Thursday, January 31, 2013

stick with your strengths

Tuesday I went cross-country (XC) skiing.  I usually go 2-3 times per year, and I have for the past 20 years.  So I'm not a neophyte.  But on the other hand, 2-3 times a year is not enough to result in proficiency-- at least not in someone like me, who is not a natural athlete.  I do just fine as long as we're striding along on level ground or going up hill.  But downhill makes me kind of nervous.  The skis are considerably longer and thinner than downhill skis, so they're less stable and harder to maneuver. 

So on Tuesday my friend Joan and I went out to the Pig Farm to XC ski. I have no idea why it's called the Pig Farm because there are no pigs, and it seems to be several hundred acres of forest without a farm in sight.  But since they didn't check with me before naming it, it's not my fault.  I've been there once before for mountain biking in the summer, but I'd never skiied.  I did just fine for the first 45 minutes on the level bit at the beginning, and then the gradual uphill.

But you know.... the inevitable result of uphill.  We kept going uphill and uphill and I was getting more and more nervous because I don't like downhill.  And sure enough, a little more than halfway, the trail started to go downhill.  The good news is that there was considerably less downhill than there had been uphill.  Probably because (the bad news) the first part of the downhill bit was sort of steeply downhill.  And it involved turns.  And the snow was far from ideal-- crunchy and old over ice.  And there were ruts.

So I'm standing at the top of this one particular section and thinking, "I don't have the skills for this.  I should just take my skis off and walk down."  Then--counterpoint-- the thought popped into my head:  "I never take risks.  I never push myself to see what I can do.  I should just DO this.  I can do this!  I can do this!"

The short version of what followed is:  I took a deep breath, thought I can do this!, and down I went.  LITERALLY.  On my ass.  On my knee.  On my right thigh.  And one particularly lovely time, on my face.  I can't believe I don't have a black eye--probably only because I was going so slowly.  Joan told me later she was afraid I'd broken my neck.

If you've never XC skiied before, falling isn't pretty.  Not only because (duh) you're falling, but because it's just about impossible to get up.  You've got those long skinny skis strapped to your feet, and they get all turned around, so you have to get them lined up before you can do anything.  And then you have to make sure they're not pointed downhill when you heave yourself up off the ground, because if they are, you're going right back down.  (trust me.)  It's like that scene on the ice with Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman in While You Were Sleeping, except no makeup artist, no hair stylist, and no Bill Pullman.  Dang it.

So, Moral Of The Story:  Stick with your strengths.  When that little voice in your head says, "I should take my skis off and walk down,"  DO IT.

And believe it or not, that experience helped me figure out how to write the next couple of posts.  Stay tuned.

IN OTHER NEWS....  The proto-yogurt did indeed turn into actual yogurt.  It needs work, but definitely a win for the first time out.  More on that another time. 

And also:  I think I have been falsely maligning our library for years.  I often check their online catalog before I buy a book, but they never have the ones I want.  Today I actually went to the physical building (which is not easy to get to from our house so I haven't been there in a couple of years), and walked back out with five books, all of which I wanted, and at least two of which I'm pretty sure I've searched for online.  Weird, yes?  Maybe not everything is in the online database.  It made me so happy, and brought back many memories of going to the library when I was a kid, when it was like a magic house filled with doors to other worlds.  I am much more optimistic about getting through this year without buying a book.  It might actually happen.  Maybe.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

another cooking post: EGGS and MORE EGGS

So here is the (obvious) problem with me committing to daily blog posts:  I forget.  Honestly.  Monday, I remembered at 11 p.m. that I was supposed to post, which is why there's that badly written post that I dashed off Monday night.  Last night, I remembered at 12:07 a.m.--i.e., it was already too late to post on Tuesday.  Oops.

Now it's Wednesday, and it's only 10:20, but I don't want to write the posts I have in my head, so I'm chickening out (smirk) and giving you my favorite egg recipes (so far), which someone asked for a couple of months ago.  Julie reminded me today about custard, which I've never even tried to make before, so I will do that soon and let you know what happens.

And by the way, the yogurt is merrily souring or whatever yogurt does right this very minute in its little jars in the machine on the counter.  The directions sounded simple, but it turned out to be a little trickier than expected, so I'm not sure if it's going to work or not.  Full report later.

Spinach Casserole - Every time I make this I am surprised at how good it is, because I am not the world's biggest spinach fan unless it's raw in a salad.

1 lb bag frozen chopped spinach (or two 10 oz boxes)
6 eggs
16 oz cottage cheese (Low-fat OK but not non-fat)
1/4 C flour (I haven't tried gluten-free flour but it seems like it would work, or just omit the flour)
2 C shredded cheese, divided (sharp cheddar or a mix)

Preheat oven to 350. Spray a 2 qt casserole with cooking spray.
1. Microwave spinach until thawed (about 4 minutes in my microwave).  Transfer to a colander in the sink to drain.
2. Break eggs into a large bowl and beat lightly.
3. Stir in cottage cheese, then 1 1/2 C shredded cheese
4. Press spinach lightly to remove excess liquid, then add to egg mixture.  Stir with a fork until evenly distributed.
5. Turn into prepared casserole and top with remaining cheese.  Bake for about 50 min, or until the top is browned and the whole thing is bubbly. 

