Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Day

From today's "Writer's Almanac":

Today is Leap Day, the extra day that we tack on to February every four years to keep the calendar in time with the seasons. We do this because the Earth does not orbit the sun in a nice round 365 days, but rather in 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds.

Ancient peoples based their calendars on many things, from the movements of the stars to the activities of plants and animals. The Greek poet Hesiod told farmers to begin the harvest when the constellation Pleiades was rising and to begin plowing when it was setting, and to sharpen their farming tools when snails began climbing up plants. Most early calendars were based on the stages of the moon, with lunar months of about 29 days each. But the problem with the lunar calendar is that it's about 11 days short of the actual year, so instead of having to add a leap day every few years, you have to add a leap month. The Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to develop a calendar with 12 months and 365 days. When Julius Caesar rose to power, the Romans were using a calendar that was so faulty they often had to add an extra 80 days to the year. In 46 B.C., after his affair with Cleopatra, Caesar chose to adopt the superior Egyptian calendar, and this became known as the Julian calendar. In the first version of the Julian calendar, February had 29 days most years and 30 days in leap years. Caesar named the month of July after himself, so when Augustus came to power, he decided he needed a month too. He named August after himself, but he had to steal a day from February in order to make August as long as July.

The Julian calendar worked well for a while, but in the 13 century, a sick old friar named Roger Bacon sent a letter to the Pope. He had calculated the actual length of the solar year as slightly less than 365.25 days, and he pointed out that the Julian calendar was adding one leap day too many for every 125 years. The result was that Christians were celebrating holy days on the wrong dates. Bacon wrote,"The calendar is intolerable to all wisdom, the horror of astronomy, and a laughing-stock from a mathematician's point of view." Bacon was eventually imprisoned for implying that the pope had been fallible, and his writings were censored. It wasn't until 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII hired a group of Jesuits to fix the calendar, and they came up with the complicated system of omitting the leap day at the beginning of each century, except for those centuries divisible by 400. When Pope Gregory made the change, the calendar was about 10 days off, so Gregory deleted 10 days from the year. People went to sleep on Thursday, Oct. 4 and woke up on Friday, Oct. 15.

At first, the Gregorian calendar was only accepted in Catholic countries, and even there people were uncomfortable about losing 10 days of their lives. It led to protests and financial uncertainty, since people weren't sure how to calculate interest or taxes or rent for a 21-day month. Protestant countries didn't adopt the new calendar until much later, and this meant that for a long time, if you crossed the border of certain European countries, you had to set your clock back or forward by at least 10 days. When Great Britain finally accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1751, 11 days had to be deleted from the year. The change led to antipapal riots, because peoplebelieved the pope had shortened their lives. Mobs gathered in the streets, chanting, "Give us back our 11 days!" When the British colonies in America made the change the following year, Ben Franklin wrote in an editorial, "Be not astonished, nor look with scorn, dear reader, at ... the loss of so much time. ... What an indulgence is here, for those who love their pillow, to lie down in peace on the second [day] of this month and not awake till the morning of the fourteenth."

The Gregorian calendar has since been accepted everywhere as the standard. It is so accurate that we will have to wait until the year4909 before our dates become out of step with the Earth's orbit by a full day.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

I may not see my winter robin again. When I drove home today, there was a sharp-shinned hawk, a small, fierce raptor, sitting on the hillside near the house, surrounded by an explosion of feathers and some blood on the snow. It was done eating, and flew off as we stopped to look. The feathers could easily have been a robin's, and the robin wouldn't have been able to fly very well to escape the hawk. We'll see if it comes back tomorrow.

I have only seen these hawks recently - probably partly because they weren't here and partly because I didn't see them. All the hawks suffered in the DDT-caused population drop in the 1940s-1970s and I didn't grow up seeing them; I remember being more excited about seeing a hawk than about eagles. Sharp-shinned hawks are theoretically in this part of Montana year-round, but I think they winter here; in the summer we are more likely to see kestrels. And they are small enough that it is easy to mistake them for a songbird if you aren't looking carefully. I am enjoying seeing them; they are a nice counterpoint to the larger rough-legged hawks that spend the winters sitting on the power poles along roads and fields.

