Monday, December 10, 2007

Something to drink?

I am developing a discerning attitude towards coffee. I was drawn to it late in life, mostly through paper cup envy and not the drink itself. In Iowa I would show up for class sheepishly holding a water bottle while everyone else held a steaming cup/mug of "something much more chic." Momentarily casting aside all thoughts for my health and the environment, I decided to trade in my morning water for a small cup of joe from the Java House. What better to go with yet another round of Bach recits and Marie's home baked goodies? After a couple of days I realized I had clearly been missing out. I soon discovered my favorite blends of brew (no espresso in the morning for me, thank you) and learned to take it without sugar or cream.

Now I live in the coffee capital of America, and my taste is becoming more refined. I still won't drink Starbucks home brew. I agree with my mother-in-law in that it is too brackish. My current favorite is the daily blend served by Forza, a South Sound local chain. Forza serves me well for both its dark, smoky coffee and fine dissertation-writing environment, complete with fireplace and cheesy-sounding-but-actually-quite-classy indoor Italian fountain. I also recently discovered the best cup of espresso known to man at Tacoma's new Satellite Coffee. I swear I have never tasted anything so smooth, and without the odd Teriyaki taste that accompanies the so-called best espresso served at Blackwater Cafe. (I should add that I also don't have the necessary prerequisite number of tattoos to allow me entering Blackwater without a significant turning-of-heads in my direction...) My environmental sensibilities have returned from that momentary lapse in Iowa, and I generally drink at home or at the cafe out of a mug rather than the paper cup. (Tully's has started serving coffee in 100% compostable cups--hurrah for the crunchy Northwest!)

As my dissertating becomes more intense I look forward to my coffee more and more. Not for the caffeine--truly, as I generally do half-and-half or entirely decaf post-noon--but for the comforting taste. Or is it for the fact that preparing a perfect cup requires a significant break from translating old Flemish at my computer? I must boil the water, grind the beans, locate the perfect biscuit, open the mail, admire my Christmas tree, read another chapter in my non-Peter Philips book, and, oh, what time in dinner? Better get that started ...

Monday, October 29, 2007

Long Autumn

The subtly changing seasons in the Pacific Northwest are starting to feel normal. September days alternated between what I heard as called "extreme summer"--sunny and temps in the upper 70s--and "nearly winter"--cloudy and temps in the 50s. The leaves started to change then, and now, at the end of October, they seems to be in no rush to finish up. Many trees are still green, many are bare, and many still cling to brightly-colored-but-increasingly-soggy leaves. The long season (and the fact that the majority of our trees are evergreens) prevents us from having the spectacular display of colors I remember so well from three years in New England, but we do have time to enjoy the passing into winter.

Early in October I managed to get out to Tacoma's beautiful Point Defiance Park to grab these photos. I thought I would need to rush before the rain pulled down the leaves. Little did I know that they would hang around for several more weeks

(Don't be fooled, I didn't catch this beast "in the wild", merely grazing from within the fence of Point Defiance's wonderful zoo!)

Monday, October 8, 2007

How 'Bout Them Apples?

He had us nervous for a minute, but Borowski pulled through with the save.
Indians win!

Poor A-Rod. His team just lost . . .

And this kid? He can't wait to see the Indians in Boston. And even though they won't be there, "Yankees Suck" will still be heard thoughout Fenway.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Thoughts of Home

Cleveland has been much on my mind lately, with its unseasonably warm temps in the 80s (while those of us out here in the PacNW shiver with the early onset on winter-like gray and 50s!) The Indians are kicking butt in the playoffs, and those quarter-beer days on the 1980s seem a distant memory.

I grew up just outside of Cleveland in a then-small-now-monstrous suburb called Strongsville. My parents still live there, active as ever in local theater groups, various landscaping and car-fixing projects, filling me on all the details of the neighbors, the football team, and the mall. My sister A has, like me, abandoned the suburbs in favor of urban living. She lives in West Cleveland with her husband J and their daughter L in a funky little neighborhood called Tremont. Within a several block radius of their house they can dine at Mexican, Polish, African (I think!), or visit the best year-round market in Cleveland.

In mom's most recent letter she described my little niece L, aged 20 months, as having "a huge belly and no butt!" Her description of her pants sliding right down around her legs has still got me howling! This letter was soon followed by a phone call from my sister in which she lamented the fact that she and J had better stop swearing in front of L. The most recent incident: while grocery shopping L accidentally knocked something off the shelf. She looked down, looked up at her mum, shook her head and said "Dammit."

L is ready to do battle with one of grandma's garden gnomes.

