Sunday, September 30, 2007

Too Much Structure

I think I went overboard...

I love organizing information, and was having a wonderful time with my neat, orderly plans for this year's medieval history and literature courses; I was trying to shoehorn all kinds of interesting things, like formal logic and the history of English and the history of mathematics, into the curriculum. But four weeks into the school year, it became clear that I was giving the kids too much, too fast, and I was driving them and me nuts. My son was overwhelmed with assignments and my daughter was frustrated because she couldn't spend time on the parts that interested her. And I was tired of trying to get them to finish their schoolwork.

So I jettisoned most of my carefully crafted plans and focused on my goals. I want them to read and write, to think and question, to have a sense of the major historical stories, to be able to make sense of the world around them; I want them to have time to explore subjects that interest them, to enjoy the excitement of learning new things. I want them to have time for community service, for fixing cars, for things that interest them, for friends and family. I don't want them to crank through school work without thinking about it, to race through assignments and go on to the next one, to memorize and move on.

To achieve my goals, this week, I have revamped their school assignments so that there are fewer topics and shorter assignments. I kept the structured review of mechanics - times tables, spelling, keyboarding. Reading still has to be done, but they can choose a book from a reading list and focus on it instead of racing through one book after another to stay on schedule. History will still include things I think they need to know from each topic, but will allow more time for them to study aspects they are interested in. I'm trying to craft assignments flexible enough that when my son's friend wants to improve the grounds at the Food Bank, my son can go help him without getting behind on school work. We'll see how it goes over the next month, but I think it's getting better, because my daughter is once again excited about studying history and literature, instead of frustrated.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

No Snow - So Far

Nope, no snow this morning, although there is probably some on the mountain ridges. Just lots of rain and a solid ceiling of low grey clouds, enlivened by the tree-show as the summer chlorophyll fades and allows the leaves' true colors to show through. The small maple by the driveway has leaves that are red and yellow, averaging to a glowing orange even in the rain; the Canadian Red chokecherry is deep crimson; the ash and the lilacs are yellow-green; the dogwood leaves are yellow and red that doesn't average to orange, just red and a feeble yellow; the big crabapple tree outside our bedroom has some branches full of green leaves, others with leaves already turned orange-red. It should be gorgeous once we get some sunshine again.

When the well-drillers were here, they took down part of our fence so they could get the trucks to the well. This means that the dogs have been pretty much trapped inside, making us all nuts. My son tried, half-heartedly, to get the fence put back together yesterday, while it was warm and dry, but didn't get it done. So today, my husband and two sons spent most of the day in the cold rain and wind, putting it back together. My youngest son was in charge of the post-hole digger; in order to soften the clay, he ran a hose into the hole and let it run while he dug. When he came inside for lunch, he was wet and muddy from his boot toes to his hat; even his boxers were muddy (how did he do that? No, I don't think I want to know.), and his boots were soaked. Cleaning up after him is going to take some work - there is mud everywhere now. The other two were wet and a little muddy, but my youngest definitely took the muddy-kid award today.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Winter's First Intimations

From the National Weather Service in Great Falls, MT: "Heavy snow warning in effect from midnight tonight to 6 pm Saturday above 6000 feet. Snow advisory in effect below 6000 feet. Expect snow accumulations of up to 2 inches below 5000 feet, 2-6 inches between 5000 and 7000 feet, and 6-12 inches above 7000 feet. A cold and moist Pacific weather system will move through western Montana Saturday morning. Ahead of this system, precipitation will begin after midnight with snow levels between 8000 and 9000 feet. Snow levels will drop to the valley floors by morning. Snow will end Saturday evening. Severe winter weather conditions are expected above 6000 feet. Significant amounts of snow are forecast that will make travel dangerous. Only travel in an emergrency. If you must travel, keep an extra flashlight, food, and water in your vehicle in case of an emergency."

We are just above 5000 feet, so with luck, we will see snow tomorrow morning. On the other hand, these warnings this time of year frequently end in cold rain, so I'm not getting my hopes up. The warnings about driving seem a little silly - "significant amounts of snow" means two to six feet here, not two to six inches. But even Montanans forget how to drive in snow after a long summer, and the first snow always results in a ridiculous number of fender-benders in town, so maybe the warning isn't too extreme.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

No Naps

Now I remember why I don't try to take naps: a napping mom is an open invitation to kids to find something to talk to her about. Kids who haven't been seen for hours, who have been hiding in their rooms, will suddenly NEED to talk to a napping mom; kids who have been visible get more audible. And of course it is all urgent and can't wait until after the nap. It's as bad as getting on the phone with someone you need to concentrate on, another proven child magnet.

The funny thing is that my kids understand that sometimes I need a nap, that I will be much more cheerful and less likely to take their heads off once I have a nap. They tell each other to leave me alone while I nap. And yet... I can only get an undisturbed nap if there is no one else in the house. Something urgent always comes up if I am napping. Sigh. At least a few minutes lying down is better than nothing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Phones for Women

I have had my cell phone for seven or eight years; it is old enough that it doesn't have GPS capability, old enough that my teenaged sons were embarrassed for me when I used it, but it is sturdy and it works - and it's a tool, so there was no need to replace it. Just recently, I realized that I needed to be able to set different ring tones for social and business calls (so I don't answer a business call when the kids are shrieking in the background), which meant I needed a new phone.

