heart of willow

We had a closer call here than we knew at the time.  Yesterday afternoon we had one of those brief and terrible storms, the kind that send your phone vibrating off the edge of the desk with three urgent weather service warnings in quick succession.  The sky went greenish, the windward wall of the house was plastered with fragments of shredded leaves — but then it was over, and other than one medium big tree branch coming down there didn’t seem to be any ill effects.  (The power never even blipped. ) Made sure the branch wasn’t on the neighbor’s garage, pulled it into our yard, did some basic cleanup, and since it was still raining, went back into the house to listen to the radio and poke at some writing.  It got dark before it stopped raining, so I never went out to look at the rest of the neighborhood …

This is the willow tree at the end of the block.  It stands alone in the middle of an open space that floods when it rains, so it has the “wet feet” that willows love, and it is as big and old and slightly strange as the willow tree in any storybook.IMG_20140921_194349 But it’s also a magnet for any storm that comes along.  I’ve seen it pounded half to twigs by high winds any number of times, and torn mostly in half by heavy snows as well, so I have at least some hopes that whoever owns it will “clean up and see if it makes it” one more time.  It is the nature of willows to have shallow roots and soft wood but a mighty will to live.

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self-referential snack foods

IMG_20140819_130922These cookies are a little bit too self consciously artistic, and possibly actually cannibalistic.  A friend of a friend reports that “the ones with the cookie dough filling” are “gross”, “too sweet” and “taste fake”.  And considering that these are Oreos to start with, “too sweet” must mean something with truly cosmic levels of sugar and/or corn syrup.

On the last point: yes, regular Oreos “taste fake”, too, but in a good way.

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buckeye week

The one buckeye tree in the neighborhood, this one week in September, when the buckeyes are ripe: this is the true end of summer and the official beginning of fall.

If you’ve never pulled a ripe buckeye out of its thorny hull, it’s a deeply satisfying but hard to describe aesthetic experience. (If you’ve done it even once, to do it again is to activate a powerful sense memory.) There is the  contrasting texture of the smooth seed and soft dampness of the inside of the hull, and the way the two fit together, and the slightest possible “pop” as they pull apart, and then the small excitement of seeing the buckeye itself.  No two are the same and all of them are beautiful, with swirling wood grain patterns of golden brown and reddish brown and dark brown.   Some hulls hold one seed, but most of the big ones are “doubles”.  In the first image, you can see the second seed through the crack in the thick lining of the hull. The last one, which opened as it was hanging on the tree, is a “triple”.

Don’t eat them– they will definitely make you sick– but buckeyes are beautiful to look at and interesting to touch, and if you carry them in your coat pockets or one of the pockets of your bookbag, they may bring you good luck until next September, when there will be more buckeyes.  And more chances to try to take good photographs of them, which I’ve never quite managed to do.  This year’s attempt was made, one handed, with the New Phone Camera.

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best of the drawing of the day, week 126– apple picking, you idiot

drawingoftheday-week126-applepickingyouidiotIt’s always reassuring to see a couple of actual comics turn up in one week of drawings of the day.  For those who aren’t lucky enough to live in this part of the world, at this time of year, the American Midwest is full of orchards gearing up for their big season: from bushel baskets and cider and doughnuts and sitting on hay bales, right through to the corn maze and the regular hayrides and then the pumpkins and the gourds and the fake cobwebs and finally the haunted barn and haunted hayrides of Halloween.

In sketchbook world, the best local orchard is run by a family of centaurs.  It’s a great orchard, with a big sales barn smelling gorgeously of Fujis and Mackintoshes and cinnamon.  They sell homemade pies and fudge and ice cream as well as doughnuts, and sometimes there’s homemade bread.  And since they have a little vineyard and a wine license, they make hard cider too, and its really delicious.  Their corn maze is huge, its design  based on Celtic knotwork, not pictures of celebrities, and their hayrides are pulled by real draft horses. It’s pretty clear from this drawing that while the staff really looks forward to the haunted hayride, it is on the mild side, spooky but not scary.  And afterwards there’s a bonfire, with crispy hot dogs and s’mores, and the sparks fly up into the dark sky.  Everything smells like smoke and leaves and apples, and it’s just about perfect.

(I fiddled with the pencils of the basket of apples for a while before I remembered that the studio wastebasket is a cheap bushel basket from the local farm supply store, exactly like the ones you find at the apple picking orchard.)


