Leprechaun trap

March 17, 2014

For Toastmasters this evening, members had been invited to bring stories, jokes, etc. related to St. Patrick’s Day or Ireland in general. Pam, the director of the library where our club meets, brought in this unusually decorated cake.

leprechaun trapShe explained that it was a leprechaun trap. I’d never heard of this tradition, but apparently it has become very popular in recent years. (I can’t help suspecting that, like most of our St. Patrick’s Day traditions, it is far more American than Irish. But so what?)

Leprechaun traps, she explained, can take any number of forms. Hers is a cake decorated to look like a tree stump, with a hidden hole in the middle for the leprechaun to fall into when he follows the trail of the gold coins.

It makes me wish my boys were young enough to want to try to make one. I’ve always loved arts and crafts, and I was always glad when Al showed an interest in making stuff because I could work on it with him. (Our older son rarely did crafts except when a school project required it.)

Leprechaun traps can be virtual too – i.e. computer programs. I’m sure Al would like it if I could create a computer game to trap a leprechaun, but my programming skills do not include the expertise in graphics that are integral to today’s computer games.

I enjoy looking at some of the ideas other people have come up with, though. Another cute cake idea – similar in concept but quite different in appearance – has a rainbow hidden inside.

I suppose someday I’ll probably have grandchildren. Maybe one of them will inherit my love of crafts and want to trap leprechauns with me.


Poetry after Christmas

January 10, 2014

When I looked at Christmas poetry on Christmas day, I came across this poem by W.H. Auden. Since it belongs to the period after Christmas, I delayed writing this post until now.

I can certainly relate to a lot of it – the Christmas tree waiting to be taken down, our sons back in school, and the holiday celebration already a fading memory. I certainly stayed up late during Christmas break, and had a lot of leftovers to finish up. We didn’t get together with relatives, but I can relate to that also from past holidays.

And now here I am in the Time Being. Going back to the office was kind of depressing – and my excitement at getting two days off from school (i.e.the college where I work) this week due to the extreme cold seemed more appropriate to a schoolchild than a 50-something member of the staff.

More than that, I can relate to “craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,” looking for something to inhibit self-reflection (FreeCell works well), wanting to redeem the Time Being from insignificance, and enduring “silence that is neither for nor against [my] faith.”

This poem reminds me that W. H. Auden is one of the modern poets I appreciate. I don’t know that it would be accurate to say I “like” his poems, because they are often reminders of how indifferently brutal people can be. But they are thought-provoking, and their language captures my interest in a way many poems do not.

One of Auden’s poems I had not read before is “The Shield of Achilles.” Even before I read some background information explaining about Thetis and Hephaestos (details from the Iliad that I no doubt rushed through in ninth grade), I got a sense of what Auden is saying about the modern world. But it is even more poignant in light of the contrast Auden draws with Homer’s depiction.


Poetry for Christmas

December 25, 2013

I spent much of yesterday and today reading a book written by an English professor, and thinking that I ought to act on some vague intentions to read more of what would generally be considered “literature” rather than just books. I’m not sure how far I’ll get in this project, both due to time constraints and the thought that having other people to read and discuss literature with would be beneficial.

But for today, I decided a reasonable goal would be to find a good poem about Christmas. Google found me a great many, of course, but I easily settled on a favorite, “Moonless darkness stands between” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I haven’t read a great many of Hopkins’ poems, but I like the ones I have read, both for the way he writes and for the things he says.

I enjoy much of the traditional activity associated with Christmas – the decorations, the food, the exchange of gifts, and especially the singing. But the significance of Christmas to me is expressed in this poem by Hopkins as well as by anything else I can think of. It is about the birth of “Him Who freed me / From the self that I have been.” Not that it is by any means a finished project, but one that is “Now beginning, and alway: / Now begin, on Christmas day.”


November 30, 2013

Working at a college doesn’t always mean getting an education myself (though I am seriously considered taking a class in German next year, since my 8th grade son says that’s the language he wants to study in high school). But now and then I do learn something new in the course of my work – quite aside from the constant process of learning how the software works that is the focus of my job.