I did a little research (asking friends what phone they have) and so did my husband (checking the internet). One thing he discovered is that "all phones bought by women are pink or purple". It makes women sound juvenile - until you realize that the options are all techno-geek phones in grey or black or silver. Women tend to treat cell phones as tools, not toys, so simplicity is good; you shouldn't need a computer science degree to run your phone. At the same time, woman like their tools to look nice, to have a little style. I hate to tell the phone designers, but silver and black with tiny buttons doesn't count as stylish, especially when every phone out there looks the same way. In desperation, we buy the few interesting, straightforward offerings, which happen to be in pink and purple. Given some options in cell phones with some interesting designs, a reasonable percentage of women would opt for something other than stereotypical pink and black - but there aren't any.

My sons are still embarrassed, because I got the basic mom phone, the same one my friends tend to have: bright pink with big buttons, without internet access, an MP3 player, video, or Bluetooth capability. I looked at a phone in a neat green, but the buttons on the pink phone felt and worked better for my hands (good tool design wins over good color). So even though I am up-to-date, I am nowhere near cutting-edge - which probably reassures my sons. Works for me!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sons at College

Having a son at college is a very different experience than having a daughter gone, from what I can tell. My son sends short (as in 1 sentence) emails when he needs information ("Do I have a bank statement there?") or wants money ("Would you and Dad pay the dues if I joined a dojo?") or has a problem ("Someone stole the handlebars off my bike."). Nothing chatty, nothing that tells me how things are going there, if he has made friends, what his days are like, how he likes his teachers, what he is doing. A friend with a freshman boy in Helena has the same problem: "He texted us about five words on what he did last weekend." Some days I appreciate my son's independence, other days I wish he would give me more information about his new life.

Girls are different. At least all the ones I hear about are. One mom of a girl reported, "I miss her so much, but we stay in touch. We text two or three times a day..." Two or three times a DAY? My son would refuse to answer after a day or two of that. Of course, I'm used to boys and so that seems excessive to me, too; I will probably feel differently when my daughter goes off to college. I saw this same thing at orientation in June: the boys were mostly on their own, or they were 6 steps ahead of their parents, while the girls were definitely with their parents, engaged in conversation, especially with their mothers. Boys are eager to make the break, go out on their own, while girls still want the support network as they figure things out. (Mostly, anyway.) I know some of this is cultural, but based on my four kids, I think some of it is hard-wired in them; my daughter simply communicates more than all her brothers combined, and about personal things rather than about their computer problems. It will be a very different experience when she goes off to college!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Fall Rains

Over the last week, we've had several days of cold, steady rain. It doesn't add up to much water - less than an inch - but every year, it signals the end of summer and the beginning of fall. Regardless of the daytime temperatures, the nights will be cooler and the leaves will keep changing color. And it puts an end to the fire season; there is still mop-up work to be done, but the fires are containable now.

The rains we got in early September brought the Wicked Creek Fire complex under control. As of Sept. 6, the fires were steady at 28,600 acres and were 90% contained; the expert fire team is now able to turn the fire over to the local fire-fighting districts to finish up. Of course, the rain also washed debris onto one of the roads into the area, and it is (or was) impassable in areas.
The InciWeb report notes, "Please use caution if traveling in the fire area and carry the necessary tools to help clear debris."

Sunday, September 23, 2007


We spent the weekend near Lewistown, a neat town of about 6000 people right in the middle of the state. It still has a downtown highlighted by wonderful old sandstone buildings, built by immigrants from Croatia in the early 1900s; at one point, as many as 200 stone buildings had been built, but now there are only about 45 remaining. A decade ago, the town was looking run-down and many downtown store fronts were empty; in recent years, the downtown has started to recover, and the storefronts are filling up with restaurants and stores. An old-fashioned drive-in movie theater still runs in the summer.

One of Lewistown's best events is the Chokecherry Festival every fall, the Saturday after Labor Day. Main Street closes and is filled with booths; in addition to chokecherry jellies, jams, and syrups, you can buy Mary Kay cosmetics, magnetic therapy jewlery, round etched saw blades, stained glass, log furniture, wildlife lampshades, painted birdhouses, Usborne books, painted hand saws, garlic braids, tabletop fountains, wood furniture, blankets, purses, yard art, knit scarves, custom-made stuffed animals, Pampered Chef kitchen items, marshmallow guns, bowls and mirrors made from dyed lariats, metal art, horseshoe furniture, painted cast-iron skillets, jewelry, lap quilts, painted plates, knitted baby hats, food from sweet popcorn to kabobs, embroidered vests and jackets, airbrush tattoos, painted license plates, pillows, windchimes, produce, candles, kitchen linens, rag rugs, etched wood, framed wildlife photos, pottery, kites, earrings, doll clothes, chainsaw art – bears and moose, dress-up crowns for little girls, barnboard frames for pictures, handmade brooms, and cribbage boards. Many of the produce and quilt booths are run by the local Hutterites, distinctive in their long dark dresses and kerchiefs, or their beards, striped shirts and suspenders. A motorcycle show shares the event, as do bicycle tricks and music by local kids. We went last year - it's not the best place for lots of excitement, but people were out having fun on a lovely late-summer day and we enjoyed it. This year, we were coping with water shortages and missed it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fall Equinox

The summer and winter solstices always seem a little oddly timed with regard to the seasons, but the fall equinox is right on time. The first intimations of fall always seem to come the week that the day and night are the same length. Although the fields have been golden tan for weeks and there is still plenty of green grass showing, the cottonwoods are starting to turn yellow, the crabapple tree has red leaves among the green, and the hawthorn is turning crimson. The nights are cooler and the sun feels warm on my arms instead of hot. It's my favorite time of year.

