Sunday, January 23, 2011

Valentine's Day

It won't be long now until Valentine's day, February 14. I remember when I was in grade school in the fifties there were these packages of thin colorful cardboard valentines, very inexpensive, and we would give them to everyone in the class. Sometimes special valentines were also handmade with crayons and construction paper and whatnot -- for important people like moms and grandmothers. And there was tiny heart-shaped pastel hard candy with words on each piece saying things like "be mine."

 In recent years, in my household, we usually just celebrate the holiday by going out to dinner at a nice restaurant -- sometimes just my husband and myself, sometimes with friends. Maybe a box of chocolates will be in the offing as well.

Romantic Valentine's day celebrations for adults sometimes involve flowers, candy, and other gifts from prospective or current "significant others." An evening out in a fancy red dress may be on the agenda for some folks.

Since many people like to give Valentine gifts, I thought about the fact that Valentine earrings from Beaded Jewelry by Susan would make lovely presents. I have some pairs on the site right now that would be perfect for the occasion and yet classic enough in their design and materials to be worn at any time of the year. So I created a new section called "Valentine Earrings." Come and have a look and tell me what you think!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mid-Winter Outing

Last Friday we decided that it was time for a mid-winter outing (hoping that winter is really half over is a tricky business, of course) and went on our annual trip over to Turkey Run State Park in Indiana. Champaign-Urbana is actually closer to a couple of state parks in Indiana (an hour away) than most of the state parks in Illinois, which tend to be in the southern or northern parts of the state.

Turkey Run is a pretty park with lots of ravines and trails through the woods. In prior years (and warmer weather), we've enjoyed hiking and identifying wildflowers, ferns, and birds on the trails. This time of year the draw is to the Turkey Run Nature Center. They have a bird viewing room. Inside, the room is quite comfortable and cozy, furnished with couches and bird identification pictures on the walls. The floor-to-ceiling window is one-way glass -- so the people can see the birds without the birds seeing the people. There is a microphone on the outside that brings in the sounds as well. Outside, the staff has done a wonderful job of enticing our feathered friends to come on by -- even on a cold and snowy day. There are hanging feeders and tables and houses and suet cages and sunflower seeds and corn on rocks and logs. There is running water as well.

We saw quite a marvelous array of familiar birds that afternoon. Early on, there were lots and lots of charming, tiny goldfinches. They don't have the bright yellow color this time of year, being more of an olive green, but the white stripes on their wings are still very noticeable. They left later on in the day, but there were a lot of them. They are small, about the size of the chickadees.

Speaking of chickadees, I always love to watch them. They are tiny and sort of round and chubby looking -- real cuties with their black caps and their rapid movements. Another big favorite of mine is the nuthatch. They are beautifully marked birds with a long dark stripe along the head. They're able to walk backward up a tree or log like the brown creepers do. And they love to eat suet, competing with all the woodpeckers at the Nature Center. When they take a sunflower seed in their long thin beaks, they fly to a log, insert it, and break open the shell by pecking like the woodpeckers do.

Woodpeckers were in abundance that afternoon as well. What a treat! We saw the small black and white cute guys, the downy woodpeckers, and the large red-bellied birds with orange-red heads and necks (males) or just necks (females) and the patterned black and white backs like herringbone tweed coats. And the red-headed woodpeckers were there too with their totally ruby red heads and solid black and solid white body colors. They are a bit smaller than the red-bellied ones and so lovely.

The winter usually brings the snowbirds from up north, the juncos, and this year was no exception. These are cute little birds with slate gray tops and white bottoms. They like to feed mostly on the ground, grabbing corn and sunflower seeds off the big boulders beside the running water.

Tufted titmice were around too. They don't seem to be as shy as some other birds and come very close up to the glass to get their sunflower seeds. They have a little bit of a crest like the cardinals. The cardinals are really gloriously red against the snow, and there were quite a number of them there early in the afternoon.

Blue jays came through from time to time and a squirrel was there for a while, feasting on the sunflowers. As the afternoon wore on, there were more and more of the common house sparrow (or English sparrow) we are all familiar with at backyard feeders. I also saw a few purple finches at one point. For a while, a Carolina wren showed up, enjoying suet as well as seed. This is a tiny round bird with lovely brown coloring and a white eye stripe. This bird loves to flit around and hold its tail bent upwards. What a sweetie!

When it got late (and colder) and the Nature Center was closing soon, we decided to head back toward home. But we stopped in Attica to have a nice meal at the Attica Hotel dining room. Originally named the Revere House, the hotel was built in 1853 and has been nicely restored. There are several lovely dining rooms with a very pleasant atmosphere.

It was an uneventful trip back in the dark and the five cats were eagerly waiting for their evening feeding when we returned. A successful mid-winter outing and a good time was had by all!

Sunday, January 9, 2011


After a late fall filled with lots of terrific jazz gigs, we hadn't been out for jazz in almost a month while we dealt with winter weather; snow and ice in parking lots is no fun for anybody, but between my arthritis and my hubby's Parkinson's, it's just too tricky to go out in those conditions if we don't have to.