With Thanksgiving approaching, a colleague forwarded an article about turkeys and Big Bird. I really had never thought either about what happens to a turkey’s feathers when it is slaughtered to become Thanksgiving dinner (or any other time of the year), or about where in the world those bright yellow feathers come from that make up Big Bird’s costume. But apparently the two are connected.

While Big Bird is not a turkey (according to Muppet Wiki, Oscar has claimed Big Bird is a turkey, Big Bird has claimed to be lark), his costume is made from turkey feathers. Approximately 4,000 of them – unless you want to take the Count’s word for it that there are over 5,961.

This article, written during the 2012 presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney said he wanted to cut funding for PBS, describes how feathers are prepared for Big Bird’s costumes. This introduces a whole new subject to learn about, which gets into the challenging topics of economics and politics. (I’m inclined to agree with this article.)

I doubt that any feathers from the turkey we ate on Thursday (and yesterday, and today, and probably tomorrow) will ever find their way to Sesame Street. Most poultry feathers are either used in low-grade animal feedstock or thrown out (incinerated or consigned to landfill). But scientists have been working on ways to recycle the feathers into useful products.


Not your average Easter bunny

March 24, 2013

Most Easter bunnies are made of chocolate. Some are plush. But this weekend’s wintry weather has produced some snowy Easter bunnies.

And while we’re on the subject of unusual Easter bunnies, check out these unfortunate Easter bunny costumes.


Why Lent?

February 16, 2013

A Facebook friend posted a link to this column by Tom Chantry, and adds this comment: “How come many (most?) Reformed Baptists get this and many (most?) Presbyterians don’t?”

I’ve never been a Reformed Baptist (and during the years I was a Baptist I had no idea there was such a thing), but I’ve been a Presbyterian now for over twenty years, and the wife of a Presbyterian pastor for the last fifteen, so I have some idea about what Presbyterians think. And the approach to Lent that is decried in this column is foreign to my experience.

Read the rest of this entry »


Why Ash Wednesday?

February 13, 2013

I took my usual lunchtime walk with a co-worker today. Remembering that she attends a Baptist church, I commented that I guessed they wouldn’t have an Ash Wednesday service this evening. She said no, and that it was too bad – Ash Wednesday is a tradition she appreciated when she belonged to a church that observed it.

I was a Baptist for a number of years, until I married a Presbyterian. I would see my Catholic co-workers come back to work after lunch on Ash Wednesday with black smudges on their foreheads, and I thought of Ash Wednesday as a Catholic thing.

(The Congregational church I grew up in had Ash Wednesday services, but I remember nothing about them. I didn’t really believe in Jesus back when I attended church there, and after I became a Baptist I dismissed anything the Congregational church did as empty ritual since they had not preached the Gospel clearly or cared much what people believed.)

The first time we attended a Presbyterian Ash Wednesday service where people were invited to receive ashes on the forehead, I declined. It was just too strange, too “Catholic.” I vaguely regretted not being able to bring myself to participate in that way, as it seemed meaningful to those who did.

By the time the next Ash Wednesday came around, I had come to appreciate Presbyterianism’s embrace of such traditions. Symbols are powerful in shaping our faith and our thinking, and an “embodied” symbol like a cross drawn with ashes on the forehead is that much more powerful.

A web page that does a good job of expressing what I find meaningful about Ash Wednesday is this Christianity FAQ. Another is this blog post, even though I would probably disagree with its writer, who calls herself a liberal Christian, on a number of theological points.

Interestingly, both point out that Ash Wednesday is one holiday that Hallmark will never co-opt as it has other Christian holidays. (I did discover, however, an Australian Hallmark website that not only includes Ash Wednesday in the list of holidays, but does a decent job explaining it.) Penitence and self-indulgent materialism just don’t mix. Perhaps that’s one of the best things about Ash Wednesday, and why we need it.


