Friday, May 31, 2013

Writing Exercise: Cubes 'n' Poetry

For a recent meeting, my writing group mixed together two exercises to see how they would come out. We took the quintain poem exercise and added Rory's Story Cubes. The cubes are a set of nine dice with different pictures on every side. We rolled the dice and then chose one to be the word for the poem. In case you don't remember (or are too lazy to click through the link above), the poem is organized like this:
1st line--one word; a noun
2nd line--two words; adjectives
3rd line--three words; verbs
4th line--a sentence that expresses feelings
5th line--repeat the first line; the noun
We rolled these cubes (the picture is a reenactment of the actual event) with these results:

Make a poem and a story!

I chose the word "fountain" and wrote the following poem.
Wet and wide
Gushing, splashing, sparkling
Jacob is drawn to fountains as if he were returning home
And then I wrote this essay.
According to my son, for a vacation to be fun two things are required. First the hotel must have a swimming pool. Second, the city or town or village must have a fountain.

The attraction of the swimming pool is obvious. Who doesn't like to splash around in a cool, refreshing pool? Especially after a hot day of running around looking at historic or touristy sights. Many happy vacations have followed a simple rhythm: early breakfast, drive or walk to a popular place, have a snack, see the sights, have lunch, go back to the hotel, take a nap maybe, go for a swim, have dinner in (if there's a kitchen), and sleep. The swim is a relaxing bit of exercise and fun with new games being invented all the time.

The fountain's attraction may not be so obvious. But my son is drawn to them. If he hears splashing water, he has to rush off and check it out. Occasionally the noise turns out to be a waterfall, which is just as delightful. He keeps an eye on it and asks insistently for his picture to be taken. We are happy to comply.

Fountains usually keep him longer than other cascading water does. He listens and watches with intensity. If it's the sort for coins to go in, he will ask for change. If it's the sort for feet to go in, he will ask to take his shoes and socks off. If it's the sort for water to splash out, he will run to the dry area. He's ready for all sorts.

Certainly the sound is soothing. Water washing into itself has a pleasant cadence. The same rhythms are repeated, like a well-ordered clockwork. The sound is natural and hypnotic, a relaxing tone that washes out the harsh horns, buzzing cell phones, and squawking street sellers. The fountain creates a bubble of comfort around its immediate vicinity.

The light is magical too. With a bright sun, almost any angle provides a sparkle like diamonds. A rainbow could even emerge in just the right spot. Again, there's a hypnotic effect of rhythm and relaxation, this time for the eyes in stead of the ears.

The fountain's rim often provides a good seat for a quick snack, maybe an apple from a nearby fruit stand or shop. It's a good excuse to linger at a favorite spot. Further planning can happen if dreams and distractions can be warded off. But we can't stay forever, or we'd never have time for a swim in the afternoon!
I think the ending is a little weak, it was one of those times when the clock ran out. I did okay integrating the other cube images, though I didn't get the abacus (I should have written something about counting, maybe counting on a town to have a fountain, though that's more of a stretch than "games" for "dice.") or the theater masks.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book Review: Hellsing Vol. 1 by Kohta Hirano

Hellsing Volume 1 by Kohta Hirano

Hellsing is a manga (Japanese-style comic) about a secret group protecting England from supernatural threats. The Hellsing group is family-run Protestant (presumably Church of England) covert operation that takes care of vampires, zombies, ghouls, and other hazards that the local police can't handle. This story begins with the death of the head of Hellsing, who is passing the company on to his daughter Integra. His brother isn't happy about this and decides to hunt her down and kill her before everyone else knows the old man is dead and she is put in charge. She flees to the basement levels of the headquarters where she comes across a dessicated corpse. The uncle's minions catch up with her there and almost kill her. In the gun fight, she's injured and some of her blood lands on the corpse, which forms into the vampire Alucard. Alucard is the ancient secret weapon, an undead monster who fights for Hellsing against the other undead in the world. He's been enhanced by various spells and potions so he's stronger and more durable than other vampires. He saves the girl and starts a new era for Hellsing. More adventures follow after this, including a confrontation with the top agent of the Vatican's covert operations force Iscariot.