Sacred Clowns

It's funny how often the point of a book is so often not the plot. Sapphira and the Slave Girl can be read as a romantic triangle, but it is clearly about the morality of slavery. Sacred Clowns, by Tony Hillerman, is another one of these books. The plot is about some murders in Indian country. The background is about Navajo and Hopi country. But the point of the book is about feeling a sense of belonging in a close-knit group, and how feeling on the outside affects people. The plot, set primarily in a non-Hopi pueblo, brings a variety of people together: city Cheyenne, city Navajo, sheep-camp Navajo, Hopi, and pueblo. Every one of them feels out of place to various degrees, and much of the book is about how they deal with it.

Often the sense of being an outsider shows up in the question, "What did we miss?" The Cheyenne and the city Navajo don't understand what is so funny in a movie that the sheep-camp Navajos find hysterical. The Navajos have to work to understand the Hopi and pueblo sanctions about sharing religious information. And the plot itself hinges on the inability of outsiders to see or make sense of the same thing that insiders see; it isn't until the two investigators really put themselves in the place of the pueblo people and start asking the right questions, figure out what they missed, that they are able to solve the murders that have taken place.

Monday, February 25, 2008


It snowed yesterday and part of today, making it look briefly like winter again. The sunset as the clouds cleared slightly was gorgeous, with the sun orange behind the ice fog. I saw it as I was driving out and called my son to take a picture of it; this is what he got:

Quiet Day

Quiet. What a concept. I have forgotten what it sounds like since I had children. I remember that they all used to take naps in the afternoon, and the quiet hour or so was heavenly. Then they all went to bed around 9:00 and I was able to get some quiet time in before I went to sleep. Now none of them take naps, and they all seem to want to talk to me at 10:00 at night (or 11:00 for my oldest), which means that I tend to stay up way too late trying for quiet time. They are mostly home during the day and I need to help them with their school, so that doesn't work out as quiet. The good news, the light at the end of the tunnel, is that they are doing more on their own outside the house as they get older, and once in a while they are all gone at once. Those times I cherish. I wrap the quiet house around me like an old quilt and settle in. The only problem, of course, is trying to decide how best to use the time: reading? working? napping? putzing around the house and getting little things done?

I know that as the kids get older, I will end up with more quiet time than I really want, and I will look back on the chaos now fondly. Too bad there isn't some way to find a balance, just enough quiet, just enough chaos. (Oh, yeah, that is why people send their kids to school...) For the moment, I guess I will just have to celebrate Quiet Day when it turns up on the calendar.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

February Steak

One of our favorite steak dinners is best this time of year, when grapefruit are still in season and the avocados are just getting good. I know the flavor combination sounds weird at first, but it works:

Grilled Steak
Blue cheese or Gorgonzola
Red onion
Hearts of Palm (canned - a new addition this year, and worth keeping)

Tonight I plated the steak and some good bread, then served the accompaniments separately on plates: sliced avocado, grapefruit segments, blue cheese with a knife, thin slices of red onion, and hearts of palm. Other times, I have made a salsa with the avocado, grapefruit, onion, and blue cheese; it is easy to serve, but it gets a little messy to make. Next time I might make it into a salad topped with steak slices, avocado, grapefruit segments, slices of red onion, and disks of hearts of palm, dressed with a homemade gorgonzola vinaigrette.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Rose By Any Other Name

A great example of the challenges of living with a language that has an many synonyms as English does is A Rose By Any Other Name. So what do you call the person you date seriously when you are between late adolescence and early senescence?

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Black Death

In the 1330s, a terrifying new disease was recorded in China, where it killed roughly two-thirds of the population. It made its way slowly along the trade routes across Asia and the Middle East, arriving in Europe in 1347; by 1348, it was decimating France and England, where peasants had already been weakened by famine and poverty. The disease came on suddenly, mysteriously, and killed within days; in places, it killed well over half the inhabitants of a neighborhood or village, and some villages were emptied by deaths and by people fleeing the disease (usually transporting the disease to their refuge, spreading it quickly). The disease, now known as the plague or Black Death, was called the great mortality at the time.

After a year or two, the plague died down, only to return in waves about every decade; by 1400, the population of Europe and the Middle East had been reduced by one-third. Population losses continued until 1420 and the population didn’t start growing again until after 1470. The plague disappeared in 1352, only to reappear in 1361 and roughly every decade after that for a century or more; although it is rare now, cases of bubonic plague still show up, and a few people die from it, every year.