Holiday humor

January 6, 2013

At the Holiday Springs and Sprockets exhibit I went to yesterday, there was also a display of Christmas cards sent or received by Steve Gerberich (the creator of the overall exhibit). One I found particularly amusing included a web address, so I checked it out when I got home.

www.winstanleylsw.com is a collection of four amusing virtual refrigerator magnets. Each is a parody of a familiar household product, altered to give it a holiday theme. My favorite is the bottle of “Yule Tide” detergent, which “Removes Stubborn In-Laws” and provides “Bing Crosby Whitening.” You can send a magnet by email (though the image will not be immediately visible in the email, as most email clients these days are set not to download pictures automatically).

The website was apparently created, several years ago, as the Christmas greeting of Lenox Softworks and its parent company, Winstanley Associates. I’m guessing the page proved so popular that they simply left it up for people’s continued enjoyment.


Holiday Springs and Sprockets

January 5, 2013

When I first saw the work of Steve Gerberich a couple of years ago, I was delighted by his inventiveness. So when I saw that the Muscatine Art Center would have his Holiday Springs and Sprockets on display, I was eager to go see it. Then I got sick, and put off going to the art center.

mechanized RudolphThis is the last weekend of the exhibit, so I made a point of going today. (It is traditional to keep Christmas decorations up until Epiphany, which is tomorrow. I wonder if that played any part in determining the exhibit’s schedule.)

I really like the Flying Reindeer. Mounting reindeer on exercise bikes, and then using bicycle handlebars for antlers – that is inspired. And the collectioRudolph's nosesn of different light bulbs for Rudolph to use, depending on the weather – that is a special touch, especially the collection of clear lights for Hanukkah!

I have to admit that the rest of the exhibit left me somewhat disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were too high, because I had enjoyed the previous exhibit so much. Perhaps it was because this time the idea of how Gerberich puts together apparent “junk” to make mechanized art was no longer fresh and new.

Maybe it was the wooden elves – I just don’t like their looks. I wondered if maybe it was partly because more of the objects appeared to have been made specially for a Christmas exhibit, if not necessarily this one, rather than being odds and ends that had been pressed into service in an entirely new way.

I wondered if Gerberich had been under some pressure to get a holiday exhibit put together and had less time to create it than some of his other works. I discovered later, reading about the exhibit in the Quad City Times (check out the story to see more pictures), that he created this exhibit in 1991 for Bloomingdale’s in New York. So maybe his other creations are better because he has had a couple of decades to improve his work.

This exhibit still delights many people, especially the children who visit. The art center was far from crowded on this January afternoon, but there was rarely a moment that one display or another was not in motion. And it wasn’t just children pushing the buttons that set the gears – and rollers, pulleys, chains, and more – in motion.


Night photography

July 5, 2012

I didn’t have night photography in mind when I bought my camera. (If I wanted to do really good night photography, I’d need to spend a lot more than I did.) But when I browsed through the features listed in the user manual, I noticed a section on low-light conditions. I made a mental note to try it out sometime.

Last night I took my younger son to see the annual Independence Day fireworks show at the riverfront. I’ve tried to take pictures of fireworks before, but with little success. Now that I have a digital camera that can be switched into manual mode, I thought I might do better. I had checked ahead of time to find out recommended settings, and I remembered to take my tripod (a GorillaPod that can hold its place firmly on the arm of a camp chair).

Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to practice actually changing the manual settings, and in the dark I couldn’t figure out what buttons to press. (But I found the one for timed delay to allow me to get in my own picture. Several times.) So I had to settle for letting the camera determine the settings. The pictures still came out much better than my previous attempts to capture exploding fireworks. (Last year I used video mode and extracted a few frames. The color was good but the resolution was not.)

Since I didn’t buy this for night photography, I didn’t think about whether a cable release was available. Even with the tripod, the pressure of my finger on the shutter release was enough to cause movement visible in most of the photos from last night. (The trails of light show the downward arc of the firework fragments, but also another small movement at right angles to that arc, presumably from movement of the camera.)

Apparently a cable release is not available, even though the camera clearly is designed with the possibility of low-light photography in mind. (There is even a Fireworks setting in there somewhere, though I’ll have to peruse the manual – which is on CD only – more closely to find it.) However, I have read online about making a DIY cable release that uses the camera’s USB port – I just might try it out.

I still won’t be able to get the kind of quality seen in these beautiful examples of night photography. But they have me thinking about the possibilities.


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