The book is pretty quirky. The layout is like it was in Japan, so the book starts with what would (in the West) be the back cover and you read it from the back to the front. The comic panels and word bubbles are also laid out right to left on the page, which took a little getting used to but wasn't too hard to master. Also, most of the sound effects are still in Japanese even though the dialogue is all translated into English. It's easy to imagine what the sound effects refer to (sword slices, guns firing, feet creaking on floorboards, etc.). It just looks a little odd to have Japanese letters all over some frames and not know what they mean.

 The violence is highly stylized and frequent which is what I expected. There's a mixture of guns, swords, and fisticuffs. The theology is pretty light, there's just enough to set up conflicts between Protestant and Catholic and other religions. For me it was a little too light, since people of actual faith would hardly behave the way they do in this book. They don't even use holy water or crosses or other religious symbols and rites. Maybe that happens in later volumes. And maybe I'm looking for too much depth in the wrong place. The story wasn't so compelling that I feel the need to read the rest of the series. I may try some other manga to see if I like it more.

Parental warning: Offensive language is minimal and there's no sex (some of the females are busty but fully clothed). The violence is over the top and a bit gruesome. The vampires do occasionally lick blood from the floor or severed body parts, which might be disturbing. Also, some characters are stabbed with swords and knives sticking through. In one instance, a person has about twenty or thirty sticking in her.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cretan Dancing

One night at our hotel on Crete they transformed the bar area into a dance floor for what was advertised as "Oriental Dancing." The name doesn't immediately conjure up a specific image like "belly dancing" would. Perhaps "belly dancing" is too demeaning a name for the dancers? They certainly wouldn't call it "Turkish dancing" because "Turk" is a four-letter word in Crete thanks to the abysmal memories of the Ottoman occupation. Perhaps there is a more apt term that hasn't made it into English yet. I'll call it "Cretan dancing" since I saw it on Crete.

The dance was at night, so the kids were in bed before things started. My wife volunteered to stay with them in the room so I could go collect information and photos for the blog. I found a small table on the edge of the floor and had a little drink of dessert wine as I watched.

The first few dances were more of what you'd think of as "belly dancing." Pretty soon, audience members were invited to join in the dancing, which was fun to watch.

Dancing with the professionals

Cretan dancing, now with tambourines!

Later on, the ladies danced with walking canes which was fun. Again, the audience joined in the second song.

Learning to control your tummy and dance as one!

Training future dancers

For an extra challenge, one lady danced with swords, including on her belly!

Ready to dance!

In case you are wondering, there was no audience participation with the sword dancing!

My favorite of the dances were the ones with the veils or cloaks whirling around. Such dances are colorful and look both effortless and challenging. The audience did not get to join these dances either.

For those who are curious, yes I did participate a few times. Since my wife and children were asleep back in the room, no one was able to take pictures or video of me dancing, which is probably very fortunate for you, dear readers.

Also this will be the last post from our trip to Crete, except for a few more churches on Sundays. We'll see some more of England before I start posting on our next trip to Brussels!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Harlow Carr Chickens and More

We made another visit to RHS Harlow Carr Gardens. This time they had some chickens in the kitchen garden section and were asking visitors to suggest names. We went to look but couldn't come up with anything original. They were pretty cute, though more full grown than we expected.

Chicken yard

Classic white hen

Eating out

The nearby signs explained a lot about the life, diet, and value of chickens. And how to grow an egg head, as seen in yesterday's post. All that I am reproducing from that treasure trove of information is the jokes they had as sidebars:

Q: How did the egg get up the mountain?
A: It scrambled up!

Q: What do chickens serve at birthday parties?
A: Coop-cakes!

Q: What do you get when you cross a chicken with a cement mixer?
A: A brick layer!

Q: What did the egg do when the other egg told it a joke?
A: It cracked up!

The kitchen garden also had a few useful plants.

Pear tree


Portable greenhouse!

We saw a smattering of spring flowers too. First is the tulip sylvestris or mountain tulips as they are commonly known, lording it over some pansies.

Tulips and pansies in the greenhouse

Outside more interesting flowers were found, like fritillaria imperialis or aurea.


L enjoyed some of the larger beds of flowers.