My kids appreciate it for several reasons, one of which is the return of meals that we only eat in the cooler weather. Last night we had spaghetti for the first time since mid-May, and tonight we'll have pot roast. I've already put the bottom round roast into a pot of water, with two chopped onions and plenty of salt and pepper, and started it simmering for six or more hours; about 45 minutes before dinner, I'll add small red potatoes, then carrot chunks half an hour later. With a little broth poured over the meat and some butter for the potatoes, it will be a good, calm dinner to welcome in fall (and I love the left-over meat for lunches!).

Friday, September 21, 2007

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors

The subtitle of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, by Lizzie Collingham, is more helpful in giving an idea of the contents than the title. Rather than a book about Indian food, it is about India and the British connection with it, told through food. Collingham chooses dishes most familiar to patrons of Indian restaurants in Britain and follows them back to their origins; in the process, she tells much of Anglo-Indian history from the time of the Mughals (17th century) forward. She does include some recipes, both historic and modern, but they don't cover the ground she does in the chapters and the focus stays on the history. The last two chapters aren't even set in India; they follow Indian food as it migrates to Britain and the US, then to the rest of the world. So maybe it is best described as a book on the history of Anglo-Indian food.

Looked at that way, it is a well-told story (assuming you care about either history or food). It is interesting to see how various strands of Indian food (there isn't one national food, there are many) came together in British kitchens to create an Anglo-Indian cuisine - which in some cases degenerated to bland boiled food with a little curry powder thrown in. Curry powder, of course, is profoundly unIndian, since in a true Indian kitchen, the spices will be ground fresh every morning, specifically for the dishes being cooked that day, and they will be added at different points in the cooking to maximize their effect, as she explains well.

Collingham generally does a good job of treating everyone equally (neither the colonizers nor the colonized are patronized), but she slips at one point when she dismisses the British tendency to take Indian flavors and incorporate them into British cooking as complacency. It is the one place she invokes a double standard: earlier in the book, the Indian tendency to take new ingredients introduced by the British and incorporate them into Indian food is a sign of creativity and the resilience of Indian cookery, but when the British do the same, it is complacency.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

We've Got Water!!

We gave up on deepening our old well when the driller discovered that it was all sand as far as he could drill, with no water. Instead, we drilled a new well, and today we were hooked up and flowing. After a full month of laudromats and shower treks, it is wonderful to be able to wash clothes and sheets, to run the dishwasher, to take showers in my own bathroom. It will be a long time before I take running water for granted again!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Mysteries of Baking Soda

My daughter was making snickerdoodles (a kind of sugar cookie) this afternoon and, like me, she was adding ingredients before she made sure she had everything she needed. Sure enough, we were short cream of tartar. Now what to do, without making a run into the grocery store? I knew that cream of tartar was somehow connected to rising, so we looked in Joy of Cooking. No luck. Then we tried Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, and bingo! I found a whole page on leavening ingredients, including an explanation of how cream of tartar fits in.

The primordial leavening ingredient is yeast, but you don't always want that in a cookie, so there are chemical ingredients you can use instead. The most common one is baking soda; it is a base (or alkaline), and when it reacts with an acidic ingredient in the presence of water, they form lots of little bubbles that cause the bread or cookie to rise (think: vinegar and baking soda). This is why recipes that call for baking soda as the only leavener always have an acidic liquid in them: lemon juice, sour milk, buttermilk, even molasses or honey. I've used this info in the past to subsitute baking soda for baking powder by changing my sweetener from sugar to honey (it's not perfect if there is much sugar in the recipe, but it's better than nothing).

Lots of baking recipes call for baking powder, which is baking soda with an acidic salt added and only needs liquid to start the bubbles forming. Cream of tartar is an acidic salt, and in fact, you can add it to baking soda to get baking powder: two teaspoons cream of tartar plus one teaspoon baking soda is equivalent to 3/4 teaspoon of baking powder. Maybe not surprisingly, our recipe called for twice as much cream of tartar as baking soda, so we could substitute baking powder - except that the baking soda was already in the flour. So we cut back on the baking powder by the amount of the soda and crossed our fingers. It worked perfectly; if anything, the cookies are even better than the usual recipe. So we got good cookies, no grocery-store run, and a good chemistry lesson - not bad for an hour in the kitchen!

Looking for a link for vinegar and baking soda experiments, I also learned that you can use vinegar and baking soda to open sluggish or clogged drains: pour 1/2 cup baking soda down the drain. Add 1/2 cup white vinegar and cover the drain if possible. Let set for a few minutes. Then pour a kettle of 6 or more cups of boiling water down the drain to flush it. The combination of baking soda and vinegar breaks down fatty acids into soap and glycerin, allowing the clog to wash down the drain. (Do not use if any commerical drain opener has been used or is present.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Old English Poetry

One of my favorite things from college is a fuzzy memory of learning Old English - how to pronounce it, what some of it means, how the phrases are put together. Old English poetry is recognizably poetry, but it is put together very differently than modern English poetry. Instead of rhyming, it uses alliteration (sometimes very heavily); the lines are two parts that balance each other in one way or another. Some of the words are almost reconizable as English: earth is "eorþan" (or "eorthan"), heaven is "heofonum". My favorite Old English device is the kennings, the compact word pictures that replace "sea" with "swan road" or "whale road", "sword" with "bane of the shields" or "helmet destroyer".

