Friday, March 9, 2012

Spring has sprung (maybe)

Well, after nearly forty years of living in Champaign-Urbana, this has been the warmest winter I can ever remember! Is it over now? Who knows? It's been warm but also very unpredictable. Only meterologists can be wrong time and again and still get paid for their work, I guess. But it does seem that by the middle of March (temps in the seventies forecast for all next week at this point) we probably won't get snow that lasts or below zero days. So I'm thinking that spring has indeed sprung, and the garden flowers seem to agree. To make the deal even sweeter, daylight savings begins this weekend!
 So here's the first and always earliest perennial in my raised beds on the east side of the garden--the Adonis. This plant is pretty old now, having been moved seventeen years ago from our prior garden (where it was growing for about twelve years). It's so bright and cheerful this early, isn't it?
Here's a close up. You can see how nice the ferny foliage is and how bright the yellow blooms are. The Adonis amurensis is in the buttercup family and hails from the forests of Europe and Asia. The whole plant goes dormant in the summer, so we have to keep track of it (between the lip fern and the rocks) so it isn't disturbed when weeding in that bed.
The earliest bulb in our garden is the sweet little snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. These little bulbs are so early that they usually show the sprouting green foliage through the drifts of snow (which we didn't have this year). Over time, the clumps get a bit bigger and are very charming. When this happens, the clusters are called "drifts" in fact.
Here's a really nice large cluster. There are about seven bunches in the bed under the ash tree on the west side of the driveway, one in the fern bed on the other side, and one in the bed under the pin oak in the north yard.
Another early bulb in the ash bed is the winter aconite or Eranthis. I had originally planted quite a few of these, but over the years they have been dying out. This year there seems to be three or four small ones like this.
Early spring crocus are always a delight. The snow crocus that we've had in the south yard for many years seem to have disappeared. The spot was wet and shady a lot last year and the bulbs may have rotted. Fortunately, we had been in this charming little species crocus, Crocus tommasinianus, in the north yard. The Brits like to call these cuties "Tommies."
The species tulips planted in the raised beds on the east side aren't showing yet, but they will pretty soon. In the meantime, the earliest bulbs in those beds are the tiny Iris reticulata in shades of purple and blue. They are early and reliable and quite adorable IMHO. The foliage is spikey and green, followed by the flowers with their spots of yellow inside.
Here's a blue one with a purple right next to it. There are some other varieties now, I think, but these are the two most common and we've had them a long time.
Like the snowdrops, over time the clumps of reticulata iris can get a bit bigger. There are half a dozen bunches in the the four beds right now, all in bloom.
That's it for flowers in the garden right now, but the beauty of our five feline boys is always in full bloom. Here's Toffee, our blond, enjoying the tray on David's walker.
And a close-up of this very handsome but somewhat meek and sweet fellow. We think he has some Maine Coon blood in him because of the tufts of fur on his paws and the "tweety" voice. His underside of all white, very fly-away, delicate fur and his toffee-colored top hair divides naturally into a middle part down his back. He has a lovely plume of a tail.
This picture has a bit too much light/dark contrast. Maybe it could qualify as an "arty" chiaroscuo photograpy :) Angus MacDuff sitting on the table, looking content with himself as always.
He's not shown much better in this one. He is a beauty, however, huge and sweet and thinking he's still just a tiny kitten.
Speaking of beauty, here's Yang the noble Balinese Siamese, resting regally on the back of the sofa.
Yang's eyes really are a beautiful sky blue and his face is chocolate brown, like his paws and tail.
I usually get that "red eye" photo defect when I try to take his pic, but this time it seems to be working a bit better.
 He is sooo handsome. Of course, I may be prejudiced about this.
I mentioned Toffee's plumey tail earlier, and here it is alongside Sylvan's immense Maine Coon plume.
And here's the fabulous Sylvan himself. He's usually a big shy with pics and dips his head down, but this time we get to see his lovely face full on.
It's nearly impossible to take a picture of Panther. He grabs the cord hanging down from the camera and you end up with a picture of the floor. Also, he's always in motion, so we'll settle this time for a side shot.
Black cats have black faces, so that's a photo challenge. He does has gorgeous eyes and I will try again sometime. Cats at their most adorable are never in the same room as the camera. Cats asked to pose are not always accomodating. It's a basic law of physics.
One more try on Angus, but he remains in the sun/shadow zone on the table, no doubt waiting for food to magically appear.

Hope you enjoyed the flowers and felines. If the weather predictions are right, there should be more flowers to come soon!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Del Sur: Saturday Night Live!

Great news! The new Latin band called Del Sur is going to be performing on the first Saturday of every month at the Iron Post!

We were there Saturday night and had a terrific time. The band includes four very professional, very talented musicians with a great deal of passion for the music they play.

The tunes are taken from all over Latin America and represent a wide range of musical types. There is Andean music from Bolivia and Peru with the haunting sounds of the pan flute, reminiscent of the song "El Condor Passa" that so intrigued the popular musician Paul Simon some time back.

