The Subtle Science and Exact Art of Potion-Making

My Potions workstation on Saturday night, as class began.

“I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death,” said Professor Snape at the first session of Harry Potter’s potion-making class, and then added, “If you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.”

I hope I was not a dunderhead last night, as I attended a Zoom-based Potions class, run by Defense Against the Dark Arts, a local Harry Potter fan group. The adults-only class was a Hogwarts-themed bartending class, billed as “a date with your potions mistress to brew drinkable elixirs.” Of course, this was all done from our own home-based potions classrooms, via Zoom.

Viktor Krum’s Quidditch World Cup Golden Snitch

Beforehand, we were given ingredients lists for four different potions:

  • Viktor Krum’s Quidditch World Cup Golden Snitch
  • Barty Crouch Jr.’s Polyjuice Potion
  • Neville’s Gillywater
  • Goblet of Fire

That night, we followed along as our Potions Professor gave us step-by-step instructions for making each drink.

The first one was my favorite, probably because Goldschlager liquor was a major ingredient, and I love the stuff. How can you not love a cinnamon-flavored drink with flecks of sparkly gold in it?

My husband Bob was nearby, so I let him taste my various concoctions. His favorite was the very refreshing Gillywater, with plenty of fresh mint leaves and some cucumber added to vodka, along with a few other ingredients.

I disliked the Polyjuice Potion, probably because it contained orange juice, and I’m not a fan of the stuff. Maybe I’ll try again and substitute something different.

The Goblet of Fire tasted pretty good, but it was supposed to light on fire, spectacularly. Mine never did, and a lot of other class members had the same problem. The recipe called for Bacardi 151 rum, which has a super high alcohol content but is no longer available. If I’d had more time and had known while I was shopping that the alcohol content was crucial, I’d have researched enough to identify a fitting substitute. But I just used regular Bacardi, and my drink never burst into flame as it should have. This calls for more experimentation….

In any case, it was an unusual evening, and the most fun I’ve ever had in a Zoom meeting.

February 14 Writer Birthdays

1404 – Leon Battista Alberti, Italian Renaissance humanist author, playwright, poet, artist, architect, priest, linguist, philosopher, mathematician, musicologist, and cryptographer.

1760 – Richard Allen, African-American writer, educator, and minister; one of America’s most active and influential Black leaders, in 1794, he founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first independent Black denomination in the United States.

1811 – Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Argentinian writer, activist, and statesman who was the seventh President of Argentina; his writing spanned a wide range of genres and topics, including autobiography, history, political philosophy, and journalism. (Some sources give his birthday as February 15, 1811.)

1818 – Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) American writer, orator, memoirist, social reformer, abolitionist, women’s suffragist, and statesman who escaped from slavery to became a leader of the abolitionist movement; he described his experiences as a slave in his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became a bestseller and promoted the cause of abolition. He was the first African-American nominated for Vice President of the United States, as the running mate of Presidential nominee Victoria Woodhull, on the Equal Rights Party ticket.

1820 – Kutty Kunju Thankachi, Malayalam Indian poet, writer, and composer who is considered the first female poet of Kerala.

1822 – Susan Archer Weiss, American poet, author, and artist; because she was deaf, she rarely mingled in society beyond a select circle of friends, one of whom was Edgar Allen Poe.

1855 – Frank Harris, Irish-born editor, novelist, short-story writer, journalist, playwright, biographer, and publisher; he was friendly with many well-known figures of his day, including Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

1861 – Andrew C. McLaughlin, Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian, best known for A Constitutional History of the United States.

1864 – Liudmila “Liuda” Malinauskaite-Šliupiene (also known by her pen name Egle), Lithuanian poet and playwright who was one of the first Lithuanian women poets, a pioneer of Lithuanian amateur theater, and an early advocate of women’s rights.

1869 – Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, Russian Bolshevik who was a writer, librarian, teacher, and politician; she was the wife of Vladimir Lenin.

1890 – Nina Hamnett, Welsh artist and writer who was an expert on sailors’ chanteys; she became known as the Queen of Bohemia.

1909 – Carlton Moss, African-American playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker, and professor who was a key figure in independent African-American cinema.

1911 – Sagawa Chika, Japanese avant-garde poet, writer, and translator.

1914 – Britt G. Hallqvist, Swedish writer, poet, translator, theologian, and hymnwriter.

