TBR List Declutter, Issue 38

Tangent: On Letter-Writing

For the past year, I’ve been exchanging letters with a prison inmate through the letter-writing ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Church of the Larger Fellowship. Because of the circumstances, this is necessarily a pen-and-paper conversation, and for reasons of privacy, it’s one that takes place via a kind of postal game of telephone, my letters going from me to the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston to the prison, and with the return letters taking the opposite route. In the end, though, the letters get through, and we are each holding a piece of paper that the other held in their own hands.

In the meantime, I am connected via social media to friends and relatives who live thousands of miles away from me. We share an emotional closeness, a closeness born of shared blood, shared experiences, and shared friendship, but we rarely connect in the real world.

This prison pen-pal and I share conversation, but we don’t share friendship, and yet by virtue of the paper we pass from one pair of hands to another, we have more of a tangible, physical-world connection than I have with some of the people I love most in the world. When it comes to that, I share more physical closeness with the realtor I shook hands with at the last open house I attended or the person I sat next to the last time I rode on a plane than I do with most of the people to whom I feel closest.

This physical connection is a small thing, but it feels significant to me. Through my various screens, I get information about the people who are most important in my life, but I don’t get the tangible, concrete connection I crave. To close this gap, I’m trying to connect with those I love in the same way I connect with a person from whom I am separated by cinderblock and razor wire.

I’m making a list of about a dozen people to whom I want to write a letter, and I’m setting aside time a few mornings a week to put pen to paper, lick an envelope, and drop a note in the mail, instead of refreshing e-mail, Facebook, and Instagram, e-mail, Facebook, and Instagram, and around and around again in the search for something tangible. I’ll send these letters out and see what happens.

I might be following a false trail, but if it works the way I hope it will, maybe I can regain some of that feeling of connection by putting a paper I touched and onto which I put the words I’d like to say in person into the hands of someone I love.

Visual Interest:

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Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.

Books:

Titles 471-490:

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TBR List Declutter, Issue 37

Tangent:

There are no obvious invertebrates in today’s Visual Interest, so it’s safe to tell you about “Chicken Casserole.” I put “Chicken Casserole” in quotes because I always think of canned soup and noodles or rice when I think of casserole, and in that sense, this isn’t a casserole. Rather than trying to figure out what it is if it’s not a casserole, I just call it a “casserole.”

This is another 100% Trader Joe’s recipe, although it doesn’t have to be. None of the ingredients is necessarily TJ’s specific except the salsa, and really, you can use whatever salsa you want. Ro-tel tomatoes would also work here.

Ingredients:

  • 3-5 frozen boneless, skinless chicken thighs (however many fit in the bottom of the pan in a single layer). You can also use thawed if you plan ahead a little.
  • 1 bag frozen corn
  • 1 can (14.5 ozs) black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 jar TJ’s Garlic Chipotle Salsa, or 16 ounces of your salsa of choice

Place chicken thighs in a single layer in the bottom of a 9×13 pan. Pour corn, beans, and salsa over the top, mixing around a bit if you so desire. It seems to mix itself pretty well while cooking, but sometimes I mix it around just to make it feel like I’m doing more work than I actually am. Just make sure the chicken stays in a single layer.

Cook at 425°F for about 1 hour or until chicken registers at least 165°F on a meat thermometer. I’m paranoid about undercooking chicken, so I usually aim for something closer to 200°F, and it seems to come out fine.

And that’s it. You could probably serve it with rice or something, but we usually don’t bother with anything but a vegetable on the side.

Visual Interest:

 

IMG_20180202_170110

Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.

Books:

Titles 451-470:

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TBR List Declutter, Issue 36

Tangent:

In León, Spain, last November, we’d just eaten a meal that included a selection of cured meats—jamón ibérico, chorizo, lechazo, morcilla, cecina. On the way back through the old part of the city to our apartment, we passed a shop that advertised many of the meats we’d just eaten. According to the sign, they offered several varieties of cecina, including those made from vaca, cerdo, and caballo.

I turned to my sister.

“Caballo. That means horse, doesn’t it?” I asked, although I already knew the answer. She confirmed that it did.

“And didn’t we just eat cecina?” Yes, we had, in fact, eaten cecina.

