Friday, November 29, 2013


At the risk of stating the obvious, I will point out that it is November 29th, and since tomorrow is the 30th, National Blog Posting Month is almost over. In my own version of it--posting on weekdays only--this is my last post for NaBloPoMo. So you would think that I would have saved up some important, significant, interesting thing to say, but that would not be the case. Possibly because I ate too much last night and am still in a fog of carbohydrates and saturated fat. The problem with doing a group Thanksgiving is that each of us makes enough to feed the group, so we end up with enough food for triple the number of people we have. Seriously, there were eighteen of us, and there was easily enough food for fifty. *groan*

We had a great time, though, and we have enough leftovers to feed us all day today.

Blatant bid for sympathy: I'm having periodontal surgery next week (gum grafts, if you have advice or experience please comment). I am in a complete panic about it because I hate even having my teeth cleaned, so lord only knows how I will get through this. There was an option to be "out" while they were doing it, but it was considerably more expensive, so I decided to just go with the drugs. It's only 90 minutes. I can do that. I think.

So who knows when I will post again. Maybe tomorrow. ha. Hugs and kisses to all my readers and thank you for hanging in there this month through some pretty obscure shit. Oops I said shit.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

it's a dog's life, and the chickens, too

There are two points around which our dogs' days center. I'm sure they have secret dog rituals that we know nothing about, but these are the two things that must happen on the days when I am home (and since I don't work, that is most days).

First is the ritual trip down to the hen house. This is known as "checking on the chickens." Sadie, who is brilliant about certain things, has not yet figured out human words, but Jazz knows from long experience that when I say, "Should we go down and check on the chickens?" it's time to become irrationally excited!! Doggy woot!! Sadie picks up the idea from human cues--I'm putting on my sloggers, getting out my gloves, looking for my sunglasses. Pretty soon they are so excited that I have to let them out ahead of me so I can finish getting ready in peace.

The second sacred ritual is their evening treat. Sometime around 7 p.m., they start dancing around again, pushing their noses at me, and making funny little half-whiney noises at the back of their throats. If I didn't know better, I'd think they needed to go outside. But that's not it, it's time for their treats. They each get four little "snacks," and it has to be one for Jazz, one for Sadie, one for Jazz, one for Sadie, etc. Then they get a Dingo chew stick. Probably a bit excessive, but it got started a long time ago and there's no changing it now. They're a mite spoiled.

Checking on the chickens was a bit different this morning. We had our first really cold night last night--down into single digits. When I got down there this morning, even the water inside the henhouse was frozen. They have a water bowl that is heated, so they weren't without water, but their main water supply was frozen solid. Time to change the heat lamp that heats the henhouse--even though it was on, it clearly wasn't doing its job. The cold doesn't seem to bother the chickens, though. There were still four eggs to gather, and when I opened the door to the coop they headed right out. Hmmm. Maybe I will take pictures to go with this post.

MadMax's old trampoline sits next to the henhouse, and I give them their scratch under the trampoline. I guess I had some idea that it would protect them from owls and hawks while they were eating, and so far it has worked. The entire time that I am feeding the chickens, checking their water, gathering the eggs, and cleaning out their, um, poo, I am also throwing a tennis ball for Sadie. If I throw the ball unaided, it goes about ten feet. But we have one of those chucker things, and with that, I can sometimes manage to heave it all the way across the garden and into the un-mowed field. This whole process takes about 15-20 minutes, and then we go back inside and everyone is happy.

Until 7, when it is time for treats. I don't know how we stand the excitement.

(click on a picture to enlarge it)

Excited Sadie with tennis ball

The chickens waiting to be let out in the morning

That is the tramp over to the left, and Jazz behind the coop. The blue
dish to the right of the henhouse is their heated water bowl.

Can you see the tennis ball on top of the ice? Drove Sadie nuts.
We wouldn't let her go out on the ice because neither of us wanted to go in after her!
MadMax managed to get it back to the side of the pond by throwing rocks at it.

MadMax demonstrating the thickness of the ice--he drilled
through with the ice fishing auger

Chicken red light district--when we go down to shut the coop door
at night all you can see is the heat lamp

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

for the love of Mike, it's Words on Wednesday

I'm working on a list of words that look like they're spelled wrong. Feel free to add to it in the comments.

tendinitis (base word is tendon)
maintenance (base word is maintain)
restaurateur (base word is restaurant)
fiery (base word is fire)
memento (which we've talked about before)
pronunciation (based on pronounce)

And then there's supersede with an 's', but precede, recede, accede, and exceed with a 'c.' Dang it.

"Sacrilegious" always gets me because it seems like it should be based on religious, but of course it's based on sacrilege, which oddly, I don't misspell.

And even though I know the i-before-e rule, I still always get weird and niece wrong. "Weird" is the exception, obviously, but the word is weird-- It should be an exception. Not sure why I can't remember that. "Niece" fits the rule, but I always have to think it out in my head when I'm typing it.

After googling around for words other people find hard to spell, I am now thoroughly confused and probably won't be able to spell words I previously didn't think about: rhythm, colonel, sergeant, acquire, daiquiri, license, maneuver, business, bureau.

Then there are the ones that are confusing because of double letters: occurrence, embarrass, accommodation, recommend, necessary, occasion. And threshold, which seems like it should have a double 'h' in the middle (thresh-hold) but doesn't.

And ophthalmologist. That one's just hopeless.

I used to be really good at spelling, but as my brain cells die off, I'm becoming more and more reliant on spell check. Hey, there's something I'm thankful for-- spell check.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the USA, and since I know at least two of you live in countries that don't celebrate Thanksgiving, I wrote a regular post for tomorrow, not the traditional (here in the U.S.) list of all the things I'm grateful for. Even though there are lots of things I'm grateful for.

Foremost among them are my two children, affectionately known here at AB3 as PellMel and MadMax, so I thought I would tell you about the origin of their blog names--not how I picked them, which is extremely boring (it's just what popped into my head when I first decided they needed blog names)--but where the phrases came from. (I didn't use PellMel until recently, but it is the original name I thought of for her.)

"pell-mell" is an adjective (or adjectival phrase?) that describes moving with great haste, or sometimes chaotic disorder. It comes from French pêle mêle, which means about the same thing as the English version. My Pell-Mel used to love to run very fast when she was a little girl. Now she runs a little slower because she is pacing herself for long distances. The chaos and disorder part of it doesn't really apply, but she definitely does brighten up any dull situation with her vibrant, friendly personality. She works very hard and she is amazingly loyal and warm-hearted.

"MadMax" comes from the name of an Australian post-apocalyptic film from 1979 that starred Mel Gibson. There were a couple of sequels, too. I've never seen any of them, so I have no idea why that name popped into my head when I was thinking of a blog name for my son. I can't even tell you whether or not the name fits, because I don't know much about the character. My MadMax is a steady, dependable guy, kind-hearted (though he wouldn't want you to know that), a bit on the cautious side, and really dedicated and conscientious when he picks a goal. Also, he makes me laugh.

And that's all for this installment of Words on Wednesday. I thought up the post title back when I was going to do a whole bunch of idioms this week, but I decided not to, and then couldn't think of a better title, so it stayed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

an apple for my students

I ended up teaching two non-credit continuing ed classes this fall: "Montana's Native American Writers" and "The American Short Story, 1900-present." I've taught before, but usually in more of a training environment-- I did on-the-job software training back in the 80s, and I taught community college business software classes for three semesters not long after we moved here.

But these classes were quite different than that. As any teacher can tell you, between preparing for the class and interacting with your students, the teacher learns more than the students do. It was a great experience for me. Two weeks into the first class, I was so stressed that I decided it was a one-time deal and I would never do it again. But the course was already underway, and the second one was already scheduled, and by the time I was halfway through the second one, things were better. I've already signed on to do two more next semester.

The number one thing I learned was not to underestimate your students. In planning the classes, I kept trying to keep them small and manageable--not require them to buy a book, not make them do a lot of reading, not ask them to do any extra work outside of class. But what I found was that the kind of people who sign up for continuing ed classes are excited about it, they're looking forward to engaging with the material. Bring it on.

They wanted to do the reading. In the short story class, every week I had three stories that were more-or-less required (you can't really require anything in a non-credit class), and then several more that were optional reading. Every week, everyone had read the first three stories and usually at least half of the class had read everything they could find. It was great. They arrived at class raring to go--full of opinions and interested in what I had to say.

The things I learned specifically about short stories are mostly in yesterday's post. I'm still thinking about that stuff and probably will be for a long time. But the things I learned teaching the Indian Writers class--lord, I could write a book.

First off, most Indians don't like the term Native American. It was made up by white people during the politically correct 80s. In all the reading I did to prep for the class, I don't think I ever saw an Indian use the term "Native American" unless it was sarcastically. The preferred term, if you need to use one, is their tribe, if you know it, otherwise, just Indian. When you think about it, it makes sense--after all, the Lakota, Blackfeet, Cherokees, Apaches, and dozens of other tribes were spread out over a far larger area than central Europe, and no one assumes that being Dutch is the same as being French or Polish.

