Dinner Time Disappointments

Ever see a recipe online that you think looks good, but when you make it for dinner it’s really quite disappointing?

Yeah, that was me, last night.

I won’t go into the gruesome details of what it was, but here are the essential facts…

Facebook shows people pages their friends have liked on the chance that you might like it, too. Friday afternoon it showed me a recipe from a site that several friends had liked (the site, not the recipe), and the picture looked quite appealing. It was a regional pasta dish I’d never heard of, but there are lots of things I’ve never heard of. “I’ll give this a shot!” I said, printing off the recipe.

The grocery list was fairly simple, and during A Prairie Home Companion I went to work. It was straightforward. Saute this, brown that, dump in a jar of tomato sauce, put in a baking dish.

It didn’t occur to me that the recipe called for no seasoning whatsoever. If I had realized, I would almost certainly have used some, because when I took the dish out of the oven it was bland and lacking in flavor. The judges on Chopped would chop this without remorse.

Putting some parmesan on top helped.

Of course, now I have seven cintainers of this in my refrigerator, so I’m set on dinners for the rest of the week.


Adventures in Off-Brand LEGO: Star Trek’s The Guardian of Forever

Last year, to coincide with Star Trek‘s fiftieth anniversary, Mattel released a line of Star Trek Mega Bloks sets. A few years previous, Hasbro had a line of LEGO-compatible Star Trek KRE-O sets, based on the Chris Pine/Zach Quinto films, and I thought those were well done, even if I did rebuild the miniature Enterprise to make it more Enterprise-like. I saw the Star Trek Mega Bloks in stores last year and was curious about them but hadn’t bought any of them, so when I saw them at Ollie’s on Saturday I went ahead and picked up two, the Guardian of Forever set and the Klingon D-7 set.

I must admit to a certain wry feeling when buying the Guardian of Forever set, knowing that somewhere in suburban Los Angeles, Harlan Ellison was screaming into the night, “I gotcher Scotty right here!” with every set that was bought and built. :)

Of the various off-brand LEGO construction sets on the market, Mega Bloks has been the brand I least like working with. My niece had a number of Thomas the Tank Engine sets that I liked building with her, while my sister and brother-in-law were much less fond of, but those were in a larger-scale format. In the standard LEGO size and style, they have interesting licenses, but the bricks feel strange and don’t always fit together well. Continue reading “Adventures in Off-Brand LEGO: Star Trek’s The Guardian of Forever”

Sherlock Holmes: A Betrayal in Blood

This weekend I read Mark Latham’s recent Sherlock Holmes novel from Titan Books, A Betrayal in Blood. Set shortly after “The Empty House,” Holmes is tasked by Mycroft to investigate the events described in “The Dracula Papers” (ie., what we know as Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula) and determine what, exactly, it was that happened when a Transylvanian nobleman arrived on England’s shores.

This isn’t the first entangling of Sherlock Holmes with the characters and events of Dracula — I know of at least six, and I’ve read four — but it’s certainly the most unconventional. A Betrayal in Blood is a sequel to Dracula, with Holmes launching an investigation into a group of characters hailed in the press as heroes and whether the late Count Dracula was truly a monster or merely a man. Holmes and Watson cross paths with all of the major surviving characters of Dracula, and their investigation takes them to many of the locations of the book, such as Whitby, Carfax Abbey, and the sanitarium run by Dr. Seward. Dracula‘s characters are positioned as accessories to a murderous conspiracy, even criminal masterminds as Holmes seeks to unravel a very human, very rational conspiracy. Alternate theories about the reason for Dracula’s interest in Lucy Westenra and the identity of the Bloofer Lady, among other events from Stoker’s book, are put on offer.

Latham’s writing doesn’t feel particularly Watsonesque — the writing is too modern at times, and Watson was never so wordy — though his plot, which is rather byzantine, keeps the pages turning. About that plot, A Betrayal in Blood is more of a howdunit or a whydunit than a whodunit; it’s obvious from the first chapter who Holmes believes to be the guilty party in the Dracula affair and, like a Columbo story, A Betrayal in Blood sees Holmes build his case methodically, finding the evidence and testing his theories against his findings. Holmes is characterized well — he’s a man on a mission, in the throes of his pursuit of justice — though Watson is a little bit of dullard.

I feel like I’d have gotten more out of the book if I’d read Dracula more recently than about twenty-five years ago, though nothing in the book struck me as “wrong.” It holds together well, resulting in a revisionist, yet plausible, reading of the events of Dracula. I wouldn’t call A Betrayal in Blood an essential read or a must-read, but it does offer an unconventional and entertaining take on placing Sherlock Holmes into the Dracula story. Though this won’t dethrone Loren D. Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula as my favorite Holmes/Dracula pairing, this is a worthy addition to my Holmesian library.