1921 – Paula Gruden (or Pavla Gruden), Slovenian-born Australian poet, translator, and editor who is particularly known as a writer of haiku.

1925 – Waheed Qureshi (Urdu: وحید قریشی), noted Pakistani writer, linguist, literary critic, researcher, and scholar of Urdu literature and eastern languages.

1930 – Shulamith Hareven, Polish-born Israeli poet, writer, translator, journalist, essayist, and peace activist; she also wrote a thriller published under the pen name “Tal Yaeri” and was the first woman inducted into the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

1938 – Syed Mahmood Khundmiri, Indian Urdu language poet, humorist, architect, artist, and orator who was one of the leading Urdu poets of the 20th century.

1944- Carl Bernstein, American journalist and author, most famous for his reporting, with Bob Woodward, of the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post and their bestselling book All the President’s Men, which describes their work in uncovering the facts; Dustin Hoffman played him in the film. Bernstein was married to author, playwright, and film director Nora Ephron, who adapted her book Heartburn, loosely based on their marriage, into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.

1946 – Hanni Ossott, award-winning Venezuelan writer, poet, journalist, translator, linguist, journalist, and university professor.

1952 – George Shannon, American teacher, librarian, storyteller, and popular author of children’s books.

1955 – Claire Cook, bestselling American novelist who wrote her first book at the age of 45, in her minivan while she waited through her daughter’s swim practice.

1957 – Marina Arrate, Chilean writer, poet, literary critic, psychologist, publisher, and professor.

1963 – Caridad Atencio, award-winning Cuban poet and essayist who is considered one of the most important poets of her generation.

1965 – Lucinda Riley, bestselling Irish author of popular historical fiction, best known for her seven-novel series, “The Seven Sisters.”

1977 – Tow Ubukata, Japanese novelist, science-fiction writer, and anime screenwriter.

1986 – Rahima Naz, Pakistani poet who writes in Urdu and Khowar; the most prominent themes in her poetry are love and feminism.


Still Going Postal

I sent this postcard yesterday to a Chinese Postcrosser, a college freshman named Polca.

A few days ago I posted about the Month of Letters, also known as LetterMo. This is a challenge I undertake every year; it encourages participants to write and mail at least one letter or postcard per day (every day that the mail runs) during the month of February.

It’s time for an update. Since my last post on the topic I have mailed something each day. Yesterday, it was a Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck postcard to a Postcrossing college student in China. She said she is majoring in mechanics, but her real love is art, and she’s a big fan of Disney cartoons. Unfortunately, metallic ink doesn’t scan well. The stars in the sky over Mickey and Donald are shiny silver on the actual card, and are kind of cute and sparkly. They scanned black here, which makes it look like Disney World is being attacked by a fleet of Star Wars TIE fighters. Come to think of it, now that Disney owns Star Wars, that might not be inaccurate.

On Thursday I mailed my sister a birthday card (she’s a Valentine baby), and the day before that, it was a Postcrossing card to Germany, featuring a lenticular (3D) photo of a wolf. Today I’m writing a letter to a longtime pen pal.

I admit even that after getting off to a slow start, I have not devoted the time to letter writing that I’ve done in the past few Februarys. I’m sending something each day, but so far only one piece of mail each day, and it’s felt like kind of an afterthought. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad to be doing it. I’d been neglecting my correspondence all year — maybe because being locked down because of the pandemic means I don’t have as many interesting activities to recount in a letter — and I am eager to reestablish communication with my friends and pen friends.

I guess another reason is my new bullet journal. I just started it a few weeks ago and am still getting it set up. It’s been a great creative outlet, one I hadn’t realized I needed. That’s been taking time I would otherwise spend writing letters.

In any case, this is a long weekend, so there is no mail two days in a row. Maybe I’ll be able to put more time into it, and get a head start on Tuesday’s correspondence.

Happy mailing.

February 13 Writer Birthdays

1469 – Elia Levita (Hebrew: אליהו בן אשר הלוי אשכנזי) also known as Elijah Levita, Elias Levita, Élie Lévita, and Eliahu Bakhur or “Eliahu the Bachelor”), Bavarian-born Hebrew grammarian, scholar, and poet, best known as the author of the Bovo-Bukh, the most popular chivalric romance written in Yiddish.

1769 – Ivan Andreyevich Krylov (Ива́н Андре́евич Крыло́в), Russia’s best known fabulist, who wrote fables loosely based on Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s, but was also known for his original work, often satirizing the incompetent bureaucracy.

