Kernel: When I decided to be an artist

Franklin was asking a couple weeks ago for me to write another Imbolc blessing. Imbolc is a Celtic holiday, halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. It’s associated with Brigid, goddess of inspiration, poetry, and smithwork. For me, the holiday is also about cheese, and fire at the heart of snow, and making it through the stored foods of winter to the first through-the-frost greens and new milk. The previous Imbolc blessing I wrote was for babies—or newcomers, really. And since that writing, it has also been used as a farewell. Continue reading Kernel: When I decided to be an artist

Yule Tree Family Tradition

I might put more about the whole tradition here, but right now I just need a link to the song…

Tree-Hunting Song

Tune = Polly in the Holly (trad.) | Words by Anna-Marie York and Simone Parrish, circa 2001

*Oh the Oak rests in the winter time to marshal his strength
But the Holly stays bright and green the whole winter’s length
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

*Oh the fir waits in the wood, its boughs bearded with snow
To come inside for the Yuletide the axe it must know
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

*The Stag leaps through the wood with his proud crown of horn
And it is through his sacrifice the Sun is reborn
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

With an axe we go a-hunting the green-boughed fir tree
as our forebears have done through the long centuries.
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood it was the holly.

The Oak burns in the hearth for to give us good cheer
From the Darkness comes the Light at this turn of the year
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

The Wheel keeps on turning, through dark and through light,
and we sing to its honor, on this longest night.
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

*These are the verses we sing most often.

 

Sassi’s Toasted Pumpkin Seeds, Four Ways

I have a recipe I love for toasted pumpkin seeds, but it’s buried in/interwoven through this Lamb and Pumpkin Stew recipe. So no-one has to dig through that one, here’s the pumpkinseed recipe on its own, with some other flavor combination experiments:

  • Gut a pumpkin (or multiple pumpkins).
  • Get most of the goop off the seeds.
  • Soak goopy seeds in heavily smoked-salted water overnight. (You could use un-smoked salt, I guess, but I like the extra layer of flavor.) I used 6 cups of boiling water and 1/2 cup of smoked salt + 6 cups of cold water, but I was soaking about ten pumpkins’ worth of seeds (I had managed a big community pumpkin-carving activity, with lots of people all carving pumpkins on the same porch, and it seemed a shame to throw so many seeds away…). So, the proportion is 2 tsp salt to every cup of water, and you need enough water to cover your seeds. (They’ll float. Don’t fret.)
  • Rinse them off the next day. Lay a flour sack or linen tea towel on a sheet pan, and spread the seeds out on that to dry. (Do not use a loopy-pile towel or paper towels–too much stickiness/fiber transfer/annoying and gross.) It will take them a day or two to dry–just move them around a little whenever you walk past them, until they are dry to the touch. (I guess you could dry them in a very low oven instead if you were in a hurry).
  • When they are dry, preheat the oven to 275 degrees. (I like a slow oven. Some people roast seeds at 350 or 400 or even 425, but I like to give them a lot of time to dry out and crisp vs blasting them with heat and risking scorching. Sort of like the “slow and golden” school of marshmallow roasting vs the “set it on fire!” school.)
  • Coat your seeds with some combination of seasonings that you like. I did four different kinds today. For 1/2 cup seeds, you want about 2 tsp fat and 2-3 tsp of other flavorings.
Four Pyrex bowls with four different flavor combinations

Bacon Mushroom Thyme (for omnivores)

  • 1/2 cup cleaned/soaked/dried pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tsp bacon fat
  • 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • 1/4 tsp pepper (I fresh-ground peppercorns in an electric spice grinder)
  • 1 tsp porcini mushroom powder (standard caveat re. “I have access to weird ingredients”–the porcini powder was a gift from my dear friend/culinary partner/instigator Derek)

Spicy Orange Duck (for omnivores)

  • 1/2 cup cleaned/soaked/dried pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tsp duck fat
  • 1/2 tsp applewood smoked salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp dried orange peel
  • 1/2 tsp Aleppo pepper

Spicy Honey (vegetarian)

  • 1/2 cup cleaned/soaked/dried pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tsp grapeseed oil
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp sherry vinegar
  • 1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper

Vaguely Greek* (this one is vegan)

  • 1/2 cup cleaned/soaked/dried pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp dried lemon peel
  • 1/4 tsp pepper

*If I do this one again, I would either infuse the oregano in the oil for longer first, or I would add the oregano partway through the toasting. This time through, the oregano got quite scorched.