Chile Relleno Casserole
This was ubiquitous in the community cookbooks of my childhood.  I didn't even know that it wasn't "real" chile relleno until I was in college.  This is sort of a work in progress because our eggs aren't uniform in size so it's hard to predict how it will turn out.  But it always gets eaten up.

1 12-oz can evaporated milk
6 eggs
1/2 C corn meal
1 t Worcestershire sauce
1/2 t salt
1 7 oz can diced green chilies
2 C grated cheddar or Mexican blend cheese
Serve with salsa, sour cream, guacamole (optional, but the salsa is highly recommended)

Stir together the evaporated milk and eggs.  Then stir in the cornmeal, Worcestershire, and salt.  Fold in the chilies and 1 1/2 C of the cheese.  Transfer to a baking dish sprayed with Pam and top with the rest of the cheese.  Bake at 350 for about 40 minutes until just set in the middle. Do not overbake. 

Potatoes and Eggs  This isn't really a recipe, but it's MadMax's favorite way to eat eggs so I'm including it.  Peel and dice 3-4 potatoes.  Steam or boil them for 4-5 minutes until just tender.  Heat about a tablespoon each of butter and canola oil for about 5 minutes in a large skillet.  Add the potatoes and distribute them so that they evenly cover the bottom of the skillet.  Let them cook without stirring for about 8-10 minutes, until the ones on the bottom are starting to brown.  Then stir them with a wooden spoon.  Pour in 8 eggs beaten with a little milk.  Allow to cook without stirring for a couple of minutes, then stir the eggs and potatoes together until the eggs are done.  Top with salt and pepper and serve.  You can also add cheese, but MadMax likes it better without.

Maybe I will wait and do desserts in another post after I've tried making custard.  I'm intrigued.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Cooking Grich, part 2

When last we visited this topic, I was griping about the current trend toward making everything from scratch, and how much I wish I was that kind of cook, but I'm just not.  I can't stand spending hours in the kitchen.  What I neglected to mention is that the prompt for that post was reading The Homemade Pantry, which is a truly interesting cookbook by Alana Chernila, who runs the blog Eating from the Ground Up.  She is amazing, and I am jealous.  (Caveat:  I have yet to try a single recipe in this cookbook, I just read it.)

I read lots of cookbooks.  I love to read cookbooks.  I've never been one for following recipes exactly, but I read cookbooks to get ideas.  When I read through a cookbook, I'm looking for simple.  The half dozen recipes out of one hundred that are from-scratch, but only take 30 minutes to make.  Or 15.

What I need to dump is the guilt.  When I read through Alana's book, I can't help but think about how lucky her kids are that they have all this homemade, from-scratch food, and how healthy they probably are.  I use that to beat myself up because I don't even begin to want to cook as much as she does.  I'd rather chew nails, and my poor kids have to eat what they can get at our house.

I'm learning to trust that I have other virtues as a mother.  I don't know what they are, but there must be some, because my kids are doing fine, and they love me and I love them, and we are pretty healthy in spite of our lack of elaborate homemade food.  I have to keep reminding myself of that. And I keep reading the from-scratch blogs and cookbooks, because occasionally among all the more elaborate recipes I get great ideas for from-scratch foods that are actually quick and easy-- like hummus, or guacamole.

Another thing I do: a couple of times a year, I go to the grocery store at a time when it isn't crowded, and I wander through the aisles and read labels.  It is amazing the things that you learn that way.  There are tremendous differences sometimes between brands and different types of food.  There is a brand of ketchup that doesn't use high fructose corn syrup.  There is a brand of frozen hash browns with this list of ingredients:  "Potatoes."  There is a brand of tomato paste that has this list of ingredients:  "Tomatoes."  I try to buy "convenience" foods that have ingredients that are pretty much the same that they would be if I cooked them at home.

As I read through Alana's cookbook, I realized something kind of odd.  I don't mind the idea of making something complicated from scratch if it is something that would only need to be made a couple of times a year or for a special occasion.  What depresses me is the idea of having to make the stuff that we eat all the time.  The idea of being chained to the kitchen for something that we eat several times a week makes me want to run screaming for the hills.

For example.  We are not big mayonnaise eaters.  I buy a small jar of mayo and it lasts for a year. I might put a tablespoon or two in with some tuna.  (Or maybe not, I have a terrific recipe for tuna salad from Nigella Lawson that doesn't use any mayo at all.)  Occasionally I will make a sandwich with leftover chicken and that seems to me to call out for a smear of mayo.  Those are the only two times I can think of that I've used mayo in the last six months.  So the idea of making mayonnaise from scratch sounds kind of intriguing.  Hmmmmm, that might be kind of fun to try.

