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A Bit About Bees August 29, 2013

“MY BEES ARE HATCHING!  MY BEES ARE HATCHING!”  My cries echoed across the yard as I enthusiastically informed my family of the good news.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure that my bees (Megachile rotunda) were still alive until that muggy summer afternoon.  Spring and early summer had been an environmental rollercoaster with temperatures sometimes ranging as much as forty degrees between night and day.  While I was reasonably certain that my bees had made it through our winter (which was unusually mild), I wasn’t as confident that their development hadn’t been arrested by these wild fluctuations.  Had the multiple thaws and freezes killed my overwintering friends?  And how would I react if it had?

To be honest, these weren’t the bees that I’d wanted to keep.  It had been honeybees which had originally attracted my attention and not so much because I was interested in keeping bees, myself, but because I was in the process of writing a novel which featured a rather eccentric main character… and what’s more eccentric than keeping bees?  I’d picked up a copy of “Beekeeping For Dummies” for background material, but before I had finished I’d begun to feel a strange compulsion to try my own hand at developing and maintaining an apiary.

Unfortunately, at the time, our city ordinances forbid the keeping of beehives within city limits (though this didn’t prevent a few fastidious and secretive residents from doing so) and I turned my attention to another fascinating species: Osmia lignaria otherwise known as the “Mason Bee”.  Unlike Apis mellifera, Mason bees are solitary in nature, hatching and mating in early spring, then laying their eggs in the hollowed shells of old reeds or any other cozy hole of the appropriate size.

The process is a simple one that begins with mud which the bee carries from a nearby puddle to the back of its new home.  After building a rather thick exterior plug which will help to keep predators like parasitic wasps away from the nest, she collects a pile of pollen which will serve to feed her young offspring after it hatches in the fall.  Laying a single egg atop the pile, she then constructs yet another mud wall to separate this nesting cell from the next.  And the process begins again.  If all goes well, each hatched and fully fed grub will then spin itself a cocoon where it will undergo metamorphosis into an adult bee and wait for spring.

Again, I purchased several volumes including Brian L. Griffin’s “The Orchard Mason Bee: The Life History, Biology, Propagation, and Use of a North American Native Bee”, Sherian A. Wright’s “Mason Bees for the Backyard Gardener”, and a copy of the “Pollinator Conservation Handbook: A Guide to Understanding, Protecting, and Providing Habitat for Native Pollinator Insects”.  I’ll admit to having been surprised to discover that native pollinators do a far more efficient job of spreading pollen than their much acclaimed counterpart, the honeybee.  Tidy little creatures, focused upon producing the sweet food which will bring the queen’s offspring through the winter, A. melifera hoard their pollen.  Placing the lovely golden treasure into baskets on their legs, they effectively prevent the precious substance from landing upon the very plants which need it in order to survive.  While they do miss a bit here and there (permitting them to still maintain a reputation as effective pollinators), they do far less good for the garden and the environment in general than do their “dirty” native neighbors.

Taking a trip to www.beediverse.com, I selected their economical (and well-constructed) Chalet for my garden.  Hanging it on a trellis facing the morning sun, I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Despite the fact the O. lignaria was supposed to be native to my area, she never arrived.  And it was with great disappointment that I wandered out to the garden one afternoon, intent upon removing the house and setting it aside until the following season when I would be able to pre-stock it with bees ordered from a supply company.

Much to my surprise, the little Chalet was buzzing with activity!  A group of tiny bees had taken up residence and was quickly stuffing the tubes not with plugs of mud, but with the clippings of green leaves from the nearby shrubbery.  I’ll admit that for a moment, I questioned whether if might be appropriate to continue with my plan to remove the house, since leafcutters are considered a bit of a local nuisance, but reason won out.  Within a few days, each of the tubes was stuffed, sealed, and ready for winter.  Thanks much to the advice of Dave Hunter at www.crownbees.com, I elected to leave the bees inside of their tubes rather than placing the cocoons in my refrigerator over winter.

Not just once this spring did I wonder whether I’d regret that decision.  The insects did not emerge as planned and I was left with tubes packed with what I imagined were dead bees.  I admit that I had been silently mourning them until a few days ago when, stepping out to check the house one last time, they were there.  Each sealed tube in the bee house had been opened as the young males, followed by the females, had chewed through the leafy barrier.

Today, nearly half of the tubes are filled once more, surrounded by a buzz of activity as these gentle bees move in and out, preparing their nests for another winter.  My experiment was a success and I find myself pleased to offer my yard (and a few of my leaves) to my newfound friends!