The method is the same for all the flavorings:

  • Put your seasonings of choice in an oven-safe bowl that is big enough for however many seeds you want to do.
  • Warm seasonings in the oven for about 5 minutes so fat melts/honey liquifies/flavors combine; whisk with a fork.
  • Add seeds and stir to coat.
  • Spread out in a single layer on a sheet pan–you can put baking parchment on the sheet pan if you want (I did, just for easier cleanup).
Four different pumpkin seed flavor combinations on one sheet pan
  • Toast them for about an hour and a half, stirring every 10-15 minutes, until they are toasty-gold and/or they make dry-autumn-leaf rustling sounds when you stir them. Kind of hard to say because different seasonings have vastly different color and burnishing clues. This is a long time, I admit, but this low temperature/long time makes the seeds very crispy, which to me is the most important quality.
  • Take them out of the oven and try not to burn your mouth. They’ll stay good for more than a week in a ziploc bag or airtight container, but they probably won’t last that long.
Four flavors of pumpkin seeds, all toasted. My kitchen lighting is terrible.
Four flavors of pumpkin seeds, all toasted. My kitchen lighting is terrible.

Real Headlines that Sound Like Mad Libs

I forgot I had started this post until the osprey headline. I’ll keep adding new ones at the top as I find them. There is nothing erudite here; these just all cracked me up.

January 26, 2018: Curlers upset with American Airlines after agent allegedly denies curling is a sport.

January 10, 2018: Charlie Daniels Issues Grim Warning to Taco Bell about the Illuminati. (I find this one disappointing because it’s not really an article; it’s just paraphrasing a tweet. But the headline is gold.)

Also January 10, 2018: Alligators in North Carolina are trapped in swamp ice–but they’re OK

January 6, 2018: Aggressive wild turkeys in Rocky River interfere with mail delivery (H/T Sarah Skwire)

November 17, 2017: Gene Simmons Banned for Life by Fox News (H/T Derek Nestell)

May 28, 2017: Osprey rescued after toe caught in clam. Photo courtesy of Thomas Krueger, who posted it from his local paper. Online news story is here, but the print headline is so much better.

April 18, 2017: Bewildered Beaver Becomes Accidental Leader of 150 Curious Cows

September 8, 2016: Errant Cannon Fire from Niagara Deflates World’s Largest Rubber Duck

July 12, 2016: US government plans to use drones to fire vaccine-laced M&Ms near endangered ferrets

Knowledge Curation and Design: Gardens, not Stained-Glass Windows

“It’s a garden, not a stained-glass window” is a metaphor I came up with to talk about knowledge management, content management, ongoing curation and database management, and iterative design processes. I think I started using it about ten years ago. A few different people have recently told me how much this concept has helped them, so I’m putting it here on my blog for intellectual property/attribution reasons.[1]

Many ideas in U.S. corporate culture come from industry and manufacturing. Objects and processes in a factory, mine, or construction site have to be perfect in some ways—they have to fit in a specific slot and happen at a specific time, or other things will go badly wrong. This interchangeable parts/assembly line/standardized processes way of thinking has created efficiencies and opportunities for expansion beyond the wildest dreams of the artisanal producer.

But this industrial mindset also (in my opinion) warps our way of thinking about other kinds of work. In my professional milieu (focused mostly on knowledge management and web content strategy), many things can’t ever be perfect, or finished. I used to find this frustrating. I like finishing things: making something polished, and checking it off a list. I used to feel panicked letting something go when I knew it could be better.

We also live in a time when few things are made to last. A stained-glass window in a Gothic cathedral had to be as perfect as possible; it was made to last a thousand years, unchanging. I used to feel the same way about my work—that it would be a permanent reflection of me, or of a moment captured out of time.

Then the metaphor came to me: These are gardens, not stained-glass windows.

This metaphor encapsulates and summarizes a lot of other thinking—from “the perfect is the enemy of the good”; to artistic or aesthetic traditions that acknowledge transience and imperfection (Arachne’s hubris, wabi-sabi, the apocryphal-but-appealing imperfect stitch/Persian flaw/humility square); to Seth Godin’s “Ship!” concept.