Colorful patch

L wanted to take some home!

Relaxing by the bench

We did go to the tree house and the playground, but the logness monster was the most popular kid attraction by far.

Bridge to logness

J and the logness monster arch

Green man tree decoration

We also saw a giant shovel which we thought belonged to a giant.

That metal bird is weird too.

We were glad to see Spring finally showing up after a long, cold, snowy winter.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Home Gardening

Inspired by the RHS book Growing Crops in Pots, my wife has begun a campaign to grow some herbs and vegetables at the house. The first objective was to get some indoor herbs. Our kitchen windowsill gets a bit of sunshine in the afternoon (on sunny days, which doesn't often happen here in Yorkshire) and is close enough to the cooking area so we won't forget to use them.

Chives flanking the thyme and parsley

Outside, other vegetables have been called to duty. J's school had him start a small pot of carrots; L's school gave her a beginning bean stalk. L and Mommy transferred both to a new and larger pot where they can be all that they can be.

Bean plant (tied to a pole) with carrots on the side

L, happy in her work

We also bought some seeds and plants from Harlow Carr Garden, including a garlic plant.


L chose that, though her inspiration was not for the flavor, it was for the protection. You may think she is worried about vampires, but in fact she wants to keep the zombies away. In Plants vs. Zombies (a game our whole family is addicted to--surprising, isn't it?) one of the plants for fighting zombies is garlic. The zombie takes one bite, goes "blech!", and then retreats to another row.

Cone Head Zombie doesn't like garlic!

As a side note, in the ahistorical and afactual The Protocols of the Spinsters of Wicca, garlic can be used by witches as "wolf's train." Unlike wolf's bane, which gets rid of werewolves, wolf's train enables users to corner a werewolf and/or punish it when behaves badly. We here at the Zombie Parent's Guide do not endorse or recommend such practices.

Recently added to the collection is our egg head, who seems to have watercress on the brain. It's not a disease, but a fun way to grow some crops in an unusual way.

Egg sans a bit of shell and all the insides...

...cotton and seeds inside...

A few day's later, a head of hair!

My wife got the idea from a display at Harlow Carr Garden (more on that in a later post). The egg is pretty cute as long as you have tactical support for the egg. So get out those Easter egg supplies you've put away and get cracking on your own little watercress chia pet!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Church of the Three Martyrs, Chania, Crete

The Greek Orthodox cathedral of Chania is the Trimartyre, or Three Martyrs Church. It was built in the 19th century by a Turk, who wanted to give thanks to the Blessed Virgin Mary for a miracle that saved the life of his son.

Church of the Three Martyrs, Chania

The courtyard outside the church has a few statues dedicated to Cretan heroes. Anaghnostis Mantakas was a 19th century freedom fighter on Crete. Ecumenical Patriarch Athinagoras I was patriarch of Constantinople from 1948 to 1972.

J admires Mantakes statue

Ecumenical Patriarch Athinagoras I

The doorway has a beautiful icon, the presentation of the child Mary at the temple.

Doorway Icon

The interior is quite breath-taking. Orthodox churches are traditionally quite ornate. Everywhere the eye looks, it is drawn to holy things.

Nave of the church

The pulpit

Several icons are found throughout the church. Some of the icons have small metal panels, often with body parts depicted on them. They are requests to the saints for help with illnesses or injuries.


Icon with panels

It is a beautiful building and well worth visiting.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Review: Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede

Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede

In celebration of his feast day today (at least today (May 25, 2013) as the post is published), here's a review of the Venerable Bede's most famous work.

One of the great writers in early English literature is the monk Bede. He lived from 672 to 735 A.D. in northern England at the monastery of Jarrow. He was a great scholar and author of many works, Ecclesiastical History of the English People being the most famous. It is a primary source for early British history.

The book starts with the Roman invasions by Julius Caesar in the first century B.C. and Claudius in the first century A.D. This part is quickly covered, since Bede's main interest is to chronicle the coming of the Christian faith to the islands of Britain. He presents the first organized missionaries led by Augustine of Canterbury (as he was later known) in the late 500s. Various successes and failings are described as well as the lives of many kings and queens (at this point several different kingdoms existed on the island), some pagan, some converts. Other religious and lay people are also chronicled, including people in Bede's own living memory.