Goodreads, Comic Books, and a Bit of Snobbery August 22, 2013

Filed under: Apps,Comic Books,Literature,Reading — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: , ,

I finally caved.  After receiving repeated invitations from my literate friends, I decided to join the social media platform known as Goodreads.  I’ll admit that my reasons were purely selfish: I needed an efficient way to track both the books that I’m currently reading as well as those that I would like to read… someday… if I get the time.

It took a couple of hours, but I finally finished uploading each title.  I don’t know whether my friends will care about this disparate list of tomes.  Does it matter that I’m reading “Les Misérablesand The Pond Owner’s Problem Solver”?  Do they care that I’m enjoying slowly making my way through “Auto Repair For Dummiesand Introduction to Manuscript Studies”?  Will they gaze in wonder at the number of reference manuals I’m reading from cover-to-cover?  Or will they simply be overwhelmed by the fact that my reading list, at present, comes to 51 separate books? Yes, I’m out of control.

I’ve had this problem since High School. I’m fascinated by nearly everything; science, history, philosophy, art, language – if you can write about it, you run the risk of my wanting to read it.  And, since I’m in the mood for different genres at different times, my “active” reading list has rarely dipped below 35 books.  (For those who would ask, yes, I do remember where I am and what I’ve learned from each.)  This fits well with my marginally snobbish nature.

I’ve always valued the slippery and somewhat illusive title of “well-read”.  Unfortunately, the pursuit of this title led to some serious introspection as I sat, scanning one book at a time into my new-found social friend.  My gaze flitted towards the top of one of my many book shelves where a stack of comic books had been neatly curated.  Would it damage my image if I included those?

For most of my life, I’ve looked down upon comic books as the “reading” material of the illiterate and unimaginative.  Not that I’d have actually phrased it this way.  I had a few friends who enjoyed occasional issues of Marvel or DC and, while I didn’t actually read the comics, I did watch a few of the TV series’ based upon them.  (I used to have dreams of being the female version of “Batman” – only without the side-kick.)

Instead, my fall came much later in life… just after the premier of “Star Trek: Into Darkness”.  In the course of rediscovering my love of Trek, I came across a fascinating detail: the original series (TOS) was being reworked for the new timeline in the form of comic books.

I wrestled with myself for several days, then quietly stole away to a local comic book store where I picked up a used copy of “Star Trek: Countdown” and “Star Trek Volume 1” and sat down to read.  What I encountered astonished me.  These were not what I’d envisioned.  While the plots weren’t deep (a feature shared with TOS), they were entertaining.  And the artwork was beautiful!

I was astounded by the level of detail and captivated by the rich colors which filled each page.  It wasn’t long before I was able to identify the difference between the works of various artists and found myself looking for my “favorites”.  Comic books, it turns out, are not simply “a kids thing”, but a medium for self-expression with which (quite sadly) I had been hitherto unacquainted. My eyes had been opened.

But now I faced the delicate question: was it time to share my new vision with others?  Was it appropriate to include the soon-to-be released “Volume V” alongside titles like “The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons” or “The Arabian Nights”?  Would it damage my snobbish image to post it with a collection of language learning materials representing tongues which, if I ever speak at all, I will speak only poorly?

I pondered the question for some time before finally settling upon the belief that it was.  After all, what is literature if not a form of art: the personal, verbal expression of those worlds fictional or otherwise, which we as individuals have come to love?  Comic books express that love differently, but they express it nonetheless and it seemed that this entitled them to a place amongst the other tomes which made up my list.

This philosophical quandary laid to rest, I went about my day… never once admitting the truth that the comic books don’t belong on my list because they’re “art”, but because I simply enjoy reading them.  The snobbish side of me could never admit to that!


How a Bit of Jewish History Resulted in a Culinary Obsession August 15, 2013

Cooking was not my thing.  Everyone knew it.  No one questioned it.  If it didn’t come in a can or a microwaveable package, it was out.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t cook (at least that wasn’t the prevailing opinion) so much as that I wouldn’t cook.  It took too much time to prepare a meal and, while I wasn’t as inept as my father who had once tried to make stew by intentionally failing to dilute soup concentrate with water (a recipe for a sodium-induced heart-attack), it was generally assumed (at least by me) that my skills were lacking.

This all changed, however, when a course on Old Testament history led to a fascination with the Jewish feasts.  I admit that the messianic imagery in each celebration intrigued me and it wasn’t too long before I decided to share my enthusiasm with my family through the only rational means: food.  Borrowing a copy of Faye Levy’s 1,000 Jewish Recipes(a gift I had given to my mother years earlier), I set about selecting a menu for the upcoming holiday of Purim – the celebration of the Jewish deliverance from Haman as recounted in the book of “Esther”.

