Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thai-style Coconut Shrimp

Here's a recipe idea Ana tossed off in Distant Cousin: Regeneration that some brave soul might care to attempt.

Ana said "I was thinking about coconut shrimp, but with a Thai variation. I had to run to town to get some green curry paste to mix with the coconut milk and whole leaves of fresh basil, like the Thais use...."

We have seen coconut shrimp prepared (it's delicious), so these two modifications shouldn't be too difficult an addition. The green curry paste, however, is hot--as in picante--so caution might be advised.

Coming soon: another cross-cultural recipe idea from Distant Cousin: Regeneration!

Ana's Pizza experiments! One Two Three Four

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Turnabout Time: Ana Has Questions For Us!

1. Ana is fascinated by languages, which is no surprise. She has a question for us:

"I can say 'I will bring a dessert to you,' and I can say 'I will take a dessert to you.' What is the difference between 'bring' and 'take?'"

2. Ana is intrigued by the famous "birthday problem:" how many people must you have gathered together to have a fifty per cent chance that two of them will have the same birthday?

You would think, since there are 365 days in a year, that you would need quite a crowd of people, but not so! You only need 23 people! We have tested this many times over the years with classes of students, usually averaging about 25 individuals, and we have found a match at least half the time. The explanation may be found here.

But Ana has a different question: suppose you have 25 people in a room and no matches. One student walks in late. What are the chances that he or she will have the same birthday as someone already present?

She reasons this way: with 25 people and no match, that leaves 365 - 25 empty days, or 340 days. So when that person shows up, will his or her birthday be one of the 25, or one of the 340? She thinks the odds are 25 to 340 against, or 13.6 to one. Any mathematician will tell you that is correct. Yet the birthday problem suggests that the real answer should be approximately 50/50.

Ana knows that obviously something is wrong with her reasoning. She understands the math in both situations, but not where her thinking is in error. Can anyone explain this to her?

(Explanations here.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A favorite sonnet of Ana's

Ana has been on a poetry kick lately. She's come to love iambic pentameter, of all things, the meter that Shakespeare uses in his plays. She especially loves this line of perfect iambic pentameter (not from Shakespeare):

"Herbs too she knew and well of each could speak."

She saw it on a calendar in a kitchen. The connection to food probably doesn't hurt. Ana loves herbs and spices.

She doesn't often care for older poems, where the vocabulary and syntax can be complex for someone whose native language is Luvit and not English, but here's one she loves. It's well-known--many if not all readers will know it. Fortunately, it's in the public domain, so it can be shown here.

Sonnet 43: How do I love thee, let me count the ways

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being an ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion to put use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's turning out that Ana has a collection of favorite poems. I didn't know that. She's sent me another lovely one, "Vegetable Love," by Barbara Crooker. It would appear that food is one of her favorite subjects! The poem is here. (Click to enlarge the photo of heirloom tomatoes!)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ana responds: Earth & Environmental Damage

Question: I would like to know what Ms. Darcy thinks of what we've done to our environment. Do the Thomans see more that we can do to save Mother earth? (M133d)

Ana Darcy responds:

I have followed the matter of climate change on Earth with interest over the last few decades. It was a new problem to me, one Counselor Hleo and I never could have predicted. There is no such problem on Thomo, partly because of our people's history and partly because of the teachings of the Others, who transported us to Thomo so long ago. Perhaps my perspective as an "outsider" will be of interest.

As I mentioned in response to an earlier question, initially our people were animists. We depended on nature for our livlihoods and worshipped and existed in harmony with it. We no longer worship nature as a deity today, but we still consider ourselves the caretakers of our planet.

Secondly, the Others, who introduced us early on to writing, basic science, engineering, public health, and so forth, helped us understand the long-term consequences of our actions.

Finally, Thoman civilization has never approached the limits of our planet's environment. Our planet is slightly larger than Earth, we make little use of fossil fuels or non-biodegradable materials, and there are too few of us to stress the resources even if we had used them.

I have learned that Earth's environment has suffered cumulative damage over the last three hundred years or so. Over that time, technological progress has largely come at the cost of the burning of fossil fuels and other alterations of the environment. The increase in total human population over that same time span only worsened the problem.