1879 – Sarojini Naidu (née Chattopadhyaya), known as The Nightingale of India (Bharatiya Kokila); she was a child prodigy, Indian independence activist, and poet, who was the second Indian woman to become the President of the Indian National Congress and the first woman to become the Governor of Uttar Pradesh state.

1881 – Eleanor Farjeon, English author of children’s stories and plays, poetry, biography, history, and satire; many of her works had charming illustrations by Edward Ardizzone.

1891 – Kate Roberts, one of the foremost Welsh-language authors of the twentieth century, she is known mainly for her short stories but also wrote novels.

1903 – Georges Simenon, Belgian author best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret.

1911 – Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Punjabi-born Nobel Prize-nominated Pakistani leftist poet and author; one of the most celebrated writers of the Urdu language.

1932 – Simms Taback, Caldecott Medal-winning American writer and illustrator of children’s books.

1945 – Simon Schama, British historian and author, best known for his multivolume history of Britain.

1945 – William Sleator, American science-fiction author who wrote primarily for a young-adult audience.

1952 – Lung Ying-tai (龍應台), Taiwanese essayist and cultural critic; she occasionally writes under the pen name ‘Hu Meili.’

1957 – Denise Austin, American fitness instructor and prolific author of fitness books.

1958 – Nilgün Marmara, Turkish poet whose works often depicted poverty and chaos, but left the external world behind in an effort to capture the subconscious mind, “turning realism into a self-reflective dream.” She suffered from depression and committed suicide by jumping from the sixth floor of her house; her poetry was published posthumously.

1958 – Lenard Duane Moore, American poet, essayist, playwright, and literary critic.

1959 – Maureen F. McHugh, American author of science-fiction and fantasy novels and short stories.

1961 – Henry Rollins, American spoken-word artist, writer, journalist, publisher, actor, radio DJ, activist, and singer-songwriter.

1980 – Mark Watson, British comedian and author.

Photo Friday: Get Out Your Guitar

I love offbeat holidays. And yesterday was Get Out Your Guitar Day. Yes, this is a real thing. So the photo for today shows guitars. Well, guitar bodies, anyway. I took this one on the Martin Guitar factory tour in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Here are a row of guitar bodies waiting to be made into full-fledged guitars. I don’t really play the guitar anymore, but I did as a child. I received one for my birthday and took lessons from my uncle, who was a high-school music teacher. But we moved away a few years later, and we never bothered to find another teacher. My husband is a pretty good guitarist, and we probably have half a dozen guitars of various kinds in the house, including the one I received as a child. Maybe I’ll take lessons again someday.

I hope you had a happy and musical Get Out Your Guitar Day!

The tour of the Martin Guitar factory in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania is fascinating. If you’re ever in the area, go take a look — but not until after the pandemic; tours have been suspended for now. (When that time comes, you should visit the nearby Crayola Experience factory tour, too.)

February 12 Writer Birthdays

0661 – Ōku (大来皇女 or 大伯皇女), Japanese princess and poet who was the daughter of Emperor Tenmu and older sister of Prince Ōtsu; her best known poem mourns the death of her brother the prince, after their stepmother had him executed so that her own son would become the next emperor.

1567 – Thomas Campion, English poet, composer, and physician who wrote more than a hundred lute songs, masques for dancing, and an authoritative technical treatise on music.

1663 – Cotton Mather, prolific American author, pamphleteer, and Puritan minister who was one of the most important intellectual figures in English-speaking colonial America.

1734 – Innocenzio Ansaldi, Italian painter, poet, and art historian who wrote about art.

1809 – Charles Darwin, English naturalist, biologist, and geologist whose On the Origin of Species advanced the theory of natural selection and became the foundation for the science of evolution.

1813 – Maria Frances Ann Morris Miller, award-winning Canadian artist, illustrator, writer, and poet who is known for her botanical paintings and illustrations; the first professional woman artist in Nova Scotia, she presented her work to Queen Victoria and received royal patronage for life.

1828 – George Meredith, English novelist and poet who was nominated seven times for the Nobel Prize.

1865 – Franciszka Arnsztajnowa, Polish poet, playwright, translator, and suffragist of Jewish descent; she was nicknamed The Legend of Lublin. Much of her creative oeuvre falls within the Young Poland period, stylistically encompassing the twilight of neo-romanticism.