But we eat lots of mustard.  I buy 3-4 different kinds of mustard, and every 2-3 months, I have to buy more.  Except MadMax, we all love mustard.  So the thought of having to keep us supplied with homemade mustard (which is one of the recipes in The Homemade Pantry) just depresses me.  It would be a never-ending battle.  You'd just get one batch of it made up and you'd have to make another one.  Blecch.

Which makes no sense.  It would save money, and keep all those preservatives from going into our bodies, and keep the mustard containers out of the landfill, and apparently it tastes better.  It would make much more sense to make homemade mustard, and have far more effect on us than making homemade mayonnaise.  But I'm not gonna do it, so there's no point in trying to make sense out of it.  
So it was with great surprise a couple of weeks ago that I realized that I was going to start making homemade yogurt.  Because as much mustard as we go through, it pales in comparison to our yogurt consumption.  I bought a 32 oz container of our favorite yogurt Saturday night and it will be gone after breakfast tomorrow (Tuesday morning)--and Nell is still out of town.  Last weekend I bought a dozen single-serving containers of Greek yogurt and they were all gone by Thursday.

The idea sort of snuck up on me.  The problem is all the little plastic containers.  We can't recycle them here, our recycling people only take #1 and #2 plastic, and yogurt containers are #5.  For years, I've been throwing away dozens of yogurt containers a month, and the guilt finally got to me.  So I started poking around.  Debbie has a great post about making yogurt completely from scratch, without even owning a machine.  I read through it with interest, but decided there was no way I would ever do that more than once, it is way too complicated.

So I broke down and ordered a machine, and it came on Friday.  I think tomorrow is the big day to try it out.  I'll let you know what happens.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Ideals, changing the world, and compromise

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from an affluent family who has no patience with our materialist culture, and so goes on a series of trips with no money and very few resources.  He takes various jobs along the way to pay for necessities as he travels around the Southwest, the Northern Plains, and up the Pacific Coast.  Not long after he graduated from college, he took his final trip, to Alaska.  Injured and starving, he was unable to make it out.  He died four months after he entered the Alaskan wilderness.

He was criticized thoroughly at the time for not knowing what he was doing and making stupid mistakes (and he did make some dumb decisions-- like not taking a map).  But if Krakauer has reconstructed his story accurately, it wasn't stupidity so much as some unwise choices combined with several unlucky circumstances.  As one of the characters in the book says, even veterans of the Alaskan backcountry would hesitate to spend six weeks in the wilderness with no support-- and McCandless survived far longer than that. He wasn't clueless.

McCandless' journey seemed to me to be primarily a desire to prove to himself that he could survive without all the trappings of our materialist culture.  But there was also a huge dose of idealistic, change-the-world fervor involved.  He made a deep impression on many of the people he met along the way (Krakauer interviewed many of them), and his idealism and determination to live his life his own way had quite an effect on people.

McCandless didn't want to compromise on his ideals. He could go to sleep at night knowing that he did nothing that day that contributed to a landfill, or lined the pocket of some captain of industry, or helped to perpetuate a system that oppresses the poor or keeps workers chained to their benches in Indonesia. But because of that purity, he mostly lived alone, as a vagrant, with no home and no more possessions than what he could fit in his backpack.

Are ideals worth that?  McCandless certainly thought so at various different points in his travels. Krakauer makes the case that at the end, McCandless had had enough of such a spartan existence and would have been ready to make some concessions to a more conventional existence if he had survived. (which is disputable, because there really is no way to tell what he was thinking the last few weeks of his life).  But it's believable-- the loneliness must have been unrelenting.  Crushing.  We live close enough to the backcountry here that it's not too hard to get away from cell service, internet, electricity, plumbing, etc.  I love it for a few days.  Or even a week or maybe two.  But four months with no contact with another human being, let alone "civilization"? Even introverted me would be going insane.

The discussion in my YALit class when we read this was fascinating.  Was McCandless admirable? or stupid? or wrong? Some of the class were idealists, too.  They argued vociferously for the purity of McCandless's purpose, his clear commitment to a larger vision, and the unfortunate set of circumstances that did him in.  But the less idealistic of us-- which I'm sad to say mostly seemed to be those of us who were older-- were either more cynical or more experienced or just had a different set of priorities. "He wanted to change the world," one young woman said, "but he went out into the backcountry where he had no contact with anyone, and how is that going to change the world?"

Krakauer tells the story of an extreme climbing adventure of his own.  He also felt he had something to prove, but then two weeks after it was over, he was back to his normal life, working as a carpenter.  Did anything change?  Other than bragging rights, what did he gain?  I suppose you could say he gained the knowledge of what he was capable of accomplishing, and that's not a small thing.  but was it worth the risk he took?  If he had broken his neck and never walked again, would he have regretted it, or thought it was worth it to attempt such a primal challenge?