One of the reasons the book is highly regarded is Bede's style and method. Bede has an engaging style--he bubbles over with Christian enthusiasm and knows to throw in stories to illustrate his points about historical figures. His Latin is quite excellent (from what I've read) though I read an English translation. The book is also well-researched, making use of the extensive library at Jarrow and many other eye-witness accounts. Bede is rightly called the Father of English History.

The book is interesting as a view into the past. People led lives of squalor, solitude, and splendor as they do today. Controversies within the church sprang up, mostly around the proper calculation of Easter's date each year. The problem was resolved at the Synod of Whitby in 664, where bishops met together to discuss the matter. It reminded me of the national bishops' conferences that we have today. People are still people, no matter the age in which they live.

Of course, some bits are less familiar to modern readers. Sometimes the names are quite a mouthful ("Ethelbert was son of Irminric, son of Octa, and after his grandfather Oeric, surnamed Oisc, the kings of the Kentish folk are commonly known as Oiscings." p.112) Having wandered over England a bit the past year and a half, the places and the names are a little more familiar, which helps.

The book is easy to read in small sections. Each chapter covers one story or event, so reading a few pages a day or now and then won't be disruptive. I've read it bit by bit over a few months and found it very interesting and very rewarding.

SAMPLE TEXT, wherein the Bishop Germanus volunteers to lead an army against pagans, which seems awfully unclerical, except...
When, after the celebration of Easter, the greater part of the army, fresh from the [baptismal] font, began to take up arms and prepare for war, Germanus offered to be their leader. He picked out the most active, explored the country round about, and observed, in the way by which the enemy was expected, a valley encompassed by hills of moderate height. In that place he drew up his untried troops, himself acting as their general. And now a formidable host of foes drew near, visible, as they approached, to his men lying in ambush. Then, on a sudden, Germanus, bearing the standard, exhorted his men, and bade them all in a loud voice repeat his words. As the enemy advanced in all security, thinking to take them by surprise, the bishops three times cried, “Hallelujah.” A universal shout of the same word followed, and the echoes from the surrounding hills gave back the cry on all sides, the enemy was panic-stricken, fearing, not only the neighbouring rocks, but even the very frame of heaven above them; and such was their terror, that their feet were not swift enough to save them. They fled in disorder, casting away their arms, and well satisfied if, even with unprotected bodies, they could escape the danger; many of them, flying headlong in their fear, were engulfed by the river which they had crossed. The Britons, without a blow, inactive spectators of the victory they had gained, beheld their vengeance complete. The scattered spoils were gathered up, and the devout soldiers rejoiced in the success which Heaven had granted them. The prelates thus triumphed over the enemy without bloodshed, and gained a victory by faith, without the aid of human force. [pp.78-79]

Friday, May 24, 2013

Writing Exercise: A Poetic Beginning

For a recent writing exercise, our group started by writing a simple poem and then using that poem as a prompt for a longer piece. The poem is a special sort called a Quintain and it has specific rules. The poem has five lines, each with specific content:
1st line--one word; a noun
2nd line--two words; adjectives
3rd line--three words; verbs
4th line--a sentence that expresses feelings
5th line--repeat the first line; the noun
My poem was the following:
Full and old
Wandering, reading, relaxing
A stroll through the library is a splendid search through a cave of wonders
My longer piece is about a library of which I have fond memories.
The university library is one of the oldest buildings on the campus. Only a few expansions have made it larger; the collection itself has grown due to the gutting and reconfiguring of the back half of the building.
The library in front is a three-story building, each floor having a high ceiling. The ground floor has the check-out desks, the periodicals, and a scattering of study cubes and sitting areas for patrons to get work done or socialize a bit.
The second floor has the research department. The walls are lined with the reference materials of a hundred years: encyclopedias (general and specialized), atlases, bound volumes of journals and magazines, globes, and the inevitable racks of computer stations that have replaced the card catalogs of a by-gone era.
The third floor has the special libraries and research rooms for theology and philosophy.
Each floor has access doors to the back half of the library, where the stacks are. One leaves the open air and bright lights of the higher tech front of the building, walking into tight, short aisles between simple steel shelves jammed full of books. Naked incandescent light bulbs hang in the middle of each aisle. Halfway back, a narrow corridor cuts perpendicular to the aisles allowing access to the other stacks. Every sixth aisle is a small staircase leading to the floor above. The back of the library has six floors, not three. Each one is half the height of the front levels. It seems easy to get lost here, or to have a hard time finding the right section for your book. Hushed whispers tell of a stache found by the librarians. A desperate grad student had "misshelved" the books he needed so no one else could find them. Occasional neglected topics have left a few aisles cobwebby. The closeness causes claustrophobia. But it feels so comfortable to me. You can't have too many books.
Maybe it's too alliterative in spots. Also, I wish I'd used shorter sentences when describing the stacks to mirror the claustrophobic feeling. In case anyone is interested, the library is the Mullen Library at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cretan Drink