1890 – Kostas Ouranis, acclaimed Greek poet, travel writer, essayist, journalist, and translator.

1893 – Fred Albert Shannon, Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer, professor, and historian whose work looked at American history from the perspective of average people.

1895 – Vera Albreht, Slovene poet, writer, children’s author, publicist, and translator. During World War II, she worked with the Liberation Front of the Slovenian People and was imprisoned by the Italian fascist authorities several times before the Germans sent her to Ravensbrück concentration camp; she survived the war.

1905 – Federica Montseny Mañé, Spanish anarchist, intellectual, trade unionist, and Minister of Health during the Spanish Revolution of 1936 who was one of the first female cabinet ministers in Western Europe and was also known as a novelist, poet, essayist, and children’s writer.

1919 – Subhash Mukhopadhyay, one of the foremost Indian Bengali poets of the 20th century.

1923 – Alan Dugan, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet whose work is known for everyday, no-nonsense language, irony, and a lack of sentimentality.

1929 – Donald Kingsbury, American-Canadian mathematics professor and author of science-fiction novels and short stories.

1932 – Axel Buchardt Jensen, Norwegian author of novels, poems, essays, a biography, and manuscripts for cartoons and animated films.

1934 – Saša Vegri (real name Albina Vodopivec, née Doberšek), award-winning Slovene poet, writer, children’s author, and librarian.

1938 – Judy Blume, influential bestselling American author primarily of children’s and young-adult fiction whose works, including Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, were groundbreaking in their handling of tough issues; a Library of Congress “Living Legend,” she has also been awarded a National Book Foundation Medal for distinguished contribution to American letters.

1939 – Yaël Dayan, Israeli novelist, columnist, memoirist, biographer, and politician; she served as a member of the Knesset and was the chair of Tel Aviv city council.

1945 – Janaki Srinivasa Murthy (nickname Vaidehi), popular, award-winning Indian writer of fiction, poetry, and children’s literature in the modern Kannada language.

1945 – David Small, Caldecott Medal-winning American children’s author and illustrator.

1948 – Ray Kurzweil, American author, inventor, and futurist who is a proponent of transhumanism and has written books on topics including health, artificial intelligence, and futurism.

1949 – Mzi Mahola (pen name for Mzikayise Winston Mahola), award-winning South African poet, novelist, and playwright who was a member of the Black Consciousness Movement.

1951 – Jure Detela, Slovene poet, writer, autobiographical novelist, and essayist who collaborated with poet Iztok Osojnik and sociologist Iztok Saksida in publishing The Podrealisticni Manifest (The Sub-Realist Manifesto).

1960 – George Elliott Clarke, Canadian novelist, poet, playwright, and professor.

1963 – Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award and Newbery Honor-winning African-American author who writes books for children and young adults; her works often explore issues of race and class and tackle subjects that were not commonly discussed when she began writing, including interracial couples, teenage pregnancy, and homosexuality.

1974 – Abdul-Wasa Taha Al-Saqqaf, Yemeni writer, poet, researcher, analyst, and translator.

Throwback Thursday: JFK and Papa

I was recently reminded of a photo I came across a couple years ago. I was doing some research on a 1960 John F. Kennedy campaign tour, and found a newspaper photo of him speaking at an armory in Scranton, Pennsylvania. And I recognized my own grandfather sitting onstage with him! “Papa,” as we called him, was the mayor of his town and the treasurer of JFK’s Pennsylvania campaign.


As John F. Kennedy addresses the audience, my grandfather sits onstage in the front row. He’s the one with the light-colored jacket draped across his knees.

February 11 Writer Birthdays

1783 – Jarena Lee – first female African-American autobiographer and first female African-American ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

1802 – Lydia Maria Child, political-rights activist for the cause of women, slaves, and American Indians; also a novelist and poet; she is best known for the poem used as the lyrics to the song, “Over the River and Through the Wood.”

1898 – Leo Szilard, Hungarian-born physicist, biologist, inventor, and professor who played key parts in the invention of the nuclear reactor, linear accelerator, and electron microscope, and was involved in the first cloning of a human cell.

1900 – Hans-Georg Gadamer, German philosopher and writer.

1909 – Joseph Leo Mankiewicz, American film director, screenwriter, and producer

1916 – Florynce Kennedy, American attorney, civil-rights activist, feminist, and autobiographer.

