time. I may avoid that brand in the future.

I started keeping a beer journal as soon as I began this process, so that I can keep track of things like batches that don't carbonate. It's a good practice so I can look back over old recipes and use the information to improve future ones. I do the same thing with my dying. It's even easier with the dye book because I can keep a sample with the dye formula attached and use it for a launching point if I want to make a similar color later. And of course in both cases I can also keep track of mistakes or less successful outcomes with the hopes of avoiding them in the future.

Since Mr. Hare's Porter is already so well carbonated, I think I'll bring some of both it and The Great Pumpkin Ale to tonight's party. Drink up party goers, and Happy New Beer to all!

*When I spell-checked this entry, "minimizer" wasn't in the dictionary, so blogger suggested that I might have meant to write "moneymaker" instead. Definately changes the meaning.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Merry Christmas everyone! These are the only snow flakes we'll see in Buffalo this year, but we can still enjoy the feast!

Happy Christmas to you and yours, and a safe and happy new year!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Stuff's Getting Done

I've noticed that my interest in a project seems to peak somewhere in the middle, and then taper off drastically until at the end I never even mention what I'm finishing. So in an effort to show that I do finish what I start, I present to you an array of recent knitting, all finished.
I used to donate hats gloves and mittens to various charities through the Rochester knitting guild. The organizations that received these donations were always very grateful, but usually added a shy request, "The colorful hats you ladies knit are really very nice, but our male clients would really like just plain black." Every year I try to do at least one of these to donate. I always use superwash wool, because I know from my own experience walking around Buffalo in winter that wool is way warmer than acrylic, and I'm guessing that someone who's situation is less than ideal is pretty unlikely to be able to handwash their hat, mittens, etc. I love the technology of machine washable (superwash) wool, and can't understand why so few of my local yarn shops stock it.

The hat is a basic watch cap knit in brioche stitch. Usually brioche is knit flat, which is what was done in the original pattern I used, but I hate putting seams places where they're not needed, and in the case of a hat, the seam usually shows when the bottom is turned up. It's a little tricky to convert brioche to the round because of the odd sort of slip stitch it uses, but luckily someone published a pattern (in interweave knits, I think) in which they had modified it for stitching in the round, so I used their modification and made the hat.

Each Christmas the Salvation Army makes it possible for businesses and organizations to "adopt" a family whose circumstances have left them unable to afford Christmas presents for each other or a big Christmas dinner. This year the theatre adopted a family with four young children, so a co-worker and I decided to knit mittens for all of them. My two pair are for two boys, ages 3 and 5. I used a free mitten pattern I found at Afghans for Afghans. I like to use my full arsenal of knitting techniques to make each project, even the simple ones, as nicely made and finished as possible. Whenever I make something that starts with ribbing I always "cast on in rib" as I did here, which is why the bottom ribbing sits so nicely and does not flair. I also make sure that my ends are well worked in, especially in something like this which will be going through the washing machine (superwash wool again. I love that stuff!)
My pal Charlie Horse usually just wears a tee shirt, but when I saw him during our freak storm in October, he looked awfully cold, so I knit him a new football sweater. He plays for UB where he is currently a student.I finished Chris's scarf while we watched Donnie Darko together on his birthday. He has been wearing it constantly since then, although I don't seem to have any photographic proof of that, so you'll just have to take my word for it. I had gotten a fair amount knitted on my wedding stole before I had to put it down to do the Christmas and birthday knitting. This picture is a great illustration of why blocking is so important, especially with lace. Take a look at how wobbly and dimensional the unblocked knitting is. Also, the lace pattern is hard to make out. Now look back at the second picture in this post. It shows the same lace pattern after blocking. Not only is it flat, but the lace pattern has been opened up so that you can see it clearly. It's also quite a bit larger after blocking. Washing and blocking are what makes a knitted fabric stop acting like a bunch of stitches and start acting like fabric.

At the moment I'm working on Mom's red birthday socks, but on the off chance that she looks at the blog before her birthday next month, I won't be posting any pictures of them until after they've been given. All the knitting blogs seem to have that problem right now! Also finished are the tatted snow flakes for this year, which I'll post pictures of after they've been given as gifts for Christmas.

There's a new batch of beer in the fermenter that I can bottle in about a week. I'll be writing about my recent beer adventures in an upcoming blog. The Great Pumpkin Ale will be served with Christmas dinner this year.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Some Photos

I just got my film developed, so here are some photos relating to previous posts. Toronto's fabric/fashion district is marked by an interesting bit of sculpture. This giant thimble sits on the corner of Spadina and Queen St marking the beginning of the fabric district.

Back in September when we biked from Lockport to Rochester and back along the canal path, not only did we get to see the place where the canal goes over the road, but also the northernmost point of the canal. We plan to take a short honeymoon after getting married and before I go back to the opera for the summer riding another section of the canal. Maybe Rochester to Syracuse? Then after my contract is over we may have time to do Syracuse to Little Falls. That would leave Little Falls to Albany as the last leg.

An ice storm and power out are a good chance to figure out what you can do without electricity. We picked apples for Chris's Mom and myself. After the power came back on Chris and I baked pies.

Chris pealed, cored, and sliced the apples with the cool little gizmo while I made the crust and mixed the sliced apples with sugar and spices.

