Stop me Before I Blanch Again

When I post to this blog, I usually do so with the faith that someone else out there is thinking/feeling/doing the same thing, or that at least you might find it amusing to read about what I’m thinking/feeling/doing even if (or especially if) it’s a little off the wall.

But I recognize that there is a line across which laughing along with me turns into shifting uncomfortably in your seat. The smile is still on your lips, but it’s tentative now. You’re not sure what it says about you that you’re laughing at me. You’re looking around for the exits.

I don’t know where that line is, but I’m still hearing folks saying “Right on,” “Word,” and the occasional, “Amen” in response to my posts, so I’m fairly certain I’ve not crossed it yet.

And yet there’s sometimes that question in my mind: Is this the post that’s going to meet with that uncomfortable shifting and polite smiling? Is this the post that someone in real life is going to mention to me and lead me to say, “Oh, my. I can’t believe I said that about myself”?

I don’t think this is that post.

This post is about Rachael Ray and how insidiously her influence has infiltrated my consciousness.

It starts at the gym. I spent 30 minutes running on the treadmill yesterday, which means that I spent 30 minutes watching Dr Oz even though Ira Glass was talking about the 2010 congressional elections on my headphones. Rachael Ray was a guest on this particular show. She was promoting her new book and giving little tips about how to stretch your food dollar. I got two main messages from her. The first was to buy a lot of something when it’s on sale, then blanch it, if necessary, and freeze it, thereby preserving that sale price. The second was to prepare all of the week’s meals on the weekend and essentially eat leftovers all week. These ideas rode the exercise-induced elevated adrenaline levels to my brain where they proceeded to produce new synaptic connections and thereby alter the way I think.

Today, I went grocery shopping.

I went online before making my list and found the current sales flyer, which I read carefully while the words “loss leaders” echoed through my head. After looking at the sales flyer, I wrote on my list things like navel oranges, turkey, and canola oil because they were on sale. When I arrived at the store, I discovered that the items in the flyer weren’t the only items on sale. I also purchased, among other things, two pomegranates, five yams, three bunches of broccoli, and a pound of tortellini in tomato pesto for the kids to eat for lunch.

When I arrived home, I warmed the tortellini and sat the kids down in front of it while I put away the groceries. I froze the turkey wings I bought in anticipation of turkey soup next week. I halved the beef roast and chopped half of it up for stew meat and left the other half for a mini pot roast and put both in labeled freezer bags. I sliced the sirloin steak for thai steak salad and put that in a freezer bag.

It was at about this time that I discovered that my son was chewing up the tortellini then spitting them out and sitting on them, so I took a break to clean that up. Then I cut up and blanched the three bunches of broccoli, and put them in three labeled freezer bags, too. It was as I was putting everything into the freezer that I remembered why it is I’ve never taken this course of action to save money on food before: we have a serious freezer-space deficiency.

I did manage to cram everything in there while saying a silent prayer of gratitude that the dairy-free ice cream bars weren’t on sale.

 

That ice maker isn't hooked up to the water supply. If I could figure out how to remove it to make space for more blanched veggies, I would.

 

 

I’ve been lobbying for a chest freezer for a while. My husband’s reasons for not getting one are decent: he doesn’t want to spend the money, he doesn’t want something else taking up space, he doesn’t want something else using up electricity. He read somewhere that a totally full freezer runs more efficiently than a partially full freezer, and that has become his mantra when I bring up the chest freezer idea. I’ve suggested that adequate airflow is also important for proper freezer function, but he is not swayed by this argument.

I’ve also argued that we could make our Costco membership go further if we had the freezer space to buy perishables in bulk, and that I wouldn’t need to buy expensive frozen berries over the winter if I had ample freezer space to freeze berries when they’re ripe at the farmers market. The berry argument gave him pause, but he remains resolute about his “no chest freezer” stance.

Maybe I should just buy one for him to put under the tree for me.

Dollhouse Dilemma

It’s not really a dilemma. I just like alliteration.

It’s more just mixed feelings about this PlanToys Green Dollhouse on Franklin Goose.