I'm fifty-one.  I used to be an idealist, many years ago.  I used to want to change the world.  I was raised to follow a man who was a vagrant, who had no money and no possessions, and who required that his followers give up everything to join him--their families, their homes, their jobs.  I exchanged those ideals in my mid-twenties for a different agenda, but I still wanted the world to change.  Reading this book was a great gut-check for me.  I've made many compromises over the years, and most of them are fine with me.  There's not a chance I'm going to sell all my possessions and give to the poor, in spite of a direct command to do so from the founder of my religion.  But it hasn't hurt me to think through some of the "decisions" I've made that weren't so much decisions as just going along with the flow.

Having a family has been worth many compromises.  For me, having a family means having a home, and given the kind of families in which Dean and I were raised, having a home has meant a number of things that would have been an anathema to Chris McCandless-- savings accounts, mortgages, life insurance, cars, and lots of stuff.  I've spent many hours this week re-arranging stuff, getting rid of some of it and moving it around and organizing it.  I'm well aware at the moment of how much stuff is stuffed into this house. I felt a momentary pang for the days when all my possessions fit in the trunk of my car. 

I probably should stop there since this is already too long, but I have one more thought and it's not enough to make into its own post.  So:  literally days after I read this book and found myself thinking about how attached I am to some of the things that we own, we put up the Christmas decorations.  I have three ornaments that I treasure: one that I salvaged from a box of stuff from my great grandmother's house because I could remember seeing them on her tree, and two that I remember from my own childhood.

We also have ornaments that we've collected on our travels over the years: one from our honeymoon, one from our trip to China, one from our trip to Europe two years ago.  And then there's the clear glass ornament with a large black dot painted on the side of it that was MadMax's creation in preschool and makes me laugh every year.  Those objects mean a great deal to me, and not because they are collector's items or because they're worth anything. 

Looking at them reminded me that I'm OK with owning things.  True, they could go up in flames tomorrow, or be lost or broken.  But I like having them. It's one of many compromises I'm willing to live with.  Now I'm trying to figure out if there are any I'm not. Hmmm.  There may be another post about this after all.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Riffday: bar codes, worries, and venison

I got off to a couple of false starts, but I really am going to try posting Monday through Friday for a few weeks until I get through the backlog of posts, because otherwise I will never get around to doing some of them, and often--in distant hindsight-- my favorite posts are the ones that I wrote just because I made myself sit down and start typing.  So here I am again already.  But this one is just a collection of odds and ends.

I had a (thoroughly minor) bad experience on GoodReads about a year ago and deleted my account.  Which wasn't really a big deal since I hadn't used it much anyway.  But I read somewhere a couple of weeks ago that the GoodReads phone app has a bar code scanner, which got my little literary-techie heart all excited.  Oh my word, the fun.  So I've been going around the house and scanning the bar codes of all the books I want to read during my no-book-buying year. There are 92 already. ha. If I make it through 40 of them, I'll be happy.  If you want to follow along, my username is BarbN. 

Several good ideas came in about how to deal with worries (after the don't worry be happy post).  LondonMabel said that the right side of your brain is always in the present moment with no worries about the past or the future. So we don't need to work to learn how to be fully present, we just need to relax into what our brain already knows how to do.  I don't know if this is actually physiologically true, but it's a great way to approach meditation without the stress of worrying about having to learn a new skill or whether or not you'll be good at it or whatever else we worriers can think of to worry about. 

Laurel said in an e-mail: "I really and truly try to suss out "what's the worst thing that will happen if this "bad thing" comes to pass?" and I MAKE myself spell it out.  It's not death, loss of shelter, starvation, etc.  It's usually "embarrassment" or "delay in getting something I want/need" or "I'll have to talk on the phone every day for a week to get it straightened out" or whatever."  Then once you have that figured out, you can figure out if there is something you can DO to solve the problem, and then DO it. 

Which is a great idea.  I've found that action is a great way to stop worrying about something--often a large part of the worry is feeling immobilized.  Doing something, almost anything really, helps with that helpless feeling.  -- which is probably why Debbie's suggestion of cleaning helps.  Even if your worries are unrelated to what needs to be cleaned, the act of doing something reduces the frozen-up, helpless feeling.  And you get a clean bathroom/kitchen/whatever out of it.

Also, Julie wrote a post about three-minute meditation that is worth reading.   It's a good one.

***** If you're vegetarian, stop reading now-- graphic description of meat follows.  :-)

MadMax got Dean a meat grinder for Christmas.  I thought it was a GREAT idea, since the two of them love their hunting time, and they do their own butchering.  In the past, we've eaten the good stuff pretty quickly, and then we're left with quite a bit of less-tender venison we don't know what to do with.  So MadMax thought if we could grind that stuff into burgers and sausage, it would be usable again.  Thus the meat grinder.

But Dean was not all that excited about the grinder.  I didn't really think about it ahead of time, but he is overly busy as it is, and I think it must have just looked like one more thing he had to do.  So--since he is gone this week--I thought MadMax and I would try it out and see how difficult it was.  First of all, it was a MESS.  Oh my word, did it make a mess.  Venison is so lean that you have to grind fat in with it, so we added in some pork sausage, and can I just say.... yuck.  That's probably enough detail right there.