I named the class ("Montana's Native American Writers") before I knew that, and it went out in the catalog that way. But I'm not sure I would have called it "Montana's Indian Writers" even if I'd known, because then some people would expect eastern Indian writers. Not that we have any, at least that I know of. (and there's another thing I learned while teaching--I never know as much as I think I do. Teaching is just about humbling enough to make you quit teaching.)

The thing I was dreading about the Indian writers class was the white guilt. There's no way you can avoid it if you study Indian history. In my Sociology 101 class thirty years ago, the professor spent about six weeks talking about Indian history, and over the years we've been to the Cherokee museum in North Carolina and the buffalo jump museum in Alberta, and various other experiences along the way, so I knew some. Enough to know we would need to tread carefully, lightly. But you know, however bad you thought it was, the more you study, it's worse. And then you read some more and it gets worse. It's just appalling the way Indians have been treated in this country. They aren't always blame-free, but even if you factor that in, it's shameful. The fact that many reservations are becoming vibrant, interesting places is a testament to the resilience and strength of the Indian people, all tribes.

We talked on the first day of class about how we would handle this, because there we were--seven middle-aged white women, about to embark on the study of people who have been marginalized and trivialized by people exactly like us. There is almost no way to do it and not be offensive. But the alternative is to not know, and I think it is better to know. To bear witness, as it were. We can't go back and change what happened, but we can acknowledge that it did happen and not try to sweep it all under the rug.

I guess this is an appropriate conversation for Thanksgiving week, isn't it?  If you want to do some reading yourself, try reading Sherman Alexie, a Spokane Indian who now lives in Seattle. He's fairly controversial, but he's fascinating, honest, often funny, and he is a remarkably generous writer. There's a 40-minute interview between him and Bill Moyer here, and his story "What You Pawn I Shall Redeem" is here, just to get started. I also found North American Indians: A Very Short Introduction by a couple of North Carolina professors to be a useful and well-balanced brief history, and Everything You know About Indians Is Wrong by Paul Chaat Smith is a blunt, witty introduction to how white culture still trivializes Indians today.

Tonight was the last class for this semester, and while I'm relieved to be done with it, I will miss the fun and the intellectual stimulation. It was a great experience.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Happy Happy, the grad school version

Several years ago I linked to a post on that was written by a film critic after he'd been to the Cannes film festival. Unfortunately the post is no longer there, so I will tell you what I remember about it. He talked about the disconnect of sitting in a theater watching the dark, gruesome films that all the critics were touting as the best films of the year, and then walking out of the theater and seeing those same critics sitting out at cafés laughing, talking, drinking three hundred dollar bottles of wine and eating great food. In their work, they were unanimous in their opinion that only films about incest, drug trafficking, domestic abuse, and any other aspect of the dark side of human nature could be "real," but in their own lives, reality looked pretty good.

This odd contradiction exists in the literary world as well. We've talked about this before. If you want your writing to be taken seriously by the literary establishment, it can't possibly have a happy ending, and really it should be about alcoholism, addiction, divorce, child abuse, and misery. Happy people don't get taken seriously by intellectuals.

Here is writer Charles Baxter, in the headnote to a story in the anthology You've Got to Read This: "In America we secretly tend to think of happiness as rather dull and banal, middle class, unworthy of our attention, possessed by the likes of Ozzie and Harriet." (I might contend that we're not so secret about it.) Laurence Perrine, in the first chapter of the eighth edition of his venerable Story and Structure, distinguishes between escape literature, which he kindly acknowledges "need not be cheap or trite," and interpretive literature, which "deals significantly with life." He opines rather grandly, "Escape literature pretends to give a faithful treatment of life as it is--perhaps even thinks that it does so--but through its shallowness it subtly falsifies life in every line. Such fiction, taken seriously and without corrective, may give us false notions of reality and leads us to expect from experience what experience does not provide."

Egads.  I've learned plenty from Perrine, but his condescending moralizing in that statement just makes you want to smack him. We're back to the "I'm only telling you not to read that because I'm concerned about your moral welfare" argument, which we've talked about before.

I've been thinking about writing fiction again. I even tried to do NaNoWriMo again this year, thinking that if I was writing blog posts every day, writing would beget writing, and I might as well do it all. (the literary version of "if you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it.") But it didn't work, and at least part of that is because I can't figure out how to write fiction anymore. I made it to about 4,000 words and my idea died so dead that I found myself forgetting about it for several days at a time, which is unusual for me. At the very least, I should have been beating myself up with guilt about how badly my novel was going, but I couldn't even remember it enough to do that.

Granted, that may have had more to do with my lack of ability as a fiction writer than with any larger problem with the literary world. But what I can't figure out is how to write something that's really real, if you'll pardon my obscurity. If I choose certain elements of my own reality and stretch them all out of shape, someone (maybe me) could make it into a great literary novel about loss of faith and betrayal and childhood sexual abuse and yadda yadda yadda. But that wouldn't be real, because it's also just as true that I had a great childhood with parents who surrounded me with books, let me read whatever I wanted, were proud of my academic and musical achievements, scrimped and saved so I could have a really nice flute to play and go to an expensive college, and so on. There's just no way to make the plot true to the reality of what I experienced and also fit inside the lines of what a literary novel is supposed to be. Isn't a literary novel all about exposing the dark "reality" under the pretty façade? But who's to say what's under the façade is more real than the façade? (Isn't that what theory is all about? It's all a construct, none of it is "real.")

All this has given me a different understanding of why genre fiction is so successful. Genre fiction is patently not real. Nobody reads Patricia Cornwall or James Patterson or Nora Roberts because their life is just like that. Nobody's life comes to neat, organized, well-plotted resolutions every three hundred and fifty pages. But in some ways, what happens in genre fiction is closer to most people's reality than the dry, clinical, despairing mood of most literary fiction. Maybe the reason why genre fiction has become so popular is because by patently acknowledging your intent through the un-lifelike structure of a genre fiction plot, you can free yourself from the limitations of  having to explore the dark underbelly of every single human emotion. A romance novel, a mystery novel, a horror story-- all of them are set-pieces. The structure is a commentary in and of itself about the difficulty of writing something true.  The depressing literary vs. the glib un-truth that speaks its truth in spite of its cookie cutter structure.

Whoa, that sounded really profound, didn't it? But I'm not sure it actually says anything.

I've been teaching a class on the short story, and happiness is not generally a characteristic that one associates with short stories. Their writers probably wouldn't want you to. Maybe you might have a moment of enjoyment or pleasurable insight along the way, or maybe you might experience some sort of intellectual happiness at the rightness of the plotting or the writing, but the story itself sure as hell wouldn't end in happiness because everyone who is intelligent knows that happiness is for people who don't know any better, people like those children playing in the dirt in that photograph, who don't realize that they are oppressed and marginalized and victimized.  They only think they're happy, they aren't really happy. Or so we're told.

I guess there's no point in continuing to number the "Goodbye Grad School" posts on up to part 37, because apparently I still have quite a bit to process. Another thing I still think about from grad school is this attitude on the part of many in academia that the analysis of our culture's faults somehow means that anyone who hasn't done such an analysis is naive and doesn't really understand their experience. If they think they're happy, they're just too stupid to know that they're in denial about reality.

I find this a little off-putting. But it doesn't really matter to the rest of us if they think that way. While they're over there analyzing the hell out of every little detail of our culture, the rest of us will go ahead and live. And sometimes, dammit, we're happy--even when we're still marginalized, exploited, and victimized by the capitalist-materialist hegemony.

The study of literary theory sometimes creates a false moral high ground from which to feel safely and deservedly superior, and from which a critic can feel free to condescend toward those who are less aware. We spend vast reservoirs of energy analyzing all the ways our world is awful. The critique of our culture's continuing sexism, racism, orientation-ism, etc is brutal, finely detailed, and (of course) also sometimes well-deserved. But it's also only part of the story--the rest of the story includes people who are generous and capable, who have conquered their addictions or never had them, who do their best to be good parents, who occasionally laugh themselves silly.

Obviously I can't be too critical here because what is this blog if not an attempt to analyze my experience? But still, at some point you have to just play the cards you're dealt and live your life. Yes, I've been the victim of sexism and sexual harassment and abuse. But I've also been able to heal from a great deal of it, and spending the rest of my life analyzing in ever more minute detail just how bad it really was doesn't interest me all that much.

Maybe that's the line right there. You have to do enough analysis, enough meta-thinking, about your life so that you're not caught blindsided and blinking when you're confronted with sexism or racism or whatever it is that is attempting to squash you. But not so much analysis that you get off in some perceived pseudo-safe space where the messiness of life doesn't touch you.