I love the idea of a dollhouse. When I was a kid, I loved arranging the little furniture and playing with the little people, and imagining I lived in the little house. As a parent, I like the idea of giving my children a way to role play family relationships.

On the one hand, I love this dollhouse. I love that it’s wood, that it’s sustainably produced, that it’s open and therefore easy to play with from multiple angles, that it’s solid and built to last through multiple generations. I love that it introduces kids to concepts of “green” building, with the wind turbine and the solar panels and the recycling bin and the rain barrel. And there are passive solar elements to its design. How awesome is that? And we would have built-in gift suggestions for family members as they help us buy the little furniture and accessory sets to add to it. I love it.

On the other hand, I have that emotion that leads me to kind of wrinkle my nose and raise one eyebrow. It’s nothing as strong as disgust. More a kind of self-consciousness about the potential of having such a nice, pricey dollhouse that’s so blatantly “green.” I mean, a passive solar dollhouse? And what about this “green” technology? Will these innovations stand the test of time? Or will my kids be embarrassed to pass this down to their kids because it’s so outdated twenty to thirty years from now? If I bought this, would it just be taking my granola-y middle-class ways to a ridiculous extreme? Is this a yuppie dollhouse?

Oh, how I hate the holiday season. So many things to want! So many opportunities to feed my guilty desire for the acquisition of material possessions through gift-purchasing for my children!

Oh, how I love the holiday season. Such a sense of freedom to consume! Such a great built-in excuse to buy all of those fun things I’ve been telling myself the kids don’t really need! Isn’t one of my personal commandments to “Give until it feels good“? It would feel good to give this to the kids!

Maybe I should just buy the dollhouse for myself. My husband can put it under the tree for me (he’s requested that I just buy some things I want then pass them along to him to wrap and say they’re from him. “It’s like a gift to me not to have the stress of trying to pick something out for you,” he says. Here I thought the gift to him was the two packages of boxer briefs I bought him at Costco).

I’d let the kids play with my dollhouse from time to time, so long as they don’t rearrange the furniture without first consulting me.

Week 17 Review: Utah Snow versus Ohio Snow

Earlier this week, we had a blizzard. It was windy and snowy for about an hour and then it was pretty much done. I was in a few blizzards in Ohio when I lived there, and this one wasn’t much like those. I hear Utah doesn’t usually get blizzards, so perhaps it’s just out of practice.

Now we’re in the midst of a winter storm. It’s not windy, but it’s dumping a significant amount of snow. The kids, my husband, and I all went out to clear the first four inches or so from the driveway and the sidewalks today. Every year I’m reminded how much easier it is to shovel Utah snow than I remember it being in Ohio. It’s just so light here that the “heave” portion of the “scrape and heave” shoveling technique I use is much less painful than it was in Ohio. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s pleasant to shovel Utah snow, it’s less unpleasant than shoveling Ohio snow. I hear it’s also good to ski on.

Aside from shoveling snow and pondering the differences between a Utah winter and an Ohio winter (Utah’s much sunnier, too), I’ve pretty much taken the day off. It seems like it’s been about a week since I worked on my novel, when in reality I wrote just yesterday. I find it hopeful that it feels strange not to be working on it. (Hopeful that I’ll keep working on it even without NaNoWriMo to urge me on.) I suspect, though, that it’s easier to get out of the habit of writing every day than it is to get into the habit of writing every day.

Now that we’re approaching the end of November, I’ve started thinking more about my focus for December: Fun. When I planned that as my focus, I left it abstract, figuring I’d figure out what I found fun sometime between August 1st and November 30th. So far the only thing on my list is the same thing that was on my list on August 1st. And that thing is “reading.” I really enjoy reading. And while I find other things fun, reading is about the only thing I find reliably fun every time I have a chance to do it. I especially like reading novels. It’s like immersing myself in a waking dream or an alternate reality. Writing a novel has been a similar experience for me this month. Why is escaping reality like that so appealing to me?