It may be a trick of spotty preservation, but many of the surviving poems are riddles. One of my favorites is Number 27 (or 25 in some lists):

Ic wiht geseah wundorlice
hornum bitweonum huþe lædan,
lyftfæt leohtlic, listum gegierwed,
huþe to þam ham of þam heresiþe;
walde hyre on þære byrig bur atimbran,
searwum asettan, gif hit swa meahte.
ða cwom wundorlicu wiht ofer wealles hrof,
seo is eallum cuð eorðbuendum,
ahredde þa þa huþe ond to ham bedraf
wreccan ofer willan, gewat hyre west þonan
fæhþum feran, forð onette.
Dust stonc to heofonum, deaw feol on eorþan,
niht forð gewat. Nænig siþþan
wera gewiste þære wihte sið.

No, I can't read that, although I can pick out some words; and "deaw feol on eorþan" will make anyone feel pretty good about translating. (þ and ð are both versions of "th".)

Translated, this is:

I saw a wonderful creature carrying
Light plunder between its horns.
Curved lamp of the air, cunningly formed,
It fetched home its booty from the day's raid
And plotted to build in its castle if it could,
A night-chamber brightly adorned.
Then over the east wall came another creature
Well known to earth-dwellers. Wonderful as well,
It seized back its booty and sent the plunderer home
Like an unwilling wanderer. The wretch went west,
Moved morosely and murderously on.
Dust rose to the heavens, dew fell on earth—
Night moved on. Afterwards no one
In the world knew where the wanderer had gone.

And the answer to the riddle is: the sun and the moon.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

We have a crabapple tree outside our bedroom window; it has inedible apples (at least for humans), but it is great at attracting birds. Today I saw a new visitor, a small tan/gray finch-like bird with a partial white ring around its eyes and the odd habit of hovering near the branch like an awkward hummingbird. I found it fairly quickly in Stokes (my single favorite bird book), and discovered that it is a ruby-crowned kinglet, a bird I didn't even know existed. The hovering near the end of the branch, as it looks for spiders and insects, is a distinguishing characteristic, while the ruby crown is very hard to see. It is very common elsewhere, causing birders to wish it were less so when they are studying mixed flocks, but we are on the edge of its summer range and it isn't very common around here.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Medieval India

As far as I can tell, nothing happened in India between the end of the Gupta Empire around 550 CE and the beginning of the Muhgal Empire in 1526, although some sources mention a Delhi Sultanate starting in 1206 or a Muslim invasion in the early 1100s. But in general, web sources jump from Ancient India (pre-550) to Medieval India (post-1526), nearly a thousand years. My history encyclopedias aren't much better, with just a page of very generalized "culture" - and a page on the cultures influenced by this period in India , which apparently had nothing worth reporting. What gives? I have a hard time believing that nothing happened, but it makes it hard to explain what was going on to my kids when I can't find anything relevant.

Boiling Water

You know how a really incompetent cook "doesn't know how to boil water"? Well, there is at least one place on the web that will teach you how to boil water. It has all kinds of interesting details about boiling water, including what temperature a simmer occurs at (185°F at sea level) and what things affect the boiling point. I found it when I needed to know the boiling temperature of water here, 5000 feet above sea level, so I would know how hot the jelly I was making should get to jell properly. It turns out that the boiling temperature of water drops 2°F for every 1000 feet of elevation gain, so water boils at 202°F here instead of 212°. That means that the syrup turns into jelly at 210° instead of 220°.

The jelly I was making is crabapple jelly, and it turned out really well. But after all the research, I couldn't get my thermometer to work the way it should, and the spoon-drop tricks in The Joy of Cooking never work for me, so I had to eyeball it. My jars came out nicely jelled anyway, at least once I switched to the right size pot; the large one I was using at first let the syrup cool too much around the edges, so the jelly came out very well set. Crabapples make a great jelly, not too sweet and very pretty. It's worth all the work (although I didn't neccesarily think so when I finished up last night).

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Yogurt Chicken

Inspired by a mention in Curry, A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham, I made yogurt-marinated chicken tonight, and my kids loved it. I mixed about half a large container of plain yogurt, the juice from one old lime, 2 Tbs of minced ginger, 1 Tbs of pepper ginger sauce, a teaspoon of cumin, and a little salt in a bowl and added 8 bonelss skinless chicken breasts (halves). I let them marinate for about two hours, turning occasionally, then put them on a broiling pan, spooned the rest of the marinade over the top, and broiled it until the meat was cooked and the marinade was browning. It was very tasty with green beans last night, not spicey at all. Today I put some in a burrito with peanut butter (the organic kind, which has been sitting in my refrigerator for months because it is dry and no one likes it in sandwiches), a little more hot sauce, some rice, and a little soy sauce, and that was even better.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Evolution of Math

I got this in an email - I don't know how accurate it is, but it's pretty funny.