Well, this has been all over the place. You can probably it tell it was two different posts that I squished together into one, but I was trying to minimize the number of grad school posts.

Friday, November 22, 2013

food on friday: we gather together

Thanksgiving is next Thursday. I'm not sure how that escaped me. Until a few days ago, I thought we still had a week to go. So this is the last Friday before Thanksgiving, and it's Food on Friday, so let's talk about Thanksgiving food.

I'm among the many who could do without the turkey. I'm not a vegetarian, but turkey takes up too much room on the plate when there are so many other good things to choose from. Sweet potatoes, green beans, stuffing, corn casserole, mashed potatoes, cranberry relish, what am I leaving out? It's all good.

For years now we've joined together with several other families in our neighborhood for Thanksgiving. It can be tricky to do a major holiday with other families, because you never know exactly how to mesh traditions. And Thanksgiving is all about food traditions. Somebody volunteers to bring the mashed potatoes and then uses instant, which would be a hanging offense at my house, but I'm told that some people can't taste the difference. Which always just makes me shake my head, because how can you not tell the difference? I've had instant that were OK, but they are definitely not the same.

But fortunately I am the least proficient cook in this group, and nobody would bring instant mashed potatoes, so we're good on that front. In fact, I'm probably the most suspect (I bet you're really suprised) because I use the rolled up pie crusts in the red box and always have. So shoot me. I usually make 5 or 6 pies every year, and who the heck wants to make that many homemade pie crusts?

I started feeling a bit guilty about it last year, though, so I decided that this year I would try making at least one homemade pie crust. I was going to practice all fall so that I would be good at it by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. You can probably guess how that went--it's less than a week until Turkey Day and I'm not even sure where my rolling pin is.

At our house, the bare essentials--the things we absolutely must have--are: real mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, grape salad, and pie. There are lots of other things we like --and come to think of it, Dean and MadMax would probably insist on turkey-- but those are the things without which we would feel cheated. Although we could probably make do in a pinch with just pie. We all have a different favorite pie, so that means I usually end up making four or five. At a minimum, apple, pumpkin, cherry, and chocolate pecan, and also usually an experimental one. A couple of years ago I tried a cranberry walnut recipe that was great but I haven't ever been able to find it again.

So of our essential items, probably grape salad is the one you don't have a recipe for, so I will give you mine. I'm just helpful like that. Grape Salad is in the same class of foods as jello salad, but slightly (ever so slightly) more sophisticated. It's one of those odd recipes that seems like nothing the first time you try it, but then the next time you think, hmmmm, this is pretty good. Then you find yourself sneaking in the day after Thanksgiving just to get another little taste of it, and after awhile, it is essential to Thanksgiving. I originally got the recipe from my younger sister.

THE Grape Salad

3 lbs seedless red grapes
1 bag fresh cranberries
3/4 C sugar
1 C whipping cream
2 T powdered sugar

The night before, wash and halve the grapes (this is a great job to give to a kid who wants to help--as long as they're old enough to be safe with a knife, of course). Rinse the cranberries well, then pulse them in a food processor until you have cranberry bits, but not so long that you have cranberry mush. Stir together the grapes, cranberries, and sugar, cover and let sit overnight. The next day, drain off most of the syrup. Whip the cream, gradually adding the powdered sugar. Gently fold the whipped cream into the grape/cranberry mixture and serve. It will hold for an hour or two, but after that, even though it still tastes great, it starts to look a little funky.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Happy Happy Happy

I remember years ago I saw a photograph in a magazine of a couple of children somewhere in Africa. They were playing in the dirt, achingly thin, barely dressed, no shoes. What made the picture was the look of absolute and total happiness on their faces. Their huge grins and sparkling eyes overshadowed everything else in the picture. They were clearly, unmistakably overjoyed to be doing whatever it was they were doing there in the dirt.

I think I was in my mid-twenties, and I remember being snottily condescending and thinking to myself, "Poor things, they don't know how miserable they really are." They don't know that they are oppressed, marginalized, and unaware. For some reason the picture and my accompanying reaction stuck in my head, maybe because it still had something to teach me. It wasn't until years later—years—that it occurred to me that maybe they were just happy. Maybe I was the one that was wrong about what it means to be happy, what conditions must be met before you can be "happy."

I've been thinking quite a bit recently about what it means to be happy. It's a strange concept, and it elicits a wide range of reactions from people. Here are some thoughts from famous people I found on the QuotationsPage website (and be forewarned that I didn't verify any of these, but who said what isn't the point):
Robertson Davies: "Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness."
Gustave Flaubert: "To be stupid, selfish and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."
Edith Wharton: "There are lots of ways of being miserable, but there's only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running round after happiness. If you make up your mind not to be happy there's no reason why you shouldn't have a fairly good time."
Albert Schweitzer: "Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory."
To some people, happiness is trivial, not worth thinking about--as if it's selfish and childish to want to be happy. To others, happiness is not possible since to be happy would be to ignore all the pain, sadness, oppression, and abuse in the world. If you really understand how the world works, according to some, you can't be happy. It would be monstrous.

In my own evangelical upbringing, happiness just wasn't important. I don't think I thought it was necessarily bad to be happy, but there's all that stuff about suffering for your faith. "Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials," says the writer of James. Acts 14.22 says, "It is through persecution that we enter the Kingdom of God." And in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the poor in spirit, the sad, the persecuted who are blessed, not the happy.

But there's no doubt that joy is a part of Christianity. It's #2 on the list of gifts of the Spirit ("Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" Galatians 5.22-23). The prophet Isaiah says: "For you shall go out with joy, be led forth in peace, the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing and the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (55.12) Jesus, speaking in the Gospel of John: "I have told you these things that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made complete."

We could split hairs about the difference between happiness and joy, but I think for my purpose that's beside the point. The point is, how long has it been since I was truly happy? since I felt an upwelling of pure joy? Maybe too long. I've been working on this.

If there's anything in the world that is individual, it must be what makes us happy. But there are a couple of ideas I'm finding useful. One I borrowed from a writing teacher who told us to deal with writer's block by lowering our standards. If you're unhappy with your situation, lower your standards. Sometimes you can. Then of course, sometimes you can't and you have to make changes. But it's worth a try. Sometimes our expectations are outrageously unrealistic.

Another is to not take on other people's burdens. This has been a really hard one for me. It seems mean, shallow, and self-centered not to be miserable when my friend is miserable. But although we can come alongside, listen, offer to help, and empathize, in the long run, it only causes more harm than good to take on burdens that are not our own.

When I first encountered the Dalai Lama's book The Art of Happiness, I found myself mystified. The very first sentence says, "I believe the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness." Honestly, I have to confess that I thought, well, that's kind of a dumb foundation for a religion. Happiness is about self-indulgence, isn't it? about having all your needs met and having everything go your way? Don't we have to carry the burdens of the world on our shoulders? Don't we have to be serious about things? Isn't that a sign that we are mature and aware and not in denial?

Here is the paragraph from the Dalai Lama's book that started to swing me over to his side, which starts out making my argument for me: "But isn't a life based on seeking personal happiness by nature self-centered, even self-indulgent? Not necessarily. In fact, survey after survey has shown that it is unhappy people who tend to be most self-focused and are often socially withdrawn, brooding, and even antagonistic. Happy people, in contrast, are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative and are able to tolerate life's daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people. And, most important, they are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people." (p. 17)

This is to be continued (and yes, we will address the evident misunderstanding that being happy equals being sociable). Probably next week, since, you know-- Food on Friday.

What makes you happy?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

music on Wednesday

This is why you should always have a post in reserve during NaBloPoMo, because there are days when you just don't feel like doing it. Actually I do have a couple of them, but both of them would require significant editing, and I don't think I can even manage that today. Words on Wednesday has to be created from scratch and it's not gonna happen. So you get a lame one.

We do a lot of driving in the summer--often long road trips, sometimes just back and forth to various different places to hike. This year we did several trips to Bozeman while PellMel was moving. So we always have a summer playlist. It evolves over the summer, and every year I think it is the best playlist ever. Then a few months later, it just seems like your basic average playlist, but it has served its purpose.

There has to be a mix of new stuff and oldies, usually one or two country songs mixed in even though I am not much of a country music fan, and there is always at least one song that each kid hates and groans miserably when it comes up. To be entirely honest, I'm a bit embarrassed about some of these because a few of them are pop in the extreme, and also they're not all politically correct--I think I've told you before that I never listen to the lyrics. When one of the kids says, "Doesn't it bother you that ...." I look at them blankly because I never noticed.

