Space travel is here

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Lunar Reconnassance Orbiter

I know you don’t believe me, but space travel is here. Last night, I spent some time out under the stars, thinking about the Milky Way (which we rarely see where I live).

And then PLUNK. I was in it. I was in a conical orbiter sipping, well, diet pepsi, although my peeps were drinking red wine. It was a special voyage, one that included my best friend, her boyfriend, and some other close friends. Our passenger area was a kind of seating in the round kind of thing. My best friend’s boyfriend had arranged for some wine and other goodies, and we were toasting them. And watching the stars. They were so bright. You couldn’t make out any particular constellation, because our position was so far up. So far into it all.

It was as roomy as a designer living room, with plenty of windows onto the stars. I think we’d taken a spin around the moon, but I can’t be sure.

It seemed that before we knew it, it was time to gather our things and “deplane.”

I’d done this before, but my peeps had not. The orbiter sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and into a whirling vortex of water … it was a hush hush kind of thing. No one knows about this! But the orbiter actually lands near the Naval Academy , is sucked into an underground installation, and then pops up in a narrow canal, bobbling toward our destination like a rubber ducky in a carnival moat. I watched, and even the Middies didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary as they walked by. We drifted for a moment after splashdown, then ended up somewhere near the Cathedral.

I asked the captain how long the voyage had been, because with the quick change of stars and venue, we couldn’t really tell the hour.

“An hour and a half,” he said. “But some say it was an hour and 10 minutes with the tailwind.” I think he was joking.

He told me that presidents and other statespeople had made this same trip.


How to make a great, light Pugliese bread

Two recipes crossed; don't try this at home

It’s been about two years since I started baking my own bread. No machine, just flour, water, yeast, and salt.

It might have all started the summer that my niece Silvana stayed with me, in between semesters at GMU. She loved to cook, and baking was her specialty. Plus, she worked at the library and brought home oodles of cookbooks.

The first time we tried bread making we started with a simple water/yeast mixture that needed about an hour to gurgle up into a frothy science experiment. It was like magic. That’s when I fell in love with baking.

But I hadn’t found the right bread recipe.

After Silvana left for school that summer, I found a loaf of bread at Bloom that I loved. It was called Pugliese (pool-ee-AY-zee) … light, airy, holy, and unadorned with basil or rosemary. It is a simple country Italian bread. I bought it solidly for two months until Mama Jean, the head baker, told me sorrowfully that the loaf was being discontinued. I panicked.

I began to find recipes everywhere for Pugliese. I made dozens and dozens of loaves, all kinds of recipes. My friends began to mention weight gain. Theirs.

I made small round loaves, wide loaves, loaves on baking pans, loaves on stone. Once I accidentally mixed up two recipes and cooked a loaf at 550• that should have been cooked at 450•. The blackened bread (see photo) was actually tasty in the middle. But the bread stone was history.

Then I found this recipe. It can be made into round loaves, but I’ve enjoyed much more baking in bread pans. It’s a two-day recipe.

Day 1
Make the biga, a starter for your Pugliese, before you go to bed.

  • 1 1/4 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/8 tsp yeast
Mix all and place in an oiled bowl (I use Pam). Cover and leave overnight.

Day 2

In the morning, add the following to your biga:
  • 4 cups bread flour
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 tsp yeast
  • 2 tsp salt

Knead well and cover in an oil-treated bowl.

It’s nice if you can knead during the day, but it’s not absolutely necessary for this very tolerant bread.

I often come home at dinner time, knead, and cover for an hour.

Then, after the hour or so, I knead again, split the dough into halves, roll each dough half and place into a Pam’d bread pan. Let rise for 90 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 450•.

Cook for 25 minutes. You can, optionally, for crustier bread, remove the bread from the pans after 25 minutes, turn off the oven, and leave the bread in the oven for another 10 or 15 minutes.

This bread is great for sandwiches and toast. It’s light with a hearty taste.

You can use, of course, other than white bread flours. I’ve found that what works best for me is to make the biga with white bread flour, and then replace one of the four cups of white flour with rye or whole wheat or something else.

You can also keep the recipe the same and add a teaspoon of caraway seeds for a nice variation. Rosemary is always a hit. But, again, I don’t often add other ingredients. I’m crazy about this as a plain sandwich/toast bread.

Please tell me how you like it!