“Gabby,” I asked, “did we just eat horse?”

We looked at each other for a moment and then turned our attention back to the narrow, cobbled streets of old León.

I was going to use my “Chicken Casserole” recipe for this issue’s tangent, but I’d already chosen the visual interest, and I can’t quite stomach the idea of posting a recipe alongside a photo of a giant grasshopper.

Other cultures eat grasshoppers and horse meat with relish (not with relish the condiment, necessarily, but the other “relish”). How do different cultures decide which animals are food sources and which are companions, which are pests and which are workers, and which are a combination of those?

Nutritionally, eating one animal rather than another makes little difference. They’re all sources of protein, fat, and micronutrients. Why, then, can eating outside of one’s cultural norms not only seem unappetizing but elicit outright disgust? We had just eaten cecina, and we liked it or not for how it tasted and for the mouthfeel and all of those other characteristics of food as it’s eaten, with little to no thought about what animal it came from. Why should it bother us (okay, me. It only bothered me. My sister, my spouse, and even my children weren’t bothered at all) that we might have eaten horse meat?

If cultural norms are so strong that they can induce such a basic physical response as disgust, what other things that repulse us viscerally are equally based in culture rather than a quality inherent the thing itself?

Visual Interest:

IMG_20180212_125557 (1)

Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.

Books:

Titles 431-450:

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Bookends: January and February 2018

We started January with a cross-country road trip, and ended February with the sale of our house in Massachusetts and are only a few days away from closing on a house in California. No wonder I missed posting January’s Bookends. Never fear: Here’s a two-for-one post to catch both months at the same time.

Books I read in January and February:

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TBR List Declutter, Issue 35

Tangent:

We’ve been living in temporary housing for nearly eight weeks, courtesy of my spouse’s relocation package. When we moved to Massachusetts in 2011, that meant living in an extended-stay hotel for two months. Here it’s a little nicer. We’ve got digs—a furnished two-bedroom apartment—in a luxury apartment complex in a neighborhood in which we wouldn’t be able to afford to live if we had to pay the rent ourselves.

The kitchen is stocked with the basics: dishes, utensils, skillet, a couple of pans, coffee maker, toaster, a set of dull knives. It’s enough to get by, but not enough to do any involved cooking, so we’ve been eating the same five meals since we moved in:

  • Turkey burgers with sautéed green beans
  • Roast chicken drumsticks with roast potato slices, baked sweet potatoes, and steamed broccoli
  • Tostadas, which are actually burritos because for some unknown reason the corn tortillas I get here fry up into tooth-breaking disks rather than light, crispy tostada shells, so we wrap the filling in flour tortillas instead. But we still call them tostadas.
  • Breakfast for dinner (pancakes from a mix for the children, steel cut oatmeal with thawed frozen berries for me, sandwiches and leftover pancakes for my spouse)
  • “Chicken casserole” and sautéed shaved Brussels sprouts

Then we start all over again.

We supplement these with lots of fresh bell peppers, cucumbers, romaine lettuce, and ice cream, all of which my children will eat by the heaping bowlful, thank goodness (at least for the veggies), because after eating sautéed shaved Brussels sprouts every week for more than seven weeks, only my spouse can stomach them.

To stock items for this limited menu, we only shop at Trader Joe’s because they have so many ready-prepped options. “Chicken casserole” is one meal that is made entirely with TJ’s-specific ingredients, and I’ll probably tell you about that one in a later post, but for this tangent, I want to tell you about a Daily Special success story: Veggie Rice Salad.

For those poor souls unfamiliar with Trader Joe’s, the stores all have samples available that they call the Daily Special. My children love the Daily Special. Sometimes it’s a hit, and sometimes it’s a miss, but, like playing the slots, it’s the possibility of winning that keeps my children coming back. I never have the Daily Special. I just let the person serving know that my children have carte blanche to eat whatever is on offer while I browse the bagged greens and scrutinize the citrus fruits. So a couple of weeks ago when my children came to me raving about the Daily Special, I was surprised to learn that it was essentially a raw broccoli and cauliflower salad. They had the recipe on little pieces of paper, so I took one and we’ve been making it ever since.