An Off-Season Project: Colorizing Swampoodle Grounds

Sometime between 1886 and 1889, in either late March or early April, in the late afternoon, a photographer set up a camera and took a picture of the Washington Nationals practicing at Swampoodle Grounds, with the Capitol dome looming over the right field wall (and the McDowell & Sons Steam Elevator building). At work, the photograph has been my desktop wallpaper for about a year and a half, combining as it does history (ie., Washington of the 19th-century), politics (the Capitol dome), and baseball.

For an off-season baseball project, I decided I would learn a new skill and colorize it in GIMP, a free PhotoShop replacement that I use to edit and resize photos. I’ve never colorized a black and white photo before, so I found a tutorial online, printed out the instructions, and worked through them, experimenting as I went. Except for some finickiness with the Paintbrush tool, it’s not that difficult at all. It only requires patience.

Swampoodle was a pretty small park for the era — 325 in right, 375 in center, and 275 in left (because of the DC street grid). Other parks of the era (Brooklyn, Chicago, Pittsburgh) had center fields that approached six hundred feet deep; Swampoodle was tiny by comparison, more like its contemporary the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia than Brooklyn’s Washington Park. There was one major difference between Swampoodle and its National League contemporaries, though. Swampoodle had no grandstand. It was an infield, an outfield wall, and a clubhouse. There’s another photo of Swampoodle Grounds, this one of the infield and left field as well as the B&O rail yard beyond. Some students of baseball history believe that it’s Cornelius McGillicuddy, better known as Connie Mack, behind the plate for the Nationals in that photo, but there’s no Capitol dome here.

There are several things in the photograph I noticed in working with the photo that I hadn’t realized before, despite looking at the photo almost every single day.

First, it’s not a photograph of a game. For a long time I’d assumed that it was a photograph of throwing the runner out at first. But it’s not. It’s a practice. There are a couple of baseballs on the outfield grass near the first baseman. The right fielder has just thrown the ball (and, from his stance, toward the infield). One of the players near second base is actually carrying the bag. What’s happening, then, is players warming up, getting the field ready, and running some infield drills.

Second, the photograph was taken early in the year, possibly March or April. There are trees beyond the outfield wall, barren of leaves. This suggests to me either a pre-season warm-up or an early season game.

Third, the photograph was taken in late afternoon. The angle of the shadows is long and comes from the west. The angle of this photograph is toward the southwest. Swampoodle was near what’s now Union Station, and Union Station is northeast of the Capitol Building. The west-facing sides of the McDowell & Sons building are illuminated.

Conclusion? A late afternoon practice in March or April in the nation’s capital.

Other little details — there are two people looking over the center field fence, and there’s someone in the window at the top of the McDowell & Sons building watching as well.

It’s been an interesting learning process. To get green-ish (and, dare I say it, sickly) looking grass, I’ve had to use a pale yellow mask; even a light green made grass that looked too dark and healthy. (They couldn’t exactly go down to Lowe’s in 1886 and buy Scott’s Turf Builder.) The Capitol dome is tricky to work with (since it fades into the sky), so I’ve had to clone the dome and flip it so I have a complete dome to work with. I’ve taken liberty with the sky; the sky in the original photograph was formless, possibly because it was overcast, so I used a photograph I’d taken of wispy clouds that I’d taken last year as the layer mask for the sky. (I attempted to “age” the cloud layer in the GIMP, but nothing seemed to work.) The Capitol dome itself took some work; it faded into the sky in the original photograph, so I cloned the dome and reversed it to make a complete dome I could build a mask around.

I’m nowhere near done with the colorization, and I’m not planning on working on it intensely. Steadily will suffice, it will take my mind off of the NLDS, and by Opening Day I’ll have a new desktop wallpaper, same as the old, but this time in color. :)

Some Things Go On

It’s hard to say that “Walls (Circus)” is a Tom Petty deep cut — it’s the lead song on an album, it’s in a movie — but it feels like a deep cut. No one seems to know it. You never hear it on the radio. I won’t say it’s my favorite Tom Petty song, I wouldn’t even place it among the top twenty, but it’s certainly a beloved and cherished favorite.

I used to own the CD single to this, and I played it somewhat obsessively in college. No idea whatever happened to that single, hence the “used to own.” Until ten minutes ago, I didn’t know there was a video for it. Looking at it now, I wonder how much of the imagery evoked Petty’s struggle with heroin and his personal demons in the mid-90s

The album it comes from, Songs and Music from “She’s the One,” features Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ music from 1996’s She’s the One, an Ed Burns film, starring Jennifer Aniston, that I’ve never seen. It’s an unjustly overlooked album; I think it’s generally looked at as an album of throwaways, but there are some really fine songs here, and there are guest appearances by Lindsay Buckingham, Ringo Starr, and an uncredited George Harrison and his trademark slide guitar. If there’s a Petty album that deserves a reappraisal, it’s this one.

