Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Fort Walton Beach post

We are in Florida.  I love Florida.  My spouse, who graduated from high school in Jacksonville after having moved there his junior year, is less fond of it, but I've never lived here, just borrowed it as the location of some of the best vacations of my life. Every other year, my younger sister--who is so good at organizing people that she could be an army general with absolutely no transition and they would eat well, too-- finds us a condo or a house in the Destin area, and we descend en masse.  My mom, my older sister and her spouse and six kids (oldest is 12), me and my comparatively small crew, and my younger sister and her spouse and four kids--nineteen of us altogether.  This year we have an extra girlfriend courtesy of my 18-year-old nephew, and we're minus my oldest niece, but otherwise it is the usual suspects.  We have a blast.  We are in Fort Walton Beach this time, which I actually like better-- slightly less expensive, slightly less developed, and considerably less crowded, even if you do have to drive 20 minutes to get to the movie theater (and for the record, we went to Tangled the first night and all of us, even the dads, enjoyed it thoroughly). 

One of my favorite things is our proximity to the naval base.  I have a lifelong fascination with military aircraft.  Not as obsessive as some of the guys I know who know model numbers and size and how much they can carry, etc etc etc, but just a general fascination.  About six or seven years ago, the Blue Angels came to our small town and I spent four days hanging out at the airport and watching them map out their show.  It was so amazing.  Our neighborhood is slightly elevated from the surrounding area, and we are five-ish miles from the airport, so when they flew by our house, we could sometimes see the guys in the cockpit--one even spotted us and waved.  I pulled over to the side of the road to watch so many times that my son, who was about six at the time and should have been equally fascinated, started getting bored.  "Mom, we watched them yesterday.  Could we just go?"

So when we were here at the beach four years ago, we got to watch the Angels practice every morning at about 9 a.m.  It was great.  But for some reason it hasn't happened the last two times we've been here, which is disappointing.  But there is still an odd assortment of helicopters, fighter jets, and darkly painted fat-bellied planes that fly so low and slow that you can't figure out how in the world they are staying aloft.  So that is one of the cool things.

And then there are the birds.  Mostly gulls, of course, but also pelicans.  I told you I don't like nature writing, so I will not wax eloquent.  But I love watching them. 

And the waves.  It's the Gulf, so they're not spectacular--in fact, when it's still, it's practically like a bathtub out there.  But still they are cool.  The water is so perfectly clear, and it's the light green color of that recycled Mexican glass.  Sandwiched between blue blue sky and white white sand, you can just sit and be mesmerized all day long.

But, lest you feel jealous, I will add that the temperatures were in the 40s the first day, and up to the 50s the last few days but with a stiff breeze that still makes it uncomfortable to be outside unless you are well-jacketed.  Doesn't matter to us, since back at home they've received another 6 inches of snow in our absence and the temperature hasn't come above the mid-twenties, but the rest of the fam, who are from Texas and Louisiana, are bundled and scarved and hatted and still chilly.

The condos have the usual haphazardly stocked kitchens, make cooking a challenge, but one that we seem to have no problem conquering.  The food has been great--my Louisiana sister made gumbo Sunday, the next night we had a smoked turkey.  My contribution last night was based on a Rachel Ray recipe I found in the random collection of magazines that are always hanging out in rental condos.  It's modified since we didn't have many of the ingredients, but it was surprisingly good, so I'm passing it along.  First time ever (I think) for a recipe in this blog.  Nell and I had to make do with an 11" skillet and a 6 qt pot, but it still only took about 40 minutes to put together.  I'm giving you the feed-a-crowd version but you could halve it easily.  Since we have 5 or 6 little ones who hardly eat a thing, realistically this serves 10-12.

Fort Walton Beach Pasta
2 lbs penne pasta (I cooked 3 lbs and it was too much)
1 onion, chopped
2 fat cloves garlic (or 4 skinny ones)
2 1/2 lbs ground beef
1 lb mild Italian sausage (remove casings)
1 t oregano
1/2 t cinnamon (I didn't measure this or the red pepper, so "to taste")
1/2 t red pepper
1/2 C chopped kalamata olives
1 C water or white wine
2 C whole milk
2 small cans tomato paste
2 cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes (well drained)
8 oz feta, crumbled