Medieval cities were already unhealthy places to live before the plague arrived, due to crowding and a complete lack of sanitation which spread disease quickly once it started; death rates were high and city populations were maintained only by immigration from rural areas. The plague hit cities harder than the country, with up to 50% mortality in most of them. Poorer people were hit harder than the wealthy because they lived in the dirtier, more crowded parts of the cities and didn’t have the resources to leave the cities early on, as the rich did (See The Decameron for an example of how wealthy Italians sat out the plague). Rural areas were hit more sporadically, but when the plague arrived, it often emptied the village. Monasteries, which would seem to be safer due to their often rural locations, were hit hard because the monks had always cared for the sick.

No one knew what caused the plague; it was usually considered to be the wrath of God on a sinful population, although some people blamed it on the Jews poisoning wells and Jews were persecuted across Europe. In reality, it was carried on black rats which traveled on ships from one port to another. The rats carried fleas which then jumped to humans; the plague needed both carriers (human and rat) to complete its life cycle. [Or at least that is the traditional theory; modern medical research is raising doubts about that, since the plague struck in places without rats (Iceland) or too hot for fleas (the Mediterranean). More recent candidates for the Black Death are anthrax and Ebola, but the debate is still in play.]

The plague had substantial social impacts. In the short run, many families broke up under the weight of the fear and hysteria caused by the plague. People turned to prayer and gave land to the Church in order to “buy” God’s protection from the Black Death; at the same time, other people lost faith in God and became party animals, chosing to live for the moment rather than the afterlife. In large measure because of the unpredictability of the plague, a morbid fascination with death spread through society; a favorite artistic motif was the Dance of Death, which showed Death leading a line of people from all walks of life.

Longer term, the increase in available food and resources eventually meant healthier people. There were fewer rural laborers to work the land, which meant that they could command a higher wage for their work; governments tried to counter the rising wages by fixing the wages and tying laborers to the land, but the efforts collapsed. Peasants not only found better jobs in the country, they moved to town in search of a better life. As peasants became more mobile, the feudal system collapsed; this mobility may be the cause of the Great Vowel Shift (when vowels migrated from one part of the mouth to another), the main reason that the spelling of English words no longer reflect their pronunciation.

Although the church received many donations during the plague, the inability of the clergy to contain or prevent plague deaths caused people to doubt or disbelieve in them. Many experienced monks and other church men died while nursing the sick during the plague, and they were often replaced with inexperienced men who had too little training and vocation. Not surprisingly, this led to bad behavior on the part of the clergy and increased distrust on the part of the laity (non-clergy).

Over all, the social dislocations in the century following the Black Death led to a decrease in the power of authority. Medieval medicine didn't work, so doctors began to explore the human body and accept the evidence of their senses rather than accepting what the ancient authorities said even when it contradicted experience; this was the beginning of modern medicine and science. Peasants freed themselves of their lords and were able to search out better opportunities, for the first time in centuries. And the church lost much of its automatic hold over people as they began to question its ability to protect them from death. The accumulation of these changes tore down the medieval systems and opened the door for the Renaissance and Reformation that followed.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reading Isn't Dead

In a column titled Book Lust in yesterday's New York Times, Timothy Egan takes issue with Steve Jobs' comment that the new Kindle e-reader isn't a big deal because reading is dead. It's not the first time that reading has been declared dead; often I think it stems from a mismatch of items compared, when someone who loves books compares how much they read with how much "the younger generation" (as a whole) reads. Every generation since books became readily available has had some people who love books and others who are happier doing something else, so judgments about reading trends only make sense if they are based on the same population. And since much reading is done in private, it is hard to estimate how much people read by what you see them doing.

Yes, lots of kids listen to IPods or get news off the internet; but plenty of kids (many of the same ones) also read manga or science fiction or non-fiction eagerly. There are more options than ever for getting information, and books have staked out one solid, steady corner of the market. It makes sense that faster, ephemeral media meet the demand for day-to-day or hour-to-hour news and information. The stories and narratives that hold up generation after generation are best served by a stable, long-lasting media - like books. Newspapers may have problems competing with the newer media, but books should be fine. As Egan noted, "This year, about 400 million books will be sold in the United States. Overall, business is up 1 percent" in a tough economy. Compare that to the 3.7 million IPods that Apple sold last year, and it starts to look like someone is comparing apples to oranges when they claim that reading is dead.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lunar Eclipse