Most every country has some local brands or styles of alcohol, and in the interest of informing my public, I did some research on Crete. Oh, the sacrifices we make!

As in all countries, there is a brand of beer that is the popular local brew. In Crete, this brand is Mythos, whose name fits with the Greek penchant for mythology. Unfortunately, the beer is not legendary. Like other popular local brands, Mythos is an unremarkable lager. I also tried Finkbrau, which was an unimpressive German import.

Finkbrau and Mythos, take a pass if you can!

More appealing is the local wines. We tried a few bottles from the stores and often had wine with dinner when dining out. Red wines were our preference. Some restaurants had local or even home-made wines, which were all lovely.

Local yumminess

The surprise for us was the after dinner wines, known as raki in the local lingo. Raki is distilled from the grape stems and seed husks and is as strong as the producer wants it. Often it's made locally. It can be flavored with herbs or honey. If anise seed is used, the result is called Ouzo, which is potent and palatable.

Our airport acquisitions

It's best served chilled, as I discovered at home. The honey version has a good blend of sweetness and punch.

Our next trip will be to Belgium, so the alcohol paradigm will shift and the beers will be good while the wines will be unremarkable. At least, that is my prediction!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Book Preview: The Shambling Guide to NYC by Mur Lafferty

The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

Having heard about this podcast of a book that is coming out soon (May 28, 2013, which may be the past depending on when you read this, adjust verb tenses accordingly) from Forgotten Classics, I decided to give it a listen. So this isn't so much a review as a preview, but it's looking like a lot of fun.

The podcast version is at chapter three right now. I'm enjoying the book a lot. The premise is fun--a book editor named Zoe who had to leave another publishing house returns to New York City to find a dream job. The opportunity arises when she runs across an opening at a new publisher in New York City looking to make travel guides. Zoe had started a successful, off-beat travel guide series at the first publisher. The thing with the new publisher is that they are staffed by fantasy creatures like vampires and zombies, etc. So they don't think she will fit in. She has a lot of intestinal fortitude and it looks like she will get the job. I just hope she gets to keep her intestines intact!

The reading has the right blend of lightness and earnestness. Ms. Lafferty (reading her own book!) sounds a bit like Holly Hunter (who in her younger days would have been perfect to play Zoe in a screen version) and has great delivery. I can't wait for the next episode! Check out the podcast here or go pre-order or buy the book at the link below.

Cretan Food

The food on Crete is quite wonderful. Being a sun-drenched island has its advantages. Olive trees grow everywhere. Grapes for wine are plentiful (though alcohol will be tomorrow's post). Plenty of grazing animals like sheep and goats provide meat and dairy products. The seafood is fresh and plentiful. What's not to like?

Kefalotyri cheese is made from sheep's and goat's milk and has a nice little tang to it. J objected to it because it was white (he loves orange/red cheese, no matter what the flavor) but eventually tried it. Graviera cheese is also from sheep's and goat's milk and is a little milder flavored. J like this a lot more than the other. We parents preferred the kefalotyri. Both are yummy. Of course, feta cheese is the most popular and we had plenty of that too, though it was too soft for J.

One staple of the Cretan diet is olive oil. Almost everything is made with it. Meats, fish, and vegetables are often cooked and/or drizzled in it. Olive oil also substitutes for butter on morning toast. Most cooks brag about using local olive oil, either from their home town or even their home garden. Home brewing here includes olive oil!