There are lively Caribbean tunes from the Dominican Republic, with lots of bongo and conga beats.

Then the Columbian cumbias come along, with good sounds for dancing, and the crowd at the Post responds warmly, with dozens of lovely ladies (and a few gents) gyrating to the beat.

This week a guest performer did two numbers as well. I don't know his name (maybe Eduardo can provide it in a comment here?), but he is a singer and guitarist from Argentina. What an incredible voice! It reminded me of the story of how Andrea Boccelli was singing in a small Tuscan bar when Pavarotti first heard him.

The four regular band members are all wonderfully gifted musicians who all sing as well as play any number of instruments. This time, we enjoyed Eduardo's guitar playing, but also the charanga (a small stringed-instrument a bit like a Spanish lute) and the bongos. He had something that looked like a small football that was "scratched" with a stick to make for interesting percussion. Sorry I don't know much about the actual names of these fascinating ethnic musical instruments.

Alex is a virtuoso with the flutes, switching in an instant from one pan flute to another with a different pitch, as well as two wooden record-type flutes. He has a "shaker" made of shells (?) and uses a drum too.

Ian had two congas with him and also played bongos, several different maracas (big round gourd-like things with musical sounds inside when shaken), a long stick-like instrument that was grated against, the drum that he shares with Alex (and sometimes hits with the maraca and a scarf on top to adjust the sound), and a very long flute.

Julian has his guitar and his very mellifluous voice. I'm not sure if that's the right word, but his singing is so smooth and melodious, like honey.

They are expanding their repertoire on this their second performance and also getting bolder with their performance, putting a terrific amount of energy, charisma, and passion into their singing and playing. And the audience loved it.

The dancers were unwilling to quit and called for more and more "encores" or, in Spanish, "otras".

It's such fun to see what a mix of folks show up for this kind of music and love to dance. Often, Eduardo would ask "Is there anybody here from ... Ecuador? the Dominican Republic? Argentina?" and there always was a shout from somewhere in the audience. It's such a delight that Champaign-Urbana is so blessed with people from all over the globe.

The dancers are not just young women either--there are women and girls of all ages (and a few guys as well) and they seem to really get into it! The room wasn't heated all that much and was a bit chilly at the start of the first set, but by the time more people showed up and lots of them were dancing, it was hot! Many dancers were sweating even.

A few other musicians came to enjoy the show as well. I saw Adam Walton the conga player, as well as Rick Deja the flute and saxophonist and Dave Cubberly, both from Bate Calado.

Del Sur, as Eduardo explained, means "from the South" and the group presents an excellent opportunity to learn something about a wide range of South American music, both folkloric music and popular music. The ethnic instruments (and Alex's ethnic shirt with the beautiful embroidery) -- and all the Spanish being spoken in the audience as well as on stage -- combine to create a very South American atmosphere.

The group played from 6 to 9 and will be there again the first Saturday of each month. In addition, we were delighted to see that Desafinado and Bate Calado, Brazilian bands par excellence, were slated to appear at the Iron Post too.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

2012 So Far ...

Now that January is close to finished, I realized I haven't done any blogging in 2012 so far since New Year's. I've gotten out of the habit of taking photos for the blog, and I know that some readers don't care for blogs without pics, so I'll try to remedy that next time.

It's been a weird month weather-wise in Champaign-Urbana: one day it's 50 degrees and dry and everyone is amazed what an easy time we're having of it for a winter month. But then the next day is freezing cold with huge gusts of biting wind and freezing drizzle or snow dusting or both, and then it all comes back to us why we dread winter so much in the Midwest. And for us, it's especially tough dealing with walkers and frozen van doors and slippery parking lots and so on.

On the personal front, in fact, it's been a bit tough. Since Thanksgiving or so, I've been learning firsthand about a painful condition called "sciatica" that involves a long skinny muscle, the piriformis, that is buried underneath the glutes. If it gets irritated and inflamed, it presses on the "sciatic nerve" that runs all the back down from the lower back, under the buttocks, and down the leg to the calf. As if I didn't have enough challenge with severe arthritis in both knees and back, hah!

I had a blissful week of relief on prednisolone just before Christmas, but then the sciatica returned with a vengence. So now I'm going for physical therapy, resting a lot, and trying to stretch that nasty piriformis as best I can. Too bad the therapy last week that helped a LOT caused me to pull a muscle in my right knee (opposite side) by lying on the hard table with my weight on it while having my left lower back massaged. I guess that proves you can't win when it comes to the problems of an aging body.

On the bright side, however, we managed quite a coup in getting a lift chair for David. These are upholstered recliner type chairs that plug into an electric outlet and have a motor inside that moves you all the way up for ease in getting out of the chair as well as all the way back for reclining or sleeping.

The new ones are about a thousand bucks, so I figured we'd never be able to get one. David was having trouble getting out of his prior recliner where you had to pull yourself to a sitting position and then reach down for a lever to bring the footrest door and the chair upright and then you still had to struggle to get out of it. This lift chair does it for you ... so cool. We got it on craigslist for $150 ... wow! This lady bought it ten years ago for when her dad visited her house and he had passed away and she wanted to sell it. What luck, huh?