So here is the Summer 2013 playlist:

I'm Gonna be (500 Miles) - The Proclaimers
My Songs Know What you Did in the Dark - Fall Out Boy
Radioactive - Imagine Dragons
On Top of the World - Imagine Dragons
Panic Station - Muse
Sweet Dreams - Eurythmics
Dude Looks Like a Lady - Aerosmith
Thrift Shop - Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
I Love It - Icona Pop
Pompeii- Bastille
True Love - P!nk
Cruise - Florida Georgia Line
Bad Blood - Bastille
Stay Stay Stay - Taylor Swift
Blurred Lines - Robin Thicke (I did delete this one once I found out what it was really about, but it was there for the first two road trips)
Young and Dumb and In Love - Mat Kearney

And just in case you haven't been introduced to Bastille yet, here's the link to the Pompeii video: The video is pretty bizarre but love that song.

There may be another one of these toward the end of the month about workout music, so tell me: what gets you moving? What are you listening to these days?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

keep him always in perfect peace

I had a plan for today's post, but it has been pre-empted today by sad news I received this morning. Uncle Don passed away last night. I think I've told you before that I was born during my parents decade-long exile to the frozen north. While we were there, my parents met another couple, the As, who had two children about our age. It was one of those magical meldings of people-- there were certainly times when my sisters and I fought with their kids and times when we didn't see each other for years, but they have been family friends in the truest sense of the word. Even though we weren't related, they were always Uncle Don and Aunt Jean to my sisters and me. I adored them.

My own father, as you know, could be quite problematic. But there were other men in my life who let me know that fathers weren't always so difficult, and Uncle Don was first among them. He was always so full of life, brimming over with cheerfulness and sometimes mischievous fun. When the As came over, the house was always filled with laughter, sometimes delighted, occasionally raucous, always loving. I remember one time when they were at our house, we'd been sent to bed while the adults continued to talk around the kitchen table. I must have been about five. I sneaked back up out of bed and went to sit at the top of the stairs. I couldn't really hear what they were saying, I just wanted to listen to the laughter.

Once my family moved back to Texas, we didn't see them often, but when our two families got together, it was as if we'd never been apart. (Remind me sometime to tell you the story of how their son and I managed to blow up our playhut--possibly the most trouble I ever got in as a kid.) Uncle Don was of the same German Baptist extraction as my dad, but he wore it more comfortably--his devotion to his faith seemed always to be grace-filled, ease-ful.

When I first went off to college, I went back to the school where my father taught when I was young, in the town where we first met the As (and where they still live). For the two years that I was there, the As adopted me. I was invited to their home for dinner on a regular basis, they checked up on me, let me borrow their car, and generally served as surrogate parents for a couple of years. I'm never an easy person to be-friend, and I think that was far more pronounced back then. But they always made me feel welcome.

Their daughter Debbie, who falls in age between my older sister and me, runs a great blog and occasionally comments here. Their son Rob came to my dad's funeral two years ago. We saw them this summer when we had our family reunion in Indiana. Uncle Don's death is unexpected--he had been in the hospital over the weekend with an infection, and although I don't know all the details, I don't think anyone thought it was quite this serious. My mom has been forwarding me the e-mail updates from Aunt Jean, with pictures of him, and it seemed on Sunday that he was getting better. But apparently he went downhill quickly yesterday.

I hope you will say a prayer for Aunt Jean, Debbie, Rob, their spouses, and all the grandkids. Uncle Don was a great man, and he will be missed by all who knew him.

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee.
  --Isaiah 26:3

Monday, November 18, 2013

now that that don't kill me can only make me stronger

You might think since I haven't talked about it in several months that I've stopped exercising, but that would not be the case. I can't think of much that would be more boring than me passing along to you the big news that I can now do four sets of eight overhead dumbbell presses with 10 lb weights. Yawn.

But it's NaBloPoMo and I need topics--we're only halfway through the month, you know--so you get an update on my exercise regimen. The current plan is weightlifting two days per week and a brisk 35-50 minute walk at least four other days per week. Lots of weeks I make it--in fact, it's not unusual for me to do some sort of exercise every day-- but other weeks I don't.

Slowly, very slowly, I've been inching along in my campaign to stop the slide down the slippery slope into mid-50s inactivity. It's difficult because as anyone over 50 can tell you, it's not what your body wants. Your body wants to be indolent, to gain weight, to sit in front of the tv or the computer or a bowl of ice cream or a good book and do nothing. It takes a certain amount of work--for me, it took three years of regular exercise--to get to the point where it felt good to exercise. I'm still not to the point where I want to put down whatever sedentary thing I'm doing and go do something active, but at least it feels good while I'm doing it.

I've always loved to walk, so that one isn't hard. But strength training was a hard sell for me. I resisted it for a long time. (*smirk*) You can google and find thousands of articles on the benefits, so I'm not going to re-hash all that here. I'll just tell you what finally swung me over to the pro-strength training side: about three or four months after I started doing it, I realized I was stronger. I could lift things I hadn't been able to lift before. I could pull myself up and out of bed in the morning using my abs instead of my back. I like being stronger.

The thing that has made the biggest difference in how my body feels is doing ab work. Except now you are supposed to call it core work. The big improvement in doing core work now as opposed to twenty years ago is that you don't have to do crunches anymore. Since I have a finicky neck (and crunches are notoriously hard on your neck), that is a good thing. You do leg lifts and plank pose and one particularly helpful exercise called dead bug. And having more core strength makes a surprising difference in everything. I feel different just walking across a parking lot. I'm in favor of this.

One major change I made in my fitness routine just happened last week. I've been a member of a fitness site called Fitocracy for almost two years now-- I joined on Janunary 2, 2012. For a long time, Fitocracy was a great place for me. They have a point system that rewards you every time you log a workout, which for some strange reason was a great motivator for me. That little kick of motivation got me over the hurdle of being a lackadaisical exerciser to being someone who exercises 6-7 days a week.

Fitocracy also pushed me to do things that I never thought I could do. When I first started working with weights, I was using 3 and 5 lb dumbbells. Now I only use the 5 lb for one particular exercise (side lateral raise), most of the time I use 8 or 10 lbs, and for a couple of exercises (goblet squats and one-arm rows), I manage to hold two dumbbells in one hand so I can do 13# or 16# at a time.

But of course if you lift at all or know someone who does, that is nothing. Most lifters are working on ten times that amount of weight (or considerably more). And that's why I finally left Fitocracy. Fito is for people who want to be real athletes--run a 10K, swim major distances, lift big weights. I'm not going to get there. I don't even really want to.

I'm getting the results I want with the itty bitty weights I use, and I'm not really interested in ratcheting the weights up and up and up. Partly just because I'm stubborn like that, but partly because when I tried to make the jump to big weights, I ended up with tendinitis and a tricky shoulder and numb, tingling hands. And when you're over 50, it takes a long time to come back from that stuff. There's a fine line between pushing yourself to work hard and injuring yourself in a way that might take a very long time and/or a very large amount of money to overcome.

Another user re-explained the Fitocracy point system to me recently--it's designed to reward continual improvement. Their goal is for you to continually exceed your previous bests. That's not what I want. I know myself well enough to know that I could push myself to do ever more difficult workouts for a certain amount of time--maybe four months or six months or possibly even a year. But eventually I would lose interest and quit. It wouldn't be sustainable for me.

And at this point in my life, what I want is a workout routine that I can do forever. That's only going to happen if it feels do-able for me and if I don't end up with debilitating injuries. I'm sure if I keep at it that I will make incremental improvements, but I also know--because in the two years I've been doing this kind of workout I've experienced it-- that injuries, illness, travel, and life intervene, and every time they do, I have to back up and start over. Maybe not completely over, but well below my previous bests.

I've known Fito wasn't working for me for months now, but I didn't want to give up that little bit of extra motivation. Then last week I discovered SparkPeople--I'm not sure why I never found it before, since it is huge. They have an exercise tracking system, but it is more oriented toward rewarding the amount of time that you spend exercising, rather than specific exercises. (At least, I think it is. I've only been there a few days.) the goal is to do something and do it consistently, rather than continuing to ratchet up and up and up. When I discovered that their group for people who are over 50 who are more interested in fitness than weight loss had over a hundred thousand members (on Fito, the over-50 groups tended to have a few dozen members at most), I realized I had found a place that was going to be more suited to my interests. I canned my Fito membership over the weekend. Onward.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Food on Friday: one measly thing

I had the Food on Friday post halfway written in my head earlier this week, but right now at the moment when I need to actually type it out, I've lost interest. I don't want to give up on the "Food on Friday" plan when I'm only on the second week, though, so I came up with an alternative idea, which is to tell you the amazing thing I tried with natural peanut butter this week.

Oh, yeah, we are all about the reader experience here at AB3. I don't know how you stand the excitement.

I love peanut butter. Adore it. I didn't when I was a kid--couldn't stand the stuff and wouldn't touch peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, just one of many reasons my mother probably thought about selling me to the gypsies.  Now I know that it was the grape jelly I disliked, not the peanut butter, but at the time, I wasn't going to touch a pb&j.