To say that it was faintly ambitious is a bit of an understatement.  With multiple courses including corned beef (which I would be “corning” myself) and an attempt at pastry in the form of “Haman’s Hats”, the outcome was less than assured.  (I had watched for years as my mother had worked to create the “perfect” pie crust and was under no misimpression that “light and fluffy” was the result of accident or chance!)  Still, the day came and I entered the kitchen with an unprecedented level of confidence and determination.

My mother had once observed that cooking was like chemistry; just follow the directions (within a certain margin of variation) and the result will at least be edible.  Not surprisingly, Mom’s observations turned out to be correct.  I measured each ingredient with unparalleled precision and, when I finished, I had created a feast of culinary delights.  The entire house was flooded with the aroma of a true Jewish feast… or at least as true a feast as could be made in my non-kosher kitchen.

Unfortunately, in my effort to ensure flawless “mixing magic”, I had failed to take into account one other vital meal-planning skill: timing.  As dinner time approached, I became increasingly aware of the fact that I had forgotten to figure preparation time into my cooking times (math was never my strong suit).  While the dishes all smelled wonderful, not all of them were hot (or finished).  I quickly alerted my family to the difficulty and received a pass.  (I think they figured that if the food was edible, it didn’t really matter if the meal was an hour and an half late and served one dish at a time.)

On the whole, my Purim feast was quite a success (the demands of my family that we forgo reading the traditional text in favor of avoiding starvation, aside) and I walked away having proven the old saying that “timing is everything.”  Oh, and I made one more valuable discovery: I LOVE to cook!  The Purim meal was just the start of my culinary adventures and my family has now been introduced to everything from Indian food to homemade sushi.  All this just goes to prove that a little history lesson can result in a globe-spanning adventure!


On Eating Artichokes (And Why You Should Know How to Eat One Before Serving Them to Your Family) August 8, 2013

I admit it: I love Martha Stewart.  Years ago, my mother gave me a copy of “Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook: The Essential Guide to Caring for Everything in Your Home” and I haven’t looked back since.  I devoured the volume, reading it cover-to-cover as I constructed a well-conceived “chore list” which, if followed, would leave my home looking as nice as Martha’s or (dare I even consider it?) my mother’s.

Several years later, my mother made a gift of “Martha Stewart’s Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook” and I was equally delighted.  It wasn’t long before I was cooking like a pro and officially “worshipping” at the altar of Martha Stewart.  The result was that when I walked into the book store and saw a table filled with copies of “Martha’s American Food: A Celebration of Our Nation’s Most Treasured Dishes, from Coast to Coast”, I was immediately enamored.  I reverently picked up a copy and began to leaf through the pages, salivating over dishes like “Grilled Chicken with Spicy Peach Glaze”, “Grilled Bacon-Wrapped White Fish”, and “Grilled Artichokes with Lemon-Oregano Mayonnaise”.

Quickly glancing at the sign above the table, I noted (much to my delight) that the volume was being offered at a special price when purchased in conjunction with a second book of my own choosing.  This seemed the perfect excuse to pick up a copy of “The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs” – a volume which I had been eyeing for over a year.  I left the book store with both volumes securely in my possession and set out for the grocery store to purchase the ingredients for the “Grilled Artichokes with Lemon-Oregano Mayonnaise.”

Of course, the one thing that I did not consider when selecting this recipe was that neither I nor anyone in my immediate family had ever eaten an artichoke.  It wasn’t that green vegetables were rare at our table (I consumed my fair share of peas, green beans, and… ick… broccoli) just that artichokes had never been on the menu.  I carefully followed all of the directions, whisking together the delicious lemon-oregano mayonnaise, then proceeded to the baffling armored vegetable which would serve as our main course.

Removing the outer leaves (even with a pair of razor sharp shears) proved to be a challenge and I confess to being a bit confused when each layer of foliage revealed yet another.  It was as if I were trying to unwrap one of my father’s Christmas gifts: peeling off one layer of paper and opening the box just to find yet another wrapped box nestled inside.  Finally, after paring one artichoke down to the point where there was nearly nothing left, I realized that it was only the visible leaves which needed to be removed.  (This fortunate realization prevented the other artichokes from suffering a sad fate as kitchen refuse and my family from the equally-tragic fate of going without dinner!)

Next, I sliced each artichoke in half, coming face to face with yet another obstacle: the inside of each vegetable was filled with fuzzy “baby leaves”.  In fact, so much of what I presumed to be “the heart” was devoted to these that I found myself wondering how much of the vegetable was actually edible to begin with!  Were any of us really hungry enough to warrant the laborious disassembly of such a cleverly designed plant?