What else is new? Well, we've been to a couple of jazz gigs. We've missed a few too between lousy weather and body pains. We did catch Desafinado at Buvons (the wine bar inside Corkscrew Wine shop) last weekend. The band has really evolved into a different sound these days with a number of new band members. It's less acoustic and laid back, but we like it anyway. It's a lively contemporary Brazilian sound with some electric instruments and a wide range of percussion and some fast-paced numbers that don't have that samba beat. They had a good crowd at Buvons and a couple of friends joined in for some numbers. As always, Elis Artz gave a wonderful performance on vocals and pulls the whole effort together beautifully.

Buvons has a deal with Mirabelle bakery: they text in handmade pizza orders and then someone brings them over by car. We tried the goat cheese and red peppers and pesto -- very tasty! My friend Frank (source of expert info on plants but also on cuisine) thinks maybe those small extra-sweet red peppers are the ones from South Africa.

Last night we made it to the Iron Post after our Saturday at the Urbana library, despite frosty weather and some frozen patches in the parking lot, to hear Del Sur. This is a new band that gave its second performance and is going to be playing the first Saturday of each month in the slot that used to be Sandunga, the Cuban band. In fact, Eduardo Herrera was a band member for Sandunga (and Bate Calado, another Brazilian band), and now heads up Del Sur along with Julian Norato (also from Sandunga), Ian Middleton, and Alex Agudelo.

Del Sur means "from the South" and Julian, Eduardo, and Alex are from Columbia. Ian is from South London. They play an amazing mix of folkloric and popular Latin American and Caribbean music, including "huaynos, cumbias, porros, zambas, and many other genres." If you're familiar with "El Condor Passa" from Paul Simon, you will recognize the distinctive sound of the pan flute, expertly played by Alex. They also play lively Columbian and Peruvian cumbias that are very danceable and the same dancers who used to come for Sandunga have obliged once again. So it's fun to watch them too. 

Eduardo gives some information about the origins of the songs (his ethnomusicology studies are showing here) and plays some incredible guitar and charanga (and melodica and bongos and vocals). Julian plays guitar and sings in his lovely melodic voice. Alex handles flutes of various kinds and percussion and sings as well. Ian was especially surprising this time. Last time, he mainly played congas, bongos, and other percussion. This time he also played a very long flute and performed some incredible vocals! He has a wonderfully authentic Spanish but speaks English with a delightful British accent (and he's really good looking). We had a lovely time listening and watching the dancers.

What's new with my Etsy business, Beaded Jewelry by Susan? The short answer is nothing. Sadly, there were no sales over the holidays at all. I'm starting to get a bit discouraged about getting people to the online shop. I have put some items on clearance, but that doesn't seem to have made any difference so far. I'm going to retire some items when they come up for renewal to make room for some new ones (if I get around to photographing the new earrings) or, at least, to keep smaller numbers of items to pay for every four months.

I'm hoping that Sara and Theresa will want to have some jewelry parties or something over the winter and start selling my wares again at Farmer's Market in May. They did a good job and had some lovely displays, but some bad luck too with hot weather this summer outside and poor lighting inside at Lincoln Square. Maybe 2012 will be better for Beaded Jewelry by Susan. Let's hope so.

In the continuing household saga of objects wearing out along with our aging bodies, we had to install new "motor mounts" in our ten-year old Honda van. We are still trying to pay off the new air conditioner and waiting for the state to reimburse us on the dental insurance. It was not fun to wrack up another giant bill, for sure. The house door is falling apart by crumbling on the inside so the screws don't hold the plate tight, so that will have to be replaced eventually at considerable expense as well. Glass broke recently in a book case, but we got that taped, thank goodness, and the batteries replaced in the smoke alarms. What's next?

I've been reading a lot (so what's new ... 60-plus years of reading a lot). Now we're looking into audio books or DVDs of various types for David because reading is getting difficult, even with the large print books. Maybe we'll consider an iPad or something like that for him at some point. Have been getting some cool smooth jazz CDs from the library based on a list I found on the Internet.

I've started getting the all-color catalogues from the perennial flower houses. Even though I can't really afford to get many and have to pay Sara to plant them for me, it brightens my day to leaf through the pages and circle my favorites. And I am looking forward to those species tulips she planted in the raised beds on the east side last fall. That will bring my camera out if nothing else will!

Actually, I have been thinking about taking some cat photos for a nice blog post about our five fabulous felines. What do you think? Is anyone interested? They never cease to amaze, inform, entertain, and delight me in all ways. But, of course, they are my (our) cats, and so there is a certain bias.

Well, that's about it for now I guess. No use discussing the wretched state of the world (or the nation, just please don't vote Republican if you have any sense), so I kept it to the small but usually fairly pleasant space of my own little world. Hope you enjoyed it, dear readers. I love comments if you feel so inclined.