Rusty sat under Chris's chair waiting for fallen apple peels until we took pity on him and gave him his own bowl of peels.

Pontius Pilate

Here he is in all his evil Roman glory: Pontius Pilate. Don't think that the crowd forced some nice civil servant into crucifying Christ, from all other accounts of him, Pilate was brutal, even by Roman standards. According to James Carroll in Constantine's Sword: the Church and the Jews, "Even by the standards of brutal Rome, Pilate seems to have been savage. When, six or so years after the death of Jesus, he wantonly slaughtered Samaritans for gathering to venerate Moses on a sacred mountain they associated with him, Pilate was recalled to Rome."

The puppet really captures that, don't you think? His chest is hollow behind his gold decoration, and he is without arms until the puppeteer's bare arm slithers out to snatch the pearl Artaban offers him to free Shamir. He's all draping fabric, gold decoration, and hollow framework.

(Ok, I don't know why blogger is refusing to display the entire picture, but if you click on it you should be able to see it full sized in another window. Sorry about that.)


I don't often talk about work when I'm not there. I figure most folks aren't really interested in the nuts and bolts and dull details of making costumes when they could get a couple of tickets and see the finished product on stage being worn by actors who are talking about something much more interesting. The show I just finished building before Thanksgiving is an exception to that rule because, well, puppets!

Each December almost every Regional Theatre in America does a Christmas or holiday show. When I lived in Rochester that meant six consecutive years of Christmas Carol. Thankfully, when I moved to Buffalo I was saved from Dickens. Studio Arena picks a new play each December, and in fact couldn't do Christmas Carol if it wanted to, because another theatre down the street already does Christmas Carol every year, and well, what city needs two? On the same block? There are other community theatres, etc, that also produce it, but they're miles away.

This year's Christmas offering is based on the teleplay of a TV movie produced in the eighties which was based on a short story written by Henry Van Dyke over 100 years ago. In fact, you can read what is apparently the entire short story on the internet at this website, so I won't go into a synopsis. Just go read it. I'll wait here.

Ok, if that was too long, the gist of it is that Artaban was to set out with the other wise men in search of the messiah, but fell behind because he stopped to help someone, and spends the next thirty three years searching for Jesus, but missing him and using the jewels he had intended to give him helping the other people he finds in need along the way.

The adaptation written for Studio Arena is very theatrical in presentation. The story of Artaban is being told by peddlers, apparently recent converts to Christianity (then called "the way") in 68 AD. They tell it secretly because by this time The Way is seen by Rome as separate from Judaism, which was marginally protected, and Nero has just blamed the early Christians for the fires that ravaged Rome. Yes, those fires, the ones he fiddled through.

Anyway, the peddlers have traveled along the silk road through India and back , and use theatrical traditions they picked up along the way, including shadow puppets and almost life sized bunraku style puppets. These puppets are controlled by one to four puppeteers who are also visible behind them. The puppets were designed and built by Michele Costa, an amazing local puppeteer who has brought puppet shows to schools as well as art galleries and the Buffalo Fringe Festival. She received a Henson Award a few years ago. If you look down the listings of awards that year, all the other recipients are from New York City or L.A. and then there's Michele's listing for Buffalo NY. Here work is totally amazing and worth catching next time you see her listed here. I hear that she has a website but I can't for the life of me find it. If anyone else can, please let me know so that I can post a link to it here.

On to the puppets!

As I said, Michele designed and made all the puppets. My shop dressed the puppets, and built the costumes for the puppeteers and human actors in the rest of the show. These are some of the puppets whose costumes I draped.

Shamir, who Artaban saves from slavery. Her head and both arms are controlled by puppeteers. You can see the sticks that move her forearms and hands sticking out the back of her sleeves.

Ann and her baby, whom Artaban saves from the slaughtering of the innocents. My friend Tessa, who came in as a second first hand and ended up taking over for the second draper, is standing in for one of her puppeteers. In Ann's case the puppeteer's arms go through Ann's sleeves and the puppeteer's hands become Ann's hands. This is actually how most of the puppets are operated. The puppeteer who works Ann's right hand also operates the baby puppet, whose arms and head both move when he/she cries.

Tessa--I have magi photos for you!

Passhur is a blind man who can't be healed by Artaban ( a physician as well as magi) but comes back to Artaban after he has been healed by Jesus. This puppet has no legs because he is tied onto his puppeteer at the waist, so that the puppeteers legs become the puppet's legs.

Because blogger is consummately unhelpful, as I was deleting unwanted text, the photo of Pilate was also deleted, and apparently "undo" is a lie. Blogger has refused to reload the photo into this post, so the nasty Roman governor will have to have his own post. Also, I ran out of film before getting all of the puppets, and may post a few more after I get the next roll developed.

If you're in the area and want to see the show, it runs every day but Mondays through the 22nd. Check out Studio Arena's website for details.

Friday, November 17, 2006

My Kitchen Smells Like Beer

In an ongoing effort to make simple things more time consuming and slightly cheaper, I have begun brewing my own beer. This is something I had been considering for years and after I brewed a gallon of fantastic porter from a kit I was given as a gift, well, I was hooked. My second 5 gallon batch is in a secondary fermenter in the corner of my kitchen and will with any luck be bottled this weekend.