Watching movies is also fun, but they don’t engage me like they used to. I enjoy crocheting, especially crocheting things for other people, and especially crocheting things which require no further assembly once the crocheting is done. And I like crocheting while watching movies; it doesn’t necessitate being engrossed in the film. Perhaps that’s an option for December.

I realize I’m looking for only those experiences that offer unmitigated fun and rejecting those experiences that aren’t 100% guaranteed to be fun. I wonder why it’s so hard for me to pinpoint what I find “fun”? Maybe my fun focus for December shouldn’t involve following a list of “fun” activities I’ve decided in advance, but rather trying to find the fun in the things I’m already doing, along with adding additional “fun” activities as they occur to me.

All good things to ponder while shoveling snow.

A Warning Unheeded

One of the things I didn’t realize I would get when I signed up for NaNoWriMo was a pep talk from Lemony Snicket. Lemony Snicket, possibly the most ill-fated writer ever born. He took time out from his busy schedule of running away from ill-intentioned people in quest of unpleasant truths he will likely wish he’d never sought, to write a pep talk to me (and everyone else who signed up for NaNoWriMo) trying to talk us out of pursuing a path that would be difficult, painful, and ultimately leave us unfulfilled. I like all of the pep talks I get from NaNo, but Lemony Snicket’s really struck a chord with me. I especially like this portion, which seems to have been written especially for me:

“Of course, it may well be that you are writing not for some perfect reader someplace, but for yourself, and that is the biggest folly of them all, because it will not work. You will not be happy all of the time. Unlike most things that most people make, your novel will not be perfect. It may well be considerably less than one-fourth perfect, and this will frustrate you and sadden you. This is why you should stop. Most people are not writing novels which is why there is so little frustration and sadness in the world, particularly as we zoom on past the novel in our smoky jet packs soon to be equipped with pureed food. The next time you find yourself in a group of people, stop and think to yourself, probably no one here is writing a novel. This is why everyone is so content, here at this bus stop or in line at the supermarket or standing around this baggage carousel or sitting around in this doctor’s waiting room or in seventh grade or in Johannesburg. Give up your novel, and join the crowd. Think of all the things you could do with your time instead of participating in a noble and storied art form. There are things in your cupboards that likely need to be moved around.”

You can read the entire pep talk here.

Unfortunately, I read this caution too late.

50,374 is my verified word count. I’m a National Novel Writing Month 2010 WINNER!

Split Pea Soup with Fresh Peas and Potatoes

(NaNoWriMo Day 26 Word Count: 48,072.)

We loved this soup. Well, the rest of the family liked it and ate it, but I loved it. I ate it for lunch for three days, and I was sad when it was gone. But then, I have a pretty emotional relationship with soup.

The way I made this, it was not vegetarian, but it can easily be made so by not adding the ham shank. But ham shank is really very yummy, so unless you’re really serious about your vegetarianism (or about keeping kosher or halal), I recommend the ham shank. Plus, it’s fun to say “ham shank.”

 

Split Pea Soup with Potatoes and Fresh Peas from Feeding the Whole Family; by Cynthia Lair

Reprinted from Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair (Sasquatch Books, 2008) www.cookusinterruptus.com

Prep time: 50 minutes in pressure-cooker; 1 hour 45 minutes in soup pot (I made ours in a soup pot)

Makes 4 servings (but I doubled the recipe when I made it because we like leftovers)

1 cup green split peas

1 T butter or extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 to 2 t sea salt

1 rib celery, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

2 small red potatoes, cubed

1 t ground cumin

Freshly ground pepper

4 c water or vegetable stock (I used chicken broth)

1 large bay leaf

1 small ham bone (optional; I used a Niman Ranch ham shank. This was another reason I doubled the recipe…there was more meat on the ham shank than I would have expected from just a ham bone. Also, Niman Ranch is yummy but it’s spendy, so I wanted to stretch it a bit)

2 t apple cider vinegar (I used rice vinegar; it’s what I had on hand)

1/2 c fresh or frozen peas

1 T snipped fresh dill or 1 t dried (now that I think of it, I think I forgot this)

Soak split peas 4 to 6 hours in 4 cups of water. This will help digestibility, quicken cooking time, and improve the texture of the soup. Discard soaking water.