Last week I purchased a burger at Burger King for $1.58. The counter girl took my $2 and I was digging for my change when I pulled 8 cents from my pocket and gave it to her. She stood there, holding the nickel and 3 pennies, while looking at the screen on her register. I sensed her discomfort and tried to tell her to just give me two quarters, but she hailed the manager for help . While he tried to explain the transaction to her, she stood there and cried. Why do I tell you this? Because of the evolution in teaching math since the 1950s:

1. Teaching Math in 1950
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit?

2. Teaching Math in 1960
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?

3. Teaching Math in 1970
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80. Did he make a profit?

4. Teaching Math in 1980
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

5. Teaching Math in 1990
A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands. He does this so he can make a profit of $20. What do you think of this way of making a living? Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes? (There are no wrong answers.)

6. Teaching Math in 2006
Un hachero vende una carretada de madera para $100. El costo de la producciones es $80. Cuanto dinero?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Travels with a Donkey

I feel like an old friend has moved away. I like to carry a back-up book in my basket, so that if I end up waiting for kids longer than expected, I have something to do besides fume. My recent book has been Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, by Robert Louis Stevenson; the version I have includes An Inland Voyage. It is the perfect back-up book: it is calm enough to put down, sometimes for a week or more, but vivid enough that when I went back to it, I remembered where we were and what was happening. Stevenson's writing is engaging, painting clear word-pictures of the parts of southern France he walked through with his donkey and the parts he paddled a canoe through; he strikes a good balance between showing you what he saw and telling you what he thought about what he saw. The writing is clean and straightforward, easy to read in pieces and bursts and distracting environments. And best of all, Stevenson never takes himself too seriously to laugh at the odd predicaments he gets himself in. I am a little sad to have finished the book; it will be difficult to replace it in my basket.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Medieval Muslim Medicine

I knew that during Europe's Dark Ages, Islamic countries were in the midst of a cultural flowering; that the math and science that they preserved and developed sparked the explosion of science that started in the late Middle Ages and hasn't ended yet; and that the books that Arabic translators transmitted from Greece and Rome back to Europe led to the Renaissance. But I didn't realize just how advanced Muslim doctors were until I started researching it for my history unit on medieval Muslim culture.

Medicine was a central part of medieval Islamic culture, in large measure because the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad encouraged it: "Make use of medical treatment, for Allah has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease, namely old age." Medical literature was not specialized in the sense that modern medical literature is, but was integrated with philosophy, natural science, mathematics, astrology, alchemy, and religion. Islamic medicine was built on tradition, primarily from Greece and Rome. Islamic scholars translated medical texts from Greek into Arabic, collated and collected them in systematic and comprehensive summaries and encyclopedias, and then produced new medical knowledge based on those texts; hundreds of medical works were also translated into Latin, introducing the Greek medical traditions to Europe in the late Middle Ages.

Following Muhammad's advice, Muslims made use of medical treatment, and it was widely available. Every major Arabic city had an hospital; the one in Cairo had over 8000 beds, with separate wards for fevers, ophthalmic, dysentery and surgical cases. The doctors who worked in these hospitals and the universities both treated patients and did medical research, with surprisingly modern results. Al-Rhazes, one of the most famous Muslim doctors, discovered the origin of smallpox and showed the existence of the immune system and how it worked. He found a treatment for kidney and gall stones, and explained the nature of various infectious diseases. He was the first to introduce the use of alcohol for medical purposes. He was also an expert surgeon and was the first to use opium for anesthesia. Another doctor, Ibn Sina, first recognized the contagious nature of tuberculosis and the spread of disease by water and soil; he described diseases caused by intestinal worms, and the surgical use of oral anesthetics. A surgeon, Al-Zahravi, performed many delicate operations, including caesareans, and was the first to use silk thread for stitching wounds; he developed many surgical tools that were used for centuries. He wrote a Medical Encyclopedia which contained 30 sections of surgical knowledge and illustrations of 200 surgical instruments, most of which he designed himself.

It took Europe nearly eight centuries to catch up to the medieval Muslim doctors.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Water Lessons

The good news is that the well drillers are back; the bad news is that they had to unhook our meager water supply again. So after 10 days with just enough water to flush toilets, we are back to porta-potties. Sigh.

Things I have learned in the last three weeks:
1. Running water and indoor plumbing are wonderful. I won't take them for granted any time soon.
2. If you don't have water, it takes a lot of time out of your day to take care of ordinary household chores. A shower that should take 20 minutes takes at least an hour when you have to gather everyone up, drive to your parents' house, shower, and drive back. Getting drinking water takes half an hour every other day for my youngest son. Even wiping down the kitchen counters takes longer when you have to go get water out of a jug and then heat it up in the microwave. I begin to understand just how much time is spent acquiring water in communities where indoor plumbing doesn't exist.
3. Being able to flush toilets in the middle of the night is a great luxury.
4. Family is good. We use my parents' showers, my sister's dishwasher, and it makes life a little simpler.
5. Be nice to your neighbors. Our neighbor allows us to come over and use her spigot nearly every day to fill water jugs.
6. Laundromats are expensive. My weekly trip is running about $15 in quarters; added up, that would pay for a decent washer and dryer in under two years. On the other hand, you can get a lot of laundry done in two hours.
7. A laundromat dryer takes 48 minutes to get everything dry. The big ones cost 25 cents for 4 or 6 minutes, so you have to know how long you want it to run.
8. You can dry a lot of clothes in a triple-load dryer.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Frost Comes

The first frost was last night. The frost on the grass and roof didn't last minutes once the sun hit it, but it was there, foretelling colder nights to come. The air is clear, the grass and wheat is golden, the sun's light comes at a lower angle; we will have more warm days, but the warm nights are gone, and fall is coming. It's time to get going on the fall transition chores, getting the yard and house ready for the cold weather.