Soften onions in oil--six or seven minutes.  Turn down heat and add garlic, saute for about a minute, then add beef and sausage, cook until meat is no longer pink.  Drain excess grease.  Add spices, olives, water, milk, tomatoes and paste.  Keep at a bare simmer for about 15-20 minutes while you cook the pasta, heat up some garlic bread and open a couple of bag salads.  Stir about half of the feta into the sauce right before serving, and pass the rest as a topping.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

this post is the equivalent of a test pattern

I thought when I finally got done with this semester I would be euphoric--like I was last week when I finished papers #1 and #2.  But instead, I am so exhausted I'm just numb.  I took my Shakespeare exam on thurs morning (it was fine), turned in my third paper later that afternoon, and drove home in a daze.  I'm pretty sure it wasn't safe.  I wasn't dopey-sleepy (that almost never happens, to my surprise), I was just out of it.  There are two stretches along the highway I drive (which is 70 mph most of the way) where you have to slow down to 45 for about half a mile or so as you drive through tiny towns.  For the first time, when I got to the north end of the lake, I couldn't remember if I slowed down.  I might have, out of habit.  I just don't remember.  which is a little scary.

But anyway.  Today I'm leaving to drive to Seattle and pick up dear daughter, who is also done with her semester (except hers is a quarter), and who did pass Physics, even though she swore she wasn't going to in several phone calls that bordered on ... hysterical.  She has this blog address and if she reads that, she may dispute the term, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it.  I'll be back on Tuesday, and then have three days to finish prep for Christmas, and then we're leaving for a week in Florida, where it may not be particularly warm or sunny, but it doesn't matter because the point is to see my mom, my sisters and their families, who are all much beloved.  So I'm not sure how much I'll be around, after several weeks of already not being around. 

Wishing you and yours a lovely, relaxing, regenerating holiday season, whichever variety of it you celebrate.

Friday, December 10, 2010

writing papers

Having written two papers in the past week, both of them 15 or more pages, and having experienced it as something like a trip to the 9th circle of hell, I thought I would write down some of what worked and didn't work and how I want to do this next one (due on Friday, but I want to turn it in on Wednesday so I don't have to drive to UTown again).  Then I was so happy to be done with the second one this afternoon that I forgot about it.  But fortunately there was a link on Nathan Bransford's blog today to a discussion about editing tricks in his forums this week, and it reminded me, so here goes.  Editing is an entirely personal thing, so this may not work for anybody else, but it will help me to type it out.  If you have any great suggestions based on the way you do it, let me know, I'd love to hear it.  Of course, academic writing is different than writing fiction, but some of it will apply.

Anyway.  As I'm doing my research, I type stuff into a Word document called "Notes" using a table with two columns.  I drag the column over so that the one on the left is only about half an inch wide, and the one on the right takes up the rest of the page.  Then--did you guess-- the page number goes in the left column, and notes in the right.  If it's an exact quote, I type it exactly the way it will go in the paper including the quotation marks, because then I can just cut & paste it when the time comes.  There's a new table for each source, although they're all in the same file.  And I put the complete bibliographic reference above the table, so if I end up using it, I can just cut and paste into the Works Cited page.  Something I haven't done before that I want to do this time is to summarize each source in addition to the page-by-page notes.  With these longer papers, I've read so much stuff while researching that when I come back to it, I can't remember what the article was about.  If I only have a couple of quotes in the Notes file, I have to drag the article back out to get the big picture.

The other thing I do while researching is keep another Word document open that's called "Ideas."  I type stuff that is either a direct paraphrase or a direct quote into the "Notes" file, and type ideas for what I want to say in my paper in the "Ideas" file.  I used to just scribble this stuff on the back of pieces of paper, but it became so useful that now I type it.  The "ideas" file is the one that is the life saver when the paper is due in 24 hours because you had another one due the day before, and you've done all the research but you can't remember exactly what you were going to write about.  I can't tell you how many times I was able to just cut and paste stuff out of the "Ideas" file into my paper and make it work with just a little bit of editing.  Saved my butt last night, for example.

Then when I start writing, I just go.  I try not to worry too much about word choice or phrasing things exactly right, but just get the general flow of the argument.  Word choice is easy to fix later, and fleshing out an argument is easy to fix later, but the thing that makes me practically insane is trying to get that flow, that line of movement, that goes through the text and gets you from one end to the other.  And obviously I do a lot of cutting and pasting here from my two other documents into this one (which is called "Draft," in case you're wondering).  This is the stage that takes the longest--it can take a day or two to get through this for a 15 page paper, maybe 12 hrs or so.  So while I'm doing this, I have three files open.  It gets a little complicated sometimes, but for the most part, it works pretty well.

Then, when the draft is done, I do "Save As" and make a new copy called "Final," and edit it--usually from a printed out copy of the draft, but not always.  Preferably this is done after a good night's sleep so that I'm looking at it fresh.  That takes an hour or two, and then it's done.