To the moon, Alice

Lunar crater Daedalus

Did you know that there are already people living on the moon? Neither did I, until I went to sleep last night.

I took a special shuttle — about 50 people, very Challenger looking — and when we disembarked, we walked across a dusty black and white field. Gravity wasn’t an issue — I think we were under an enormous bubble.

And yet the field was “other” … littered with the detritus of the human race. Trunks, softballs, a car. All under a smoky dust.

We were clearly on the dark side of the moon. Perhaps the other side was too bright?

Our hosts took us into an office building and gave us a tour. This particular facility was a government office. We visited a lab, public relations, and the executive office.

I spoke extensively with a man who had tried to grow food on the moon, to no avail. Once I looked at his plans, I realized that he hadn’t enough light. I also suggested he try aquaculture to provide tilapia and other fish for the hundreds of people there.

At that moment I realized that I had forgotten to pack my camera, and I had to borrow one from someone else.

In spite of the fact that this was a secret operation of sorts, no one balked when I interviewed them for my story, “To The Moon and Back, Alice.” They let me take photographs and revealed quite a bit of information. I liked it there. I was told that great pains had been taken to create an absolutely diverse culture. There was an accurate head count for every nationality, age, and sexual orientation. Because people were often assigned for a minimum of one year, it was important that they had a “family.” I appreciated their foresight.

At first I thought that people lived somewhere in this particular office building. In fact, the government had built attractive, very affordable townhomes. I wondered how real estate on the moon compared to Earth’s, but didn’t get that far.

Suddenly we were whisked away to a steak dinner and our lodgings. I wondered how they managed to get steak to the moon regularly.

No reason

By Diliff (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

This is Wikimedia Commons’ image of the day. If you haven’t found Wikimedia yet (and you write blogs), check it out. You can re-use or link to many images without violating copyright.

Also, I would like to go to Scotland one day.


[By Diliff (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons]

Snake wrangler

Black rat snake

OK, I got your attention. Actually, I’m no wrangler. I have had a six-foot black snake (rat, I think) living in my office for about two weeks. How did I know?

One, I saw him. Or, should I say, the back half of him, slithering past some boxes I have yet to unpack. I didn’t panic. But I did try to find him. No luck.

Two, I’ve been picking up after him for some time. I could be a snake tracker.

I’m not afraid of black snakes. When I was 12 or so, I killed one. (I wouldn’t do it today, of course, knowing what I know.) Back then, our gardener, Lee, was terrified of snakes. He came across one in our old wooden garage and began screaming and kicking up a fuss (in my childhood memory). In fact, that’s what I told my mother. “He screamed like a little girl.” Only I WAS a little girl, and I didn’t scream. I picked up a hoe and cut the snake’s head off. I felt that someone needed to, if only to stop the dance of Lee.

Aside … about two years ago, while shopping at the local supermarket, Mom  and I ran into Lee. I wouldn’t have recognized him, but she did. We chatted for a few minutes, without me really understanding who he was. “That was Lee,” my mother said, pushing the cart on. “You killed a snake for him, didn’t you?”

In the meantime, I’ve seen black snakes, I’ve stepped on black snakes in tall grass, and now I’m living with one. But I’ve never had a confrontation.

The other day I was moving some equipment. When I went back for the electric cords, there was a shedded snake skin on top. It was pretty cool. But it hadn’t been there two minutes before.

I didn’t want to surprise this black snake. They can turn on you fast.

I tried freezing him out, by turning up the AC in my cottage office (one big room) and leaving the front door open. No go. I probably put him into early hibernation.

So, I went to the store the other day and bought some moth balls. They smell a lot like snake repellant, and were highly recommended by my next door neighbor. I threw a few moth balls way back behind some bookshelves. I think this area was the snake’s crib.

Then, it rained.

So, I’ll never know which of the two exactly got this black snake moving.

But I do know that I spent all Sunday afternoon waiting. I had it all planned out in my mind — I’d hear the slight crinkle of some paper somewhere, and then I’d watch the black snake slide out.

You know what? It took three hours and happened exactly like that. I heard the black snake drop to the floor (it’s a sound you can imagine!), and then head for the door. It took a full two minutes for him to leave. He was in no hurry. I waited until the last little skinny wiggle of his tail was over the transom and shut the door.