But eventually I figured out that I like peanut butter, and then sometime when I was in high school I had some real peanut butter, the "natural" kind without hydrogenation, and I adored it. Crunchy is even better.

But we all know the problem with natural peanut butter--when you buy it, it is covered with half an inch of peanut goo that has to be stirred down in before you can eat it. And that means making a big, gloopy, oily mess, and no matter how hard you try, there is always about a half-inch of cement-hard peanut butter at the bottom that doesn't get any oil stirred into it. (There are several brands of no-stir "natural" peanut butter but they don't taste nearly as good as the real thing.)

So the last half-dozen times I've done it, I've told myself, next time I'm going to dump this in the food processor.  But then I'd have to get the food processor out, and then I'd have to clean it, yadda yadda yadda. I never quite got around to it.

Finally this week I bought a new jar and it was a day I wasn't particularly busy so I decided to try it. Dragged out the food processor, put in the steel blade, poured in the oil off the top, used a fork to get the rest of it out of the jar, whirred it around for about 30 seconds, scooped it back in the jar.

It worked perfectly. The whole thing took less than five minutes, maybe six minutes if you include rinsing off the blade and bowl and throwing them in the dishwasher. Well worth it. And it's way more smooth and creamy than it is when you do it by hand. It's been in the fridge for four days now and it still hasn't separated out.

So there you go. Food on Friday. Oh, and by the way, the pumpkin bars are much better with brown sugar, so I'll go back and fix that. Apologies if it pops back up on your feed.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

go ahead, please don't make my day

Awhile ago I said I had several posts written that I hadn't published because I wasn't sure if I wanted to get into controversial topics. I'm still not sure about some of them-- if I get desperate enough for daily posting topics later in the month, I might put them up. But I think I'm OK with this one, which is about vigilante-ism, particularly vigilante-ism in novels. It's a complex topic and I'm not exactly competent to talk about it.  But I just finished reading an example of this, and I have more to say.

First off, let me say for the record that I'm not opposed to private gun ownership. I'm opposed to civilians owning assault rifles, and probably also handguns without some sort of hoops to jump through. And I'm entirely in favor of background checks, no matter where guns are purchased. But we own guns, many of them: BB guns, pellet guns, rifles and shotguns. Both Dean and MadMax hunt, and all of us have been known to enjoy plinking away at soda cans or paper targets. That's not what this is about. Just thought I should put that out there.

What interests me at the moment is the idea of revenge, which seems to be becoming more and more prevalent in popular culture. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of people taking their own revenge, partly because I was raised to believe that it's wrong to do so. "Avenge not yourselves... because it is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord" (Romans 12:19) and then there's the whole Sermon on the Mount bit: "do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also" (Matt 5.39, and there's more in the following verses).

But bad stuff happens, and while turning the other cheek might make a point in a dispute with a co-worker, it isn't going to cut it in many more serious cases.  Even in my most idealistic moments, I know that.  We can't live safely in a world where bad stuff is allowed to happen unchecked, so we have a legal system, and police/military/etc to enforce it.  By living in a particular state or country, we participate in a social contract in which we agree to abide by that state/country's legal system and to allow that legal system to operate.  The idea of trial by a jury of your peers is the hallmark of our legal system, and while (of course) it is flawed and doesn't always work, it works better than any other legal system I've ever heard of.

Vigilante-ism occurs when average non-military non-police citizens decide that the legal system isn't doing its job, so they make themselves judge and jury and take it upon themselves to visit "justice" (or what they consider to be justice) on the people they decide deserve it. For the most part, it's a bad idea, because human beings are flawed and our judgment isn't perfect.

When you're operating within the legal system, it may not always work but at least there is a system that tries to be fair and impartial and to hold people accountable to the laws of our country (which have been created by our elected representatives and which we can vote to change when we disagree). When you start operating outside the legal system, you're an anarchist, and you're assuming that your judgment is better than the collective wisdom of the system.

Which is probably sometimes true, but that doesn't make it a good idea. Widespread vigilante-ism is chaos. I say this as someone who lives in northwestern Montana, where the stockpiled weapons within a 50 mile radius of our house probably exceed those in many (most?) military installations. Sporting goods stores can't keep ammunition in stock in our area because of stockpiling by private citizens.

The stockpilers say they can't feel safe unless they are prepared to defend their homes. But it doesn't make me feel safe, knowing that all that firepower is sitting in my neighbors' basements. It makes me nervous. And it leads to incidents like one that happened in a small town near here earlier this fall, where a simple dispute between neighbors resulted in a man being shot in the back as he tried to walk away and return to his home.

In some ways, you can't really apply these ideas to fiction because fiction is... well, fiction. It is by definition not real life. There can be a certain amount of safe, vicarious satisfaction in reading about a situation where the bad guy gets blown away. There are countless stories where the entire plot revolves around the villains getting their comeuppance, from elementary school mean girls who get pranked to murderers who get taken down by an avenging family member. It's probably just not that big a deal. In fact, I'm not sure I would even notice it except that it seems to have become fairly common recently for there to be a big moral discussion about it, justifying it, arguing in favor of it, making it sound like a good plan.

An example: Black Hawk, by Joanna Bourne. The person taking revenge in this case is Adrian Hawkhurst, a government spy/assassin, so technically speaking he's not a vigilante--he's authorized by his government to kill in certain situations. I've read novels about snipers/assassins by authors like Suzanne Brockmann or Bob Mayer where this works just fine. It's not exactly a happy subject, but there is reason behind it, a codified decision-making process, and it's a job that our society has decided sometimes needs to be done.

But in Black Hawk, Adrian kills a bad guy not just as a job that needs to be done, but as a particularly grisly, protracted, painful death for a man he has a personal grudge against. It made me cringe a little when it happened, but it didn't really bug me until the final chapter of the book, when he maps out an entire rationale for why he should be able to do this, why society needs people like him who don't cringe when there is a difficult job to do, etc etc.

But he wasn't just doing the job he was assigned to do, he was crafting a torturous death that he was anticipating and almost happy about. And that means he has crossed over the line of doing his job as a government employee and into the realm of being a murderer. It made me a little sick. I loved the rest of that novel--if it weren't for that final scene, it might even be my favorite of Bourne's spymaster series. But that scene--listening to him try to make it sound like a good idea that he took his personal revenge--still bothers me every time I think about it.

Maybe I'm just primed now to be aware when a story veers into that realm of one person deciding that he or she is the one who has to maintain order/take revenge/keep people safe by murdering someone. Another example is The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe. It's a very strange book.  It's a great story, truly a page turner and kept me absorbed from beginning to end, but there were several things about it that just bugged me, one of which was a speech justifying vigilante-ism.

Bledsoe puts the "rationale conversation" right up front, not far into the book. Some people just need killing, we are told. Someone has to step up to the plate and be the one to do it, a tribal elder says. I nearly stopped reading right there. But then it got better--great story, really interesting characters--so I decided to let it go in the name of a great yarn. But then it got weird again at the end. It's just a very strange last thirty pages, and I can't say more without major spoilers. I'm not sure if I'll read the next one in the series or not.

So, let me know what you think. Controversial topic, I know.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Words on Wednesday: Beads! Bees? Beads! Bees?

So it's B week here at AB3, and here we go. This week's tricky words:

abate means to lessen, moderate, or restrain. In contemporary usage, though, you rarely see/hear it. Usually "bate" is used instead. In my own reading, the main way I've seen "abate" is in its negative form--unabated. Their enthusiasm continued unabated (they were still enthusiastic).

bate is a shortened form of abate, and has the same meaning. So, when you're worried about something, you wait with bated breath to see what happens--i.e., you're barely breathing, practically holding your breath (not baited breath. seriously.). Although various sites I checked also list "bated enthusiasm" and "bated hopes," I think "bated breath" is by far the most common use of this word.

(just in case you're interested, the earliest use recorded in the OED is in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice when it is used with breath: "With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this; / 'Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last; / You spurn'd me such a day; another time / You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies / I'll lend you thus much moneys'?")

bait is what you use to lure someone or something in. You bait your fishhook with worms or cheese or marshmallows (if you're eight). You bait a mousetrap with cheese or peanut butter. In suspense novels, sometimes a person will be used as bait to lure in a murderer.

bear when used as a noun is an animal, usually brown and furry (teddy bear, brown bear, grizzly bear), sometimes not (polar bear, panda bear). We've got this one, right? Fun fact: in the Western States, a "black bear" is usually brown. Bear is also sometimes used metaphorically to describe something that is difficult: That physics test was a bear.

bear as a verb means to endure (bear the pain), support or hold up (bearing weight), or bring/carry (we come bearing gifts). He returned from the kitchen bearing a tray of snacks. How is he bearing up under the strain? I can't bear the sight of my children in pain. We can't move that wall because it is weight-bearing.

bare, on the other hand, means uncovered, without adornment, or minimal. She only brought the bare necessities. That is the bare truth. As a verb, it means the act of uncovering: She bared her soul to her teammates. He bared his chest so they could see his scar. 