It also means it is time to start making soups again. Last winter, I made soup of one type or another every Monday night, and I plan to do it again this year. It is nice knowing what dinner will be without having to think about it, and soup is a great meal for using up left-overs in ways no one recognizes. I've got veggies stocked in the freezer, along with some ham bones for ham bone-white bean soup. I have a few jars of broth, from pot roasts and shredded pork, frozen, and I'll add more as the fall goes on; I'll also add some chicken broth from carcasses and some turkey broth at Thanksgiving, so I'll have bases for soups all winter. Since I don't cook my soups all day, just long enough to get everything thoroughly hot and brothy, I can make soup very quickly after a long day - which all Mondays seem to be.

Last night, we started a family snow pool - everyone guessed when the first real snow would come (meaning snow that covers the ground and sticks for at least an hour). Guesses ranged from September 25 to November 5.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

A Peck of Peppers

It was a nice cold, wet, windy day, perfect to spend in the kitchen, so I finally got the bag of peppers my son picked out of the refrigerator. I used some of them in a large batch of salsa we were also making (I had to use up most of a case of tomatoes before they went bad, too), and threw out the bad ones, but that still left me with more peppers than I ever knew I wanted. Now what?

I pureed a bunch of the odder ones (who knows how hot?), along with pickled ginger and the vinegar that it was pickled in, some garlic, and a little salt. It was very hot, very tasty; the ginger was subtle but effective. I froze several small jars and plan to send a small one to my college son.

Most of the rest I sliced very thin and put in a jar with enough vinegar to cover; I topped it with a thin layer of olive oil to seal it. One batch is of the little tiny peppers, in green, red, and orange; one is jalapenos, and one is green habaneros. These will be sitting on my counter for a couple days before going in the refrigerator; I'm not sure how I will use them yet. That left some dark-green Anaheims (or something similar) and some green chilis, which I sliced and froze.

To make the salsa, we cored tomatoes, threw them in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes, then transferred them to ice water; this made their skins slip right off. Then we chopped them and put them in a large bowl. We added minced peppers, minced garlic, chopped onion, a few rogue tomatillos that had hidden in the pepper bag, some salt, and lemon juice. We spooned it into jars with a slotted spoon and stuck them in the freezer; I would swear I canned it last time, several years ago, but I can't find any indication of how I did that safely, so we are going with freezing this time. At the bottom of the bowl, we had soup with a few onions in it. I strained some of the juice to use for breakfast, and my daughter claimed the rest as a cold, gazpacho-style soup.

It feels good to have those vegetables out of the refrigerator, and I don't have to feel guilty about letting them spoil.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Hawk Transitions

Twice over the last couple days, I've seen a hawk on a power pole that looks sort of like a red-tailed hawk, but not quite. It has the belly band of a red-tailed, but the white "hood" coming down over its chest that I associate with the rough-legged hawk. It's the right time of year for the rough-leggeds to be coming down from their summer nesting grounds in the Arctic, so I think this might be an early arrival. It seems to hunch over more than the red-taileds that I have watched all summer; a quick look on the web indicates that rough-leggeds do seem to hunch when they perch, but I'm not sure if that is a reliable indicator. Next time, I'll have to watch for the white tail stripe for confirmation.

Red-tailed hawks are our most common summer hawk, perched on power poles all over the valley. I love to listen to their calls; it is so quintessentially "raptor" that it is used in movies for just about any hawk or eagle (especially the bald eagle, which has a call similar to a sea gull's). In the fall, they move out of the northern Rockies and Canada to the rest of the US. Instead, we get the rough-legged hawks, named for the feathers that cover their legs all the way down to the talons; they seamlessly take over both the power-pole perches and the rodent-control program that the red-taileds run in the summer.

Friday, September 7, 2007


When you look at the fat history books on the shelf, it is easy to think that historians have figured everything out. But then you come up against something like the Magyars and where they came from, and you realize that there are some blank regions on the maps of history. Historians generally agree that around 890, the Magyars came from the Crimean region to the Hungarian Plain, founding Hungary. The interesting part is figuring out where the Magyars came from before that.

When they first appear in history, the Magyars were in Asia Minor, but their language is closer to Finnish, so many historians think they may have originated in the central Russia, then migrated south to the Crimean around 460 CE. According to Infoplease, "Although in the past it was thought a common origin existed among the Magyars, the Huns, the Mongols, and the Turks, modern research has disproved this claim. The only similarity between the Magyars and the peoples named above was their mode of life when they first appeared in Europe in the 9th cent. The Magyar or Hungarian language belongs to the Finno-Ugric family."

But Magyars have many Asiatic features, and at least a few people think that they originated in the vast grassland of central Asia, an an area known as the Turanian Plain, and somehow transferred their language to the Finnish people. "It is possible that Finns and Ugors received strong linguistic strains from a Magyar branch which had broken away from the main body on the Turanian Plain [ancient Scythia], and migrated to West Siberia." This would fit in with Magyar folklore, which holds that the Magyars were related to the Scythians.