Chilling out at the local fair.

Z and I went to two Indians games while we were there in June.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A New Addition

(I have to get one more entry in before the next month!)

Meet the newest member of our humble driveway:

We call him Shitty Blue.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Belgium For Sale

While seeking-out-then-catching-up-on international news, I discovered that Belgium is for sale. If you have the financial means I highly recommend considering this worthy investment. If not for the culture, history, and wonderful people, than at least for the food and beer!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Coming Up for Air

How embarrassing. I have to post before I hit the one-month mark. There have been many moments when I've thought, "That's got to go in the blog for my trusted-but-few loyal readers out there." But there have also been many distractions, not the least of which is going from no jobs to three in only a matter of weeks. And then there's the dissertation . . .

No excuses, though, just a few teasers and random thoughts:
  • We are what we eat. Our move to the Northwest has included, among many wonderful things, an increased awareness of the origins of our food. Thanks in part to Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Z and I have been making increased efforts to shop locally and rid our bodies of high fructose corn syrup. With a refrigerator full of kale and zucchini, we are at two weeks and counting!
  • Back to the Presbys. After two years working in the Lutheran Church I've found a choir position with a local Presbyterian church in North Tacoma. Out with the sung liturgy, in with the praise music ...
  • The women's choir at PLU is shaping up to be en excellent ensemble this year! And after our beginning-of-the-year retreat, which took place yesterday, I now know more than I ever wanted to about first crushes, favorite TV shows, and "most daring things you've ever done."
  • I'm singing with a group in Seattle, The Esoterics, in a fascinating upcoming concert of contemporary Islamic sacred music. Check out the link and come on by if you are in the neighborhood. Tickets from Belgium should only run about 750 euro!
  • A colleague and I have decided to join forces later this fall and put together an early music/contemporary choral concert of professional-level singers in an effort to set up an audience base in the Tacoma/South Puget Sound region. As you can imagine, the madbyrd in me is orgasmically excited about this opportunity.

Finally, I am almost-but-not-quite-as excited about the season premier of Heroes tonight. Let's hope that the writing has improved and that certain undesirable characters have been written off!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Bit of Europe in the Northwest

Z and I recently took a short vacation (our second official one in seven years of marriage) to Victoria, BC. Recently voted one of the top 5 cities to visit in the world, Victoria represents the best of all my holiday dreams. It abounds with outdoor cafes, boutique shops, and beautiful gardens, all situated on a harbor and surrounded by majestic mountains. It is, essentially, a little taste of Europe nestled in the heart of the Pacific Northwest.

Victoria lies just a few hours from our doorstep. We hit the road around 9:30 AM, drove across the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge and onto sleepy Kitsap Peninsula. Two-and-a-half hours later we reached Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula, parked our car, had a quick diner lunch, and boarded the ferry for the 90-minute crossing. We had full sun, light breezes, and great views of mountains on all sides. Fifteen minutes after pulling in we had disembarked, walked to our hotel to check in, and were on our way to our first-of-many outdoor cafes.

Victoria Harbor, excuse me, Harbour, bustles with sea traffic. As we pulled in we were surrounded by other ferries, executive yachts, small sailboats, cute local ferry taxis, and seaplanes. Everything worth seeing in Victoria is right here. The Parliament buildings stand side-by-side with old, majestic hotels. Horse-drawn carriages rumble along tree-lined streets chock full of street performers, artists, and ice cream stands. Downtown is only a few steps away, and it only takes one or two blocks to trade in cheesy tourist shops for cafes, chic clothing stores, gourmet food shops, coffee shops, and pubs. Z and I literally ate and drank our way across Victoria in our three-day visit.

The only time we left the sunny streets of Victoria was to visit the world-famous Butchart Gardens. In the 1910s Jeannie Butchart had an idea to beautify an exhausted limestone quarry that had supplied her husband's cement plant. The Butcharts combined the natural outline of the quarry with an mixture of rare and exotic plants to create the Sunken Garden. Later they carved out the authentic Japanese, Rose, and Italian Gardens. Today the gardens see over 1,000,000 visitors a year, plays host to a summer music festival, and is one of Canada's National Historic Sites. While the Northwest's mild climate allows the garden to exist all year long, I would highly recommend a visit on a late summer afternoon. The crowds wane, the shadows grow long, and the view from the patio with a glass of wine can't be beat.

Put Victoria on your list of must-sees. Leave your car behind, loosen your belt, and bring your camera.