It is understandable why it was not until the scientific advances of the last half century that the problem was identifed. Now, climate scientists generally agree that it is not too late to halt and perhaps reverse the process, and they suggest many methods for doing just that. But so far, little progress has been made.

As I see it, the main obstacle to restoring Earth's environment to healthy stability is summoning the collective will to act on the part of all the people of Earth, and doing so quickly enough to prevent mass climate change and severe disruption of the living patterns of hundreds of millions of people. The scientific, engineering, and economic resources are ready, but only if the motivation to employ them can be found.

I must admit the political and cultural complexities that must be overcome are bewildering to me. My people are basically one culture and one religion, but Earth has so many that their interaction often surprises and confuses me. I worry that there will never be sufficient agreement until the point at which the problems are impossible to ignore is reached. Rising sea levels, damaging storms, failed harvests, with the resulting chaos will surely prompt action. I can only pray it will not be too late.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Another of Ana's Favorite Poems: "Cranberry-Orange Relish"

Ana still has one more reader question to respond to, but in the meantime she's shown me another poem she loves dearly. It's a recipe poem! She says she can practically taste it. She might try it for Thanksgiving.

It's called "Cranberry-Orange Relish," by John Engels. You may find it here.

There are many other delicious and/or exotic recipe ideas in the column on the right, under the photo of cranberry-apple pie!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ana Darcy on DNA and cats

Question: I'm wondering about your natural grace, speed, reflexes, and affinity for cats and other felines, and your dislike of canines. Is it possible that Thomans have used feline DNA to enhance your genetic makeup? (VP)

Ana Darcy's reply: You do me too much honor, sir. Thank you.

I assure you, I do not have feline DNA in my genetic makeup, except for whatever parts of that code humans may share with the felidae. Felines are unknown on Thomo, and their DNA would have been unavailable. Even if it had, its addition to that of a human's DNA would have been extremely unwise.

Our scientists have understood the nature of DNA for many generations, including its role in inherited conditions and disease and its occasional tendancy to mutate unpredictably. Accordingly, Thoman babies are routinely checked before birth to ensure their viability and general health. Ever since our numbers on Thomo initially shrank to precariously small numbers, each individual's life has been considered precious, and worth great cost to preserve. That is why we have not been reluctant to adjust the DNA code of an individual if it was needed.

Over time, several standard protocols have been developed to tweak an individual's genetic makeup. These protocols do not include choice of sex, eye color, or other secondary characteristics. Rather, they are intended to provide a robust variety of types needed by our society: sturdiness, muscularity, speed, and so forth. As soon as my parents learned I was destined to be a rather small female, they opted to modify my genetic code to favor quickness over strength.

As for my love of cats, I have observed that on Earth cats often take a liking to some people, and remain leery of others. I have loved cats since I met the first one in west Texas. They are extraordinarily beautiful animals and I consider myself fortunate that for whatever reasons cats and I bear an instinctive understanding and fondness for each other.

As to canids--dogs--you should know that Thomo has several species of fierce, dog-like creatures which it took us generations to control. Many of us died under their jaws. Our people have a deep, instinctive, collective dislike of them, and I, inevitably, have transferred it to the dogs of Earth. It's not the dogs' fault, and I have, in fact, overcome this to a great degree. My family has dogs and I love them dearly.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ana Darcy on Area 51

Question: You are surely aware of the controversies over "Area 51" and the questions of possible alien landings on Earth. Do you have any evidence for or against such alien landings, given your vigil of Earth and its neighborhood over the last 100 years or so? (FO)

Ana Darcy's reply:

It hasn't been quite 100 years, but it is true that Counselor Hleo has been observing the heavens closely for many, many years. His equipment is not the equal of that which you have in your observatories on Earth, but on the other hand what he sees is unobstructed by any atmosphere, and at least around the immediate environs of Earth's solar system he misses little.

He is aware of the ongoing discussion of possible extraterrestrial visitors to Earth, including that which claims aliens crash landed and were recovered in the United States, to be secretly preserved possibly at the aeronautical test site near Groom Lake, Nevada, known as Area 51. Hleo does not automatically discount such stories. He and I both well know that thousands of years ago aliens did indeed land on Earth, removing several thousand people--our ancestors--to the planet we call Thomo ("home," a cognate of the words "domestic," "domicile," etc.) in order to study them more closely. We know from our own history that aliens do exist.