We watched the lunar eclipse from our deck tonight. The sky was clear except for a small band of clouds hanging over the mountains, so we had a great view with eye and telescope. And of course, I had to try taking pictures of the eclipse. I'm not sure why some of the shadows are red and some are black; I would guess it has to do with whether the eclipse is total or partial, and therefore how much contrast there is between the shadow and the rest of the moon.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Humorous Words

Medieval medicine was based on the classical four-humors theory developed in Greece. In this system, the body contained four humors that reflected the four elements and their properties: blood was air, hot and wet; phlegm was water, cold and wet; black bile was earth, cold and dry; and choler or yellow bile was fire, hot and dry. To cure a patient, a doctor would figure out which of these humors were over-abundant and then counter with the opposite qualities to bring the body fluids into balance. For instance, since many diseases were cold and wet, spices (which were considered to be hot and dry) were often used in medicines. Bleeding was used for diseases that were caused by too much heat and dampness (it was used through the 18th century; George Washington was one person killed by too much bleeding). Although the medieval system fell out of use centuries ago, we still use words associated with it to describe personalities or humors:
  • Sanguine literally means bloody; a hot, wet person is confident and optimistic.
  • Phlegmatic describes a cold and wet person, one who is sluggish and unemotional.
  • Melancholy comes from another name for black bile and describes someone cold and dry: sad, depressed, gloomy.
  • Bilious describes someone with an excess of dryness, someone who is peevish, sour tempered, crabby.
  • Choleric describes someone who is hot and dry, bad-tempered and prone to tantrums.
  • More generally, someone cheerful is said to be in a good humor; someone crabby is said to be in a bad humor.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Spring Light

Spring is definitely on its way. After a cloudy week or two, the difference in the angle of the light is startling and invigorating; the higher angle bouncing off the snow gives it a distinctive feel that doesn't match the warmer autumn light. Even though there is still plenty of snow on the ground, I start thinking about spring activities. Possibly the best part is that the sun is up nearly three hours longer than in early January, so it is easier to get up in the morning and the evenings don't drag on so long. It looks like our efforts to scare the sun back into the sky worked again!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Eggs for Breakfast and Lunch

My 11-year-old son slept late this morning, then decided he wanted eggs for breakfast. By the time he got the eggs cooked, it was noon, which meant that he needed lunch, too. (He believes in three meals a day, regardless of how short the day is.) So he ate the prettier fried egg as breakfast, with toast and bacon. Lunch, which followed immediately, was the other fried egg, in a tortilla with bacon and tomato slices. He was much happier with a full tummy.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Better than Going Out

I haven't been cooking a lot lately, between crazy schedules and lack of inspiration, but I have wanted to make a scallops-and-beef dinner for about a month now; I usually make one every winter for my husband and me, but this winter, there hasn't been a good night for it. Tonight, the boys were all elsewhere and we were down to a daughter at home for dinner, making the expense of the ingredients seem manageable; so I dove into a fancy dinner with enthusiasm. I started at the Co-op for scallops, then wandered into the produce section for other ideas - which I definitely found. I picked up a pound of tenderloin at the Meat Shop. In the end, dinner was three courses, all different, all very good, and it only took about an hour to put together.

  • Seared scallops and tomatoes on watercress, with a vinaigrette of preserved lemons and dill
  • Pinot Grigio


  • Belgian endives wrapped in prosciutto and broiled
  • Yukon gold potatoes, sliced into wedges and roasted with herbs de Provence
  • Tenderloin with crimini mushrooms in red wine sauce
  • Cabernet


  • Humbolt Fog cheese (a goat cheese with a creamy outer layer and a "blue" streak through it)
  • Blood orange segments soaked in ginger syrup

Friday, February 15, 2008

Japanese Magpies

According to Liza Dalby in East Wind Melts the Ice, Japan has magpies, too, but only in northern Kyushu. Japanese like the Latin name, Pica pica, because it sounds like "pika pika", which means "sparkle" in Japanese. And Japanese magpies are as well known for their attraction to sparkly things as Montanan magpies.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Love Letters

When the kids were little, we were faced with the usual dilemma of how to celebrate Valentine's Day with them. It is a romantic holiday, but kids like to celebrate it too. I didn't want to get too enthusiastic with candy (Halloween is enough for that), so we had to come up with something else. We settled on love letters. Each year, my husband and I write a note to each child, recognizing their specific challenges and accomplishments, and letting them know that we are proud of them; in a nod to the sweet nature of the day, we also give them a small bag of red and white jelly beans. It is satisfying to think about each child individually, their recent changes and progress, and find words to express them. As we discovered this year, this tradition, minus the jelly beans, is easy to continue when a child leaves the nest, so we will probably be writing those letters for a long time.