So there you go. When I was in high school, I had a college-aged friend who was also a word addict. We decided that the b-z words were our favorites: bizarre (strange or weird), byzantine (complicated, convoluted), abysmal (really, really bad), berzerk (crazy violent), bazooka (a rocket launcher, but also the best bubble gum). We really needed something to do. :-)

Have a beautiful, bodacious, breathtaking, brilliant day.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

reluctant citizen of caffeination

Those of you who have been around for awhile will remember that I have migraines and that they seem to be made worse by caffeine. Six years ago I weaned myself off caffeine (see this post, and then this one), which was an entirely miserable experience, but once I was completely off, the migraines got much, much better. At one point I was down to only having 2-3 per month. So for a long time I was pretty careful to keep my caffeine intake down to no more than a couple of times a week.

But then it came time to write my thesis and defend it, and I was more stressed than I can say. And also I love coffee and Diet Dr Pepper with a great and abiding love. I was having a hard time sleeping, so I couldn't manage the drive down to UTown without caffeine. That was still only twice a week, but then I'd need to stay awake on other nights so I could study, etc etc etc. Long story short: I'm re-addicted, and have been for almost a year now. I make sure I have at least some caffeine every day, because I know if I don't, I'll get a migraine.

Damned if I do, damned if I don't. And the number of headaches and migraines I have seems to go up every month. My prescription is for 12 maxalt per month; last month I had to get extra (although that was partly due to a cold that settled in my sinuses).


Six years ago, the first time I quit, I did it cold turkey. I went from having a cup of coffee in the morning and a Diet Dr Pepper in the afternoon to nothing overnight. I didn't think it would make any difference if I weaned myself off. I'm still not sure it will make a difference, but I decided to at least try it this time. Maybe it won't be quite so miserable that way. I've only had about 50mg of caffeine/day for awhile now, and I was planning on cutting down even further when I got back from Texas and then cutting it out entirely next week.

But I had an interesting conversation with my sister in Texas that has me thinking. She also suffers from migraines, but when she stopped caffeine, she was so bleary-headed in the mornings that she couldn't function at work. So now she tries to have exactly the same amount of caffeine at the same time every day. She feels like the migraines that she has now are not related to caffeine (and she doesn't have them nearly as often as I do).

Hmmmmm. We'll see. I think I still need to get entirely off the stuff. My sister's migraines have always been different than mine, so I'm not entirely sure what works for her will work for me. But it's something to keep in mind, and it's tempting-- I am really dreading withdrawal. It's one of those epic family experiences that my kids still talk about in hushed voices.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Deep in the Heart of Texas

I’m sitting in the Houston airport, where I will be sitting for about the next four hours, feeling my usual mix of feelings for Texas. I can’t tell you how many times in the last six days I’ve thought to myself, “Oh my LORD I’m so glad I don’t live here anymore,” yet I’m tempted to buy an I heart Texas t-shirt from one of the airport shops, and I already did buy two more Texas keychains for my keychain collection. Being a cranky sort of person who is still basically good-hearted, there are many things with which I have a love-hate relationship, and one of the most intense is my love-hate relationship with Texas. Ah, what a state.

My trip this time was supposed to be to help care for my mom after her cataract surgery. It was her second one, the first one was done about three weeks ago. She felt drained and a little out-of-it after the first one, but this one seemed to go much better. I didn’t really have that much to do. I drove her around for the first three days, and tried to keep her from bending over—cataract surgery patients aren’t supposed to do any heavy lifting, or bend over so that their head is below the level of their waist. So I emptied the dishwasher and got out her crockpot for her (which is in a lower cabinet). But mostly we just ate Texas food—Mexican, barbecue, and surprisingly good gyros at a tiny little Greek place—and worked on her manuscript (more about that another time).

I also spent some time with my six adorable nieces, who are so exactly classic pre-teens, tweens, and teenagers that I wonder how my sister and her husband are staying sane. (It’s possible that they aren’t.) Actually, I’ve always wondered how you can stay sane with SIX CHILDREN, the oldest of whom was eight when the youngest one was born. But my sister and brother-in-law seem to be managing it pretty well. They even seem to be enjoying the chaos. (Well, most of the time.) They’re amazing.

And then there’s my mom’s little lap dog, a Japanese Chin, who is of course named Sushi. I’ve never really bonded with Sushi before because I’ve never been a big fan of small dogs. But I was in charge of walking Sushi on this trip, and I have to say that she is growing on me. She’s a sweet little thing, even if she did scavenge for food in my suitcase every time I turned my back.

It is entirely different walking a little dog on a leash in a densely populated neighborhood than it is taking our motley crew out for a walk back home. At home, we stride along with the dogs bounding around wherever they please--we live out far enough that there is rarely any traffic. With Sushi, you have to walk slowly, stopping for lengthy, thorough sniffs of whatever she can find. And you have to, um, scoop, if you know what I mean. But we still had a good time, and she seemed to appreciate it.

So that’s what I did last week. Unfortunately for those of you who don’t like the grad school posts, there are still a few more coming. But I may spread them out. I’m going to try to keep “Words on Wednesday” and “Food on Friday” going for the whole month, but I suppose it will depend on being able to find things to write about.

Now I’m in Denver. Only three hours here. One of the major downsides of living in an out-of-the-way area is that airlines don't care if your travel is convenient. But it gives me plenty of time to read, and also write this post, so I can't really complain. I had a hard time making myself get any exercise while I was back in Texas, but as I go further north, I find myself itching to move. I got off the plane and did the full loop of Terminal B at DIA (which, according to their website, is two-thirds of a mile one way) before I slowed down.

The Broncos are playing and crowds of people are standing around the terminal TVs. In Houston, there was a constant drone of news in the background—I quickly found a quiet spot and put on my headphones so I wouldn’t even have to know whether or not they had tuned in to Fox. But here I can write wherever I choose—the subtle noise of sports announcers in the background is just the sign of a typical Sunday afternoon. In my childhood, Sunday afternoons were for snoozing on the couch after church, with football or Wimbledon or the PGA droning in the background. I’m mildly interested—I look up often enough to track what’s happening—but it’s just white noise to me, in a way that news is not.

Denver is winning 28-20. Just in case you wanted to know.

What is the food of your childhood? and on an entirely different topic, can you write with the TV on? I think sports is the only way I could.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Food on Friday: Pumpkin Bars

You know how most people have typing errors that they tend to make over and over again? One of mine is typing "pumpking" for pumpkin. I must have done it eight times while typing this. Just so you know. In case I missed one of them.

I love to bake. I used to bake cookies and brownies and cakes all the time when I was younger. That was how I made friends in college- I'd hang out in the dorm kitchen and bake cookies. People tend to stop by. Unfortunately, though, Dean and MadMax don't really have a sweet tooth, and lord knows I don't need the calories, so I mostly stopped baking years ago. 

But recently I decided to start again. I love to do it, so why shouldn't I? Usually I only bake if I have somewhere I can take the results so I don't end up eating half a pan of brownies by myself. Or sometimes I freeze the extras in individual portions, so I can ration them out and not have to rely on my notoriously poor self-control.  

At the moment I am obsessed with pumpkin bars.  Almost all the pumpkin bar recipes online are about the same--here is a good one, for example, and Paula Deen's recipe over on the food network is pretty much exactly the same (although I confess I didn't compare them line-by-line to be certain). I made that version last week and took them to the fall bazaar at our church. I used a heaping tablespoon of pumpkin pie spice in place of the cinnamon and added a tablespoon of vanilla, but other than that I made it exactly as written. Also you will note that there are FOUR EGGS in the recipe, and we all know that I am always looking for ways to use up eggs. (oh, and um, *shrugs sheepishly* I might have used cream cheese frosting from a can.)

But I thought since pumpkin is a pretty dang nutrient-rich food, with a little tweaking pumpkin bars could be a not-too-sinful treat. So I tried again. The version below is practically identical in taste but at least slightly better for you. Even though I cut the amount of sugar almost by half, these are still plenty sweet. 

Except we must address the cream cheese frosting issue. Cream cheese frosting is one of Dean's few weaknesses, but I can take it or leave it. Since Dean isn't going to eat these anyway, I omitted the frosting in favor of a streusel topping to cut a few calories, but I have to admit that the tang in the cream cheese offsets the sweetness of the bars a bit. So choose your topping as you will. Feel free to put the cream cheese frosting back on (the recipe is in the link above)(and I promise I won't tell if you use a can).

The streusel recipe is just a standard doorstop-cookbook recipe for oatmeal streusel topping, and it makes about twice as much as you need. It takes about five minutes to make but it does require pulling out the food processor, so it's worth making a double batch. I freeze half, making it simple to make another pan of these or muffins or something else later on, but you could just make half as much streusel to begin with, I suppose. Or you could dump the whole thing on there for extra streusel, but we were going for slightly healthier, you know.