So based on language, the Magyars came from central Russia; based on lifestyle and physical characteristics, they came from the plains of central Asia. As far as I can tell, there is no evolving consensus yet - so when I wrote about the Magyars and their attacks on Europe around 900 CE, I simply ignored their pre-ninth century origins.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Afghanistan in Print

My reading seems to follow trends, even when I'm not consciously choosing them. Recently, the trend has been Afghanistan; I've read three very different books that give three very different views of the country and the people.

Kabul Beauty School, by Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson, is a very personal story of one American woman's experiences in Afghanistan, with the country almost incidental to her narrative. The focus is on Rodriguez's experience when confronted with a foreign way of life, and how she comes to love the Afghan women. The view it gives of Afghani life is intimate, centered in the beauty school she starts as a way to help the women in Kabul; although Rodriguez, a foreigner, is allowed to be seen in public, most of the women she works with are not, and working in an all-female beauty salon is their only chance to earn money of their own. Like Three Cups, it is the story of a person transformed by the effort to help others.

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, is, in a way, the masculine version of Beauty School. It is also a personal narrative, of how Mortenson came to dedicate his life to building schools in Afghanistan, but its focus is wider, covering more of the country as Mortenson travels to different communities. Of the three books, Three Cups provides the best picture of the various tribes and the physical geography of the northern part of the country, and the most dramatic moments. (This is also the most popular in Montana, since Mortenson lives in Bozeman; freshman at both Montana State University and the University of Montana were asked to read it before school started this fall.)

The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad, is an impersonal narrative of a family living in Kabul; the focus is firmly on the Afghans themselves rather than the author's reactions to them. It provides a clear picture of family life in a traditional partriarchal family, without judging the people, their relationships with one another, or their way of life. Seierstad lived with an Afghan family for six months, able to follow both men and women through their daily lives, so while Beauty School focuses primarily on the Afghan women and Three Cups on the men, Bookseller shows, in great detail, the relationship between them and how it affects each. Without personal filters, the book gives a clear picture of Afghani culture; according to some friends who have spent much of their lives living in or studying Afghanistan, it is an accurate depiction of the Afghans.

All three books do a good job of showing real human beings, with all the strengths and weaknesses of any poeple. Of the three, Bookseller is best for understanding the lives of Afghan women and how men and women interact; Three Cup is best for understanding the tribal tensions in the north of the country. Having read all three, I at least know exactly where Afghanistan is (rather than just "over there") and I'm developing a sense of who the Afghan people are. Now I wonder what related book will turn up next.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Coyote Song

At 3:00 this morning, the coyotes started yipping outside our window. I love their enthusiasm and style. Their Latin name, Canis latrans, means barking dog, and they certainly live up to it; it's amazing how two or three coyotes can sound like an entire pack, as their yip-yip-yip-howl bounces off the hills. The yipping and howling are communicating territory and pack information, but it sounds like there is a lot more going on - it sounds like coyote is laughing about some trick he pulled on someone; it's no wonder that Native Americans considered Coyote a trickster. I like coyotes for their ability to survive in any circumstances, to fit into the interstices of human presence, to use all the clues to make it work. And for the way they leap into the air to pounce on a gopher, all four feet together. So their chorus in the middle of the night always makes me smile.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Taco Soup

After a warm day, the rain this afternoon was welcome. Our lawn desperately needed the moisture: it hasn't been watered since our well was shut down two hot, sunny weeks ago. And, since I was faced with a refrigerator full of left-overs, I welcomed the cool, rainy weather and the hot soup that suddenly felt right after three months of cold ones.

To make the soup, I defrosted a spaghetti-jar of pork and onion broth in the microwave and poured it into a dutch oven, along with half a jar of water and a bottle of Corona. I added about 2 cups of ground beef spiced for tacos (the amount I had in the fridge), 2 cans of stewed tomatoes, 1 can of corn, and some salsa verde. (I know, why am I using canned tomatoes when I have 15 pounds of fresh tomatoes in the fridge? Because it is simpler, and tonight that mattered.) After the broth came to a boil, I turned the heat down, added salt and cumin, and simmered it for a few minutes. It doesn't take long before the soup is ready to serve; in this case, with some rice and beans left-over from a Mexican restaurant. My kids call it taco soup, and eat it cheerfully. I'm just happy to see soup season return - it makes left-overs much easier to cope with creatively. Next is to buy spaghetti makings, for the first cold day this fall.

School Starts

We started school today, and it's amazing how nice it is to have the rhythm back in our days. It stabilizes me, makes it easier to cope with the water uncertainties and having one child at college. I don't really know how we will end up organizing everything - especially since I am adding more structure this year than last - but knowing that school starts at 9:00 and that I need to focus on it until roughly lunchtime helps me organize my day and get things done. The kids may not have missed school over the summer, but I did!