So it was a very welcome event last night (the streets are clear--until tomorrow night, that is) to go out for Sandunga playing at the Iron Post in Urbana. I have featured this group before on  Susan's Blog (see October and November archives) and with good reason -- they are an exceptionally talented local band! I forgot my camera (again!), but there are some terrific photos taken last night that are available on the Sandunga Facebook page.

The band plays mainly guajira son, the music of the Cuban countryside. It's a rhythmic and infectious mix, with lots of musical influences in its heritage: Spanish, African, Caribbean.

Willy Hope plays two Cuban guitar-like instruments, the tres and the laud. Laud means "lute" and is sort of like a Cuban lute. It is an instrument with twelve metallic strings and has a high, poignant, and folkloric sound. The tres is really as much a rhythm instrument as a guitar. It has two sets of three strings. Willy plays both with impressive virtuosity, sings in a clear and beautiful voice, and seems to radiate joy as he performs.

Julian Norato plays guitar and provides the lead for many of the vocals with his wonderful voice. Many of the pieces seem to involve a repeated chorus as well as the narrative lyrics, and so the others join in the vocal backup. The way that Willy's and Julian's voices harmonize and then blend seamlessly with the sound of the other voices is both melodious and magical to hear! Tina Hope plays the wooden percussion instruments, the claves and the guacharacha, and joins in vocals. Andy Miller, a cool-looking young dude with dreadlocks whose birthday was yesterday, plays the bongos exceptionally well, joins the vocals, and plays a bell-like instrument as well as using his new seat as a drum! Adam Walton is there with his three congas; the dialogue between the congas and the bongos is marvelous and causes everyone in the audience to hoot and clap and yell for more.

Sometimes the group is also joined by Eduardo Herrera on the electric bass guitar. He adds a welcome rhythm, joins in the vocals, and makes humorous comments at the mike. Another special guest tonight was Gina Reynolds. I first heard Gina sing in Portuguese with Bate Calado. It's a Brazilian band that also includes Eduardo. She did a couple of songs, including the haunting "Besame Mucho" (I also love Andrea Boccelli's version of this on CD).

Listening to these songs makes me wish I knew more Spanish than I got from the short course many years ago. Because of French, I do pick up a word here or there, but I wish I could find lyrics to some of these popular "son" tunes that many of the audience members seem to know. (Willy, can you help?) Nonetheless, I get the idea that the lyrics are lighthearted and full of the kind of joy in life that seems to emanate from each of the band members as they perform. They so obviously love what they do that you can't help but feel the enthusiasm.

Speaking of enthusiasm, it's always a warm and diverse audience at Sandunga gigs, and the dancing usually starts in earnest during the second set after folks have had a bite to eat and drink (Iron Post cheeseburgers are quite good and reasonably priced). Though we can't join in, we both love to watch the dancers. It's such a great mix of people: a retired physics professor dances with his daughter, a community radio personality gyrates, a young woman who clearly adores dancing is teaching her steps to her lovely young daughter, and a couple soon to have a child dance cheek to cheek (or is it belly to belly?).

The audience also included some local musicians who have come to share the fun: Karim Yengsep the bass player from Bossa Nuevo and other groups, Holly Holmes, singer from Bossa Nuevo, guitarist George Turner who has played with Desafinado, with pianist Lara Driscoll, and in his own quartet, and Mikael Templeton, clarinet and saxophonist who plays with various groups, including the great Jordan Kaye combo called The Music of Django Reinhardt.

It was mighty cold when we left at nine to head home (single-digit windchill, I'm guessing), but we felt warm inside from such a delightful evening!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year ... New Computer!

Sorry it's been so long since I last posted in Susan's blog. Just before the first of December, my eight-year-old computer gave out at last. I knew it had to happen eventually, but it's always a blow when it comes, isn't it though?

I had been dreading the technical aspect of computer replacement more than the financial element, to tell the truth. I don't really know my "gigs" from my "megs" and so on very well. I still remember, in fact, when 48K on our old Apple IIe was a big deal! Fortunately for me, my friend Bob was willing to do the research for me and help me select the right replacement machine for my needs.

Then there was a bit of a wait after online ordering for the boxes to arrive in the mail. Of course, it also took a while to set up the new machine and the new flat screen monitor (my first). I soon discovered that my printer wouldn't work with the new equipment, but my sweet stepson bought us a printer for Christmas and installed it. He and Bob helped out with getting things set up in terms of software too, such as getting my mail program to work right, loading the browser I'd decided to use, and so on.

It will take me a while yet to get used to all the new goodies and the differences in the programs. This time, I want to take the time to learn more about the options in the new system, the new browser, the new mail program, and the new version of Word.

 For example, tonight I learned how to transfer photos from my camera to the pictures folder on the new machine, such as this shot of our Christmas tree:

Speaking of Christmas, we had a very nice one. It was completely white, with tons of snow all around that has been (temporarily, I suppose) washed away by rain since the New Year. On Christmas day, we had four friends join us for a baked ham, potatoes, brussel sprouts, cranberry apples, green salad, corn casserole, and banana cream pie. A good time was had by all.

Now it's time to ease into the New Year, hoping that the rest of the winter won't be too bad and that 2011 will be a better year for us all!