Recognizing that you need to constantly change things doesn’t mean you failed in the first place. A garden is never “finished.” You plan, and you plant, and you tend. Dig up weeds, or leave them be. Carry water, or wait for rain. Become the mother of mantises. Some things grow better than you expected (make a bigger bed for them, next year). Sometimes things don’t go well; your soil has an invisible pathogen, and all the cantaloupe plants turn to rot. A tree next door dies, or your neighbor builds a new fence, and the light in your garden changes. You have an early hot spell, and all your lettuce bolts and turns bitter. Maybe the people you are feeding suddenly become allergic to eggplant, or decide they don’t want to see another turnip until next year.

So, a small practical example: You worked hard on that user manual. You took every function into account, organized it in a way that made sense to you, and crafted the instructions carefully. But your work is not done: Watch to see how (or whether!) people use the manual. What challenges can they still not solve themselves? What questions do they still ask? Check your readability; are your sentences too complicated? Do you use words they don’t know? Check your information architecture: Do people not understand your category names or chapter titles? Maybe they don’t want a 300-page reference book at all. Maybe they want a “Top Five Tips” sheet.

Another: You made a website. People used to come to the homepage and click through the navigation to find what they are looking for; more often now they come to a specific page from Google or Facebook. They look at one thing, and they leave. Do you try to force them through the homepage—make them come through the garden gate, walk past the things they don’t want, dig for the things they do? No. You change your page aliasing, check your metadata, submit a sitemap for crawling, make sure your site search works well. Or you push new posts straight to social media. This delivers your goods to the people who want them—sometimes before they are even inside the gate—wherever they are coming from.

Your audience changes, or they want something different. The environment changes. Information changes. You can—and must—adjust to those changes. That’s how we tend the garden of human knowledge. That is the process that creates culture. It’s what knowledge management, writ large, is for. It’s how we survive, thrive, and build a better world.

[1] Like everything else on this blog, I’m offering the metaphor under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license. This is my metaphor, my meme, my idea. You can use it, if you want, as long as you say it it is mine, and you’re not trying to make money from it. More details on my Fine Print page. [Go back up to reference point.]

Children’s Song: Green Grows the Mistletoe

[Edit: I’m updating this post on May 1, 2017, significantly enough that I’m going to re-post it with a new publication date.]

I wrote this in January 1999, as a nursery rhyme for my then-baby godson Aiden. Its tune and structure are borrowed from “Green Grow the Rushes-O,” which dates back to at least the mid-1800s. It’s traditionally sung as a call and response, but that’s totally optional. I sing it by myself all the time.

I posted the lyrics as a Facebook note in May 2013, and moved them to this blog in August 2016. At this re-writing, in April-May 2017, I am grieving Aiden’s untimely death. In considering whether I could sing this at his memorial gathering on April 29, 2017, I was worried about choking up. I started experimenting with Garage Band so I could sing along with myself to get the song back in working vocal memory. During a day of practice in the car, I realized I was often dropping in little bits of harmony, so I recorded those as a separate track. I’ll probably do another more-polished version with more harmony lines eventually, but this one’s OK, and at least it’s complete.

Green Grows the Mistletoe, Take 3 with improv harmony track, April 25, 2017 (see P.S. for Take 1…)

Lyrics:

I’ll sing you one, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your one, o?
One Great Wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you two, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your two, o?
Two, two, for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you three, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your three, o?
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you four, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your four, o?
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you five, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your five, o?
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you six, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your six, o?
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you seven, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your seven, o?
Seven returned from Caer Sidi*
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you eight, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your eight, o?
Eight for the kinds of poetry**
Seven returned from Caer Sidi
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you nine, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your nine, o?
Nine for the woods on the Beltane fire
Eight for the kinds of poetry
Seven returned from Caer Sidi
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you ten, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your ten, o?
Ten, for Brigid and her maids
Nine for the woods on the Beltane fire
Eight for the kinds of poetry
Seven returned from Caer Sidi
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star,
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so!

* “Except seven, none returned from Caer Sidi” is a line in Robin Williamson’s version of The Spoils of Annwn, a poem attributed to Taliesin.

**I don’t know where this came from, so it might be totally without documentable basis, but I have the lore in my head that bardic poetry has eight purposes: Arbitration, blessing, cursing, worship, prophecy, remembrance, praise, and mockery. (This one is blessing, worship, and remembrance.)

P.S. Here’s Take 1 because Franklin asked for it. It’s a partial take and ends with a funny mistake. (I would have re-recorded it anyway, because I wasn’t warmed up and was trying to sing very quietly/not disturb neighbors late at night, so I’m not pleased with how long it took me to find the tuning/breathing.)