For my birthday in September I asked my family to give me gift certificates to the local homebrew supply shop, Niagara Traditions Homebrew. From them I bought an easy and cost effective kit and brewed 5 gallons of stout. I used a prepackaged brewing kit for ingredients and got a nice, basic, roasty sort of stout. Brewing from a prepackaged kit is akin to making a box cake, and perfectly serviceable for a first batch.

When I started my second batch I had to label the first so that I could tell them apart. I didn't give the stout any sort of cute names since it wasn't an original recipe, just a kit, but I did browse the internet for an appropriate picture.

For some reason I have always associated the word "stout" with suffragettes. I think it's something about the determined and impenetrable bosom. This photo is accompanied by the word "stout" in bold letters on all the remaining bottles. My plan is to cellar the last bottle or two of this and every batch to drink at some later date, possibly to compare a year's worth of beer at a time.

The batch waiting patiently in it's fermenter next to the rabbit cage is a pumpkin ale made according to a recipe in the book my friend Cat gave me as a gift at the end of the summer. It was fun to make as the recipe included a whole pumpkin. I used one from my Dad's garden. Pumpkin ale makes an unbelievable mess when you are trying to slop it from the brew pot where it was recently boiling through a colander and into a fermenter (i.e. 5 gallon white plastic bucket) placed on the kitchen floor. I splattered the floor and cupboards with hot sticky sweet wort. Please never do this in my mother's kitchen. I don't mind a quick mopping up at 11 o'clock on a Sunday night, but the sight would have given her a heart attack.

This time around I came up with a label design while I was boiling the wort. Having realized that my computer graphics skills are limited, and remembering that I don't own photoshop, drawing allows me much more control over the finished label, and is probably faster too. I may make a secondary label for the back of the bottle listing ingredients, alcohol content, and a warning not to drink beer if you're knocked up, but this is the finished front label.

As fermentation progresses I need to take regular samples of the beer and read them with a hydrometer to determine if fermentation is complete and I am ready to bottle. Since it would contaminate the batch to return the sample to the fermenter, I have been happily drinking each sample to see what it tastes like so far. Since the carbonation will be added in the bottle, the samples are flat, but otherwise it seems like it will become a medium bodied ale, somewhere between a brown ale and a red ale, with an added pumpkin and spice flavor in the background. Also from my tasting I have a feeling that the folks who wrote my recipe book are much fonder of hops than I am, so I will be cutting back on the hops content of any of their other recipes that I brew.

The stout was brewed with mostly malt but some sugar in the wort, and sugar for bottling. I find it lighter in body than I would like, so the pumpkin ale has only malt in the wort, although I will still bottle with sugar. If that doesn't give me the amount of body I want, I will make a porter next, and if that still doesn't do it I will have to start indiscriminately adding more malt to all my future recipes.

I also desire a scotch ale in the near future.

If I bottle this weekend the beer will be ready to drink the week after Thanksgiving. Drat! Next year if I do another pumpkin ale I'll need to start it in early October. This year's batch will be served as a Christmas beer.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

What Canada has to offer

Finally, some knitting to show. Much progress has been made on the satin angora/soy silk/cashmere stole. I knitted several swatches of it quite a while ago, but was unwilling to post them or choose one until I had found the embroidered fabric for my wedding dress. Chris and I spent two Saturdays looking for fabric, first in Toronto, especially in Little India, then in Hamilton. Fabric we liked completely eluded us in Toronto, although we did eat some great Indian food and dim sum, and spent time in Lush and in our favorite Toronto comic book shop. Luckily Hamilton came through for us, and also gave us the chance to eat pierogies and schnitzle and shop at IKEA.

My knitted swatches accompanied us to the shops. My sketch of the dress accompanied us on the second trip after Chris reprimanded me for not having it on the first. He got a post it note version for the first trip.

All of the stitch patterns shown are from Barbara Walker. The top pattern is rose trellis lace, then razor shell or new shell, then feather and fan or old shell, with cobweb frill finishing the bottom. The second picture shows sunspots and ogee lace. I loved the cobweb frill as soon as I knit it. This will be perfect at either end of a long rectangular stole. It finishes the ends nicely and is so much more elegant than fringe for a lace stole. I've been swatching the ogee lace for years, trying to use it somewhere, but it's been either the wrong scale or looked wrong in the yarn I was using. This is where I finally get to knit it. I was pretty sure ogee lace was the pattern I wanted as soon as I had knit it, but I wanted to wait to see what sort of shapes the embroidery made on the fabric for the dress: whether it was curving like the ogee or more geometric like the rose trellis. Interestingly, although all the swatches are knitted on the same needles, I think the ogee pattern will need to be knit one needle size larger, even though all the other patterns look lovely at this gauge. Just goes to show you how important swatching is! I blocked all the swatches too. I've learned the hard way that you have to block a lace swatch to get an accurate gauge and to see what it will really look like when finished.

We looked at a lot of fabric, none of it quite what we wanted, until we found this in Hamilton, just before the shops closed.