(P.S. This blog is turning into a PacNW vacation guide. If you're getting bored, not to worry! The vacation is nearly over, and soon I'll return to riveting tales of dissertation writing, breathy choral auditions, and exciting whose-turn-is-it-to-do-dishes-tonight debates with Z!)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. I can only vaguely recall it because it was my fifth birthday. At the time it seemed like it was happening in a different country. Volcanoes were exotic, far-away possibilities to one who grew up in sleepy northern Ohio.

Now Mount St. Helens smolders only two hours from my own back door. The site has been turned into a National Volcanic Monument, complete with visitor centers, hiking trails, and cheesy, kid-friendly theme parks. After a night of camping in nearby lush, green Seaquest State Park, Z and I headed towards the west flank of the mountain to visit this rapidly changing landscape. Here are a few highlights of the trip:

Even on clear days, the top of Mount St. Helens (upper left-hand corner) is often covered by a thin layer of clouds. We went hiking along the north-western edge of the volcano, mostly along a ridge above the primary blast zone. The mountain blew out its northern side, and below the cloud layer you can see the crater. There are currently two lava domes that are growing within it at a rate of a few inches every day. Below the mountain you see the wasted valley. There were once lush evergreen forests here, but now the land is scarred by the lava flow and very little grows in it.

This picture was taken with Mount St. Helens at our back, looking northward in the direction of the blast. These hills, once covered with forest, are now littered with the torsos of trees blown off their trunks. It's a little difficult to see, but the trees still rest where they fell, all in the same direction.

The destination of our 6-mile hike was Spirit Lake, seen here. Spirit Lake has rested at the northern edge of Mount St. Helens for thousands of years, created by another eruption. Until 1980 it was the site of several homes and a resort community. One particular resident, Harry Truman, became a national icon for refusing to leave his home of 50 years in the weeks leading up to the eruption. He didn't believe that the eruption could possible affect his home, lying only five miles from the base of the mountain. As it was Spirit Lake not lay directly in the path of the blast, but it was also instantly buried under a mountain of lava. Harry Truman most certainly died instantly (his body or his home were never recovered.) You can't see it, but trees still lay strewn along the shores of the lake. Mount Adams is visible in the upper right hand corner.

We took this final shot as we were driving away around 6:30 PM. The clouds were finally parting from the crater, and the moon had risen. Look carefully and you can see a small plume of smoke that still rises from this still-active volcano.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Come Tread on Me

That's the motto of the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail in the Yakima Valley. This is followed by a small disclaimer stating, "No rattlesnakes, just Washington's greatest wines!" Not terribly clever (or true for that matter, there are indeed rattlesnakes in the hills high above the valley), but the quality of the wine speaks for itself.
Wine has a short but sort-of interesting history here in Washington State. Grapes were first planted in the early nineteenth-century by European settlers, mostly in the state's dry, four-season eastern half. Prohibition in the 1920's encouraged people to start making wine at home, with early commercial plantings only arriving in the 1960's. From the 1970's onward wine production grew rapidly in Washington--in both the east and the west--and today it is the second largest wine-producing state in the USA. The expansion continues, so nowadays it is estimated that a new winery opens every 2 weeks. All this would be nothing if the wine were of poor quality. Lucky for us Washington wine is superb--reds, whites, and roses--and continues to get better every year!

A couple of weeks ago Z and I headed east for our own afternoon of wine tasting in the Yakima Valley. The drive itself is impressive: 130 miles east of Seattle on I-90 over the Snoqualmie Pass and into the desert. And desert it is. As you come out the other side of the Cascades the trees disappear, the clouds disappear, and the temperature rises about 20 degrees. We had left a cloudy, 70-degree Puyallup for a piercingly sunny, 90-degree Yakima. And all in less that two hours!

The wineries spring up like green jewels across the desert landscape. Irrigation from the Columbia River makes this kind of growth possible in the valley. We had about 30 miles of wineries to choose from in this part of the state but stuck to the wineries associated with the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail. In four hours we visited five wineries, tasted plenty of excellent vintages, and took home nine bottles. We picnicked at our first stop under a shady tree and took an afternoon nap at our last. We ended the day with a fabulous dinner at Santiago's Mexican Restaurant in Yakima (BEST fish tacos I have ever eaten!!) and a longer, sunset drive through Chinook Pass along the Eastern edge of Mount Rainier.

Check out these links if you want to read more about our trip:

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Trading Birds for Mountains

Summers are supposed to be dry and cloud-free in the Pacific Northwest. While things have indeed been dry, this summer the clouds have rolled in too many times for me. The weather folks laugh nervously, saying "Well, another cloudy one on the way. This is highly unusual for us this time of year, but, well, what are you going to do? Ha ha . . . ha . . . " I think they must be getting some serious hate mail.