Secondly, it took us awhile to get the hang of it.  As in, at one point we were both mad and frustrated and thinking this was a really dumb idea.  But we did end up with seven full-size burgers and a mini-burger, and in hindsight, it wasn't so bad.  It will get better with experience, I suspect.  When Dean gets home we'll cook them up and see how we did. 

And that's all for me today.  Have a good one.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

for the writers among us

Since I know at least half a dozen of you are writers, I thought you might be interested in the discussion we had on the last day of one of my seminars last spring.  Yup, that's how long this post has been floating around in my head.  I was in the Literature program, but our English department also has a quite well-regarded MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program for creative writers. The MFA students have to take at least 3-4 literature courses during their program, so in almost every seminar I took, there were at least a few, and sometimes a bunch, of MFA students.

I loved having them in class because first of all, they're a talkative bunch, so they always generated lively discussion, and secondly, they often had different and interesting perspectives on what we were discussing because they focused less on literary theory and more on how the work was put together, how the author achieved certain effects.

So anyway, the very last day the professor opened up a free-for-all discussion about the state of fiction today.  In a graduate level classroom, this meant that we were going to discuss literary fiction.  No one had to say that.  Serious literary types do not read genre fiction.  MFA students are the ones that are learning to write literary fiction-- which means that they can be quite snobbish about genre fiction.  I see literary fiction as a genre, but not many do.

We had a discussion here about literary vs. genre fiction awhile back (try this one or this one if you're interested, and on that second one, read the comments).  So most of you know that I am a fan of genre fiction.  I love mysteries and science fiction and fantasy and romance novels.  In fact, literary fiction has become so dismally, drearily despairing (or so weird), that in the past couple of years, when I've wanted a break from my reading for school, I've read genre fiction.  So this is not intended to be a defense of literary fiction. I'm just reporting what they said.

Mostly the MFA students see literary fiction as "real" writing, while genre fiction is just about taking a set of genre conventions and coming up with a new version of them-- sort of like painting on blank canvas compared to paint-by-numbers.  (Genre conventions are the elements that always appear in a work of a particular genre.  In a mystery novel, there will always be a murder, and an investigator, and clues that include red herrings, and a denouement where all is revealed.  You can do some pretty creative things with that set of guidelines, but it's rare to read a mystery novel that doesn't use most of those conventions.)

So here are these kids, who have landed highly sought-after positions at a good MFA program (it was even in the Top 10 a few years ago), discussing the state of fiction today.  I was fascinated.  I was madly scribbling down notes.  The main thing I noted was the changing emphasis on why they write.  Twenty-five years ago, the last time I was in school, the argument for literary fiction would have included something along the lines of "art for art's sake," writing what was in your soul no matter what was popular, ignoring commercial success to stay true to Your Art.

But these kids want their work to be read.  It's not so much that they're after commercial success (although a few of them were unabashedly interested in making money), it was more that they wanted to write stuff that people would read.  "We're trained to write plotless stories," one of them said, "but that's not what people want to read."  (And also, that's not what gets published.)  "You can't ignore readability," another said-- which was a near astonishing assertion coming from someone in an MFA program.  MFA students write lean, spare, elegant prose that captures a particular moment in time.  "The moment after which nothing is the same," one of them described it during another discussion.  They do not worry about whether or not their work is readable.

But they also couldn't understand the attraction of genre fiction.  "In a typical thriller or suspense novel, the conflict is resolved by action," one of them noted.  "What's interesting about that?"  "Why would you want to write something where most of the decisions are made before you sit down to write?" said another (which almost made me laugh, knowing how some of you have struggled to write good, intelligent genre fiction).

It seemed to me that they were describing something of a crossroads in fiction writing-- a new willingness to consider fiction as something that a reader should enjoy reading.  (A willingness to consider the reader, period, I might cycnically add, something literary authors of the past have not really felt they needed to do.)  If they are typical of MFA students in other places, I suspect that literary fiction may be shaken up a bit in the next few years.  Probably few of them have ever read genre fiction, but I would love to hand them some of the books we've described as the good stuff and see what they would do with it.

So, not much else to say, just thought it might be food for thought for some of you.  There were surprisingly few authors they were willing to recommend-- Franzen was pretty universally admired, but all the other names that came up were disputed-- Froer, Eugenides, Paul Auster, A.S. Byatt, Lydia Davis, and Nick Flynn were mentioned.  And that was about it.

Monday, January 21, 2013

fini, finite, terminer, afmaken, acabado, chríochnú

I've had posts floating around in my head for months that I didn't have time to write.  And of course now that I'm finally done with school, none of the notes I've made over the last few months have been enough to entice me to sit down and start writing posts again.  I mean, posts that include something besides updating you on the interminable process of writing my thesis.

So, you get one more of those and then tomorrow I'm going to make myself just sit down and start writing posts.  But this one first, because I have to tell you about the end of the whole thing.