Simple Sausage Soup

Last night was one of those nights when I am in town until after 8:00 with two kids and my husband brings the third one home after 9:00, which meant I needed something simple for a late, light dinner before bed. Luckily, I had green-onion sausage in the freezer and turmeric rice in the fridge, so it came together pretty quickly. I browned the sausage before I left at 5:00, dumped the rest of the ingredients in when I got back, and turned the burner on medium to reheat the soup at 9:00. I also stuck some sourdough bread in the oven to crisp, and voila! Dinner was ready when the stragglers came home, hot, light, and quick.

Simple Sausage Soup
Brown a pound of sausage (green onion or sweet Italian) in a soup pot. Drain grease if needed. Add the same volume of cooked rice (brown rice cooked with turmeric in the water), enough pork or chicken broth to cover the meat and rice completely, and a can of diced tomatoes, including juice. Bring to a simmer for maybe five minutes. Adjust broth seasoning as needed. Serve with some crusty bread.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I have had Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner, on my pile to read for some time now, but never got too far in it because the type is fairly small and my eyes are at that 40-something stage where I should use reading classes but can often avoid it. Finally, I surrendered to the glasses and picked up the book. It was worth it. The subtitle is appropriate, because rather than write a comprehensive history of spices, Turner focuses on the period in European history when spices had the strongest impact: the Middle Ages, when food was noticeably full of spices, and the Age of Exploration, when Europe north of Italy entered the spice trade. The book could use a map to clarify all the geographic terms, and the chronology gets a little confusing, because he treats the various appeals of spices seperately, but other than that, it is well written and fun to read.

Turner starts his review of spices' temptation with the obvious: money. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Spain and Portugal worked hard to find new routes to the Indies because they wanted a cut of the spice trade and the stunning profits to be made in it. Portugal was more successful with spices and ruled India until the Dutch came in a century later and out-ruthlessed them. Eventually, in 1770, the French stole some clove and nutmeg plants from the Dutch spice islands and planted them on French islands in the Indian Occean; it took several years for the plants to bear fruit, but the proliferation of spice plants through the French and English colonies was well started - as was the decline of spices' cachet.

But why were spices worth so much money to Portugal? The obvious use, to us, is for seasoning food. Medieval recipes are full of spices in combinations that look odd to us now; they mix sweet with savoury, and include cinnamon, cloves, and ginger in all kinds of meat, from fish to fowl to venison. Although this was the preferred taste of the time, Turner points out that these recipes were primarily for feasts or special occasions, and that many of the spiciest were probably an attempt to add lighten the monotony of long fast periods such as Lent, when no meat (only fish) was allowed. Spices were also used profligately because they were a sign of status, the age's preferred form of conspicuous consumption.

But spices had other uses that increased demand. Most perfumes were based on spices, especially cinnamon oil. Medieval doctors had very few medicines available to them, and spices had all the right attributes: they were exotic, expensive, and flavorful; not surprisingly, spices made up the bulk of many cures, sometimes in combinations that seem useful only because taking them would be so awful that getting better would beat taking another dose. Spices were popular among men for more lascivious uses because they were believed to heat the blood; churchmen railed against them for the same reason. Spices also had religious uses, from burning incense during Mass to embalming the bodies of kings for the journey back to the burial site (the best option before embalming was developed). These non-food uses, all benefitting from spices' exotic nature, probably overshadowed food uses until late in the Middle Ages.

Just as I was finishing the book, I read The Spices of Life in the March 2008 edition of ODE, which brings the medical uses of spices up to date. Scientists are finding that some spices do have medical benefits, although generally not the same ones that medieval doctors atrributed to them, and that more research is worthwhile. Turmeric is an anti-inflamatory and antioxident, and may be useful in treating cancer and Alzheimer's. (I added turmeric to the rice for dinner last night, and it was tasty as well as colorful.) Saffron shows some promise in alleviating depression. Chili peppers may reduce cancer. Ginger, long used for nausea, can help with morning sickness and may be useful in treating high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and radiation sickness. All the spices have fewer side effects than most currently available drugs, making them even more desirable medically. So it looks like spices are still useful for more than just enlivening dinner.