Slightly Healthier than Usual Pumpkin Bars

4 eggs
1 C brown sugar
1/2 C canola oil
1/2 C unsweetened applesauce
15 oz can pumpkin
(Note that this is pure pumpkin, NOT pumpkin pie filling)
1 T vanilla

2 C flour, any type (I used one cup unbleached all-purpose and one cup whole grain spelt)
2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 heaping T pumpkin pie spice

Combine the first six ingredients and mix at medium speed for about two minutes. In a separate bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the pumpkin mixture and mix at low speed until smooth. Spread the batter into a 15 x 10 jelly roll pan which you have sprayed with Bakers Joy or whatever you have on hand for greasing pans. If using the streusel, sprinkle on about half of the recipe below. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Streusel topping (you will only need half of this amount): 1 1/4 C quick-cooking or old-fashioned oatmeal (not instant), 1/3 C brown sugar, 1 t cinnamon, 1 T flour, 6 T cold butter cut into chunks. Put all ingredients in a bowl and cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or two knives (or be lazy like me and pulse in a food processor--takes about a dozen 2-second pulses).

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Good-bye Grad School, Part ad infinitum

And furthermore..... :-)

What I enjoy about the study of literature is figuring out how I can connect with something an author wrote centuries ago or last week. In a really well-written poem or novel (using my culturally biased opinion about what makes a well-written poem or novel, of course), the more you study it, the more layers of connection you can find.  Also, I love words and I am continually astonished by what can be created with them--so I confess to a bit of hero worship with anyone who can make marks on a page and create something that is moving or engaging or even just plain old entertaining.

The reason I loved being an English major back in my day was because I loved figuring out how that worked. What can be said that illuminates this work? Why should someone read it? what's meaningful about this poem/novel? how do we understand the words on the page? what context helps us understand it better?

That's what I enjoyed about studying literature.  And when you read works of literary criticism from before about 1980, that's usually what they're doing.  They're finding ways in to the work, how to enter the experience of it, how to understand it, what it means. But the growing influence of literary theory makes that a problematic undertaking these days.

For one thing, the idea of "meaning" has been called into question. What means something to me may mean nothing to you, and probably what means something to any of us will not be meaningful to the sentient seahorses of Alpha Centauri IV. And for another, if the author is a member of a demographic group which has brutally oppressed your demographic group for centuries, you may refuse to read anything he's written no matter how artistic or "universal" it may be, and who could blame you?

So now we take an adversarial position toward literature. Literary criticism is often written now to prove that a work isn't universal. Who says there's anything relevant about something that a dead white male wrote two hundred years ago? the point isn't to tease out what makes a novel or a poem relevant, but to knock the author off his pedestal, to prove exactly how irrelevant it is--how it upholds the prejudices of his time, how it ignores and/or marginalizes the point of view of various minorities, how it might even have helped to create the social structures that oppress women, minorities, gays, and people of lower economic class.

For example. In Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park, most of the story takes place among a group of young people who are all staying at an estate in the English countryside while the owner of the estate, Sir Thomas Bertram, is off dealing with his plantation in Antigua. Although there is occasional mention of a letter from Sir Thomas, the novel is about the young people back at Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas is off-stage for almost the entirety of the novel. None of the action takes place in Antigua and almost no details are given about what Sir Thomas is doing there besides a vague mention that he is trying to straighten out his financial affairs.

But now we know that owning a plantation in Antigua almost certainly meant that the fictional Sir Thomas was a slaveholder, and thus the financial underpinnings of the estate of Mansfield Park are based on slave labor.  This never comes up in the novel.  Slaves are never mentioned, the living conditions of the slaves are never described, and Sir Thomas's practices as a slave owner (was he kind? brutal?) are never discussed.

But once you know, can you read Mansfield Park without a feeling of creepy complicity? Do we participate in the same mindset that found slave ownership acceptable if we ignore the reality of the source of Sir Thomas's wealth? Are we in denial about it in the same way that the young people are in denial about what is financing the food on their table, the clothes on their backs? in the same way that Jane Austen herself was probably in denial about the source of the wealth of a large British estate?

Mansfield Park is an easy example, because it's usually the least favorite of Austen's novels and almost nobody likes the heroine Fanny Price, who is a bit of a self-righteous prig.  You almost welcome the chance to be able to poke at her pious moralizing.  But maybe you get the idea of what I'm describing anyway. We've gone from the hero worship of my earlier era of literary studies (where authors were godlike creatures with special access to universal knowledge that they shared through their writing) to an adversarial stance where the goal is to bring down the reputation of previously admired writers.

I loved grad school, and I loved the opportunity to have my mind stretched by literary theory. But this part of it is an approach to literary studies that doesn't work for me. Mostly because I don't see the point of blaming people for having the cultural prejudices of their time. Maybe this is because of my own experience with this.  I was raised as an Evangelical in the Bible Belt, by a father who was German Baptist and a mom who is a died-in-the-wool Southerner. I inherited all of their prejudices, I breathed them in, or maybe it was even more integral than that--I absorbed them some kind of familial osmosis. It wasn't until I was in my twenties and had moved away from home and out of the milieu of my childhood that I could seriously question those ideas, let alone leave them behind. Even in my fifties I still deal with the residue of my upbringing all the time.

It's damn difficult to get beyond the prejudices of the way you were raised, and that is true even if, like me, you've had the benefit of a top notch education, several moves to entirely different regions of the country, and mind-expanding access to travel and the world wide web.  How can we expect someone who lived her entire life within a hundred mile radius of her birthplace to have accomplished what is enormously difficult for me today?

I just don't see how we get to stand up on our moral high horse, as people of the twenty-first century, toward people in any other time period.  I firmly believe that any grace we are able to extend to them for being products of their own time period will surely need to be extended to us as well by people living a hundred years from now.  Who knows what malicious opinions we hold right now that seem as natural as breathing to us, yet will seem inhumane and unethical in the future?

But having said that, we still need to know.  It does change the way you read Mansfield Park to think about Sir Thomas as a slaveholder.  For me, it doesn't therefore make the novel unreadable or morally reprehensible.  I can understand that for others that is not true, but for me as a reader, while it is knowledge I'm glad to have, it doesn't change my opinion of Austen as a writer or my admiration for her achievement.

It leads to a more nuanced reading, perhaps, a better understanding of the times and the people who lived in them, but the literary achievement is still there. One of my professors, who was sympathetic to my discomfort with theory, told me to get all the adversarial stuff out of the way first. Discuss exactly where and how and why an author is sexist or racist or capitalist or whatever, and then move on to the discussion of how a particular work is still worth reading today. Works for me.

Gah. I'm not kidding, I always worry that there won't be enough to say in these things to fill out an entire post, and then I just go on and on. This one is 1400+ words but I couldn't figure out where to split it in half, so if your eyes are glazed over, it's with good reason. And I'm not even done. There will probably be more of these. I'm having NaBoBloPoMo (National Boring Blog Post Month). But not tomorrow. Tomorrow is Food on Friday.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Words on Wednesday: he dived right in, or was it dove?

So here is one that has always confused me: is the past tense of dive "dove" or "dived"? Turns out either is correct. Dived has the slight advantage of being the traditional version, but according to several sites I checked, dove has been in use for more than two centuries now (probably because of comparisons with drive/drove, weave/wove), and is also considered correct. So there you go. He dove into the water, and she dived in after him. ;-) Although I suppose you probably wouldn't want to use both of them in the same sentence.

I cited some grammar sites in that paragraph, which brings us to the next tricky word combo of the week: sight/site/cite.

sight has to do with vision, seeing things. Although she hadn't seen him in years, she recognized him at first sight. The sight of the sunset on the mountains brought tears to her eyes. We sighted an owl in the trees behind the house. Don't let that toddler out of your sight. And if you live in Montana, most of the guys you know go out in the fall and sight in their guns before hunting season starts, which means they shoot at some known target (like a bale of hay) to see if the scope on their gun is accurate. Not kidding. It's a major male bonding ritual around here.

site is a locale, the physical location of something, or when referring to an internet website, it is the virtual location of something. They reached the site of the event in plenty of time. She checked the site of the wound for infection. Their client visits the construction site every day. The Smiths camp at the same campsite every year. He created a new website to increase his internet exposure. The files for this project can be downloaded from their FTP site. Welcome to the Geeks on Steroids Site!

cite is to refer to something, usually something that backs up your opinion, or gives an example of what you're talking about. He cited his mother-in-law's dementia as an example of the need for long-term care.  Eleanor cited sixteen journal articles to back up her argument.  When you are citing academic texts in a paper or article, they are known as citations. The citations page often takes more time than writing the rest of the paper. Citation can also be an official acknowledgment of something--good (a citation for service to the community) or bad (a citation for drunk driving). 