Nightmare stories abound about people trying to write their thesis or dissertation, and getting into messy situations with advisors who are more interested in politics or advancing their own career than they are in helping their advisees.  I know of two students from my own year who have that kind of tale to tell.  So I considered myself supremely blessed to be working with a wonderful advisor who seemed completely OK with my style of writing, and also the unusual thesis topic I chose.  It's not every professor who would be willing to accept 17 pages of HTML code as part of a thesis in Literature.

But last week, things sort of fell apart.  We had a major disagreement over what the conclusion should look like.  I think we were both so surprised that we were disagreeing so strongly after nearly a year of working peacefully together that we didn't really know what to do.  It made that last week extremely stressful.  I think we are both still reeling from it.

However, the absolute deadline for getting everything done was 5 p.m. on Friday, and I sent him a version that he accepted on Thursday.  Then I had to jump through a number of administrative hoops on Friday (i.e., two forms that needed to be downloaded and filled in, scanned and e-mailed back), and was all done by about 3:30.  I called the grad school office at 3:45 just to make sure everything was done.  "Yes," the program assistant told me.  "Everything is checked off.  You're finished.  Congratulations."

*Aunt BeaN dances around the kitchen before collapsing into bed three hours earlier than usual*

*Aunt BeaN sleeps about double her normal amount for the next two days*

If that was all, it would be no big deal that we had disagreed at the end.  But part of my thesis was writing a page of a website, and I'd like to continue to work on the website.  So it's a bit sticky at the moment.  I think it will be OK in week or two.  I don't think he's very happy with me, and lord knows I wasn't very happy with him for about 48 hours last week. But in spite of the disagreement, I'm really happy with how the paper turned out, so it has been easy for me to get over being upset.  If he's not happy with it, I suppose the same may not be true for him.  We'll see.

Anyway, if you're having a moment of boredom and you want to see it, just google "The Joyce Project" and check it out.  My bit is under the "Resources" tab-- the "People in the Novel" list.  I don't want to link to it because I don't want them coming here.  But there it is.  The actual thesis had another 40 pages of writing about annotations and hypertext and etc etc.  But the starting point was creating that list.

Moving on.  Because OMG I CAN!!!  I can just move right along and not even think about that sucker ever again.

Since I haven't done much of anything else besides work on school for quite awhile, I have many projects to catch up on.  When we moved in last January, I never really finished organizing my closet (or anything else for that matter), because we moved on Friday and the new semester started on Monday.  Things are shoved onto shelves and stuffed into corners.  There just wasn't time to do anything else.  So there's that.  And the bathroom cabinets I was going to paint, and the exposed beams in our bedroom that need to be stained, and the carpet that needs to be cleaned (four months with a puppy, remember?).

And then there's the matter of cleaning up.  You all know that housekeeping isn't my thing.  Our house never looks like a showpiece.  But even I have my limits, and this house is way past what I can put up with.  I'm planning on spending the rest of the week just trying to get things cleared up enough that we can eat at the kitchen table again (at the moment, it is piled high with Joyce's biography, three different versions of Ulysses, Gifford's annotations, plus stacks of notes and journal articles and different versions of my paper, not to mention the 16 books we read for that YALit class, etc etc etc).

And then there will be those frequent moments when I stop and look up, dumbfounded, and remember that I AM DONE WITH GRADUATE SCHOOL. 

Oh my lands.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

She rests. She has travelled.

Just mailed the absolute final version of my thesis to my advisor for submittal to the Graduate School.  "Getting on Nicely in the Dark:  The Perils and Rewards of Annotating Ulysses," 72 pages long and most importantly, DONE.

(the post title is one of the last lines of Leopold Bloom's part of Ulysses)(modified for gender :-)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

moving on. sort of.

I feel a bit squeamish about that post yesterday.  I don't mean to make it sound like I've spent my whole life lying to people.  It's just that I'm not a very outgoing person, so it is often easier for me to leave things unsaid that it is to say them.  No worries, I'm not going to turn into someone who is constantly stirring up controversy and starting arguments-- that holds no appeal for me.  I'm just trying to learn to say my piece when it needs to be said.  The moment with my mom was simply another layer in learning what that means.  That's all.

Oddly, I feel more comfortable being controversial here than I do in person--odd, because really this is a much more public forum than I would ever have in real life.  And since you know how tormented I get about posting anything controversial, that should tell you something about how willing I am to argue in real life. :-)  Maybe it's because nobody really argues with me here-- every time I think I'm stirring up a hornets' nest, it turns into a big nothing.  Y'all either agree or are extremely polite.

So what else is going on.  The revisions to my thesis, believe it or not, are still ongoing-- I was sick, then we were waiting to hear from one of my committee members, and then my advisor was sick, and then things came up around here, etc etc etc.  The absolute drop-dead final date is Friday, so it will be done by then.  I was starting to get discouraged earlier this week, because it seems so never-ending-- surely no one has ever had to do this many rounds of revisions before.  But the last e-mail from my advisor yesterday was actually very complimentary, so maybe this is more typical than I realize.  And also, I think usually revisions are done before the defense, and because of scheduling conflicts, I didn't start mine till after.