Sassi Saucier vs the Terpenoids (Anniversary Edition)

This piece was originally published as a three-part note on Facebook, March 21-26, 2014. Facebook’s “Memories” feature helpfully reminded me of the anniversary.

Part One

Where does this tale begin? The struggle with the Terpenoids only lasted a day, but the roots of the story go much deeper. I can’t tell every tale starting with the universe that came before it, though. It would help if you knew me, a little—that I approach cooking from sacred and social and scientific perspectives, and that for me it’s only partly about eating, and feeding others. It’s also about taking pleasure in technique, and honoring what has come before: the struggles of various collections of molecules to find joy in the processes of survival and creation. Continue reading Sassi Saucier vs the Terpenoids (Anniversary Edition)

Blogging about Commas

My site description says “knowledge management, good Web content, duck confit, odd bits of beauty, general nerdliness, and the Oxford comma.”

While I *use* the Oxford comma on this blog, I am not sure I have really blogged about it, per se. My brother-in-law Seth  called me on this the other day–and then a lot of people read this news story and told me it made them think of me. I’m quite proud.

I am a staunch, steadfast proponent and defender of the Oxford comma. None of the arguments against it make sense to me, when weighed against the arguments for it. I’m not going to try to convince you, though. You can do that for yourself. (Just Google “Oxford Comma” and be amazed at the nerdery and vitriol.)

Lynne Truss’ lovely Eats, Shoots & Leaves calls the comma a “grammatical sheepdog” that “tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organising [sic] words into sensible groups and making them stay put.” Ms. Truss acknowledges the pro vs con argument and advises “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

Funny examples:

Times when a comma (not always Oxford) made a difference in the outcome of a court case:

Sassi Saucier, Cookie Butter, and Magic Bean Water

TL;DR: This is complicated, even for Sassi. Simplified individual recipe links (which won’t work until after the “Continue reading” jump): Cookie Butter Shortbread (Vegan) | Sticky Pumpkin-Cookie Butter Blondies, Maybe? (Vegan) | Hazelnut Meringue Cookies (Vegan!!!)

The Saga of the Pumpkin Noisette Fancies

When it comes to holiday baking, I have a mission: Bake something delicious for the two vegans on my team. Bake sales and dessert buffets are sad for vegans unless someone is looking out for them. I’m a militant omnivore, but I like to take care of my people, and I like the challenge of baking without eggs or dairy products. Continue reading Sassi Saucier, Cookie Butter, and Magic Bean Water

Data: Singular or Plural?

Over the years as a writer and editor (and interrupted linguist), I’ve mellowed quite a bit. From a young age through my late 20s, I was a strict prescriptivist/pedant: “These are the rules; I am going to follow them, and I am going to get an A!” Gradually I’ve shifted toward descriptivism: “All usage is in some stage of flux; I just want to write clearly for my audience, so I can convey ideas as accurately as possible.”

But there’s one usage about which I am adamant: “Data.” Is it singular, or plural? The answer I accept is “Ask your audience.”

Here’s my argument:

(1) Are you speaking or writing Latin? “Data” is plural.

(2) Are you speaking or writing English? Ask yourself: How does my audience expect me to treat “data”?

(a) “Data” is neither singular nor plural in essence, but a mass/uncountable noun (like “furniture” or “traffic”–or “audience.”) Nevertheless,

(b) If you are writing or speaking to an audience of scientists (especially social scientists, but not computer scientists), you should use plural verbs and markers with “data”–otherwise, they will consider you unsophisticated, and possibly think less of your expertise. (I don’t think that’s a fair leap to make, but it’s a fact of life.) 

(c) If you are writing or speaking to a general audience and/or computer scientists, use “data” with singular verbs and markers. Otherwise, your audience is quite likely to think you are being pretentious. (If you *want* them to think you are pretentious, have at it. Just be aware of the effect this choice can have.)

(d) If you don’t know enough about your audience to make an informed choice, rewrite the sentence to avoid having to use “data” with a marker of grammatical number.

The argument that “data” is the plural of “datum” holds no weight with me, because:

(i) I can’t remember the last time I heard “datum” (rather than “data point”) in common parlance; and, more importantly,

(ii) English is not Latin. Once English has accepted a word from another language, the grammatical rules of the root language no longer control that word. “Opera” in Latin is the plural of “opus,” but in English “opera” is most frequently used as a singular noun. Most people use “agenda” in English as a singular noun as well–“Do we have an agenda?” “Hold on, I’ll send it to you.” 

Come at me.