At the same time it must be said that we lost contact with those aliens over 2000 Earth years ago. We have no idea what happened to them, but the accounts our ancestors have passed down to us suggest they did not resemble the images I have seen of the purported Area 51 Aliens, as I described in response to an earlier question.

Counselor Hleo has asked me to point out that any vessel intending to land on Earth would approach the planet in an easily identifiable way, by slowing down and, almost certainly, achieving an orbit prior to landing. In the years he has been present to watch, he has seen no object exhibit that pattern (aside from the Apollo 11 vehicle, returning from the moon). He has seen, however, thousands of interplanetary objects strike the earth directly, without slowing. As far as he has been able to discern, all but a few have burned up before striking the ground. Those which did not burn up would surely have been obliterated in the collision, at thousands of miles per hour.

Still, the Counselor remains cautious. Given our sketchy knowledge of the aliens who deported us in the first place, he is unwilling to assert that an object streaking straight into Earth at tens of thousands of miles an hour could not contain beings which survived. But he thinks it is extremely unlikely.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ana Darcy responds: Men on the moon?

Question: Since Ana & Hleo were on the moon since the fifties, can they finally settle the debate on whether man has really walked on the moon? (eR1)

Ana Darcy's reply:

I was asleep during the earlier parts of the Apollo program, but Hleo followed the entire project with great interest as you may imagine, since we were under orders from the Council of Clans (of Thomo) to remain undetected. It would have been a problem if Commanders Armstrong and Aldrin had landed right next to us! As it turned out, there was no worry, since the side of the moon that faces the Earth is a very large area, and the odds of their setting down within sight of us were small.

Hleo awakened me to witness the Apollo 11 flight, which orbited the moon. We cannot say we actually saw the lunar module descend to the surface of the moon or Commanders Armstrong and Aldrin walk on its surface--that was well over the horizon from our base. But we did note that the Apollo 13 vehicle did indeed orbit the moon, that the lunar module was detatched during many of those orbits (inluding July 20, 1969), that it had rejoined during the last few orbits, and that the Apollo 11 vehicle returned to Earth orbit. Its landing site was to be the Sea of Tranquility, which is to the northeast of our own base. Our base is in a debris field in Crater Albatagenius, where the shadows make it hard to identify from Earth. Both areas lie along the equatorial region of the moon.

Hleo and I felt privileged to witness the first visit of our distant cousins to another celestial body as a result of their own efforts. (Our Thoman ancestors, of course, had also visited another celestial body, but we were mere passengers then, frightened passengers.) We shared your exhilaration, recalling our own elation when our own ancestors, in the 153rd Generation, developed the ability to leave our planet. Our people were of course driven by the desire to find our place of origin, and that made the expense worthwhile. We can only hope, Hleo and I, that some day our cousins will reciprocate, and pay us a visit in return.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Recipe Challenge: Part IV

We are going to have to sit and think about things after our last experiment with kamut berries. After the previous trial, we decided to use no thyme this time, hewing more closely to the traditional garlic, parsley, and chives (with some scallions added just to be sure). A dash of A-1 steak sauce and a half teaspoon of liquid mesquite smoke were similarly intended to veer slightly from the exotic, countered by the addition of a splash of red wine. One egg was used also, for cohesion (this was another small meatloaf).

The result was tasty, but the texture was still crumbly. The kamut berries were just a little too chewy. Perhaps if they had been cracked, or kamut flour used, it might have been different, but we see no reason to try again. Kamut berries are perfectly lovely, but they might better be used as a substitute for barley, as in soup.

Readers need have no doubts about the recipes given here for frijoles or salsa: those are ancient, tried, and true. Still, it might be fun to attempt another of Ana's innovative dishes, like the cararmelized pork with cilantro and lime sauce in Distant Cousin: Regeneration, or her take on Jamaican jerk chicken, earlier in the same volume. Suggestions and/or reports of reader experiments are invited!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Excerpts from Distant Cousin: Regeneration

Here are two excerpts from Distant Cousin: Regeneration, one early in the story and one from later on. Neither contains any blatant spoiler!