My project, however, was now in full-force and there was no turning back.  Taking a spoon to the fluffy filling, I quickly scooped out the inedible portion, then popped the prepared artichokes onto the grill.  In a matter of minutes, they were ready to be displayed upon a bed of fresh prosciutto.  I served up the meal and watched in delight as my family took knife and fork to it… or at least tried to.

“I don’t think this is right,” my sister observed, after a moment.

I watched as she chewed the still-tough leaves like a bit of gristle.

“Artichokes are supposed to be easier to eat than this.”

My mother agreed and my fiancé shrugged.

“We should Google “How to eat an artichoke”,” someone suggested.

It was such a brilliant idea that I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of it myself.  My mother quickly grabbed her iPad and typed in the search parameters.

What we found was this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mL4RaoSaHu4, a brief and insightful video which explained that we were doing it all wrong.  As it turns out, the armored leaves aren’t edible at all (though according to the medical site that my mother found after we watched the video, the only real danger to anyone who eats the foliage is constipation).  Instead, it is the soft flesh at the base of the leaves which is so deeply prized.  And dipped into a lemon-oregano mayonnaise, it’s even better!  The meal was fabulous and ended with a valuable reminder to look before you eat; using Google isn’t nearly as difficult as eating artichoke leaves!


Aviation Adventures August 1, 2013

Filed under: Aviation — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: , ,

As you read this, I’m packing my bags for a flight home from a writer’s conference.  In a few hours, I’ll be sitting happily in an airport – a Starbucks coffee in one hand and a copy of the Wall Street Journal in the other.  Truth be told, I rather enjoy airports.  I always have.  There’s something about the bustle of activity as people rush through the terminals, stopping to stuff their pockets with junk food to eat on their flight or to pick up a copy of their favorite magazine or the latest best seller.  But even better than that… there are airplanes!

For me, aviation is in the blood.  My great grandfather Gheen was born in 1887 and spent his early years apprenticed to a blacksmith in Osborn, Ohio.  This man (by the name of Snyder) had a vision that someday, men would be able to fly.  Snyder appears to have dedicated a fair amount of time to the creation of a flying machine and Grandpa had the great honor of helping him to build the propellers.

The competition must have been intense, since at the time, two bicycle-makers by the name of “Wright” were busy conducting experiments of their own in a field not too far away.  As the story goes, the two brothers ended up needing some parts for their airplane and, since they were closer to Osborn than Dayton, they turned to Snyder for help.  It fell to my grandfather to deliver these parts to Huffman Prairie where, fearful that he might be spying for the competition, Orville and Wilbur refused him even a glimpse of their creation. As far as any of us know, this is where my family’s involvement with aviation began – but it certainly isn’t where it ended.

During the early part of WWII, my great grandfather Gray (my father’s mother’s father) found himself enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.  A bit of technical genius, he spent his spare time tinkering with fuel systems.  After some experimentation, he managed to create something which caught the Army’s attention – a fuel pump which could withstand the rigors of high-altitude flight.  And it wasn’t long before our airplanes were engaged in a hitherto impossible form of aerial combat.  Whether we’d have won the war without this technology can be debated, but that it made a significant contribution cannot.  A legend was born.

By the time my father came along, the aviation tradition was firmly entrenched.  Growing up near Wright Field where his father worked on experimental aircraft, he became enchanted with flight.  Graduating from college, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps where he trained as a helicopter pilot – an occupation which he continues to enjoy today, as a life flight pilot.  The result, of course, is that my first encounter with aviation did not involve airplanes at all, but these whirly-birds which I affectionately dubbed “whop-whops”.  My Dad had left the Corps by the time I came along, continuing to fly as a pilot for mineral and oil exploration companies and the sound of the blades beating the air into submission was my cue that “daddy” was home.

This exposure led to my own fascination with flight (albeit not so nearly as intense as my father’s) and I embraced each opportunity to pay a visit to the local airfield.  To this day, I need only to close my eyes and I can smell the strong aroma of freshly-brewed hazelnut coffee and hear the chatter on the FBO radio.  It was a great way to grow up and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Several years ago, I was presented with the opportunity to continue the family tradition and learn to fly, myself.  Sadly, I never finished.  The program was aborted due to circumstances beyond my control and time and money haven’t coincided since.  But the vision still remains.  Like Prometheus, the Wright brothers, and my forebears I long for the freedom of flight.  And as my body registers the unique sensation of lift developing beneath the wings of my jetliner, I continue to dream.


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