But the other thing that's worth noting is the process.  Always, always, always at some point I become convinced that I'm not going to be able to do it.  It's too hard.  In spite of the fact that I've always finished every paper I've ever started in my life, I become convinced that this time it's not going to work.  Actually, this usually hits twice--the first time, toward the beginning, is more about feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work there is to do.  the second one, around the late-middle, is because I'm convinced that it's the worst paper anyone has ever written.  It depends on the paper which one of these is worse-- with the paper I wrote on Romeo and Juliet this past week, the second one was worse.  About halfway through, it was the dumbest, most obvious, least interesting paper anyone had ever written.  But with the Kafka paper, the one I turned in today, the first crisis was worst.  I couldn't get started because I was so overwhelmed by how complex the ideas were and how hard it was going to be to figure out what I wanted to say (and I was right, but procrastinating didn't help any at all).

Hmmm.  Seems like there's something else I was going to add here, but I can't remember what it was.  I may come back and edit this later (speaking of editing).  But I wanted to write this out so I could come back and refer to it when I hit the crisis moments because the next paper starts tomorrow.  (Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow-- we finished with MacBeth yesterday.  Classes are now officially over.)

Monday, December 06, 2010

brief missive from the front lines

well, it is not going all that well in some ways, but in other ways, it's fine.  It is the night before the first paper is due, and that one--although it won't be a work of art-- is going to get done.  I project that by about 1:00 a.m. I will have something that is good enough so that I can go to bed, do some last minute editing tomorrow, and turn in on time.  But the next one, which is due on Thursday, a mere forty-eight hours after I turn the first one in, is a disaster.  But that's not why I thought I would check in briefly.  You already knew I would be panicking at this point, and I knew it, too.  But what is surprising me is this:  the paper I am writing, I like.  The reason why it has been so hard to make myself sit down and do this, to just get it done, is because I was so sure I was going to write a bad paper.  I was so sure it would be awful.  But it's not.  I can't guarantee I'll make a good grade on it, of course, no one can do anything about the grade they're going to receive.  But I can tell that I will be satisfied with the result.  Not as satisfied as I would be if I had given myself more time, but still.  This is OK.  So if I can dig myself out of the mess I'm in right now, it bodes well for next time.  Next time, if I have a little bit of confidence that I can write a good paper, maybe I won't put it off until the last possible second, and I'll have at least a small chance of coming through it with my sanity in better shape. 

so.  that's all.  Don't have time for anything more, honestly.  Just thought I'd poke my head up for a minute.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

November reading report

The only book I finished in November that was not required reading for school:  Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  Loved it.  The main characters are two angels-- Crowley, who was the snake in the original garden scene, and Aziraphale, from the other side, the angel with the flaming sword who guarded the gates of said garden.  They've been hanging out on earth ever since, and they've become a little attached to it.  So when the apocalypse approaches, they start having second thoughts.  As you might expect if you've read any other Pratchett or Gaiman, it is laugh out loud funny at the same time that it is warmly human.

In academic reading, if you're up for it, check out The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, for an interesting take on ecological theory.  He has his moments of being a little too Euell Gibbons like (remember "Many parts of the pine tree are edible"?)-- there's one bit where he describes the strange looks his neighbors gave him when he returned from his travels and was chattering with the squirrels in his yard that really made me cringe.  But on the whole, he does a really good job of mixing science, theory, and a kind of wonder at the web of life in which we are immersed, however much we might try to disconnect ourselves from it.  I've said before that I'm not a big fan of nature writing, but although he occasionally edges over into lala land, for the most part he stays more in the realm of educating than pontificating.  For example, when he talks about a (Malaysian?) woman who is honoring/feeding the spirits of the land by daily refilling small dishes of rice at the corners of the house, he is very careful to maintain respect for the idea behind the tradition as he explains how the local ant population carries off the rice every day.  It's not that she is naive and ignorant and therefore creating supernatural beings out of natural events, Abrams' point is that the ants are the spirits of the land, or part of them.  It's not either science or belief--both are true.  You know I love that.

It's a fascinating book and well worth reading.  I've always been a dedicated recycler, and I try to remember to take my reusable bags into the grocery store with me (have about a 50% success rate), but I confess I've become discouraged over the years about anything I can do as an individual to divert global warming or whatever ecological disaster is your choice.  Abrams renewed my interest in the efforts for their own sake.  (and btw, he doesn't say anything about that, it's just my own response to his ideas.)  I am re-inspired.  For me, the issue isn't looming ecological disaster (too easy to get off on an argument about what and when if you take that route), it's that living in a way that is conscious of the natural world of which we are a part is worth doing for its own sake.  Good read, though difficult at times.

and if you like nature writing, try Mary Austin.  Stories from the Country of Lost Borders and Cactus Thorn.  She wrote around the turn of the last century.  Beautiful stuff about the high desert in California.