What you're looking at is an embroidered and beaded net with a scalloped border. The right side is laid on a black card so you can see the detail in the embroidery. Each flower is filled with five bugle beads in the petals in shades of silver and gold. The left side is laid on a natural color silk similar to the silk satin which will be the main fabric of the dress. I didn't try to buy silk satin in Canada because silk is sometimes tricky to bring across the border. I don't know the details; it has something to do with country of origin even though we can often buy the same fabric from the same country here in the US. Whatever the reason, it's easier to mail order from Thai silks in California, although the shop owner in Hamilton looked disdainful when I said so.

One of the things I liked about this fabric was it's mottled appearance. Western wedding dresses can be painfully dull in their monochrome. Chris tried to talk me into a pale blue dress, which is when I realized I did want to get married in white-ish, but with a little color and interest. This was one of only a few off-white fabrics that included some subtle color and variation. It also goes well with the stole, don't you think?

After we bought the fabric we wandered into Yarnopolis, which stays open a full hour later than the fabric stores. We were high on the excitement of finally finding what we wanted, and finally having one concrete thing accomplished towards getting married this spring, and Chris, who has excellent taste, fell in love with a skein of Manos del Uruguay yarn. Since he is the world's most interested and helpful groom when it comes to buying dress fabric, I couldn't say "no" to his big brown eyes (which look so good with this colorway). I started knitting him a scarf that night.

You should know if you haven't knitted manos yet, it's lovely to knit. Very co-operative, and it feels wonderful running through my fingers. He's a lucky guy, and since it's an easy scarf pattern, he'll soon be a warmer guy. Good thing since it snowed today.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Still Standing

As you can see from Chris's previous post, our freak storm did an amazing amount of damage to almost every deciduous tree in the affected area. A few days after the actual storm, when we were all still without power, Chris realized that there was a city resident we needed to check on.

The 300 year old sycamore tree reputed to be Buffalo's oldest is still standing. The second picture was taken after the storm. The tree did lose branches, some of which apparently damaged a car or two, but the tree is still huge and healthy and standing. I would have been very sad if my neighborhood had lost this resident, and just think how the owners of that home behind it would feel if that huge tree demolished the house!

Most of the deaths attributed to the storm were traffic fatalities, because for the last week hundreds of traffic lights have been without power and therefore dark. I don't know if people forgot that a non-functioning traffic light is an all way stop, or if they just didn't care, but driving was pretty treacherous for a while, especially in the city. However, the round about that we usually refer to as the "wheel of death"? Well those things work just fine in a power out.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Perfect Storm

This should've been posted right away, but there was no internet to be had for about a week around these parts. For those of you who don't live in Buffalo, or don't understand it's crazy weather - the following is what happens when Lake-generated snow squalls form when cold air, passing for long distances over the relatively warm waters of a large lake, picks up moisture and heat and is then forced to drop the moisture in the form of snow upon reaching the downwind shore. We like to call this delightful manna from heaven: "Lake Effect" snow.
Buffalo - Friday, October 13th: 6am

This is the view that greeted me when I stepped out of Erica's front door in the morning before work. I shoveled about 6ft of snow the approximate weight and consistency of mashed potatoes, and then realized I wasn't going anywhere. Even if I could've shoveled my car out, there was no way to get it down the street.

(Note the bike rack - insert laugh track here)

Buffalo - Friday, October 13th: 8am

As you can see here, the snow plows still never came, and the driveway and street are still buried. In this picture you can see an entire tree uprooted and lying across the driveway that leads to the parking lot of a large apartment building across the street. You'll notice in this picture as well as all the rest: the leaves are all still green! We didn't even have autumn yet. That is what made this storm so brutal - it hit so early in the autumn that all the added surface area from the leaves on each branch allowed the the heavy heavy snow to just clump on the leaves of the trees. Eventually the limbs or entire trees would just buckle & snap under the weight. Had the storm hit November 13th, there would likely have been no damage at all. In the evening on Thursday, when the storm had dumped a foot of snow, and was still falling: all you could hear was the loud crack of limbs breaking, followed by the whoosh of the snow laden branches crashing to the ground. About every 20 seconds you'd hear it, and with nobody out driving, and the snow absorbing much of the ambient noise of the city, it was pretty eerie. As it turned out, all those falling trees and limbs blocked roads and snapped power lines, causing nearly everyone to lose power. Something like 300,000 homes were without power.The snowfall in Buffalo was about 2 feet. Amherst had about 2.5 feet, and North Tonawanda had about a foot and a half.

Buffalo - Friday, October 13th: 4:30pm

So by 3:00 or so on Friday, less than 24 hours after the storm started: the snow had melted enough so that you could drive car down many of the streets. Unless they were blocked (see above).

North Tonawanda - Saturday, October 14th: noon

By Saturday in North Tonawanda, you could barely see any snow left on the ground. All the downed tree limbs heaped on the sides of the roads made NT look like the hedgerow country of WWII Normandy, bristling with Nazi machine gun nests! Man, I miss being a kid.

I think the area worst hit was Amherst. Most residents of NT had power restored by Sunday, 3 days after the storm. Much of Buffalo had power back by Monday or Tuesday, but most of Amherst didn’t get their electricity until the following weekend. I think by now ( 10-24) there are only a few hundred customers still without power.