Here are the ingredients:

  • 1 bag Trader Joe’s cauliflower rice
  • 1 bag Trader Joe’s broccoli rice
  • 1 jar Trader Joe’s roasted red and yellow peppers, drained and chopped
  • 1 bunch cilantro, washed and chopped (we’re starting to leave this out because it’s a pain to prep and because I read an article that said recent samples of fresh herbs have been shown to contain Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli, and/or Salmonella. It’s just a small percentage so the chance of illness is very, very low unless you get one of the bad bunches, and I’m not a gambler)
  • Trader Joe’s Green Goddess dressing (the one from the produce cooler), to taste (the original recipe says to use Trader Joe’s Cilantro Salad Dressing, but that has dairy in it, and my kids like the Green Goddess just as well)

Just toss everything together in a big salad bowl, if you have one, or if, like us, you don’t have a big salad bowl, just put it in whatever container you can find that’s approximately the size of a big salad bowl. We use the largest cooking pot we have (but don’t cook the salad). Then make it every week until you are completely tired of it and move on to some other vegetable dish.

Visual Interest:

IMG_20171126_135637 (1)

El Parque Nacional de Picos de Europa, Spain

Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.

Books:

Titles 411-430:

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TBR List Declutter, Issue 34

Tangent:

This is the third time I’ve lived in San Diego. The first was from age seven months to age four, the second from age seven to age ten, and now the third from age forty-one until whenever. Through all of my twenty-plus moves, San Diego is the only place I’ve lived more than once.

In the thirty-one years since I lived here before, a lot of things have changed. There are a lot more buildings, but the KMart I remember is gone. Naval Air Station Miramar is now Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. The Wild Animal Park is called the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. There’s now a highway that runs west to east from Carmel Valley to Rancho Peñasquitos. Heck, Carmel Valley was barely here when I was ten.

Even with all of the changes, I keep running into things that feel vaguely familiar. We drove up to the Trader Joe’s that didn’t exist thirty-one years ago, and I said to my spouse, “This reminds me of where our dentist used to be.” A couple of weeks later, I found out that it was, in fact, where our dentist used to be, and now his son is practicing in the same location. The house we’re buying is less than a mile from the elementary school where I went from halfway through second grade until halfway through fifth, although it wasn’t in 1987 because the house wasn’t there in 1987.

But even in places that are new since I was a kid, it just feels familiar. The quality of the sun is familiar, the smell is familiar, the feeling of heat inland and the ocean breeze towards the coast and on top of the hills, the comforting glimpses of the Pacific in the distance as the road climbs above the canyons.

It’s a strange feeling. I kind of like it.

Visual Interest:

IMG_20180202_091637

Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.

Books:

Titles 391-410:

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TBR List Declutter, Issue 33

Tangent:

I’ve been reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other (which is on my TBR—TBR List Declutter success story!). The book shows many of the ways that technology connects us with a speed and breadth that hasn’t been possible before while also highlighting how we can use this technology in ways that diminish the importance of deep, real connection, both with others and with ourselves.

Interacting on my cell phone, via voice or text, e-mail or social media, I can choose to sideline anyone at any time for any reason. In some ways, this is helpful. I can screen out distractions if I choose to, connect on my terms, and address issues on my own timeline. This can help me cope with the overwhelming volume of information and sparkly things coming at me through my various devices, but it also reduces the need to compromise for my relationships. When I connect on my own terms, I’m not necessarily thinking about the needs of the other person. This way of connecting encourages me to reframe my relationships in terms of my own convenience, which takes away from the give-and-take that relationships require to grow in depth and meaning.

This way of connecting also encourages me to label people as “worth my time” and “not worth my time,” as “toxic” or “sunshine,” when in reality, we’re all a little of each at any given moment. Experiencing both the good and the bad of another person is part of how we grow a relationship, or at least it has been. When I can turn this off and on, I worry that it keeps everyone at an emotional distance. I “connect” online through likes and brief comments and photos, but often this doesn’t feel like connection. It feels like sitting alone looking at a screen.