"Extra-native" olive oil

Even soap has olive oil in it!

Baklava has many variants here, all of them tasty. I've enjoyed baklava back in the States but found it rather rich and overly sugary. In the stores, the baklava labels say they are "syrup-based pastries," which is a pretty good description. Here the syrup is lighter than what is used in the States, which helps preserve the flakeyness of the pastry. We had several different types while we were here, often as a little free extra after a meal or a snack. Even if you don't like it in America, it's worth a try in Crete.

Store-bought still isn't as good as from a bakery or restaurant

 The other style of dessert is kataifa, a shredded pastry with nuts and syrup. It looks a bit like a bird's nest but is quite tasty.

Stores have the usual assortment of foods. Here J found something he did like and since we were on vacation we thought we'd let it slide.

I'm sure that Greek bit explains how nutritious the cereal is

One thing they have a lot of on Crete is art. Art is in such great abundance, they are willing to eat some of it. Especially the foreign, i.e. barbarian, art.

Mona Lisa's unhappy fate

One important thing to remember is how generous the portions are in restaurants. Like this plate of meat!

J, you need to help out with this meat!

So many times we'd finish a meal at a taverna and then they would bring out some fresh fruit and baklava for dessert. It was a tough job, but we did our best. If we were really lucky, they'd bring out some raki, which is a dessert wine or aperitif. But that will be discussed in tomorrow's blog.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Movie Review: Cockneys vs Zombies (2012)

Cockneys vs Zombies (2012) written and directed by Matthias Hoene

MPAA rating

None (presumably because it wasn't released in the States), though the UK's rating board rated it 15

ZPAA rating

Late teens and up

Gore level

9 out of 10--Lots of bloody and gory zombies, along with zombie kills and being killed a la Romero's films. Some organs hang out and blood spurts all over. Some of this is played for comic effect, but not always.

Other offensive content

Lots of bad language; a bank robbery; one zombie infant is punted like a football (not cool or funny to me); one shirtless woman; blaming the zombie plague on the medieval world.

How much zombie mythology/content

These are standard zombies--they die, they come back as slow, awkward walkers trying to eat the living. The outbreak moves remarkably fast through London but that is more for plot convenience than logic.

How much fun

While this is a comedy, I'm not sure I hit the Mark Kermode six laugh quota. Some of the bits were pretty funny (like the guy and his walker in a low-speed chase with zombies), some fell a little flat, some went over my head.

Synopsis & Review

Cockneys vs. Zombies is a great title, right? It evokes this vague image of funny-accented (at least to American ears) salt-of-the-earth tough guys taking on unspeaking and unspeakable horrors fresh out of the earth. This movie delivers, but not a whole truckload of fun like you'd imagine.

The story follows two brothers, Terry and Andy, as they get ready to rob a bank. Money isn't their motivation. No, they want to save their granddad's old age home from evil developers who want to put up condos. They put together a band of misfits to do the job but things get cocked up when the zombie apocalypse starts in the middle of their standoff with the police outside the bank.

Meanwhile, we follow the story of the granddad, who is a war vet. He lives in an old-age home with a few (surprisingly few, actually) characters who could have been more colorful. They become his band of brothers when the zombies show up. The humor on this side of the story is better. One guy is sleeping in the back garden when the zombies come. They ignore him. The people inside realize he's still out there. They wake him by shouting which also draws the zombies' attention. He grabs his walker and has the slowest chase scene as the zombies stagger after him, almost within reach.

 The set up is interesting but the rest of the movie doesn't pay off in a satisfying way, as either a horror film or a comedy. Everyone seems to be casually skillful at killing zombies, regardless of whether they've held a gun before or not. None of the surprises or twists are unpredictable, which could be okay if they were more enjoyable (the walker/zombie chase being an exception). I found the film dragging at the end, which is surprising when the movie is only 87 minutes long.

Movie Trailer

Warning--this is the "red band" trailer which means basically the trailer itself is rated R for language and violence.

Warning: This Blu-ray is region 2, which means it won't play on typical Blu-ray players sold in the USA and Canada.