Boys Read Dante?

I give up. I am done predicting what 15-year-old boys will do next. I was baffled enough when my son eagerly gave up Chaucer to read Dante's Inferno. He has read it steadily and cheerfully, and is now nearly done with it; it is time to start thinking about what to read next. So what does he choose? Dante's Purgatorio. Huh? I didn't even know that there was a third one until my son figured out from his book that the Divine Comedy is a trilogy. I have the Paradiso to match the Inferno, but not Purgatorio, so I had to go online and find a copy; my son is really enjoying John Ciardi's translation and commentary, so we might as well get the same series (and that way the three books will match, which only matters to me). I think I'm going to have to read Dante soon - it is embarassing to have my teenager better read than I am!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Boys Eat Kale?

So what are the chances? I had three 15-16 year-old boys over for dinner tonight at the last minute. I had prepared a salad of kale, beets, and gorgonzola, and I let the boys serve themselves because I didn't figure they would want much of it. One boy took the same amount I did (more than my son took) and the other two took nearly twice as much. Then they all enthused about how much they like kale and/or beets - and they ate it all. Huh? I'm still in shock. But those three boys are welcome for dinner any time.

Monday, February 11, 2008

How Many Times Have I Learned This Lesson?

Someone slap me next time I try to impose much structure on my youngest child. Structured assignments work great with my older three, but not my youngest; he puts up with it for a while, then digs in his heels and refuses to cooperate, so we end up spending most of the week arguing instead of doing schoolwork. Sigh. Last week, I gave up and gave him an assignment to do three or four productive things each day (things like reading, practicing his banjo, doing math, cleaning his room) and only specifically assigned one math exercise. The academic results weren’t great, but they were no worse than most weeks and I liked the lack of arguing, so I did it again this week – and he has taken off. He spent well over an hour this morning researching medieval bows and crossbows, and writing a report on them, complete with pictures and a chart; I had no idea what he was working on until he handed it to me. It is the best thing he has done with medieval history all year. Then he cheerfully tackled the mess in his bedroom, a real sore spot, and started thinning old clothes without any prompting. That was nothing short of astounding. I guess I’ll have to stick with “do something productive” assignments instead of telling him what to accomplish, even if it goes against all my organizational instincts.

Now we’ll see how long I remember this lesson…

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Ubiquity of High Fructose Corn Syrup

High fructose corn syrup is everywhere, even in foods that don't seem to have any need of it: yogurt, ketchup, cookies, crackers, salad dressing, tomato soup, frozen foods (where it helps prevent freezer burn), and bread. Even ignoring the possible health risks, it doesn't seem like a good idea to be adding sugar to all these foods - but just try avoiding it. It is nearly impossible to find a mainstream fruit juice that doesn't have any corn syrup in it, even the flavors that are supposed to be less sweet; the only kinds I have found that sometimes skip the high fructose corn syrup are apple (apparently sweet enough) and grapefruit juice that says "No sugar added" on the label. Most bottled drinks contain high fructose corn syrup, including some marketed as all-natural and healthy. Even tonic water contains it, as a friend discovered when she decided to cut the high fructose corn syrup out of her diet; gin and tonics are her favorite drink, so she was disappointed to give up tonic water. She finally found one non-major brand (Super Chill) that makes a diet tonic water without the syrup, so she can keep drinking her gin and tonics this summer.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Mongol Empire

From the European perspective, the Mongols were just another in a long line of horseback nomads who attacked from the east, raided and plundered, then disappeared back to the steppes, like the Huns seven centuries earlier. Their attacks on eastern Europe were terrifying, unpredictable, and nearly impossible to defeat, but the Mongols were still just a barbarian tribe, of no real political importance to the nobles in western Europe. However, from a more worldly perspective, the Mongols ruled the largest empire ever seen, stretching from the East China Sea to Poland and Hungary, from Siberia to Persia and Southeast Asia. The Mongols might not have had much in the way of traditional civilization, but they had a civilized approach to trade, and by the end of the 13th century, trade routes flourished from China to the Middle East and Europe; it was possibly the first time that China and Persia had knowledge of each other.