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things that annoy werewolves 2

Pretty much the whole six weeks before Halloween. Halloween itself, fine.  But all the  buildup, and all the little decorating ideas from tumblr and Pinterest …werewolffur(from the Noakes Library tumblr, mostly curated by Iowa Ginsberg, but other people have posting privileges as well.)

Someone printed out about a dozen copies of this, very neatly, in sepia-colored ink on fake parchment, and double-sided-taped them to ziplock bags full of grey and tannish hair. Made a great addition to the milk and sugar* baskets at all the coffee stations in Lower Noakes.

Last time must have been a really great full moon, because all the Prof did when he found it was to open the bag, take a sniff, and say “Werewolf?  It’s not even plain wolf. Dog.  And it’s not imported, either. Poor effort.”  Everybody stood around hoping he would actually put it in his coffee and drink it, just to be a tough guy, but Iowa said later she was glad he didn’t.  If you’d ever seen him take his hairball remedy even once, she told us, you’d be glad to never see it again.

*The milk and sugar baskets contain neither actual milk nor actual sugar.  Discuss.

(image via tumblr by way of Pinterest, originally from cocoandbella.blogspot.com.)

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the tacos of life

Two excellent soft tacos in a styrofoam clamshell box: each of them consisting of a flour tortilla, greasy spicy skirt steak, that grainy Mexican cheese, lettuce-tomato-sour cream, and red salsa.  (That’s “American style” according to the menu.)

You eat the first one, and it is a mess.  Delicious, but a mess, half in, half out of the tortilla, dropping bits of meat and hunks of tomato and drips of mixed salsa and sour cream into the free half of the clamshell. (The lettuce, for some reason, always stays where it belongs.)  You have to go back for extra napkins.  Yellowjackets hover around.  You start to wonder if you should had falafel instead.

Finally, and with some trepidation, you pick up the second taco.  And it rolls up beautifully, tight but not too tight, every bite the perfect combination of meat, cheese, vegetables, and sauces, the tortilla pulled around it all with the ideal stretchy snap.  

As you finish, even that last dangerous bite is still inside, the trailing edge of the tortilla clean and dry as you fold it over the last of the filling and pop it in your mouth.

What makes one taco entirely proper and succesful, while the other, made in the same place, at the same time, from the same stuff, by the same Mexican taco lady (who makes hundreds of similar tacos every week and knows exactly what she is doing), is the personification of the colorful term “a hot mess”?

Who knows? They were really good tacos, though.

(Taco notebook at the Farmer’s Market, 9/16/14, as the season’s winding down.)

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cartoon photographers for photokina

Laid up today with a nasty later summer cold, and Photokina opens tomorrow in Cologne, Germany.  So I was able to while away my congested and headachy morning reading all the new camera announcements on the Internet. I saved thousands and thousands of dollars, too, since I don’t particularly want to buy any of them.

And then I drew you a cartoon about photographers.photokinaphotographers Meet Neema and Josh, who are undoubtedly two of Suki’s pals from that mysterious camera club of hers that meets … somewhere else. They aren’t carrying any of the new cameras I’ve been reading about all day.  Neema is a purist, with a small film SLR, while Josh is carrying one of those big native mount mirrorless bodies so popular among sketchbook photographers.  I feel pretty good about the pose, with Josh reviewing his shots (“chimping”) with a smug look on his face, and Neema going up on her tiptoes to look over his shoulder and offer her critique.  Gotta wonder what ol’ Josh has been shooting, and if it’s for a class, what the teacher is going to say about it.

Two notes: I think this is the first time I’ve drawn a hexapod character whose second body is shaded dark.  Nice effect that.  And it’s always fun for a word lover to use the correct singular form a word that’s often used improperly.

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bokeh. whatever that is, we’ve got it. i think.

When I returned to more or less serious (kinda sorta) photography last year after a six year hiatus, I expected that I would find that things had changed.  Up until I gave up taking pictures– temporarily, it turned out– I had stayed loyal to my manual film cameras and their manual lenses.  I’d never shot with autofocus lenses or any kind of automated exposure modes on my camera body, and of course I knew nothing about digital except what I’d learned from little point and shoots and phone cameras.