Whatever.  It's almost over.  I'm almost to the point where I don't care about it anymore, I just want it to be done.

I finally made it to see Les Mis on Monday afternoon.  Good movie.  Film.  Even though I knew I would like the music, I wasn't sure I wanted to sit through three hours of gripping melodramatic trauma-- too much tension in real life at the moment, I suppose.  But to my surprise, it went by pretty quickly.  I am often antsy during long films, so I was glad about that.  And after reading all the disparaging comments about some of the vocal talent, I was surprised to find that they really weren't that bad.  Maybe not Broadway quality, but not nearly as bad as I was expecting after reading some of the reviews.

BeaN family gossip:  Nell is off to her first interview for medical school admissions today, she's driving today and the interview is tomorrow.  Wish her well and say a prayer!  MadMax is home sick today.  Dean is headed off deep sea fishing with his dad next week.  Sadie had an accident inside for the first time in six weeks last night, dangit.  The chickenz are still laying 4-5 eggs per day, and I kind of wish they'd stop.  I can't keep up!  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

say what you mean, mean what you say

It's been nearly a year since the Bettyverse went belly-up.  I'm not going to link to it, but if you google, it still exists as a feed (an active list of links) of the members' blogs, and there is still an active Facebook group (of which I am a member, although my blog is not on the feed).  But the vibrant, funny, enriching community that many of us were a part of for a couple of years is no more.  I miss it, but not enough to continue to follow the woman who was its leader.  I was too disappointed in the way she handled the final episode.

But it was an important part of my life for a couple of years, and some of the topics discussed there changed my life.  The topic of this post--which, simply stated, is authenticity-- is one of those, so this post is dedicated to the group that was, and even its leader.  I greatly admire her, even though I feel too burned to continue to be one of her fans.

Anyway.  When you're a somewhat reserved, quiet person, there is a dilemma to be faced.  It's difficult to get to know you.  I've always understood this, and so I accepted that I just had to put up with the fact that people generally assume that because I'm introverted, I'm also passive and bland.  Since I am unlikely to ever make a public scene, it's just something I have to live with.

But I had moved way past quiet and reserved, and well into the realm of erasing myself.  I discovered a long time ago that in most situations, life is simpler if you just erase yourself rather than adding your voice to the fray of all the people in the room who want their needs to be met.  Since so much of my life is interior anyway, it wasn't all that difficult to do.  I can meet most of my needs myself without bothering anybody else.

The problem with that is that it gets kind of lonely, but it certainly makes life simpler and less complicated.  I remember a therapist saying to me once--probably twenty years ago--when are you going to stop being the garbage dump for all the people in your life?  And me looking at him blankly, because I honestly couldn't think of a reason to stop.  Everyone likes things the way they are, I reasoned, and I don't mind.  I can handle it.

Until eventually I couldn't.

Anyway.  It wasn't until something the Bettyverse leader said early on in the existence of the group that I finally understood what I was doing to myself.  "How is anyone going to know you if you never speak your truth?" she said.  Or something to that effect, I didn't go back and look it up.  It seems so entirely obvious when I type it out like that, but it was like a bomb going off in my head.  The reason why nobody really knew me was because I never let them know. 

So I've been working on that for a couple of years now.  I'm still not great at it, and I'm never going to be an extrovert.  But I've been working on speaking up when I need to, and being more open and honest about what I think and what I want, even when it upsets the balance of whatever group I'm in.  I'm not a blank space.  I'm a person.

I had another major realization about this over the holidays.  I learned this kind of behavior from my mom, who is the expert.  Unlike me--who appears to be sweet to people who don't know me very well, but is really snarky and sarcastic-- my mom truly is a sweet person, who will run herself ragged to help out a friend or her daughter or whoever needs her help.  She is learning as she gets older that she has to take care of herself more than she used to, but she truly doesn't resent it.  I love her and admire her and wouldn't want anyone else to be my mom.

But, like many women of her generation, she is really good at erasing herself to meet everyone else's needs.  I think she's been working on this in the years since she and my dad divorced, but I don't think it will ever come naturally to her to speak what's on her mind. 

I had another bombshell moment when I was talking to her about something or other the week after Christmas and she made a statement, and I realized that I didn't know if she was telling the truth.  I didn't know, because I never know, because she always modifies what she says to meet the needs of the people around her.  There's no way to know what she really thinks.

OH. *dumbfounded look*

Ohhhhhhhh. That's why you need to be honest.  So that when people talk to you, they know you are saying what you mean. They know that they're getting the truth.  Again, it's one of those things that's completely obvious once you know it, but I don't think I got it before.  Until I was in the position of being the listener who really wants to know what someone else thinks, I didn't get why it's important to speak your mind. I never thought of it as being dishonest, I just thought I was being selfless and helpful.  God save us from selfless people. 