Our family did pretty well during the storm. We have a fireplace which kept us warm, and a propane camping stove for cooking. Erica & Rusty came to stay with us for a few days, which was great. My parents realized that they sleep better when the house is slightly cooler. Our house is well insulated, so setting the thermostat to 68° means it’ll coast at 70°-72°. With a little inspiration from the storm, I convinced them to turn the thermostat to 65° to save some money and make things more comfortable.

As it turned out our family really enjoyed the time together around the fireplace. Who knows, maybe we’ll turn the heat down and do that every Sunday.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The first time is important

When you're 22 and starting to date a guy you really like, there are some things to consider. You have to decide what you will and won't do with him, and after how many dates. Right away might put him off, but waiting for years until you've really fallen in love, taking the plunge, and having a terrible experience that makes you realize you're incompatible? Well that's a pain I didn't want, so I waited only a few dates before getting out my knitting in front of Chris. (What? What else would I be talking about?)

I knew it might be a little weird, or might freak him out, but I really liked him, and I needed to know right away if he was ok with my old lady hobby. We were in his bedroom at his parent's home, getting ready to watch a movie he'd been telling me about and wanted me to see. As he got the video tape set up (this was almost ten years ago, after all) I quietly got out the socks I was knitting for my Mom for Christmas. They were the Ukrainian socks from Nancy Bush's Folk Socks. In fact, that's the pair pictured on the front of the book.

Chris took one look at me knitting and excused himself (politely) from the room. I had no idea what was going on. Did he leave to laugh at me? To figure out how to get rid of me? To get his own knitting? I had no idea, and that made me nervous, so I kept knitting.

He finally returned with his mother in tow. He pointed at me and said to his mother with glee, "Mom, look what she's doing!" She looked pleased, and he was obviously happy about it, and I was confused, so I kept knitting.

They explained to me that his mother's mother (Grandma Sorri) was always knitting or crocheting, and had made a lot of the stuff around their house. I was in. I could keep dating him, could now allow myself to fall in love without reservation, and could bring my knitting along anywhere. The movie was good too.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

When the Yarn Breaks

When I learned how to spin, my teacher Louise did something I did not appreciate at the time. In the second or third class, after we had spent some time practicing the very basics of adding twist to fiber and could make a basic join if we had to, she made us intentionally break off our fiber supply from the forming yarn and then join back on again. We did this every yard or so for most of a bobbin. I remember feeling inexplicably resentful as I did this exercise, thinking that my teacher was wrecking a whole bobbin of my (free with very inexpensive class fee) yarn I was trying to make. I felt this way because up until that point I had dreaded having to join when the yarn broke or I got to the end of a length of roving. I knew that whenever I plyed my earliest spinning the singles tended to break at the joins I had made. So because I was not good at joins, and it was difficult for me to make a good join, up until that point I had avoided them as much as possible. Louise made me face them, and do them over and over, until I could make a good solid join that did not break. She also taught me that when I got a thin bit in the yarn I was spinning, which would most likely break at some later point because it was weaker than the yarn surrounding it, I could choose to break off my fiber supply and join just ahead of the thin bit, drafting back over it thus adding enough fiber to make it just as thick and strong as the rest of my yarn.

At the beginning of the two year "Crossways" bible class I recently completed, my teacher Sue told us that she had really been struck by a passage in a book by a Christian author she respected, in which he stated "Life is supposed to be hard" and the sooner you accept that the sooner you can properly cope with what life throws at you. I felt the same sort of indignant resentment I felt when Louise made me break off my yarn on purpose. Although I've always known that Sue is a very wise woman, I did not appreciate her words until fairly recently. Life before the fall may have been meant to be easy, but not since then.

Four or five years ago I read two of Wally Lamb's novels. They are excellent stories, and both follow main characters whose lives become, over most of the course of the novel, much harder than mine has ever been. I read both as audio books, and at the end of "I Know This Much is True" the reader interview Mr. Lamb about the novel, his life, and his writing. When asked why his characters went through such amazing difficulties, and why it was the hardest part of their lives that Lamb wanted to focus on, he said something pretty interesting. He did write about characters who faced much greater hardships than he ever had. He hoped he never would go through what they did. But if he had written about characters who always had everything go their way, we never would have found out what they were really like, or how strong they were. He felt his characters were most interesting and engaging as they struggled. It wasn't hardship and suffering that made them interesting, but what they became as they coped and came through the most difficult events of their lives that made them worth writing and reading about.

I think this is why I view his novels, which in synopsis may sound very depressing, as being really very positive.

I recently had about a five year span in my life that went very smoothly. It might look uneventful to some, but my difficulties were small and easily solved or endured, and I was quite happy with that arrangement. Over the past two years things have been a little tougher, and I often feel that resentment again, because I believed that life was meant to be as it was before the fall. As I watch the yarn break I'm learning that life may have been meant to be perfect before the inevitable fall but once we fell the intention changed. The solution wasn't to restore humanity to it's garden of Eden innocence, thereby avoiding the problem. The answer is to solve the problems, not avoid or rewrite them. That act of salvation for humanity involved more suffering than I ever wish to know.

In the fallen world I live in, I do have to keep facing my problems; I can't avoid them, and don't really get to be indignant about them because Sue was right. Life is supposed to be hard. It's supposed to challenge me.