But I did a little research and talked to some people and I felt pretty sure that if I “went digital” in a big way, I would find that the basics remained the same. Autofocus would be pretty much self explanatory, and when it came to exposure, the triangular dance of aperture, shutter speed and ISO (now an option you could change with each shot, rather than something you chose when you chose your roll of film) would be pretty much what it had always been.  And so it was.  Except that as I read about digital photography with ever-increasing recollection (seriously, I used to know this stuff!) I kept seeing one word that I did not understand.  What in the name of Asahi Pentax was “bokeh”?

A few questions to those in the know and a visit to the Wikipedia taught me that bokeh (pronounced “bo-kay” or “bo-keh”, from the Japanese words for blur or blur quality) is the current popular word for the blurred background created by shooting a static subject with a lens open to a large aperture.  The narrow depth of field created by the large aperture means that when the subject is in focus, the background is not.  When this blur is smooth or otherwise pleasant to look at, it can be a highly desirable effect, allowing the eye to rest naturally on the subject of the photograph.

Back in the day, we called this blur created by a narrow depth of field “depth of field blur” and we liked it.  When the blur was particularly nice, we said that. When it was choppy or crude, we said that, and made snide comments about somebody needing to get a better lens.  Nowadays it’s all “bokeh”, and described by an endless lists of phrases that sound like the terms wine reviewers use to describe wine.

Anyway.  Bokeh. I think I have it.  Here are a few images taken with the new Pentax DA*55m f/1.4.  Three shots, all taken wide open at f/1.4:

And one taken at f/1.8, with very little visible bokeh at all.tobychair-blog Corgis don’t need bokeh.  All photographs of corgis are automatically excellent photographs by definition.

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a third eye walks into a room …

I used to have a third eye, in the form of an 85mm f/2 prime lens that was pretty much a fixture on my old Pentax K1000 film camera.  85mm is what they call a “mild telephoto” on film, a length that brought you a little closer to the subject than you get with the naked eye, but not close enough to make you feel you are looking through a telescope.  It was a favorite focal length for taking portraits, and an 85 was usually though of as a “portrait lens”.  (Still is, on digital cameras that use a sensor the same size as an old frame of film.)  But I used mine for everything; it was by far my favorite lens.  And ever since I got my big digital camera about a year ago, I’ve been looking to replace it.

For various technical reasons that are both boring and a cause for endless arguments, you need a 55mm lens to get the same view of the world through the viewfinder of my current camera.  I tried a cheap but interesting “fast fifty” designed for film, with interesting results, but it was both a bit too short and wonky in its behavior on the camera.  If it had been one or the other I would probably have just lived with it, but as it is, I couldn’t get Pentax’s beautiful 55mm f/1.4 out of my mind.  This is a super high quality portrait lens with a price to match, and probably overkill for me and my goofy approach to photography, but Pentax doesn’t offer a cheaper, simpler, slower (say f/2) alternative at the same length.   It would be a used one for me, if I could ever talk myself into it, or a refurbished model if I was feeling flush.

And then there was this instant rebate program, which offered me a brand new lens for the price of the refurb, and free shipping …  Are these the first images of my new third eye?  (That lens hood looks classier than the old collapsible “rubber baby buggy bumpers” we used to use.  And yes, it stores backwards over the body of the lens.)  Tomorrow, some samples.

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coelacanths on the menu

Had a bit of a surprise at lunchtime, when I got around to reading today’s Chicago Tribune.  On the front page was a fascinating article about the new Spinosaurus discoveries announced today. It’s a topic of local interest since lead scientist Paul Sereno is at the University of Chicago.  And also, giant aquatic dinosaur.  Everybody loves a giant aquatic dinosaur.  Apparently this Spinosaurus beastie is the largest predator ever, bigger than a T.rex, even. (Well, longer, anyway.  It probably weighed about the same.)

As instructed, I turned to page 11 to read more, where I found this useful infographic. spinosaurus infographic1spinosaurus infographic2Uh oh.  Good job hiding in those underwater caves, ancient coelacanths!  We’re glad some of you survived to the present day, while the scary Spinosaurus is buried in Morocco and is also coming to PBS. The Spinosaurus discoveries will be featured on Nova the first week in November. The coelacanths are smug about this, since they starred in the Ancient Creatures of the Deep episode of the same program way back in January 2003, while still not extinct.

(infographic from Chicago Tribune, September 12, 2014, section 1, page 11. Data from the University of Chicago. Spinosaurus art by Davide Bonadonna.)

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