I put the album in the Beetle this morning for my morning drive. The final verse was apropos:

Some things are over
Some things go on
Part of me you carry
Part of me is gone.

Petty himself is gone now, but we’ll always carry the part of him that is his music and the memories that go with it.

A Vacation Day in the District

Thursday I took a vacation day. I went to Washington, DC for the day.

I hadn’t been down that way since March for Shamrock Fest, and I hadn’t made it to a Nationals game yet this season, and I’d been unable to buy tickets for the National League Division Series between the Nationals and the Cubs (which, all things considered, is fine, as my loyalties are going to be very torn as it is), and it was a good day in my work cycle to go, a day between one set of deadlines just past and another set of deadlines coming up.

Frankly, I couldn’t have asked for a better day. Late September, but very warm and not too hot, like a late June day. The only visual clues that it was September in fact and not June at all were the leaves, some of which were turning, some of which had already fallen, and the shallower angle of the sunlight.

Besides the Nationals game that night, against the Pirates, of whom I’ve long felt a fondness for and, of the demolished classical ballparks, it’s the Pirates’ Forbes Field I’d want to visit the most, I also wanted to visit the Smithsonian — the National Gallery of Art has become quite appealing in my dotage, and I wanted to see the remodeled American History museum — and pay a visit to Congressional Cemetery, quite possibly for the final time, to check a few more family graves and take a few more pictures.

I first visited Congressional Cemetery five years ago. In my genealogical researches, I had discovered that my great-great-grandfather William Gardner was buried there and, after an early Labor Day afternoon Nationals/Cubs game at Nationals Park, I walked from the Navy Yards to the cemetery near RFK Stadium. All I had at the time was a map of the cemetery and the location by the cemetery’s coordinate system and, despite not having any marker, I found the unmarked grave to within about ten feet. I was fairly certain that it was near a tree, but I wasn’t sure. Looking now at the photos I took then, I had it exact, but I didn’t know that then. The following April, another Nationals/Cubs game, this time I was armed with a map I’d drawn myself, marked up with names I’d found in the cemetery’s internment records so I could triangulate a position. William Gardner might not have a headstone, but others did, and I could use the headstones that were there to determine who was where the headstones were not. And so it was that, for the first time in almost certainly decades, a descendant of William Gardner visited his grave and knew that he was there.

Over the years, as my researches advanced, I learned there were others buried there, and I would visit if I had time and reason when I was in DC. William’s sister-in-law (and my great-great-grandmother’s sister) was buried on the other side of the cemetery, near John Philip Sousa. My great-grandfather’s older half-brother, Thomas Hardy, was also buried there, and despite the bitter cold of the day, I stopped to visit his grave (which is also the grave of his wife, daughter, and son-in-law) before Shamrock Fest this year.

Earlier this year, I had a breakthrough. I discovered the married name of William’s oldest daughter Margaret. I knew, from William’s obituary, that he had a daughter living in Washington in 1893, as the funeral was held at her house, but I didn’t know which daughter. There were three possibilities — Margaret, Eleanor (who went by Ella), or Mollie. Ella seemed like the most likely possibility, as I knew that she married and had several children, whereas I had no idea what happened to Margaret and Mollie. For all I knew, Margaret had died sometime after the 1870 Census (the last time she appears as Margaret Gardner) and Mollie after the 1880 Census (the last time she appears as Mollie Gardner).

I looked at William’s obituary one day — I had been talking with my mother and her first cousin after I visited my great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother’s graves at Loudon Park in Baltimore — and something clicked. There was a street address there. It had always been there, it wasn’t a surprise. But I’d never thought to investigate that. I punched it into Google, and suddenly it was as though the world opened up. I had a married name — Margaret Gordon — and I had obituaries with more details. It was all very tenuous at first, but I was soon satisfied that I had found Margaret Gardner. And intriguingly, she was buried very close to her father; only two graves separated them. (Her husband, however, was buried somewhere else.) I had, never knowing it, been at the grave of my great-grandfather’s oldest sister several times.

I decided that, when next I went to Congressional Cemetery, I would visit all the family sites, because there weren’t any more to find. There were some I knew of that I hadn’t looked for, namely Ella and her husband Edward. There were the ones I had learned in the last six months where there. So I downloaded Congressional Cemetery’s list of interments and remade my personal maps (an index card with grids and names). In making those maps, I made another discovery, one tentative at first, and as I researched it, one that became a certainty — I also found Mollie.

I mentioned there were were two graves separating Margaret from her father. One of those sites has a daughter of Ella. Mollie is in the other. In 2013, when I made my first personal map of where William Gardner was buried, I simply didn’t know as much as I know now or how to recognize what I was seeing. Sometimes what seems like insight is really just dumb, blind luck of the pieces falling into place.