The Mongol empire began in 1206, when a successful warrior and leader named Timuchin was elected supreme ruler, or Genghis Khan, of the Mongol tribes. Genghis Khan was able to unite the varied nomadic tribes into a coherent army, which he then used to expand Mongol territory. In 1211, he attacked the Chin dynasty, the rulers of northern China; while he was beleaguering China, he sent armies to attack Persia, taking Samarkand in 1220, then turned his attention to Russia. Mongols had conquered most of Russia by 1240, then moved east to Europe and took Poland and Hungary by 1242. Further attacks on Europe were prevented only by the death of the Khan and dynastic struggles which called the armies back to Mongolia. By the middle of the thirteenth century, Mongols controlled Korea, northen China, Persia, and Russia, in addition to the steppes of interior Asia; by 1280, Kublai Khan had united all of China and founded the Yuan dynasty, which lasted for 100 years.

It wasn't until 1260 that the Mongols suffered their first major defeat, at the hands of the Mamluks of Egypt, who turned them back in the Middle East; in the east, their major set-back was their inability to attack Japan successfully, in large part because they were horsemen rather than sailors. The Mongols maintained the peace in their empire vigorously, allowing no civil wars, and the Pax Mongolia may be the largest war-free zone ever created; it lasted until 1294, and, in parts, for several more centuries. It was almost certainly the most tolerant of various religions, much more so than Europe was at the time; at various times, the Mongols were animist, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian, and subject peoples were allowed to follow their own religions as long as they did so peacefully. In terms of religion, trade, and keeping the peace, the barbarian Mongol empire was much more civilized than medieval Europe.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


Today is apparently Love Your Robot Day. Who comes up with these things?!? All I can tell from a quick search of the web is that is has been on February 7 since at least 2004. But it falls on a good day this year, since my son's 4-H Lego robotics club meets tonight - and those kids certainly love their robots. They are working on programming James Bot 007, which will sneak into a dark room (or large cardboard box), take pictures of the insides, and escape with the film intact. It is more complicated than it sounds, and takes a lot of trial and error programming.

Chinese New Year

When should the New Year start? Around here, school-age kids (and their parents) know that the new year starts in September, when school starts again. Even for those of us not tied to the school schedule, the crisp air lends a sense of energy that was missing during the heat of the summer and suddenly tasks that drifted all summer get done, phone calls get made, deadlines get resurrected.

But none of the traditional calendars start the new year in the fall. For agricultural communities in the northern hemisphere, the year logically starts with the spring equinox, when the earth comes back to life and a new growing year can begin; the old Christian year began in March. Coming close to this, the lunar year, the basis for the Chinese calendar, starts in late January or February; this year, it starts today. Then there is the western calendar, which starts the new year on January 1 - this makes no sense at all. December 21 would make some sense, when the sun starts rising in the sky again; so, for Christians, would Easter. But why January 1? That is about as arbitrary as it can be.

One thing that the Chinese and westerners agree on is that the new year, whenever it appears, should be celebrated with fireworks, friends, and feasts. To signify a new beginning, a break with the past, we make resolutions; they clean their houses, pay off debts, purchase new clothes, paint their doors and window panes, and even get new haircuts. School kids get new pencils and binders, even new clothes at the end of the summer - no wonder they think the new year starts in September!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

New photo blog

A friend has started a new photo blog, and her first picture, of a sunset during the forest fires last summer, is gorgeous. It will be fun to see where her camera leads her!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Desperation Pears

My son ended up with two friends joining us for dinner tonight - which was fine, except that I didn't have anything planned for dinner. I had some chicken and plenty of tortellini, but not much in the way of vegetables. No canned corn, which I am supposed to always have but which SOMEONE forgot to put on the grocery list when they used the last can. Now what?

The one thing I did have was pears. OK, fruit works as well as a vegetable to balance a meal. But what to do with them? After a little thought, I cut them in half and cored them, brushed some maple syrup on the cut edges, sprinkled a little pepper on them, and stuck them under the broiler until they looked cooked but not mushy, about 20 minutes (I think - I wasn't paying attention). The boys loved the pears and I served a balanced (if visually bland) meal, so everyone was happy. It's amazing what you can come up with in desperation.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Winter Shadows

The winter sun sets so far north that the late-afternoon shadows are far different than summer shadows. I love the way the cool light rakes the swells of the field, forming interlocking shapes of white and deep blue.