This week's weird words: (thanks to a post on Huffpo for the first two)(see? I cited the Huffpo site)(OK, shutting up now.)

sprunt (obsolete) an old Scottish word for "chasing girls around the haystacks after dark." I love this word more than I can say.

fudgel (obsolete) is a verb from the 18th century meaning "to look like you're working when really you're doing nothing." We should definitely bring this one back.

people is an amorphous blob of human beings. According to Strunk (of The Elements of Style fame), since people can't be counted (you can't have "one people"), you shouldn't use "people" with numbers. So, six persons instead of six people. That sounds a bit pretentious to me, but that's what he says. Which brings up the question: if half the crowd leaves, do you have less people or fewer people? fewer sounds right to me (which is how I make most of my grammatical decisions), but few is for things that can be counted.

Hunh. This site (site!) says exactly the opposite: according to the Grammar Curmudgeon, "people" is the plural form of "person" (one person, two people), so therefore it is correct to say "fewer people" instead of "less people," although "less people" is common enough that it is colloquially acceptable. Interesting. Fortunately, I can't even remember the last time I had to write about half the crowd leaving, so I'm ignoring this one.

And there you go. More than you wanted to know. Again.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Good-bye Grad School, part 3

.... and furthermore....

OK, so back to the men in suits who were deciding what we were supposed to read (because they were mostly men, though not all). Although there might have been some discussion and disagreement about individual authors, for the most part, it seemed self-evident, obvious, that the books that they chose were the Right Ones. They weren't being prejudiced, it's just that the authors they chose were clearly "better" than the ones they ignored.


Really, of course, they weren't being impartial at all.  They were making those choices based on a certain set of assumptions particular to that era: well-educated people write books of greater significance; the wider sphere of activity of men is inherently more interesting than the smaller sphere of activity allowed to women; white people are genetically endowed with a greater capacity for intellectual thought; heterosexuals are normal, homosexuals are perverted; and on and on.  In other words, they were wrong. They were horribly prejudiced, even as they were positive they weren't.

Feminism/gender studies and race/ethnicity studies have forced us to examine the criteria by which we choose which works are "worth studying," the assumptions that lie beneath the choices that used to seem so obvious. In fact, since any set of criteria that you devise to choose certain literary works over others will necessarily reflect your own tastes and your own prejudices, there is a school of thought that we should not make those distinctions anymore.  The study of literature is (in some places) being abandoned for "Cultural Studies," where anything can be studied as an example of the culture which produced it. Lyrics to rap songs, ad copy in a mail-order catalog, horror movies, badly written poetry from 13-year-olds, short stories by MFA graduates-- all of it is equally valuable in understanding culture.

Which is, of course, true. All those things are cultural artifacts, and any of them will work if you want to study the culture that produced them. As a separate field of study, I think cultural studies are fascinating. In fact, at one point I was considering doing a Cultural Studies-type thesis on romance novels, because it would have been fun. Fashion as Indicator of Character in Romance Novels of the 1990s (does fashion indicate anything? isn't it always a mask?), or Sexuality as Cultural Construct in Erotic Romances of the Early Twenty-First Century (hello, Foucault). But other than an undergrad course on science fiction, as far as I know genre fiction was not being studied in my department, and it seemed like too much work to blaze a trail (more on that another time).

But three years later, I don't agree that cultural studies should replace literary studies. No matter how broad-minded you are about what you're going to study, you can't study everything. So you still have to make choices, and those choices are still going to be informed by your prejudices and your motives. In fact it seems to me that the more insistent you are that you're not being influenced by cultural prejudice, the more likely it is that you are. All those men in suits and ties who insisted that only Henry James and Joyce and Eliot were worth reading saw those choices as obvious, not the result of prejudices that are clear to us now.

So if you're using ad copy in mail-order catalogs to study female body image, you're still making any number of assumptions that reflect your cultural bias, starting with an assumption about the worth of a field of study called "cultural studies." Even if you come up with some pseudo-neutral criteria for choosing your research material (the ten most widely circulated swimsuit catalogs from July 2009), you're still dealing with your own assumption that swimsuit shopping is a good indicator of female body image, that female body image is something to be studied, that it's different than male body image (which are all assumptions I happen to agree with, but we're from the same culture, so that doesn't prove much). And who knows whatever other cultural assumptions we are making in establishing this topic as an area of study.

So switching to cultural studies doesn't really solve the problem of using biased criteria to choose what to study. It's less offensive criteria, to be sure--and the importance of that can't be over-stated--but we are still biased. We are still of our times. There's no escaping it.

Tomorrow you get a break, we're doing Words on Wednesday. then more on Thursday! onward!

Monday, November 04, 2013

Good-bye Grad School, part 2

(Part 1 was back in August, but you don't need to read it first.) The general opinion for the length of blog posts seems to be around 500-700 words. My two "good-bye grad school" posts were both over 1400 words. So I turned them into four. You can thank me later. *AuntBeaN looks smug and doesn't notice as two-thirds of her readers run for the hills.*

You might remember in my long story about grad school that I made a first attempt to get a master's degree in English Lit immediately after undergrad back in the mid-80s. But it didn't go well. I was burned out on school, questioning everything I had been raised to believe, and dealing with some emotional trauma that I didn't even really understand at that point. I didn't have enough energy left for graduate work.

I slogged through the classes because even burned out I could still do what I was told, but when it came time to take some initiative and write a thesis, I bailed. I bailed promptly. Immediately. I never wrote a single word of my thesis. "Repressed Sexuality in the Novels of Edith Wharton" was my topic, which would be a "well, DUH" topic in 2013, but back then it was fairly cutting edge. Apparently not cutting edge enough to hold my attention, though.

My Edith Wharton first editions, which I bought for less $8 each back in the 80s
A mere twenty-five years later, when I finally went back to finish that master's, it was immediately apparent to me that the study of literature had changed in a major way during my absence. A course in literary theory, which hadn't even been offered to undergraduates back in my day (and was optional at my grad school), was now required as a gateway class before undergrads could even register for higher level courses.

I could tell from listening to the other students that Intro to Theory (LIT 300) was a beast, a class that almost no one enjoyed and that even discouraged people from becoming English majors--an idea that was nearly shocking to me. Back in my day, the English department prided itself on taking all comers. The idea of "weeding out" potential students was not thought of.

So I had a lot of catching up to do. I (of course) immediately bought a theory-for-dummies type book and attempted unsuccessfully to read it (Jonathan Culler's Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory, which is still sitting on my bedside table and I still haven't finished it). There are plenty of posts from my own experience with LIT 300 if you dig far enough back- I audited it back in the summer of 2010. Then I took two more theory classes while I was working on my master's, but I barely scratched the surface.

It's a vast area of study, immensely vast, humongously huge. And I'm going to summarize it for you in three blog posts. Just kidding. You're only going to get the bits of it that I'm still thinking about three years later. If it's a topic that interests you, there's always Jonathan Culler. (or try this book, which was actually far more readable and ended up being truly helpful, or this one, also very good, which they used in the graduate level Intro to Theory class.)

So first of all let's talk about the idea of Art. There's painting, there's music, there's dancing, there's sculpture, and so on, and there is also literary art. Fifty years ago, the people (mostly men) who were deciding what should be studied as Art were well-known to be choosing works of Universal Significance, works that had Stood the Test of Time and were therefore Worth Studying. In Literature, they developed what was known was "the canon"--the "best that had been thought and said," books that were significant to our culture, the ones everybody knew were Important. When I was an undergrad back in the early 80s, we all knew who these writers were: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Matthew Arnold, Joyce, Eliot-- you know the list. The fact that they were (for the most part) white males was just an accident, right?

Of course now we know that "the canon" was actually made up of works that fit certain assumptions (more on that tomorrow), and that it was no accident at all that they were mostly white males. We also know now that there is no such thing as a universal or eternal standard for deciding which literary works rise to the level of "art," if it is even possible to define "art." At the end of my first Lit Theory class, I was pretty nearly convinced that there is no such thing as Literary Art, because there is no divinely-ordained or even humanly-agreed-upon standard that doesn't devolve into bias and prejudice, so what's the point in even talking about it?

But three years later, I think that this is a problem that isn't really a problem after all. Like my original thesis topic, the statement "there is no such thing as universally-acknowledged works of literary art" seems provocative the first time you hear it, but then it's "well, DUH." Every generation decides what is capital-A Art. The definition of What-Is-Art has always reflected the prevailing tastes of the time period. The problem comes in thinking that we, god-like, can discern some universal standard for deciding What Is Art. If we're aware that we're of our time, that our tastes reflect the biases of our time/place/etc, what's the problem with studying the works that seem to us to be worth studying? This is not a problem. The next generation is going to knock us down anyway. Why not have our day?

more tomorrow. Also, fair warning: since I'm traveling this week I may not be able to respond to comments.