I’m not giving up my phone or other devices, but I don’t want to use them mindlessly. I want to be aware of how my use of technology affects my connections with other people, and how easy it is for introverted, somewhat socially anxious me to hide behind. I want it to help facilitate connection—real, socially messy connection, not just connection through likes and comments on my curated social media profiles—rather than keeping others at a convenient, comfortable distance.

The Robert Frost poem “A Time to Talk” illustrates for me an agrarian version of the way that I sometimes prioritize to-dos over real-time connection even when those to-dos can actually wait. I’m more often finishing a blog post than I am doing whatever Frost is doing with those hills, but the basic idea is the same. I want to do better about walking up to the wall to connect with my friends rather than just shouting across the field.

A Time to Talk

By Robert Frost

When a friend calls to me from the road

And slows his horse to a meaning walk,

I don’t stand still and look around

On all the hills I haven’t hoed

And shout from where I am, What is it?

No, not as there is a time to talk.

I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground

Blade-end up and five feet tall,

And plod: I go up the stone wall

For a friendly visit.

Visual Interest:

IMG_20171127_161945

Playa de San Lorenzo, Gijón, Spain

 

Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.

Books:

Titles 371-390:

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TBR List Declutter, Issue 32

Tangent:

San Diego is big. The city is very spread out, and while public transit here is either nonexistent or dramatically inadequate, the highways are pretty impressive. They have lots of lanes to choose from and are quite efficient, much of the time.

Although many people I’ve talked to back in Massachusetts gasp when I talk about highways with a dozen or more lanes, I actually really like I-5. At the widest part of the highway (I’ve seen it listed as 20-22 lanes, but I haven’t counted), there’s an “I-5 local bypass” where I don’t even have to get on the highway proper if I’m going just an exit or two down the road. And when I do have to get on the highway, the on-ramps are long. In Massachusetts, I white-knuckled my way onto the highway, praying that someone would let me merge, but here, I use the ramp to accelerate to cruising speed and integrate myself into the flow of traffic, mostly seamlessly.

And while there are some crazy, weave-in-and-out-for-no-apparent-reason drivers and lots of people pass on the right, which unnerves me, the vibe overall is pretty laid-back. I’m still learning my way around, and at times I’m in the wrong lane or something and make a quick change that’s not entirely cool. In fact, I am at times a menace on the road, a scatterbrained driver with two kids talking about warrior cats in the backseat and “más rock…en español!” on the radio who can’t decide which lane she needs to be in to get on I-5 southbound. I know it’s only a matter of time, but so far, I have not been honked at (although my spouse has). I’ve not been given the finger (that I can tell; car windows are tinted pretty dark here). I’ve not been aggressively tailgated in retaliation for some perceived slight. People just let me be an idiot and wave me along in situations in which, had our roles been reversed, I would have totally flipped them the bird.

It seems I’ll have to learn how to be a chill driver after the intensity of Massachusetts roadways. I only hope San Diego highways stay forgiving and don’t take on the characteristics of their sisters in LA and in the SF East Bay (at least as I experienced those highways nearly a decade ago; I apologize if these areas have experienced a change for the compassionate on their interstates and I’ve maligned them unfairly).

Tangent to the tangent: While we were driving in León, Spain, my husband screwed up exiting one of the million roundabouts and accidentally cut off another car. The driver laid on his horn and zoomed up around us into the bike lane to honk some more and tell us off. I’m not sure of the English translation of his hand gestures or the words he was yelling, but I think I got the gist. Given how pissed he was at us, I half expected to see him pointing a gun at us. I wasn’t even aware that I had that fear about my fellow drivers until that moment. But then I realized that we were in Europe and while he might try to kill us in some other manner, the risk of him shooting us was much lower than it would be in the U.S. Yay, Europe!

Visual Interest:

IMG_20180106_091004

A fellow hiker along the trail in Saguaro National Park East. (Maybe a carpenter ant (Camponotus ocreatus)).

Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.

Books:

Titles 351-370:

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TBR List Declutter, Issue 31

Tangent:

“Why does San Diego have to be so sunny all the time?” asked my son. “I wish it would rain more.”

My son is lover of the cold. He dances when it snows, revels in ice, has the sense to avoid coming in out of the rain.

He is having difficulty adjusting to life in Southern California.