Heat butter in a pressure cooker or 4-quart pot. Add onion and salt and saute until onion begins to soften. Add celery, carrot, potatoes, cumin, and pepper to taste; saute 3 to 4 minutes more. Add split peas, water, and bay leaf. Add ham bone, if using, and vinegar.

If pressure-cooking: Bring up to pressure on high heat, then lower heat and cook 40 minutes.

If using a soup pot: Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer 60 to 90 minutes.

Once split peas have softened and the soup has become creamy, remove the ham bone. Cut off any meat, discard skin and bone, dice meat into small pieces, and add to soup with peas and dill. Check seasonings; add more salt and pepper if needed (ours needed more salt). Continue cooking a few minutes more until peas are tender.

Book Review: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Super Sad True Love StorySuper Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book reminds me of both Brothers by Yu Hua and The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, which Shteyngart mentions in the course of the story. It shares with these other two books a similar sense of confusion and well-meaning main characters hurtling towards disaster. I found Super Sad True Love Story to be pleasantly disorienting; it was just similar enough to present day to leave me in a mildly confused state about what was Shteyngart’s dystopia and what was the real world (I remain confident in my ability to tell fiction from reality, it’s just a mild surface fog through which I find it pleasant to rise in the course of my daily reveries).

I read a review that said that Shteyngart had used George W Bush’s America as a jumping-off point for the world of this book. While I did see similar abbreviations of personal liberties that reminded me of the Patriot Act, Shteyngart’s world extends well beyond the political. It took many elements of current society to their logical and often absurd conclusions, elements which include the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, our growing reliance on electronic media and social networks for interpersonal interaction, and the current US recession and housing market implosion. It’s also got a fatalistic edge to it. Even when a revolution does occur, those that take over are just the same as those who were in charge before. The new world is largely indistinguishable from the old. The only thing that’s changed is the names of the major players and the wording of their rhetoric.

I also see it as something of a cautionary tale about what could happen if we continue to rely more and more on the quick, opinion-based media that seems to be attending the demise of traditional reporting and print media. As a newly minted blogger and erstwhile Facebook addict, I took this warning very much to heart. Perhaps that’s why I stayed up until 3am wrestling with my temperamental booklight to finish this book.

View all my reviews

Thanksgiving NaNoWriMo Update

NaNoWriMo Day 25 Word Count: 45,564

Only 4,436 more words to go until I reach my goal!

At this point, I’m just focusing on reaching 50,000 words, not on “finishing” my novel. I don’t feel near done with it. I’ve been writing around the turning point of the story for the past week and am only now zeroing in on it. I’m just starting to get to know my characters, and I really think there’s more left to their story than 4,436 words.

But I’m kind of relieved by that. It would be a little scary, I think, to finish the story before I reached 50,000 words. Then I’d be left staring at the screen, trying to come up with something else to add on to reach 50,000 words.

I’m making an effort to avoid thinking about December, too. I don’t want to get trapped thinking about what I’ll do or not do with this story once NaNo is over. When I do think about December, I find myself spending time on Ravelry planning crochet and knit projects.

Oh, and I’m happy to report that the apple pie I made last night was totally rockin’. Double cinnamon made all of the difference, I think. That and not putting too many apples in. And putting it back in the oven at the correct temperature for another hour after I posted the “done” picture on the Imperfect Happiness Facebook Page. When I went to check and see if the pie was cool enough to put in the fridge for the night, I noticed that the crust was a little doughy around the edges despite being quite brown elsewhere. That’s what happens when the recipe says 325°F, and I cook it at 400°F. After coming back up to heat and then finishing baking, the pie was finally done around 1:30am. But at least I got my cranberry sauce made in that time and got some reading done on the novel I’m currently enjoying (Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart).

Speaking of which, I think I’ll go and eat some pie and do some more reading. There’s not much I enjoy doing more than reading a good novel. Pie’s just the icing on the cake.

Wait, Do I Like Cooking?