I’d had no idea how nervous I’d been for two weeks. I had found myself confined to about four square feet of working space just to avoid The Surprise.

And now I have my office back.

Moth balls. And water. Much cheaper than animal control services.

Yet moth balls shouldn’t be taken lightly. Napthalene is a serious poison.

Read more about moth balls as pesticides.

I ate liver and lived

It was sautéed calves’ liver, no onions, served on a bed of salad with a tangy mustard sauce.

Gretchen and Ryan thought that my career with liver was cut too short at age 5, when it was prescribed, and I hated it. The nurse who lived with us seemed to revel in torturing me with liver. (Wouldn’t iron pills have worked?)

Anyway, I gagged on the first bite (that mealy, soggy texture thing), but 75% of the other dozen or so bites were pretty good. The texture of the meat closer to the edges was much better. The taste wasn’t so disgusting as memory had imprisoned it.

I can’t say I’ll be adopting liver as a staple, but my friends who write The Suburban Farm and grow chickens in their back yard were right … it wasn’t so bad. And I lived.

Henry Watson

Fairlee Creek, Maryland

Lately I’ve been thinking of Henry Watson.

My second year of college, I lived in a little town called Fairlee, which sat on a hill overlooking Fairlee Creek on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Back in the day, the Eastern Shore was a wild place. Not wild like Las Vegas. Wild like the Wild West. Anything could happen there. The law was there to protect you, not to bother you too much.

So we could speed through the country roads, skinny dip in Fairlee Creek (which was really a small bay), and shoot pool fearlessly with strangers. Leave our doors unlocked. The world was our oyster.

One day, my roommate Jet and I were sitting on the front porch of our one-story ramshackle apartment, one half of a duplex several miles from the college scene. Our place sat on a gravelly road that led to Fairlee Creek.

Down the road came a thin man in an ill-shaped suit and a clean, worn white shirt. A handsome face for an older man with significant stubble. He carried himself like nobility. He stopped and asked us, as our porch was practically right on the road, if he could have a cigarette. I gave him one. We passed the time of day, and he was gone with his ever so slight limp. He was wearing leather shoes.

After that, I spotted Henry occasionally walking from town out to Fairlee, about five country miles, with a bag of groceries. I’d give him a lift home. Sometimes he stopped by the apartment for a smoke. Henry Watson didn’t say much, and as I recall some of what he said didn’t make sense. He’d drift off into reveries about Princeton, or his father, sometimes politics. He was proud of his heritage.

One day, he asked me into his home, a stately old home on a bluff of Fairlee Creek. Much of the furniture that had been there was gone. But one elegant wood-paneled room he had reserved for mementoes — his degree from Princeton and some odds and ends that had belonged to his father. Many of these were in a half-opened suitcase on the floor, as if they had just arrived. Or were soon to leave.

Another day, Henry Watson asked me into his home and offered me something to eat. When I said yes, he lit a fire in the kitchen’s enormous hearth and took out some slices of white bread that he laid carefully across the firewood. We ate toasted bread and jam, with a little tea from an old black wood-fired kettle. The room turned rosy with twilight, and when I left, it was nearly dark.

I moved from Fairlee after just a few months. Or rather, during a holiday trip to San Francisco, I returned to find that my roommate had moved us into a farmhouse in the middle of 50 acres of corn fields. I saw Henry much less often then. And eventually not at all.

Why am I thinking of this gentle man?

I recently moved into my family home. My mother was living elsewhere, and no one wanted to sell the place. I owned a home elsewhere that I couldn’t sell, in a town I could no longer live in.

The other day, I realized that Henry Watson had moved into his family home probably after his father had died and left it to him. Henry probably had just enough inheritance to live on, which was good, because Henry didn’t seem mentally capable of holding down an ordinary job.

We had something in common, Henry and I. We were refugees of a sort, and we came to live amongst our families’ memories, their old furniture, and their ancient tintypes and photographs to see what could happen next.

I suspect that I never saw Henry after dark because he had no electricity. I suspect that he used his wood hearth for heat as well as cooking and light. Sometimes I wonder whether I could survive as well as Henry did, in his situation — a wayward genius for whom the world had little use or recognition.

And so it is that I think about Henry Watson. I wonder how he made his way after 1976, when I graduated from college. And whether he is still alive, still showing off his little plaid suitcase with medals from Princeton.

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