And the yarn full of joins? It held together. Thanks to Louise, my joins are strong. I've learned that breaks and joins are just as much a part of making yarn as drafting and adding twist. I can now reap great enjoyment and relaxation from the whole process, and consider my spinning a source of solace, joins and all, when the rest of life has gotten me down with it's trials.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Wedding dress

Repeat after me, "this is not a wedding blog, this is not a wedding blog, this is not a wedding blog..." Good. Now believe it.

This is a knitting entry. No really. Several folks have asked if I'm going to make my own wedding dress. Jacqui asked if I will knit one. Well here's a lovely knitted dress option from a 1934 knitting book. It's knit at a scale of 2 of those bobbles per inch.

This dress should only be recommended for long engagements. No I will not be knitting my wedding dress. I have kept telling myself since the engagement that there's not time for me to knit ANYTHING for a May wedding and still make sure that we hire everyone and get everything and I don't even know where wedding invitations come from and today someone said "guest book" to me and I said, "what's that?" Sounds optional to me. But I digress. I've been telling myself that it would be too stressful to make anything for my own wedding. My friend and mentor Georgia has agreed to make my dress. Everything else can be purchased ready made or gone without. But then wouldn't it be nice if each table had a few bottles of my new homebrew instead of cheap wine? Yes. And what will I wear around my shoulders to keep from getting chilly? Well I have a perfectly good silk and linen shrug that I knitted a few years ago. A shrug will cover too much of the dress. I have a gorgeous fine wool hairpin lace stole with iridescent payettes. But I didn't make that. But really, either one would be lovely. But I have this beautiful 4 oz bag of cashmere I bought at the Fiber Festival last year.

So yesterday I decided that there wouldn't be any harm in just spinning up a sample. That wouldn't obligate me to spin it all and pick/write a pattern and then knit it before the beginning of May. I could quit any time.

Last night I went to a lovely informal spin and knit at the fiber shop in the area and spun a sample using the oh-so-worth-every-penny very fast flyer on my Lendrum. The yarn is perfection. I am already past the point of no return.

For my first sample I spun one ply of Rusty's satin angora, one ply of the white cashmere, which is as much a joy to spin as to touch, and one ply of soy silk--a very generous gift from a non-spinning yet attentive friend. The soy silk does not draft like worm's butt silk, and will take a little more practice before I get the full feel of it. There is no need for a second sample. The laceweight yarn has all the good qualities of each fiber and they cooperate beautifully. I don't have dress fabric, a definite date, or a caterer, but I have a wonderful groom, a pastor, a priest, and a few yards of luxury. All the important stuff is covered. And of course I've found a way for the world's bravest bunny to participate without having to leave the comfort of the hooked rug.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Tour de Canal

The Erie Canal was once the economic life blood of New York State, and was responsible for Buffalo becoming a large and important port city in the 19th century. This was part of why Buffalo was chosen as the location for the 1901 pan-am, which in turn made Buffalo the location for the assassination of President McKinley. But that's not what I came to tell you about today.

In it's modern life, the Erie Barge Canal is a lovely waterway that runs throughout the middle of New York passing through old canal towns, parks, woods, and farmland. As anyone who knows the song (which I don't) will tell you, the canal barges were once pulled along by mules walking the path on either side of the canal. That "towpath" has been made into a bike trail, running from Buffalo to Albany--just like in the song.

When I lived in Rochester, I notice how directly the canal connected Rochester to my parent's house in Pendleton. It looked to be about 70 miles, and I decided that I wanted to bike that stretch of the path out and back over a long weekend. In my six years in Rochester I never managed it. I was waiting until I could go one way in one day, I was waiting until I had a cell phone, etc.

Well, Chris and I together took on this life's goal. Now that Chris has started biking fervently, I had the safety of a companion to travel with me (a companion with a cell phone). Chris bought a great book called Bicycling the Erie Canal which not only gave us maps and points of interest along the way, but also marked the free marinas all along the canal. They provide places to moor a boat, electric hookups, showers, and a small strip of grass where cyclists and folks whose boats don't include sleeping quarters can camp for the night. Did I mention that they're free? Knowing this, we plan to cycle the rest of the canal path in sections over the next few years.

This all sounds well planned so far, doesn't it? Well, I'll leave Eddie Izzard to tell you about the best laid plans of mice, but our human plan did hit some snafus. We didn't leave my parent's driveway until almost 8 o'clock at night. Luckily we were a mile or two down the road before the sun went down completely and my Mom realized how foolhardy we were. She was pretty confident in our plan up until then!

We always ride equipped with head and tail lights, and after the first ten miles we were out of traffic and onto the towpath, which does not allow motorized vehicles, and was for some reason free of other cyclists, joggers, etc at that hour.

Now here comes snag the second. This was on Friday September 1st. That night, tropical storm Ernesto was scheduled to hit New York State with a day of soaking rain and high winds--not conducive to sleeping in a tent (especially with the canal right there to get blown into) or to biking the next day on a cinder path. We did what anyone would do, we begged friends in Medina to take us in for 2 nights and a day. Our nice friends Daina and Kevin (known to letterboxers as the Sprite and the Highlander) gave us their couches to stay on, and stayed up for our midnight arrival. Now I had been talking with Daina over ye olde internet for about a year, as she was very helpful getting me started letterboxing, but we had only actually met the week before, and here we were freeloading the next week!