Some of today's school was done at the laundromat while we washed 6 loads of laundry. My youngest son and I worked on a logic puzzle, did some drawing (I drew with my left hand so my drawing wasn't so much better than his that he got discouraged), and started his math; the last was a challenge because he took his mind "out of gear" over the summer and forgot to put it back in for school. But he's starting to remember how to think, so he'll figure it out pretty quickly. And we got a lot done in an otherwise wasted time, without competition from his siblings.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Northern Harriers

In the late summer, when the fields are cut and the grass is golden, the northern harriers soar over the mown areas, looking for mice, voles, and other small mammals. They fly smoothly, in long distinctive swoops; they can hold their position in the wind by hovering as they watch for movement in the grass. Harriers are our year-round hawk, hunting the open fields and pastures in all weather.

Besides their distinctive flight patterns, northern harriers are easy to spot because they have a white rump. Rough-legged hawks have a similar white streak at the base of the tail and hunt over open areas, but it has broader wings and a shorter tail, and shows white at the base of the underside of the tail. So if you can see the white from below, it's a rough-legged; if it is summer, it's probably a harrier. Besides, their flight patterns are different; the rough-legged doesn't hover and swoop the exhilerating way a harrier does.

Bikes vs Cars

A letter to the editor the other day pointed out that too many drivers seem to believe that bikes shouldn't use the roads, based on the way they harass bike riders. It's a good point, and it is too easy to be annoyed at bikes that impede the flow of vehicle traffic for even a moment. Bikes deserve a place on the road, as do pedestrians, and we all need to be more tolerant.

However, I've also seen a fair number of bike riders who seem to believe the opposite: that bikes have unlimited rights on the road and that cars shouldn't be there. They ride three abreast on two-lane roads and don't drop into single-file when a car comes up behind them so it can pass safely. They refuse to move to the right in traffic, even when there is plenty of room. They dart into intersections from unexpected directions, without slowing down or looking for cars; bikes are so much faster than pedestrians that when they use pedestrian manners, it frequently results in startled drivers and sometimes near-misses. They switch from car manners to pedestrian manners as it suits them, making them unpredictable for other traffic. In general, they behave as if everyone should and will make way for them, regarldess of their actions.

Thank goodness there are also bike riders who fall into single-file when being passed by a car and who wave at drivers who pass them safely. And bike riders who make a real effort to use the shoulders even when they are rough. It's unfortunate that, drivers and bike riders alike, there are a few bad apples who make life less pleasant for all concerned.

Sunday, September 2, 2007


After fruitless searches of the farmer's markets, I gave up and bought a case of tomatoes at the Co-op so I could make gazpacho, a cold tomato soup. I love to make it for late summer dinners; it is perfect with fresh corn and butter, maybe sausages on the side. It freezes well, and tastes good as an appetizer in the early fall; it is also a healthy fall-back vegetable on nights when I am cooking dinner from the freezer and pantry.

To make gazpacho, toss into the blender, in order:
3-4 gloves of garlic, peeled and chopped coarsely
1/2 a large onion, chopped
1 medium cucumber, peeled and cubed
4-6 beautiful red tomatoes, chopped into 8 or 12 pieces
1 tsp each cumin and oregano
1/4-1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 olive oil

Blend thoroughly and salt to taste. Refrigerate until ready to serve, or freeze for later use (leave a little room for expansion in the jar or container).

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The True Cost of Cider

One of our favorite fall activities is picking apples and taking them to Rocky Creek Farm to be pressed into cider, which tastes much better than the processed sugar-water that comes in commercial cider jugs. This year has been a bumper year for apples, which are weighing down branches of apple trees that don't normally bear many; after several minimal years, it is a nice change. So we figured we'd get lots of cider this year. We just didn't figure on how much it would cost.

Ignoring costs for our time (since we enjoy the picking as long as there aren't any wasps out) and the gas used to drive to the trees and to Rocky Creek Farm, it costs $4/gallon of cider to get it pressed. But that assumes that everything goes right. On our second trip to pick apples, one of our dogs cut herself on the leg, all the way to the bone (on barbed wire, we assume); there wasn't much blood, but it definitely needed stitches. So add a trip to the vet to the cost of the cider. At $120, spread out over 12 gallons of cider, that makes the cider worth $14/gallon. It's good cider, but I'm not sure I can justify that price. I guess we'll just have to pick more apples so we can amortize the vet bill over more gallons, maybe get it down to $9/gallon. Of course, that creates more opportunities for someone to get hurt or something to break...

When we have enough cider to justify it, I like to make hard cider (or rather, present it as a chemistry experiment to my high schoolers). To make a gallon of hard cider, you need a glass gallon jug, an airlock to fit, and some wine or champagne yeast from a homebrew store. Boil 1 gallon of cider, then pour it into the glass jug. Add 1 cup sugar, more or less, depending on how hard you want the cider; the more sugar you add, the harder the cider. Dissolve 1 gram of yeast in a little luke warm water for 15 minutes, then add it to the jug. Add enough water to the airlock to seal it, then fit it firmly into the jug mouth.

Put the jug in a cool (55 degree) spot for a month. The cider should start to push bubbles through the airlock in a day; when it quits, the cider is ready. Be sure to check the airlock regularly to make sure it has enough water in it to seal; yeast makes alcohol if there is no oxygen present, acetic acid (vinegar) if oxygen is present. If things go awry, call your local homebrew store. When the cider is ready, pour it into bottles and seal tightly; try to leave the sediment in the jug. Refrigerate until ready to use. If you are lucky, the result will be similar to Normandy cider, full of apple flavor but with the sweetness gone. It is great with pork dishes, especially ones with apples or pears. Or serve it with crepes for an authentic pairing.