The lunch period at Juarez Academy in Las Cruces, New Mexico, was almost over. It was a small school, and accommodated the entire student body in its cafetorium, the elementary students at one end and high school and middle school students in the other. They had mostly finished eating and were laughing and talking amid the clatter of dishes, utensils, and trays. One ninth grader, however, had quietly slipped out onto the gallery facing the playground, despite the chilly wind which gusted out of the northwest. He was huddled on a bench, bent over a book in his lap, holding down several sheets of paper which he studied closely.
His classmates knew him as Harry Saenz, but his real name was Heriberto. His family liked old-fashioned names. Some were handed down from ancestors but others might have come from the Bible—he had no idea. Although he was one of the many scholarship students at Juarez Academy and had been given a 90% tuition grant, his mother still had to pay the other ten per cent. It was difficult for her, and he was trying his best to fulfill his side of the bargain. Calling attention to his weird name would have been embarrassing.
At some point he realized someone was standing close. He looked up in surprise. It was one of the elementary girls, a fifth grader. She was just standing there, looking at him. He stared back for two beats.
“Hi,” she said.
“Uh, hi.”
“I’m Clio Méndez.”
“Yeah, I know. I know your brother. Julio, right?”
“Uh huh.”
“We, uh, we helped each other with projects last week.”
Everyone in the school knew Clio Mèndez. She was a funny-looking little runt, small, skinny, Spanish-speaking but with chestnut hair too light to be pure Hispanic, kind of a pointy face, and nearly invisible eyebrows over keen pale hazel eyes that seemed to see straight into things. The wind was whipping her hair behind her. The word was she was one of the smartest kids in the whole school, next to her twin brother. She was making him nervous. Why was she standing there? What did she want? What should he say?
“I’m Harry.”
She spoke again.
“You come to school with two dogs every morning, right? Are those your dogs?”
“Huh? Yeah.”
“Where do they go while you’re in school?”
“By themselves?”
“Is it far?”
“About a mile, I guess.”
What was that to her?
“And they don’t have trouble with traffic or other people?”
“And they come back in the afternoon to walk home with you?”
“How do they know what time it is?”
“I don’t know. They just know.”
“How did they learn to do that?”
“I taught them.”
“Awesome. Have you taught them other things too?”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Can you do that with other dogs?”
“Do you like animals?”
“I do.”
“That’s so cool. Can I meet them sometime?”
“The dogs? Uh, sure....”
The bell five feet over his head clanged loudly. He jumped and the wind instantly ripped the notes from under his hands. At practically the same moment, the girl snatched both out of the air, one in each hand. Her body hadn’t moved but suddenly her arms were in front of her holding the flapping sheets by the corners. She put them together and handed them to him with a smile. He took them and looked at her. Had she really done that? Finally the clamor of kids and dozens of chairs scraping the floor leaking through the window behind him called him back to his senses.
“Thanks. Got a math test next period. Better go.”
“Me too. I’ll see you later...about those dogs? OK?”
“Good luck on your test.”