My maps made, my plans laid, armed with a cheap selfie stick I could dispose of without guilt, traveling fast and light as though I were hunting Orc, I set out for a day of adventure in the Nation’s Capital. Continue reading “A Vacation Day in the District”

Adventures in Off-Brand LEGO: Olaf’s Biplane

Yesterday evening, after attending the Maryland Renaissance Festival, I found something I knew immediately I had to have — The Peanuts Movie: Olaf's Biplane construction set from Lite Brix.

Lite Brix is a LEGO-compatible building block made by Cra-Z-Art, a New Jersey company.  To tie in with The Peanuts Movie, they produced a number of products, including several LEGO-compatible construction sets.  I don't know what kind of distribution they had, as I never saw them in stores, an all too common state of affairs with off-brand LEGO.

I chanced across Olaf's Biplane (as well as Lemonade Stand) at a clearance store.  I liked The Peanuts Movie a lot, and I wanted to see what the sets were like.  Maybe I need to check out other clearance stores to see if I can get the whole line-up, especially since BanBao, another manufacturer of off-brand LEGO, is releasing their own Peanuts off-brand LEGO construction sets next year.

The box is eye-catching.  Olaf's Biplane is a 90-piece set — 77 bricks, 1 LED battery pack brick, 9 "special shaped parts," and a 3-piece Olaf minifigure.  The set requires 3 AAA batteries, hence the pack of batteries and the Philips-head screwdriver.

Continue reading “Adventures in Off-Brand LEGO: Olaf’s Biplane”

A Night with Roy Orbison

Earlier in the year WITF, during one of their pledge drives, showed Roy Orbison: A Black & White Night, a concert film shot, obviously, in black and white, that was filmed in September 1987. Orbison’s backing band that night consisted of Elvis’ backing band, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen, while his backing singers included Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and k.d. lang. In short, it was an amazing line-up of talent supporting one of rock and roll’s most distinctive voices.

I wasn’t going to re-up my membership with WITF (which I had cancelled because they dropped A Prairie Home Companion) just to get the CD/DVD set. That seemed like an overpay for something I discovered quite quickly was available commercially in a remastered and expanded edition for the 30th-anniversary of the concert.

Week before last I ordered Roy Orbison: A Black & White Night 30, and it arrived on Friday. Frankly, after the week of deadlines and general lunacy that was work, its arrival came just in the nick of time, and last night I sat down and watched the film.

Orbison would’ve been 51 when this was filmed. He’d begun recording the tracks that would appear on Mystery Girl; he performs “The Comedians,” a song that Costello wrote for him for that album. The Traveling Wilburys were still several months in his future, and he would die of a heart attack the following year.

A Black & White Night is pure joy. From the atmosphere of the film to the sheer beauty of Orbison’s voice, it was tremendous.

I even liked Springsteen! (I’m not a member of the Cult of Bruce. I’ve never been a fan.) He has a look of pure happiness on his face, and he plays a dueling guitar solo on Oh, Pretty Woman that is amazing.

Definitely worth tracking down, and I’m glad I did.

Random Links: August 31

A couple of interesting links I’ve read the last two days.

Header image “The National Mall” by Shella Thomson, licensed Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.

A Baseball Mystery Solved

Thanks to a podcast, I found the answer to a random question I had wondered about — what baseball league do the Lake Wobegon Whippets belong to?

I didn’t know, and it occurred to me one day that the Lake Wobegon Whippets could — and perhaps should — play in the Green Grass League against Stumptown and Hillsdale. The Whippets, of course, are the creation of Garrison Keillor and featured occasionally in his “New from Lake Wobegon” monologues on A Prairie Home Companion, while Stumptown featured prominently in the legend of Joe Shlabotnik, Charlie Brown’s favorite baseball player from Peanuts. I even wrote an unconventional (and short) piece of fan fiction about Lake Wobegon and Stumptown, baseball rivals.

But they’re not.

Recently I subscribed to the News from Lake Wobegon podcast, a weekly download of archived “News from Lake Wobegon” segments. Curious if my goofy idea about the Whippets and Stumptown would work, I went through the archives and found a half-dozen podcasts where the Whippets were mentioned.

Stumptown (and, by extension, the Green Grass League) belongs to the affiliated minors; poor Joe Shlabotnik was sent down to Stumptown after batting .004 in the majors.

Lake Wobegon plays in the Old Sod Shanty League against teams in Avon (the Bards) and Freeport (the Flyers) and Holdingford (the Bulls) and Uppsala (the Uftas). The Old Sod Shanty League, as best I can determine, is some sort of amateur adult rec league, “town teams” in the classic baseball sense, with rosters made up of residents of the town.

A team of amateurs in Lake Wobegon will never play the professionals in the low minors in Stumptown.

A dream, dashed! A mystery, solved!