I'm exaggerating, really. It hasn't been that cloudy. The problem is that it's been cloudy every time Z and I have planned to do some serious outdoor hiking. A couple of weeks ago we went up to Mount Rainier, believing the reports that the sky would be clearing just in time for our amazing views. While climbing the access road to the Paradise Visitor Center, we entered the cloud bank and hoped to come out above. No such luck. We had to satisfy ourselves with a bit of low-elevation tramping. The forest was absolutely beautiful, of course, but no views of the peak.

Then yesterday we had planned to go down to the Columbia River Gorge. "Sorry to report another dreary one, folks. Kind of like the Mariners' last three against the Red Sox, eh, Bob? Ha ha . . . ha . . ." *sigh* We would have to content ourselves with something a little different. Z laced up his sneakers and headed to the racquetball court with a colleague, and I trekked down to the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge just 20 miles south of Tacoma.

Nisqually provides one of the many cloudy-day alternatives to mountain-viewing here in Seattle. It's down by the water, it's full of water birds, and it has loads of trails. The Refuge is built around the Nisqually River Delta, the point where one of Rainier's largest rivers empties into the sound. It was an Indian Reservation for centuries, and then a private farm. In 1974 it was sold to create the Refuge.

I think this is one of the best-kept secrets in the South Sound area. The trails run unobtrusively through the Delta so that one can view migratory birds in their element. There are a couple of old photo blinds buried in the marshes for up-close bird watching. Surrounded by small ridges of evergreens, the air smells wonderfully of pine and salt. On the outer edge of the Refuge there are fantastic views of the Sound, including the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and Anderson Island.

I walked the full six-mile outer loop and ran into only a small handful of other people. I saw about ten Blue Herons, some Egrets, ducks and geese, one pelican, one woodpecker, and even a giant Banana slug. But best of all the sun came out--and stayed out--for my whole visit!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Domestic Dispute

During my last several weeks in Belgium I often wondered if I would suffer from re-entry issues. I worried a little about reverse culture shock, remembering American customs and culture. I also wondered whether or not Z and I would hit any snags learning to be a couple again. I've been home for almost two months, and I'm happy to report that, aside from little things such as unwanted piles of stuff on the floor (me) and general complaints about who's going to do the dishes (him), we've been pretty content.

And then last Friday night we attended the Boston Red Sox vs. Seattle Mariners baseball game.

Z has been and always will be a Red Sox fan. The term "Red Sox Nation" was coined specifically for people like him, people who ALWAYS root for the Red Sox and ALWAYS root against the Yankees, no matter who is playing in what game. Athletics vs. Tigers? "Let's Go Red Sox!" Diamondbacks vs. Cardinals? "Yankees Suck!"

I, on the other hand, am a somewhat fair-weather fan. I grew up in Cleveland, so the Indians will always hold a special place in my heart. I actually remember the terrible 1980's when Municipal Stadium would hold "Quarter Beer Day" in an effort to fill even 1/4 of the 80,000 seats. I became a Red Sox when I moved to Boston with Z, rooted for the Cubs when we lived in Iowa City, and now have decided to adopt my new home-town team, the Mariners.

Z does not take this news well. Friday night when the Red Sox and Mariners were battling it out in SafeCo Stadium, he actually uttered the words "You are dead to me" when I cheered Beltre his home run. I did my best to please him by smiling when Manny Ramirez did his "homeless man" impression while sauntering to the plate. (This takes no great effort from Ramirez, by the way, as he is one of the sloppiest men in baseball.)

No matter. He is stubborn, but so am I. Some relationships are stronger than marriage. By this I refer to his with the Red Sox, not mine with the Mariners. The Red Sox are just that irresistible. And when they battle it out against "who cares" from the NL during the World Series, you know who I will be rooting for.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Saturday morning, 7:06 AM. I wake up, grab a couple of magazines, and camp out near the front door. Coffee's on, phone's off--there will be NO spoiling this surprise today!

9:45 AM. Two National Geographics and one Sunset Magazine later, I sigh and get my computer (no internet!) to do a little work on my dissertation.

10:39 AM. Kind UPS delivery man drops off long-awaited package. Move over Peter Philips, I'm Harry Potter's mistress today!

10:45 PM. DONE! I hand the book over to dear, patient Z and promise that tomorrow I will cook for him as he has done for me.

11:30 PM. As I cool my brain with a little late-night TV movie, courtesy of John Hughes, Z runs in and asks: "Quick, give me a recap! What happened in Book 6 again?"