For once, Clio was prepared for a shopping trip. Doña Dolores had given her the addresses of three botánicas between Cloudcroft and Tularosa, twelve miles north, and even called the proprietors to tell them a young friend was coming to shop for her. A little Anglo girl buying medicinal plants might cause questions, even if she spoke good Spanish. Clio had found the addresses on Google Maps, and printed copies to bring along.
The biggest and oldest of the botánicas was in a rambling adobe building on the Hispanic outskirts of Cloudcroft. It was closed for lunch. They drove on to Tularosa, where they located the other two establishments, smaller but each interesting in its own way. Clio shopped enthusiastically but carefully in both, and then in the one in Cloudcroft on the return leg. Her mother waited patiently in the car the whole time.
Clio bought oshá and alta misa de la sierra; she bought ajeño and tronadora, good for diabetes; she bought ponil, the native aspirin, astragalus and mullein, turmeric and olive leaf extract in bulk, all immune system boosters; she bought konjac and pokeweed, for the skin, feverfew, comfrey, ephedra, yerba buena, and toloache, a kind of nightshade and very potent medicine, and a dozen more. When she added four large bags of maguey agave and two of ocotillo blossoms (for sore throats), to the dozens of smaller bags in the trunk of the Corolla, there was no room left and she was out of money. She had spent all her mother’s money as well.
“Thanks, Mom,” she said, fastening her seat belt.
“Did you find everything you wanted?”
“Mostly. That last store even had some Chinese herbs, but we’re out of money. I can get those on the internet.”
“I saw an ATM machine around the corner. I need to stretch. Let’s walk there and get a little cash.”
The ATM was halfway down the block, between a boarded-up business and a bank, which looked closed, at 3:45. Six or seven high school-age boys smoking cigarettes in an alley eyed them as they walked past, but Ana paid no attention.
She walked straight to the machine, fumbling for her card. She was tucking away her cash when Clio shouted.
Ana whirled to see a boy with an arm around Clio, a knife in his other hand. Two more boys were headed toward her at the ATM machine while the fourth stayed behind her daughter.
“OK, mami, hand it over,” said the one on the left. That was the last thing he said.
Ana looked sharply at Clio, turned up her eyes, and fainted, falling to the ground.
At least that’s what the boys thought. By the time she hit the ground the boy who held Clio became aware that some number of his fingers had been broken and the girl had the knife.
Ana landed face down, arms braced against the sidewalk, and whipped her legs under the two boys who were closest to her. She was on her feet again almost before they landed, dropping on one knee into one boy’s stomach and delivering a chop to the throat of the other. Clio’s attacker stood dumbfounded, grimacing in pain. The fourth boy turned and ran for the alley.
Ana caught him before he had gone ten steps. As Clio screamed “No, Mom!” she tripped him from behind. He fell full speed to the sidewalk on his face, crying out as his head bounced to reveal a massively bloody nose. Ana returned to the knifeless boy with the injured hand, her eyes blazing. The kid stared at her in horror.
“No, Mom, don’t!” pleaded Clio.
Ana pushed off one foot in a lunging motion and thrust a fist into the boy’s solar plexus. He doubled over and fell to his knees, retching.
“Mom! Mom!” Clio screamed. “That’s enough! You said only do enough to protect yourself! Stop, Mom!”
Ana glared at the four boys on the sidewalk. She spoke in Luvit.
“Môje desh órhozh nikhda!” (“No one threatens my children!”), adding in English, “Let’s go.”
They headed around the corner to the car. The alley was empty.
Clio got in on the passenger side, ignoring her seat belt. She stared at her mom.
Ana shut her door and burst into tears.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Photo: The Trans-Mountain Road

This photo shows the Trans-Mountain Road, which makes a welcome shortcut from northern El Paso (out of the picture to the right) to Las Cruces (out of the picture to the left). Before it was built it was a 50 or 60 mile drive from one side to the other. The Mendez family, like many others in southern New Mexico, takes this road when they want to get to El Paso International Airport. A memorable bicycle ride occurred there in Distant Cousin: Reincarnation. They often stop at a lookout, not really visible here but at the highest point in the road, for an incredible, 200 mile vista to the south, covering parts of Texas, New Mexico,and Mexico (towards the bottom in this photo). The Rio Grande cuts across the bottom left corner, and Interstate 10 slants diagonally across the photo to the right of the Rio Grande (click to enlarge).

See many other location photos from the book in the right column, under the photo of the blue-eyed kitty.

Photo: The Mesilla Valley

Here's a lovely aerial shot of nearly the entire Mesilla Valley (click to enlarge). (El Paso is not visible, but is downstream, to the right.) Most obvious is the narrow course of the Rio Grande river, which nourishes the Mesilla Valley in New Mexico, with the city of Las Cruces at the left. Our extraterrestrial heroine Ana Darcy* and her husband and family live near the green areas (pecan orchards, mostly) at the center of the photo. The pod is kept in one of those orchards.

We're looking roughly northeast: the scalding sand dunes of the Chihuahuan desert are at the bottom, and along the top, slanting down diagonally, is the tail end of the Rocky Mountains. The darkest mountains are the Organ Mountains, which loom over Las Cruces in another photo in an earlier post. Readers will remember an exciting event at the end of the first volume, Distant Cousin, which took place directly over these mountains. In the far distance, probably 100 miles away, the snow-topped peak of Sierra Blanca is visible, one of New Mexico's excellent ski areas. The large white area, slightly below the top of the picture, is probably White Sands National Monument, a giant deposit of gypsum dunes, which is mentioned in Distant Cousin: Regeneration.