NaNoWriMo Day 24 Word Count: 43,589

Crustless GF/CF Pumpkin Pie. If it turns out yummy, I'll post/link to the recipe. Is this something someone who doesn't like cooking would do?

I’ve got a homemade Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Crustless Pumpkin Pie and homemade Pumpkin Pepper Hummus hanging out in the fridge with the store-bought veggie tray and whipped topping (both dairy and non). I’ve got a from-scratch gluten-free, dairy-free apple pie baking away in the oven. I’ve got cranberries waiting to be masticated in the mixer and a recipe for gluten-free, dairy-free (sensing a pattern here?) dinner rolls sitting on the table, hoping to be put to use in the morning. I’ve got an open canister of cashews to my right and a “Slightly Sweet” Oregon Chai with rice milk steaming to my left.

And I’ve got Billy Boy stuck in my head. I always get Billy Boy stuck in my head when I bake pie. You know, “Can she make a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Can she make a cherry pie, charming Billy?” Despite the fact that I’m not making a cherry pie. As I mentioned before, I’m making a pumpkin pie and an apple pie, neither of which I made as quick as a cat can wink its eye. In fact, I’ve been at it for hours, and not always happily.

Which leads me to ask myself: do I like cooking?

I think I do. I mean, when someone asks me if I like cooking, I say, why, yes! I do! I post pictures of foods I’ve made and recipes I like on this very blog. I participate in conversations about food preparation and procurement of exotic ingredients, like maple sugar and dairy-free, trans-fat-free butter. But when I actually go to cook something, I do an awful lot of swearing and taking the Lord’s name in vain.

And then after I’ve made the thing that I’ve been very surly-ly making, I feel somewhat let down. “Oh,” I think. “Is this all?” And then we eat it and no matter how tasty it was, it’s gone now. No trace of all of my work but a drainer full of clean dishes stacked precariously and towering three feet above the countertop because I can’t stand drying dishes. We live in a desert. It makes no sense to dry dishes.

But I digress. The point is, do I really like cooking?

Even with all of this, I still think I do. I think the only reason I get all bent out of shape about it is that I want it to turn out perfectly every time, even if it’s something I’ve never made before. (Speaking of perfectionism, I just took a little break from writing to make a protective foil ring to keep the crimped edge of my pie from over-browning. I could sense from the way the pie smelled that it was browning at a rapid rate, and it still has at least 30 minutes left to cook.) And I want the eating of the food item to be some kind of transcendent experience, something that will be a highlight of our day and make us leave the table wanting to be better people and to help humankind. That’s a lot to ask of a pie.

Instead, it’s usually more like that scene in The Simpsons episode in which Lisa is disappointed because her career aptitude test said she should be a homemaker (“It’s like a mommy,” the school counselor explains). She’s spending the day with Marge, watching what might be in store for her as a future homemaker. Marge has made breakfast and shaped the bacon, eggs, and toast into little faces on Bart and Homer’s plates.

“What’s the point?” Lisa asks. “They won’t even notice.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Marge assures her. Then, of course, Homer and Bart come to the table, scarf down their breakfast, oblivious to everything. I’ve given a fairly accurate and thorough recap, but in case you’d like to see it for yourself:

So, in conclusion, the earlier seasons of The Simpsons really stand the test of time, and I clearly didn’t waste years of my life memorizing the episodes. They come in handy on a daily basis.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Weather Report and Word Count

Snowflake. Small microscope kept outdoors. Sna...

Image via Wikipedia

NaNoWriMo Day 23 Word Count: 41,866

Weather Report: Snowy. But it’s not like the blizzards I’ve been in before. It’s still snowing, but the wind’s died down to basically nothing. Not that I’m complaining.

I’m likely to need to do some negotiating tomorrow between the daughter who hates to be cold and the son who loves to be outside (and the mommy who kind of misses the “curled up under a blanket with a book and a beer” snow days of her early 20’s). I doubt there’s much chance I can convince them to just curl up and nap with me for a couple of hours.

We’ve Nothing to Fear but an Overactive Amygdala

Anterior cingulate cortex.