1917 – Sidney Sheldon, American writer who started out writing for TV, but then moved to his best-selling fiction work.

1931 – Larry Merchant, American sportswriter, television commentator, and boxing analyst.

1939 – Jane Yolen, prolific, award-winning American author of sci-fi, fantasy, and children’s books, as well as poetry; she has won two Nebula Awards, the Caldecott Medal, a World Fantasy Award, a National Book Award nomination, and a Damon Knight Grand Master Award, among others. She has written more than 350 books and is best known for the novel The Devil’s Arithmetic and the picture book How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?

1946 – Jeffrey Gitomer, American author, professional speaker, and business trainer who writes and lectures internationally on sales, customer loyalty, and personal development.

1957 – Pico Iyer, British-born essayist and novelist, many of whose works deal with the crossings of cultures.

1959 – Celeste O. Norfleet, American author of romance novels and young-adult books.

1962 – Sandra Tsing Loh, American writer, actress, and radio personality.

1968 – Mo Willems, American children’s book author and illustrator, best known for the picture book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

Old House Drama

Have you ever been surprised by the contentiousness of online discussions among groups that seem like they should be friendly and innocuous?

I’m on a online discussion for people who live in and love old houses. The site is usually filled with posts from members sharing photos of their lovely old homes or asking for advice on decorating or remodeling. Way too often, it is also the site of outrage from members who are horrified when anyone paints something that was stained wood. This vocal subset of the group believes that wood should never be defiled by paint, no matter how badly it goes with your decorating style or colors.

The same argument is repeated over and over again. Someone posts to say, “I have this mantel (or wainscoting, or dresser) that’s way too dark and doesn’t go with anything else in the room. Should I paint it Color A or Color B?” And then all the Sacred Wood people chastise the poor mantel owner for considering such sacrilege.

Next, the Do Your Own Thing people argue back that it’s her mantel, or wainscoting, or dresser, and she should be able to do what she wants with it. And the Sacred Wood people fire back that you don’t deserve to own an old house if you aren’t willing to keep it and furnish it in its original, period form. And the Do Your Own Thing people respond, “And do you still have an outhouse and light your home with gas lamps?”

And then the moderator stops the conversation because it’s become too contentious.

I find the whole thing hilarious.

February 10 Writer Birthdays

1775 – Charles Lamb, English essayist, poet, and historian, best known for Tales from Shakespeare, co-authored with his sister Mary Lamb.

1868 – William Allen White, American author, biographer, newspaper editor, and politician who was a leader of the Progressive movement.

1890 – Boris Pasternak, Russian novelist, poet, and translator who is best known for his novel about the Russian Revolution, Doctor Zhivago; the manuscript could not be published in his own country and had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union to Italy for publication.

1898 – Bertolt Brecht, influential German poet, playwright, and theater director who is a key figure in 20th century drama.

1898 – Joseph Kessel, French journalist and novelist.

1906 – Adrienne Adams, Caldecott Honor-winning American children’s book illustrator.

1910 – Princess Eugénie of Greece and Denmark, French-born Greek princess and author who wrote a biography, in French, of Tsarevitch Aleksey Nikolaevich, son of the last Tsar of Russia.

1920 – Alex Comfort, British scientist, physician, gerontologist, and anarchist best known for his sex manual, The Joy of Sex.

1930 – Michael Anthony, Trinidad novelist, historian, poet, and short-story writer.

1930 – E.L. Konigsburg, two-time Newbery Medal-winning American author and illustrator of children’s and young-adult books; she is best known for the beloved novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

1939 – Adrienne Louise Clarkson, Hong Kong-born Canadian journalist, broadcaster, and stateswoman who served as Governor General of Canada.

1943 – Stephen Gammell, Caldecott Medal-winning American children’s book illustrator.

1944 – Francis Moore Lappé, American author and food ecologist, best known for the Diet for a Small Planet.

1944 – Vernor Vinge, American computer scientist and science-fiction novelist and short-story writer who has won multiple Hugo Awards; he is considered the first author to present a fictional “cyberspace”; he was once married to science-fiction author Joan D. Vinge.

1946 – Sarah Joseph, award-winning Indian novelist and short-story writer in the Malayalam language who is considered one of India’s leading writers; she is a leader in the feminist movement in Kerala and a political activist.

1964 – Glenn Beck, American conservative media personality and author.

1979 – Johan Harstad, Norwegian novelist and playwright.