I, however, am having less difficulty. Part of it is that I lived in San Diego as a child, for six of my first ten years, in two three-year increments. San Diego is stored in my memory as “normal.” Canyons and cliffs and dry air and constantly moderate temperatures are my baseline. It’s still an adjustment, but I have to remember it’s more of an adjustment for my children.

“I think when I grow up I won’t move at all,” said my son. “Moving seems like a lot of work.”

I forget that the influences in my children’s lives are different than those from my own childhood, and therefore their thoughts and feelings will differ from my thoughts and feelings about the same subjects. A boy who can only remember living in New England might not have the same sense of “home” in Southern California as I do.

My son is clearly a different person than I am. I feel humbled to be reminded of that.

Visual Interest:

From Fordyce Bath House, which was made into Hot Springs National Park’s museum and visitor’s center:

This is the skylight from the men’s bathing area of the spa.

Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.

Books:

Titles 331-350:

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TBR List Declutter, Issue 30

I’ve been lifting in weight rooms since I was fourteen, mostly in college fitness centers. Most of these weight rooms have had ample benches and multiple sets of weights, and most times I’ve had no problem having a bench to myself and accessing the weights that I needed. Even if I got there and all of the benches were in use, I felt comfortable approaching someone and asking to work in (take turns lifting during while each of us rested between sets) and even asking someone to spot me if it was a day when my spouse wasn’t there. This is what I expect when I go to a weight room.

There’s a fitness center in the apartment complex where we’re staying until we find more permanent housing (or whatever passes for “permanent” for someone who’s moved twenty-three times). Usually I work out with free weights at home, but there are some limitations to that set-up (e.g., no bench, no good way to work my lats, only five-pound increments), so while we have access to a fitness center I’m hoping to make some progress I haven’t been able to make lifting at home.

This apartment complex fitness center has weights, but one couldn’t really call it a weight room. There are only two flat benches, one set of dumbbells, and no barbells. Around the perimeter of about a third of the room are resistance machines and the rest of the space is devoted to high-tech cardio machines (and I won’t even go into how I feel about the idea of running on a treadmill when we live in a place with perhaps the most perfect weather in the world).

Maybe due to a sense of scarcity around free weights, people are a little more possessive with their lifting accoutrements.

The men working out seem to be more aware of the weight room etiquette I expect, or at least they’re accommodating when a 5-foot-tall woman asks to use the twenties sitting by their feet while they’re between sets. But I find that the women are a different story.

This morning when I arrived at the gym there was a man using one of the benches and a woman standing next to a bench doing squats. It was chest and triceps day, so I definitely needed a bench. Since the woman doing squats wasn’t actively using the bench, I approached her (her name was Heather*. I know because it was painted in script on her plastic straw cup).

“Are you using this bench?” I asked.

Heather looked at me unsmiling and said, “Fine, go ahead,” and started to pick up her weights.

Now, maybe I was just sensing brusqueness that wasn’t there, but she seemed put-out to me.

“We can work in—take turns—if you need the bench,” I offered, but she was already moving, head down, to the area behind the benches where she continued her lower-body workout. By the time she needed a bench, the man using the other bench was done, and we both had a bench to use. So, it worked out, but she refused to make eye contact with me the rest of the time.

The interaction left me confused. I can’t figure out if I read the situation wrong or if it was just her personality. Maybe it was a difference in expectations for shared equipment or a difference in culture between a college gym and an apartment complex fitness center, or maybe she was intimidated by my upper arms, which I can’t really hold against my sides anymore because they’re so muscular. If I really wanted to know if it was a culture/etiquette thing, I would try to engage fellow lifters in conversation to get a sense for general expectations, but knowing myself, it’s more likely that I’ll just try to lift during a time when no one else is there.

Enough of the weight-lifting tangent. On to the visual interest, another sunset, this one while we were at the playground:

IMG_20180117_163529

I assume that I will eventually cease to notice San Diego sunsets, or at least cease to be breathless at their beauty, but for now, I remain short of breath every evening.

Where were we?

  • Tangent – check!
  • Visual Interest – check!
  • Books – Ah, yes. That’s the point of this whole thing. On to the next twenty titles!

Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.

Titles 311-330:

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