We had a great time watching geeky movies about gaming (you know, Dungeons and Dragons? How kids worshipped Satan in the 80's?*) Yes, there's more than one geeky movie about gaming. We also got to know each other better, and on Sunday morning our lovely hosts drove us to the place we would have started out from on Sunday if it hadn't been for losing Saturday to the storm. It was disappointing to skip that part of the trip, but we had a date to get sushi in Rochester and had to get there before the Sunday afternoon special ended!

Needless to say, starting in the dark, missing day 2, and finishing fast, we forgot to take any pictures on the way there. Once in Rochester we visited our good friends Jer and Brenna, who were nice enough to put us up for a night so we got time to hang out with them and their boys Natty and P.J. as well as time to read the comics we bought after sushi.

We left Rochester on labor day itself, and actually have photographic evidence of the return trip. The canal dips south of the city of Rochester itself. The Genesee river runs North/South and meets the canal in Genesee Valley park right near my first two apartments in Rochester. I used to bike to work downtown along the path paralleling the river, but we decided to take a more direct route in and out of Rochester itself and not join up with the canal path until somewhere between Rochester and Gates. This took us past the infamous Nick Tahou's, home of the garbage plate.

We biked about 30 miles on Monday, starting from Jer and Brenna's around 5pm. I have no idea why Chris thought this picture was so funny.

I wish I knew how that park got it's name. And yes, you're reading it right, we did in fact bike all the way to Greece. Gotta love the ancient world as it appears splattered all over New York.

We made it to Holley New York, near Brockport. Being along the canal, about half of the towns we passed had names ending in "port." It wasn't until the return trip that we were finally able to use the lightweight backpacking tent that we bought. Why lightweight? See those saddlebags? Everything we needed had to fit in there, and even though we were very good about keeping lightweight, boy does that change the way the bike handles and how fast you can go. The extra weight of tent, sleeping bags, food, camp stove, and clothes probably took close to 5mph off our speed on this trip. Luckily the canal path, at least west of Syracuse, is really really flat!

We pitched our tent at the free marina in Holley. The marinas are not staffed, but they seem to all be next to lift bridges so that the bridge operator can keep an eye on them. We met a fellow named Brendan at the Holley marina who was canoeing the canal from lake erie all the way to the ocean. He told us that he had already hiked the Appalachian trail a few years ago. He was also the one who had met a local police officer who confirmed that yes, we could all camp there for free, and that in addition to the bridge operators, the local police checked the park every 45 minutes or so all night. We felt very safe staying there, another reason we want to do the whole path now.

Tuesday afforded us some interesting and unique sites. There was the only place where the road goes under the canal.

There was a giant apple--I don't know why, it's a monument to NYS apples according to the sign.
And there were lovely orchards filled with real apples.

You'll notice that we left our helmets on for all the photographs. That's because despite the gel we packed out of vanity, biking 20-30 miles a day leaves one's hair looking terrible. Mine was a sweaty mess, and Chris, who doesn't sweat for religious reasons, gets a series of alternating high spots and dents across his head in the pattern of the helmet air vents, which makes him look like a very awkward wolverine rip off.

I was almost hit by a careless driver in Albion, county seat of Orleans County. Luckily I am a very attentive cyclist, because he was looking back over his shoulder while turning left in front of me. He heard me yell and stopped. He seemed rather unconcerned at how close he had come to causing a major accident, and when I hollered at him "what on earth is wrong with you?!?!" he responded with "well, you are kind of hard to see." I informed him that if he cannot see an adult human on a bicycle he'll never see an adult in a crosswalk or a child anywhere and should not be driving! He seemed unimpressed. Jerk. Chris was a little ahead of me at the time, and heard the incident behind him. He said that he didn't worry if I was ok because as soon as he heard me yell there wasn't time for a second of panic because he immediately heard my voice start in lecturing the guy, so he knew I was ok. I don't blame the town of Albion, though, which has a lovely old government building in the center of it. (That and replenishing our supply of power bars was the reason we rode into town in the first place.)

We spent the second night in Middleport, where we had a very nice meal at a restaurant right next the marina. After the 30 mile ride each of us pulled his/her bike into one of the two shower rooms and cleaned up before setting up camp or eating or anything. That was enough time for my legs to stiffen up completely after our 100+ miles of biking over 4 days. I sort of hobbled over to the restaurant, and spent the rest of the evening groaning and stretching as we made camp. It is now my goal to bike every week outdoors or at the gym, so that I am better prepared for the next trip and travel more miles each day. By the last day I was finally in condition for the kind of riding we had been doing and wasn't sore at all at the end of the trip. Of course at the beginning I thought I might not make it any further than Daina and Kevin's house, I was sore to the point of minor injury. Thank goodness for yoga.

Speaking of mileage. Chris, who has WAY outperformed me when it comes to biking, has hit a real milestone. He bought his bike about a year ago, along with a bike computer that tracks speed, miles covered, etc. During our trip he hit 1000 miles on his odometer. I think I'm only at four hundred something. What a guy!