1:35 AM. Been trying to fall asleep for about an hour but am distracted by little gasps and "ah-HA"s from Z on my right. As I finally drift off I hope I don't give away anything in my sleep!

Friday, July 20, 2007


For several years Zach and I have been making an effort to squeeze in a visit to Wooster with every trip we make back to Ohio. The College of Wooster is where we met, where we made some of our closest friends, where we both decided to pursue music as a career, and where we've shared some of our happiest memories. We want to send our kids to Wooster. (You know those parents that show up at football games wearing "Proud Wooster Parent" sweatshirts? We can only dream!) Heck, after this last visit we were ready to return ourselves!

The highlight of our Wooster trip is always seeing a favorite music professor, J. He was Z's trumpet prof and taught classroom theory to both of us. He was so enthusiastic about teaching that he used to run (almost literally!) into the classroom, carrying a huge armful of scores and recordings, and proceed to play through each of them at the speed of light, spouting off composers and titles as he went. He was such a stickler about details that he insisted we know all studied composers' first and last names (correctly spelled!) as well as birthdates and places. We used to study for hours for his famed drop-the-needle listening exams in which we would need to name not only the piece but also the movement. Many grumbled about the difficulty of his classes, but the pay-offs in our careers have been invaluable. Z has said that his dream was to become J in his own career (a dream which he has fulfilled!) He is truly a special person.

The College campus has undergone some major changes in the ten years since we graduated. Many of the science buildings have been renovated, a new dorm has been built with another on the way, the central part of campus has become tree-lined pedestrian zone. And now the pride of Wooster, Kauke Hall, has just completed its own interior overhaul. The building that was universally known as a deathtrap now has quaint little study corners, virtual classrooms, and a cafe in the basement!

We were lucky in that we also got to spend much of the day in the town of Wooster itself. We ate lunch and dinner (!!) at the best Chinese Restaurant in the world, Sue Min's. We wandered around the beautiful grounds of the Arboretum at the north side of town. At the end of the day we visited Seattle's, the coffee shop downtown where I used to work. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that Seattle's also serves fine Belgian beer! A perfect cap on a perfect day.

(Not only did Z remember his old box number and the combination, but we couldn't beLIEVE that it still opened!!)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Finding Belgium in the Backyard

Z and I have just returned from a wonderful three-week trip out east. I have stories and pictures galore, but those will have to wait. First I need to share a unique Washington moment.

All year I'd been telling myself I'd like to apply a little of what I've learned in Belgium to my new life here in the Pacific Northwest. Among those things include a renewed ability to decompress, enthusiasm for scholarly work, taking time to enjoy long meals, walks, books. And, of course, a higher respect for fine food and drink.

As part of his efforts to make my transition back to American life a smooth one, Z bought a six-pack of beer. This was no large feat for the man who enjoys fine beer, but this was very special beer. Z understood that, along with the general anxieties related to reverse culture-shock (big cars, big coffee, etc.), I would also need to teach my taste buds to enjoy American beer again. My friends back in Belgium had been warning me all year that I would never be able to go back, and I feared that it could be true. So I was more than a little hesitant to try this new beer, Abbey Ale brewed by New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. One evening soon after my return Z and I retreated to the back porch. Since we lacked an appropriately Euro-style nibble, we picked the last of the cherries from our tree. Folding chairs out, cherries in bowl, a little REM on the stereo, the late-afternoon sun still high in the sky...we were poised for our first sip.

I was flabbergasted. I am telling you I have never tasted anything so good from an American brewer! And my apologies to N, D, and S back in Belgium, but it was every bit as good as many Belgian beers. And it sells for only $7 a six-pack right down the street! It was a beautiful "Old World Meets New World" moment.

"The color of just-polished mahogany crowned with a tightly laced, mousse-like head, our Abbey Belgian Ale raises eyebrows just on sight alone. An ethereal swirl of banana, spice and smoky aromas compels further study. Cross the liquid threshold and discover flavors evoking ripe fig, caramel, coffee and clove. Settle into the solace of Abbey’s other-worldly finish. This is ale consecration."

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Mad Byrd

What does it mean?

First, Mad Byrd reflects my love of early music. The name combines elements from the first two early music groups helped to start: Early Byrds and The Mad Consort.

Secondly, for those who don't know, William Byrd is in my opinion the greatest composer of his generation. He just rocks.

Finally, think of "mad" as "mad about" or "crazy." I am not angry about anything.

And now enough of the pleasantries. Welcome to Washington!