The anterior cingulate is in orange. (Image via Wikipedia)

NaNoWriMo Day 22 word count: 40,141

This morning, during our daily “Good Morning” phone call (my husband goes to work before the kids and I wake up), my husband expressed concern about some things he’d read in the New York Times.

“There’s a lot of fear in the articles I read today,” he said. He went on to describe two situations in which the writers of various articles were expressing fear. Apparently, a lot of liberals are expressing fear about the current political climate.

Let me note here that this post is not going to be about politics. It’s about fear. I have no desire to discuss politics. It just annoys me.

And then there are a lot of people who are afraid of texting. Well, they’re afraid that kids these days are texting too much and that it’s negatively affecting their brain development and ruining their ability to think deeply and at length about a single topic.

My husband and I went back and forth about whether texting really is turning the brains of the future leaders of our country into little caffeinated prairie dogs. I agreed that it’s likely that the way we use media—including text messaging—today is probably changing the way our brains work. But I’m not certain that’s necessarily a problem. I mean, apparently ancient Greek scholars were certain that the written word was going to change our brains and ruin our ability to think. It has changed our brains, but I would argue that it hasn’t ruined our ability to think (but then, I might be a little biased). I suppose it’s always possible that, if we could look at all of human history from a distant enough perspective, we’d see the widespread adoption of the written word as the beginning of the end of human civilization, but I don’t think we could say that definitively at this point in time.

I also suggested that the people who fear texting are all people over 35 or so who don’t use texting on a regular basis, and so they’ve become Generation X’s crotchety old men railing about the kids today and how we were all so much more enlightened when we were their age because we used e-mail over a dial-up connection and all text glowed green against a black screen.

I wondered more what this multi-tasking might be doing to our capacity for interpersonal connection and our propensity towards reacting with fear rather than calmly analyzing a situation and coming to a rational and compassionate conclusion and, if necessary, solution.

In my spare time, I’ve begun reading How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman. They describe the activity of the anterior cingulate as it relates to the amygdala. The anterior cingulate is a brain “structure that is involved with emotional regulation, learning, and memory.” It also “plays a major role in lowering anxiety and irritability, and also enhances social awareness.” The activation of the anterior cingulate also decreases the symptoms of depression. The amygdala “governs your fight-or-flight response to a perceived or imagined fear.” Apparently, as the amygdala becomes more active, the anterior cingulate becomes less active. The opposite is also true, that as the anterior cingulate becomes more active, the amygdala becomes less active. They also mention that the brain really doesn’t know how to tell the difference between reality and fantasy (hence the “perceived or imagined fear” part of the amygdala description).

Meditation, which the authors define as any sustained focus of your brain regardless of the subject (this can include prayer, yogic breathing, playing a musical instrument, or just contemplating any of life’s “big questions”), increases activity in the anterior cingulate and decreases activity in the amygdala. It seems to me that multi-tasking precludes sustained focus and so potentially diminishes the activity of our anterior cingulate, making us more likely to experience fear and a fight-or-flight response whether a threat is real or imagined.

I’m wondering if the fear that the authors of the New York Times pieces my husband read this morning could be a result of their own personal lack of sustained focus. Maybe their own multi-tasking behavior (which, by all accounts, has become pretty much the norm in American society) has caused their amygdala to work overtime, leaving them more likely to feel fear, irritability, and anxiety than compassion.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t danger inherent in texting or in electing conservative ideologues to public office. There might be or there might not be. It’s the reaction people have to this perceived threat that interests me. If these things—or anything else that people are concerned about—truly are threats, then reacting with fear and anger isn’t likely to help us find a different path to take, and it certainly doesn’t facilitate open and intelligent discussion about the possible alternatives.

I was also thinking that, while I put myself on a Facebook fast for November simply to help give me more time to write while I’m working on my novel, maybe it’s also helping me to have the sustained focus necessary to write a novel by decreasing the amount of time I spend multi-tasking in my daily life. Maybe the craving I’ve been having for a religious or spiritual community and/or practice is also related to a personal need for less anxiety and more happiness. Maybe my brain’s smarter than I realize and knows better what it needs than I do.

I can always hope.