I'm going to copy-cat my good friend Lisa for a moment with pictures of some of the wildlife we saw along the canal. There were tons of great blue herons. If it's possible maybe Chris could post the video he took of some of them with his camera. We were surprised to see them in populated areas, where roads and businesses were right next to the canal.

As a kid I saw tons of monarch butterflies every summer. I've heard that the population has dwindled, but I think the biggest reason that I didn't see as many as I got older was that the milkweed lined field next to my parent's house was plowed under and replaced with a house. No milkweeds, not so many monarchs. This one was obliging enough to sit on a purple thistle for a lovely photo.

These obnoxious geese refused to let us pass until we told them the capital of Assyria. Bonus points to anyone other than my parents who can tell me the capital of Assyria and what book of the Bible takes place there.

Totals for the weekend: 5 days, 130 miles, 1 tropical storm, 8 rolls of sushi, and 2 sore butts.

*no one actually worshipped Satan while playing D&D. Not in the 80's, not ever. No matter what Jack Chick tells you.

Rules of the Blog

By "rules" I do not mean along the lines of "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not" I mean descriptive rules like "an object in motion tends to stay in motion" or common sense rules like, "whether there were a rule or not, you will look foolish wearing white heels with dark hose in Buffalo New York in November," that sort of rules.

So here's the rule: If something is written in
blue then you're reading Chris,
but if it's written in orange then you're reading Erica. Orange was not my first choice; it was assigned to me.

Glad we had this talk.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Here's a bit of a photo journal detailing how I made Erica's ring. This technique of ring making is referred to as "lost wax" process, because the wax is burned away in the kiln, leaving a perfect mold of the ring that is ready to receive molten metal.

I started with a green wax cylinder with an off center hole down the middle called a "blank". Using a tiny coping saw called a jeweler's saw, I cut off a 7mm wide piece that you can see in the background. My first cut was so crooked, that I had to cut a 2nd. In the picture above you can see the millimeter gauge, the compass for scoring the wax, the dremel tool, and some circle templates.

At the end of the first session with the wax, I was able to file off about 1-2mm or so. You can see the difference and my sketch of the ring on the right. I took the previous two pix with my camera phone, so the images are kind of crap.

Using a wax file I was able to carve the wax into the shape I wanted. I had to leave the wax model 7% larger to account for shrinkage when casting in metal. Once complete, I had to attach a wax sprue to the ring (not shown) to create a clear channel for the metal to flow into once the wax was burned away. I'll explain that next.

The next step is investment. The investment material starts as a white powder that is mixed with water, similar to plaster-o-paris, although much more durable when solidified. After investment the invested wax is placed in a kiln to burn away the wax, leaving just the investment material which is ready to accept the molten metal.

The device that says EZ-CAST on the front is a centrifuge of some kind. I'm not entirely clear on it's workings, but basically it vacuums the investment to clear the air bubbles and then forces the liquid hot metal into the mold to achieve the best possibly casting. These pictures are weak, because I was working with hot metal and I was really concentrating on not becoming Johnny Tremain. The reddish blob in these shots is liquid hot silver. Ooooh.

This next photo is the silver ring, all blackened and nasty after it came out of the investment. The big blob on the end is called the button. It's the hardened cooled version of the red blob you saw in the last photo.

I was dying to finish the ring, so I bought some jewelry tools & took the silver ring home to work on in between my Tuesday night sessions. On a few occasions I packed my stuff onto my bicycle and went down to the Niagara River to work. The image of the ring with the river in the background is where I cleaned the silver ring of it's firescale, and took some more girth off of the ring. As you can see, it's still a bit bulky. That's because the silver ring was only to be the prototype. I intended to do the final ring in white gold, so I was going to have to make a silicone mold of the silver ring, and then inject it with hot wax, and repeat the lost wax step in the kiln again to prepare for the final pour in white gold. So I needed to keep that 7% extra girth to allow for more shrinkage. If I was more experienced at this, I would never have made a prototype ring. I would've just cast in white gold in the first place.

Here is the silver ring after an initial polishing. I didn't go nuts polishing it yet because of the next step, investing in silicone.

Here's the silicone mold, and 3 blue wax rings that I made from it. The silver ring was sandwiched in between 2 wafers of silicone, and a heat press was used to apply pressure and heat to fuse the silicone into a solid mold. An an x-acto is used to cut the silver ring out of the mold. I injected hot wax into the silicone mold from this vat that contained the hot wax under pressure. I probably made a dozen or so of these wax rings and chose the best 2 for the final investment in white gold.

So I repeated the lost wax kiln firing, and poured white gold for the final ring. After cleaning firescale, sizing the ring to Erica's ring size, and polishing, a post was soldered into the cup at the top, to hold the pearl in place. Next the stones were set . The pearl is a 7.2mm Tahitian Black Pearl, and the diamonds are tiny 2mm rocks to add a little bling. A dremel tool was used to drill 2 channels into the shank of the ring for the diamonds to set into. To hold the stones in place a tiny reciprocating hammer was used to hammer the metal over the edges of the diamonds, therby holding them in place. I didn't want to use the prong settings because besides altering the aesthetics of my design, they would snag on fabric all the time. And since Erica works with fabric,...

So this is the final product! Click on it for a larger image.