Chickadees Arrive

For the last month or so, the only birds around the house have been the misplaced robin and a few Townsend's solitaires in the crabapple tree, and small batches of magpies flying over the yard; even the rough-legged hawks don't soar over the yard like the summer redtails do. But today, black-capped chickadees appeared in the bare aspens outside the kitchen. They aren't nearly as dignified as the solitaires, but their jaunty bouncing around the branches is a cheerful punctuation mark against the snow. Chickadees do well around humans, making use of bird houses and congregating at birdfeeders; although we don't feed them, they are completely comfortable close to the house, where they are easy to watch.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Beginning of the Information Age

The founder of the Information Age died on this date, way back in 1468. Johan Gutenberg brought together many existing techonologies to invent the first printing press with movable type, around 1450, which allowed books to be generated at the blazing speed of maybe 20 in a month! A hand-written Bible took a year or more to finish, so Gutenberg's Bibles were fast - and cheap, even though they were still astronomically expensive - by comparison. His technology spread rapidly, and before long printing presses were active in much of Europe; by 1501 there were 1000 printing shops, which had produced 35,000 titles. Once people figured out that technology could speed the dissemination of information, it wasn't (too) long before the telegraph was invented, followed by the telephone, radio, television, and internet.

His invention also had all kinds of social impacts. The ability to create multiple identical copies created a community of scientists, introduced the idea of priority of publication, and eventually led to the "publish or perish" of modern universities. Over time, identical copies also generated a standardized form of the vernacular languages in Europe, leading to the growth of national identities and eventually nationalism. And the availability of Bibles and other religious books led to the Reformation, with its focus on the text of the Bible rather than the preacher. Compared to all this, the transformations wrought by the internet are noticeable for their speed more than their depth.

Quick Sandwiches

The Food Co-op has started making their own breads, including a baguette that is the closest to French that I've tasted in the US and a "challaday" bread, challah with cinnamon sugar, that makes awesome french toast. They are also experimenting with flavors of flatbreads; so far, I have seen walnut-currant (I think), cheddar-jalapeno, and carmelized onion. The cheddar-jalapeno is pretty spicy in places, and makes a very good open-face cheese sandwich when sliced in half, topped with cheddar cheese, and broiled. Today I used the carmelized onion flatbread to make a quick sandwich for three of us: I halved two Italian sausages from last night, topped them with some watercress, and spread a red-pepper/feta topping on the bread. Cut it in 6 pieces and lunch was ready - and very tasty. I'm hoping the Co-op will continue making flatbreads so I can keep experimenting with sandwiches!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Midwinter Day

Today marks the midpoint of winter. Our coldest days are (historically, anyway) behind us, but some of the best skiing is still coming up. Rather than four seasons, I see eight: four of "full" seasons and four of transitions, when one season starts to give way to another, almost imperceptibly at first. The period between the solstice and today was full winter, with little sign of spring returning. From here on, the coming of spring will be more noticeable every week; even while our snow pack increases, the days will be getting longer and the light will change with the height of the sun. When I woke up at 7:30 to take my sons to the ski bus this morning, it wasn't pitch dark outside; the clouds over the low spot in the mountains where the sun comes up in the winter were salmon orange, and the sky was lightening rapidly. Soon the sun will start rising over taller parts of the Bridgers as it moves north along the horizon, and even the deep spring snows won't be able to hide summer's approach.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Local Rhythms

Part of the joy of living in a specific place is becoming attuned to the local rhythms: the seasons, the harvest, the activities. It is easy for "responsible" adults to ignore them, moving in the same patterns from home to work to grocery store all through the year; kids are a great help in reconnecting us to the natural rhythms. In Bozeman, we have fishing, hiking, rafting, camping, and barbecues in the summer; hunting and the potato harvest in the fall; ice skating and snowblowing the driveway in the winter.

But the rhythm that I am noticing this winter is the ski bus. Bridger Bowl is a local ski area, and it caters to local skiers with free ski buses on weekends and whenever the high school is closed. So every weekend morning there is decent snow (which, in the opinion of my two skiing sons, happens to be almost every weekend), I get up a little earlier than I might otherwise and drive them into town to meet the 8:30 bus to the ski hill. Then every afternoon, I go pick them up at 4:30. It sure beats driving them the 20-30 minutes (depending on the roads and the traffic) to the hill! And it marks these months out as Ski Season, special and different from all the other seasons in the year.