Work in progress. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Don't Worry, Be Happy

If you were around in the 80s, you will forever be subject to Bobby McFerrin's goofy acapella version of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" popping into your brain at various different times for no apparent reason.  And I just put it there again, sorry about that. But it's the jumping off point for today's discussion. 

Another phrase popular about the same time was a self-help book titled "Don't sweat the small stuff," subtitled, "It's all small stuff."  You could argue, I suppose, that both the song and the book were a pop culture reaction to some particular social trigger that I can't figure out.  But both McFerrin's song and that book bugged me.  I finally read the book (years ago) just to see exactly what it meant.  I kept waiting for him to say something along the lines of "Don't sweat the small stuff" so that you will have enough energy left for the things that aren't small stuff.  Because some things are actually pretty large stuff.

But he never got there.  He really did think that everything was small stuff.  Based on the examples he gave, it seemed to me to be a blatant excuse for blowing off responsibilities you didn't want to deal with--a difficult marriage, demanding children, a dead-end job--and just doing whatever the hell you wanted.  Which is not to say there isn't a limit to how long you should stay in an unhealthy situation, but just that blowing it off because it's "small stuff" is cowardice.  Man up, as it were.  Do your best to figure things out, and then if you have to exit the situation, own it.  Don't just dismiss your part in it by saying it wasn't important.

So where were we, because that isn't what I was planning to write about when I sat down.  Oh, yeah, worries.  A long time ago I talked about how bad I am at meditation.  That hasn't changed.  But I find the process useful as a way of dealing with worries.  There are things that are worth worrying about-- kids, work issues, plot points in your work in progress-- and sometimes worrying can help you pay enough attention to something to work out solutions. 

But often worrying is a waste of time.  Meditation helps me to sort out what is worth worrying about-- i.e., paying some extra time and attention to thinking about an issue-- and things that I have absolutely no control over and thus are not worth worrying about.  Worrying about MadMax's sudden behavior problems when he was in first grade helped me focus on solutions to the problem (including several conversations with his wonderful teacher); worrying that these behavior issues would cause him to be a social pariah for the rest of his life and he would never have any friends and would flunk out of school and be an utter failure for the rest of his life-- well, that part was not helpful at all.  Especially since the behavior issues turned out to be temporary. 

So even though I was bad at it (meditation), I kept trying.  After several months trying unsuccessfully to do it the traditional way--not that it wasn't helpful, and I learned a lot, but it was so entirely unsuccessful that it was discouraging to keep trying to do it--I hit on a method that worked pretty well for me.  At least once or twice I day, I would just sit down, do a big exhale, and let go of all the things I was stressing about.  Maybe they were trivial things, maybe they were important, but just for a minute or two, I would let it all go. 

At first this was accompanied by having to mentally assure myself that the problems weren't going anywhere, I could start worrying about them again in a couple of minutes, but for just that minute I was going to relax and let them slide off my shoulders.  Sometimes I would even have to spend a minute or two writing them all down, because it was so hard to let go of them that having a written record would assure me that I could remember to start worrying about all of them again when I was done.

But after a few weeks of working on it, I could short-hand all that into the big exhale and just let go.  If you're a religious person, it can be really helpful to tell yourself that you are giving all those things into God's keeping, but it doesn't have to have a religious context.  Either way, it's a way of admitting that I can't control everything, that I'm not in charge, that I'm only playing a small part in the grand scheme of things.  And somehow after I did that, I would be more clear about which worries I needed to pick back up and which ones were not worth the energy. 

Anyway.  I got so intensely stressed this past semester while working on my thesis that I couldn't do it anymore.  I couldn't even let go of my worries--big and small--for a minute.  And I'm paying the price now.  I've had about a month of the worst migraines I've had in years.  I had one this week that might be the worst one I've ever had.  ugh. 

Hmmm.  This one may be continued, because it doesn't quite feel done.  What do you do to deal with stress and worries?

Monday, January 07, 2013

just checking in

We are finally back home again.  We spent a week in Florida, then Dean and MadMax returned home for work and school, respectively.  Nell and I stayed on to visit my younger sister in Louisiana.  We had such a good time--and of course, all that amazing Louisiana food.  The last day we went to Tony's for boudin balls, shrimp, and even crawfish (although since they're out of season, they were little guys).  It was fabulous.  So, no dieting for me, ever again (did I write that post?) but time to get back to...ummmm..... a less celebratory menu.  Ha.

My plan was to write posts five days a week during January (once we got back from vacation), but I'm finding that my motivation is low--possibly influenced by the Mountains o'Laundry that await me, plus piles of mail, Christmas decorations still to put away, etc etc.  Maybe I will start in a few days.  I have lists of posts I want to write on my phone, here on blogger, and in the notebook I've been carrying around the last couple of weeks.  I've been saving up because I just couldn't think about anything else while I was working on my thesis.

In the meantime, here are a few Florida pictures.  The last two days it was warm enough to go without a jacket, but it never really got above 65.  That's OK.  We still had fun.

two of my nieces and a nephew (can you see them?)
Five of Val's six girls
Nell and Dean